Understanding Stills to Understand Film

It seems like such a simple concept, yet it is lost on so many new filmmakers. You are using a camera to tell a story but how do you do that?

Why would I need to understand still pictures? I am a filmmaker!

Cameras have been taking still pictures a lot longer than they have been taking motion pictures; it is what they were designed to do.

How many times have you looked at a still picture and understood the entire story? Time magazine and its superstars, National Geographic and its historic landscapes. Third world children starving and covered in flies?

The photographer knew how to get the best story possible in a single frame! As a filmmaker, you should be able to do that too. Your entire film is a series of stills telling a story!

Why would I need to know that when I have a camera man?

Simply put, you are the director. 

How can you direct the artistic look of the movie if you do not know how to create it? 

We make films for our audience, not for ourselves. It is your job as the storyteller to bring your audience into the world you create, it is your duty to tell them the best story possible through the visuals you provide.

Doing still life light studies is a great way to understand how the camera sees things vs the human eye. 

What do you mean? What differences?

Ever wonder why filmmakers use blue screen or green screen?

The camera sensors are designed to pick up these colours much better than the human eye, this makes it possible to utilize chroma key since the camera has ultra clear ideas of blue and green. Reds are very vivid to the human eye but to a camera they are dull and not as vibrant.

Understanding the parameters of the sensor will help you get better quality footage in the camera. Do yourself a favour and reduce the time on the cutting floor by getting the shot as close to perfect without editing software.

You mean fix it in post?

I hate that phrase!

Never count on post to fix things, counting on post production to make your film perfect is a sign that you are not yet ready to make a quality film.

As a general rule, it is safe to say that for every minute you see on your screen it takes about an hour in post.

If we look at that for a 90-minute film, you are looking at 90 hours of computer time AFTER you have filmed. Why would you want to add to that unnecessarily?

Once the filming is done you should be focused on sound design, timelining your film, colour grading the footage, and adding effects as needed. Titling, subtitling and rendering, all of these things are going to happen.

I don’t get it; I want to be a filmmaker not a photographer.

Patience young Skywalker!

Picture this…

You have developed your screenplay, you have won awards in film festivals, and now you want to pitch the film to investors.

You scan the web and find emails for every producer who makes your kind of film. You send out 1000 emails and one comes back and asks you to come in and make a pitch.

You’re excited! This is it! This is where you get to tell them how great you are and how great your project is! What are you going to show them? What do you present, to give that investor a clear visual of what he is buying into?

Stills… You make a presentation and show them stills.

This is what my film will look like/feel like; these are the colours we will be using to tell the audience our emotions. You can spend hours on google finding pictures close to what you want, or you can show off your skill with a camera and represent your ability to capture a story with a lens.

I see what you’re saying now; I can use it to show off my skills as a storyteller.


Anyone can go in with found images, but if you go in with created images it shows you have put in that little more care on the project. It demonstrates your ability to bring out the best parts of a story; it shows that you understand how an audience views things.

Utilizing stills can be a great way to engage with audiences during the filming process, during pre and post production. Everything we do as filmmakers should bring your audience to you and get them excited to see your skills. 

A picture is worth 1000 words, why do you think movies have posters?

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.

If you have a project you are struggling to get off the ground, feel free to go to www.JonathanThompson.org and book a free discovery call. 

Find out if one of my courses is a good fit for you.

Keep creating!

Jonathan Thompson – Devil May Care Productions