Cinematography Basics: Understanding Filmmaking Style | Zak Mulligan | Skillshare

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Cinematography Basics: Understanding Filmmaking Style

teacher avatar Zak Mulligan, Cinematographer

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Today's Scene


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Cinema's "Visual Language" Toolkit


    • 5.

      Making a Shot List


    • 6.

      The Scene: Breakdown with Shot List


    • 7.

      The Scene: Commentary


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About This Class

Join cinematographer Zak Mulligan for a 30-minute exploration into the basic cinematic tools and choices that make a film magical and compelling. This is the foundation for understanding filmmaking style.

In the middle of creating your own short film? Eager to level up your production value? Or even just curious what goes on "behind the curtain" to give a feature film that artistic look and feel? The answer is in cinematography: the style of your film.

Zak shares:

  • key considerations for cinematography — tactics for manipulating mood, tone, and feel
  • tactical tips for creating a shot list  — the key to organizing your cinematic details
  • exclusive "commentary" narration of a real scene from the feature film Obselidia

All of these things will help you demystify the "visual language" behind film so that you can communicate your vision through your own film and photography. You'll leave empowered to experiment with effects and techniques on your next project, bringing together artistry, story, and style.


Note: This class is intended to provide inspiration and core concepts for late beginner filmmakers and those curious about filmmaking. It is not a comprehensive tutorial in making short films; supplementary Skillshare classes are provided in the resources to provide additional background knowledge.

Meet Your Teacher

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Zak Mulligan



Zak Mulligan is an American cinematographer known for his work in film and television. His film We The Animals premiered at Sundance 2018 and was nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards including Best Cinematography. His other work includes the HBO series The Outsider based on a novel by Stephen King starring Jason Bateman and Ben Mendelsohn and the film Obselidia which premiered at Sundance 2010 where he was honored with the Excellence in Cinematography award.

Zak's TV work also includes Ava Duvernay's CBS TV pilot, For Justice and Netflix's House of Cards, the Showtime series Seven Deadly Sins and the FX original, The Most Dangerous Animal of All. In 2013 he lensed the Academy Award nominated HBO documentary Open Heart about Rheumatic heart disease in Africa. Zak was invit... See full profile

