A visual guide to the language of film

Film, like speech and writing, has a unique language

Writing, speech, and visual images all communicate within their own particular spheres.

FILM IS A VISUAL ART

A visual art expresses its subjects in space. The art in a visual art consists of how those subjects are composed in space. A painter composes with colour, shapes, and tones. A sculptor composes with shapes and spaces. A photographer composes with real and sometimes unreal objects of light.  The visual side of the film is primarily in the hands of three members of the production team:

  • Production Designer/ Art Director: Responsible for designing sets and the total visual concept of the film.
  • Cinematographer: Who decides the lighting, and in some cases the composition of the shot to be photographed.
  • Director: Who supervises the mechanics of filming.

FILM IS A TEMPORAL ART

Film is also a temporal art. A temporal art expresses its subjects in time. The art in a temporal art consists of how those subjects are composed in time. A playwright composes with characters’ behaviour and dialogue. A poet composes with the juxtaposition of words and phrases. A novelist composes with dialogue and descriptions of words and phrases.  The temporal side of the film is the responsibility of:

  • Director: Who must keep in mind how each action relates to the actions that come before and after it.
  • Film Editor: Who puts the pieces of film into interesting and coherent rhythms. His work often influences the structure of the scenes and may change the structure of the film.
  • Screenwriter: Who works out the temporal organisation of the film, which normally precedes the visual organisation. Working from the screenplay, the art director, director, and cinematographer then create the visual organisation.

This is what the Art Of Collaboration is all about.

Have a look st this terrific scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and see how he masterfully manipulates the senses through visual storytelling. 

 

The Visual Dynamics of Film

Films are created in bits and pieces and put together in an order that the filmmaker hopes will make sense to the viewer. When the filmmaker begins to create the film itself, he or she has a choice of a great variety of techniques to tell the story or communicate the ‘bits and pieces’.

Camera Work

The basic element in all films is the shot. This is a single piece of film that may be as short as one frame or as long as the entire film. The shot continues until the filmmaker decides to change to another shot.  In a finished film, the shot becomes a scene. Scenes are the building blocks of sequences, which make up the entire film. They can be compared to sentences which make up paragraphs that create an entire story. The filmmaker uses different kinds of shots to create variations. An establishing shot often comes at the beginning of a sequence to orient the audience with the general surroundings. Other shots are the medium shot, the close shot, the point of view shot. These different shots are used to create various feelings and moods in the audience.

Another series of shots used by filmmakers involves camera angles. There are three basic angles: High-angle shots look down on the subject; low-angle shots in which the camera looks up; and flat-angle shots or eye-level shots.

Here’s Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life, where film becomes a meditative visual experience.

The camera can also move; there have been several developments in the area: the steadicam, the fly-cam; remote head cameras and different cranes.

Here’s the flight scene from Man Of Steel, capturing the thrill, excitement and adventure of Superman’s first flight, something we all dream about. 

Optical Effects

Filmmakers use optical effects to influence how audiences see films.

Fade in: At the beginning of a new segment the scene starts out black and grows brighter until it reaches the proper exposure.

Fade out:  At the end of several sequences, telling us that a segment has ended; the image grows darker until it is black.

Dissolve: A fade-out and fade-in overlapped to create the image that appears to mix one into the other. This is used to show the passage of time from one scene to the next.

Slow motion: This is used to describe details better, to emphasise violence and action sequences, to show the beauty of a subject and to highlight the emotional impact of a scene.

Wipes: When one scene ‘wipes’ or moves another scene off the screen.

Freeze frame: To emphasise a particular frame or image.

Swish pan: The camera pans rapidly from one character to another in a scene, creating rapid pacing and increasing tempo.

Here’s the classic fight scene from The Matrix Reloaded, using optical effects to plunge us into the action.

Point Of View

The filmmaker, similar to the author of a novel, can use various points of view.  In Witness, an 8-year-old Amish boy whose father has just dies is exploring the Philadelphia Amtrack station. We see him glance towards his mother, waiting on a bench, an unfamiliar sight in her black coat and bonnet. Then the camera moves at child’s-eye level, letting us see what the boy sees. We ‘walk’ as he walks, looking at a gigantic gold-covered statue. Next the camera cuts to an overhead shot, looking down from high up the rafters, at the statue and the small boy. We, the audience, become involved and identify with the boy. In Road to Perdition a boy Sam Mendes brilliantly uses point of view to accentuate a young boy’s realisation that his father is a killer.

Here’s the classic opening scene from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), where we enter the story from Michael Myers, a young boy who becomes one of the most iconic characters in the history of horror film. 

