Shutter angle is an important story-telling tool. As a Director of Photography, I love this technique and wanted to show you how I have used it to assist in the character’s emotional arc.
“Using this Technique to Assist the Story”
Shutter angle in film and shutter speed in digital can be very powerful tools to assist in putting the viewer in a unique scene, creating visual tension, and creating an immersive feeling. This technique has been used for decades, but when Spielberg and Kaminsky did it in Saving Private Ryan, the world was introduced to its majesty. It really brought the technique to the forefront and after this, many filmmakers started using it just because they could.
I always begin by thinking about the following questions: What is the character feeling? What are his or her emotions? What is his or her journey? With this knowledge, you can never go wrong. You might think that I am beating a dead horse with repetition. However, the look, feel, tone, and techniques used in your creation need to be all based on EMOTION.
“A Special Package”
When I was sent the script for Drumline, I was busy directing a commercial in Kansas City for Children’s Hospital. This hospital is very dear to my heart and I feel that any marketing about this wonderful institution is a good one. It was a very grueling shoot, 14-16 hour days, in and out of OR rooms, MRI bays, and patients’ rooms. You name it, we went in it and shot it.
I returned to the Westin Hotel and my phone rang. It was Tim Bourne, the producer of Drumline. He wanted to know if I had a chance to read the script he sent. I said that I was shooting and exhausted, and I think I also said, “I don’t think I am really into doing a ‘Saints Go Marching In’ band movie. Never was into that scene in high school.” Tim immediately asked where I was staying. He said, “You will be getting a package tomorrow and then call me.” I thought, “Who is this guy?”
When I returned to my hotel room the next evening after another 14-hour day, there was an AV cart in my room. Yes, this is back in the day when hotels rolled around a cart with a TV and a VCR on it. I am dating myself! On top of the VCR was a tape that just read “THE SENATE.” I turned on the TV and slid in the tape.
When the first image came on the screen, it was a group of men and three women standing in formation. No sound, but they had drums strapped to them. All of a sudden, they started playing. Tim was one sneaky guy because I know he called ahead and told them to turn the volume up.
This sound blew me back. The drumline exploded with passion and precision; the sound was deafening. I watched them not just stand in position, but ebb and flow with a serious intensity, performing stick tricks that I never knew were possible. Needless to say, I was running for the phone!
Smash cut to two weeks later. I landed in Atlanta and met the director Charles Stone. I watched his first film, Paid in Full, on the flight and did not know what to expect. This was my fourth film. I was still a newbie.
I was immediately immersed in a location scout of all the college campuses where we might possibly film. They were inner city, without much greenery. The stadiums were nothing like USC, where the Saints did come marching in. After I took it all in, Charles and I got down to business in creating the look, the mood, and how he wanted the film to feel.
His first direction was “I want this to have the feeling of the military with precision and excellence. I was all over that. These bands grow to 300 deep, all in sync, all in straight lines, and exacting in nature to the utmost degree.”
“The Third Read”
On the third read, I started to dig into the emotional arc of Devon, the main character. He was raised by a great single mom. His Dad had left when times got tough, but his Mom stuck with him and wanted to see him succeed. He had a chip on his shoulder, coming from NYC without a supportive Dad and all of a sudden showing up at a Southern college to play drums. He had a major attitude right off the bat. Luckily, Devon also had a God-given talent to play the drums in ways that no one had experienced before. His drumming style was truly unique.
Ok, how do we take drumming and make it exciting, immersive, and fun to watch, so that an audience wants to invest time in it?
“Do Your Research”
I bet you are thinking, “When is he going to get to the shutter speed/angle stuff?” Ha ha. In due time. Remember, storytelling through words is training you to be a great visual storyteller.
I did not stop watching southern “Show Style” marching band footage since I signed on the dotted line – not only the way they moved but also the way they used the drums and performed stick tricks. I wanted to take this to the next level, not just for the technique of it all, but to get to the core of what Charles Stone had first said to me. MILITARY was my mantra.
What I noticed from all of the footage on television was that no one really told the story from the inside out. So this would be the idea – every game that the drumline performed would be visually different, not just because we could, but because Devon, Nick Canon’s character, was emotionally going through different moods. You just don’t show up on that field at halftime pounding away without practice, practice, practice, for a month prior to school even starting. Dedication and excellence are expected.
Devon came in from NYC with his swagger and sense of entitlement. He was planning to just glide through this, or so he thought. Dr. Lee, the bandleader played by Orlando Jones, quickly singled him out as a problem child, talented, but a problem. He said, “You have to follow before you can lead.”
