Break the rules to make better films

Written by Simon Wyndham

Amblin Entertainment / Dreamworks / ParamountStill from Saving Private Ryan

While we often strive for pristine images gained through traditional filming techniques, we must also recognize that rebellion adds to our filmic language.

Us professionals do love a good moan. I suppose it is partly what keeps us functioning. Whether it is complaining about how the youngsters of the day are charging ridiculously low prices, through to the ergonomics of modern cameras, we will always find something to harp on about.

There is one area, however, that we really do love a good whinge about. And that is modern filmmaking techniques and editing styles. Just what is it about styles-of-the-day that can really make the hairs on the backs of many a traditionalist stand on end?

Flavors of the month

The main reason that I can see is that, very often, the stylistic choice of the day often goes against all traditional rules of film and programme making. Years ago, it was the handheld style that was in vogue. It cropped up everywhere. Of course, to perform stylistic handheld camerawork well requires a bit of skill. But unfortunately, that memo didn't get through to many video makers who took the style to be a permission simply not to bother with a tripod.

And so, the dangerously rocky road to making dull subject matter appear 'more interesting' simply by waggling the camera around began. Next up, we had the large sensor revolution – a turn of events that was always destined to give many a traditional DP a raised blood pressure. Now that the dirty masses had access to the long sought after 35mm look, they were damn well going to squeeze as much out of the shallow depth of field look as they could, regardless of whether the subject matter itself was in focus or not!

Yet again, it seemingly became a style for the sake of a style. Even those who were reluctant were forced into filming this way due to client demands and peer pressure. Despite much more education being available regarding creative control over depth of field using that mysterious control called an iris, this modern filmmaking 'technique' seems to be rather stuck with us in many ways.

The development of this then progressed into a combination of handheld camerawork combined with the purposeful focussing and defocusing of subject matter to give us the 'ultimate' in fly-on-the-wall drama. Such techniques are even finding their way into period pieces such as Bleak House on the BBC.

Then, we have speed ramping. Once the preserve of films like The Matrix, the mass availability of cameras capable of extreme slow motion has meant that pretty much everybody can now employ this technique. Personally, I like it. However, it is extremely overused.

One technique that really is distracting is the jump cut. In reality, much of the time, a jump cut is a poor excuse to cover up for a lack of GV shots during interviews or an attempt to try and make a dull subject matter more interesting (notice a pattern here?). Of course, the jump cut has become a style in itself. Although technically, I suppose I should blame Max Headroom for pioneering this style (at least back then it had a creative motive).

Rebel to mainstream

Many modern stylistic techniques seem to arise much of the time from a younger generation who do not care so much for the rules that preceded them. Traditionally many of the new methods seem to go against many of the production principles we were brought up on. Wobbly camerawork used to be frowned upon. We used to strive to eliminate lens flaring. Now, quite often, we seek it out or even add it in post. We used to disregard lenses with vignetting. Now, we are quite happy to use vintage lenses with such issues or, once again, add the effect in post. We dislike noisy pictures, too. Yet, many people are quite happy to add in grain during post.

The question remains, though: should we let such popular and often overused methods get on our nerves? I do not believe so. Without experimentation and rule breaking, we can never find new techniques. The thing to bear in mind is that, when these methods are done well, they really do enhance a production. It is just that, when they are done badly, we really do notice and they distract us from the content. Everything in moderation, remember.

Searching for imperfection

Much of the desire to push things in a way that goes against the rules is born out of a desire to give the production some soul. Perfection is rarely interesting. Setting up a camera for example, to reproduce absolutely perfect colour may well be technically good. But from an emotional point of view, it is pretty dull and generic. And so, we have the plethora of wild and wonderful LUTs that are now available to give us everything from film stock replication through to creative colour.

The bleach bypass look that was once all the rage thanks to Saving Private Ryan gave us a ready-to-go grunge look. Did it look like reality? No, it didn't. But since human emotion responds to colour, it just goes to show how important it can be to be colour imperfect rather than colour perfect.

Slow motion is something else that could be said to be overused. Yet, it allows us to appreciate motion and emotion in a way that simply is not possible at normal speeds. I often find myself getting annoyed at its overuse, because it is regularly used as a crutch, just like handheld cameras, to try and make a dull subject look interesting. But used well, slow motion can really heighten the emotion of a piece.

The lesson for the curmudgeonly amongst us: a technique may be new, overused or breaking with traditional rules, but it does not mean that it is bad or invalid. That some programme or filmmakers use certain methods as a crutch to cover up for other deficiencies, does not mean that we cannot use them to our advantage. Rule breaking, such as jump cuts, or head shots that have the subject looking to the 'wrong' side, is a good thing when used in the right context.

Don't shut off your creative options just because of dogma.

Tags: Production


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