Sunday, 8 January 2012

How Films Work

The shortcut to making a film that lasts
in people’s minds lies in understanding
the nuts and bolts of movies – not just
the technical side but the mechanics of
how you make viewers see and feel
what  you want. The tools you have
learnt and the conventions and rules
you have picked up now need to
come together to add  up to
more than just technology and skills.
In a sense, learning about continuity,
lighting or composition is like
learning about the  anatomy of filmmaking. This section takes  us into what we could call
the soul of filmmaking – the meanings that lie within. Understanding how this inner life
works means that you stand to make your next movie an experience viewers won’t forget.

The tools

The basic building blocks in a film are:
1.Image – what we see
2. Sound – what we hear
3. Space – what we think we see (perception)
4. Time – when we think it happened.

Everything else in the movie is subservient to these basic elements. Story, plot and
character are visible elements in the film, but are simply the result of the way the
above are manipulated. If we look at how each of these elements are represented
in your skills, we could identify them as:

1. Image – camera framing, lighting, movement, colour
2. Sound – diagetic sound (within the scene), non-diagetic sound (subjective, off camera), music
3. Space – depth, focus, composition and sound
4. Time – editing.

In different ways, each of the tools above are a way of expressing meaning in your film.
Story and character are much less able to express meaning than they appear.
An interesting way of throwing light on this is by looking at remakes, two films
with identical stories but which have very different meanings through use of the camera,
colour, symbolism and so on. The original Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
set up a moral narrative of how a decent family are targeted by a released convict,
yet in Scorsese’s 1991 remake, certain changes are made that radically alter the meaning.
The convict is given a semi-religious motivation, while the family are deceitful and
self-destructive. The first movie places the sinner as the convict, while the second
places the family – and crucially, the lawyer at the head of it – as the sinner while
the convict is the sinned against.

So what exactly carries out the meaning side of the film? The answer is in the fact
that every element carries it – it is not separate from the film but is integral to every
part of it. Confused movies are ones where no thought has been given to what they
actually mean, while resonant movies are the ones where there is very clear meaning.
But this has nothing to do with what kind of meaning you opt for. Successful films
don’t have to shout out an important message nor do they have to make the audience

think something – they are not propaganda. In fact, many films today prefer to avoid
sermons in favour of raising questions and ideas for us to take home and reflect on.
Films such as Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2005), Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001),
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) and In The Cut (Jane Campion, 2003) tend to
nudge us towards outcomes rather than hand them to us on a plate.

We could refer to any emergence of the core themes and ideas of a film as signs.
The devices that deliver these signs exist in layers surrounding the film. Some are
easy to spot, others need a little work to uncover. Like forensic work at a crime scene,
some signs are for rookies (the gun on the floor, the pool of blood) and others are
for those who know how to look (the mismatched fingerprints on the trigger,
the photos smashed on the mantelpiece). Like detectives, we try to uncover
what happened and we look for a motive too – why it happened. Then we
see how this makes us feel, what it tells us about people, life and the world today.

This hierarchy of signs is placed by the director so that we can experience the
movie on different levels – it can be entertainment or it can be philosophy,
depending on your choice. Sometimes, the philosophy side gets to be bigger
than intended – for instance, in Hitchcock’s films, where we get to know as much
about the psyche of the director as we do the plot. Elsewhere, a film can become
more meaningful through its relation to the zeitgeist – for instance, with Terminator
I and II, where we can track the changes in masculinity in society as Arnie is all
Rambo-style machismo in the first movie but by the end of the decade is able to
look after children and even weep with emotion. It’s easy to see why
Kindergarten Cop was such an obvious next step. So, when watching a film,
we need to look for signs at varying levels and look for others that may be
attached later to the film.

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