Making Better Movies with Moviestorm Vol 3: Sound and Light

Making Better Movies with Moviestorm Vol 3: Sound and Light
FOREWORD ........................................................................................................................................................... 3
INTRODUCTION ..................................................................................................................................................... 5
EXERCISES .............................................................................................................................................................. 6
SOUND................................................................................................................................................................... 7
FOLEY OR NOT? ..............................................................................................................................................................9
AMBIENT NOISE ............................................................................................................................................................11
REALISTIC AMBIENCE......................................................................................................................................................13
EMPHATIC SOUND .........................................................................................................................................................15
USING MUSIC AS LEITMOTIF.............................................................................................................................................17
USING SOUND TO BRIDGE A SCENE ....................................................................................................................................19
CUTTING & DIRECTING TO MUSIC .....................................................................................................................................21
MUSIC VIDEO ...............................................................................................................................................................23
LIGHTING ............................................................................................................................................................. 25
REALISTIC VS UNREALISTIC LIGHTING .................................................................................................................................27
FAKING LIGHTING CONTINUITY .........................................................................................................................................29
MOSTLY DARK SHOTS .....................................................................................................................................................31
DAY VS NIGHT ..............................................................................................................................................................33
MOVING LIGHTS ...........................................................................................................................................................35
HANDHELD LIGHTS ........................................................................................................................................................37
FILMING SHADOWS........................................................................................................................................................41
ABOUT MOVIESTORM ......................................................................................................................................... 43
©Matt Kelland 2011. All rights reserved.
“A really good primer for any film student, especially all crammed into
40 pages."
Andrew Segal, Carshalton College
“An excellent resource for both new and veteran users. Matt doesn’t
just describe ways to add feeling to your movies, but shows you
through the easy to follow steps. All great directors have their own
style, and this book gives you the keys to unlock your style. In the end,
you decide which techniques work best for you."
Shirley Martin, filmmaker
by Phil South
When I was asked to write the foreword to the Making Better Movies With Moviestorm series, I jumped at the chance
for two reasons. One is that it was Matt Kelland asking me. The other is that I love a chance to talk about movies.
Ask anyone. Ignore their eye rolling; they always do that. It's a sign of their deep fondness for me.
Matt and I have been friends for many years, and I often think that one of the reasons that we are still friends after
all these years is that he’s one of the very few people I've ever met who cares as much about films as I do.
I recall the genesis of Moviestorm very well. It was called Machinemascope back then, and the whole reason it got
created in the first place was to answer the question "is it possible to make movies on a home computer." Of course,
we now know the answer to that. It is – and not only is it possible, but many thousands of people have welcomed
the chance to make their own films, for fun, for education and personal development and for profit.
The problem though, as you’re probably aware, is that merely producing great tools and putting them cheaply and
easily in the hands of anyone who wants to use them does not guarantee good work. You can hand anyone a page
layout program like InDesign or a music sequencer like Logic, or even a video editing software like Final Cut Pro, but
you can't make what they produce any good. You rely on their talent and experience to make good software produce
great work.
There are a lot of safety nets in Moviestorm which correct most of the common mistakes that beginning movie
makers always make. A lot of composition and lighting elements have been taken care of, allowing you to focus (pun
intended) on the job in hand. And no, the job is not making movies. Nope, the job in hand is telling stories.
It doesn't matter if what you are making is factual rather than fictional. News editors talk about stories too. A story
has a beginning, middle and end, and the structure helps you to "get" what the creator is talking about and enjoy the
story they are telling.
But how do you get good at telling stories with movies? It comes down to experience, of course, and experience
comes through practice. So how do you get experience in film making, when it takes so much time and effort to
make even the simplest piece of film? You have to find actors and crew, then there are lights and cameras to buy,
writers to bully, locations to find… and there are some scenes you just can’t film at all without a crazy budget. It’s a
problem filmmakers have faced for a hundred years. But now there’s a solution in the form of Moviestorm.
You see, Moviestorm doesn’t just allow you to make finished movies if you are already an accomplished storyteller. It
allows you to grow your own storytelling talent by putting in movie-making hours. As I said above, in the world of
filmmaking, practice usually involves a lot of equipment, money and mostly time, both yours and other people's. It's
hard for most people to put in the hours. It’s a lot like a pilot who hasn't got easy access to a plane. So what does
he do? He books time in a simulator. Even if a trainee pilot has regular access to a plane, he still books a lot of time
in a simulator because it's much cheaper and safer than using a real plane. He can practice whenever it’s convenient,
and by logging enough hours he improves his skills almost automatically.
The same is true of any technical ability which has some art to it. The more you do it, the better you get. It's a
creative muscle memory. It's the same with creativity and mastery of your storytelling chops. The more you do it, the
better you will get. Shots flow to shots in a seamless hypnotic glide, because you know what you are doing and you
know exactly where to go at any one time, in the service of your story.
This excellent series of books will guide your development. In each of the carefully structured and easy to follow
exercises Matt leads you through all the movie making tricks you will need, from the most common to the most
difficult. It's a simple regime to follow: just read what's on the page and do it. Then do the next one, and the next,
and keep working your way through. Pretty soon you'll be flying through them, and your mastery of both
Moviestorm and film technique will grow. Most importantly, you can please yourself as to when you log the hours in
your virtual movie-making cockpit. Take your time, and stagger the sessions across a number of weeks rather than
trying to do it all at once.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all you need to do is read how it’s done. You’ve got to actually do the
exercises. Try all the variants, review your work critically, and then do the follow-ups. The whole point is that when
you start filming for real, you’ve done this so many times that you’re instinctively falling back on hundreds of hours of
real, practical, hands-on experience in the simulator.
Always remember, learning how to make films to tell stories is not about theory. It's about practice. If you want to
get good at telling stories with films, there is absolutely no substitute for putting in the hours. I won't scare you by
telling you how many hours they say it takes to become a genius, but it's a lot. Genius will take time, but getting
good at telling your own stories just became a lot easier.
