The Camera: A Cinematography Guide for Episode Writers
One of the things that helps me to tell a good Episode writer from a great one is how they use the camera. It’s one of those things that can be very easy to forget about. After all, this is Episode we’re talking about! It’s more like a book than a film, right? I get why people would wonder why it matters. It’s not like Episode spends a lot of time using the “camera” well in their own featured stories. Most writers are quite clumsy with it, so it’s easy to forget it even matters. But that’s exactly why a little bit of film theory will separate you from the bunch! The “camera” is there, so why not use it?
Interactive stories are a unique medium. They combine books with games, theatre and TV shows/films to make a fast-paced, fun reading experience. You have the words on the screen, the sound, the music, the choices, the transitions, the camera. I can’t think of any other type of storytelling which combines all of my favourite things quite like Episode does! You have all of these amazing tools at your disposal, so it really makes no sense to favour one over the other. Take the time to learn a little about them all!
And I know. I said that I wasn’t going to be talking about Episode anymore. However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately. When people speak about “directing” in an Episode context, they usually mean coding movements. They don’t often mean using the camera to tell the story. I haven’t seen much advice out there telling writers to actually think about their close-ups or cuts. So though I’m still banned and just a film novice, let me tell you how you can use film theory for Episode.
One of the most important things to consider when using the “camera” in your Episode stories is what types of shots will suit the tone you are trying to create. There are many different types of shots. The basic list includes extreme close-up, close-up, medium close-up, medium shot, medium-long shot, full shot, long shot, and extreme-long shot. Plus, there are others such as the cowboy shot, which can be great to use! The studiobinder guide is a great place to look if you need some more info.
Different camera shots create different effects. For example, using a close-up can help the audience to see your characters’ emotions. When a character is lonely, you can show that by using a long shot and making them the only one in the frame. Generally, the closer the camera is to the character, the closer the audience can feel to their emotions and thoughts. This really depends, though, as different genres use shots in different ways. For example, zooming right in on a character’s face in a comedy can make the audience laugh.
I have chosen a few to look at so you can get a better sense of what I mean. Remember that these are only a few of the hundreds of ways that each shot can be used! Get creative!
In an emotional scene in your Episode story, you might want to use a close-up or two. It gives the audience the chance to see the character’s emotions when they talk. This makes them feel more empathy, which adds to the tone of your scene.
With a comedy, you can use a close-up to draw attention to a character when they are saying something funny. That means that the audience’s mind won’t wander anywhere else and makes it clear that they should listen, as this line is important. Plus, you may want to break the fourth wall by having the character look straight at the reader. The shock of this can make your reader laugh!
Villain Rehab is a great example of this technique being used perfectly. Both Cattyman and Banshee say some very funny lines. Caitoriri cuts to close-ups of their faces, which adds to the comedy, as we get to see their emotions, which are exaggerated or out of place. We cut to a silly grin with Cattyman, which is hilarious. With Banshee, it’s her straight, unemotional face that gets us.
Plus, a close-up can be a great cheat. When it comes to a funny, sad or romantic scene with lots of emotions, it can be hard to know what to do with the other characters. Your MC is pouring her heart out to the camera, which is great! But what do you do with the other cast members? Do they just stand there and stare? That can seem out of place or awkward! Instead, cut them out with a close-up and you don’t have to think about it.
As I said before, a long shot is a great way to convey loneliness. Instead of having a character say that they’re lonely, get rid of all the exposition you really don’t need. Why not let us see? That’s what the “show, don’t tell” rule is all about! Isolate your character physically by putting some space between them and the rest of the cast. Then, pull the camera out to the long shot to show that they are on their own and make them look small. The audience will feel the loneliness without you needing to shove it down their throats.
In a comedy, you can use the long shot to show when a joke didn’t go so well. When a character tries to be funny and no one laughed, a long shot can show that the other characters don’t approve. Pause for a second (a beat) and then cut to the long shot. Then, let the characters react. When you add the long shot to the timing, it can get side-clutching laughs from your audience.
I love a good long shot as it can help to break the tension. You see, too many close-ups can make your scene intense very quickly. If that’s not what you’re going for, littering the scene with a few well-chosen long shots can break up the scene and allow the reader to breathe. Unnecessary tension can cause a lot of emotional strain on the audience when they just want to enjoy the story. It’s all about knowing when the audience will be ok with feeling uncomfortable!
