CODECS & COMPRESSION
These may sound like something from a wizard’s spell book, but I assure you they have a very real impact on your images, for better or worse. Let’s start with what a codec is. There are many, many, many codecs out there. A codec takes a stream of data and encodes it into a specific format that you can view and edit. Here are some of the more popular formats you will come across:
Now that your eyeballs are glossed over, let’s try to break these down into English! Generally, your camera will only have one or two codec options. You will need to research your camera to find out what those might be. What do codecs translate to in the real world? The video signal coming from the camera sensor contains a massive amount of data. To be able to record this data in an efficient way, the codec in your camera uses compression to create smaller file sizes. Compression is exactly what it sounds like: shrinking your incoming data down to a smaller file size. For example, 1080p at 30 frames per second is about 9Gigs per minute if uncompressed. The camera essentially discards most of the information in order to compress the file size to about 300-400 MB per minute.
Sounds great, right? Smaller file sizes – yay! Before you get too excited, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Compression helps us avoid using massive amounts of hard drive space, which is definitely a good thing. However, it also limits us because we now have less information in the video files that we want to edit and manipulate. For example, if we want to really go wild on a color grade, a more compressed file will start to look bad much more quickly when adding effects. Now before you throw your camera off a cliff for shooting compressed formats, though, all is not lost. For the majority of what filmmakers do, shooting compressed formats is just fine. Encoding is getting much better, and chances are your camera will have a great internal codec already. If not... I can recommend a few high mountains.
If you still aren’t crazy about the idea of compression, never fear. Instead, you can take advantage of something called “raw recording.” Multiple formats exist for raw recording. Generally, they still involve a small amount of compression, but it’s usually not very noticeable. Often, you can change the amount of compression on your raw images when you don’t need your footage to be totally uncompressed. Before you decide that raw recording is the only way for a true filmmaker to record footage, though, remember that there are drawbacks. As mentioned previously, it takes up massive amounts of storage space. For example, if you are shooting raw footage at 4k with no compression, 1 hour of footage will take up roughly 480 gigabytes of hard drive space. That’s a lot of storage! Also, raw recording is often only available in more expensive camera platforms. These drawbacks need to be balanced with your desire for greater ability to manipulate the color and exposure in the video. One time when greater control may outweigh practicality is if you are shooting green screen footage. Also, you may need the additional editing flexibility if you are creating visual effects.
In summary, then, compressed footage is a smaller file with less information, often able to be edited right away with little set up time while uncompressed footage contains more information in a much larger file often with a more complex workflow inside your editing system. A codec is what the compressed/uncompressed footage is turned into so that you are able to view and edit your files on a computer. Most editing systems will allow you to simply drag and drop your footage in and start editing. Some codecs may need to be encoded into a more edit-friendly format or to be run through external applications such as Divinci Resolve. Hopefully, I have adequately compressed all that information down so that you can retain it more easily! If not, don’t worry too much. Codecs and compression is a pretty technical and advanced subject. Generally, you won’t pay much attention to these elements of film until you have more experience.
Let's talk about shot types. The digital kind, not the ones that go bang. Only filmmakers are legally allowed to shoot people. License to thrill.
I'll break down the most common shot types that you will see and use. We will go over some of the most iconic scenes from films, let's dive in!
Establishing Shot: This is typically a wide shot that establishes where we are. An example would be a wide shot of a city, the following shot could be of a two men having a conversation in a warehouse. Once we see the men inside the warehouse, we can immediately see where they are and the type of surrounding we can expect. The establishing shot really sets the scene for what we can expect.
In this shot from The Walking dead we set up an abandoned Atlanta, we clearly see everyone was fleeing and no one going in. We set up Rick as a lone cowboy heading into the heart of danger to find his family. This one shot sets up a lot of what is to come.
Wide Shot: This is a shot in any frame that encompasses the entire scene. The width of the shot is relative to your scene. A wide shot in a warehouse will be wider than a wide shot in a bedroom.
Here we have a scene from Reservoir Dogs. This wide shot frames the entire action in this scene which is probably used as the master shot for the scene as well. You can always cut back to your wide shot if you have no other options.
Medium Shot: Similar to the Wide Shot our medium shot is relative to our scene. This could be a family seated at a dinner table. Or it could be a teacher in front of a class shown from the waist up. This allows us to be closer on what is happening in the scene without focusing on specifics just yet.
In this scene from Lord of the Rings we have our hobbit group in the tavern. This medium shot allows us to focus on the group without seeing the entire tavern. The shot almost makes you feel as if you are the 5th person at the table watching the scene play out.
