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Gene Sung

Best Focal Lengths for Comedy?

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Hi Friends,

 

I don't shoot a lot of comedy, usually more artsy and dramatic type stuff where I usually use 14mm to 25mm for wide shots and up to 85mm or more for closeups. I tend to really vary the focal lengths.

 

However, I have a shoot a short comedy spot and was wondering if I should stick to more wide angle lenses, even for the closeups? I know wide tends to be "Funnier."

 

Shooting in Super 35mm FOV, I was thinking of sticking between 20mm to 25mm.

 

What are your thoughts on focal lengths for comedy? For example, what focal lengths did they use on Seinfeld?

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I don't think there's much of a "rule," but I'd be more towards "normal" on comedy. Typically sticking around a 32/35 mm and moving the camera. Granted, comedy typically tends to play in the wide/mid and not in the close up anyway.

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Not sure if Seinfeld is the example you wanna use for cinematography, that was a multi-cam sitcom, not a feature. Probably lots of zoom as the cameras were many feet away from the talent.

 

They reality is; with so much meta and meta for the meta layers of evolution comedy has gone through in the last 10 or so years, the rules for "comedy cinematography" are blurred. If anything the softly lit, medium angle, comedy sequence is presumed to be hacky in this era (by other comedians).

 

Don't go super out of the box, but we're in a time where there's less rules than you think for this.

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I've shot a lot of comedies. I've used everything from about 12mm to 300mm. The story, and the sets, pretty much dictate the choice of focal length. There is no rule. Sometimes, extra wide and close can be funny, but sometimes, it's just wrong.

 

The one thing I've learned is that visual gags (and something as simple as an actor's reaction) often play funnier if they are in the same frame. Cutting to a visual gag usually looses 1/2 of the laughter.

 

On the other hand, comedy directors often like to use a 2nd camera as they feel a comic performance that really works may only happen once. And here one gets into having 2 cameras, with neither in the best position. But it's a compromise I've learned to adapt to. And this means using a longer lens from a non-optimal position. This really bothers me when the director asks for a 2nd camera on the "dumb" side of the lighting. But it's rare that I will say "please, not there" :) You can only say no a few times before they will find a new cinematographer...

 

Lastly, our films are usually performance based, and going into a scene we often don't know yet what the actors will be doing. Rehearsal of the actors to block the scene is most important, but you may find that your director doesn't want to tire the actors with rehearsals. And this makes it tough to block and light the scene. For me, and the director doesn't always understand this, I need to see the rehearsal to see where the actors look and how they react to know what is most important to cover, and from where, and how to light them. I think, especially for scenes with more than 2 actors, we've come to shooting the 1st set-up of a scene with a very wide shot (lens depending on the size of the set!). This 1st set-up is where the actors and the director really work out the scene. The trouble is that it is so wide that there can be very few places to put lights that are not in the frame!!!! And this lighting will determine the look of the entire scene. On a stage, this is not such an issue, but on location, in a small apartment it can be quite difficult. And this is where the real "art" of comedy lies...

 

Good luck Gene!

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Also depends whats driving the comedy...

 

Is it physical comedy, arch dialogue, gross out, prat falls, sophisticated, surreal...

 

I'm a big fan of the sitcom "Spaced" - it uses the cinematography to drive the comedy - a lot of the jokes come from the way the camera moves and scene's transition. Its very much visual comedy and interesting from a cinematography POV. Its pretty much using every cinematic and action film cliche to comic effect.

 

It also looks really good considering it was shot on Digi-Beta

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