Learn from the pros: How Hollywood’s big names use (and sometimes abuse) their cinematographic tools


posted Monday, July 14, 2014 at 10:02 PM EDT


You might not have access to their monumental budgets, but if you're an enthusiastic videographer looking to expand your knowledge, there's still quite a bit to be learned from looking at and analyzing the output of Hollywood and its overseas equivalents. While their special effects capabilities are beyond the reach of the casual film maker, many of the underlying techniques can be translated even to projects running on a shoestring budget with some creativity.

If you're looking for some tips from the pros to get your creative juices flowing, a recently-launched Tumblr blog called Every Frame a Painting, created by San Francisco-based freelance editor Tony Zhou, will be of great interest. So will its related YouTube channel (with Vimeo mirror). Zhou takes a look at mainstream and arthouse flicks from the US, Europe and Asia, and deconstructs them in his videos, calling out specific techniques and why they work so well -- or sometimes, fail to do so. (Note, though, that a good few of his videos include movie spoilers, not to mention some occasional adult language.)

In his latest video, Zhou considers the rather divisive Hollywood director Michael Bay. Love him or hate him, there's little question that Bay knows the secret formula for a box-office smash: His movies average close to US$200 million apiece at the box office, and together they've grossed over US$2 billion in the last couple of decades. Zhou notes a fairly straightforward video trick that dominates Bay's works, one that helps keep his viewers' attention simply by packing the frame with layer upon layer of motion and action. And interestingly, he points out that Bay seems to have become a slave to his own technique, unable to decide when to apply it and when a subtler touch is needed.

A detailed analysis of the cinematographic trick behind Michael Bay's movies, which Tony Zhou refers to simply as "Bayhem," and why Bay's become a slave to the technique.

In another clip, Zhou takes a look at the much-loved long take or "oner", the technique of shooting whole scenes or even lengthy sections of a movie in a single, continuous take. (Or sometimes, in multiple takes that are merged seamlessly in post so as to appear to be a single take.)

It's a trick that has been taken to extreme lengths -- pun most certainly intended -- with certain directors engaging in one-upsmanship as they film ever longer scenes, and some even creating entire movies without a single cut. But Zhou argues that the master of the form is one not typically associated with it -- none other than Steven Spielberg. And he's got the clips ready to prove his point.

Steven Spielberg, master of the long take? He doesn't merit a mention in the Wikipedia article on the topic, but Zhou makes a convincing case that it's true nonetheless.

In his other recent videos, Zhou looks at techniques like lateral tracking (as distinct from the de rigeur DSLR technique that's so common in time-lapse videos and scenes with relatively little motion), and how to use silence as a dramatic tool. And he bemoans the loss of true comedy in American movies, replaced by what he terms as improv on film.

It makes for a very interesting series, and one that has quite a bit to teach us about filmmaking, its do's and don'ts, and why breaking the rules can be a good thing. We'll certainly be watching closely to see what other little gems Zhou has to share with us, and we suggest you do the same!