The Shawn Lights Filmmaking Handbook

On this journey to becoming the best filmmaker I can possibly be I’ve come across several tips, tricks, and guides. I’ve been keeping a journal of sorts, outlining the things I find most useful. The handbook is forever growing but I figured I should share what I’ve written down so far. Hopefully you find this helpful and share it with others. The journey continues…

Director Martin Scorsese arrives at The Royal Premiere of his film Hugo at the Odeon Leicester Square cinema in London

Directing Tips

  • Conduct a table read to see if actors find lines natural. Tweaks can be made.
  • Each scene, “What does my character want or need in this situation?” ex “In this scene we see Laura loose her confidence and turn from fearless to scared”.
  • Director should give actors instructions about doing rather than being. Ex Fly off the handle instead of be angry or Breakdown instead of be sad.
  • “Don’t act like these people, behave like them” ~ Scorsese
Film Set
Film Set

Set Process

  1. Blocking – Let actors run through naturally, block, mark, stop & go, dismiss
  2. Light – Light setup
  3. Rehearsal – Run through fully hitting marks and camera movement
  4. Tweak – Adjust lights, position, etc.
  5. Shoot – Start shooting

Do's and Don'ts

Don’t make the technical aspects of production your main preoccupation
+ Do pay at least equal attention to the needs of your actors
Don’t chew out an actor in front of cast and crew
+ Do be respectful and give important notes or corrections to the actors in private. Empathize the positives.
Don’t yell out “action” like a starter pistol on every take
+ Do consider other options such as “whenever you’re ready”.
Don’t worry about actors nailing every line
+ Do allow freedom
Don’t just tell difficult actors what you want
+ Do tell them why
Don’t be distracted by technical execution of a shot during a take
+ Do focus your attention on the performances

Backlight makes this image work.
Backlight makes this image work.

Motivation for character movement

  • Initiative : Best when character is passionate or curious
  • Control/Territory : Dominance, owning space, walk towards others to issue subtle threat
  • Discomfort : Uncomfortable
  • Personal : Closing space/ intimate
  • Private : Withdraw

Motivation for stopping

  • To end movement : End process
  • Think or Feel : Attention is grabbed
  • Shift Gears : Prelude to new movement
  • Clarity : Clear, focus on what’s happening
  • For camera : Gives info
  • Reaction

Intimacy, Honesty, and Power

  1. Intimacy = Facing each other, away less so
  2. Honesty = Slight turn away is less honest
  3. Power = direct is powerful

Script Staging

– Note movements in script where marks are hit
– Story driven first (see where motivation works)

Bob Richardson ASC
Bob Richardson ASC

Camera Movement

Transforming Cameras – Stage characters to create frames.

Some quick suggestions:

Single to OTS - Start on a single and let a character enter to create a OTS
Single to OTS – Start on a single and let a character enter to create a OTS
OTS to OTS - Once in a OTS if the characters shifts his or her attention to another person with a pan or track you can easily transform to another OTS
OTS to OTS – Once in a OTS if the characters shifts his or her attention to another person with a pan or track you can easily transform to another OTS
Two shot to CU - Once in a two shot if a character has a memorable moment you can push in to create a strong close up
Two shot to CU – Once in a two shot if a character has a memorable moment you can push in to create a strong close up
Walking to OTS - Used in TV a lot, if you have characters walking together usually they stop and talk to each other as the intensity of the conversation increases. Stage the characters to stop at an OTS after following them.
Walking to OTS – Used in TV a lot, if you have characters walking together usually they stop and talk to each other as the intensity of the conversation increases. Stage the characters to stop at an OTS after following them.
Melanie Laurent stars in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Melanie Laurent stars in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Meaningful Moments for Close-ups

  • Focus
  • Tension
  • Significance
  • Consequence
  • Opening Up
  • Taking In
  • Trying to understand
  • Realizing
  • Trying to decide
  • Resolve
  • Anticipation

Covering stops

  • Cover places where characters stop and work backwards.
  • Frame for shot with most character in it, then have them build towards that.

In this example a director of a project comes in to check on the status. All of the workers eventually end up talking to each other in the middle. We start with framing that shot and then figure out how we cover them building towards that shot. We eventually place cameras down to cover the scenes attempting to keep our setups as low as possible.