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1. Introduction: I'm Zach Morgan. I'm a cinematographer working in film, television, and commercials. Today, I like to take you through the process of making a shot list and breaking down a script. This is something I do on any feature project I have. I worked closely with the director. Well, the role of cinematographer is different on different kinds of projects. On commercials, it means one thing. On feature films, it might mean slightly different. At the root of it, the cinematographer or director of photography is responsible for the look and feel of a production. The best way to illustrate this is actually take you through creating a shot list and making a scene, and how it's constructed. So today, we're looking at a film I shot called APSA Lydia. It's a product a shot in 2009 and premiered in 2010 at Sundance. Just a wonderful little feature project that's really close to my heart, and I think it's a great project to look at. If you're just starting now, you can sort of see what you can do for a really limited budget. I'd like to use this short scene as an example of the visual language of the film and how we can break down scripts into shots. What I hope you get out of this class is an insight into process. There's a lot that goes into making any film or commercial or TV show no matter what production you're on, big or small. We can look at one scene here and I think that there are ideas in here that you could apply to any kind of production. So, I want to show you a feature film project I did. We'll look at one scene, look at the scripts, and then break down the script and talk about how we shot it. 2. Today's Scene: I'd like to show you a clip to illustrate the visual style and the language of the film. As it seen with the two main characters, George and Sophie, George's a reckless who's compiling an encyclopedia of obsolete things. He meets Sophie because she's a cinema projectionist. And Sophie kind of takes a liking to George, and she looks them up in the phone book and finds where he lives. And this is the first time that they've really had a chance to talk and meet. So go ahead and watch the clip now, and then we'll get into more detail about how we break this down. Come in. Hi. Hi. How did you find me? Phone book, I mean I hope you don't mind but you did say that. Yeah, yeah. I thought you were- phonebook, huh? I thought I was one of the only people who still use phone books. Well, phone book online, but you know. Yeah. Is this a bad time for you? No. So could I come in? Sure. Yeah. Wow, this place is cool. It's like museum in here. Everything old and forgotten. Would you like a cup of tea? That'd be lovely. Earl Grey? It's my favorite. Milk, sugar? You still use this? What's that? The typewriter. Sure, it works perfectly. Yeah, but wouldn't it just be easier to switch to a computer? Into a computer. It's political. So, what can I do for you? I'm interested in your Obselidia. My Obselidia? Your encyclopedia. Yeah, I decided you should call it the Obselidia. O-B-S-E-L-I-D-I-A. Shouldn't it be O-B-S-O, technically? Yeah, I know how to spell. It just looks better with an E. And you should definitely put it online, believe me. So did you interview any fishermen yet? Fishermen? Well, there's practically no fish left, so. What about Lonesome George? Who's Lonesome George? You never heard of Lonesome George? Well, Lonesome George is quite likely the last giant turtle of the Galapagos. He's like 75-years old now and he'll probably last another 100 years, completely alone. Wow. Is that true? I think that's the water. Yes. So I'm going to this museum this afternoon, and I wondered if you wanted to come. Which one? The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Do you know it? Jurassic Technology? That's ridiculous. Yes, it's kind of a weird place. So is it a hoax? I'm not sure, exactly. I'm kind of busy this afternoon. Reading about the end of the world? I have to post a letter. You still use snail mail. I don't think Mr. Fordham has an email. The author of the book? So we can post it on the way. Come on, it'll be fun. My car or yours? 3. Inspiration: So, before we get into shot listing and breaking down a scene, the first thing that happens is we get a script. Usually, I just read it really quick first for pleasure to see if I enjoy it. I don't really make any notes or have any deep thoughts or commentary. Then, if I really like it, I'll read it again and jot down some thoughts and ideas. Then, of course, I would meet with the director and we would decide if we share a vision for the story and a passion for it. If we do, and I would collaborate with the director on the film, then we would get into deeper ideas. I would bring some of the notes I've written, I would collect a lot of visual reference, whether it's still photography or other films or paintings or other artwork. Once we're in a good place with some overall broad concepts, we get more specific into how we want the film to look. In the case of Obselidia, I worked with Diane Bell, who is a fantastic director. This was our first project together and a friend of mine produced it and he had sent me the script, and I just really loved it right away. I knew it was going to be challenging, the budget was tight, and we shot it in 18 days, but Diane had a sort of contagious excitement for the project and you couldn't help but be swept up in it. So, Diane and I started talking about some bigger ideas and bigger concepts. We got really into the story and the characters and their journey. What I usually do is try to latch on to something in the story, whether it's a story element or a character or a plot point that gets you deeper into pointing you visually how to treat a story. In the case of Obselidia, we talked a lot about George's character and his journey. In the film, he's a recluse, his world is very closed down