I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 1 – Turning the Camera On

I’ve gotten a lot of curious inquiries about what is taught in film school, so I’ve decided to inaugurate a new regular feature: I Go To Film School So You Don’t Have To; basically film school without the school… or the film, to be honest. We’ll see how it goes.

Hello, class. This is a basic introductory seminar on film and film production. Today we’ll be covering the theory of sequencing, the technology of film and video, and the basics of using a video camera.


  • A DVD of a well-edited movie (there’s plenty to choose from)
  • An old VHS tape that you don’t mind breaking
  • A video camera (MiniDV is best)
    • A video tape (go ahead and get a premium tape)
    • A tripod

Here’s an exercise to start out with: pop in that DVD of a well-edited movie. Find a 2-3 minute scene that doesn’t use long, lingering takes. Watch it all the way through, and keep track of the angles used. Now here’s a question: how many cuts are in the scene? My guess is about twice as many as you expect, somewhere from 50-80 cuts in a 2-3 minute scene. The reason that you don’t notice as many cuts is that many of them occur on action. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

Go back to the beginning of the scene, and break down the angles use. Don’t just look at the usual long/medium/close aspects of the shots, but what’s in each shot. How is it composed? Is the camera placed high up in the air or low to the ground? Is the camera moving? How is it moving? These are just a few of the things you will need to consider in making a film of your own.

But how exactly is a film made? Let’s start with the technology.

Most movies—real movies, that is—are shot on film. The two most popular film formats are 35-millimeter (this is what is used on most big-budget films and also what you find in any point-and-shoot still camera) and 16-millimeter (this is used by film students because it’s half as wide and so not only is the film cheaper, so are the cameras). If you’re really desperate you can go down to 8-millimeter. Film cameras work by taking a freakin’ LOT of pictures and laying them out vertically on a long strip of film. The standard speed for movie cameras is 24 pictures—or frames—per second. The camera’s shutter opens to expose the film, then closes. Then a mechanical claw grabs the sprocket hole on the edge of the film and pulls it down to bring the next frame into registration. Then the shutter opens again. This happens twenty-four times every second.

I’m not sure if you grasp how truly fast this is. Remember that the film can’t just move through the camera at a steady speed; it has to be standing ABSOLUTELY STILL when the shutter opens. The really stunning thing is that some 16mm cameras are capable of running at up to 500 frames per second! YOU try doing that! I bet you can’t!

Anyway, after the film is developed you’re left with a long strip of film that looks like this:

Super 16mm film

Along the left, you can see the sprocket holes used to pull down and register the film. On 16mm film, there is one sprocket hole (perf) per frame. The dark rectangles are the image area, where a picture is recorded.

When the film is finished and ready for projection, the same system is used, except in reverse. Instead of light entering through the lens, it exits through the lens and is shone onto a screen. Because film is translucent, the picture on the film is enlarged and plays like motion on the screen. Film is also projected at 24 frames per second, in order for motion to be accurately reproduced. HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT: Even though you see smooth motion on the screen when you go to the movies, you are actually in complete darkness HALF THE TIME. What a rip-off! So why didn’t you notice? Persistence of vision.

The real explanation has to do with the rods and cones in your eye and how your optic nerve transmits information to your brain and something called the opponent-process theory. All you really need to know is that when your eyes suddenly jump from a brightly illuminated scene into darkness, they are left with a distinct afterimage, and THAT is why movies don’t look all flickery when they’re projected, even though they are.

OK, you got all that?

Good, now forget it. Because you, meaningless peon, will be shooting on video.

It’s sort of the same idea as film, but with a few key differences. They can best be understood by taking a look at a VHS tape. Remember those? I’m sure you’ve got one lying around somewhere. Break it open. Just break it open. Hit it with a hammer or kick it real hard, just get that tape out of there.

Now that the tape has been liberated from the cassette, you can take a look at it. The first thing you’ll notice is that, unlike film, there are no sprocket holes. This is because tape recorders use digital, rather than mechanical, devices to register the tape as it goes through the camera. The second thing you’ll notice is that you can’t see a picture on the tape. Well, that isn’t entirely true. The picture is still there, but because it is never directly projected, the tape contains a black backing that blocks interference. If you take that tape and hold it up to a bright light, you should be able to see a very faint picture of each frame.

OK. Just kidding. But I got you, didn’t I? Admit it.

Video cameras work by laying down a magnetic signal onto the tape, so you can’t see it with your naked eye. But they do still work by taking a picture of each frame, just at a different speed. Video cameras run at a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second, or 59.94 fields per second (don’t worry about fields for now, we’ll talk about that more when we get into editing). This is because electrical engineers hate you. Deal with it.

That’s really all you need to know about video. I mean, we could get technical about it but there’s really no need. It just works. Now it’s time to break out those cameras.

I don’t know what model of camera you’re using, so if you don’t know how to do any of these things you’ll have to *gasp* read the manual.

First, turn your camera on and put in a tape. Remember to take off the lens cap. Familiarize yourself with all the buttons and gizmos and cool effects. You will not be using 90% of these, but it’s somehow comforting to know they’re there, just in case you ever need to superimpose a cheesy “Happy Anniversary” title over a shot of your aunt’s dachshund eating a whole fried chicken.

All modern video cameras come with a lot of features that are put there for the sole purpose of making your footage look like absolute crap. Here are the worst offenders:

  • The date/time stamp
  • Auto focus
  • Auto exposure
  • Digital zoom
  • (a new one) “Movie mode”

How to fix these features so they go away and never bother you again: Turn them off. This is usually done from some section of the menu. Make sure that date/time stamp goes away, that digital zoom is turned OFF, that focus and exposure are both set to “manual” and that you never EVER go near the digital picture effects.

