Film Schedule

"Single-Shot Cinema" Workshop presented an exciting new approach to filmmaking

Leonard Retel-Helmrich outside the Franklin Templeton Building.
Leonard Retel-Helmrich outside the Franklin Templeton Building. (Picture taken by Lee Hilliker)

One of the highlights of the festival was a workshop directed by Dutch/Indonesian Filmmaker Leonard Retel-Helmrich. Twenty participants had the chance to hear him discuss his thoughts on the nature of cinema and the importance of the moving camera, and to explore some of the techniques he has used in several internationally acclaimed documentary films.

The workshop began with a historical overview of the history of cinema, from the perspective of the inventions that have defined the conventional ways of using the camera. In the beginning, cameras had to be cranked by hand and that meant that stable shots could only be achieved with the use of a tripod or some other stabilizing device. The relatively fixed position of the camera meant that dynamic visuals could be achieved only by means of editing. With the development of mechanical cranks, the camera began to move more dynamically -- but only until the invention of sound cinema. The noise of the camera and the awkwardness that came with the placement of microphones meant that the camera had to be fixed again, initially in a sound-proof booth.

Subsequent inventions have freed the camera and, especially with video there is no obstacle to almost any kind of camera movement imaginable. What is troubling, though, is that the cinema language is still largely defined in terms of the kind of framing and movement that have been traditionally possible with the use of tripods and dollies and cranes. Mr. Retel-Helmrich has attempted to change this.

What is noteworthy, though, is that he is not interested in camera movement for its own sake. The camera should move only as dictated by the drama of the scene being filmed. For example, in a scene where two individuals represent the center of attention, there is no reason to pan back and forth between them. That only serves to draw attention away from the subjects and towards the perspective of the camera. He argues that, instead, the camera should "orbit" around the two characters as if it were a comet, drawn by the "gravity" defined by the dramatic highlight of a situation.

Mr. Retel-Helmrich encouraged students to learn how to direct the camera without looking through the viewfinder. This allows the camera person to focus their attention on the scene, and also allows him or her to look directly at the subjects and draw their attention away from the camera itself. He let participants use a device that consisted of a fake camera with a string attached that extended out to the subject. As the camera moves, one can know that it is still directed at the subject as long as the string extends out directly to the subject from the plane of the camera lens.

Leonard Retel-Helmrich teaches the
Leonard Retel-Helmrich teaches the "Single-Shot Cinema" documentary filmmaking workshop. (Picture taken by Lee Hilliker)

Participants learned about several other easily accessible methods and devices that Mr. Retel-Helmrich employs to keep the camera stable and moving and attentive to what is important in the scene, rather than filming according to standard conventions. A central focus of his techniques is to avoid having the camera's movements make direct reference to the body of the camera person. You can avoid the appearance of footsteps, for example, by gently moving the camera in a small circular pattern around the subject. The key to his techniques, and he insists that the techniques are nothing without this, is that everything the camera does should be oriented to a reflection of the emotional content of the scene. While the idea is quite simple, and the techniques were easy to learn, putting them into practice will take a very long time. This workshop was an excellent starting point.

Nathan Andersen
Co-director, "Visions of Nature, Voices of Nature" Environmental Film Festival

Examples of Helmrich's single-shot technique.

News & Views

  • March 10, 2008

    Read about the "Single-Shot Cinema" Workshop that was presented by documentary filmmaker Leonard Retel-Helmrich.

  • March 7, 2008

    The 2008 Awards have been announced, click here to see the winners.

  • February 15, 2008

    Documentary filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich will be presenting his "Single Shot Cinema" workshop on March 1, 2008. This one-day workshop will combine a theoretical overview of his acclaimed method with a rare opportunity for hands-on exploration of the technique. Learn more and register.