Jim's Film Website: film Guide

A Basic Guide to Film

how visual and sound design enhance drama

(PLEASE NOTE: later sections are in DRAFT form)

Welcome! This Basic Guide to Film is intended for a general audience interested in how a motion picture works, that is, how image and sound convey emotions and ideas.

These basic principles apply to all types of pictures – fictional (ranging from Hollywood blockbusters to independent works), documentary, animated, even experimental – whether celluloid, video, or digital. While we all talk about a film's story and characters, this guide also provides a common vocabulary for discussing visual and sound design, which can sometimes be as dramatic as the action. For an example of this guide 'in action,' see the analysis of a scene from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

Let's start with a film's story...


Part 1. Dramatics — What Do We Feel?

  1. Genre
  2. Dramatic Structure
  3. Characters & Acting Styles
  4. Film Structure – Shot / Scene / Sequence
  5. "The Big Picture" – All the Elements Working Together

A. Genre

Film, as a dramatic form, is about people and their conflicts, but it encompasses image, movement and sound as much as performance and story. In essence, film is about emotion — our individual feelings which evolve during, and after, we watch a picture, as well as how those feelings connect with the ideas expressed. A key question is, What does a film make, or allow, us to feel?

One basic way in which we experience a picture is its, and our, relationship to other films of the same type or genre, e.g., Comedy, Musical, Science Fiction, Western, et al. (take a look at my "10 Best Films" lists for many genres) .

B. Dramatic Structure

Fundamental/ Mythic Structure

Historian Joseph Campbell's book about mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is – paradoxically – one of the most influential books in the movie industry. Campbell isolates the single fundamental structure of all the world's major myths, which has also served as the basis for dramatic structure in fiction and film. You will see that Campbell's pattern applies equally to comedy, drama, and even "non-fiction" (documentaries have dramatic form too):

  1. The hero is introduced in the ordinary world, where
  2. s/he receives the call to adventure.
  3. S/he is reluctant at first but is encouraged by a wise old man or woman to cross
  4. the first threshold, where s/he encounters various
  5. tests and helpers.
  6. S/he at last reaches the innermost cave, and must endure
  7. the supreme ordeal.
  8. S/he seizes the sword or treasure but is
  9. pursued by terrible forces on the road back home and almost dies.
  10. S/he is resurrected and transformed by this experience.
  11. S/he returns home with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit the world.

Classic Dramatic Structure

Classic five-act dramatic form was advocated by Aristotle in his Poetics 2,500 years ago, with its unities of time and place, and realized in works like Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet or Moliere's comedy The Misanthrope. Each of the five acts revolves around a specific part in the drama's evolution: I. introducing the characters and themes, II. rising action/complications, III. climax/reversal, IV. falling action/reversals, V. resolution, also called the denouement (a wonderful French word that literally means 'taking apart a knot' — this connects with the word 'text,' from the same Latin root as 'textile,' a whole cloth woven together from constituent strands. So, a dramatic text's complications are resolved when the plot knots, at last, are untied: How revealing etymology can be, eh).

Screenplay Structure

A film script features all of the structural elements of the traditional five-act drama, but divides them into three parts, referred to in the industry as "three-act structure":

In practice, Acts I and III are relatively brief, while Act II comprises half the length of most films (which leads some people to talk – confusingly – about the "first part of Act II" and the "second part of Act II"). I prefer the following structural approach, suggested by Syd Field in his excellent study, Screenplay. "Pivots" hurl the action into unexpected, yet dramatically consistent, directions. The following assumes the industry standard of one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time, so a typical two-hour film's script is 120 pages long:

Screenplay Structure –

also compared to Campbell's Mythic Form


Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), written and directed by George Lucas, provides an ideal illustration of both screenplay structure and Campbell's mythic form. (It also happens to be my favorite film [wink].)

Act I (Exposition)

  • First 18 minutes – SET UP the main characters and situation
  • 18–21 minutes – FIRST "PIVOT": something new (growing out of the basic situation) happens, revving up the dramatic engine

Act I (Exposition)

  • First 18 minutes – SET UP the story: Princess Leia captured, learn of evil galactic Empire; intro. Luke Skywalker on desert planet Tatooine
  • 18–21 minutes – FIRST "PIVOT": Luke finds Leia's message; meets wise old Ben Kenobi who gives him "your father's light sabre"

Compare to Mythic Form

1. The hero is introduced in the ordinary world, where
2. s/he receives the call to adventure.
3. S/he is reluctant at first but is encouraged by a wise old man or woman to cross...