How to set focus/exposure: “If the camera isn’t going to do these things for me,” you are probably asking now, “how do I do them myself?” The answer: read the manual. The controls are usually straightforward. Here are some other tips to remember:

  • When you focus, zoom all the way in. Zoom back out once you have good, sharp focus. This ensures that your subject stays in focus no matter how large the video is projected.
  • Exposure is tricky. Set exposure by looking in the eyepiece rather than the LCD screen. Set it to what you think looks right, then make it just the slightest bit darker. Try to avoid “blown-out” highlights where all you can see is flat, solid white.

The dark, brooding abyss of LP mode: Most cameras support two recording modes: SP (standard play) and LP (Long Play); LP is sometimes referred to as EP, or Extended Play. LP mode works by running the tape through the camera at a slower speed, packing the data more densely onto the tape, and ultimately letting you fit 90 minutes of video on a 60-minute tape. Great deal! Right?


By running the tape through the camera at a slower speed and packing the data more tightly, you open yourself up to the risk of dropouts, tape incompatibility and data errors. These things are like AIDS: they can’t be cured and they ruin your life. But avoiding them is easy: just make sure your camera is set to SP mode. You don’t even have to get tested.

Tripods are a good place to start in terms of camera support. They are versatile and offer an array of possible shot angles. Get to know your tripod. Carry it around. Sleep with it. Sing to it.

WARNING: Do not use your tripod for purposes of assault and/or battery as this could warp the legs.Â

Then attach your camera to it. Again, how you do this varies from tripod to tripod, so it’s best to read the instructions. Then stand the tripod up and fold out the legs. Voilà, as the French would say—you have a camera support. Practice panning (turning the camera from side to side) and tilting (tipping the camera up and down) using the handle. There are most likely control knobs on your tripod to set how much force is required to do this. Fiddle with them. You want to make these movements as smooth as possible. This takes practice. The best way to practice is to make a movie.

Your first assignment is: tell a story in one minute. It can be any subject matter and any number of shots (a good number to aim for is 10), just make sure it clocks in at about a minute. Here are some things to think about with this assignment:

  • Camera placement – high or low? Medium shot, wide shot, close-up? How do the camera angles you choose reflect the action and characters in the scene?
    • Cutaways are shots that show close-ups of relevant non-action scene elements. For example, of someone is dialing a phone, you might want to get a close-up of the phone.
    • Coverage refers to the number of angles you have on any given moment in the scene. Be sure to get plenty of coverage, so you have plenty of choices in editing.
  • Locations – Don’t just shoot this in your living room. Find a relevant location that meshes with the aesthetic you are trying to convey.
  • Safety precautions – You wouldn’t want to get an amazing shot that you can’t use because the computer can’t capture it. So before you start shooting, shoot 30 seconds of nothing on the beginning of the tape. This ensures that the computer will be able to capture every frame of video that you shoot.

Timecode – Digital tapes use something called timecode to keep track of where clips are located on a tape. This is a great system, provided that you don’t get a dreaded timecode break. This occurs when there is an empty space on the tape in between two recorded shots. When this happens, the camera will start up the timecode from 0, which will just really confuse the hell out of your computer. These breaks usually occur when you rewind the tape to review something you just shot and you let the tape run past the last frame. The best way to avoid the problem is to just not review your footage until you’re all done shooting.

OK, I think that does it for today. We’ll be editing your assignment next week, so you’ll need access to a computer with video editing software, whether that be Windows Movie Maker or Final Cut Pro. You’ll also need the FireWire cable that hooks your camera up to your computer. You should practice a bit with this software, because since I don’t know what software you’ll be using I’ll be speaking in vague generalities about the theory and practice of editing, rather than tailoring my instructions to a specific software package.

If you have any questions just leave them in the comments section of this post.

Dr. Prof. Rev. Mr. Gingerich (unaccredited)

9 thoughts on “I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 1 – Turning the Camera On

  1. Depends on whether you want to be a student of the non-film non-school or whether you just want to audit this class. If yes, do.

    How’s that for being suitably vague and grammatically incorrect?

  2. PLEASE, people, keep your comments RELEVANT. It takes me far too much time to keep ADD-riddled discussions in check.

    If you want the latest in incremental news updates on the DVD and other such things, please first check the forum. If you don’t see the information you want, post something there and I will answer it. The thread that gives the latest updates on the DVD publication process is here.

    Remember, if you get to start making irrelevant comments, I get to start writing irrelevant articles.

    Love and kisses,
    Dr. Prof. Rev. Mr. A. Gingerich (Mrs.)

  3. Mr. Rev. Dr. Prof. Gingerich, you never actually covered turning ON the camera. How do I do this? How do I use the camera? Does the big end go up or down? Can I film through the fourth dimension?

    Yours truly,

    Ghwarawakavinni J. Gagnepain

  4. Ghwarawakavinni,

    As I said, read the manual. I rely on YOU to know how to turn your camera on, because my arms aren’t 1,000 miles long (only a measly 500 feet). Most likely, the “big end” isn’t actually attached to the camera and is just styrofoam packing.

    Your question about the fourth dimension is an interesting one. Let me explain. Film is a unique medium in that it takes four dimensions (the three spatial dimensions plus the dimension of time), and compresses them down to three dimensions, although they are nonconsecutive. The three spatial dimensions become two, and time is represented independently on a single-dimension axis.

    This contradicts several laws of physics and has led some to believe that movie cameras were invented by aliens from Alpha Centauri. However, those people are probably wrong.

    – Mr. A., PhD.

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