Watching films is a classroom in itself, yet you really have to have the right tools to become a critical viewer.
All good directors are students of film. They devour film, looking at the way their peers chose to present the script – their shot choice, transitions, music and form. To get the most out of watching films and glean new ways of shooting scenes and presenting ideas, you have to start with the basic elements that make up any film or video production. In this column, we will look at these various elements and provide a simple guide that you can use to begin your journey into the film classroom.
Before You Start
To really give a film your total critical attention, you have to distance yourself and become a totally objective viewer. This can be difficult to do, especially if the film is well done and pulls you into the story with characters that you begin to care about, thrust into a situation that seems insurmountable. Will they escape? Will they fall in love? Finding the answer pulls you away from your primary task, which is to study the various aspects of the film, so that you may grow in your own filmmaking. There is a very easy solution, though somewhat time-consuming: watch the film twice, once for enjoyment and once for study. Soon, you will be able to do both at the same time, though it does tend to reduce your overall enjoyment of the film.
When you watch the film a second time to study it, break it down into its various scenes, use slow motion and step advancing to go through it, and study edit points and transitions. Watch how the movement of the scene flows from one action to the next. Take note of the director’s shot choices, the actors’ blocking, the Director of Photography’s lighting. Carefully study the film and glean from it as many new ideas as possible.
Prepare for your study by recording your favorite shows and movies on tape or by going to the local video store and renting some film classics on DVD. Whether you use video or DVD, you will be able see how the film was created by stepping through it frame by frame.
The Film Textbook
Like any good class, a film has a number of easily-understood chapters or elements. When Videomaker editors critique a video project using their Take 20 process, they look at lighting; editing, including pacing and continuity; audio – miking, dialog, music, sound effects, overall clarity and consistency; story; camera work – composition, use of angles, shot choice and screen direction; and finally, the effects and graphics. Throughout the process, they discuss and critique the director’s choices. You can use the same format to critically review a film. You might also add elements such as visual design, acting and overall directing techniques. Let’s take a look at each of these elements.
When looking at the film’s camerawork, you have to become aware of the shooting of the different scenes. Was the scene shot handheld or Steadicam, on tripod or dolly? Ask yourself why the director chose that particular type of camera support. Did the camera movement match the style and tone of the scene, or was it distracting? Camera movement adds depth and flow to a scene, but if the movement is at the wrong pace or time or in the wrong style, it can be very distracting. You would not want to shoot a soft love scene with very shaky, fast-moving handheld camera, and you definitely would not shoot a subjective viewpoint shot of people running for their life through the woods with a slow-moving camera mounted on a dolly.
Take a serious look at the composition of the shot. Did the shooter use the rule of thirds? Is there plenty of look space and walk space? Are the shot sizes appropriate for the level of involvement and emotion? A lot of new directors and shooters forget shot size when shooting a project. Always remember that the more emotional attachment you want in the scene, the tighter the shot. Wide shots are less emotional and more objective than tight shots.
What camera angles did the director use? The camera angle tells a lot about the subject. A high-angle shot, looking down on the subject, makes the subject seem small and insignificant, while a low-angle shot gives the subject a sense of power and authority. We often call shots with sideways angles of about 45 degrees “Dutch angles,” and they usually tell the viewer that things aren’t quite right in the world. Using objects to frame your subject and combining interesting camera movement with appropriate angles can add tremendous power to a scene.
Finally, did the director maintain good screen direction and continuity in images? Screen direction is very important; it allows your audience to follow the action without getting lost. Following the 180 Degree Rule and maintaining a good sense of time and continuity enable your audience to become part of the action and immerse themselves in the film experience.
Lighting not only lets us see the action, it also helps set the mood, time and location of the scene. Observe how the Director of Photography or director chose to light the scene. Do the shadows and light enhance the scene, or are there distracting dark or bright spots? Is the color balance of the light appropriate for the scene? Does the key light look like it is coming from a natural source in the scene, or is it a mysterious light? Carefully scrolling through the scene will answer these questions and show you the subtle changes the director made in the lighting when shooting closeups versus long shots. Lighting is a fine art that should enhance the production. Every time you watch a new film, the lighting lessons you find are invaluable in improving your lighting skills and design.
The pace of edits, the placement of the cuts and the use of transitions are perhaps among the easiest and most valuable lessons you can learn by watching a classic film. Carefully watch the film frame by frame and see where the editor placed the cut between two shots. Could the editor have cut sooner or later? Why did he or she choose to make the cut at that precise point? Has the editor hidden the cut in a well-designed matched-action sequence?
When watching a film sequence by sequence, shot by shot, you may be surprised by the number of cuts you find. A good editor hides the cuts in well-shot matched-action sequences, always cutting on motion and maintaining a smooth flow from shot to shot. This flow leads to a sense of continuity that makes the scene believable and the passage of time reasonable. Observe this flow and take its lessons to your next editing session.
Unfortunately, new filmmakers often overlook audio. When studying films, listen to the audio without watching the picture. Does the audio convey the story and provide a sense of what is happening? Is the audio clean and consistent, and does it show good dynamic range? Are there any points where the audio is overmodulated and fuzzy? Is the dialog clear and concise?
Now watch the film with both audio and image present. Does the music work with the image? Do the sound elements of dialog and effects sound natural in the aural landscape and match the physical landscape? Carefully watch the film to try to determine how the audio director miked the actors.
One of the toughest things to do in audio production is to create a three-dimensional aural landscape that matches the level and tone of the audio with the physical space in which it is created. For example, a lav microphone placed on an actor that you see at a distance will sound very unnatural. Use a shotgun and place it at a distance from the actor, so that the voice matches the distance we see. These will not be equal. The microphone will be much closer to the actor than you might think. To practice mic placement, choose a favorite scene from a movie and try to duplicate the sound you hear.
Effects and Graphics
Effects and graphics are just a small portion of most films. Watch how the filmmaker used the opening credits to portray the mood of the pieces, as well as to give credit where credit is due. Pay close attention to any special effects, step through them frame by frame to see how they were shot and try to identify the technology behind them. If the shot was computer-generated, does it look real and does it fit seamlessly with the real-action sequences? Can you tell when the director is using a matte painting, a computer-generated background, a stunt double or a model? By carefully examining the film, you can begin your education in the world of special effects.
The story, of course, is the ultimate point of study for any critical viewer. Does the story have a character you care about and who is in a situation that will be hard to get out of? Do the acting and direction work with the character and story, or do they seem at odds with each other, drawing attention to their craft instead of enhancing the story? Try your best to stay detached from the story and its characters, so that you can be an objective observer. Break the video down into its essential elements and enjoy the discoveries you will make as you enter the video classroom.
Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.