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Arts & Entertainment

Spike Lee Shares 4 Essential Cinematography Techniques

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 25, 2020 • 6 min read

Film is visual storytelling. According to world-class filmmaker Spike Lee, telling a story isn’t just about recording the action, but how the images are captured. Whether you’re a first-time filmmaker or a film-industry expert, Spike’s cinematography tips will help you better understand how to use the camera to tell your story.

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Spike Lee Teaches Independent FilmmakingSpike Lee Teaches Independent Filmmaking

Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee teaches his approach to directing, writing, and producing.

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A Brief Introduction to Spike Lee

Spike Lee first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white. Over his long and varied career, Spike has often drawn from the well of his own life, which encompass everything from historically Black colleges and universities, colorism in the Black community, culture clashes in Brooklyn, love and jazz, interracial relationships, and addiction. Spike Lee continues to make movies—and make moves: In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Malcolm X for preservation in the National Film Registry and his most recent film is 2020’s Da 5 Bloods.

Spike Lee’s Tips for Telling a Story That Resonates

Spike Lee’s 4 Tips for Using the Camera to Tell Your Story

Spike Lee is known to try different cinematography techniques in his work, giving his films a lively, organic feeling, and cinematic look. If you’re looking to spice up your filmmaking, try thinking like a cinematographer, employing the camera to reinforce your storytelling. Here are some of Spike’s tips for employing interesting camera work to elevate your story:

  1. Play with camera angles. “The simplest way I know of to show a contrast between characters with cinematography is just placement of the camera,” Spike explains. “If you want to show that someone might not be strong, and a little weak, you shoot them from above. If you want to show someone is powerful and controlling, you shoot them from below.” In addition to high-angle shots and low-angle shots, Spike uses different camera angles in his films to suggest tension—for instance, a particular scene in Do the Right Thing, when Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, and Smiley walk into a diner to confront Sal, the tension is palpable because of the tilted camera angle. “Not a Dutch angle, not a Chinese angle, a tilted angle,” Spike says. “When you see this [angle]—uh oh.” Spike uses the tilted camera angle to clue the audience into the impending conflict.
  2. Don’t be afraid to move the camera. “There’s a dynamic you get with the movement of the camera,” Spike explains. Camera movement can communicate power, tension, or rising action. Spike says he tried to avoid static shots when shooting Do the Right Thing because the film is about movement. “We want people movement into the frame, away from frame, side-to-side,” he says. As an example of camera movement, Spike explains a particular scene in Do the Right Thing in which for several back-to-back shots, the camera goes in (either on a dolly or handheld) on single characters talking—but when it cuts to Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the camera is static while Jackson is the one zooming up to the lens. It calls attention to the moment and gives it a greater impact.
  3. Use one-take scenes for visual interest. Many filmmakers, when they shoot a conversation between two groups of people, will film the two sides separately in close-up and then simply cut between the two shots to splice together the scene. When filming a scene for Mo’ Better Blues, Spike wanted to avoid that, instead opting to shoot the entire scene in one take with a single camera volleying the point of view between the two groups. “It’s more fun and it’s more organic,” Spike says. “Stuff like that is choreography between the actors and the camera.”This shooting technique can be especially useful for indie filmmakers who may only have access to one camera. If you want to shoot a shot like this one, Spike’s advice is simple: “You just gotta keep working at it until you get it right.”
  4. Use the camera to talk to the audience. Spike often employs characters that talk directly to the camera in his films. “The camera is the audience,” Spike says. When characters talk to the camera, “everybody is addressing the audience.” In another of Spike’s films, 25th Hour, Edward Norton’s character talks to himself in the mirror—but when the camera faces him, the actor appears to be speaking directly to the audience. This makes the scene feel much more intimate for the audience. “You can’t do that the whole film,” Spike warns, “so you have to be very judicious of where you do that.”
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15 Camera Shots That Help Tell a Story

There are a lot of things you can do to develop your filmmaking techniques, but the first step for any aspiring director of photography is to become familiar with a wide variety of shot types. Here are some of the most common shots in Hollywood:

  1. Close-up shot/medium close-up: Close-up shots are filmed in a way that frames the subject tightly, filling the screen with a particular aspect or detail such as a face or a hand.
  2. Extreme close-up: An extreme close-up shot is a more intense version of a close-up, usually showing only the eyes or another part of the face.
  3. Medium shot: Somewhere between a close-up and a wide shot, the medium shot is filmed from a vantage point that shows a subject from the waist up, while also revealing some of the surrounding environment.
  4. Wide shot: A wide shot, also called a long shot, is filmed from a distant vantage point in a way that emphasizes place and location, setting the subject of the scene in context.
  5. Extreme wide shot: An extreme wide shot, also called an extreme long shot, is filmed from an extreme distant vantage point. That extreme distance is intended to make the subject look small or insignificant within their location.
  6. Establishing shot: The establishing shot appears at the start of a scene to let the audience know where they are. It sets the stage for what’s to come in the scene.
  7. Over-the-shoulder shot: Another way to capture two subjects in the same frame is with an over-the-shoulder shot, when the camera is positioned behind the shoulder of one subject (with the other subject visible on screen).
  8. Point-of-view shot/POV shot: A point of view shot shows the action through the eyes of a specific character. Essentially, it lets the audience become that character.
  9. Dutch Angle: A shot where the camera is tilted to one side. Also called a canted angle, a dutch angle is meant to disorient the audience or convey chaos.
  10. Dolly shot: A shot where the camera is moved along a dolly track, often in sync with, moving toward, or moving away from the subject as they move.
  11. Dolly zoom: While the camera moves on a dolly toward or away from a subject, the zoom lens is pulled in the opposite direction to give the illusion of zooming in while the subject stays the same size (also called a “vertigo shot”). Learn more about Spike Lee’s Double Dolly Shot in our guide here.
  12. Tracking shot: A shot where the camera moves along with the character it’s filming.
  13. Panning shot: In a panning shot, the camera moves on a fixed, swiveling head.
  14. Crane shot: This shot is taken on a moving crane, often to mimic sweeping over or around the subject.
  15. Aerial shot: An aerial shot is shot from even higher than a bird’s eye view shot, usually from a helicopter or drone. It shows miles of scenery or cityscape from above, and while the subject may not be not visible, it communicates to the audience that they’re somewhere within that world.

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