Cinematography - Headroom
(Screenshot from a favourite scene in Manhattan)
Recently I crewed on a music video (of sorts) mostly by manning the B-cam, a handheld Canon 5D. The shoot went well, the set was loose, and I thought we got some good shots despite several technical issues. But when the team I was working on put together the edit for the producer, one of the complaints he came back with was that I had “cut off the heads” of the performers. That’s all he said. No other context. What was I to think?
When I looked back through the footage I couldn’t see any examples of what I would consider exuberant ”head cutting off.” I’d always kind of known that I liked close up shots where the top of the head was lopped a bit, but was I doing it too much?
I decided this was a learning opportunity—I needed to find out what is appropriate for headroom.What do other camera operators and cinematographers do for headroom? When is it Ok to cut off a head, and when is it not? I thought I would start taking a look at my own (limited) work, and also some of my favorite films.
The first thing I did was go take a look at my short film 3601. I noticed right away that on the front page of my website I have three stills taken from the film, and in each of them I have the top of the head cut off. Below is one of the shots.
(Actress Ekko Goffic)
Obviously the top of her head is cut off. But this is a close up/over the shoulder. So to me that’s fine.
Here’s another, this time a wider shot, and still the actor’s (Damian Chao) head is cut off. But, I like this shot, and personally have no problem with the framing. Though I could see someone who usually shoots interview style footage being a bit concerned.
Here’s another shot from that short, this time a medium shot that does have good headroom.
Films I Love
After looking at those I decided to check out some great films that I love. Recently I had purchased the bluray for The Godfather, so I decided to take a look at that, because it was sitting right there.
Bam! The very first shot in the film:
Now, this might not be fair because this is a slow pull-out shot. As this scene progresses the camera backs out quite far into a wide shot. But I still thought it was interesting that one of the most cinematically important films of all time starts off with a lopper.
And of course the first scene in Manhattan contains several loppers.
While I was researching headroom I was reminded of an interview I watched with Xavier Dolan, a Canadian filmmaker who’s been to Cannes more than once, where he discussed how he often likes to have a lot of headroom.
When researching headroom I came across this PDF from the University of North Carolina. While the diagrams aren’t the best, they have a good list of shots.
This example doesn’t have a lot of headroom.
In the end, I learned a few things.
1) Apple boxes are a great to have around to achieve the right framing when one of the actors is quite a bit taller than the other. We had that same problem on the music video shoot which probably contributed to the issue the producer had with headroom.
2) It’s perfectly Ok to chop some the head off in medium close ups and close ups. Otherwise, in wider shots, it would be better to err on the side of caution and keep the top of the head in, with just a bit of space above.
3) Cinematography is an art form, and thus subjective. How I shoot a scene is going to be different from how someone else shoots a scene. I think that’s a good thing. But it is certainly possible to have a poorly framed shot, especially on wider angles.
4) I love closeups.
Posted by: yegfilm on Sat, Sep 15, 2012