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How Lenses Assist Storytelling: Part Two

Mr. 3000 Focal Length Choices

Keeping on track to deliver what all of you have requested on the HurlBlog survey, we are continuing our look into how lenses can help tell your story. Part One went into the internal characteristics of the glass itself. Now I want to demonstrate how using different focal lengths can help assist character development in new ways. I am going to take you through how these choices help create a character arc. Yes, it is not only the writing, story and acting that will take you there. It is the cinematographer’s job to assist in this process.
 

Composition and Lens Choice

A favorite film of mine that I have only discussed in a camera motion post is Mr. 3000. When I first spoke with Director Charles Stone III about how we were going to tackle this film, we both discussed the vision of THE SHOW. This is an aspiration of every baseball player – to be in THE SHOW. Stan Ross was in the show with 3000 hits and was on his way to the Hall of Fame, only to have it ripped out from underneath him by having three hits taken away. Now he is coming back out of retirement to reclaim those three hits.
 

Lens Height Matters

How do we take an audience through the use of composition and lens choice to help assist a character’s arc? Charles and I wanted the audience to feel that when Stan Ross walked up to the plate for the first time that it was a no brainer. He was BACK. He was a great player and ready to reclaim those three hits. So we used wide lenses to make Stan seem larger than life, back on the stage, back in the spotlight, back in THE SHOW. We also chose a slightly lower angle on the camera so that he seemed big, a hero. This is a very small adjustment that you can do to make your characters have power. Just lowering that camera under their eye line is huge in a close up and then even lower in wider shots to give your character that hero status.
 

Mr 3000

Mr 3000

Mr 3000

 
You can also do the opposite by raising the camera over their eye line and looking down on them to make your character less powerful. Again, these are very subtle increases or decreases in the height of the lens. You will find what’s right once you start experimenting with this technique.
 

Mr 3000

Mr 3000

Mr 3000

Mr 3000

 
You are not just slapping on a lens and shooting your story. There are conscious choices that you can make as a filmmaker that will help take your audience on the intended journey that YOU want them to go on. In my opinion, zoom lenses make it easier to be a lazy filmmaker. Use primes to educate yourself about particular choices.
 

Focal Length and Depth of Field

Now Stan is up at the plate for his first at bat. He is in the spotlight, right where he feels most comfortable. He readies himself. We are low, but not super low.
 

Stan at bat

Stan at bat

 
Here is the first pitch, and BAM!!!! The smack of the glove, sound drops out, just Stan talking to himself. Look what we have done with lens choice. We went from a wide low angle at bat with the background slightly out of focus, to a complete voyeuristic view with a 600mm long lens and the background completely out of focus.
 

Long lens frontal on Stan

Long lens frontal on Stan

Mr 3000

 
Charles Stone and I wanted this to feel like tunnel vision for Stan Ross. He is talking to himself, trying to find his legs again at the plate, but he is unsuccessful. Notice how we set the pitcher’s angles up in the beginning. Not tipping the audience off, we are normal height on the lens until he throws the first pitch. As the camera goes into tunnel vision on Stan Ross, the pitcher’s angle goes low and heroic. Now he has the upper hand, the power angle, the wide lens.
 

Pitcher’s angle at beginning

Pitcher’s angle at beginning

Heroic angle on pitcher

Heroic angle on pitcher


 

“The Character Arc of Stan Ross’s

Journey of Sacrifice”

While watching this film, you will quickly see Bernie Mac‘s character Stan Ross is out for one thing and one thing only, himself! In a short amount of time, he is torn down with every at bat. The next game is one that I loved shooting because we used super slow motion and the art of surreal to achieve the final product.

Now this tunnel vision that I talked about with the use of long lenses and incredibly shallow depth of field is taken a step further. We used a high-speed camera to shoot 1000 fps. This was shot on film, not in the world of digital. When that camera fired up, it was like a jet engine spooling up to speed. A thousand feet of film in 20 seconds flies through this Photo-Sonic camera.

We set our lens at a 2.0 on a 100mm Primo Prime lens. The ball is thrown 90mph and quickly goes out of focus, which was what we wanted to show — that Stan was having trouble seeing these pitches. He is not on his game. He talks the big talk, but he is way out of his league in terms of delivering the hits.
 

Ball out of focus

Ball out of focus

 
Then we cut to Stan. I did a little trick here because I wanted to create a little nervous nature to Stan. He just got blasted on Sports Center. He is a laughing stock. He needs this hit; he needs to deliver. So I used a 22 degree shutter angle to create a staccato effect. It made him edgy, hyper sharp with his emotions, no motion blur at all.
 

