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FILM-MAKING TECHNIQUES: SHOT LENGTH

How much footage need you shoot? How long should a shot last? We take you through the long and short of it

There is no magic formula for calculating how long a particular shot or sequence in your video should last. Wouldn't movies be boring if there were? How tedious and predictable they would become if every long-shot lasted a regulatory ten seconds; if medium-shots were held on screen for an unshakeable six seconds and if there was a mandatory three seconds duration for a close-up.

The length of a particular shot depends on a number of factors. In this article we will assume that you edit your movies, but let's begin by considering how you shoot them.

While the low cost of videotape, compared to filmstock, is a boon in many respects, it brings some dangers. When you are shooting off-the-cuff, in a documentary-type situation, one danger is the temptation to keep the camera rolling when you have already got plenty footage of that particular shot. Valuable minutes, when you could be looking around for, and taking, different shots are wasted.

A greater variety — a mixture of long and medium-shots and close-ups — will give you more choice when editing and, ultimately, that will make your video more interesting.

By planning, visualizing and timing meticulously in advance, some directors — such as Alfred Hitchcock — have been able to reduce the creative contributions made by cameraman and editor. By carefully controlling the shots which he filmed, Hitchcock made sure that the editor could only cut the movie one way — Hitchcock's way!

We're not suggesting that you go to this extreme. However, it makes sense to take some decisions at as early a stage as possible.

If you're making a drama, there's no point shooting the whole of each scene from every conceivable angle — "just in case". In a scene of two people talking after bumping their cars, you won't need a wide shot once they begin arguing; you'll be using close-ups. So there's no point shooting this section of dialogue in long-shot.

Similarly, if the finished sequence will include a two second cutaway close-up to the broken head-lamp, there's no point shooting more than ten seconds of this. As you gain experience of timing shots you can begin to be more decisive when scripting — including rough timings on your shooting script.

When you're shooting off-the-cuff, decide roughly how many seconds you will need of the current shot, film a couple of seconds over that, then stop and move on.

Once you start to control the length of your raw shots, you begin to experience a pleasant domino effect. In the case of a family or event movie, because the shots are shorter and there's more variety, even your unedited footage becomes much more viewable. Suddenly family and friends stop hiding when you approach with tapes in hand.

There are other spin-offs. When it comes to post-production, you will find that you can view and catalogue footage more quickly. During editing, you will spend far less time searching backwards and forwards through it. Any professional news cameraman will tell you that he avoids shooting too much material, because viewing and editing time must increase accordingly. And, the sooner editing is completed, the sooner you can move onto your next project.

It is true that there are some occasions when professional cameramen choose to keep the tape rolling continuously for a short period, while they frame up and hold on a succession of different shots. They zoom and pan quickly from one to another, in the knowledge that the rough camera moves themselves will usually find their way onto the cutting room floor.

This technique is useful in documentary or news situations where time is at a premium and when several different shots can be grabbed in quick succession from the same camera position.

Another occasion is when there is some kind of continuous sound which must be recorded without interruption — music for example, when videoing a band playing. During editing these camera moves can be hidden using suitable close-ups from other parts of the footage. Shots which don't need to be synchronized with the music — such as facial close-ups and shots of the audience will be most effective.

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