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A Brief Guide to Film and Filmmaking

How Visual and Sound Design Enhance Drama and Shape Ideas

Welcome! This Basic Guide to Film is intended for a general audience interested in how a motion picture communicates, that is, how dramatic form, image and sound convey emotions and ideas. This resource comes from my lifetime of loving films of all types, and being fascinated by how cinema works, technically, aesthetically, and psychologically. It is based on watching one film a day, reading, MFA-level filmmaking courses that I’ve taken, and hands-on experiences making short films.

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 my analysis of a sequence 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 and 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) .

  • Genre provides a reference point for the audience, who will likely have seen similar types of film. This provides some basis for comparison, e.g., would Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) have been as funny, or powerful, if it hadn’t been preceded by 70 years of less irreverent War films?
  • Broader context: What are the references we expect but are denied, e.g., if you see a Western you expect a hero, but what if there is no hero — only psychological and moral ambiguity (as in John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers)? This impacts our emotional response.
  • Has the genre been expanded, e.g., psychologically, dramatically, or visually?

B. Dramatic Structure

Fundamental / Mythic Structure

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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 use 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 or asset to benefit the world.

Classic Dramatic Structure

Freytag’s Pyramid

Classic five-act dramatic form was advocated by Aristotle in his Poetics [free online] 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. introduction of characters and themes, II. rising action / complications, III. climax / reversal, IV. falling action / reversals, V. resolution, also called the denouement [pronounced ‘day new mahn’]. A popular variation on this structural analysis is 19th century dramatist Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid of good storytelling: I. exposition, II. inciting incident (“Plot Point / Pivot 1”), III. rising action, IV. climax (“Midpoint”), V. falling action, VI. resolution (“Plot Point / Pivot 2”), and VII. denouement.

Denouement is a wonderful French word that literally means ‘taking apart a knot.’ That in turn 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, at last, the plot knots are unraveled. How revealing etymology can be!

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”:

  • Act I (Exposition) — parallels points 1 through 3 in Campbell (above)
  • Act II (Rising Action and Climax) — parallels points 4 through 8 in Campbell
  • Act III (Resolution) — parallels points 9 through 11 in Campbell

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 – Acts / Example / Compared to Mythic Structure

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977)

Example: Star Wars (1977)

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 b my favorite film [wink].)

Act I (Exposition) — Screenplay Structure

  • 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) — Example: Star Wars

  • 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”

Act I (Exposition) — Compare to Mythic Structure

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

Act II ( Rising Action and Climax) — Screenplay Structure

  • 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) —Example: Star Wars

  • 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

Act II ( Rising Action and Climax) — Compare to Mythic Structure

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

Act III (Resolution) — Screenplay Structure

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

Act III (Resolution) — Example: Star Wars

  • 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

Act III (Resolution) — Compare to Mythic Structure

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

Within a Scene – Dramatic “Beats”

  • Beats refer to specific changes in character/action within a scene. EXAMPLE: In a (melodramatic) scene, two people come together (Beat 1), they grow more romantic (Beat 2), then a shocking detail is revealed (Beat 3), which leads to violence (Beat 4) and their running away from each other (Beat 5).
  • Beats tell you:
    • When to cut
    • When to move the camera
    • When to use contrast or affinity (SEE BELOW – Section E)

C. Characters and Acting Styles

Archetypal Characters

Here are the most basic types of characters. You will find them in most films, as well as novels and plays, regardless of genre, from comedy to drama to (although in subtle form) documentary:

  • Protagonist (also may have a Secondary Protagonist)
  • Antagonist (also may have a Secondary Antagonist)
  • Guardian (or Guide)
  • Skeptic
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Sidekick
  • Ambiguity (Friend or Foe?)

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).