Close Up: Arguably one of the most important shots in films. A close up is generally from the top of a subjects head to just below the shirt pockets. This is where we can really focus in on the scene and the emotion of the character.
A frame from the Film Cast Away, in this shot we can clearly see how weary Tom Hanks is. The contrast of the beautiful tropical background and his rugged look is a perfect juxtaposition for the film.
Extreme Close Up: Also called an ECU, this is where we can get super close up on our subjects. This is generally done to get very specific on what we want our viewers to see or feel. Often these shots are from eyebrows to chin, or even just seeing the eyes.
In this iconic scene from The Matrix we see Morpheus's stoic expression while Neo's reflection shows his two different destinies. The blue pill or the red pill, ignorance is bliss, or knowledge is freedom. This subliminal shot says so much about what is happening in the scene.
POV (Point Of View): These are often used for “doggie cams” or in thriller films where we take the view of the “stalker”. You can also see these shots where we take the view of an animal, object, or security camera. Essentially this shot takes the point of view of whatever character or object you set it up to be.
Here we have a scene from Breaking Bad. This POV is used from inside the bag of money showing Walter's reaction. This shot is much more powerful than if the director chose to shoot a clean single without the money in the foreground.
OTS (Over The Shoulder): This is a version of a Close Up or Medium Shot. In an over the shoulder we are framing our subject over the shoulder of the person they are conversing with. We can use these shots to help spatially place our characters and give the audience an understanding of where we are.
This shot from Jurassic park is a great example of using an over the shoulder shot. They are using a long lens to keep Grant out of focus but seeing his recognizable image. The focus is on the menacing T-rex in a show down type frame with the taunting flare.
Clean Single: This is when we shoot a close up and we do not include any part of the subject they are having a conversation with. The shot is totally clean around the edges.
Here we have a shot of Luke Skywalker presumably talking to Vader. We are focused solely on Luke and his reactions. Vader's shoulder or head isn't in any part of the frame. The Storm Troopers in the background give is a clear understanding of where Luke is and the tension in the scene.
Dirty Single: A Dirty Single is when we include a little bit of the subject they are conversing with. This is similar to an Over The Shoulder but with much less of the other person in the frame. Again this helps to place our characters in the scene spatially.
Here we have a shot from Inception. Leo is talking to Ellen, the director has placed her in the left of frame. This gives weight to where Leo is looking and gives us a good idea of where we are. Imagine this scene without Ellen there, we would almost feel as if we were missing what he is looking at.
Cut Away: A Cut Away is a shot of anything in the scene that is not our main characters but still has importance in the scene. For example two characters are having a conversation about waiting for the phone to ring. We can then cut to a shot of the telephone.
The Telephones in The Matrix where a pivotal part in the film to escape The Matrix and get back to reality. When the director cut to the phone it was very important in the scene.
Insert: An Insert is an isolated piece of a larger scene. Say a character was typing on a computer screen, this would be hard for us to see from an over the shoulder or medium shot. We could use an insert to get a closer view on what we want the audience to see. We are “inserting” a shot of what the character is doing or interacting with.
This is a shot from Zodiac. This insert shot allows us to see exactly what the character sees. Especially in this film where there is a lot of information the audience needs to see from the letters.
Reaction Shot: This is a specific type of cutaway. We use these when a character says something and we cut to a different character somewhere in the scene reacting. You see this a lot in comedies where someone at a table says something obscene, then we see guests reactions to the conversation.
Here is a shot from Jaws where Brody sees the massive shark. The framing on a reaction shot is much like a close up.
Knowing these different types of shots will allow you to better communicate to your cast and crew the look and framing you are trying to accomplish. When you are reading a story or a script, start to think about the dialog and action in terms of these shot types. Write them down and storyboard the scenes for practice.
A little over 2 years ago in the middle of Nowhere Desert, Nevada was my first shoot with Heckler & Koch. I wanted to create videos and photos that really showed off how insanely cool their products where. I took a gamble and created more of a "movie trailer" type video for the release of the competition rifle.
They loved it.
Fast forward to this last summer and I wanted to up the ante! This is the new hype video I created for Heckler & Koch.
I wanted to show off the firearms in a really exciting way without really intense battle sequences or operators in war zones blowing stuff up. Mostly just normal civilians and some law enforcement. By doing this I could create a more relatable video for a civilian audience.
Check out some behind the scenes photos of the shoot!
My all time favorite weapon. MP5, baby!
Here are some finished images from the shoot.
And for a special treat this is the video I first created 2 years ago. This was never publicly released, so enjoy!
With over 8 years of experience in the film industry one of my biggest passions is giving back to the community. Visit, learn, share, love.