ASK DR. FORMAT: Directing the Camera Without Using Camera Directions

Dave Trottier, Dr. Format, shares advice on how to convey camera direction in your script, without writing camera direction.
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QUESTION

We know that long before a script becomes a movie it is first a reading experience, and that we should avoid camera directions because that’s the director’s job. But there is a definite feel I wish to communicate in my first page. Here it is.

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Obviously, there can be many “correct” responses and many revisions that would work beautifully depending on your dramatic goals. Before showing my revision, let me comment on the above sequence.

First of all, I would not call the scene a riveting reading experience. Notice that the focus is on how the story is told, not on the story itself, including character development. What is going on in the van? We (the reader/audience) don’t know. Who are the two characters shouting at each other—parents, kidnappers, siblings? We’re not sure. Why is the child looking out the window? What is his or her facial expression? What is the child’s name and gender?

You may be getting too involved in directing your movie and choosing which technical directions to use to get the “feel” you want. I suggest you focus on the content of your screenplay.

[ASK DR. FORMAT: The Camera as a Character]

Of course, we don’t need answers to each of the above questions immediately in this opening sequence. Not everything needs to be revealed at once. But we need to know more than is currently being communicated. Let’s try to improve on the original without sacrificing much in terms of the “feel” that you want to communicate.

ASKDRFORMAT-CAMERADIRECTIONS-2

In the revision, I have suggested almost everything I believe you want, but my focus is on the story and the characters, not on fancy ways to tell the story. The scene can now be more easily visualized, and the emotions involved more easily felt.

The first paragraph describes the aerial shot you want, and the first three paragraphs are obviously directing the camera to move inland from the shore and down to the highway and finally to the van. One student of mine in a class revised your original by describing a seagull flying down to the van and, at the end, the little girl scribbling a sign that says, “Take me with you.” In my view, that’s much more interesting than the original

[LEARN: Proper Formatting Technique: Script Format Made Easy]

Later in the scene, I direct the camera (without using a camera direction) to a CLOSE UP of the child at the window. In effect, I am directing the reader’s eye, and I do it for a story and character reason. I want the reader to know that the child is the most important character in the scene, and that maybe she is the central character of the story; and I want the reader (and the movie audience) to emotionally identify with the child’s situation. That’s the reason for Ralph’s look at Lisa. It implies that the child may be the subject of the parents’ shouts.

Incidentally, I could have replaced the expression “although they cannot be heard” with the acronym MOS (which means “without sound”).

[ASK DR. FORMAT: A Crash Course in Scene Headings]

In addition, I imply a POV shot of the child staring at the trees and shrubs. If desired, I could even describe the reflection of trees on the window glass (without using technical terms). I identify the child’s gender by giving her a name that is definitely a female name. The two adults are parents and they now have names. I characterize the parents and Lisa as surly, empty-headed, and sad, respectively.

I end the scene with a promise of things to come. I am trying to create some interest in what happens next while revealing the emotions of the parents.

In summary, my advice is to focus on story and character; and, while you are at it, use clear, specific language. And keep writing!


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