Act II (Rising Action and Climax)

  • 22–57 minutes – development
  • 58–60 minutes – MID-POINT: another dramatic turning point
  • 61–84 minutes – development springing from Mid-Point incident
  • 85–90 minutes – SECOND "PIVOT": an unexpected (but consistent) event propels the action to its climax

Act II (Rising Action and Climax)

  • 22–57 minutes – development: Luke and Ben meet Han Solo and Chewbaca, and all escape from Mos Eisley
  • 58–60 minutes – MID-POINT: Luke, et al., arrive on the Death Star
  • 61–84 minutes – on Death Star search for Leia, try to escape
  • 85–90 minutes –SECOND "PIVOT": escape from the Death Star

Compare to Mythic Form

4. [S/he crosses] the first threshold, where s/he encounters various
5. tests and helpers.
6. S/he at last reaches the innermost cave, and must endure
7. the supreme ordeal.
8. S/he seizes the sword or treasure but...

Act III (Resolution)

  • 91–115 minutes – development
  • 115–120 minutes – CLIMAX & RESOLUTION

Act III (Resolution)

  • 91–115 minutes – development: Luke & Rebels plan to attack Death Star; Luke is almost killed by Darth Vader
  • 115–120 minutes – CLIMAX & RESOLUTION: final part of assault on Death Star, victory

Compare to Mythic Form

9. [S/he is] pursued by terrible forces on the road back home and almost dies.
10. S/he is resurrected and transformed by this experience.
11. S/he returns home with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit the world.

Within a Scene – Dramatic "Beats"

C. Characters & Acting Styles

Archetypal Characters

Here are the most basic types of characters; you will find them in most films, regardless of genre, from comedy to drama to (although often in subtle form) documentary:

EXAMPLE: Star Wars (Lucas / 1977) again provides an excellent illustration: Protagonist (Luke Skywalker), Secondary Protagonist (Princess Leia), Antagonist (Darth Vader), Secondary Antagonist (Grand Moff Tarkin), Guardian/Guide (Ben Kenobi), Skeptic (Han Solo), Emotion (Chewbacca), Reason (C3PO), Sidekick (R2D2); also common is a figure of Ambiguity (Friend or Foe?) (suggested by Han Solo – although no character exactly fits this archetype).

Acting: "realistic" vs. "stylized"

Some believe that different performance styles caused cinematic style to change. Although that approach seems overly simplistic, here are the three main types of acting seen in the 20th century:

Performance is augmented by the design of costumes and makeup. They basically parallel acting styles, with heavy theatrical accoutrements in the silent era giving way to increasing verisimilitude – even in Science Fiction, with Star Wars being perhaps the first film of its genre to show us a dirty, messy, lived-in universe instead of the sleek perfection of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NOTE: Other fundamentals of cinematic design – art direction and set design – are covered below under Visuals.

D. Film Structure – Shot / Scene / Sequence / Type of Shooting

Shot / Scene / Sequence

Shooting: Continuous or Fragmentary

E. "The Big Picture"

BASIC PRINCIPLE: Visual Structure Enhances Dramatic Structure

All of a film's visual elements – line, shape, tone (black & white) or color, movement – can be structured to enhance its total dramatic, emotional and thematic effect.

Principle of Contrast & Affinity

This principle is essential in visuals and sound, as well as dramatic structure.

"The Big Picture" – Stylistic and Dramatic Unity

All of the elements within a film – from dramatic structure to visual and sound design – should work together to create a unified effect, even as those elements develop in parallel to the plot.

Parallel Narrative and Visual Structure

Visual Structure Intensifies Dramatic Structure

Externalize characters' internal changes, through all aspects of dramatic structure, visual and sound design.

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Part 2. Visuals — What Do We See?

  1. TechnologyBriefest Possible Overview
  2. Screen Formats (Aspect Ratios)
  3. Surface Divisions of the Frame
  4. Line
  5. Shape
  6. Space
  7. Tone (Gray Scale)
  8. Color
  9. Movement
  10. Time, Editing & Rhythm

A. Technology – Briefest Possible Overview

BASIC CRITERIA: I am greatly limiting the vast amount of technological information related to film to make this guide as concise and "user friendly" as possible. If you can SEE the aesthetic result of a particular piece of technology on screen (e.g., lenses, lighting) I will discuss it; if you can NOT (e.g., types of cameras, film emulsions, light measuring tools, sound-recording devices, film processing and printing, editing equipment, etc.) it's omitted. For an excellent overview of the technological, and all, aspects of cinema, see James Monaco's How to Read a Film.

