Filmmaking basics: six tips even the pros should know

DoP Patrick Smith and filmmaker Ollie Kenchington reveal how mastering the basic rules of filmmaking can help you bring your footage to life.
Canon Cinema EOS cameras set up on tripods in a studio.

From frame rates and HDR to codecs and composition – capturing professional cinematic footage starts with mastering the filmmaking basics. © Patrick Smith

Canon's cine cameras are formidable tools for both established filmmakers and beginners. With high-resolution sensors, Dual Pixel CMOS AF and Canon Log all available at the touch of a button, it's easier than ever to start shooting professional video without the need to necessarily undergo formal training.

No matter how advanced the equipment you're using is, the essential elements of filmmaking remain vital. From framing and composition, to what recording formats to use and how to get great results without a big crew to help, there is a very definite learning curve.

Here, we explore some of the key principals to capturing professional video, with expert insight from two filmmaking pros. Director of photography Patrick Smith shoots features and drama documentaries for the likes of the BBC, Netflix and Channel 4, while filmmaker and post-production specialist Ollie Kenchington runs Korro Films, an award-winning agency specialising in commercials, documentaries and branded content.

Whether you're looking to take the next step in filmmaking or wanting to brush up on your existing skills, you'll find these basic tips invaluable.

The touchscreen on a Canon EOS C70 showing a woman's face with focus guide indicators.

Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology locks on to and tracks subjects. The indicator turns green when the subject is in focus, improving usability and accuracy when manual focus pulling. © Fergus Kennedy

1. Explore focusing methods

With camera resolution rapidly evolving, 4K streaming becoming increasingly popular and ever-larger TV screens gracing homes around the world, it's more important than ever to achieve sharp, accurate focus. For decades, lenses were manually focused by professional focus-pullers, but Canon is leading the way with not only the first truly advanced AF technology for video – its Dual Pixel CMOS AF – but also with an incredible aid for manual focusing using the unique Focus Guide feature.

A revolution in auto focusing, Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF is a sensor-based, phase detection system that locks on to and tracks subjects. You can adjust the speed and response of the system, use clever face detection algorithms, and even use the camera's touchscreen to tap-to-focus. When using manual focus lenses, meanwhile, Canon's Focus Guide feature gives a clear indication of which way to turn the focus ring, as well as providing an obvious visual signal when the subject is in sharp focus. With a little trial and error, you'll quickly find which best suits the moment.

Do you own Canon kit?

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.
A Canon EOS C70 set up to film a woman in vertical shooting mode.

The Canon EOS C70 is a new generation RF mount Cinema EOS camera packed with useful features such as direct touch control and vertical shooting. © Fergus Kennedy

2. Experiment with aspect ratio

The majority of feature films are shot in 16:9 Ultra High Definition (UHD) 4K with a resolution of 3840 x 2160, 19:9 DCI 4K or Cinema 4K at 4096 x 2160. Social media video shooting with 9:16 vertical shots has also taken off and cameras such as the Canon EOS C70 have this built in.

Lots of filmmakers, however, love the wide look of the classic CinemaScope, where the footage is intentionally distorted to create a very wide image. This is usually done with a special anamorphic lens on the camera and corrected in post-processing to produce the different vertical and horizontal dimensions of the picture. Classic anamorphic characteristics include oval-shaped bokeh and long, horizontal flares.

Some advanced Canon cameras allow anamorphic lens correction, so you can view the footage in a corrected widescreen format. To get a rough approximation of the final image, some filmmakers use standard 'spherical' lenses and crop in post.

"For the beginner, aspect ratio is a very cheap way of elevating perceived aesthetic," says Patrick. "The simple press of a button can elevate footage that looks quite pedestrian to cinematic levels of perceived quality. That's simply because you put black lines at the top and bottom of the frame – but the viewer instinctively associates that with cinema production.

"A lot of documentaries now vary the aspect ratio and have 4:3 archive, 16:9 footage and 2:35 CinemaScope interview footage. It's a cheat, frankly, but one I always recommend to directors because it's a lovely place to compose. Aspect ratio is a great storytelling device."

Three Canon Cinema EOS cameras on tripods – an EOS C300 Mark III, an EOS C500 Mark II and an EOS C70.

Shutter speed is adjusted based on frame rate. A good rule-of-thumb is to follow the '180-degree rule' and set a shutter speed of approximately double the frame rate. So for 30fps, set 1/60th sec, or for 240fps set 1/500th sec. © Patrick Smith

3. Find the right frame rate

Frame rate refers to the number of images the camera sensor captures during one second, typically 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 50 and 60fps. Different options may appear if you are shooting in a PAL or NTSC TV region.