Phil South
Phil South is a professional writer, creative writing teacher and filmmaker, based
in the South West of England. He taught filmmaking to wide-eyed first year
technical students at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for seven years after a
long career in writing and animation. He currently shares his energies between
his creative writing blog and his band
The Sinatra Test
This series of books grew out of a selection of articles I wrote for the Moviestorm blog in 2009-2011 on how you can
use Moviestorm to practice film techniques. Several people contacted us to ask whether we had any specific
examples of how to do it. I realized I’d talked a lot about theory, but very little about practice. I therefore decided to
put together this collection of simple exercises you can do to learn individual techniques.
There are several volumes in the series, covering a range of techniques including camerawork, staging, editing,
lighting, sound, and more.
These exercises aren't in any way specific to making movies with Moviestorm. They're standard techniques that apply
to all forms of film. For example, one exercise focuses on filming a scene without moving cameras, and then filming
it again but allowing the camera to move. Another, in the volume on staging, requires you to shoot the same scene
with and without extras. You can take what you've learned to any other film-making medium - full CG animation,
live action, or whatever. It’s about learning skills, not about learning to use specific tools or media.
The main advantage of using Moviestorm as a training tool is that you can practice whenever it's convenient for you,
and you don't need to assemble a cast and crew each time. And if you're not happy with what you've done, you can
easily go back and do it again and again until you're satisfied – reshoots are cheap easy!
The other benefit of using Moviestorm is that you’re not constrained by the usual problems of the student filmmaker. You don’t have to worry about shutting down city streets to film in the middle of Manhattan or London. You
can have a huge crowd of extras. You can use cranes, helicopters or other equipment, and film stunt scenes, car
chases, and explosions without worrying about insurance or cost. Moviestorm is a versatile tool that will give you a
chance to learn the kind of things that most novice filmmakers can’t ever do in real life.
The exercises are all fairly adaptable. Generally, you won't need any particular packs or content: any version of
Moviestorm will do. Most of them work on the same principle: take a single scene, and film it in several different
ways. You can use the same scene over and over again if you want - I often use a short scene from one of Per
Holmes's training DVDs, and another, slightly longer one, from a parody soap opera I was working on some years
ago. This is actually a pretty good way of working, as you can focus explicitly on the one aspect you're practicing,
and reuse much of what you've previously done; sets, characters, recorded dialog, and so on. You'll also develop an
increasing empathy with the scene, and you'll find each take getting better and better, rather like a musician
practicing the same piece over and over. When you've worked your way through several exercises, go back and
compare all the different versions with your first attempt, and see what you've achieved.
This series of exercises isn’t a substitute for practicing with real kit. You’ll still need to get familiar with real cameras
and lights, and you’ll have to get used to working with real actors and crew on real sets. Practicing this way simply
gets you used to knowing what you’re going to shoot and developing a sense of how it’s going to look when it’s cut
into your final film.
Although most of the book is written primarily for directors, it’s useful for others as well. It’s an easy method for
editors to generate the footage they need to practice cutting scenes in many different ways. It’s a good way for
scriptwriters to understand how their written words can be portrayed on the screen. It’s a useful way for camera
operators to practice filming, or for producers to understand how creative choices affect the production costs.
Most importantly, though, it’s a way to ensure that when you start making movies for real, you’ll know exactly what
you’re doing, and you won’t be wasting everyone else’s time and money trying to figure out the basics. As we’re fond
of saying at Moviestorm, “shoot first, ask questions later” is the maxim of the unprepared filmmaker, and “fix it in
post” is just another way of making trouble for your editor.
How to use this book
The book is set out in a workbook format. Each exercise uses a standard structure:
Technique: what you’re going to focus on
Scenario: what type of scene works best for this
Exercise: what you do
Review: you critically analyze your work and see how the different versions compare
Follow-up exercises: more things you can try to develop this technique
In the first two volumes of the series, we focused on camerawork and staging - the two tasks normally associated
with being a director. This volume covers two tasks normally given to specialists, but which it's essential for a
director to understand.
You will get more from this volume if you’ve already completed some of the exercises in the previous volumes. The
aim is to combine the various skills, and understand the relationship between what's happening on the set and what
you're filming, and how this will appear in the finished movie.
To get the best from this book, it’s important that you do two things.
First, you must actually do the exercises.
Reading them won’t make you a better film-maker any more than reading about sports will make you an athlete.
While developing Moviestorm, I’ve shot literally hundreds of hours of animated footage over the last few years.
Looking back at the things I made early on, the improvement is obvious. Now, when I need to film something like a
simple dialog or a walk, I’m not wasting time. As I read the script, I instinctively know how I want to film it. Camera
angles and moves, cuts, staging, lighting, and even sound come alive in my head. These days I don’t even make a
storyboard; I simply go straight to Moviestorm and quickly block out a rough version. That kind of fluency comes
from having shot the same type of scenes over and over again.
Second, you must be super-critical with yourself when it comes to the reviews.
The aim isn’t to complete all the exercises as fast as possible. It’s to learn from them and find ways to improve. In
most cases, there are no right and wrong ways to shoot these scenes (although there are accepted conventions it’s
useful to be familiar with). It’s about trying out different things to see what happens. Even if they don’t work, you’ve
learned something. So don’t just give yourself a pat on the back and move on. Be picky. Find the things you don’t
like. Ask yourself if that scene could possibly be any better. At some point, you won’t find anything more you can do
to it. So move on, but come back to it later when you’ve practiced some new techniques. I’ll guarantee you’ll see
new ways to film the scene.
It’s easy to dismiss sound as being the sound guy’s problem. As long as you get a good clean take of the dialog on
set, he can put everything else on in post-production. Right?
If that’s the way you think, you’re missing half of what’s involved in a movie. Film is an audio-visual medium, and
what the audience hears is just as important as what they see. Even in a cinema they’re not looking at the screen all
the time, and the sound acts as an important cue to keep them involved in the movie. For those who are paying
attention, sound isn’t just a decoration that adds emotion and atmosphere: those are critical parts of the story and
have a profound effect on the way your audience relates to what’s on screen.
