Film-making clichés and how to avoid them (like the plague)
by Dr David Smith
Can you recall the first time you saw a drone shot in a TV series?
Can you recall a current TV series that DOESN’T feature drone shots?
As viewers, we love innovation in the TV or movies we watch. There’s a huge Wow! factor at play when a new technique or style is employed for the first time.
As film makers we all too frequently get sucked in by these same innovations, the end result being serious over use. What to do?
- Step 1: Identify clichés
- Step 2: Don’t use clichés
Here are some of my pet hates from the world of cliché cinema. You’ll find most of them in TV series, commercials and some feature films. Spoiler alert: once you become sensitised to them you’ll never look at programs in the same way. Of course readers may well disagree with my list, in which case please write to us and tell us your views. Here at FV^VR we love a constructive chat!
Or better, leave a comment at the bottom so others can also jopin in!
Now read on…
- Moving cameras
Amateur videos follow the basic rule of ‘It’s a movie camera, so keep it moving’. Professionals also seem to have fallen into the trap of requiring the camera to always be on the move. Whether it be via a dolly, a crane, or a slider, the camera must never be allowed to stay put. Subtle camera movement has a genuine place in film making: the three-dimensionality of the scene is revealed by this means and there are great possibilities for revealing elements on the set by, for example, tracking the camera past a doorway to reveal action happening in a new room.
Like all good things, however, this can be overdone. Can’t we just stop the camera moving for a minute and catch our breaths?
Solution: Use dolly shots sparingly when they really add something to the story or the mood. Don’t over-use them or you reduce their impact.
- You must use a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera for video
This is basically nonsense. I remember advice from one of Australia’s greatest wildlife film makers, Keith Taylor, who said to me “I don’t really care what kind of system I use, as long as it allows me to get the images I need.” This was back in the days before modern miracles like GoPros and we were trying to film inside a platypus burrow using a black and white Panasonic surveillance camera. It worked – we got the shots.
All cameras have a lens and some kind of image receiver, be it film, CMOS sensor or whatever. This applies to both film and video cameras, although – strangely – there’s a certain mystique about the DSLR camera that implies that it always producers superior video images. It doesn’t and it can’t. If you set up a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera with a high quality fast lens – eg Zeiss f=1.4 50mm – and compare it with a full frame video camera with a high quality fast lens – eg Zeiss f=1.4 50mm – the results will be indistinguishable. The only real difference will be in the ergonomics, whereby the video camera will win hands down by virtue of its range of manual controls and ease of handling.
I lost a job possibility because I insisted on using a video camera rather than a DSLR. The client clearly didn’t understand that the images I could produce would be exactly what he wanted, despite the fact that I was avoiding the ‘snob value’ of using a DSLR.
Solution: Use whichever type of camera suite your needs for the shoot in question. Don’t be brow-beaten by format snobbery.
- Shallow depth of field is always essential
We are all accustomed to seeing dialogue between two characters in a TV series who magically come into sharp focus as they speak, then become soft focussed as the other person answers. It’s actually not magic: it requires the services of a highly skilled focus puller who meticulously follows the script by focussing on each actor as they speak.
This can be very effective, but it can also become a distraction. If your eye is tracking the follow-focus gymnastics, they’ve lost you: you have stopped being captivated by the story and are now thinking about the filming technique.
Of course, there are many other reasons for not using narrow depth of field. Lenses all have their own sweet spot with regard to aperture. Typically, this is at around f8 at which point chromatic and spherical aberration will be minimal. Having the lens wide open at f1.4 means you are operating well away from that sweet spot and some image degradation will be inevitable.
Another situation in which you want wide depth of field is when shooting landscapes. Especially when using wide angle lenses, there is great drama to be had by shooting with the lens stopped down to, say f11 or f16 because everything from to foreground flowers to the distant mountains will all be in sharp focus.
Solution: Use shallow depth of field if you feel the scene needs it. Don’t be intimidated into thinking shallowness is essential. It’s your artistic call after all.
- Interviews should always cut to a second camera with a side-on view of the talent
This is a relatively recent trend and one to be despised.
It can be very useful when shooting to re-frame from tight to wider in the gap between answers, then back again for the next answer. This makes cutting out the interviewer’s questions much simpler to edit and basically works well because the subject is always speaking either directly to the camera or slightly off-camera to the unseen interviewer.
This ghastly new style has the subject speaking to the camera (or slightly off-camera) but then speaking way off camera to no-one in particular when the side-on shots are used. There is no surer way to distance your viewer from the subject’s wise words. It creates a really ugly impression that the subject doesn’t care about you one iota. The skill of the interviewer in getting the perfect mood for the interview is shattered by this poorly directed side glance.
Solution: Don’t ever do it. Unfortunately, someone did do it, everyone’s copying it, and no-one seems to realise how awful it is.
- Drone aerials must be used at least once in every minute of the video
I have a Mavic Pro drone. I have a CASA license. I love what my drone can achieve. It is an utter miracle of miniaturised technology. I use its shots minimally for best effect. Unfortunately many directors are over-using drone shots to the point of being hackneyed.
Just a decade ago, if you needed aerial shots of anything, you had to rent a helicopter at around $1,000 an hour. I spent hours hanging out of the door of the various helicopters – the doors having been removed – the only better way being to rent a special gyro-equipped chopper with a huge nose-mounted stabilised camera. Think $10,000 per hour. Today you buy your drone for $1,000 or even less and after that it’s free for ever. We live in magic times.
Watch any of the current bloom of home buying or renovation TV series – think Grand Designs in all its British, Aussie and Kiwi incarnations – and, just for fun, try timing the proportion of the program devoted to drone shots. You will be surprised! The problem is they look great, they’re incredibly easy to film, and they’re a lazy way of making a real program. Once again, brilliant new technology over-used and copied by every similar program to point of not only cliché but tedium.
- Lens flare and bokeh should always be used
Bokeh, the artefact produced when an 8- or 9-bladed iris creates coloured disks from out-of-focus background lights can be very pretty. It can also be overused. A similar thing happened decades ago when that horrible cinematic error that produced vivid coloured circles known as lens flare was co-opted into movies as an artistic device. Google them and you’ll see numerous articles and critiques of these techniques. Virtually all editing software packages contain lens Flare among their video FX plugins and there are troves of online bokeh images you can download if your camera doesn’t do it well enough.
You can obviously use your own discretion as to whether to embrace lens flare and bokeh, or sack the DoP. However, always remember that if special effects distract the viewer from the story then you really have lost the plot – in both senses.
I guess it all comes down to the notion of using each method sparingly. It’s well known that, in the scariest horror movies, you don’t actually see the monster. You hear the monster, you see people terrified of the monster and the monster music helps your imagination build a mental monster that scarier than any created by the guys at Weta or Pixar.
My personal view is that I try very hard to be original. If everyone is driving black BMWs and Audis I’ll drive a bright yellow Peugeot (I do!). If every shot in a program is showing the star in shallow depth of field so the bokeh is beautifully soft and the camera is moving gracefully between drone shots, I’ll probably use a tripod and cut cleanly between shots.
Focus on your story-telling. Avoid anything that reduces audience engagement. Go for Good, avoid Bad and stay well clear of Ugly.