Learn How to Shoot a Scene with a Single Camera

Prologue in 'Pulp Fiction'Credit: Miramax Films
Shooting with a single camera can be the best way to cover a scene, and this is why. 

Every filmmaker knows that every film starts with a solid base. A film needs a foundation to build on before all the intricate details are added later. To create this firm ground, a cinematographer needs to sit down and plan out how they are going to cover a scene, which includes discussing which camera angles and shot size would be best for each scene. 

Many directors like to get coverage by using multiple cameras, and some directors stick to the traditional way of filmmaking by using a single camera. There is no “best” way to film a movie, but we’ve got some tips that might make you lean towards shooting with one camera for the rest of your filmmaking career. Although using one camera isn’t the fastest way to capture footage, it is still an iconic way to shoot and make your film feel personal and uniquely stylized.

 

Getting Coverage 

Before you can shoot a scene with a single camera, you must understand the concept of coverage.

To put a scene together, there need to be multiple camera angles and shots to work with and stitch together. The process of getting coverage includes establishing a master shot. The master shot records the entire action and dialogue of a scene. Once the master shot is established, a variety of other takes from different angles, positions, and portions are shot. This is how a scene is covered from multiple angles and can be cut together using bits and pieces from a collection of shots. A script supervisor is there to help make sure there are no continuity errors that will disrupt the illusion of the film. 

There are other great ways to capture scenes that don’t involve cutting shots together.

A long take, or oner, is a great way to film an entire scene, but it does require perfection. There is no way for an editor to alter the pacing of the scene, cut around mistakes, or insert the best moments from a performance. Blocking, performance, camera movement, and focus all have to be meticulously planned and rehearsed before the camera starts rolling. There are ways to hide cuts in plain sight, but that’s a skill that you can read about here

'Son of Saul'Credit: Mozinet

Why Shoot with a Single Camera? 

Many directors that shoot with multiple cameras do so because it allows them to capture more footage in a short amount of time. This allows for the director and cinematographer to capture footage quickly, and move on to the editing process as soon as possible. Filmmakers who like to edit their films quickly, such as Edgar Wright, typically capture multiple angles while filming and need the extra time in post to edit each scene together. 

Using multiple cameras is beneficial for dialogue scenes, as the cameras capture the actor's reactions to the dialogue in real-time, and allow for the best performance to be picked from the footage. Multiple cameras are also great for scenes that can only happen once.

Hospitals blowing up, dangerous stunts, or actors shaving their heads are a one-time thing, and multiple cameras capturing the one-time event can provide more angles to make a dynamic scene. 

The problem with using multiple cameras lies within its limitations. While there are great advantages to using multiple cameras, there is always a chance that you’ll have to alter your angles to ensure that no other camera is in the shot. Accommodating for using two cameras may also require a different focal length that will blur most of the background on a close-up shot. Unfortunately, not all cameras have the option to use a wider lens that will allow you to get the shot you want. Plus, shooting with multiple cameras can be expensive. Renting multiple cameras for weeks or months can be pricey, and that isn’t even including paying for the extra camera crew that is needed to run those cameras. 

All these limitations can be eliminated by using one camera. Although shooting with a single camera is more time-consuming, filmmakers can carefully craft scenes that require focus and perfection. These things can't always be achieved with multiple cameras because the focus is on making sure the framing is perfect rather than the performance. With a single camera, a director can focus on the nuances needed to highlight underlying themes in the film or create tension between characters. 

'1917'Credit: Universal Pictures

How to Shoot a Scene with a Single Camera

Think of shooting with a single camera as if you were walking into a party. You have a broad field of view of the room and everybody in it when you first walk in. This first scan of the room is the initial wide shot. This shot establishes who and where everyone and everything that is in the room. Starting with a wide shot will help the script supervisor minimize the continuity errors later in the scene, and helps the actors become confident with their character before the camera moves in for close-up shots. This first wide shot should capture the entire scene from start to finish before you move in closer and closer with the camera. 

As you gain more confidence in the scene, you move through the space and capture casual conversations in a medium shot. Move the camera closer and closer to the actors with each new setup to capture the angles needed while obtaining the needed footage to cut the scene together.

For dialogue scenes, the camera will start with one actor before capturing the other actor in a mid-shot. At the end of shooting a scene, there should be a wide shot, two medium shots, and two close-ups. This is the standard that filmmakers tend to follow when filming with a single camera.

Once you have mastered this technique, start experimenting and mix up the order in how a scene is established and the way the scene is stitched together. 

'Jackie Brown'Credit: Miramax Films

With all of these basic shots, you should have enough footage for the editor. Once you understand this basic formula, you can start experimenting with inventive ways to cover an entire scene. It is important to note that the camera should always aid the storytelling and shouldn’t be used to show off your skills. The camera work shouldn’t distract the audience from the story. In the end, fancy camera work can be cool, but the best way to tell a story in film is through the tried and true method that has been around since the dawn of film. 

What do you think about filming with a single camera? Let us know in the comments below!      

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