When you’re creating your film, you should be thinking about the sound right from the very outset. Imagine the
music, and hear the scenes as well as seeing them. Once you can do this, you’ll have a much clearer picture of how
your film is going to turn out. And, perhaps more importantly, you’ll have a range of additional narrative techniques
to draw on.
One major advantage of understanding how sound can be used in narrative is that it provides an additional layer to
work with. Most of the story is carried by dialog and action. Sound, however, effectively acts as a commentary on
that, and it functions simultaneously with the other layers. In a scene with two people talking as they walk down a
street, you can completely change the way the audience views the scene with your choice of background sounds,
foley and music: it can be intimate, it can be eerie, or it can be stark and distant.
What do you hear when you see this image? If you're not thinking about the sound, you're thinking like a
photographer, not a film director.
Once you start thinking about the sound of your film, you will find that your approach to what you show on screen
changes to make better use of that. In some cases, you’ll realize that you don’t need to film something, since you
can just rely on the audience hearing it. In other cases, you’ll realize that you need to establish an object visually in
order for the sound to make sense. If you know in advance how the sound is going to work, you can ensure you
shoot what you need to make life much easier for your editor and sound team.
The following exercises are all designed to help you integrate sounds and visuals so that you get used to
incorporating sound into both production and pre-production.
Using Moviestorm makes it easy to go back and forth between all stages of the film, so it’s easy to adjust the
direction, camerawork, even the set design and lighting, to fit with the sound. Once you’ve got a rough edit, you can
look at what you did on set and go back and change it with just a few clicks if you think you could have done it
better. You're not forced to work with the footage you originally shot if you're not happy with it in post-production.
Note: You may need to use an external audio editor to get the sounds you want, or to do your final editing in a third
party video editing tool such as Premiere, Final Cut or Avid.
Film is an audio-visual medium
Add foley to emphasize incidental sounds such as walking, clothing, or furniture noise.
Foley is adding in the natural sounds created by an environment. These aren't necessarily present when you shoot
your film - sets and props don't always sound like they should, and you may not have picked up the sounds when
you recorded the on-set audio. So you need to add them in artificially.
The use of foley is not necessarily a requirement. It’s a stylistic and artistic choice, which can either add or detract
from a scene. It's fine to leave it out in order focus entirely on the dialog or the main action, or you can include it if it
adds realism or atmosphere to the scene. Good foley should often be almost unnoticed - it just feels right.
When shooting, it helps to know whether foley will be added in post-production. This helps you understand what you
can show on screen, and what will be carried by sound alone. It is also useful to think about your sound design at a
very early stage, and to be aware what your film will sound like.
What sounds could you put into this scene set in a coffee shop? People eating and drinking, even though you
can't see them, the cash register, footsteps inside and out, swishes of clothing, rain, traffic, car doors opening
and closing, the main door opening, cups on tables, creaking of chairs - what else?
Use a scene in a single location – interior or exterior. Ideally, it should be 1-2
minutes long, including 2 or more people. Include some dialog and some
choreography; opening and closing doors, different people walking on different
surfaces, sitting in chairs, drinking, etc.
Film the scene, and remove all the sound except the dialog.
Now add in sounds for everything that happens in the scene, including things that happen off-camera. (For example,
if a character sets a glass down on the table, add a “clink” even if you don’t see it happen.)
When you’ve done this, play the scene back, close your eyes, and just listen to it.
What does the foley add to the scene? Does the scene work without it?
Did you end up with a sound mix that was too messy? Did the foley obscure the
dialog? Was that intentional?
How useful is it to have the foley depicting things the audience can’t see? Does it
help, or is it confusing?
How loud did the foley need to be to be effective?
Where did you have to put the foley in the stereo mix, and how was this affected
when you cut to different shots?
Make a list of everything a foley artist would need to do for that scene.
Followup exercises
Work out which sounds are extraneous, and come up with a better mix of sounds.
Redo the scene, but leave out any unnecessary or confusing foley, and reshoot any shots that call for a sound you
don’t want. (For example, have the actor stay still while seated if you don’t want a “chair creaking” noise, and
compare that with simply not having the foley.)
Add in music and see what effect that has on which sounds are necessary.
What sort of films or styles don't require foley?
Experiment with adding different amounts of ambient noise to a scene.
Ambient noise, also known as "atmos" or background", or simply "ambience", is all the sounds that are naturally
made by the environment.
When adding ambience, you can be very flexible with how much you add. This is mostly a stylistic choice. It is
something that you can simply leave to the sound designer, but it helps to be aware of this while shooting, as it gives
you a better idea of how the finished scene will play and the mood you are creating.
In some cases, particularly action scenes, it can be good to have the ambience so loud and complex that they take
over, but you need to ensure the audience can follow the important parts of the story.
Left: a scene in a busy office, with people talking, making phone calls, and using computers. Right: in this
action scene, you have explosions and gunfire, as well as people running through trees and undergrowth and
shouting. The ambient sounds add to the setting, but can quickly become distracting.
Use a scene in a moderately busy location – either interior or exterior. Ideally, it
should be 1-2 minutes long, including 2 or more people. Scenes with some dialog
work best for this.
Film and edit the scene, and strip out all the sound except the dialog.
Now build up the sound, including ambience, foley, and other effects, then finally add music. If you find it useful,
start taking sounds out again until you get back to a more minimalist version of the scene.
At what point did the scene feel as if it sounded right?
At what point did the ambient sound become “too much” and start distracting
from the scene?
Which sounds were significant, which were interesting, and which were merely
What was different between the portions of the scene with dialog and the
portions without?
Followup exercises
Pick three of your sound mixes from earlier: a minimal one, a medium one, and a full one. Go back and reshoot and
re-edit the scene with those sound mixes in mind. How do they come out differently?
Create a scene with the sound as much like real life as possible.
