The Master Course
Read the review at Machinima.com
Matt Kelland and Hugh Hancock take on Per Holmes' "Hollywood Camera Work" DVD set. Will a DVD teach you how to go from student film to Steven Spielberg?
Machinima is a unique way to make films. Coming from a heritage of high-octane action games, machinima naturally lends itself to shooting the sort of fast-paced action sequences that really stretch the resources of all but the highest budget movies. On the other hand, a simple conversation between two people is far harder. That’s largely because doing something that simple and keeping it interesting is considerably more difficult than it looks. It’s easy to hook viewers with large explosions, gun battles, and chases – but if all you’ve got is people talking, you have to do something special to keep people looking at the screen. Given that 90% of any decent movie is just walking and talking, this is an area most machinima makers need to address.
The missing ingredient, more often than not, is skilled camera work. There’s much more to shooting a scene than simply pointing a camera or two at the action. A well used camera creates much of the emotion in a scene. For example, how can you make an actor look lonely, powerful, or confused – even from behind, without using facial expressions or dialogue? The answer is in the precise composition of the shots, the cuts between them, and the way the camera itself moves.
Camerawork is something that real film-makers spend literally years learning. It’s something that directors, editors, cinematographers, scriptwriters and actors all need to know about – as well as, of course, the cameramen. It is, in effect, the skill that defines film-making – the art of creating a moving picture.
It’s also a skill that most amateur film-makers – which includes most machinima producers – don’t have. Sure, you can watch a lot of films and try to replicate the best shots yourself, but that’s no substitute for painstakingly learning the ground rules of camera work and knowing what’s going to make a good scene. This is what film-maker Per Holmes set out to do when "Hollywood Camerawork", a set of 6 training DVDs. “The idea,” he says, “was to burn into my brain everything I knew about camerawork – as well as everything everyone else knew.”
The nine-hour course takes you through most of what you’d cover in a full-on camerawork course, starting from shot sizes and simple framing with static cameras, on through using moving cameras and ending up taking you through the construction of several complete scenes. What makes this particularly interesting for machinima makers is that the entire thing is shot in Maya. There are very good reasons for that. For a start, you can’t understand how to create moving pictures by looking at stills – the illustrations that accompany this article don’t give a fair idea of the experience of watching the DVDs. But equally importantly, all the characters on screen are five simple mannequins. They can’t walk, they can’t talk, and they can’t gesture, except with their heads. They make Thunderbirds puppets look expressive. As a result, all the emotion in the scenes comes from the camerawork, not from the actors. Working within these self-imposed limitations, Holmes shows you how to make the same character look threatening, desperate, trustworthy, or suspicious, just by changing the camera angle.
But knowing where to place your cameras is just the start of it. Holmes also shows you how to combine the task of director, editor, set dresser, and lighting director into the camerawork. Starting from the script, he shows how to direct the movement of actors and extras in order to bring out the important aspects of the story, how to cut between cameras in order to manipulate the viewer’s attention, and how to dress and light sets to create interesting spaces that photograph well. For machinima makers, who often work completely solo, this understanding of how the different roles fit together is fascinating,
Where Holmes breaks with most traditional film-makers is that he doesn’t believe in storyboards. “Storyboards are basically 2D,” he says. “Every shot is a new shot, and a new camera set-up. You’re thinking sequentially and discretely. Film is about showing a 3D world in 2D, so you have to learn to think in 3D.” Holmes’s approach is to create keyframes. These are the shots that are most important in a scene. You then figure out where to place the cameras to achieve those shots, and how to get there through cutting and editing. “It’s about thinking backwards,” he says. “It looks like we get great shots by accident, but it’s all carefully planned.” The result is seamless, flowing camerawork with a high degree of artistry, which works equally well for drama, action, comedy, music video or any other type of film.
Although the course is aimed primarily at live action films, almost everything in it is equally relevant to 3D film makers. “The way to make 3D footage look real is to direct it as if it was real,” says Holmes. “If you use known visual and storytelling techniques in your camerawork, you will avoid that feeling of watching a game. I had 3D film-makers very much in mind when I made this, and they seem to pick this up much faster than traditional cameramen, perhaps because they are less conservative and are ready to learn.” And, of course, when you want to try out what you’ve learnt, you can simply fire up your game engine and shoot some footage, rather than having to find a space and persuade friends to be your actors while you experiment with different camera angles and lenses.
