This is a little embarrassing.
It took me 10 years to understand what people mean when they talk about point of view in filmmaking.
“You mean like a point of view shot to show what the character is seeing?”
My overcomplicating tech nerd brain couldn’t compute.
Today I want to give you a shortcut so you don’t have to go through ten years of looking like an idiot.
I’ll break down what point of view is not, how we can find it, and how we can use it when making our films.
What Point of View is not
Contrary to my belief point of view (POV), is not just a type of shot.
You know, the one where we see what the character sees.
A POV shot can be useful for showing someone’s point of view, but it is one tool in a much larger toolbox.
Point of view is also not a general overview of the world your story takes place in.
And I want to clarify, having a point of view does not mean you have to stay with one character all the time.
Staying in the moment
I was editing a pivotal scene in my first feature, Wild Boys.
It’s a scene where our protagonist, Kate, wakes up with two feral, young men, the Wild Boys, snooping through her stuff.
From her point of view she’s in fight or flight mode.
Kill or be killed.
The Wild Boys, not so much.
In a moment when the Wild Boys are distracted, Kate bolts.
In the edit I had two options.
1) An intense handheld shot tracking Kate as she scurries away and hides behind a tree.
2) A close two-shot of the Wild Boys devouring a can of baked beans.
The second option was hilarious and gross in the best way.
I wanted it in the movie so bad.
But cutting from Kate running to that shattered the tension in the scene.
We needed to stay in the moment with Kate.
Experience what she was experiencing.
It wasn’t the time to break the tension, it was time to increase it.
This is when it clicked for me.
I needed to let the audience stay in Kate’s shoes.
She was our point of view.
Start with your hero
I don’t recommend finding your POV in the edit like me.
So I’ve found some tools to help us figure this out while we write or prep instead.
POV starts with character.
As directors we have to be curious about our characters. Ask questions, look beyond the page and figure out what they believe. What experiences have shaped their life?
We can’t effectively direct until we understand the characters we’re portraying.
I try to get to know my characters as well as I know my best friends.
If I put them in a situation I want to know how they’d react immediately.
Getting a grasp of the character’s point of view is like a secret key to unlock the story.
It helps us decide what shots we need, how to block a scene and how to cut it.
It makes life so much easier when we know this.
It’s great to know every character’s POV, but the one that matters the most is our protagonist’s.
Brain scientists have studied moviegoers, and our brains don’t just act as if we’re an external observer.
Our brains mirror what we see on screen.
We literally feel what the protagonist is feeling.
Being deliberate about who the audience experiences the story through is directing 101.
We can determine what we want our audience to feel.
We can be hyper specific about what information we give them, when we give it, and how we take them through a scene.
Some good questions to ask when looking for your POV character:
- Who knows as much as we do?
- Who do we experience the scene through?
- Who’s the most important person in the scene to our story?
Think of Sherlock Holmes. As audience members we’re almost never up to speed with what’s going on in Sherlock’s genius brain.
We’re all Watson.
Waiting for Sherlock to solve the mystery while we stumble after, a couple of steps behind.
The second part of POV is you.
How are you bringing your worldview and experiences to this story?
We get to shape the movies we make, and we rely on our own unique backgrounds to do that.
In a way it’s like a double keyhole kind of situation.
We have a character with a strong POV, who’s shaped by our own POV.
We’re not aware of everything that’s made us into the people we are, but being aware that who we are shapes our films is key.
It’s also a major insight into point of view as a concept:
Specificity is everything.
You are not you because of some general sauce of life lived.
The same goes for our characters.
The more specific we can be in identifying the events and experiences that have shaped them, the more effective we can be in bringing them to life.
People relate to people.
We care about things that we can understand, that are like things that have happened to us.
And this is weird, but the more specific our story events are, the more relatable they are to our audience.
Specificity makes it real.
Even when they’ve never experienced anything remotely close to what our character is experiencing.
Specificity also brings precision.
If we have a solid POV, we know where to put our camera.
We don’t need to shoot a million angles and cover every single character’s reaction.
We can get the pieces we need and move on.
This is confident directing. And confidence comes from knowing what the hell you’re making.
Determining the film or the scene’s point of view is powerful for a director. The POV is rooted in your character’s beliefs and experiences. It helps you decide who we’re experiencing the scene through and is a great tool for deciding your blocking, shot list and edit.
Learn to love it.