We start with framing the shot with the most characters in it.
We start with framing the shot with the most characters in it.
We eventually place cameras down to cover the scenes attempting to keep our setups as low as possible.
We eventually place cameras down to cover the scenes attempting to keep our setups as low as possible.

Coordination foreground and background

Each acts as a plane you can place information in.
Each acts as a plane you can place information in.
  • Create something in each “Plane”
  • Extreme foreground, foreground, mid-ground, background
  • Arbitrary foreground = Foreground for depth purposes
  • Frame within a frame (foreground use)
Deep Staging in Citizen Kane
Deep Staging in Citizen Kane

Deep Staging

  • Using foreground to background with relevant information in each ( I.e Talking characters)
  • Tell more than one story at a time (deep insert, deep reveals)
  • “Layer” thinking
  • Put characters in each others shots at various depths
  • Place things before they become important.

In this example two detectives talk and one cop in the background is looking for evidence. Once he finds something he calls the detectives over. He’s placed in the frame but only becomes important once he finds something.

Placing things before they become important.
Placing things before they become important.

Hand- Offs

  • End – Follow & stop on something
  • Pickup – Stop on something then follow
  • Switch – Change following subject
  • Step-in – Character steps in and we focus
Follow & stop on something
Follow & stop on something
Stop on something then follow
Stop on something then follow
Change following subject
Change following subject
Character steps in and we focus
Character steps in and we focus
One of the greatest openings in cinema history seen in Touch of Evil.
One of the greatest openings in cinema history seen in Touch of Evil.

Thinking in Keyframes

Keyframing – Placing well placed frames/shots, “camera stops”, that can be connected to produce seamless and dynamic movement. Similar to the “covering stops” section but find a well place frame for each point not only the shots with most characters in it.

Thinking Backwards – Moves without destination usually becomes detached shots. Start at end so camera setups won’t be tossed away.

checklist

Blocking Checklist

  • Find stops and movement
  • Find moves and transitions
  • Find keyframes and deep staging
  • Find coverage
  • Connect keyframes
  • Find lead-ins and extensions
  • Coordinate foreground and background

1) Find stops and movement – Arrange character movement based on script description and character feeling

2) Finding moves and transitions – Refers to moves essential to the story or moves one absolutely want to create

3) Finding keyframes and deep staging – Setup keyframes and arrange or tweak movement to create deep staging

4) Find coverage – Extension of finding keyframes. Adding inserts and close ups ( I.e detail)

5) Connecting Keyframes – Find interesting ways to connect keyframes (preferably on a track)

6) Finding lead-ins and extensions – Additions before and after

7) Coordinating foreground and background – feel empty space

In this example the story is about a couple going through a divorce. The wife (blue) sits waiting for her husband (red) looking at a photo album. He comes home kisses her and they begin to talk. She gives him the news that she wants a divorce and the argument ensues. They move around arguing until she finally takes off her ring dropping it on the floor and exiting the house. Let’s take a lot at the blocking process using the guide.

1) We arrange the characters based on the script and their feelings. Since it’s a argument they move around the house.

Blocking Guideline 1

2) The ring dropping is essential to the story so we must capture this shot.

Blocking Guideline 2

3) Now that the movement is taking care of we place shots around to cover the action. Placing our keyframes.

Blocking Guideline 3

4) Finding coverage we focus on the details. The photo album can strengthen the story so let’s cover that with an insert.

Blocking Guideline 4

5) Connecting the keyframes we get the most mileage out of each shot and create a more dynamic and cinematic feel.

Blocking Guideline 5

6) Using the insert on the photo album we can create a lead-in. Starting on the album then revealing the sad wife. As an extension let’s push in on the heart broken husband as his wife leaves him.

Blocking Guideline 6

7) Checking out our diagram we make sure the space is always filled.

Blocking Guideline 7

Now we’re done. Following the guideline every camera should have a purpose and the camera movements will be much richer.

I hope you enjoyed looking into my filmmaking handbook. Please share this post as it took gathering a ton of material to create this. My personal handbook grows everyday and depending on the reaction I will share more as they years go on. Did this post help you? Let me know by commenting, tweeting, or liking. Thank you for your support.

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3 Replies to “The Shawn Lights Filmmaking Handbook”

    1. I don’t really get spam comments. Every once in a while I do. I make all my comments await approval so I can weed out spam. I know on my other site I used a plugin that forced users to put in the answer to a math equation to sign up to comment.

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