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Lessons Motion Designers Learn from Hollywood - Lenses

Mark Christiansen

If you want to improve your mograph work, you need to think like a cinematographer

Hey there motion designer! I bet that before you decided you could professionally operate 3D software, it was imperative to learn how to operate the camera as if you were an ASC-certified cinematographer, right?

Are those... crickets I hear?


You could call cinematography a “lost art” in mograph, but when was it ever considered an essential part of the motion design process in the first place? True, motion designers love to choreograph things—cameras most definitely included—but the meaning behind camera movements, lens choices, and lighting are often left behind.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s not really big sweeping camera moves that differentiate the best directors of photography (in this article, by the way, you’ll hear me use Director of Photography, DP, and cinematographer interchangeably). Study some of the best work and you’ll notice that—in addition to creating an aesthetic—the best DPs create a point of view and an emotion.

They do this not by showing off the scenery, but rather by choosing what to reveal—and maybe more importantly...what to conceal.

Let’s face it. For motion designers, the focus (pun intended) tends to favor showing off the graphics, so that they appear (and remain) aesthetically pleasing. Isn’t a consistently pretty image enough?

Thinking like a cinematographer lets you tell stories that have drama and emotional impact rather than admiring the scenery. To discover how to create cinema magic (if you already know how to operate a 3D camera), you can study how the most talented professional cinematographers plan and execute shots. This article primes you on a few basics to look for in your favorite films.

  • How Cameras Behave in the Real World
  • The Characteristics of Lenses
  • The Implications of Shot Styles
  • What Different Movements Mean to the Story...and the Audience
  • Get the Camera Off the Sticks


How Real Cameras Behave


One way to start thinking this way is to constrain your camera to only what is possible in the physical world. You may find that this alone forces you to be more creative and expressive with your virtual camera work. After all, it was Orson Welles, the great innovator of golden-age Hollywood cinematography (along with Citizen Kane DP Gregg Toland), who famously said that “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”

So what do you suppose might happen if you were to consider constraining more of what you do with your virtual camera to only what can be done with a real one? Would this automatically make you more creative with your camera work? Would the result have greater emotional impact than it would otherwise?

To help you consider how to even experiment with this concept, I present you with five essential choices regarding a shot that every DP (director of photography) makes, every time. These are so fundamental as to be universal, and yet I’m willing to bet they will seem utterly foreign to many motion designers. Let’s go through them, one by one.

Choose the appropriate focal length for the shot


What is the purpose of so many lenses?

Cinematographers certainly know their cameras, but believe it or not, the camera itself doesn’t get the most attention. Light and lenses matter much more because of how they are uniquely chosen for each shot. Listen in while a DP discusses lens choice with the first AC (the assistant camera operator who deals with lenses and focus). The conversation is reminiscent of, say, a pro golfer calling for a specific club from the caddy. Why?

Work with an actual professional camera (no fixed lens) and you will quickly discover that each lens has a unique character to shape and transform the shot. Nailing this flavor down precisely can be ineffable, like discerning some mystery spice.

Broadly speaking, however, lenses come in one of two types, prime (fixed length) or zoom (variable length). Both types of lens vary by length, and they are considered wide, standard, or telephoto (long).

A wide lens (real or, in this case, virtual) tends to make Z depth feel deeper, the background further away.
A long lens framed the same (positioned further away) compresses the Z depth, bringing the foreground and background together. In this case, there is also shallow depth of field blurring both the foreground and background.
A medium lens, neither long nor wide, resembles the depth and breadth of natural vision.

And here is how the cameras were positioned to capture the above shots. It would be essentially the same result with a camera and these lens angles in the real world.


Among the wide lenses are the extremely wide (macro and fisheye) usually used for specialty photography. The longer telephoto lenses include those massive models used to shoot sporting events, celebrities and other wildlife photography. A more modest-length telephoto is typically considered ideal for portraits, while wide angles are most often used for environments (interiors or landscapes), and a standard lens—well, you can think of it as akin to what you’d see with the naked eye, sort of. More about that in a moment.

This 24-70 zoom lens would be considered wide, although it looks somewhat long.
Long lenses can be so massive they require their own mount and handles.
These wide prime lenses have a highly convex (curved outward) face to gather a greater angle of view.

Now we come to a somewhat confusing point. Virtual lens angles (from your 3D camera in C4D, Houdini, or After Effects) have no direct influence on the character of a shot. Rather, it is the position of the camera that changes the perspective. If you frame a wide and long shot with any 3D depth identically, they will look different, but that’s because the camera with the narrow (long) lens angle has to be much further away to be framed the same as the wide (short) lensed camera.

In the above example by photographer Dan Vojtěch, the character of the face changes dramatically with lens length—but what you don’t see is how dramatically the distance of the camera also varies to frame the shot identically.

Learn the character of the lens, and use its strengths and limitations to advantage


Why do real lenses change the character of the shot, but virtual ones don’t?