For some types of movie, particularly 70s-style movies such as The French Connection, the sound design calls for the
scene to be depicted as realistically as possible, as if the film-maker simply captured all the on-set ambient noise. For
an outdoor scene, this means including all the traffic noises, airplanes, dogs, passers-by, and everything else. You
then mix the dialog down so that it appears to be at the right level compared to the background sound.
This is very different to a normal sound mix where the dialog is artificially made louder to make it easier to hear. As a
result, you may need to film the scene differently to make it comprehensible to viewers.
This scene is set in a busy street, with traffic noise and other urban sounds. In real life, it could be hard to hear
what the characters are saying, particularly when cars or trucks pass close by. In a longer shot, you might
expect to hear the background sounds, although it's not necessary. When you cut to the closer shot, you can
lower the volume of the background, as if you were standing closer to the characters, or you can keep it noisy
as if it were recorded in the street and add atmosphere.
Choose a scene in a busy location – either interior or exterior. Ideally, it should
be 1-2 minutes long, including 2 or more main characters and extras, and include
Go to a busy location, close your eyes, and make note of all the sounds you hear. Ideally, get a good recording
device and record the sounds. An urban street, crowded shopping mall, or busy office are all good examples.
Film the scene without ambient noise, and just focus on the dialog.
Now add in as much ambient noise as necessary to make it realistic – you can simply add the recording you made
earlier. Add in dialog for the extras if appropriate. You may need to adjust your camerawork.
Can you make out what the characters are saying?
What does the background sound add to the mood or style?
Does your “real” sound actually sound realistic when it’s in the film?
What did you have to adjust between the two versions?
Followup exercises
Try it with different scenes and genres to see where this technique works well and where it doesn’t.
Build up an ambient sound completely from scratch, and compare it to the sound you recorded on location.
Experiment with adjusting the ambient volume between shots but without making it feel artificial.
Over-emphasize one single sound for dramatic purposes.
You can create a very effective and atmospheric sequence by using a sound design artificially focused on just one
object or activity.
For example, at a busy checkpoint full of people, you might mute all the sounds except the repetitive noise of a
guard stamping papers, getting gradually louder as the hero gets to the front of the line. In a hospital scene, you
might focus on just the beeping of a single machine. Ticking clocks emphasize the passage of time. Your shots need
to be designed with that sound in mind.
In order for this to work, you need to show the audience the source of the sound, either before or after the sound,
so that they can understand what they are seeing.
Include the footsteps sound in the opening shot, even though we cannot see who is making them. This adds
tension to the scene already. Cutting to a shot of feet walking cues the viewer to recognize that the footsteps
are significant. We cut back to the initial subject, and continue the footsteps; by showing the door, we suggest
that the walker is about to enter. Conventionally, we could then cut to a shot of someone entering.
Alternatively, we could continue the scene as the man works in silence, listening to the sounds of pacing from
outside. This suggests that he is imprisoned or guarded, and adds an extra layer of meaning to the story.
Use a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. 30 seconds is plenty,
and you don’t need dialog. The scene should include some activity that makes a
distinctive sound, even if that is not in the script.
Shoot the scene based around the sound.
Shoot it again in a more conventional manner.
What does shooting it this way add to the story, the character, or the mood?
What did you have to do visually to make the audio work?
At what point did you show the audience what was making the sound? Could you
have done it earlier or later and been equally effective?
What other sounds did you leave out that you would normally have put in?
Followup exercises
Do the same with a scene that includes dialog. How do you have to shoot it to keep the key sound and fit it around
the dialog?
Use a musical theme to denote a character, then use the music to imply the character
without showing them.
Using music to convey information to the audience is a powerful technique that requires careful work from the
director, cameraman, editor and composer to set up and carry off. In the early part of the film, the musical theme
(or leitmotif, as it's called in classical music) is established. Then later in the film, you can use the music to
foreshadow a character’s presence.
You can use this in all sorts of useful ways. If a character is only half-shown, the audience will assume who it is if
they hear their leitmotif. You can also suggest that an on-screen character is thinking about on off-screen character
by using the leitmotif. Great examples of this are Darth Vader's theme in the Star Wars movies, or Indy's fanfare in
the Indiana Jones movies. When you hear that music, you know Indy's coming to the rescue or Vader's about to do
something evil.
When filming a scene that uses a leitmotif, you need to allow sufficient time for the leitmotif to be played, and
choose camera angles that support it. During pre-production, note when you plan to use the leitmotif instead of (or
to complement) a visual and structure the scene around it.
Left: if you've already established this character, you know who they are as soon as they open the door. This
strong image would also make a good one for establishing the leitmotif: the viewer will associate that music
with both the person and the mood. Center and right: using a romantic theme when the two lovers are
together sets the tone. Using the same theme later when the man is alone suggests to the audience that he is
sending a message to her and is thinking about her.
This is a complex exercise, which will involve shooting a short film, at least 5
minutes, maybe more. You will also need a score that includes at least one
strong recognizable theme. You may find it easiest to simply take this from
classical music.
Shoot the film. Use the leitmotif whenever the appropriate character appears. Once you have established the
leitmotif, imply the character’s presence before showing them onscreen just by using the music.
How does this affect the story-telling?
What did you show on screen while the offscreen character’s leitmotif was being
What pre-production steps did you have to go through to ensure the leitmotif
would work?
How did you have to adjust your filming process to work with the music?
How many times did you have to use the leitmotif to establish it successfully?
How long is your leitmotif? Would a longer or shorter one have worked better?
What sort of genres work well with this technique?
Followup exercises
Use a longer and more complex movie. Use the leitmotif to imply a character’s influence in a scene, even when they
are not actually present. For example, in a romantic movie involving a love triangle, use the leitmotif to remind the
viewer of the third person while the other two are having an intimate moment. In an action movie, use the leitmotif
of the villain to express menace when the hero comes upon a murder scene to tell the audience who did it.
Invert the convention in a mystery. Use the leitmotif at an early stage to tell the audience who the villain is. Then
when they rewatch the movie, they’ll realize the answer was there all along.
When cutting between two scenes, use a sound to provide continuity, even when the scenes
are disconnected in the narrative.
