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The Master Course
Read the review at AWN.com
Brad Blackbourn writes the definitive review on the high-end blocking and staging educational DVD set, Hollywood Camerawork, telling us whether it's worth the price of admission or more like a direct-to-DVD disaster.
Alright, you’ve seen the online ads. You’ve begged, scraped and saved. You even spent an unbearably long, tedious day at Aunty Peg’s, just so you could hit her for the last $25 bucks to “further your filmmaking education.” You’ve got the cash in your hot little hand. You’re ready to place your order. But you hesitate — could it possibly be worth $479? Sure, you’ve seen some discussion about it on various web forums that seem to recommend it highly. But could it be that good? Some 479 clams good?
Let’s find out. It’s time for the in-depth, exhaustive, definitive review of…
Hollywood Camera Work: The Master Course In High-End Blocking And Staging by Per Holmes.
A six-DVD set, eh? Nine hours of material. That’s right. Nine hours! Hide your face in shame Peter Jackson — this is a real box set! Six discs. Nine hours. Phew! Let’s see if we can break it down a little.
Luckily the six discs (volumes) are broken into three basic stages: Disc 1 and 2: Stationary Blocking Disc 3 and 4: The Moving Camera Disc 5 and 6: Staging High-End Scenes
First a quick introduction and then we’ll go through them one by one and see what they have to offer.
Each exercise on the DVDs is based around a different scene that could be taken from any shooting script — so all blocking, staging or camera placement supports a narrative purpose. Everything is presented as 3D animations with a very clear, concise voiceover. You get to observe the setups and characters through a “God-view” perspective camera that shifts elegantly around the set to clarify the points being discussed. Through this, you observe the characters and the set as the individual shot cameras are placed around them. If the shot includes moving cameras then you see the track and the cameras moving along it.
Once the shot cameras are placed you get to look through each of those individual shot cameras (or takes) and finally you see all of those takes edited together to create the final scene (or sequence). The actors used are mannequins that move around, sit, stand, walk and turn their heads to help motivate cuts, but they don’t display any emotion, which means the ability of camerawork to imbue a scene with emotion is demonstrated in isolation.
Now let’s look at each disc in turn.
This disc has a very effective introduction to camera theory, including lens choices, framing choices, camera angles (their effect on perspective and depth), action (180 deg) lines and coverage. Then it moves on to camera setups for common static character staging scenarios A, I, L, O etc. Personally I’m not a big fan of these letter approaches, as too many people try to memorize the setups and force the staging to fit these templates. However they’re not a bad starting place to explain the basic theory of covering dialogue and as you’ll see, once you move on through the discs, they soon become redundant as you learn a global approach to block and shoot characters in any arrangement.
Anyway — by the end of this first disc you will be able to comfortably stage and shoot the simplest shots: static character dialogue, shot with a static camera (with maybe a little bit of pan or tilt involved).
On this disc, although the camera is still static, Holmes ups the ante by adding more complexity — moving characters. This is old-style Hollywood blocking when cameras were very cumbersome to move about much, so the characters provide the shifting compositions and movement. (By the way, check out some of Zemeckis’ scenes in the Back to the Future for this kind of setup — especially Marty and Doc in the garage with the blackboard as they make a plan to use the lightning strike to power the DeLorean.)
As part of blocking moving characters with static cameras, several specific concepts are covered very clearly, including blocking with consideration for editing, blocking characters to create multiple different shot types and the idea of setting cameras to cover "stops" (i.e. the position of characters when they stop moving to delivery dialogue or interact with each other or a prop etc). Importantly, the motivations for character movement are covered to help integrate the blocking of character movement naturally into your scenes. The next area tackled on this disc is staging characters in depth (the z-axis of your camera for you 3D folks) to add cinematic value to your shots. This section also includes one of the clearest explanations of depth-of-field that I’ve ever seen. Discussing the use of mirrors and pools of light or shadow when staging characters rounds out the second disc.
By the end of this disc you will now be comfortable in staging more complex and interesting scenes with moving characters and depth whilst shooting them with a static camera.
First up on disc three, the problems with using storyboards as a shooting plan are discussed and the inherently fragmented shooting they tend to produce. This is something I can confirm from experience — there are very few storyboard artists who can truly board cinematically. It’s not a criticism because it’s really not meant to be their job — they’re supposed to be exploring… story.