Ball coming into focus

Ball coming into focus

 
The ball, again traveling at super slow mo, starts to come into focus, but not all the way.
 

Stan has found his vision

Stan has found his vision

 
Now we are even closer on the ball. It comes into focus. It looks like Stan has found his vision; he is going to get his first hit, and then it all falls apart.
 

Ball coming into focus

Ball coming into focus

 
He swings three quick swings on a ball that is literally suspended in air. Then to put the nail in his character arc coffin, we finish the sequence looking down on him from high above, to belittle our character, to make him small and feeling like a failure. This was all achieved with lens placement and focal length — the power of lens choice.
 

High angle shot on Stan

High angle shot on Stan


 
Stay tuned next week for Part 3: Tricking an audience with camera lens technique that had already been set up prior in the film. We will continue Stan Ross’s character arc, to see how he got out of the trenches to reclaim his hits.

Read part one.
Read part three.

Author: Shane

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20 Comments

  1. Awesome write up. …so much clarity on characterisation which is the soul of the script and film. …thanks Hurlburt

    Post a Reply
    • Brinda Das, thank you for the kind words of support. You are welcome DAS.

      Post a Reply
  2. Amazing work here. Love how you make everything relate to the character and story. The most subtle and simple things becomes extraordinary because they’re used at the right time. Brilliant post. Thanks a ton.

    Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne, thank you for those wonderful words. It is so important. Be obsessed with the subtle details is everything

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  3. Sometimes when I read your blog I think for myself “yeah, very interesting”, … but sometimes you just blow my mind

    I can’t couch in terms how you changend my vision of cinematography

    Thank you!!

    Post a Reply
    • Lukas Swatek, yeah baby!!! I like those comments. This is why I put so much into it, this comment. Thank you for continuing to inspire me.

      Post a Reply
  4. Thanks for this amazing info! I greatly appreciate your desire to help the film community. Your work really goes a long way in helping so many of us :)

    Post a Reply
    • omar, you are so very welcome and I will continue to be there. Thanks for the kind words

      Post a Reply
  5. Nicely written and explained. This reminded me of “West Side Story” from the year 1961, where two gangs are filmed with this concept. One is shown below the eyeline and the other is filmed at the eyeline or above.

    Look forward to part 3.

    Cheers,
    Sabyasachi

    Post a Reply
    • Sabyasachi Patra, so glad you liked it. Working on Part 3, will be out in a bit. Got to get my inspiration going.

      Post a Reply
  6. Shane, it was great to meet you and talk camera technology and lighting with you the last couple of days. Also thanks again for signing my DVD.

    John

    Post a Reply
    • john stewart, I really enjoyed it was well. You are very welcome and thank you for all of your support

      Post a Reply
  7. Great explanation ! it’s always so interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience !

    Post a Reply
    • Eddy Woj, you are very welcome thank you for your support

      Post a Reply
  8. Shane. This. Is. Awesome.
    It’s one thing to get used to the idea of shooting on a Phantom for super high-speed slomo shots. It’s another to do it on CELLULOID.

    Can I ask, just how fast did you burn through a full roll with a shot like that exactly? I just gotta’ know.

    Sick article!

    Post a Reply
    • Kahleem Poole-Tejada, I am so glad you liked this baby!!! I think I mentioned it in the post 1000′ of film in 20 seconds. Yeah baby!!!!

      Post a Reply
  9. sir , i have been studying film as much as i can from the internet ..couldn’t afford the film school luxury, i have read thousands of time how wide = foreground object bigger , lower angle gives power and vice-versa. But i needed to see it in practice to have a better understanding .. but i couldn’t find one. This is first time i ever got to see a holly wood cinematographer actually show how that is actually done in practical .. one of the most helpful film making knowledge. And please could you post on how to shoot an emotionally charged talk .. thank you ..

    Post a Reply
    • Atiq GRDE, I am so glad that it finally clicked for you. All my life it has been a light switch being thrown and then all of a sudden I get it. Light was that way with me. Thanks for the support and kind words.

      Post a Reply

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  4. Shane Hurlbut on How Lenses Assist Storytelling: Part Two and Three | FilmmakerIQ.com - [...] A favorite film of mine that I have only discussed in a camera motion post is Mr. 3000. When I …
  5. How Lenses Assist Storytelling: Part Two | Glasses - [...] Now this tunnel vision that I talked about with the use of long lenses and incredibly shallow depth of …
  6. How Lenses Assist Storytelling | Image Ikon - […] Shane Hurlbut, in his Cinematography blog, demonstrates how using different focal lengths can help assist character development.  Read more …

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