You can make two scenes flow together effectively by carrying a sound across from one scene to the next. You can
do this in several ways; you can establish the sound of an object, and then have that same object in the next scene,
even if it’s in a different location. For example, we hear the hero clicking his pen as he walks. As we cut to the next
scene, the pen clicking continues.
If the object is in the same location, you can use sound to bridge a passage of time. We hear a grandfather clock
ticking. It continues to tick as we cut from summer to winter. You can use different objects that make the same
sound to form the bridge; you can cut from the sound of one car engine to a different car in the next scene.
If you’re skilful, you can use similar sounds from very different objects to bridge between two scenes: for example an
air raid siren and a baby’s scream. You need to know before you start shooting how this bridge will work so that you
know to film the right things: they need not be part of the narrative or even in the script.
End one scene on a shot of a woman crying in a park, and have the bird squawking as it flies off. The next
scene starts with more birds squawking, and we look down into a street. We can then cut to a closer shot on
the man in the street. The shot on the bird is optional, though it does help to provide additional continuity.
Take any two consecutive scenes from a screenplay. They can be in different
locations or the same location.
Shoot the scene and cut using a regular cut or dissolve.
Use sound to make the scene transition more interesting. You may need to adjust your camerawork.
What sound did you use, and why?
Was the thing making the sound part of the original screenplay? If not, does
adding it detract from the story?
How did you change the camerawork between the two versions? Did you have to
specifically show the object making the sound?
Did you use the same type of cut between the scenes?
How does this affect how the audience approaches the second scene?
When does this technique work well, and when doesn’t it?
What did you have to do in pre-production when planning the scenes?
Followup exercises
Try it using several different types of scenes and sounds.
Build a scene or sequence designed to fit to a specific piece of music. This is not the same as
making a music video.
Music is normally put onto the film afterwards, but there are occasions when the film needs to be driven by the
music. For example, if you’re creating a title sequence with a strong theme tune, or you’re using a well-known score.
This is particularly important if the music includes specific dramatic emphases, and you need to ensure that certain
pieces of action coincide with the music. This is usually handled by the editor, but there is a lot you can do as the
director to make the editor’s job much easier.
For example, you may have three gunshots followed by someone falling dead, and the music has three strong beats
then a long chord. If you show all three gunshots in the same shot, they have to be timed to fit the music, and then
you may need to cut or pan to the victim at the right time to make the music work. Alternatively, you may be filming
a romantic scene, where the music becomes quiet while the lovers speak, and then crescendos again just as they
kiss; you need to ensure that the entire dialog sequence fits within the available quiet period.
Moments that can be enhanced by music: as the President shakes his fist to emphasize a point in his speech,
add in strong orchestral hits. As the door opens to show a silhouetted figure, or a character sees his destination
through a gap in the rocks, introduce a strong theme or change in musical style.
Pick a dramatic instrumental piece of music: you can use classical, jazz, rock, or
whatever takes your fancy. Movie soundtracks work well - not surprisingly! Now
pick a scene evoked by that music. You can include dialog, action, or both.
Film and edit the scene.
How well did the visuals and music complement together?
Does the choreography feel “forced”?
What did you have to do in terms of choreography and camerawork to get a
good edit?
Did you use any background sounds as well as the music? Did they detract from
or add to the scene?
Followup exercises
Do the same with a piece of music including lyrics, and see how this changes your approach, particularly if there is
dialog in the scene.
Pick the music. Now plan and shoot all the footage, but without listening to the music as you work. Then take the
footage into the edit and see if what you came up with was sufficient to work with and adequately timed.
If you know a composer (or can compose music yourself), strip the existing music away, and come up with a new
score. How similar are they?
Make a music video.
Even if you have no interest in making music videos, they allow you to experiment in various ways with putting
images to music. They are excellent for practicing narrative without dialog, for practicing editing to a rhythm, or
creating pure visual films with no narrative at all.
Music videos also allow you considerably more freedom than other forms when it comes to camerawork and editing:
you can use extreme angles and all sorts of post-production effects, and you don’t need to follow many of the
standard rules of framing, continuity, cutting or narrative.
Different styles of music video. (With thanks to SPiT LiKE THiS.)
Pick a piece of music you enjoy and can relate to. A short song works best.
Film the piece in five different ways:
video of the band performing the piece. This could be on stage, in a studio, or in some unusual location.
video of the band goofing around, relaxing, backstage, etc.
story based on the music.
series of images and sequences suggested by the music with no real story.
combination of any or all of the above.
Which ones work? Why?
Which ones allowed you to use more extreme camerawork?
How did you have to structure your shots when constrained to the rhythm of the
music in the edit?
Which ones did you enjoy making? What does this tell you about your natural
filmmaking style?
Followup exercises
Repeat with many different styles of music - particularly music you don't like!
Movies have often been described as “painting with light”. It doesn’t take long to realize that the lighting for a scene
is critical to setting the mood for the entire piece, as well as the composition. You can completely change what you
see simply by changing the lighting. The color sets the tone for the piece, the brightness sets the intensity, and the
positioning can completely change the shape of the objects on the screen and the visual composition of the shot.
Lighting is a slow, painstaking process, as you’ll find when you get on a shoot. It usually means the entire cast and
crew standing around while the lights are set up, and there’s often a lot of trial and error before the DoP and director
are both happy. The sooner you can give your lighting team a good idea of what you want your scene to look like,
the better. That saves everyone’s time, and on a live action shoot, can make a real difference to how much you can
shoot in a day.
Using Moviestorm to practice lighting skills offers several advantages. If you’re shooting exteriors, you don’t have to
contend with changing environmental conditions: the sun won’t suddenly go behind a cloud, and you won’t see the
shadow of a tree creep gradually across the set as the shoot goes on. You can even eliminate shadows altogether
with just a single click. You can decide what time of day it is, and film at twilight, dawn, or midday to compare the
different lights and how it affects your scene. You can film in bright California sunshine, or on a grey English winter
morning, all without leaving your sofa.
