Doing the job of the cinematographer: POV shots
Some years ago I went to a talk given by writing guru Robert McKee about horror films. It included an analysis of the first Alien film. He talked about how, in the opening sequences of the film, scenes of deliberate banality were shot from a moving camera at a low angle. He made the point that this angle could never be a human point of view, and for this reason, we instantly felt uneasy, as if there was some marauding presence stalking the characters.
It made me realise how much of live action films is shot from a human point of view (or, if objectivity is required, from an angle slightly higher or lower than eye-level). Of course, one of the obvious reasons for this is that live action films have predominantly human characters. Another reason is that human points of view are usually comfortable for the cameraman. The most adventurous live action camerawork is seen when filming animals. Natural history programmes demand imagination, technical innovation, and a great deal of courage and patience, as cameramen wait hours in sub zero hides, balance precariously on microlight aircraft, or swim in underwater caverns.
Animation camerawork may need imagination, and, occasionally, technical innovation, and it may well draw inspiration from natural history films. It often features animal characters, or human characters whose proportions are far from naturalistic. Unlike natural history cinematography, it can be done in comfort. The most comfortable angle for an animator is the one he sets up between himself and the paper, or tablet he draws on. The fact that it is easier to shoot from an unusual angle does not mean that you should necessarily do so, but you should be aware of the possibilities, and use the medium to emphasise important dramatic, emotional, or comic moments in your script.
Of course, even the most unlikely POV shots are possible in live action, given the right equipment, camera and budget, but they are often a lot easier to achieve in animation. This is why much of the more extravagant camerawork currently found in live action films is animated.
In animation, you can shoot from an impossible POV.
Live Action: Difficult POV
Animation: Impossible POV
This POV is impossible, both because it is not possible to move a camera around inside someone’s brain, and because it is anatomically incorrect. (Incidentally, several animation studios have, at different times, tried to get the rights to make this comic strip, The Numskulls, which appeared in the Beezer, into a television series, because it presents such great opportunities for animation)
Writers need to be aware of the opportunities of the medium. The opening shots of The Lion King, for example, showing the movement of large groups of animals, are directed from a high angle that would be difficult to sustain, even with the aid of a high flying helicopter. In Tom and Jerry, POV’s from Tom’s mousehole would be difficult in live action. The title sequence of Rugrats sets the theme perfectly by featuring the POV of a toddler crawling across the floor. Needless to say, this was seen much more rarely in the series itself, since drawing in perspective is difficult, and therefore expensive.
Animation writers should be aware of the opportunities, not just for unusual and impossible POV shots, but for camera movements that make use of unusual points of view. It is also important for writers to be aware of the limitations of the medium. In 2D, drawn animation, tracking shots, i.e. where the camera pushes in towards an object in the frame, often require complicated movement of drawings on different levels, and also skills in perspective. They are quite possible, but not as common as panning shots, because they demand more skill. Stop motion animation can be very restrictive, because you invariably have a limited number of characters and sets. The camera is usually fixed, though you can pull focus. Camera movement requires an expensive motion control rig. Computer generated animation offers the most potential; almost any movement is possible. Many of the spectacular camerawork in live action is achieved with different forms of animation. Early CG shows often suffer from an excessive movement of the camera, as animators were finally liberated from the confines of 2D and stop-motion. Of course, nowadays, elements of CG are used even in shows that are predominantly 2D or stop-motion, to allow for more flexibility.
When I talk to students, I ask them to come up with points of view that are either extremely difficult or impossible. Then I ask them to come up with an impossible camera movement. The most popular are those that involve shots or movements inside a human or animal body, but others include movements that travel through solid objects – walls, buildings, etc. You should obviously not come up with extravagant shots and camera movements unless there is a real reason for them. You are the writer, not the cinematographer. I shall talk later about manipulating the viewer’s emotions and perceptions. Obviously POV shots and camera movements are part of this.