Back when I was 10 and forced to endure a week of Girl Scout camp in the Pacific Northwest (for parental reasons that, frankly, still escape me), I recall a gaggle of us trekking into the woods on a quest for blackberries. “Do you think we’ll get lost?” one of my friends nervously asked. “No way!” I replied, proudly informing them that, “I have a compass!” It was new. It was shiny. It even had the official Girl Scout trefoil stamped on the back as testament to its authenticity.
The fact I had absolutely no clue how it was supposed to work – never having read the instructions which came in the box – was a moot point. Somehow, I thought, if (1) darkness fell in the forest, (2) bears started chasing us or (3) we came upon a strange village where no one spoke English, all I had to do was flip open the lid and it would magically tell me what turns to take in order to get us safely back to camp.
Technology, of course, has given us tools far more advanced than the humble compass. Movie cameras, for instance. Yet how often do the uninitiated fall into the trap of thinking that if they just point it at something, it will always yield picture-perfect results worthy of the finest cinematography? For aspiring filmmakers of any age, Master Shots, Volume 3 by Christopher Kenworthy is a must-have title for their resource library. Here’s what he has to say on the subject.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: You’ve had quite a “storied” career as a writer, director and producer. How did each of these roles in your creative journey come about and what would you have done differently if any of them were subject to a rewrite?
A: There’s story in everything I do. Whether I’m creating a tutorial, running a workshop or shooting a music video, there is story, and that’s what keeps it interesting.
I made films and wrote stories as a kid, but it’s difficult to know which came first. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to be a novelist, and spent the next 15 years working on that. While writing my second novel, I kept picturing the shots I’d use if I ever had the chance to direct. So I bought a camera and made a film based on my novel. Within a year I was making a living at film.
I did an OK job as a producer, but it wasn’t my calling. I can’t say that I regret it, because it’s made me a better screenwriter and director. Producing my own feature was a mistake. It was probably the only way to raise the budget, but it meant that by the first day of shooting I was already exhausted from 18 months of intense work. My directing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I swore never to produce a large project again.
Q: Should wannabe cinematographers go to film school to learn their craft or just get a camera and start experimenting by trial and error on their own?
A: The only way to learn is to shoot. If people read the Master Shots books, and then hardly ever shoot, they won’t be able to put the ideas into practice. You need to get hold of a camera and shoot. If you find a film school that’s going to give you a lot of shooting time along with the theory, that’s a good thing. If you go it alone, make sure you read every book that’s relevant, and get onto as many film sets as you can. A good mentor is as good as any film school.
Be careful of being too precious. If you wait for the perfect time or the perfect budget or the perfect script, you’ll wait too long. Shoot something, anything, and shoot it well. So long as you have access to a camera and a handful of lenses you can learn a lot.
Q: What are the three most common mistakes in composition that beginners tend to make?
A: 1. Forgetting that good shots make the most of space by having a foreground, background and middle ground.
2. Over-focusing on the subject. The subject exists within a world, at a time and a place, in relation to other people, and the shot should show that.
3. Assuming that shooting handheld will give it a naturalistic look. It doesn’t. Handheld shots can work, but I get very tired of seeing camera operators hosepipe all over a scene, while claiming that this somehow reflects how we see the world. The same is true of bad lighting. Many newcomers think that underexposed is meaningful, when in fact it’s just dark.
Q: Can great work behind the lens make a mediocre actor look better and, conversely, can a poor job be to the detriment of a stellar performance?
A: When you’re working with weak actors, you can try to hide their lack of strength. By hiding their flaws you can make them look better, but only within certain limits. A wooden performance will still look wooden. You can do a lot in the editing room, but on set it’s difficult.
Ideally, you should rely on your relationship with the actor, rather than on a camera setup. Sometimes, though, no matter how good you are, the actors come up against the limit of their talent, and then your job is to shoot in a way that makes the scene work. To explain how to do this would require a whole book, but in essence you find the weakest point in their performance – whether it’s eyes, mouth, body language – and shoot in a way that emphasizes something else.
Brilliant performances are often lost due to poor camera setups, and because of traditional film-making approaches. Most of the time people shoot a wide master, then some medium shots and some coverage. By the time you get to the close-ups the actors have burned out or got bored. It depends on the actor, because some warm up over time, but many lose their energy. When that’s the case, you need to start with close-ups.