Soft, gentle lighting in this scene immediately suggests it's part of a romance or a mystery - or perhaps a touch
of both? The choice of lighting often defines the mood, regardless of the actors' performances, the script, or
the music.
Lighting a virtual movie scene is also far quicker, easier and cheaper than lighting a real set. You don’t need lots of
bulky equipment, and you don’t need to worry about whether you’ve brought the right color gels. You can place a
light wherever you want it simply by dragging, without having to think about supports or gantries – and of course,
there’s no risk of a poorly secured light falling onto the set!
Moviestorm’s lighting tools are relatively basic compared to more advanced 3D software, and they certainly don’t
compare to the flexibility you get in real life, but they’re sufficient to try out some of the basic techniques you need
to know. You’ll still find it useful as a pre-production tool. When you start to block out a scene, you can very quickly
get some idea of how you want it lit. You can show this to your production designer, DoP, set designer, and lighting
crew, and they’ll immediately have a better understanding of how you see the scene. They probably won’t set up the
lights in anything like the same way you did, but they’ll be able to create something that captures your vision.
Movies are “painting with light”
Use different lighting to create realistic and stylized versions of the same scene.
In some scenes or movies, you’ll want to make everything look as realistic as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean
that you simply use or replicate natural light – these shots are often created quite artificially when you get on set.
They’re merely designed to look as though they’re natural.
At other times, particularly if you’re filming fantasy, sci-fi or art-house movies, you’ll want to create lighting setups
that bear little resemblance to real life: strong colored lights, heavy shadows, lights coming from strange places,
unexpected pools of light, and so on. The recent series of Doctor Who uses this effect extensively. It is not unusual
for different characters in the same shot to be lit with very different colors, and there's no real logic to the lights:
they just look striking.
A stylized lighting setup need not be more complex than a standard one: for example, lighting the entire scene with
a strong blue fill, a purple back light and a greenish glow from a computer monitor in front of the character’s face
would create an unusual effect with only three light sources.
The same shot with realistic and stylized lighting. You wouldn't expect the right-hand shot in a police drama,
but it would make perfect sense in a sci-fi movie.
Use a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior, including 2 or more
people. You can use either an action or a dialog scene, as they will give you
different challenges. Good locations for this include deserted city streets,
nightclubs, or an abandoned warehouse.
Film the scene, making it look as much like real life as possible. Think of it as if you were shooting a documentary
and were simply trying to catch what you see in front of you.
Film it again, but now use much more stylized lighting. You may need to adjust the choreography to take advantage
of the lighting setup: move characters so that they make best use of the light.
Which version works better, and why?
How did the lighting affect the storytelling – what effect does it have on the
In what ways can you use lighting to change the audience’s view of particular
characters or events?
What else did you have to adjust to take advantage of the lighting?
When using a realistic lighting design, what did you have to “improve” to get the
shots better, i.e. eliminating shadows, adding contrast between foreground and
background, and so on.
Which version was more complex?
Do a quick budget and shooting plan – what extra costs would be involved in
using more complex lighting? Consider setup time, equipment, and so on.
What reasons would you have for picking your lighting design – is it purely an
aesthetic issue?
Followup exercises
Film several consecutive scenes using the same stylized lighting design on different sets. How easy is it to keep the
same feel across the different locations? Do they cut together successfully, particularly when intercutting between
Film several consecutive scenes using different stylized lighting designs on different sets. Do they cut together
successfully, particularly when intercutting between them, or do they clash?
Try the same exercise on different scenes and genres: what lighting setups are appropriate in different cases?
Shoot a scene with several different lighting setups, but make it look consistent.
One of the lighting crew’s favorite tricks is to relight the scene for each shot. This is much more common in film than
television. The aim is to make every shot look as good as it can, and create a pleasing visual composition. In some
scenes, a character may be lit from completely different directions, or may have different colored lighting on them.
If it’s done well, the audience will never notice the lack of continuity. In The Lord of the Rings I: The Fellowship of
the Ring, at the scene in the inn, the master shots are all lit from one direction, with the light appearing to come
from the fireplace behind the characters so they are mostly backlit. This creates a strong visual image. When we cut
to close shots, the light now comes from the opposite direction, in front of the characters, so that the viewer can see
the facial detail better. Most of the audience won't notice this lack of continuity, as they are focused on the
characters and the story.
When you're shooting television, you rarely get the opportunity to change lights between shots: it is common to
shoot the entire scene in one take. Film, on the other hand, tends to be filmed one shot at a time, which allows for
much more care to be taken over getting each shot just right. It's one of the main things that differentiates film from
television - and of course, this is reflected in the budget and shooting schedule.
In this relatively subtle example, the character in front is lit with a strong front light to help him stand out from
the background. When we cut to a close shot on him, one side of his face is in shadow, and we lose detail. By
adding in an extra back light which isn't present in the master shot, we enable the whole face to be seen while
preserving the shadow.
Take a scene in a single location – preferably interior. Ideally, it should include 2
or more people. You can use either an action or a dialog scene.
Shoot the scene with the same lighting throughout.
Shoot it again, resetting the lighting for each shot. (You may need to use an external video editor for this.)
How do the two versions compare?
Are the changes in lighting obvious to an unsuspecting audience – and do they
distract from the story?
What issues in lighting continuity were you aware of?
How much extra work was involved in resetting the lights? How would that
translate to a real film set in terms of shooting schedule?
Is it worth it?
Followup exercises
Try it with an exterior daytime location, and see if the viewer notices that the sun would be changing position if this
were real.
Shoot a scene where much of the screen is dark, allowing the audience to focus on one small
part of the shot.
Most of the time, you want to use the full area of the screen. However, for atmospheric shots, you may want to have
the majority of the screen dark with just a small lit area. This could be a foreground character, or a lit doorway, or an
area of the set such as an interrogation table. This is often found in film noir or horror, but certainly has applications
outside that; for example a character in a dark room working computer late at night, or a character may simply be
against a dark background.
This is not the same as shooting a scene in low light or at night, where the entire set is dark. This is an exercise in
visual composition where you choose which area of the screen will be lit.
