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Top Ten Online Filmmaking Techniques

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The Internet has inarguably changed how we consume motion pictures, and has offered a new distribution medium to filmmakers. But when it comes to aesthetics, the process and techniques used to create content hasn’t fundamentally changed since even Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion tests. Even if done unconsciously, certain stylistic elements serve as easily recognizable hallmarks of online video.

At our Pier Screenings this week, Greg Goodfried touched on the “amateur style” that his team used, and continues to use despite its “higher production value” for Lonelygirl15. The amateur aesthetic is something advertising agencies, such as Pier Screenings winner KFC, are also exploiting.

On the other hand, our publisher’s GigaOM show for Revision3 was criticised for being too much like the slickly produced fare on television. On the one hand professionals are using techniques to look more amateur, and on the other, a team without much history in front of the camera is using different techniques to look more polished.

So what are these hallmarks of amateur web video, and how have they been used by filmmakers in the past? If anything, this list will help you sound much more professional, or at least pretentious, when describing what you make or watch online.

  1. Direct Address: This is ubiquitous among “vloggers.” All direct address means is speaking directly to the camera in order to address your audience. It’s also a hallmark of reality shows on television, starting with the Real World’s “confessional” booth. John Hughes used it famously in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Director Errol Morris has created a signature personal style by creating a way for him to interview subjects while they directly address the camera — previous documentary talking heads generally looked off-camera at an interviewer seated nearby.
  2. Verité: French for “true,” verite describes filming something in the moment, usually with a handheld camera and natural lighting. Director John Cassavetes was a pioneer in applying this documentary style to narrative storytelling, and every mockumentary ever has staged “moments” very intentionally to then record them as though the camera just happened to be rolling.
  3. Natural Lighting: Most amateur web video, on the other hand, only uses available, natural light — the sun for exteriors, low-wattage household fixtures for interiors (or even just the glare of a computer screen). Which means that most amateur web video would conform to the standards set by the Dogme 95 manifesto from Danish filmmakers like Lars von Trier: to only use digital cameras and natural light.
  4. Jump Cuts: Jump cuts are edits made in a continuous scene or footage, without a transition, that give the impression of “jumping” forward in time. Ze Frank regularly used jump cuts during his shows to edit out slow moments (like blinks) and compress the time frame, giving him a manic pacing. Jean Luc Godard, a French New Wave director, similarly used jump cuts to great effect in his classic neo-noir Breathless.
  5. Long Shots: Practically the opposite of the jump cut, and maybe more prevalent in web video, is a long shot — a continuous scene with no edits at all. Renetto, for instance, can often go ten minutes without any edits or even changes to camera angle. Long shots with a fixed camera like that aren’t employed very often traditionally, except in maybe experimental art work like that by Bruce Naumann and Andy Warhol. But incredibly complex long shots — like the opening of Wells’ Touch of Evil, the nightclub entrance scene in Scorcese’s Goodfellas (shot with a Steadicam), and the car chase in Cuaron’s Children of Men are some of the greatest moments in the cinema arts.
  6. Improvisation: What’s ironic to me is that the cheapest part of film making, writing a script, is the one least employed by amateurs. Between verite depicting unscripted moments, long-shot confessionals meant to express the energy and spontaneity of the vlogger and jump cuts allowing people to film first and edit out the dead parts later, improvisation is the rule and scripts the exception.
  7. Close-ups: In film and television, a set-up shot — such as an exterior of a building or a distant look at a landscape — is used to introduce the audience to the scene by placing it in visual context. Partly because of the small viewing size, videos shot for the web often eschew this formality and go straight to close-ups. In fact, even full shots and medium shots (where the subject is visible from head to toe, or from chest up, respectively) are fairly rare. Online, the close-up is king.
  8. Mise-en-scene: This is a fancy French term for what’s in front of the camera. This includes the staging, makeup, costume, position of the actors and the like. Mark Day‘s signature mise en scene is simply himself in front of a yellow wall. Shows like Galacticast use green screen and compositing to make mise en scene almost a moot point, as they can edit in any background they want. In movies, this used to be accomplised with rear projection and matte paintings — now, movies like 300 are shot entirely on green screen sets as well.
  9. Fixed Camera: The first films shot by the Lumiere Brothers were simply a single camera fixed on a tripod shooting a single set and scene with no editing. Web cams also lend themselves to this style — hence, the Lumiere Challenge project where people tag their video posts shot under the same restrictions the Lumiere brothers were subject to.
  10. Animation: While Flash video has helped to create the current boom in online video, Flash’s animation capabilities have been exploited by for much longer — meaning animation is a much more mature medium online. From the gorgeous 3D animated Afterworld, 2D shorts from JibJab and Homestar Runner, to machinima like Red vs. Blue, some of the best content online didn’t involve a camera at all.

As Slate magazine pointed out, sthe prevalence of particular genres and narrative formats are determined by technological constraints, such as YouTube’s ten-minute maximum. Similarly, the fixed camera, direct address, close-up long shot so prevalent comes directly from cheap and available web cameras.

Thankfully, there’s no hard and fast rules. So get creative — what ultimately separates amateurs from professionals is that professionals are conscious of what techniques they’re using, and their aesthetic decisions are intentional.

19 Responses to “Top Ten Online Filmmaking Techniques”

  1. This is an excellent article about video techniques. Another informational article that might be of interest is: DotTV Golden Age and Global Recession. It discusses how Internet Television and Videos are thriving while the rest of the world’s industries are fledgling. Unity 4 Humanity is the first corporation to and actively create, pioneer, and define the DotTV industry. If you like watching television and video, or you want to begin your own .tv domain broadcasting channel, check out their web presence of sites like DotTVonDemand.

  2. Very interesting article on the techniques it takes to make a top video. I find it really interesting that amateur videos are seeing the upper ranks on youtube even after it’s commercialization.

  3. Good, point, Mark. I’d also though of getting into the question of “implied narrator” in the context of POV, which I think of analagous in some ways to “camera as character,” but that’s maybe for another, even more pretentious, post.

  4. “Mise-en-scene”?

    Please don’t be giving my yellow wall any further ideas above its station, as our creative relationship is, at best strained, requiring as it does, separate dressing rooms, limos, creative tantrums and many long, intoxicated arguments about politics, the notion of celebrity and the structural consequence of it taking time out for “some sort of solo album”. Then there were some harsh words about “seeing other walls” that, once said couldn’t be taken back. We’re seeing the guy who counseled Metallica in ‘Some Kind of Monster’ next week…

    Other than that, cheers for the plug!

  5. Great list! I think something to add might be ‘the camera as character’. As it becomes more ever-present, people become more aware that it’s there. And what of crossing-vlog-paths kind of videos. “I’m filming you, filming me!”