Even if you're not into watching big budget superhero flicks, you might want to be into learning about the craft of cinematography from them.
Although these Hollywood tentpoles oftentimes rely on formulaic plots, they do tend to take cinematography to new and interesting places—or at least have the Classic Hollywood Style down—and this gives students of film a pretty good starting place for learning how to shoot and block their own films.
Check out these videos from Darious Britt, in which he breaks down the cinematography and blocking in Iron Man. (Keep scrolling for more.)
If you don't have time to watch Part 1 and Part 2 of Britt's breakdown, here are a few of the techniques and concepts he highlighted:
Setting Up Your Story
Revealing a character
You're going to want to put some careful thought into how you're going to introduce your audience to your main character, especially if they're as epic a character as Tony Stark. In Iron Man, anticipation is heightened when the camera refuses to reveal who it is these soldiers are gawking at. It even teases the audience by giving a glimpse of only the subject's hand holding a glass of whiskey. Who is this guy!?
The grander the character reveal, the more your audience will be intrigued by the revealed character.
Revealing a scene
Sure, I guess you could just slap an establishing shot at the beginning of a scene, but—that's kind of boring. If you want to add a little flare, you can find ways to creatively reveal your scene. Iron Man uses the same technique over and over again in scene openings: a close-up of an object being used, then pulling back to reveal the entire scene. There are countless examples from films other than Iron Man, too, that use cinematography and blocking in an interesting way to open a scene:
The one-take POV shot:
Close-up/pull out of a character:
Long take/tracking shot:
Flying Jesus over Rome:
When and How to Break Rules
Though some don't like to admit it, there are quite a few rules in filmmaking, and one of them has to do with how to cut to the same subject without it feeling like a jump cut. This concept is called the 30-degree rule, which states that if you're going to cut to shots of the same subject, your camera must move at least 30-degrees. (Breaking this rule results in a jump cut.) This is why cuts in the award ceremony scene with Colonel Rhodes aren't jarring.
Knowing how to follow this rule will help with scenes that 1.) have long monologues, and 2.) using cutaways wouldn't work.
Most of you are probably familiar with this rule and have a pretty good idea of how to avoid breaking it. But, what if you want to break it? How do you do it, and when? How: This depends on how you've blocked your scene and what's going on it in, but suffice it to say that you have to take certain technical steps in order to pull it off. In Her, DP Hoyte van Hoytema did it with cinematography—getting a shot from one side of line of action, then one along the line action, and then crosses over to the other side. In Iron Man, DP Matthew Libatique does it with blocking—having Obadiah walk to the other side of Tony, and then gets a two-shot of them talking from the opposite side of the line of action. When: If there's a change in emotion, power, or subject matter, that's a good time to break this rule.
The power of a pause on action
The direction in which your characters are moving is important, and in most cases, you'll want them to be walking in the same direction between shots. However in Iron Man, they break this convention in the scene of Tony leaving the Caesar's Palace. In the first shot, he's walking from screen left to screen right, but in the very next shot, he's walking from screen right to screen left. This would usually be a big continuity error, but why does it work? According to Britt, it's because there was a pause on the action at the end of the first shot.
Imagine these two shots as two separate sentences. That pause acts as a period between the two, which indicates to the reader (viewer) that the current sentence is ending and new one is about to come.
The camera lens is often described as an eye; it shows the audience a certain point of view—but whose is it? Well, if your shots reflect the emotional/physical/mental responses of your character, you've got a character-motivated shot. But this doesn't mean a bunch of POV shots of what your character sees, although that's a possibility, it means—POV shots of what your character feels. Or in the case of the scene from Iron Man in which Tony is captured by terrorists, the dolly out from a close-up represents kind of an "out of body POV" or "reverse POV", and works to represent and communicate Tony's own awareness of his surroundings.
Killing two birds with one stone
Sometimes when deciding on how to block a scene, it's all about economy; you want to get as much of the action, dialog, and information across in as few shots as possible. To do this, you have to remember the resources that you always have at your disposal: the foreground and background. Iron Man takes advantage of the foreground and background of countless shots with clever use of blocking, which allows for the scene to unfold in longer takes—which is definitely welcome in a superhero film—because while, say, Tony is working on a project in the foreground, Pepper can be in the back looking over a stack of documents. Two actions occurring simultaneously, and there's no need to cut between the two of them.
Change topics, change backgrounds
This technique is an interesting one, and one that probably flies under the radar. If you want to give your viewers an idea of what your characters' environment is like while relaying important narrative information, try changing the background every time the subject your characters are talking about changes. This requires very precise blocking and camera movement, and it may not even be applicable in most cases, but it's definitely an advanced storytelling technique that will make your work shine brighter.
There were clearly a ton of cinematography and blocking techniques used to make Iron Man, but hopefully these videos from Darious Britt give you a few new ones to try out in your own films.