Left: it's hard to make out what's happening in this shot, but the viewer's eye will be attracted to the
movement of the character at bottom left by the phone box. Right: this shot shows more detail, but the viewer
is unsure where to look.
Left: there is a lot to see in this shot, but the viewer naturally focuses on the man seated at the desk, even
though he's in long shot. Right: closing down the visible area by shooting through a window compresses the
action into a small space and intensifies it.
Take a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. A scene with a
single character is sufficient. This works well with silent scenes as well as dialog
Shoot the scene again using a conventional lighting setup.
Shoot the scene again, focusing all the light on no more than 20% of the screen area. The rest of the screen can be
completely dark, or the audience may be able to make out faint details if you prefer.
Does it work?
Does the lighting look artificial and feel forced?
How does this affect visual composition?
Does having faint background details add or detract from the shot?
How do you have to stage the scene to take advantage of the lighting?
Followup exercises
How long can you sustain this technique before it gets boring or stressful to watch?
Shoot a scene with two characters. Try keeping one character in darkness throughout (not necessarily offscreen).
Try it again with each character lit separately on the face so you’re simply seeing two almost disembodied heads –
use either one-shot or two-shots as you prefer.
Shoot a scene where the audience is focused on the light area, but you then have something emerge from the
Create a tracking shot where you start with a mostly dark screen, and dolly or zoom in towards the lit section of the
screen. Do the same in reverse as a closing shot.
Make a music video.
Night shoots often require different staging as well as different lighting. It’s not always as simple as just making it
dark. You need to create an artificial lighting setup that allows the viewer to see what you want them to see, but
making it feel like darkness.
Left: a scene shot in daylight. Center: dropping the light level gives an image that's dull and hard to make out.
Right: adding in a couple of front lights and adding depth of field allows the characters to stand out from the
background, creating a clearer image.
Left: an even darker version of the previous shot focuses the viewer completely on the characters by effectively
taking away the background. Center: a reverse with this lighting setup means you can't see the man's face, as
the lights are set up to light the woman. Right: reset the lights so you can see his face in this shot. The viewer
probably won't notice the lack on lighting continuity if they're focused on the story. (See the earlier exercise on
lighting continuity)
Use a scene in a single location – preferably exterior. Ideally, it should be 1-2
minutes long, including 2 or more people. You can use either an action or a
dialog scene, as they will give you different challenges.
Film the scene in daytime.
Film it again at night. Change the lighting, and also adjust the choreography, camerawork or anything else as you
need to create the right mood.
In what ways does the scene feel different?
Can the audience see what’s going on at night, or do they have to work to make
out details?
What did you have to change?
Did you need to use multiple lighting setups?
What, apart from the general lighting, did you change to make it look like night?
(e.g. costumes, traffic density, number of extras, what people were doing?)
Did you use different sound or music to change the atmosphere?
Look at some selected stills – how did your visual composition change?
Followup exercises
Film it at twilight or dawn.
Film it in different climatic conditions: bright sunshine, or a grey, cloudy day.
Light a scene, but have the lights moving so that the lighting changes during the scene.
Most of the time, your lighting setups will be static. At times, though, you will want the lighting to change, either to
create atmosphere, as part of the story or as a way of creating a reveal. For example, you might have a light bulb
swinging from side to side, or a flashing neon sign to create a disorienting feel, you could light a stage show, or you
may have car headlights swing past, light up the scene, and then disappear again as the car pulls away.
This involves a lot of prior planning, particularly on a live shoot where you have to ensure that your camera is set up
to cope with the change in light levels and color.
Initially, it's hard to see the figure standing by the tree. The car headlights illuminate him briefly, giving the
viewer a glimpse of the concealed character. You can then cut to a better lit shot on the character, having
established that they are there. Alternatively, you can cut to another part of the scene: when this character
comes in later, the viewer may or may remember seeing them previously.
Take a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. Ideally, it should be
1-2 minutes long, including 2 or more people. You can use either an action or a
dialog scene.
Shoot the scene with a basic lighting setup.
Shoot it again, but this time move the lights during the scene.
What did the moving light add to the story or the atmosphere?
What do you have to do differently depending on whether you’re lighting close
shots or master shots?
What difference does it make whether you’re lighting people or objects?
What difference does it make if the lights move during static or moving shots?
What would be involved in creating this effect in live action?
Followup exercises
Experiment to see how much you can change the lighting during a scene before it gets too hard for the audience to
Film a sequence using lights that are held by the characters.
This is a useful technique for mysteries, exploration sequences, horror films, and so on. When you have characters
using flashlights, this allows them to direct the light. This means that you can control where the audience is looking,
and create shifting patches of darkness and light on the screen., which makes for an interesting visual sequence.
Most of the time, the lighting will not actually be created by the props: you will have to create a lighting design that
seems right, even though it is completely artificial. Filming in this kind of environment requires careful planning
otherwise the scene can be hard for the viewer to interpret. If there is too much darkness, or the lights are moving
too much, the image can appear disjointed and chaotic. This may be the effect you want, particularly in action
sequences, but you must ensure that the viewer still feels involved and interested.
Handheld lights are often moving. you should complete the previous exercise on moving lights first.
A character using a burning torch to illuminate a cave. The torch only provides part of the light: the set is lit
with a dim glow in order to provide some lighting outside the area that would actually be lit and create a more
pleasing composition. Cutting to the close shot creates a contract in light levels, from the primarily dark screens
at the opening and closing to a brighter shot in the middle of the sequence.
Take a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. The set should have
plenty of things in it: if external, include trees, rocks, and so on. Have at least
one character with a hand-held light. Dialog is not necessary.
Start in a dark set. Have a character enter with the light and move through it, illuminating various parts of the set.
What part does this lighting play in the story: is it necessary or a stylistic choice?
How easy is it for the audience to understand the space?
How are you revealing the space? What do you show, and what do you hide?
Does this create the atmosphere you want?
How is this amplified by music or background sound?