The best shots capture the space, the person within it, and let us see their entire performance. This is really what the Master Shots books are trying to show. How to shoot actors in a way that reveals the meaning and emotion of the scene.
Q: Alfred Hitchcock is credited as saying that the test of a good film is if you can watch it with the sound off and still be able to figure out the plot and the relationships. Can turning down the volume and, thus, not having the distraction of voices and music be instrumental in focusing on angles, distance, lighting and background/foreground elements?
A: This is something I’ve been recommending for years, but I never knew it was Hitchcock who first came up with the idea. It’s not always true, but I’ve found that most of my favorite films work without sound. A great example is Children of Men. The visuals are simple, but so strong, you can tell what’s going on from watching. When they’re hiding, you can see it. When they’re scared, escaping, doubting, or discovering a great secret, you see it all, without a word needing to be spoken. The same is probably true of Gravity, by the same director. It’s worth trying this with any film, though. Just about anything that Spielberg’s directed works without sound, so even if you don’t like his films they’re worth watching without the audio, to see how well he directs attention and lets the visuals do half the work.
Q: Which do you personally consider more of a challenge: to shoot a commercial, a music video or a full-length film?
A: There are always restrictions and there are always opportunities. The challenge with a feature film is holding an overall image in mind for months.
Commercials are generally easy because you’re working to such a tight template. The downside of that is there’s very little room for creativity.
Music videos tend to be quite easy, because you’re left to your own devices.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the Master Shots concept and how did it go from one book to a trio?
A: I’d always sensed that there was a hidden language that directors were using. Consciously or not, they were using setups and moves to create feelings. For years I wanted somebody to read a book that decodes these techniques so I could use them. When nobody wrote the book I wanted, I started watching three films a day until I was able to write Master Shots Vol 1.
It was so successful that it was published as a 2nd Edition. That’s the same book reprinted with enhanced images and a few revisions to the text. Then came Master Shots Vol 2, which looks at dialogue. I really wanted to write that book, because there is so much you can do to make dialogue interesting, to really tell the story and catch the performance. That book was a passion of mine. I loathe those scenes where actors look at each other and talk their lines out. I wanted to cure directors of that.
The popularity of those two books made me wonder if we could create a third, but only if it really went beyond the first two books. So I created The Director’s Vision, which looks at the more advanced setups, so you can learn to create your own signature style. Without style, you don’t get hired, so this is a book that can help directors to make a real breakthrough.
Q: Tell us about the transition you made to an ebook format and how the latter expands on what is already some very comprehensive content.
A: The first two books were made available on the Kindle, but that was just a way of reading the same books on a tablet. We wanted to do something much more inventive, using video to illustrate the shots.
So we took the best 75 shots from the print books, filmed them, and made three enhanced eBooks: Master Shots: Action, Suspense and Story.
The eBooks aren’t meant to replace the print books, but they give you a deep insight into the workings of the shots. Even if you’ve read the books, they can help you decode the shots. If you’ve never read the books, it gives you the core techniques in a much more immediate way.
Q: Despite the fact that movie cameras continue to come down in price, what would you say to a struggling young filmmaker who laments that you can only craft kick-ass images if you have the most high-tech and expensive equipment?
A: The best thing I ever made was a music video I shot on a Canon 7D. I used available light and shot it for $400. We always want more money and better equipment, because it can help, but unless you interpret the story in a creative way, no amount of equipment can save you.
Q: In what ways do you envision aspiring screenwriters using the Master Shots books when there’s such emphasis to not “direct on paper” as they’re writing a script?
A: The better you understand storytelling, the better you will be at screenwriting. Every scene tells a story, every shot tells a story. The better you understand how filmmakers work, the better you will be at crafting scenes for them. It’s not your job as a writer to picture every shot, but if you understand the scale of a scene – whether it’s vast and airy, or close and intimate, you can communicate that without ever directing on paper. When you do, you’ll fire up the director’s imagination and possibly have a hit on your hands.
Q: What’s the difference between a fourth wall and a fake wall?