This is a trick question. The reason that lens distortion occurs with a physical lens but not a virtual one is that a virtual camera has no lens.

One of the reasons that a camera needs a lens is that it must bend light to widen or lengthen the camera’s view area. Lenses bend light, and a single lens contains multiple lens elements—individual curved pieces of glass—to resolve the image correctly.

With a virtual camera, “light” (the scene image) travels in a completely straight line directly to the plane where the image is gathered. Essentially, the scene is simply recorded at a given width, kind of like if you placed a frame in front of your eyes.

Fish-eye lenses (and frogs’ eyes) appear in the whacky curved way that they do in order to gather peripheral image data.

Everyone knows if you can’t see the camera lens (or eye), it can’t see you. If you’re standing alongside the camera, only a bulbed-out lens will include you in the image.

For a lens manufacturer, the goal is generally to distort the image as minimally as possible to provide this effect. But with sufficient widening of the image, extreme fish-eye lenses will distort more and more approaching the edges of the frame.

In After Effects, we can remove and recreate distortion from camera images with effects plug-ins (the built-in Optics Compensation, or perhaps the Lens Distortion effect from Red Giant). This process, and how and why you would do it, is beyond the scope of this article, but the Red Giant approach is designed to make the process of removing and restoring lens effects less complicated than with Optics Compensation.

The GoPro is an example of a camera with a fixed wide angle lens, with accompanying distortion.
A wide shot generated by a computer may feel “stretchy” in the corners, while the straight lines at the edge of frame remain straight.
Adding pincushion distortion to a fisheye shot (to match what a real fisheye lens would do) with the Optics Compensation effect leaves you with a frame that must be scaled and cropped in order to fit the frame. Over-rendering (with extra padding around the frame) is one way around this.

Study the implications of a long, wide, or neutral shot


What does the camera lens do to the perspective of the shot?

Here is where things can get a little confusing. Again we are presented with somewhat of a trick question. Camera position is what truly changes the perspective of the shot. A different lens angle changes the framing of the shot. Two shots taken with identical framing but different positions must have—you guessed it—different angles of view.

Additionally, as we’ve just seen in the previous section, the lens that would deliver a specific angle of view has specific characteristics that change the shot in other ways, like adding lens distortion.


Side note: You will see the terms field of view, angle of view, focal length, and zoom amount used interchangeably. They all affect the same thing—how long or wide the shot is. With computers, angle of view (AoV) is the most consistently accurate since it’s not dependent on the size of the frame or length of the (imaginary) lens. You can specify a horizontal or vertical (or even diagonal) AoV, so make sure you know what you’re dealing with.

Going back to our cinematographers and photographers, who always seem to love collecting lenses (aka “glass”), you choose not only a certain lens length but a certain lens for its character. For example, a portrait photographer might choose to work with a 50-70mm lens (on a 35mm camera, this is slightly telephoto) because of how benevolent it is to facial features.

But a filmmaker who wants a stylized look for his characters might choose to break this rule. For example, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amélie (one of the earliest examples of surreal mograph-like story-driven effects in a narrative feature film), has made doing so something of a signature look.

Jeunet’s films are what you could call “very French”—stylized, with characters awkwardly thrust into absurd circumstances. Amelie is a beautiful film that—rather than flattering its characters with a typical slightly long close-up lens—is almost entirely shot with very wide lenses.

To frame a close-up requires that the camera be almost right up against the talent. The result is slightly claustrophobic, and it also distorts characters' faces into live-action characactures. Prominent gallic noses become even more so, wide eyes become wider.

The point isn’t to recommend shooting more films this way. Rather, it’s that the filmmaker widened his expressive palette for this masterful film by breaking convention and knowing what the lens can do. In the same film, the color grade is a (rare) red/green—generally the least popular/complimentary color option when it’s not Christmastime. Once again, a choice that wasn’t made just to be different—it suits the cheery tone of the movie.

As an artist, don't be afraid of reaching for a new brush now and then

Would you ever go so far as to add lens distortion to a purely computer-generated image? It’s not necessarily that you should but that you can, understanding what it does for the look and feel. Without the curvature, a wide-angle shot becomes less wide. In an FPS game, you may sometimes notice extreme linear stretching of the wide image in the corners; this is too ugly for most films to ever allow it, but works for the medium.

Here a neutral (slightly wide) view, close to the foreground and with shallow depth of field, and composing with the “rule of thirds”  means we don’t see all the pretty scenery. This creates mystery and focuses our eye where the cinematographer wants it.
In this neutral (slightly long) view, the interaction is centered. We can see everything clearly, all the detail of the characters and scenery. No one will remember this shot.
Valorant (2020), Riot Games

First-person action games (like Valorant, shown here) often use a view as wide as the GoPro, but without distortion. This can feel too angular and stilted for cinema.

Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Sergio Leone

The classic western shootout is captured with a long lens, a look popularized in the 1960s by Sergio Leone.