After two weeks of wearing white t-shirts that signified you were a CRAB, the lowest of low on the drumming totem pole, they had graduated to Crab drummers. We wanted to show that all of their mistakes made over the two weeks were now broken down into a single shot of drumming excellence with military precision. To do this, I employed a device that not many people use, and it is so cool. Cliff hanger!
“Let’s Get Technical”
What is shutter speed? Imagine a pie, and that pie has 24 pieces. If the film plane or digital sensor in your camera were to always see the lens, this would be shutterless. Nothing is obstructing its view with a 360-degree shutter. To the best of my knowledge, this can only be done on digital cameras, unless you pull the shutter physically out of a film camera.
At 360 degrees, you will have a lot of motion blur in your action because as an actor moves his arm or his drumstick you are seeing it on all 24 pieces of the pie.
If you were to use a 180-degree shutter, which has become the industry standard at 24 fps, you would see motion blur that we have all become accustomed to in the theater. At 180 degrees, the film plane or digital sensor at 1/50 or more exacting 1/48 sec of a second would be seeing the drumstick on 12 out of the 24 pieces.
DSLRs do not line up exactly as a film camera, but the shutter speed is somewhat close. The Alexa, Epic and Sony arsenal of cameras sync with the film degrees. Canon C300s and 500s have unique shutter speed options.
If you now narrow that angle, then the camera is seeing the arm and the drumstick less. Let’s get back to the pie reference. If at a 90-degree shutter or a 1/100 of a sec, you would see the drumstick on only six pieces out of 24 pieces of pie. Your motion blur is going away and it sharpens the image. A 45-degree shutter or a 1/200 sec would see the drumstick on only three pieces. A 22-degree shutter, 1/400 sec would see the drumstick on 1.5 pieces of pie, and at an 11-degree shutter, 1/800 sec, you would see the drumstick on 3/4 of a piece of pie. I hope this makes sense.
You are making your view of the lens less frequent, so motion blur is absolutely eliminated. This is why, in still photography, you can suspend a moment. Sports photography uses it a lot, using a 1/4000 of a second to suspend that football player or the ball off of a bat in mid-air. By doing this, you can quickly start to realize that if the film plane is seeing the lens less, then this will require much more light to expose your digital sensor or film negative.
“Telling the Emotional Journey of the Crab Drummers”
Back to the Crab drummers. Charles and I wanted to show their amazing transformation in one shot, a bridge per se. So we strapped the Panavision camera to the dolly and used this amazing device that I have not seen used very much. You can start your camera at a 180-degree shutter.
Then at whatever time you want, slide the shutter to any angle you would like. In our case, it was a 22-degree and the exposure is compensated in camera with the same device so that it looks seamless. The effect is so cool and I thought this would really show the Crabs becoming Crab drummers, which is the story we needed to tell.
The next story to tell was that Devon could not read music. This was a very important point in the story. To be at this school, it was a requirement. He had deceived everyone up to this point. Charles and I pondered how we could show this amazing talent that Devon had.
By just hearing it and watching it, he could play it. He had a photographic memory. There have been many musicians who were self-taught and could not read music, but if he didn’t learn, he could not be in the band. The band was 150 deep. One band, one sound, no individuals. If he could not read, how did he know when the band would move, twist, jump, kneel, etc.?
We used another cool device here. I wanted to show how Devon’s mind took the art of drumming and slowed it down so that every nuance and every stick placement was recognized and remembered. We strapped this device that started at 45 degrees of a shutter so that you got that staccato effect with hardly any motion blur and then slowly went into slow motion at 120fps.
The shutter of the camera now compensates instead of the f-stop and you see in the shot it goes from staccato to beautiful slow motion. We slowly pushed in on Devon’s face and his eyes at 120 fps. Then we came back down from slow-mo to 24fps the same way we went into to it and back at a 45-degree shutter.
“Using the Skinny Shutter to Show Who is Best”
Devon’s and the A & T nemesis was Morris Brown University. They had beaten A & T every year in competition. So to be able to tell this story, we shot all of the Morris Brown band members playing at a 45-degree shutter and the A & T band at a 180-degree shutter.
The reason for this was that both Charles and I felt it would show that military precision that we have been talking about, not only in their drumming but also in the whole band, their dancers, etc. Tight, exacting, perfect. A & T was not there yet. Dr. Lee was not bringing the most current music into his program as he was stuck in the classics, and he was battling benching his best drummer because he could not read music.
“Coming Full Circle”
The electronic shutters on the digital cameras just don’t do this effect justice. Even with global and mechanical shutter technology, it feels forced as though video is affected. It does not feel organic, which film does in spades. Every time we want to throw film under the bus, it comes back swinging and takes the round.
How have you used shutter speed to assist your story?