A: The fourth wall is the imaginary wall that the audience sits behind. In film, that’s the camera lens, which is why – most of the time – you don’t want the actors to look into the camera. It breaks the illusion. We fall out of the story and remember we’re watching people pretend. Fake walls have many purposes. Often they’re used to tighten up a location and make it feel more claustrophobic, or simply as set dressing. In studios, all the walls are fake, and they can be rolled out of the way to make room for the camera. It’s worth remembering this when you’re shooting on location. You can ask yourself, if this was a studio, and you could swing that wall out of the way to allow the use of a longer lens, would you? If so, is there any way you can reposition the actors and camera on location, to get that result?
Q: What’s your favorite opening scene in a movie and what should readers be looking for in order to enhance their understanding of the cinematographer’s craft?
A: The first few minutes of Juno are stunning. They are extremely simple setups, but every one is carefully thought out to tell the story. Within seconds you know everything you need to know, and you care. It would have been so easy to kill this film quickly, but the opening is a wonderful mixture of familiar, strange, mundane and beautiful, which is the perfect setup for the story.
Q: Your books feature squillions of compelling frame grabs for study. Do you have a favorite image and, if so, what is it that particularly resonates with you?
A: There is no single image, because these stills are there to suggest the motion and emotion inherent in the shot. I like images that remind me of the story, and make me remember the feelings associated with the film.
Q: In order to have an effective collaboration, how much should a director know about cinematography techniques and how much should the person behind the camera know about directing the action? (I can’t help but picture the two sides getting into a shouting match of, “No, no, I think it looks better my way!”)
A: Directors can get away with knowing very little, but they are then carried by the cinematographer. If you want to work with the actors and don’t care how the shot looks, that’s one approach. But I think that if you really care about performance, you need a full understanding of how the camera relates to the actors. That’s the only way to capture performance. And if you want your film to look beautiful, why leave that to the cinematographer?
It should never be a competition and the best way to avoid that is to establish how you like to work in early meetings, before you hire anybody. Both people need to be clear on who calls the shots.
A good cinematographer will constantly suggest ideas, but should not shout you down unless you’re so tired you’re missing something obvious. Equally, a good cinematographer should be happy to let you choose the lens, say where the camera goes and even set the frame. If you can show that you’re competent, they should respect your choices and make sure they light the scene in a way that captures what you’re trying to get across.
If you are prescriptive about camera moves and lens choice, give the cinematographer as much scope to work with lighting as possible, or they feel like a hired hand rather than a creative collaborator.
It’s also vital to listen. If there’s a better idea, use it, no matter who suggests it to you.
Q: Thanks to the magic of technology, there’s no question that the look and texture of movies –especially with the incorporation of CGI and 3D – have come a long way in the past century. The question is, where do you see the filmmaking industry going next?
A: I find that advances in technology are usually pushed for commercial reasons, rather than because they help storytelling. 3D was pushed in the last decade, not because it was new – it was ancient – but to force people out of their homes and into the theatres again. High Frame Rate was introduced on The Hobbit supposedly to make 3D easier to watch, but to me it made everything look really fake, so my suspicion is that it was one more way to convince people that going to the theaters was more important than waiting for the DVD. And CG is becoming tiresome. It can be used well, but if I have to watch one more city being destroyed by giant monsters I am going to walk out of the cinema.
The real challenge, however, is dealing with changes to the way movies are consumed. As David Lynch pointed out a while back, art house is now dead, but internet distribution hasn’t really settled into something that’s working for anybody, and blockbusters feel like they’re running out of steam. Most people are more excited by the latest HBO series than the next big feature film.
It’s impossible to say what will happen, but my hope is that the focus will return to storytelling rather than more spectacle.
Q: So what’s next on your plate?
A: Purely for pleasure, I’m going to make a short film called Catching Sight. It’s about a young girl who catches a disease that gives her great talent, but at the cost of her happiness. She has to decide whether to take the cure and lose her talent, or remain a depressed genius.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
A: Just about everything you could need to know is summarized at www.christopherkenworthy.com
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: These are difficult times for people who want to be directors. It used to be the case that if you made a film, you were one in a million. Now, everybody is a film-maker. There is so much material being produced that you have to look brilliant to stand out, so I hope filmmakers do everything they can to learn the craft behind their art, and create a signature style.