Vincent Laforet and the Psychological Impact of Camera Movement

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Since the release of his 2008 short film Reverie, which was shot using the Canon 5D Mark II, Vincent Laforet has become an influential figure in the video-making community. His evolution and growth as a commercial director is charted in his blog, which is now a must-read for photographers and filmmakers alike. We were lucky enough to talk with Laforet about his transition into directing, and reveal some of his secrets to approaching cinematic motion. We also got some insight into what to expect from his upcoming 10-week US workshop tour, titled “Directing Motion,” which kicks off on May 6.

Let’s begin by getting a little bit of your background. You began your career as a still photographer, correct?

Yes. I started as a still photographer and worked for publications like The New York Times, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated for almost two decades. Then, in 2008, the 5D Mark II came out, and I was the first person to shoot with it. I transferred from being a commercial photographer at the time to a commercial director. And I’ve been pretty much focused on motion since.

What was the hardest part about making the transition from still photographer to director?

One of the steepest learning curves, going from photography to motion, other than really focusing on your storytelling and working with actors, really is how and why to move the camera, as well as how to move subject matter in front of it. Not to mention how you sequence a series of shots together and create continuous motion that makes it cut well. You find out that it’s an incredible art form that we’re all aware of passively because we all watch films and television.

Everybody, whether they know it or not, understands we what call “cinematic language,” because we’ve consumed it our entire lives. Now, when you find yourself in a director’s chair or as a DP, you realize just how much there is to know, and how much it is an art form, and that there’s a bunch of techniques that you need to be aware of. And if you really do take the time to study them, it will really bring a lot of life and energy into the videos that you shoot.

"...even just handheld with a smartphone, there is a marked difference in what I would shoot today versus six years ago..."

I use these same techniques when I shoot video of my kids. In other words, I move my smartphone in a similar way that I would a cinema camera. And even just handheld with a smartphone, there is a marked difference in what I would shoot today versus six years ago—just in the way that I move the camera and think about how it’s going to come together as a piece at the end.

How much experience, if any, did you have with camera movement prior to making the switch to the video world? What resources did you use to expand your understanding?

I had the same level of experience anyone would have being a film buff and watching lots of films; studying Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the Copacabana shot, you know… all the popular stuff. It’s entirely different when you go from watching it to being on set, and having to construct all of these things together with three to seventy people watching you. You’ve really got to know your stuff. And you learn the finer points of timing and motivation. Motivation is the idea that something causes the camera to move; it doesn’t just randomly move.

Over these past six years, I’ve had the chance to work with other directors that are Hollywood veterans as well as DPs, First ADs, steadicam operators, crane operators, top level crews... and you really learn some tricks rather quickly and you’re exposed to some rather high-level stuff. I’ve also studied with some of the top Hollywood directors, going on the set of Southland or Shameless and spending the entire two weeks with them during the shooting of an episode. You learn a lot very fast, not to mention the fact that I work on commercials and short films on a regular basis.

So there’s really no replacing hands-on experience, is there?

There’s no substitute. It’s just like shooting still pictures—you’ve got to go out and do it. The problem with doing it with motion is that you tend to need to have other people and crews, so it’s not as easy to just pick up your camera and go. But you learn a tremendous amount as you do, versus watching. This is what we’re going to do together in my workshop. We’re actually going to shoot a few live scenes, after having broken down quite a few ourselves from 100 of the best films in Hollywood.

One of the biggest mistakes you see student or amateur filmmakers make is to add camera movement for the sake of adding movement, without any motivation. Can you explain "motivated" versus "unmotivated" camera movement?

The simplest lesson starts when you’re panning a camera. I remember myself in my first months of video, looking at a horizon and wondering should I pan left or right. It’s a 50/50 proposition right? But the reality is, when you learn about screen direction, that if you pan left to right it feels better to an audience, as it’s the direction that we read in, versus right to left, which feels just a little bit less good and that something bad might be happening. Something as simple as panning a camera has psychological connotations.

The next step you’ll move into is thinking about motivated versus unmotivated movement. The idea is that, especially for amateurs, they will just randomly move the camera for the sake of moving it. The results they get are videos with a bunch of motion in it, but that don’t connect with an audience. They just don’t seem to work, and they can’t quite figure it out. They're doing the same things that they’re seeing on screen, but it’s not connecting with their audience emotionally or intellectually.

The reality is that they're breaking one of the cardinal rules, which is every camera move should be motivated to do something either by the action in front of it or the director’s will to reveal or conceal something, to walk you through a space, or to make you feel a certain emotion.

Can you tell us more about how you address this theoretical understanding of motion in your workshop?

Sure. To prepare for the Directing Motion Tour, I spent three months actually watching 100 of my favorite films. I had a broken arm, so I had quite a bit of time on my hands. I was able to break it down into about 400 clips. Now, we’re not going to have enough time for all 400, but I’ve really been able to curate the very best moves and the very intelligent moves that some of the best directors have done.

We’ll cover some great dolly moves, and some parallax moves, but I’ll show you some variations of each. You’ll see how, for example, when an actor in American Beauty is about to get shot in the head, Director Sam Mendes and DP Conrad Hall panned away. Something as simple as that, to conceal what’s going to happen, is part of what we’ll be studying. Just really understanding the finer points of cinematic language.

