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Capturing a Sense of Place: Portobello Beach | John M Morelock: Storyteller
November 25, 2020

Capturing a Sense of Place: Portobello Beach

By In Blog, Cinematography, Short Films

How do you capture a sense of place?  What elements of cinema make the viewer feel grounded in an environment?  Often, when simply looking at a photograph of a location, you’re surprised at how different it is in person.  In contrast, certain scenes in cinema accurately capture this sense of place.  The opening scenes of Trainspotting come to mind.  After watching Renton and his heroin addicted pals sprint down Prince’s Street, booking it around the corner near the Black Bull, and playing football on private pitches, visiting Edinburgh seemed extremely familiar.  What was it about these particular locations that captured the feel of the city?

Trainspotting “Choose Life” Scene

This was the question I soon needed to answer when carrying out our third visual exercise.  After a recommendation by one of my group members, I soon found myself sitting on a bench by Portobello Beach, watching the tide go out.  The sea salt picked up by strong winds stung my nose.  Children laughed as they ran after dogs.  But sitting somewhere in our 3d world is entirely different than portraying it on the screen.  How can you make that feeling as close to reality as possible?

My group and I took snapshots of many different locations.  Through a process of elimination, we determined which shots, landmarks, and angles felt the most iconic.  We put together a story board which made the most sense and set out to do the shoot in just those 8 exact shots.

Storyboard for our Project

As could be expected, we encountered issues.  One issue is we had hoped for rain.  We had this idea that we could capture the bleak feelings of Covid-19 by showing this bustling place empty.  Instead, the weather was superb.  Even though the amusement arcade was still shut, there will still a large amount of beach goers on this lovely day.  Perhaps, we were trying to force a narrative that had nothing to do with the actual sense of place, and what we got instead was much more accurate to reality.

The other issue was exposure. We wanted to wait until the streetlights came on to capture certain areas.  We purposely shot out of storyboard order.  We also wanted to capture the soft lighting and coloured sky that comes near sundown.  However, due to rapidly changing lighting, we were constantly having to increase our exposure.  As soon as I sat down in the editing booth, I found the shots jarring in storyboard order.  It was one thing to adjust the brightness of different levels of dusk, but something else entirely to compare dusk to night side by side.  After discussing with the group, we arranged the shots into an order which makes more sense with the lighting.  If I were to do the shoot again, I would either shoot in exact storyboard order, or ensure that the lighting and sky conditions were much more similar between the shots.  In the end, I feel our final product accurately captured what it’s like to visit Portobello beach.

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