Putting the camera in the right place

Updated: May 1, 2018

Imagine your audience sitting in a theatre. The room is packed, everyone is observing the screen. Now, zoom out - that theatre is inside a camera which you can move around the movie set. Placing the camera is really about deciding from where you'd like your audience to watch the story unfold.

But before that, let's take a step back. In literature the narrator is the voice telling the reader about the events taking place in the story. The narrator, or storyteller, can assume one of several positions. Among them:

  • First Person: The storyteller is the character in the story.

  • Third Person: The storyteller is outside of the story, looking in.

The second category is often split further to Third Person Restricted or Objective and Third Person Omniscient or Subjective.

Why is this important? Similarly to the film audience, the reader of a book can feel like they are participating in the story or observing from afar. This tool, called Narrative Perspective, is one of the most important and effective tools we use to engage our audience in the story.

Her, Directed by Spike Jonze

This is the first frame from the film Her, Directed by Spike Jonze. This is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). We start the film knowing nothing about the world he lives in, but very soon we will know a lot about who he is as a person. After that is somewhat established we will be allowed to see a future version of Los Angeles, Theodore's home.

Inglorious Basterds, Directed by Quentin Tarantino

This is the first frame from the film Inglorious Basterds, Directed by Quentin Tarantino. A very different approach to deliver different information to the audience. We know nothing about the people, but more about the environment - in this case 1941 rural France.

In both of these examples, the filmmakers chose the two different versions of the cinematic equivalent of Third Person. In Her we access a Subjective experience, how this man feels and thinks in this moment. In Inglorious Bastders we access an Objective perspective - knowing nothing about the people but seeing the environment from a viewpoint where no other character in the story can see.

What about First Person? What would be the cinematic equivalent a storyteller who is actively participating as a character in the story?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Directed by Julian Schnabel

This is an image from the filmThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Directed by Julian Schnabel. The film tells the story of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby after suffering a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to communicate with the outside world while retaining all his senses. The camera is often placed exactly where our hero's eyes would be. We are, in a sense, experiencing the world through his eyes.

Placing the camera and controlling narrative perspective goes beyond the delivery of information to the audience. Would you like the audience to feel what a character is feeling, or would you like them to be skeptical of your character's choices?

Birth, Directed by Jonathan Glazer

The image above is taken from the film Birth, Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Anna (Nicole Kidman), who becomes convinced that her deceased husband, Sean, has been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy. In this scene she makes a dangerous choice. The Narrative Perspective is Objective, preventing the audience from identifying with Anna in this intimate moment. Instead, we observe the scene from a safe distance. We are seeing something that she may no longer be able to see: An inappropriate moment between a child and an adult. In placing the camera here, the filmmakers allow the audience to distance themselves from this choice and wonder about the sanity or moral judgment of the main character.

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