The medium shot is a very common type of camera shot in film. It is often used in a conversation as it feels natural. Using a close-up inappropriately can make the audience feel like they are invading the character’s personal space too much. The long shot can feel impersonal and make the character seem emotionally distant, as it stops us from getting a good look at their facial expressions. The medium shot is a good middle ground. Literally. Paired with the shot-reverse-shot, it can make us feel like we are really watching two people speak normally.
The shot-reverse-shot is hard to recreate on Episode, but not impossible. Basically, it is when you make two characters look like they are facing each other and talking even when they aren’t by which way their body is facing and what part of the camera they occupy. Have one character face left and take up the right side of the camera when it is time for their medium shot. Then, the other character should face right and take up the left side of the camera.
If you are going to use the shot-reverse-shot, make sure to choose a direction and area for each character and stick with it, or it can be confusing for the audience. This is called the 180 degree rule.
Pans and Zooms
If you take the time to mess around with the Episode Writer’s Portal, the chances are that you will know the difference between a pan and a zoom. A pan is when you move the camera. That could be from side to side, up and down or a mixture! With a zoom, the camera stays in the same place. Well, most of the time, anyway. I mean, you could always combine the two! In fact, I recommend it in some cases!
It is always a good idea to learn when to use a pan or a zoom well. So, so many Episode writers overuse them! Especially the pan! When you are new to Episode, it can be tempting to stick a pan in every scene to get the character from one zone to the other. I admit that I was one of those novices when I started and I didn’t know how to get my character to start in any zone but the first. I get it! But as soon as you learn how to work the direction properly, please put a little thought into how you’re using your pans and your zooms. When you can just cut to a closer, more zoomed-in shot or another area in the scene, why do you want to show the audience the camera movements? What does it add to the story?
I see a lot of writers say “why does that matter? I just want to write”. Well, ok then. I can’t help you. Just know this: thinking about what you do and how it adds to your story separates the ok or bad writers from the excellent. Anyone can poop out a good idea from time to time. It takes excellence to make it work! Have a think about that!
Pans are when the camera is moving. This applies even to Episode, where the camera isn’t technically real. They can be used for a lot of great things, and I can tell you that none of them include boringly walking from one zone to another for no real reason.
Pans can be used to reveal something that is off-camera at the moment. For example, if you want the audience to see that, shock horror, the love interest was watching the whole time when the MC did something embarrassing, you might want to pan to him and have him express disgust, confusion or amusement. The time it takes for the camera to pan to him will build up anticipation in your audience and cause them to cringe even harder when they see his face. That makes your audience empathise with your MC more. We cringe when she does.
Pans are also really good for establishing shots. An establishing shot is a shot of the location that lets the audience know where the action for the scene is happening. They can really help to cut out that dreaded over-explaining when you are moving from place to place often in your story.
Plus, you can use pans to simulate eye movement. If your MC needs to search a cafeteria to find something, a pan might be useful to put the audience into the MC’s shoes by quite literally letting us see through her eyes.
Zooming can be very useful in stories but needs to be done sparingly. A fast zoom out from a close-up to a long shot can be used to bring the audience back into reality. If the MC has had a really close, intimate moment, zooming out of their face really quickly makes it seem like they have just become aware of their surroundings. This increases the connection between the audience and the MC because they get to feel what the character feels through the camera movements.
On the other hand, zooming in can have the opposite effect. It can make it seem like we need to focus in on a character and that the surroundings don’t matter anymore. It forces the audience to see what you want them to see, rather than letting their eyes wander to other parts of the scene. If you have the MC talking to her love interest and the chemistry is clear, a slow zoom to a closer shot of them can give the audience the impression that the rest of the world is falling away and that they no longer care about anything else but each other.
If a character is getting uncomfortable and panicky, zooming in on them slowly as they speak can help to show that their anxiety is rising. This is because it makes the audience feel claustrophobic, so they can relate to the stress of the character.
There are loads of things that you can do with a zoom! Just make sure you think about what it adds to the story. If you can’t think of anything good, what’s the point of giving yourself all the unnecessary coding? A story that uses camera movements badly looks a lot more amateur than one that doesn’t use them at all.
