Today I’m running down the five simplest yet most effective camera tricks I’ve used in my films. These are all techniques that have been used on the biggest Hollywood productions as well.
1. Looming Hollywood Sign (The Beacon)
In amongst all the terrible CGI, The Beacon did feature the odd moment of low-tech triumph. As a damaged helicopter dives towards the Hollywood hills, the famous sign is reflected in the sunglasses of the injured pilot, played by my friend and fellow filmmaker Rick Goldsmith. The letters were actually 2″ high cardboard cut-outs stuck to a black piece of card, and Rick himself is holding it at arm’s length and moving it slowly towards his face.
This is a type of forced perspective shot, which I covered in my previous post. Die Hard 2’s airport control tower set was surrounded by a forced perspective miniature of the runways, complete with model planes, and more recently Duncan Jones and his team used the technique to create an endless corridor of clone drawers in Moon.
2. Rain Fight Close-ups (Soul Searcher)
While most of this fight sequence was shot under the downpour created by an industrial hosepipe fired into the air, this wasn’t available when extra close-ups were required later. Instead a watering can was used.
It’s not uncommon for close-ups in a scene to be achieved much more simply than their corresponding wide shots. NASA allowed Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to be filmed in their training tank for Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but CUs of the other actors had to be shot dry-for-wet with a fishtank in front of the lens and someone blowing bubbles through it.
3. The Wooden Swordsman Catches His Sword (The Dark Side of the Earth)
Getting the puppet to genuinely catch his sword was likely to require a prohibitive number of takes. (We were shooting on 35mm short ends.) So instead we ran the action in reverse, ending with with the sword being pulled up out of the puppet’s hand. When the film is run backwards, he appears to be catching it.
Backwards shots have been used throughout the history of cinema for all kinds of reasons. Examples can be seen in the Face Hugger sequence in Aliens (the creature’s leaps are actually falls in reverse) and in John Carpenter’s The Thing (tentacles grabbing their victims). At the climax of Back to the Future Part III, the insurers refused to allow Michael J. Fox to sit in the DeLorean while it was pushed by the train, in case it crushed him, so instead the train pulled the car backwards and the film was reversed.
4. Distortion of Tape and Time (Stop/Eject)
At a crucial point in this fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time, I needed to show the tape getting worn out and images of the past distorting. I combined two techniques to create a distorted image of Dan (Oliver Park) without any manipulation in post. One was lens whacking, whereby the lens is detached from the camera and held in front of it, moving it around slightly to distort the focal plane. (See this episode of Indy Mogul and this article by Philip Bloom for more on lens whacking.) The other was to shake the camera (and lens) rapidly, to deliberately enhance the rolling shutter “jello” effect which DSLRs suffer from.
Flaws in camera technology can often lead to interesting effects if used appropriately. Let’s not forget that lens flares, which many filmmakers love the look of, are actually side-effects of the optics which lens manufacturers have worked for decades to try to reduce or eliminate. And in the early days of Doctor Who, the crew realised that greatly over-exposing their Marconi TV cameras caused the image to become a negative, and they put this effect to use on the victims of Dalek extermination.
5. Sunset (The One That Got Away)
A painted sunset would have been in keeping with the style of this puppet fairy tale, but it was quicker and more effective to peek an ordinary 100W tungsten bulb above the background waves. Click here for a complete breakdown of the lighting in The One That Got Away.
Using an artificial light to represent the sun is extremely common in cinematography, but showing that lamp in shot is less common. For another example, see the opening Arctic sequence of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a large HMI stands in for a low sun at the back of the mist-shrouded set.
Click here for my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood blockbusters.