Being a filmmaker is nothing like taking a test. With everything working against you, cheating your way around a problem might just be the only answer.
Okay, maybe "cheating" isn’t the best word to use, but filmmaking lingo can be pretty odd. When creatives talk about cheating, it’s not actually what you may think.
The gang over at Film Riot put together an awesome video on the concept of cheating, and we wanted to add in some of our experience to expand on their list. Check out their video below to get started:
The Texas Switch
Also known as the cowboy switch, this concept is beloved by insurance companies and centers around stunt work. It’s used to replace your actor with a stunt performer right in-camera. Unless you're Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves, that is.
The origins are a bit murky, but with a name like that, you’d be right to assume it came about during the hay day of the two Johns—John Ford and John Wayne. Both are known for their cowboy westerns.
In Film Riot’s example, we saw the technique used in everything from The Naked Gun to Elf. It works by having an actor either exit the frame for a moment, or hide behind a set piece, and then a stunt performer steps out in their place. This can also go in reverse, where a stunt performer falls or hides behind something, and the actor steps out.
The Texas Switch also works with other things as well, such as vehicles or props, like with the exploding bus in Speed. It’s exactly like a magic trick that would be more at home in Vegas.
Ah, the French. Not only known for their bread and wine, but also for several revolutions—one of them being in film. Also an in-camera technique, the French Turnaround (or French Reverse) is used to cheat a dialogue sequence, which in turn reduces your lighting and camera sets up.
It’s used in sequences where actors are speaking across from one another. When you’re done shooting one actor, instead of moving your camera and lighting, just switch the actors instead. Then continue shooting. While this technique only works if you mind your background and props, it can save you a boatload of time on set. You can always punch in super close to fix any issues with your surroundings. Just make sure you think about the 180-degree rule and swap the camera over the other shoulder.
BONUS—the French also gave us the French Over, which you can learn about from Neil Oseman’s blog, but it’s not really a cheat.
Another thing you can cheat in your projects is the position.
“Of what?” I hear you ask. Well, practically everything.
In the examples Ryan Connolly gave, he moved the position of his actors to match the sun or to create a really tense chase scene. Connolly also discusses moving the geography of your location. This can mean starting in one room of an interior, and then finishing in a completely different house, but making it appear that the two rooms as part of the same location. The technique can also be applied to exteriors, as Connolly showcased.
But that’s not all you can position. You can also do this with props or furniture in your scene. Cheating your furniture can help you create more depth or give you more room for your camera and lighting. I used this same technique in a short film I shot in 2013 called The Park.
I had my actor in bed, but because it was right up against the wall, I found it difficult to place two medium-sized soft boxes in the right position. So I cheated the bed about four feet away from the wall. In the final film, it looks like that bed is positioned on one side of the wall, but it was actually smack dab in the middle of the room.
Bam, I cheated.
This one is more for problem-solving than it is for creativity. Once you start shooting, you’ll start to notice how practically everything is reflective. Most often, you’ll discover this in post and will have to remove the reflections digitally. But you can do most of this work in-camera if you pay attention.
In Connolly’s examples, he cheated his reflections by blocking the light that was hitting his camera with flags.
However, you can also manage your reflections by thinking about the direction of reflection. One example that comes to mind is from a video that Shane Hurlbut did. He had a light reflecting from a picture frame at the far end of his frame, so he took a small tape ball and put it under the frame, shifting the direction of reflection away from his camera.
This technique kind of plays off the last two, but it’s fitting that we forgive Connolly for cheating.
By taking mirrors and physically shooting into them, you can get angles and compositions that your locations or literal physics make difficult. In Film Riot’s examples, the gang used this technique to shoot into a mirror so they could work better in a small space.
Even J.J. Abrams used this technique when shooting his reboot of Star Trek. During a sequence where actors are supposed to be sky diving, Abrams had the cinematographer shoot down into a mirror instead of up at the actors. This allowed for an easier shoot since the actors didn’t have to be strung up on wires and the operator didn’t have to use his heavy camera to shoot into the sky.
Just don’t forget to mirror your shot in post, cause you know, physics.
Filmmaking is one part creativity and one part problem-solving. Whether you’re making a multi-million dollar movie or shooting in a bathroom with your friends, cheating is a fundamental tool to make things efficient and believable. Think of cheating as the great unifier. No matter what set you’re on, the same techniques can and are being used to create movie magic.
Whatever you do, just please don’t cheat on your taxes.