So often in film school, we are only taught the scientific aspects of film theory as opposed to the creative or psychological. When being taught on shot design, we are preached the basics, so that we will know the standard rules of moviemaking. Never cross the 180 line. If someone looks off in a direction, give the reaction POV shot of what they're seeing. Or if you're filming a scene of dialogue between two characters sitting at a table, you are taught to do coverage: establishing shot showing both characters in frame, two over the shoulder shots showing each character from waist up, then two close ups showing each character's face. For beginning filmmakers, this is the sort of theory they need to know. One needs to know the rules before they can be broken, the problem I have found is that upon learning the rules, I'm left at a now what. How do I take my own shot design from Hollywood hack standard, to Steven Spielberg-cinematic wonderland?
As film students, once we learn the basics of shot design, we don't know what to do beyond that. There is nothing that distinguishes or movies from anything else you see on TV or in theaters. What can distinguish your work? I think the answer is asking yourself a simple question: Why?
Why am I placing the camera over here rather than over there? Why am I favoring this character in the frame when this scene is really about the emotional impact on the character in the background? Why am I giving this reaction shot when I want what the character is seeing to be a mystery? Why am I sticking with standard coverage, giving each character equal screen time when in fact the scene is about one character? Why not move the camera in toward the character the scene is about and not cut back or show the other character? Why?
Let's watch two similar scenes from movies and diagnose them:
Both scenes are from great movies, but one scene is more emotionally involving than the other. Why is that? I believe that the scene from Shadow of a Doubt took the basic ideas of coverage, but then threw that all out the window when Hitchcock started dollying in on Joseph Cotten. The thing is, the scene from Catch Me If You Can is spectacular because of Christopher Walken's performance, not because of the directing. The scene from Shadow of a Doubt is a tour de force. It is spectacular not just because of the acting from Cotten, but it is a spectacularly directed scene as well. When the scene was just chit chat, Hitchcock used standard coverage, but when it became about Joseph Cotten, and him alone, Hitch pushed the camera in towards Cotten, getting us so close it was uncomfortable. See what I'm getting at here?
Another fine example is in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jimmy Stewart talks to Sen. Payne's daughter, who he has a crush on, and rather than showing us their faces, Capra only showed Stewart nervously fumbling around with his hat in his hands. Capra told us through this creative choice that the dialogue is not important, what is important is how awkward and nervous Smith is when he is around beautiful women, or even women in general. This clued the audience into the idea that maybe Mr. Smith has never even dated before. Watch:
The thing is, it is creative choices like the scene from Mr. Smith and Shadow of a Doubt that makes not just a great filmmaker, but great films. Now, I am not saying you always have to be innovative in shot design, sometimes less is more can lead to great films because of great performances and great writing (The Help being a recent example of this). While there are some more visually stimulating scenes from Catch Me If You Can, the idea I wanted to get across was this is what we are taught in film classes, which is great when you are a beginner, but we are never taught how to break or bend the rules, let alone told when it is best to go less is more and when you need to be fancy to create an emotional connection or crutch for the audience. Hitchcock bended the rules in the Shadow of a Doubt scene, and Capra just straight up broke the rules with the Mr. Smith scene.
I think this all boils down the question: Do you want to make scenes that are memorable, like the Mr. Smith hat scene, or make a scene that is just like every other scene of dialogue you've ever seen? Ask yourself why this shot stays static, rather than dollying in on the actor's face at the most emotional moment? Ask yourself why are you even showing the other actor's face when it is the face of your lead that we need to be focusing on? Movies aren't just talking heads, sometimes we need to know what the audience should be focused on, what they need to know or feel at that moment for that scene to work. In essence, a filmmaker is a manipulator, a manipulator who breaks the standard rules and draws importance to something, like a hat or a particular character, when the greatest moment of emotion is required to be felt. Just ask: Why?