Editing

Next to the actual photography, editing shots into the order a filmmaker wants is perhaps the most important part of creating a film.  A group of scenes that are edited together make up the sequence. The cut is used to change our attention from one scene to another. The joining of one scene with another scene, how scenes follow one another, may seem a simple notion, but the cut in a film is one of the most powerful of the filmmaker’s techniques.

Creative editing involves cutting scenes so the action flows smoothly.

  • Matching action: We see a character walk to a door, open it, and start to go through to the other side. The viewpoint changes to inside the room, and we see the character continue on into the room. The action is smooth. There is one continuous flow of movement from outside to inside.
  • Montage: Each of the scenes passes quickly, but each scene is connected by similar ideas. One classic montage occurs in Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick, playing husband and wife, start the sequence by having breakfast at opposite ends of a conventionally sized dining table. As the sequence progresses, the table becomes longer and more stretched out. By the end of the scenes, we see the couple reading separate newspapers and obviously paying no attention to each other. The montage gives viewers a quick understanding of the couple’s growing indifference, to tell without dialogue the reason behind the marriage break-up.
  • Blind Editing: When the editor joins to scenes so that you cannot see where the cut is made. In The Color Purple several scenes are masterfully linked with visual and sound-editing.

The editor must be aware of the rhythm, tempo and pacing of the film.

  • Rhythm: The beat that we feel as we see the edited images pass by.
  • Tempo: The rate of the rhythm, or how fast the rhythm moves.
  • Pacing: The various changes in tempo and rhythm that take place in the film.

The film editor uses two basic techniques:

  • Cut-ins: Some detail of the main action is cut into the middle of another scene. For instance, a medium shot shows several characters talking. Suddenly one of them steps back in terror. At this point there is a cut-in of the actor’s face. The cut-in is also a close-up.
  • Cut-away: Cuts to another bit of action which involves the first scene. In the same shot as in the example above, one of the characters turns and looks off screen in terror. What she sees is what we see next – a cut-away to a man entering a room, holding a gun.

By juxtaposing bits and pieces of film that have been carefully planned and shot, a film editor can do all sort of tricks.

In Carrie, there is a scene in which Piper Laurie, as the deranged religious fanatic who tries to kill her daughter, corners Sissy Spacek in the kitchen. Carrie, who can move things without touching them, makes all the kitchen knives and tools fly up and stop her mother. The scene is totally believable after the editor is finished with it, except, of course, that it is impossible.

Here’s the classic shootout in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, an ultimate feat in editing to manipulate the physical and emotional action.

Lighting

Lighting placed low can give actors a sinister look. If it is dimmed it may make the same actors look depressed or sad. A shadow of a knife across a face and the shadow of a murdered stalking his victim are examples of shadow techniques.

Stanley Kubrick filmed Barry Lyndon using only natural light, drawing us into the world of the story.

Colour

Filmmakers can use the intensity or brightness of colour, as well as the lack of colour to paint a story. Woody Allen makes use of black-and-white film in several of his films to create an artistic feel and period feel; ranging from Manhattan to Shadows and Fog. In Schindler’s List, which was filmed in black-and-white there is one scene in which Spielberg’s colorised the coat of a girl red: showing the protagonist’s point of view, following the girl through the ghetto where Nazi soldiers ransacked the buildings and evicted and killed Jewish citizens. Also, in the film based on the life of artist Francis Bacon, Love Is The Devil, the filmmakers used the same intensity of colours in the scenes that Bacon used in his paintings. The recent development of technology resulted in films such as Pleasantville, where characters in a black-and-white world, could gradually, through their influence, cause other characters and objects to change from black-and white into glorious technicolor. They could even have a character in colour, walking through a black and white setting.

Here’s the classic ‘girl with the red jacket’ scene from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, brilliantly showing the affect war has on children. 

Composition

There is no rule in composition. Usually the frame or image is composed so that it pleases the eye, emphasises something, or so that it will describe a tension between colours, shapes, and vertical and horisontal figures.

Tim Burton is a master when it comes to composition. Here’s a scene from Sweeney Todd. Every frame is carefully composed to contribute to the theme of passion and desperation. 

Sound

Sound design has become an integral part of filmmaking. With the development of sound design filmmakers can fully involve audiences in the visual action .

What better example than the opening from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where sound and image collide. 

Special and Visual Effects

With the advent of more realism in films of the 90s, and especially computer generated effects,  Special Effects companies now take audiences where they have never been before.

Watch this hilarious clip from Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her, where visual effects contribute to the delightful humour.

The Language of film forms part of our workshop for screenwriters