Going through the course is an exhausting but highly rewarding experience, as every one of the 97 five-minute chapters is jam-packed with information. After three or four chapters, you need to stop, absorb what you’ve learnt, and try it for yourself. And when you get to the end, you’ll want to watch it all again to pick up the things you missed first time through. And again, focusing on different aspects each time. It’s also entertaining spotting the different movies and TV shows Holmes is drawing on – you can see elements of Star Trek, Disclosure, Indiana Jones, E.R., the China Syndrome, and many more. Be warned, though - you’ll never look at films again the same way – you’ll be forever seeing the pivot/reveal in action, noticing the step-in/hand-off, and silently chanting “right-angle master, external reverse, internal reverse” instead of watching what’s happening!
All this knowledge doesn’t come cheap at $479.00 – that’s about £280 or €360. (If you live in the UK, be prepared to pay £70 import duty on top of that. Just be grateful for the weak dollar.) It sounds like a lot of money, but I promise you there’s more value in this DVD course than in any ten books on film-making, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than any film course or a even decent DV camera set-up. When you consider what you will get out of it, it’s money well spent – for the cost of a top-end graphics card, you could dramatically improve your film-making. If you want to take your machinima making seriously, then this is certainly a present you should consider buying yourself.
Creative Director, Short Fuze
Matt's a smart guy, so I was expecting Hollywood Camerawork to be pretty good. I've read some good books on camerawork before - notably Steven Katz's Shot By Shot - and I was expecting to cover a lot of the same ground.
Hollywood Camerawork isn't pretty good. It's absolutely bloody astounding. After 7 years and 16 films, I'd expected I had a fair idea of at least the basics that the course covers in the first four or five chapters of the DVD, but I learned a massive amount within the first 20 minutes - from terminology to use of space, all explained remarkably clearly. And it just keeps going - in particular, the chapters on storyboarding and shot sequence construction are revolutionary and brilliant. I've been using Per's reverse shot planning technique on BloodSpell since I watched that DVD, and it makes a huge difference not just to shot quality, but also to the speed and certainty of my direction - which I find as important.
HC is indeed an exhausting watch. The BloodSpell crew found we'd had enough after about 35 minutes of watching the first DVD, and needed to decompress and watch other TV to spot the techniques being used. And, to be fair, it can at times be quite dry going - whilst the pleasant graphic style and the sheer information density keeps it from getting too dry, these are very much educational videos, and the single voice of the teacher, whilst pleasant, starts to become a little monotonous. However, since you'll likely get information fatigue after just a short time, that's unlikely to be a significant problem. And the sheer fact that these DVDs are, in fact, videos (shock) means that they can explain points of camerawork far more clearly and effectively than any book.
It's a pity that the videos are so expensive - for a struggling filmmaker who has trouble putting together £10 for a Chinese takeaway, £300 for a set of training videos may be too much no matter how good they are. That's a pity because these are, without a doubt, the best investment I can think of for a starting Machinima creator, after a PC and a copy of a game. If you've got a birthday coming up and you're serious about your Machinima, think about asking for them!
Even for experienced directors, as I've said, these DVDs are incredibly useful. A lot of the use I found in the earlier DVDs was from the systematisation of camerawork techniques. A lot of things I'd learned intuitively I found were finally explained thoroughly to me, which I found incredibly useful immediately afterward when storyboarding. However, when I got onto later DVDs, quite a bit of the teaching was entirely new to me. A lot of the techniques here are fabulous for elevating your camerawork from the "student film" level that you'll see from a lot of other training books into what is recognisably the same style used on Hollywood films and TV shows.
Overall? Beg, buy, borrow. No matter what your level of expertise, if your name's not Scott or Spielberg, and you're serious about your filmmaking, get these DVDs now.
Artistic Director, Strange Company Ltd.