  • Speech between characters
  • Voice-Over (“VO”) (narrative)
  • Interior monologue (psychological)

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:

  • Silent film to 1940s: large expressive gestures, similar to theatre
  • 1950s: “method acting” (Brando in On the Waterfront) led to more “realism” in film
  • 1970s to today: “natural” acting led to more “natural” types of films

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

  • Shot – a continuously exposed piece of film, or a continuous view presented between one cut and another
  • Scene – usually consists of more than one shot, and a full-fledged dramatic encounter in one location. Coverage is the traditional approach to filming a scene, with the same action “covered” from four different perspectives; this allows flexibility in editing. The four basics are:
    • Master Shot – shows the entire scene
    • Two-shot – two characters talking
    • Over the Shoulder Shot – angle on the character addressed, taken from just behind the other character
    • Close-up – The face fills the screen
  • Sequence – a consecutive series of shots and/or scenes not restricted to a single location

Shooting: Continuous or Fragmentary

  • Continuous Shooting – no cuts
    • Preserves real time
    • Allows natural rhythm of the performance
    • Can create tension, since there is no ‘escape’
  • Fragmentary Shooting – uses cuts
    • Allows contrast from shot to shot, in image, rhythm, etc.
    • In shot to shot editing, contrast or affinity (discussed directly below) more powerful than in a continuous shot

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 the total dramatic, emotional and thematic effect.

Principle of Contrast & Affinity

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

  • Contrast – e.g., closed to open; non-ambiguous to ambiguous; etc.
    • Visuals and Sound: developed from shot to shot and/or within a single shot
    • Dramatic Structure: e.g., comedy to horror within a scene
  • Affinity – e.g., open to open; non-ambiguous to non-ambiguous; etc.
    • Visuals and Sound: consistency from shot to shot and/or within a single shot
    • Dramatic Structure: e.g., a comic scene remains comic; a horrific scene remains terrifying

“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

  • Consider the spatial qualities at any given moment, to control the visual intensity as you can control the dramatic elements. EXAMPLE: As dramatic intensity of the narrative builds, the film moves from, say, flat and non-ambiguous space to deep and ambiguous space (SEE BELOW – Part 2 / Section 6)
  • Control all components of a film, but only take a few of them through changes

Visual Structure Intensifies Dramatic Structure

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

  • Reduction of visual components
    • How few elements in a frame – objects and their placements – can still communicate the necessary emotions and ideas?
    • Simplicity and focus eliminate confusion for the audience
  • Types of change
    • Change within the shot, e.g., color changes
    • Change within the object, e.g., appearance of character evolves in parallel to their psychological change; intensity builds
  • Drama of everyday things
    • Costumes are drama, not just clothing; likewise, sets and props are also drama

^ top || Dramatics | VisualsSoundTheme

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 and Rhythm

A. Technology – Briefest Possible Overview

BASIC CRITERIA: I am greatly limiting the vast amount of filmmaking technology, 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 stock, processing and printing, digital tech, light-measuring tools, sound-recording devices, 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.


FUNDAMENTALS OF FILMING AND PRESENTATION: Before the current digital era of production, distribution and presentation, motion pictures were made on flexible, light-sensitive film stock which 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.

  • Lenses
    • wide, e.g., 28 mm – more than the human eye could see, gives a distorted, rounded (“fisheye”) perspective
    • normal, e.g., 50 mm – what the human eye would see
    • long (telephoto), e.g., 135 mm – shot from far away, isolates just the central figure(s) while blurring the background
    • lenses & cinema history: as technology advanced and lenses became “faster” (needing less light), equipment became more lightweight and mobile. This allowed for quicker and more economical shooting, and that opened the way for independent filmmaking, outside of the studio system.
  • Lighting
    • key – main light
    • fill – 45o angle to subject, separates it from background
    • “obie” – tiny light, often used to highlight eyes
    • source – natural light, such as sunlight coming through a window
aspect ratios

B. Screen Formats (“Aspect Ratios”)

Film exists within a frame. In the pre-digital era its shape was 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.

  • 1.33 (“Academy aperture”) – also the shape of most older TV screens.
    • All films were shot in 1.33 before 1952, when the rapid growth of television forced the movie industry to adopt dramatically wider formats to lure patrons back into theaters.
  • 1.66 (European widescreen)
  • 1.85 (American widescreen)
    • Both 1.66 and 1.85 are shot on 1.33 film stock, with the top and bottom of the frame masked off.
  • 2.35 (Anamorphic / CinemaScope)
    • 2.35 is also shot on 1.33 film stock but “squeezed” in the camera, then “un-squeezed” on the projector by using a special lens. If you’ve ever been at the movies and seen the actors look like stick figures, it’s because the projectionist mistakenly used a standard lens instead of the special anamorphic one.

