July 19, 2012

Should screenwriters use camera directions?

Herbert G Ponting's cameraConventional wisdom* among amateur directors and beginning film lecturers is that camera directions should “never” appear in a film script.  Yet, the camera is probably the one thing that separates a screenplay from a stage-play.  (Okay, so there’s CGI, logos and subtitles, as well as editing overlays, but the stage can have its own version of these effects.  Even animation can be achieved with a giant flip book.)

I’d wax lyrical about Universal studios turning 100, but that’s irrelevant. In the silent era film scenarios looked different than they do today.  Let’s take a look at our experience, and at other scripts for well known films, and at why the myth persists.

Myth, what myth? Why, the myth that screenplays should never have camera directions. I suppose it started along the same lines as stage plays never having stage directions. You know, a lot of Shakespeare plays just say “enter” and “exit” when someone comes of leaves from stage. Oh, and there are lines like “he dies” in Julius Caesar, but they are relatively rare.  Most of the old stage directions are obvious from the dialogue.

Well, even most scripts from the past century or so are more descriptive than that. George Bernard Shaw tells us what an entire room looks like, by giving us pages of description before we get to any action.  And that’s just for the theatre.

Films are meant to be “visual”, so there tends to be an even higher percentage of non-dialogue in a film script.  (** Most film scripts, not all. **)

I’ve recently started storyboarding for a film script, and, as I’m directing the film myself, I don’t “need” to say in the script what can be told through the storyboard. However, as I go through, I’m updating the script to include some camera angles.  (And to make more specifications on the costumes and other details that perhaps weren’t obvious enough before.)

Why? Because the actors need to know when they are in shot, and they usually don’t look at storyboards.  When I know what a scene looks like, and I know it has to look that way, then the script should reflect that.

However, if the camera angle is just a matter of personal preference, or the scriptwriter just likes writing the words “camera angle on”, then drop it.  In other words, if the camera could be placed somewhere else without hurting the story, then it isn’t needed in the script.

So, other than story, what motivates where the camera is placed? Location, budget, who your star is, and sometimes a director’s “hunch” could all motivate a camera angle.

Personally, I prefer to let the story, and the emotion, guide me as to where the best place to put a camera is.  If the script contains a conversation where the camera angle is unimportant, or where I think it may be obvious from the description, I leave that angle out of the script.

(So far, I’ve found what I feel are the best cameras angle for every line of the first 27 pages of this script, which I’ll call “W G”, and that’s in the storyboard.   Sometimes the camera stays in the same place for a time, sometimes it needs to move.  Not all of these angles need to be in the script.)

In fact, because I’m directing “WG” myself, I’m leaving out most of the camera angles. I’m only including those that would really affect the actor before rehearsal.

When I read other screenplays, I notice that every professional script has some camera directions. I don’t just mean FADE IN and FADE OUT, I’m talking about an ANGLE ON from As Good As It Gets, or an INSERT from Casablanca, or a BEGIN MAIN TITLES from Indiana Jones or CUT TO in Alien or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Not all of these are strictly camera directions, and it is true that more recent films tend to have more of them.  Not only that, but they tend to hide these numerous camera directions from the casual reader.

American Beauty is not one of my favorite scripts, but it is a favorite of a lot of people, and it wasn’t written by a writter director.  It won awards, and is used in a lot of screenwriting courses where they tell you not to use camera directions.  And, that script has camera directions.

Early in the screenplay, it calls for a close up. It doesn’t use the words “close up”, but what else do you call “CLOSE on a single, dewy AMERICAN BEAUTY ROSE.”

How do you do that without either bringing the camera in close, or using some kind of telephoto lens? In my book, that’s definately a camera direction.

Now, let’s take a script I liked but that most of my friends probably hated. In Very Bad Things, there’s a line toward the start that says “SLOWLY TRACKING down a long line of couples.” No, tracking is not refering to some kind of hounds in a fox hunt, that’s a camera movement. So is “PUSH IN ON Fisher.”

For big budget action movies, with lots of special effects, it may be harder to specify where the camera is.  That’s something you tend to do at storyboard stage.

Let’s take Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.  When we first read about the skull medallion, we aren’t told where the camera is.  I can guess that there’s some kind of close up involved with the descriptions of details by reading the script, as I can guess that it is a kind of wide shot when Elizabeth later pulls back the curtains and reveals things.

But, even here, there’s an obvious camera direction in “ON ELIZABETH.” No, the script isn’t saying that the curtains are on Elizabeth, or that one of the other characters or a prop falls on Elizabeth. It’s the camera that is “ON ELIZABETH.”

You’ll see that camera directions are given when needed, and sometimes even when they may not be needed. Like dialogue, scene headings, description, or action, the camera can be used to tell the story.  And it should, at least twice in every script (even for a short film.)

Now, I’ve got that out of my system. Anyone giving advice about screenwriting, please read some professional scripts first. I don’t just mean skim them and remember the movie, I mean study them.  Pay attention to the words in all caps.  They tend to be either sound cues, character names, or camera directions.

Okay, back to work now.  W G needs my attention.

* conventional wisdom means something that a lot of people think is true because they heard it alot, even if it isn’t. In the words of Goebbels “if you repeat a lie enough times, people will believe it.”