Cuts are something that a lot of Episode authors forget all about. They have their pans and their zooms. They might even slip a close-up in their stories every once in a while! But when it comes to cuts? Nope. The whole scene just keeps going like a theatre play. It’s sad, really! I have seen so many stories that would benefit from cuts that just don’t have them. I get that it’s difficult to know when to use them because not a lot of Episode stories out there even try. If you can master them, though, you can really stand out from the crowd.
Quick Cuts in Action
If you pay attention when you’re watching a film with lots of action in it, you’ll see that there are often a lot of cuts when the action is at its most extreme. In a fight or chase, very quick cuts give us a sense that things are moving very quickly. It works in the same way as using short sentences do in a written story! It’s all about building that connection between the audience and the characters! The audience can feel the stress and tension through the quick cutting or short sentences, which means they can empathise better.
Scenes with lots of action really benefit from cutting often. Why? Well, it means that the audience notices a lot less. In a fight or chase, there are very few people who can remain completely level-headed and notice everything about their surroundings. Adrenaline kicks in and the world around them just seems to disappear. They focus on the kick, the block, the punch, the dodge. When you deny your audience the chance to focus on specific details in a scene, it simulates an adrenaline rush for them, too.
Don’t overdo it, though. We still need to see what’s going on! A lot of novice filmmakers or Episode writers hear that quick cuts help to simulate adrenaline and they cut 3 or 4 times every second. Don’t do that! If you’re new to this whole thing, I suggest not cutting in the middle of a movement too much, as it can leave the audience feeling disorientated.
That’s not to say that cutting frequently is the only way to get that effect. In a lot of long battle scenes, we can follow the main character across a battlefield as they fight their way through and it feels just as action-packed for us because the people in the back are moving loads too. We may notice flashes of other people’s movements, but they are fleeting and temporary. Having the main character be the only steady thing in a busy scene makes them seem level-headed and in control of the action. Or, you can get a great fight choreographer in a film who can make the action look good even when there are no cuts.
When it comes to Episode, though, I recommend cutting frequently. It can be so, so hard to get the fight looking good when you don’t cut. A lot of professional filmmakers can’t do it! On Episode, you have even more of a struggle because you are so limited by the movements given to you by the art team. The punches feel staged. They aren’t quick enough, so they make it seem like two people practising how to punch. Not great for an action scene.
Plus, if you have one long take, it will take a lot of extra coding to look good. You have to make sure that there is enough going on in the background so that the audience won’t feel like they are distanced from the characters’ emotions unless you’re going for comedy. Watching other people react and go overboard while you are still and relaxed can really make the whole scene look absurd, which is not what you want to happen in a serious action scene.
Cuts in Comedy
Sometimes, cutting to a closer shot of a character’s face when they say something funny can add to the joke. It’s a lot like when someone leans in and whispers a funny comment. Humourous stage whispers are a part of a lot of theatre plays! They make the audience feel like they’re in on something private and secret. Like a hint-hint, nudge-nudge. Bringing the camera in closer can be a good Episode equivalent and features often in YouTube videos, too.
Other times, you may want to break the connection that I’ve spoken so much about in the rest of this post. Why? Well, if the audience doesn’t feel connected to a character, then they can spend more time looking at the situations they are in and laughing at how silly they are. It’s a little bit of dramatic irony. It makes you feel smug when you’re watching someone run around like a headless chicken and you’re disconnected from the whole thing.
You can achieve this in two different ways. For one, if there is a lot of action going on in a comedy, you might want to have no cuts at all. Letting the audience see how still the rest of the scene is while the characters are running around frantically can be hilarious! Secondly, if the scene is really still, cutting quickly can make it seem as though we as viewers are making a big deal out of nothing. When the audience sees how pointless and silly the actions are, it can make us laugh.
Cuts in Drama
The cut in drama is important to see reactions. Remember when I spoke about the shot-reverse-shot a little earlier on? Well, this is where it comes in.
We don’t just want to see the person speaking. We want to see what effect that has on the cast around them, too! In order to do that, you can cut from the speaker to the reaction of the listener from time to time. This gives us a chance to take in how the speaker feels, then see the impact this has on the people around them after. It is a useful tool that is used a lot in all kinds of films!