[Editor's note: a sneak peak into some of the content of Laforet's Directing Motion Tour can be seen in the following link: http://vimeo.com/92972956]

Sample of a blocking diagram shown in Vincent's workshop

At what types of shooters are you aiming your workshop? Do people need to come in with a certain level of experience and understanding to get the most of it?

This is not meant to be so advanced that people can’t understand it, but it’s also meant to be Level 2, to bring people beyond how to set up your camera, and recording, and resolutions, and bit depth. This is really about the craft.

People who have never picked up a camera will still benefit from this because they will understand filmmaking in a way that they never have before, and it will help them understand what they don’t know and what they need to focus on. It really lays a pretty strong groundwork for them to build upon, but it’s not meant for people who want to learn how to turn on a camera or what frame rate they want to shoot at. We’re not going that basic.

People have been shooting video on DSLRS for the past six plus years, and I think there’s a hunger to get into the craft of what we do as directors, DPs, and filmmakers, and how to bring every production you do to the next level; to understand the ins and outs of each move as well as the gear, because there’s pluses and minus to everything. Complex moves take a lot of time and crew sometimes and you may not want that. So, I’ll show you some moves that add a lot of what we call “production value” to anything you’re shooting.

Would you mind summarizing your approach and preparation in regard to motion, from when you first sit down with the screenplay to actually shooting on set?

This is some of the stuff we’ll talk about at the workshop. First, you look at a scene and you analyze the tone and the story elements that need to be captured within your frame. Then you decide on a visual style, both in terms of lenses you’re going to use and in terms of how you’re going to move the camera—whether it’s going to be handheld or much smoother motion with something like a slider, for example.

Next, you block out the scene in your mind, given the space that you’re going to work in, to try and create the most dynamic sequence or shot possible; shots which engage the audience and reveal certain information at appropriate times so that, on a visual level, you’re sharing information with the audience to create suspense or to make them feel something. Then you’ll go ahead and do a diagram and a shot list or storyboard.

With all the preparation you should be able to show up on set and find the real shooting location (if you haven’t scouted it yet), and you work with the actors and ask them what they feel like doing. They either have a better idea than you, or you suggest your idea. You always have a plan, and that’s the groundwork toward what every director does. You do a tremendous amount of preparation based on all these factors, and you’re also very much open to doing it the day. But you always have that foundation and plan.

You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to just collapse mentally when you have a lot of people around you, and you have to worry about gear, crew, actors, shots... If you have a clear plan and a clear idea, that allows you to communicate it to your crew and your collaborators and execute it together. If you don’t have a clear plan then there’s no chance, unless you get lucky, that you’re going to pull off something that really elevates to the next level.

Do you have a personal visual style with which you like to approach your films?

People have told me that they’re starting to notice my work in terms of really interesting an dynamic moves, whether it’s the Nike commercial or the MoVI stuff with dynamic one-shots. But the way I think about it is that they are all tools. I’ve got a plethora of moves to pick from, I’ve got different styles to choose from, and all of those ultimately are tools and not just one style. They’re each more or less appropriate to the content.

So if I shoot an episodic TV series tomorrow, let’s say it’s West Wing, then the camera is going to be on steadicam and dollies because that’s their style. Because the environment is reserved and it’s efficient and official. I’m going to shoot a different TV series, just as Shameless, I might to shoot it handheld, because it’s hectic and you want energy within your frame.

You come to understand that these days, as a director, you have to have this portfolio of techniques and work, because it’s not about your style and imposing it on material. On the high level it sometimes can be, but for the average director it is about matching the style to the content. What we say is, “how does this serve the story?” And that’s the question you should ask yourself constantly. Every question should be motivated by the story.

Do you have any gear recommendations for people who are just starting to learn and experiment with camera motion?

Obviously, getting a good handheld rig or a tripod with a fluid head is a good place to start, although the tripod style is not the hippest these days. After that, a slider is a good initial investment to start understanding about moving the camera from point A to point B, whether it’s in time lapse or live action. That was one of the first tools that I used.

Would you like to share any final comments on what people can expect from your workshop?

I learned so much by preparing for this tour simply by being able to look back at all these great films. I put three months of preparation into it, and I think just seeing the clips alone without me saying anything would be worth coming. You’re going to be exposed to some of the best filmmaking geniuses in history and their work.

I think if you’re really trying to get a solid understanding of how and why to move the camera, whether it’s on your smartphone, or a documentary, or a short film, there’s no question that pretty much anyone would benefit from coming to this workshop, given the kind of curriculum that we’re doing. It’s everything I’ve learned in a lifetime of watching films and six years of practice, distilled into a single day. It’s kind of a crazy day, but certainly exciting.


If you’re thinking about attending one of the Directing Motion Tour workshops, you can check out the schedule and register for it using the link below:

http://directingmotion.mzed.com/dates-cities-and-register

B&H customers can save $10 by using this promo code: DMTBH 

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Michael Bay and some of his wannabe summer filmmaker followers and DP's ought to take one of these classes.  They have very little style or substance and seem to move the camera and edit without any motivation whatsoever.  Movement and shot cutting without reason... just because we can or because our ADD addled teenage audience will get bored.  It's like the movies themselves: churned out without any regards to the art.