Dress to camera

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.

8 Responses to “Dress to camera”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Tony Bill is a producer (“Shampoo”) restaurant owner, actor (“Soldier in the Rain”) and one of the most beautiful men to ever walk the face of the earth. Yes I’m obsessed with him. I’m sure any advice he has to give about the movie business is sound.

  2. Tony M. Williams Says:

    He also appeared in the title role of the BBC TV Drama LEE OSWALD ASSASSIN (1964) directed by Rudolph Cartier of QUATERMASS fame and may still survive in the BBC Archives. Lynda Myles used it in her obituary to Cartier shown on THE LATE SHOW. Donald Sutherland also appeared in this production.

    David E. When you next see him please inform him that many of us who saw that production are still around

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I certainly shall.

    He still operates his restaurant in Venice . His partner in it was the late and much-missed (save for his ex-wife Tuesday Weld) Dudley Moore.

  4. Tony M. Williams Says:

    Well as Michael Caine would say, “Not many people know about that.” He made quite an impression as Oswald and I also remember him as Biff in the 1966 BBC TV PLAY OF THE MONTH “Death of a Salesman” with Rod Steiger and Betsy Blair. At the time seeing Steiger’s energetic performance, I wondered why his Willy Loman had so much energy since Rod’s hyper-kinetic performance would have lit up America and taken him to The Oval Office!

  5. I recommend his book if you can find it. Not just a glossary of film biz terms, it folds in autobiography and anecdotes too. Good fun.

  6. Tony M. Williams Says:

    As soon as inter-library loans resumes, it will be on my initial list of requests. Thanks for the reference.

  7. Dress to camera is far superior to cheat. Cheat brings with it the unpleasant possibility of getting caught and exposed, which will fill you up with doubt and likely cause bad decisions down the line.

  8. I always saw the job as semi-criminal, so cheating, along with “getting away with it,” were virtual mantras.

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