The best part of using cuts is knowing when not to use them! If the audience becomes used to you using cuts all the time, then when you choose not to use them for any reason, it can make them feel uncomfortable or tense! It’s like you’ve forced the audience to hold their breath. It makes them feel like they aren’t allowed to breathe again until you cut to the next shot.
This can be a powerful tool when you want to create tension. If the characters are in a stressful situation, you can use the camera and your cuts to mimic that so that the audience feels the same way.
The Foreground and Background of the Camera
Episode writers tend to underestimate the power of using your foreground and background well. In particular, they forget all about the background! All the interesting stuff happens right in front of the camera, but behind the cast? It’s empty! Barren! This can make your story seem fake and unrealistic.
Then there is the next level of Episode writers. They really try their hardest to add stuff behind, but the background looks bad. That’s either because the characters are too big or too small, or because they move in weird, unnatural ways.
One of the big things I didn’t know myself until Dara Amarie posted about it on her Instagram is about how to put characters in the background and make it look natural. It’s all about eye lines! If you match the characters’ eye lines, no matter how far back they are, the scene will usually look natural. Of course, stairs and other levels complicate things and I hope she does a post about this in the future, but this is a great place to start!
It is always a good idea to make sure there is some interesting stuff for the audience to see going on in the background of your stories. I mean, in the real world, the chances of there being nothing going on behind you when you’re speaking to your friends, family or love interest are slim. Make your Episode story *look* real to help us empathise better.
Add Actions to the Background
As much work as this gives you, you should always make sure to do something with your background characters. It isn’t enough to just have them stand there. In fact, it can seem creepy or out of place! I mean, could you imagine your reaction if you were talking to your friends and there was someone standing and staring at the wall behind you without blinking? Laugh? Cry? A bit of both?
This could mean using the ampersand (&) every now and then to code in an action that the cast in the back do in between what the MC is doing. If you’re really savvy, you could use pauses to make the characters stagger their actions. This will make the scene look a hell of a lot more natural!
While I know that it can be tempting to forget all about the background characters because they don’t seem important, I can tell you that your audience will notice. There aren’t a lot of people who make the effort to create an authentic scene. So, the people who do really stand out in the long run! That’s a good thing that can help you to win the hearts of the readers — and maybe even a contest or two!
If you don’t do much with the background of your scene, or you leave members of the cast standing awkwardly for no reason other than a failure to code, you look like a lazy writer. Writing for Episode isn’t just about telling a story. If you wanted to tell a story, you could go to Wattpad and it would take you a lot less work. It’s all about making a story look good. Don’t get lazy. It doesn’t take much to stand out!
So now we’ve got all of the main stuff out of the way. Yay! This is all I can say on the camera in Episode stories. Now it’s time to talk about where you can go to get more help.
As I said, I am just a film novice. I did one year of media studies at school and I watch a lot of films. That’s it. Trust me when I say that I am not an expert. So do me a favour by taking the words of some experts if you want to get good! Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources out there on how to use the “camera” in an Episode story. If you don’t count this one, of course! Instead, I suggest you read all about film, TV and photography and have a think about how you can incorporate this into your own Episode work.
Since we’re talking about films, I think it’s important for you to see some of my advice at work. So I recommend to you film and TV’s little brother that they pick on: the YouTube video!
I have recommended it many times before, but Crash Course is a great place to look for any simple, fun videos on pretty much any subject. Film production is no exception! Each of the videos starts with some practical stuff like cameras and lenses, but then goes into how you can use this equipment to help you create a scene. It is super helpful! Check out the playlist below.
I used some of my favourite cinematography books to help me come up with this post! If you are serious about using film to help you get better at Episode, I recommend reading up on the subject. I used a good few books to help me make this post in the first place. There are loads of great books out there, but the best ones have loads of pictures to help you understand what the writer means. I used the following four to help me make this post. They are life-savers and I couldn’t recommend them more!
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Cinematography in episode is incredibly important! I’ve seen so many stories that just keep their camera stable which is always incredibly boring. The scene looks too stable and just isn’t important at all. Close up and far away shots really do convey different information and can totally be used well! This guide is also really useful for suggesting how camera shots should be used.