Amélie (2001), Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Filmmaker Jean Jeunet makes unconventional use of the wide-angle lens for character close-ups. It’s a flattering enough look on Audrey Tatou and adds a certain characature to some of the other more Gallic-looking figures.

To reframe in 3D for drama, dolly always, zoom (almost) never


Why dolly the camera instead of zooming in or out?

This is a very common point of confusion that is one of those things that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t help but notice it. Zooming the camera is no different than cropping the image.

It’s really that simple. Zooming only changes the framing of the shot. There is no change in perspective or relative scale.

Look closely and you’ll notice that a zoom is no different than simply cropping or scaling the image; there is no change to the perspective.
It might seem subtle to the casual observer, but when the camera moves in instead of zooming in, not only the perspective between objects in Z space, but even in the Z depth of the objects themselves shifts. This is how dolly shots can be 3D tracked, while zoom shots offer no depth perspective.

There are a couple of things you should know about zooms, from a cinematic perspective. One is that for feature film (e.g. expensive looking) images, they have been out of fashion since at least the 1970s, with the exception of directors wanting to emulate that style to make a shot stand out (hello Quentin Tarantino).

Want to really give the feeling of a witness camera and a “surprise!” shot? Go with the crash zoom.

Zooming in (and to a lesser extent, out), including the much beloved crash zoom “surprise!” shot, is a stable of mockumentary projects from Arrested Development to The Office. What you’ll notice about the zoom shot is that it calls attention to the camera itself and its operator.

In many professional applications, including live-action sports, the zoom is considered amateurish, for a least a couple of reasons. One is probably because this shot is a staple of camcorder home movies. Additionally, the zoom implies that the camera operator was caught by surprise, unprepared.

The human eye does not zoom. Our eyes show us depth of field, motion blur, perspective—many of the things we associate with the camera—but our eyes contain what you would consider prime, not zoom lenses. You want a closer look? Move in. We’ll get to that in a moment.

However, in a 2D environment there is no difference between a dolly move (moving the camera closer to or further from the subject, with or without an actual dolly, the wheeled conveyance for the camera) and a zoom. Moving in or zooming on a 2D image is no different than reframing (effectively cropping) that image. It’s only when you shoot in a 3D environment that the distinction becomes meaningful.

The Dolly Zoom aka Zolly shot maintains the frame by zooming while dollying in or out. Dollying in shows the world closing in on the figure in the foreground, while dollying out was used by Alfred Hitchcock to create the “Vertigo effect.”
Which Steven Spielberg then perfected for his own use

Get the camera off the sticks, and rarely pan

Why truck the camera instead of panning it?

And that brings us to the final point. It’s easier in the real world to park the camera on a tripod and pan (and zoom) around instead of moving it, and it’s similarly easier in the virtual world to effectively do the same thing, rotating the virtual camera instead of repositioning it. But in many cases it’s not what you want.

A “truck” shot is like a dolly, but instead of moving in Z, it moves in X. A shot that moves in Y is called a “pedestal.”

Novices to cinema sometimes say “pan” to mean any camera move. This may be because the common cinema terms—dolly for a move in/out, truck for a move left/right, pedestal for a move up/down—are based on the equipment used to create them on a film set.

Panning shots are most often slow establishing or transitional shots. Quick pans during a dramatic scene are in the same category as crash zooms—great mostly for comedic effect, for making us aware there is a camera operator trying to keep up with the spontaneous action.

Whip pans work well for horror and comedy

Actual camera moves, meanwhile, are the very essence of cinema—be they handheld and chaotic feeling or smooth as steadicam silk. Not only that, but only by moving the camera through a dimensional environment do you make it possible for camera tracking software to do its job.

A nodal pan, in which the camera stays in place (on a tripod for a real world shot) gives no perspective. 3D tracking software can track the motion of the camera itself, but cannot provide any dimensional information about the scene until the camera moves.

Moving the camera adds dimension. But to do so, you must work with a dimensional environment. Here’s an example from VFX for Motion in which students tried to recreate a handheld camera against a 2D scene. The problem is that the background is created with dimensional perspective, but this is all just the 2D perspective of a painting.

Wiggle Position
Wiggle Position

Now you know it, so try it!

There are a couple of takeaways from this article I would love for you to put into play. One is simply to consider the camera as having a creature point of view. This could be a camera operator, witness, stalker, pet, handheld witness that almost missed the shot, baby, auteur paying hommage to a famous shot from a movie—whatever feels appropriate.

The other is that camera and lighting choices that obscure areas of the scene are almost always more cinematic than those that are afraid to do so. We didn’t really get into lighting or lens effects like shallow depth of field here, but you will notice them come into as you watch well shot films.

All of which you are encouraged to do!

(Need a refresher on camera moves and what they do? We've got you covered!)

VFX for Motion

If all this talk of virtual cameras and lenses got you inspired, maybe you're ready for an advanced technique training session. VFX for Motion will teach you the art and science of compositing as it applies to Motion Design. Prepare to add keying, roto, tracking, matchmoving and more to your creative toolkit.

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