What sort of shots work best? Close shots on characters, close shots on
illuminated areas, or wide shots showing mostly darkness with some bright
spots? How do these cut together?
How do you illuminate faces so the audience can read the actors’ expressions?
What other lights do you need to add to the actual prop lights?
Followup exercises
Experiment with having several characters so you have many light sources.
Experiment with using shadows for an extreme effect.
Shoot an action sequence with this lighting.
Conceal things (e.g. enemies or monsters) in the darkness, and shoot a scene so that the audience sees them but
the characters are unaware of them.
Film an object in silhouette, for a dramatic effect.
A silhouette can create a powerful visual composition. It can be used for shock or mystery. It can also be used as
part of a reveal, where the audience initially sees only a shape, but then as the shot develops, more details can be
made out. It is often used in horror or thrillers, but can have applications in other genres. It is of course a key
element in many over the shoulder shots, where the front character is silhouetted. However, this effect needs to be
used sparingly for best effect.
Filming a silhouette is not the same as filming a shadow (covered in the next exercise). You are still filming the actual
object, but with no front light (or very little front light) on it.
Left: the silhouette through the doorway makes a strong image by compressing the visible screen area with
blackness. This would make a powerful opening or closing shot. Right: a very similar image filling the screen
creates a completely different composition. Faint details are visible on the character, so it's not simply black.
Take a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. A very short scene
is adequate for this: 30 seconds or less is sufficient. Dialog is not necessary.
However, the scene must have some dramatic moment with someone or
something appearing or a key prop such as a tombstone.
Shoot the scene conventionally.
Shoot the scene again, and film the key moment where the object is in silhouette.
Did it work?
Why would you do this instead of conventional filming?
How did the shape of the object affect the shot? (For example, a crucifix casts a
clear and distinctive silhouette, a book doesn’t.)
Does it work best as a full black silhouette, or when you can see some detail on
the object? Why?
How can you create a distinctive silhouette of a character by using costume,
posture or props?
How can you use this to create ambiguity?
How did you have to light the scene to make it work?
Could you use on-set lights such as car headlights or searchlights, or were you
using natural lights.
Followup exercises
Experiment with moving the silhouetted object so that it becomes fully lit: you may have to move the object or the
camera, or find a reason for changing the lighting.
Film the shadow of something, rather than the object, for a dramatic effect. You can film the
shadow against a wall, the floor, or another object or character.
Sometimes, filming shadows just looks more stylish than filming in a conventional way, particularly in horror or
thriller movies. It's a technique that goes back to early German Expressionist films, and is still used today in a variety
of movies. One notable example is in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, where the shadows actually behave differently
to the actual characters: this stands as a metaphor for their inner thoughts.
Extreme close-ups can work very well for this type of shot: for example, just the shadow of a hand. With wellpositioned lights, this can be magnified so the shadow is far larger than it should be, and the viewer will accept it
provided that the image is dramatic and well-composed. Realism is less important than style.
However, if done badly or overused, this effect looks cheap, amateurish, and ludicrous. It’s important to understand
when it will work well.
Left: a conventional version of the shot with no shadow. Center: the zombie isn't shown, and only the shadow
is seen. Right: combining the two adds extra emphasis but can be distracting.
Use a scene in a single location – either interior or exterior. A very short scene is
adequate for this: 30 seconds or less is sufficient. Dialog is not necessary.
However, the scene must have some dramatic moment. For example, someone
sneaking up, someone coming in through a doorway, or a key prop.
(Note: because of the way Moviestorm’s lighting works, this works best on a
fairly small set.)
Shoot the scene conventionally.
Shoot the scene again, and film the key moment using shadows.
Did it work?
Why would you do this instead of conventional filming?
How did the shape of the object affect the shot? (For example, a crucifix casts a
clear and distinctive shadow, a book doesn’t.)
How can you use this to create ambiguity? (For example, the audience assumes
they’ve seen one person but in fact it’s someone else)
How did you have to light the scene to make it work?
How can you use perspective to create a more dramatic image?
Followup exercises
Experiment with the positioning of the lights to create different shadows.
Try it in different styles of movie - comedy can be a real challenge!
Moviestorm is a low-cost, easy-to-use animation tool. It’s not like other animation tools though – it’s more of a virtual
film studio. Controlling it is much like playing a game – if you’re familiar with The Sims, you’ll be able to use
Moviestorm right away.
I’ve been part of the development team for Moviestorm since the beginning, along with my long-time friend and
collaborator, Dave Lloyd. It grew out of our desire to make insanely ambitious movies despite having no budget, no
kit, and no training. We realized that animation was the way to go, but neither of us knew anything about 3D
modeling or 3D animation. We just wanted to direct movies. So we decided to build a tool that would allow us to do
that. It doesn’t create movies that rival the visual quality of Pixar or Dreamworks, but we never expected it to. Those
kind of movies take huge budgets and thousands of hours of rendering time on expensive kit with large teams of
highly trained artists. We wanted something quick and easy that we could use working solo on our home computers
– even a $300 bargain laptop. We’ve started to think of Moviestorm as a film sketching tool – it’s fast, it’s versatile,
and you can get your ideas across very economically.
Along the way, we realized that Moviestorm could be used for more than just making ultra-cheap movies. We’re now
seeing people around the world using it for pre-visualization on professional productions, in classrooms, for business
presentations, and to help teach filmmaking.
You can get Moviestorm for Windows or Mac from
Moviestorm screenshots: set building, directing, editing
Matt Kelland is one of the founders of Moviestorm. He’s also founded several
other companies, including one of the first ISPs in Britain way back in the early
90s, one of the first mobile phone games companies, a digital & transmedia
publishing house based in Los Angeles, and an events promotion company in
Orlando, Florida. Matt has also written or contributed to several books, designed
computer, board and card games, and has had his animations shown at film
festivals around the world, including Sundance. He now lives in Orlando, and
spends his free time cooking, listening to local blues bands, and avoiding the
theme parks as much as possible.
He blogs, irreverently, on a range of topics, occasionally including films, at
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