and contained, it feels almost claustrophobic at times. He meets Sophie who is a cinema projectionist, and she is really this free spirit individual and along the way, she really pulls him out of his shell and shows him how to live in the present. We thought this was visually something nice that we could work with. So Diane and I started coming up with visual ideas about how that might work and how it might look. We used maybe longer lenses, we have him in tighter spaces, more claustrophobic spaces; and then as the film goes on, we widen out and we have these wide open vistas where they go to the desert. So in this way, you create a visual journey that starts somewhere and ends somewhere, that kind of mirrors the character's journey. In addition, we had a lot of constraints due to time and budget. One idea we had that actually ended up working out really well was just to treat the film really simply. What this meant for us was that we wouldn't do a lot of coverage, we shot single camera and many many scenes played out in a single take, so that just took some creative blocking and some creative lighting and camera placement, but what they did was allow us to shoot more pages in a day than you would be able to if you had one camera, but ten shots of coverage in every scene. When I find something in the story to kind of latch onto visually, I like to think in terms of creating a contrast visually, so that might be something like using long lenses and then contrasting that with wide lenses or using hand-held frenetic camera movement and then contrasting that with static camera. On Obselidia, we felt that the long lens made a more constrained frame and we also did that with the art direction and the sets and the lighting. The lighting in George's apartment was very dark and moody and feels like he was in his time capsule. So then, when you go to these wider lenses and these open desert landscapes and brighter scenes, you really feel this contrast and his experience. It's kind of ambiguous how to break down a feeling of an image or a character. I think it's very subjective and different things might mean different things for different people. With any shot list, I feel it's a living, breathing guide. It's not meant to be dogmatic or a Bible in any way. It's meant to be just kind of this loose guide that can change at any time and I think, very often, things do change on set. You might lose a location the day before, an actor might bring something fresh and new that you hadn't thought of, and I think you should always be prepared to just throw out these preconceived ideas and use a better idea if one presents itself. 4. Cinema's "Visual Language" Toolkit: When I work with the director, there's a whole visual toolkit we like to use to really delve into the emotional story of a character and figure out how to treat a characters art visually or a story art visually. The idea of visual language is a much bigger topic, in my opinion. But briefly, there's a few things I like to look at when I'm breaking down a story visually. Some of the things like to ask myself are whether or not a shot is subjective or objective. By that, I mean, is the shot telling me something about the inner workings of a character's emotion or thought process? Or is it an objective shot where we are maybe showing more of just the movement of the character or where they're at in space or who they're talking to. It's a powerful way to think about things and in terms of the emotional story. But one example might be, like if you'd like to create a feeling of loneliness in a character, maybe you could frame them with a lot of negative space. That could be something that is a reoccurring theme, and you could, maybe your characters struggling with loneliness and that's at their core of their journey, and as they become more connected, you have more centered frames or more traditionally framed frames. But at the beginning, you might start with these kind of more frames with a lot of negative space. For example, like a character framed, like their head just at the bottom of the corner right of frame or something like that. Maybe there's a feeling sadness you can create by using texture. Perhaps it's like some rain on a window when you're shooting through that and that kind of imbues a feeling to the scene. Or perhaps it's a reflection in a window or a reflection on a piece of glass. But it can also be more simple things, too, like heat. Maybe it's a warmer color palette and you have some heat waves in frame. The kind of bend and distort image, or cold where it's a color palette and you have breath from a character. These subtle things can create a feeling that gives you a little closer to how the story is being told and how the characters are feeling. It also can be done with the way the camera moves, whether you're handheld or it's smooth moving, whether you dolly or whether you don't dolly, whether the camera cranes up. Also, it can be told with the camera height. Often, if the cameras a little lower, the actor feels more dominant, and if the camera is higher looking down on them, they can feel diminutive. Combining these two things can create a power dynamic in a scene subtly between two characters that might echo their relationship in the film. So, I've done a film recently where we played with this idea, and the entire film, when these two characters are together, one we're looking up at and other we're looking down at to create the subtle power dynamic. Then by the end of the film, we're equal eye level with both to show that there's been a balance reached between the two. Another thing I played with once was eye lines, playing with where an actor's eye line is and using it to convey a sense of connection or disconnection. I had a film where with two women were the leads and they were very sort of connected and together in a world that was against them. So, when they were together in a scene and we would do close ups of each one, their eye lines would be very tight to the lens. When one was in a scene with somebody else, we would move the camera over a little bit and have a much wider eye line creating a slight sense of disconnection. Again, it's really subtle but it's all these little things that can lead to a little bit of these subtle feelings about what the characters might be experiencing. 