Usual PAL rates are 25 and 50 frames, and NTSC 29.97 and 59.94, although 24 is often used to give a true cinema look. When edited on a 25 or 29.97p timeline, 50/59.94fps can be slowed down to half speed. Higher frame rates such as 100, 120, 150, 180 or 240fps can be slowed down for super slow motion.

Patrick says that he particularly appreciates the Canon EOS C300 Mark III's frame rate options, including faster slow motion. "The fact that it can do 120 frames, 120p 4K, is great for seeing things differently. Something in documentary filmmaking we're very keen on is portraying the world in a different light and slow motion is a way of achieving that. In most cases, 120 frames is as fast or slow as I'd want to go, so it's a very useful tool to add to the toolbox."

The Canon EOS C500 Mark II being attached to a drone.

Terms you need to know when you start shooting video

Stepping up from stills to video? Our glossary of 27 pro video terms, from anamorphic to Wide DR, will take the fear out of filmmaking.

4. Use Cinema RAW Light for ultimate control

Video shooters are offered a range of file formats to choose from, with some offering better quality at the cost of larger file sizes. For the ultimate in calibre and control, using the RAW data straight from the sensor is often best – but leaves you working with huge files.

Canon's Cinema RAW Light format offers a significant reduction in file size without sacrificing image quality, and gives the widest dynamic range. It is available in cameras such as the Canon EOS C200, EOS C500 Mark II, EOS C300 Mark III, EOS R5 and EOS-1D X Mark III.

Using Cinema RAW Light allows flexibility in grading, accurately setting white balance, sharpening and adding noise-reduction in post. "I treat Cinema RAW Light like any other file," says Ollie. "I just ingest it straight into the system, put it on the timeline and start working. It's full of rich colour information.

"The RAW image doesn't have a gamma applied, so you can make it Rec.709, Canon Log 3, Log 2 or Log," he continues. "You can make adjustments to ISO, gamut, gamma, white balance, tint, highlights, shadows and sharpness."

Director of photography Patrick Smith sat on the floor, wearing a protective mask, while filming in a hospital.

DoP Patrick Smith finds that when it comes to documentary filmmaking, a smaller crew is often beneficial. "Particularly now with Covid-19, you've got to be aware of your footprint. I'm encouraged, especially if I'm going into people's houses, to have as light a touch and as light a footprint as possible," he says. © Patrick Smith

DoP Patrick Smith films a child playing football with a Canon EOS C70 cinema camera on a handheld gimbal.

Many of Canon's cameras, such as the Canon EOS C70 Patrick is using here, are ideal for skeleton crew or single-operator use, with high-quality audio that can be recorded to the camera, Dual Pixel CMOS AF to get the focusing right and built-in image stabilisation. © Patrick Smith

5. Decide when to use a crew

Deciding whether to shoot solo or with a crew often comes down to budget, but there are wider considerations too, explains Patrick. "It's something I'm always having to be involved in decisions about," he says, of his experience in documentary filmmaking. "The smaller the crew, often the longer you can shoot, and there is a payoff between having larger crews and the ability to work at speed.

"A lot of directors and producers worry about the intimacy and the footprint of a documentary crew, so the smaller your team, the better. Sometimes it's very liberating to have just you and the director going on filmmaking trips.

"Having said that, a knowledgeable crew can give you creative freedom. When you have people to support you, and the technologically challenging bits of the job are taken on by someone else, that enables you to focus just on the creative, lighting and storytelling side."

Shot from behind, a man sits an editing desk in front of two monitors. A Canon EOS C200 cinema camera is on the desk beside him.

Canon cameras such as the EOS C200 offer HDR capture – a feature that is becoming increasingly important with the rise in demand for HDR content.

6. Shoot and grade in HDR

Most standard screens can't reproduce the full range of brightness that a camera is capable of capturing, so many filmmakers record in standard dynamic range using the Rec.709 colour space. But as bright and colourful High Dynamic Range TVs and smartphones flood the market, shooting in HDR is becoming an essential part of filmmakers' workflows.

HDR complies to the Rec.2100 standard for screens that can display a far greater range of brightness, so shooting HDR in PQ or Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) settings is essential. Cameras such as the Canon EOS C300 Mark III, EOS C500 Mark II, EOS C700 FF and EOS C70 all offer HDR capture internally. The EOS C200 can shoot in RAW, which can then be processed at HDR.

Footage recorded in PQ and HLG does not require grading, and HLG is also backwards compatible with Rec.709 standards for viewing on standard monitors, resulting in a faster workflow.

Adam Duckworth

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro