How to Treat the Camera like a Character
One of the major things I think is neglected in screenwriting lessons is the discussion of a narrator. By contrast, when people learn fiction writing, this is almost always brought up. Perhaps it's because for film, when we think of narrators we think of Woody Allen films where he provides information for us via voice-overs or Ferris Bueller's Day Off when he looks at the camera and talks to us. While there are technical film terms for these devices, there is rarely discussion about the other types of narration within the medium, such as omniscient or close-third.
"But how can narrators exist without a voice?" you might wonder, especially since that's what the narrator is in a book.
The answer is, most simply, the camera.
Whether you realize it or not, the camera, just like the pen behind a novel, is biased even if its an omniscient narrator. The camera chooses to reveal things a certain way and chooses to leave other things out. It gives us insight into certain characters emotions and leaves other things unspoken and unseen. It showcases a world up close or far away, bright and luminous or dark and sultry. And while a lot of these choices are not always up to a screenwriter, the more sense of narration a screenwriter can give in their script, the more likely other people reading it (the director, production designer, etc.) will interpret a sense of voice and style that is unique, something that's quite difficult to do in a script.
Because it is easy to mix up the narrator like we imagine for films and the other types of narrators people tend to forget, we are going to approach this gap in perspective by thinking of the camera as a character. Your use of the camera as a character in screenwriting will imitate a lot of things a narrator does in prose, but for the sake of not getting things confused, it's best to think of the camera as one more person to to cast in your film, otherwise we writers are like to forget the narrator-character altogether.
In fact, I have found that a lot of screenwriters write scenes without any regard for the camera at all. While they may write a scene with lots of description, the perspective of an audience member is more often than not, an afterthought. To some extent, that's because a lot of screenwriters are not directing their own work, so they see no purpose in making camera notations. However, treating the camera like a character is not about camera directions, but instead about becoming intentional in how one lay's out a scene.
A picture is worth a thousand words...
Think of the cliched statement above. If you took a still from a movie, you could easily write 1,000 words describing everything in the frame. You'd describe how one character is on the left of the frame, how one person's eyes look away, how two people stand alone with empty space all around them and so forth. Maybe there's another character who just left the shot, who stands off to the side, and in that empty space you can feel their presence missing.
Turn on a movie you really love or think is artistic. Pause it at some point and write 500-1,000 words about all that you see and don't see on the screen. Think about what the camera is saying about the world, characters, etc.
(A great starting point is with any Akira Kurosawa film. He hand painted all his storyboards so his camera work is very intentional)
All of these things sound really poetic, right? Already you've conjured an image of a couple perhaps saying goodbye in some romantic, barren land, maybe in an older movie. Going further, the fact that couple is alone in the image instead of including that third, strange character, says something.
What would the image say, then, if the third character was included? In thinking this way, you've already begun to see the camera as a character or narrator, something there to present a certain perspective that says something. With more practice in watching films, noticing the camera as a character will become second nature.
What's less easy though? Implementing the techniques yourself.
Tactics to Thinking About the Camera as Character
As mentioned, discussing how other people use the camera as a character versus training yourself to do it yourself is much harder - I know it's my own personal weakness in my screenwriting, hence this post! But by learning to treat your visuals in a screenplay with more intentionality, you'll great a stronger visual voice in your own screenplays.
1. Create a Character for Your Camera
Maybe the eyes behind your story are your own or you are trying to be a totally omniscient narrator. However, it's incredibly hard to be a truly omniscient narrator, and even if you think the story is completely told from your perspective, you're likely wrong as most writers see things differently when they write versus reality. With that in mind, by thinking as the camera as something separate from yourself and as a character on its own, you'll begin to think more visually as opposed to if you just approached it from an omniscient or personal standpoint.
With that said, one of the easiest ways to think about the camera as a character is like a documentarian who follows your characters around (Though if this might make your images "shot" like a documentary, perhaps try a new character).
But it doesn't have to be so simple. The camera character could be a journalist following a story they believe the world must hear, or it could be a long lost grandchild looking through the archives of their ancestors. Whatever you choose, the more you know about what the camera is trying to tell the audience, the stronger your visuals become.
You don't have to know everything about your camera character like you do for the rest of your cast of characters, but you should know some general biases and ideas it feels. A good place to search for these biases or ideas are the things you yourself are trying to say with your work. Are you trying to say that love is blind? Or that people are inherently greedy? How can your camera character show that?
As soon as you have a general idea as to who this camera is, the sooner you can start approaching your scenes with a universal narrative voice.
2. Block Your Scene
Blocking the scene is usually something left to the director, but since you are the writer and created your world, as you write scenes you should try to take a moment to imagine where everyone is in the scene. For instance, where are people standing in relation to each other? Other objects? What is happening off screen?
Once you know the answers to those questions (more or less), think to your camera character. Does the camera show anything different? Where is the camera looking? Are there people or things happening off screen the camera is ignoring? Is your camera skewing the way you've blocked your scene and changing the reality? Again, if you have trouble, try and remind yourself that this camera is a character in your film, the documentarian who keeps their mouth shut but is trying to tell their version of the story. The more you ingrain this in your mind, the easier it will become.
3. Show Don't Tell
Remember that time I completely bashed on the show, don't tell, rule? Well now it's time for me to eat my own words because if you want to tell a visual story like a film, the number one thing you have to do is be visual.
Thinking again to our little documentarian following our character around, the girl doesn't get to say anything, so how does she tell you what she needs to tell you? She shows you. Of course, this showing can involve the camera looking at people discussing something, or it can involve the camera looking at one thing while it hones in on some piece of dialogue outside the frame, creating a new image. The possibilities here for "show don't, tell" are endless, and that's what makes them so much fun!
How do I make my camera character apparent in my script?
This part, in my opinion, is the easiest part. It's difficult to think so visually about things that are not tangible and cannot be moved around (hence why actual blocking is reserved for when people are on set), but once you've got that part down, you've got the hard work done. When writing this into a screenplay, all you must do is write what's important.
What do I mean by that?
Maybe the color of your main character's dress doesn't matter for the scene - or maybe it's essential - but if her standing behind a guy instead of front of him changes the meaning of a scene, you absolutely must add that to your script.
On the contrary if you feel like everything's essential, so that your whole script is 200 pages long, it's time to start cutting out details and even dialogue to see if the image alone conveys all you need. See how much you can cut until the meaning changes (and please get the script down to at least 120 pages) and then stop! If you page count is still obscene, give it some time and come back to it later. It's much easier to cut away details than it is to add them!
Just so long as you are starting to train your screenwriting mind to tell a visual story, it's okay to make a few (lengthy) mistakes in the process.
Ready to put pen to paper? Read my post on how to write a screenplay so you can get started!