5. Making a Shot List: We already actually construct and set up the shortlist. I also like to use Google Docs, I think anything will work but it's nice with Google Docs cause you can easily share it with other people, if you want the director to be able to edit it with you, or you can also get permissions where you might want to production to see it but not be able to edit it. So, for this one I have a scene number, so this is the scene number that we match up with the script number. Then I put location whether it's day interior, nighttime exterior, that kind of thing. Then I've shot size. So, first shot is a wide and then I have ECU for extreme close up or M for medium or CU for close up, sometimes for moving shots I might put multiple sizes like you see here medium, wide, close up, or here I've macro listed, some people might also call that an ECU. These are terms that are pretty standard but you might have some of your own variant. Then have the shot description. So, this is just a little description of what goes on in the shot. So, here we have the first shot of the scene, is scene six, it's a day interior, It's a wide and it's George types on his typewriter and maybe I might say, from behind. You might also have other notes for yourself that you want to put in there, anything that reminds you what you and the director talked about for that shot, and often I feel like sometimes just even typing this stuff down ingrains it in your brain and gets it before often, I don't even pull up a shot list when I'm doing a scene, cause I've already run through it enough in my mind. Then here I've camera support. This would be whether its a tripod or you might say, if you want it to be hand held you might say, "Hand held." Maybe it's on a dolly or crane, so that would just be whatever supporting the camera. Then my next section here I've specialty gear. This is an important section because this is something that you need to really communicate with production about. These would be items that you might not be able to afford for the whole production, you might want to pick up a specialty lens or maybe it's a steady cam you want to use, but you can only afford it for a day or for a week or whatever it is on your production. So, say the camera support is actually steady cam here, I would write steady cam, but then would also write that under specialty gear, so that I make sure that that's noted in specialty gear, so that when you go back and you can sort this, it'll sort all the specially items together and group them and then that way you can share it with production and then they know that on scene six, that you want a steady cam here. But in this case, it's not, it's very simple, it's a tripod which I imagine would not be considered specialty gear for most people. Here, I do have something special, I have a macro lens, it depends on your production size and is very small, low budget production, macro lens might be specialty. On a bigger production, you probably just carry one the whole time. Then I often like to do this column just to communicate with the assistant director. This lets them have a document when they're creating the schedule. Usually I like to collaborate with the assistant director and schedule a lot, just to make sure that we're shooting things at the best time of day to get the best results. So, I always like to make a column that reminds me and communicates with the AD, the time of day I would like to shoot it, that's day. Sometimes I might not care and I might say, ''You know what, I can do this anytime,'' maybe it's a small short interior scene and I could make it look like night-time by blacking out the windows or I could easily make it look like daytime if we had to at night. So, there might be more flexible scenes where you want to let AD know that you're very flexible there, to buy you time to shoot for example, magic hour, you only have so many of those and they're going to be kind of a fight to get your magic hour scenes in there when you want them. So, you want to be pretty specific about what time of day. Then there are other, I just have other, it could be a number of things you put here, I could just be a note to yourself, really could be anything, that's other. Then I have art notes here, this is again this is things I might want to communicate to the art department. So here under art notes I have these colored bottles and you'll see in the scene and some of the wider shots that the windows have these really beautiful colored glass bottles in front of them and that was something we had talked about to kind of just give a feeling and maybe motivate some color and some motion. Other examples there is you might have practical lighting. Practicle lights are lights that are in your scene but that also give off film lighting. So, if you have just a table lamp or a floor lamp, you might want that to look a certain way, but you also might want it to provide a certain quality or type of light. Real quick, I can also show you, I've another document for a film that I'm currently working on and you can see some of the same stuff scene, the shot size, the description, camera support, but you also see I have the VFX. In this movie we have some visual effects we're doing, so that I definitely have a heading for and want to know anytime that we have that. Absolutely we didn't really have any visual effects, it was all a little more straightforward. You see also I've noted where I want to use the hazer for a little bit of atmosphere. I've also noted frames per second here, if I want to do slow motion or fast motion, I have a column for that, note that. In this project we're shooting film, but there are some visual effects shots that would be digital. So, I've also noted camera here and you might also want to know if you have multiple cameras, if you have an A camera and B camera, also want to note that, and again our department notes. So, you can see that's the kind of different stuff you might do, so it could be anything. 