LensesFUNDAMENTALS OF FILMING AND PROJECTION: Motion pictures are made on flexible, light-sensitive film stock which is moved past the lens of a camera at a rate of 24 frames (or images) per second. Each frame is briefly exposed to light in the camera's gate as a shutter opens and closes. Later this basic procedure is reversed when the completed film is shown, again at 24 frames per second, through a projector's lens which directs light back through it and onto a screen.

B. Screen Formats ("Aspect Ratios")

Film exists within a frame. Its shape is determined by the film stock – 35mm celluloid for professional productions – used to shoot the picture. As you can see below, it is possible to "mask" the same 35mm film stock into different shapes or "aspect ratios," a term which refers to the ratio of height to width. The four most common aspect ratios are 1:1.33, 1:1.66, 1:1.85, or 1:2.35.

Always see a film in its original aspect ratio, as it was designed and shot. When you watch a "pan & scan" or "cropped" version of a widescreen release, you are missing up to half the picture, and seeing a "butchered" version of what the filmmakers' intended. (A hilarious example of a "cropped" print I saw once was Wyler's Ben-Hur: with the "scanner" stuck in the middle of the widescreen frame, during a lengthy dialogue scene all you could see were the tips of two opposing noses – Charlton Heston's was on the extreme right.)

C. Surface Divisions of the Frame

D. Line

E. Shape

F. Space – 6 Basic Types

1. Deep Space

  • expands the gray scale
  • keeps objects of similar real world size distinct and dissimilar on screen
  • emphasizes longitudinal surfaces
  • does not stage objects side-by-side or parallel
  • expands the textural range
  • expands the tonal (black and white) or color palette
  • keeps all object movement perpendicular to the picture plane
  • uses only trucking/dolly shots and crane shots
  • uses wider focal length lenses
  • stages action on different vertical levels
  • does not emphasize primary shapes
  • lighting
    • brighter: near; darker: farther away
    • uses backlighting

Citizen KaneCitizen Kane (Welles / 1941)

2. Flat Space

  • condenses the gray scale
  • keeps objects of similar real-world size similar on screen
  • emphasizes frontal surfaces (front, back, or profile)
  • stages objects side-by-side/parallel
  • compresses the textural range
  • limits the color palette
  • keeps all object movement parallel to the picture plane
  • uses only pans & tilts & zooms
  • uses longer focal length lenses
  • stages action on the same vertical level
  • f-stop: uses the widest opening (f 4)
  • emphasizes primary shapes
  • lighting
    • uses fill light to flatten objects
    • uses silhouette to remove depth clues
    • overexposes background to eliminate depth clues

OthelloOthello (Welles / 1952)

3. Ambiguous Space

  • scale/size clues unreliable
  • depth clues unreliable
  • distance clues unreliable
  • light does not sculpt, it just breaks up everything
  • depth and flatness mingle
  • causes feelings of anxiety and tension in audience

Passion of Joan of ArcThe Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer / 1928)

4. Limited Space

  • contains elements of both deep and flat space, but is neither
  • strong frontal surfaces stop our gaze
  • sense of depth and flatness
  • keeps action separated (on the various planes)
  • two types
    • depth parallel to action
    • space used up in course of shot/action

Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast (Cocteau / 1946)

5. Closed Space

  • action held within the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the frame

IntoleranceIntolerance (Griffith / 1916)

6. Open Space

  • action in the frame blasts the shot open – implies a much more expansive area than shown

Battleship PotemkingBattleship Potemkin (Eisenstein / 1925)

G. Tone (Gray Scale) – Black & White and Shades of Gray

H. Color

I. Movement

J. Time, Editing & Rhythm [DRAFT]

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Part 3. Sound — What Do We Hear? [DRAFT]

top top || Dramatics | VisualsSoundTheme

Part 4. Theme — What Do We Think? [DRAFT]

How do all of these dramatic / visual / aural elements combine to form, and explore, a point of view and its implications: psychological, socio-economic, political, philosophical, aesthetic, and more? To be continued...!

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Recommended Books

Among many books on film, these are three that I find indispensable.


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