The disc goes on to demonstrate instead how to think about blocking multiple cameras in parallel with each other and how to use the keyframe theory of camerawork — find good locked frames and then find effective ways to move between them. (Hey, you animators, sound familiar??) This fundamental concept that should underpin most narrative camera movement — the story and characters motivate camera movement. You shouldn’t be trying to create camera moves themselves — they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Once you accept this, the whole concept of camera moves becomes much less intimidating.
Having established an underlying structure for camera movement, the remainder of discs three and four is spent demonstrating different types of camera moves and common reasons or situations to use them.
The motivations to use each move are discussed and they are each given names according to the purpose. Do not under estimate the value of that last point. In putting together a previs or layout team for a feature film, just having everyone use the same names for each type of camera move is invaluable. Even if nothing else was taken from these DVDs, the common language established is worth the ticket price alone for a previs supervisor, head of layout or director.
Back to the camera moves — the remainder of disc three covers different uses of panning and tracking moves (and visual differences between them). Disc four explores more uses of tracking moves (including pushes and pulls) before finishing with crane moves.
By the end of disc four you will be comfortable staging complex scenes with moving characters and moving cameras — all choreographed efficiently, effectively and motivated by the story, the dialogue, the characters, their thoughts and their emotions.
Having covered all the blocking and camera techniques in a filmmaker’s arsenal on the previous discs, disc five starts by demonstrating a way to plan your blocking on paper and supplies a checklist of steps to maximize the effectiveness of your blocking. The steps are examined in detail by running through a demonstration scene. At this point you have covered all the techniques and ways to implement them, but in order to further hone your skills and put everything learned into practice, the remainder of discs five and six (more than two hours!) is spent looking at more scenes, which are analyzed and then blocked in a three-step process as follows:
1. Script/Dialogue run-through
2. Plan blocking on paper. Implement blocking plan on set (in 3D) and alter as needed. Review all takes and setups on-set.
3. View final cut
The sixth and final disc finishes with, again, one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of different film formats and aspect ratios, the pros and cons of shooting them and how they affect the framing of shots.Are We Done?
Phew! That’s it. Nine hours of instruction under our belts. We’re done! What? We’re not!?
Not quite. You can download the scripts for the scenes, blocking diagrams and templates and even a camera rig for Autodesk Maya from the www.hollywoodcamerawork.us website (note the .us suffix not .com).
Once you’ve got all these extra goodies, registered users can then join the online forums where they can take part in blocking exercises, get help with blocking problems (from Per Holmes or other users) and discuss favorite TV/film camera techniques, amongst other things.
Is that it? Are we done now? Yes! So what’s the bottom line…?
Honestly folks, it doesn’t get any better than this. For those of you who’ve tried to understand camera and staging theory through books with static pictures in them — throw them away. You are making moving pictures aren’t you? So, naturally, the way to understand them is to watch moving pictures of how the scene is blocked and shot. The material in this DVD set is so comprehensive and so clearly communicated that every other publication on blocking, staging, shot setup and camera choreography is virtually obsolete. Not only is the complex material communicated so effectively, but it’s never treated as a set of rules and for each particular technique, the psychological effect and a possible motivation for using it are discussed.
This is the elusive “why?” that every filmmaker must answer for each choice of lens, composition, angle or movement that he or she makes. It’s also clearly stated that scenes can be over-covered and camera work can be too obtrusive if used without motivation. You’re also reminded that, especially in live action filmmaking, the plan is just that, a plan, and you should be looking for new opportunities and input once you’re on set with actors. Always make room for that “fortunate accident” of light, shadow, movement, composition or improvisation.
It’s a no brainer. The Master Course in High-End Blocking and Staging is the benchmark reference for any discussion in this area. You can feel well justified in laying down your hard earned for this set. A great investment for any filmmaker.
I look forward to seeing the lessons from Per Holmes’s master course reflected in the short films and reels of animated filmmakers – especially the reels of all you layout and previs folk out there. Bring it on!
Brad Blackbourn is a director with BAM! Studios in Los Angeles and also head of layout/previs at DreamWorks Animation SKG, where he has worked on Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Kung Fu Panda and Father of the Pride. He has 15 years experience in CG production consisting of directing, supervising (animation and previs/cinematography) and outsource consulting for film/TV in USA, U.K., Germany, Italy, South East Asia and Australia.