6. The Scene: Breakdown with Shot List: Let's see. So, this first shot here, George is typing on his typewriter from behind. This was about as wide as we get in that space. The idea here is kind of introduce George and the space. You kind of feel the time capsuleness of that space. Then, we have here, the second shot is we go extreme close up to his hands typing. We sort of ask this question. We hear the typewriter. We see his hands, and then, on the next shot, we answer that question with the paper and the typewriter showing what that is, what he's working on, what he's writing. Then, we come around to the side. Now, this shot actually, in a lot of shots, I like to play through the whole scene. So, even if I've set up a shot as a medium or close up, I might like to let it play for the whole scene to see what else happens because often, unexpected frames happen or surprising things happen that you could never plan for. So, this profile of pushing in on George and then Sophie knocks on the door, George stands up and we pan with him as he opens the door and then we end up over his shoulder and we land on a medium shot of Sophie at the door. Here, for the camera support, I have a slider. Then, actually what happens is this shot is actually married up to this shot. Even though I haven't listed these two different shots, they were shot all together. So, when when Sophie comes into the apartment, we dolly in with her. We lead her into the apartment. Then, her and George, George kind of like cleans up really quick. He closes the doors and then we end in this, we call a 50/50, which is the profile shot of the two, Sophie and George. Then, we go into a close up of Sophie in the foreground as George goes off to make tea. So, you can see, just with the right blocking, what you can do with one camera position. I think the camera probably moved all of three or four feet here the whole time and just panned around. Then, we have other coverage. We have Sophie walks around the house. Again, we have that bit of coverage here. We see her walking around. We see her looking at George's stuff. So visually, we want to show that. Here I just have it as closed up various inserts of George's apartment. So you see, I think in the in the scene, there's three included. I probably shot seven or eight and then we just use the best one from the edit. And again, that was there little moves. It's on a slider and then again, we cut back to this shot where Sophie is in the foreground and she picks up a View Master and she starts looking at that, and then we see what she's looking at in the View Master. So here, we've used a macro lens, specialty lens to get really close focus. We cut in on these inserts of the View Master, which is sort of a nice texture to add. I mean, it's these ideas, I think, add to the kind of nostalgia and feeling of George's world. Then again, we have just to finish out the scene. A couple close ups of George and Sophie talking. So, that's the shots list. 7. The Scene: Commentary: We start off with George on his typewriter. He's writing a letter to a climate scientist who lives in Death Valley, who he wants to talk to about his encyclopedia of obsolete things. Unexpectedly, Sophie shows up who is a cinema projectionist he had interviewed the day before. Coming. She comes up with a name for his encyclopedia, which is also the the title of the movie. Hi. Hi. George is a recluse and lives in a very contained, curated world, and his apartment exemplifies that. It's very dark and crowded and it just feels claustrophobic, his world is very closed. Stylistically, we chose the beginning of the film to use frames where George felt contained and closed in. Sophie is this free spirit, and she comes into his world unexpectedly and just pulls him out of his shell. So, you see as the film progresses, we open up the frames and we have these really expansive frames in nature and the desert with big skies, and you see visually George's world open as his character experiences these things emotionally. [inaudible] It's my favorite. It looks like there's a lot of coverage here, but a lot of these shots are actually the cameras in one place and you play the scene all the way through. I think with narrative, it's important to whenever you set up the camera. You might be setting up for a specific shot, but it's really nice to play the whole shot through because you often find unexpected angles as the actors walk through the space and interact. Here you see we have the shot with Sophie in the foreground and George comes in and out of the background. That shot actually plays all the way through, so that's the same camera setup as I believe the second or third shot in the scene. It's just wonderful how you could almost play the whole scene as a one, or if you wanted, two from that one angle. On that one shot, the camera actually pans around the room 360 degrees. When working under very tight time constraints, it's often a good idea to think of lighting in terms of lighting the whole space rather than just lighting for individual spots or lighting for a close-up. What you can do is you can actually light from outside windows, you can put lights overhead out of frame, and if you're able to basically hide every light or almost every light, maybe you have like 10 degrees out of your 360 that you can't see. You can actually find that you can shoot scenes quite quickly.