Q&A: Movie-Making Techniques from Hollywood Hot Shots

by Ibarionex Perello

August 06, 2014

Vincent Laforet established his name as a still photographer during his years as a photojournalist for The New York Times. Since then, he has used his gift for storytelling in his work as a filmmaker. Jettisoned into the world of film by his groundbreaking short film Reverie in 2008, which was the first video to demonstrate the capability of the Canon 5D Mark II, Laforet’s primary passion is now narrative filmmaking.

If you missed Laforet’s Directing Motion workshop as it criss-crossed the country this past May and June, don’t despair. I recently sat down with Laforet to get his insights on how budding filmmakers who are transitioning from still photography to motion can get inspired by some of Hollywood’s greatest films.

Ibarionex Perello: Why should camera movement be rooted in the story you are trying to tell?
Vincent Laforet: One of the major themes that we cover in the workshop is where you move the camera, when you move the camera and, most importantly, why you move the camera. You’ll find that the best directors use movement as an incredible driving force for their storytelling. They are so good that with the best ones, you don’t even notice that the camera is moving, because you get completely sucked into the story.

Part of the workshop’s allure is the way Laforet and his students analyze scenes from well-known Hollywood films. All Photos © Laforet Visuals Inc. 

Perello: Which films and scenes do you discuss in the workshop?
Laforet: One of the shots we look at is from Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, where all he does it pull back the camera, but in doing so, he reveals three different layers of information: the soldiers on the ground, the assailants on top who’ve been killed and then back to the soldiers who pull their bodies away at the end of the shot. What he’s doing is compressing three layers of information: the battle, those who lost and the victors. He’s also compressing time. And there are a variety of different methods of doing this through cutting that would take a little while, but in that one shot that lasts about seven seconds, he’s telling you a plethora of information without a single piece of dialogue.

Perello: Spielberg is very purposeful about it in an almost stark way in terms of what he’s doing with the camera.
Laforet: Generally speaking, you don’t want to move the camera for drama, because you want to see people’s faces and look into their eyes. You want to have an ebb and flow between those moments of drama, and you want your camera to be visually engaging so that you have a series of peaks and valleys within any scene that is really engaging to your audience.

Perello: Do you think the biggest mistake of many filmmakers is that they are moving the camera without understanding why—beyond serving some visual esthetic?
Laforet: I probably skipped over that fact, which is so basic. Too many filmmakers, especially photographers going into motion, move the camera without really knowing why, or what impact the movement potentially has. In the workshop, we go from very basic stuff, such as pushing or sliding a camera, to the reasons that you do so. You need to ask yourself why you are doing certain things and what you want the results from those things to to be in your final film. Think about whether you are trying to reveal or conceal information, as well as what the emotional and psychological ramifications of moving the camera will be.

Perello: How do you establish a sense of place?
Laforet: The best example of that is in the Goodfellas “Copacabana” shot. In it, we follow Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco going from the back door of the Copacabana to their table. In the workshop, we actually are showing you all of the elements that are being introduced in order to keep that frame alive, so workshop participants end up walking away with a full understanding
of all the tools that they have at their disposal.

Perello: Let’s talk about one of the easier movements to accomplish, which is the racking of focus, or changing focus from one point to another in a shot.
Laforet: We talk about rack focus by showing an example from Ridley Scott’s Alien, but I especially focus on a scene in which you shouldn’t rack focus—in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. At the very beginning of the film, a gentleman is asking Don Corleone to take revenge for his daughter. He goes up to Marlon Brando’s ear and he whispers something. The camera never racks focus to him and we don’t hear what he says. What Coppola is saying to us is that this is the Cosa Nostra and we are not invited into that world. That’s why we are not allowed to hear what they are saying, let alone focus on it.

Perello: Talk a little bit about panning and tilting. What are you thinking about when you move the camera in this way?
Laforet: Something as simple as panning is reflective of what we do as human beings. We move our head from left to right in the same way that a camera does on a horizontal medium. On a basic psychology level, when you pan from left to right, the scene feels more comfortable than when you are panning from right to left simply because of the way we read. There is an ingrained negative reaction from panning from right to left, and in fact, I’ve used that in my short film, Mobius, where when everything was going well, we panned from left to right. Whenever things were going wrong, we’d pan from right to left.

Perello: What’s being expressed when tilting the camera up or down?
Laforet: When we look up at something, we are looking from a position of insignificance and fear. It’s intimidating. Whereas when you pan down on somebody, there is a connotation of power over the person you are looking down on. So every seemingly insignificant choice we make as filmmakers, including a locked-down shot on a tripod, has significance.

Students get hands-on experience during Laforet’s workshop.

Perello: Sliders have become an affordable and accessible tool for creating dynamic movement with the camera. What do people have to be conscious of when they begin using this tool, especially so they don’t end up overusing it?
Laforet: I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that you can overuse a slider, but rather that there are a lot of ways to not use a slider well. That’s most of what I see. It’s important for people to understand that it’s not the tool, but the technique. There is a lot of unmotivated movement being done by people starting off in filmmaking who own sliders. They have no start point, no end point and no motivation for the movement in the first place, let alone built into the scene. A good example of a pure slide is seen in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski in the bowling sequence where they pass over people’s reactions to Jesus, the character played by John Turturro. We also share examples of combining panning with a slide, because a simple slider shot isn’t used a lot.

Perello: Whenever you introduce equipment such as a slider or a crane, you have to consider the additional time required to use these tools, right?
Laforet: Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since Reverie: When you don’t know what you are doing, it takes you exponentially more time. You don’t know where to set up your slider or how to set it up or what moves to make and how to make them effective. When you learn some important pointers, you become that much faster and proficient with those tools. And to your point, there is an important lesson to be learned in production, which is the more complex your move—whether it’s on a slider or a Steadicam—the less likely it is that you are going to have to shoot multiple pieces of coverage that you know will work together in the edit. So, I prioritize getting the coverage I need to cut a scene and then throw in the very complex shot that will marry itself to the coverage.

Perello: How does learning from Hollywood benefit photographers who are shooting events like weddings?
Laforet: One of the reasons I am using scenes from feature films and television as my examples is that they demonstrate that everything you do, no matter what you’re shooting, is derived from the practices of narrative filmmaking. We are all doing the exact same things. So, why not show students the highest level and have them draw ideas and techniques from it? It absolutely applies to everything we do. It’s not the tools, but the craft behind what we do that matters.

Related Links:

Vincent Laforet's Filmmaking Trade Secrets

Filmmaking Class: What Joe Switzer's Students Learned at WPPI [VIDEO]

Filmmaking for Wedding Photographers

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