Have you ever taken the time to think what you are asking your viewer to do or think when you edit a sequence together in your programme? Every shot and every edit can have a subtle meaning. If you understand the grammar you can better direct the viewer to see things your way.

The Grammar of Shots and Edits

The Cut
It may seem strange that the viewer doesn't object to seeing shots cut together. It works because in everyday life we move our eyes from one subject to another. The eye movement is very rapid to the brain blocks out the blurred image - so in effect we see the world as a series of cuts.

The Static Shot
The most natural shot in the world. If we are interested in something we will look at it and keep looking at it until we get distracted of bored. If a lot happens within the shot then you can use them for a surprisingly long time. If you start moving a shot just for the sake of it you are telling the viewer they are bored - so they soon will be. Move the camera when ever you want but always know why you are doing it and what it will achieve.

The Pan (or Tilt)
A natural way of taking in more of a scene than we can by looking straight ahead. It can be used to show scale and geography. It can connect one subject or object with another showing the distance and the scale between them. The biggest problem with a pan or tilt is the middle is often boring. Even though the move starts on something of interest and will finish on something else interesting, the middle of the move is rarely of any relevance to the story. It is often more effective just to cut between the two static shots.

The Tracking Shot
Tracking shots are natural and impressive - if done well. As we move around the world be are in effect tracking, so it seems very natural for the camera to move closer or further away from a subject. A small sideways track (crab) in the opposite direction to the action, known as a counter track, is one of the most used moves in cinema but rarely seen in news and documentaries. They have the effect of substantially changing the background for a relatively small movement of the camera and subject.

The Zoom
The zoom is a very unnatural move. We see the world as a series of cuts, pans, tilts and tracks but our eyes can't zoom! The "Zoom In" can be used to concentrate the viewers attention on part of the picture. The "Zoom Out" is used to show the "bigger picture", putting the subject into context. Our brains do a version of a zoom but it means something very different so zooms can also be very confusing. When we are interested in something our brain concentrates on that, blanking out all around it - just the way a zoom in selects a smaller part of the image. Therefore a "Zoom In" often has the effect of saying "Concentrate on this" Conversely, a "Zoom Out" often tells the viewer they should stop concentrating - something they only do naturally when bored!

The Point of View shot where the camera pretends to be the subject can be superb when it works - sadly it rarely does. A hand held camera wobbles and is inherently unstable. Our brain goes to a lot of effort to make sure the images we see are very stable. Our eyes readjust constantly; our legs and neck act as near perfect shock absorbers to keep our horizon line steady and balanced. We also don't see the world as a series of quick whip pans. In reality we see a series of cuts due to the way we blank rapid eye movement and blink. If you do use hand held POV shots make sure the camera is on the widest possible end of the lens to minimise the shake and wobble and keep the "Glances" - the pans - to a minimum. If you have the time and the budget then a Steadicam® will give you a much better approximation of a Point of View.

Cutting on a Camera Move
Cutting before the camera move has finished leaves the viewer wondering what you are trying to hide from them. They feel cheated and often lose the significance of the next shot. Cutting the beginning of the shot off gives a similar effect but also may look as if you are using a wobbly shot.

What do we look at in a picture?
Our brain is still pre-wired from our evolution to spot danger quickly. Anything that moves in our field of view will attract our attention. When composing a shot try to make sure that only the thing you want the viewer to see is moving or they will be distracted. A shot where everything is moving can be very difficult to concentrate on for any length of time.

Next to movement we are attracted to bright light and don't like looking at dark areas. In a picture you can direct the viewer's gaze by making sure an area is brighter than another. Some colours also have this effect, particularly bright reds and yellows (the colour of fire!)
For some reason we don't like looking into dark areas in shade or shadow, always preferring to look at the brighter points. It's an old horror movie trick to compose a frame with light and dark areas where something nasty can remain unseen in the shadows - until it moves!

Our eye will also be taken to human faces and most particularly the eyes and mouth. If we are looking at a face and can't see both eyes clearly we will soon get bored with what is being said. Make sure you always have enough light falling on someone's eyes when doing an interview. If you watch old movies with dark or night scenes you will often see two streaks of light falling across anyone appearing in a close-up. Somehow, by luck, one will fall across their eyes and the other their mouth.

If we can't see the mouth of someone while they speak we will not understand them as well as if we could. This is because we all lip read to some extent so taking this visual cue away just detracts from comprehension.

So generally, if you want to make sure the viewer is looking at what you want them to do - make sure your subject is brighter than the background and that nothing in the background is moving or changing as it will distract them.

We Know What Happens Next?
We all think we know what will happen next because most of the time it follows a pattern. If someone at home left the room to go to your kitchen, you would be surprised if they came back in through the front door! Well the same is true of television most of the time and when we break the rule it can have a big dramatic effect. Sometimes we make mistakes or forget and we end up confusing the situation.

The most common mistake happens when the camera crosses the "Line on Action". If someone walks across the screen from right to left and disappears out of the left side of frame we expect to see the person continuing in the same direction in the next shot. So they should come into the new shot on the right of frame. If we put the camera on the other side of this imaginary line your actor is walking along you will have "Crossed the Line" and they will come in from the wrong way. At its worst it looks terrible at best is puts just a seed of doubt in your viewers mind as to what is going on.

We don't just have to worry about this "Line of Action" created as soon as someone walks, drives or rides off into the distance but there is a line every time someone looks at something or someone - known as an "Eye Line". Add to that there is a new "Line" whenever something is reached for or touched. It can be a nightmare for you to work it all out. Luckily we can cross some lines without the viewer being confused. However, I can promise that every now and again a simple line cross will come back to haunt you - It won't look right to you and your viewer will be surprised, disorientated, bewildered and confused, so I can only hope that's just the effect you had planned at that point.