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

  • Purposes
    • draws audience’s attention to what is most important
    • emphasizes or contrasts relationships between objects
    • shape of frame may be inappropriate
  • Planes
    • foreground – action just in front of the camera
    • midground – there are often several layers of midground planes
    • background
  • Ways to divide frame
    • halves
    • thirds
    • grid / quarters
    • ‘square on a rectangle’

D. Line

  • Types of lines
    • contour (boundaries of 3-D surfaces)
    • track (path of a moving object) — actual tracks; virtual tracks — transfer of motion (looks like object moving, but only camera moving)
    • intersection of two planes
    • edge (boundaries of 2-D surfaces)
    • imitation through distance (as certain kinds of objects get further away from us, they tend to reduce themselves to lines)
    • closure (the mind ‘fills in’ lines)
    • axis (imaginary line our mind ‘draws through’ objects)
  • Contrast and affinity in relation to line
    • direction of line
      • horizontal
      • vertical (these two provide maximum contrast)
      • diagonal
    • quality (character) of line
      • straight
      • curved
    • visual dynamic (intensity) of line (all lines have a visual dynamic of their own)
      • diagonal line (most visually dynamic) — intensity, movement, emotional impact

E. Shape

  • Basic shapes
    • used to make up all other shapes
    • retain their basic shape qualities no matter how we turn them (in space)
  • Basic “silhouette” (shape) of objects
    • primary lines (lines we notice first; usually outlines)
    • in-lines (lines contained within the outline)
  • Basic shapes: 2-D
    • square
    • circle
    • triangle
  • Basic shapes: 3-D
    • cube
    • sphere
    • cone / pyramid
  • Nature and emotional characteristic of line (in shape)
    • diagonal (stern, intense, inorganic)
    • curve (soft, loose, organic)
    • round (cute, soft, non-aggressive)
    • triangle (dynamic, dangerous)
    • square (dull, lacking direction)
  • BASIC PRINCIPLE: Contrast and affinity in relation to shape
    • Maximum contrast of shape
      • Types of Contrast of Shape
        • circle and pyramid
        • sphere and triangle — 2-D vs. 3-D; maximum contrast of line qualities
      • Effect of Contrast of Shape
        • reduces monotony
        • distinguishes characters, objects
        • can deceive audience, going against expectations
    • Maximum Similarity of Shape
      • circle (completely undynamic) and square (equal, passive)

F. Space – 6 Basic Types

  • BASIC PRINCIPLE: Space is used to create the illusion of three dimensions in the two-dimensional medium of film
  • size constancy
  • movement
    • object movement (parallel to picture plane or perpendicular to picture plane)
    • camera movement
    • dollying / trucking in and/or out
    • craning
    • dollying left and/or right
  • convergence (one point, two point, three point)
  • tonal separation
  • overlap
  • up/down convention
    • up: higher/farther away
    • down: lower/closer
  • aerial diffusion
  • color separation
    • ‘warm’: close
    • ‘cool’: distant
  • textural diffusion
  • shape constancy
    • frontal: 2-D
    • longitudinal: 3-D
  • BASIC PRINCIPLE: Contrast and affinity in relation to space
    • Contrast (e.g., closed to open; non-ambiguous to ambiguous)
      • from shot to shot
      • within a single shot
    • Affinity (e.g., open to open; non-ambiguous to non-ambiguous)
      • from shot to shot
      • within a single shot

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
  • FRAME from Citizen 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
  • uses fill light to flatten objects
  • uses silhouette to remove depth clues
  • overexposes background to eliminate depth clues
  • FRAME from Othello (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
  • FRAME from The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer / 1928) — as of September 2020, a beautiful restoration of this supreme masterpiece is available free on Vimeo (that you do not have to join), imaginatively paired with composer Arvo Pärt‘s “Lamentate, for Piano & Orchestra” (2002 — it’s also worthwhile to watch this film, at least once, without musical accompaniment). For me, although I’m no advocate for martyrdom, this is the single greatest film ever made — although it’s composed almost entirely in looming closeups — and Carl Th. Dreyer is the greatest of all filmmakers. The history of this picture is incredible. The sole original print was destroyed in a fire after one screening. So Dreyer had to reassemble the film, that we have today, solely from outtakes.

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)
  • depth parallel to action
  • space used up in course of shot / action
  • FRAME from Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau / 1946)

5. Closed Space

  • action held within the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the frame
  • FRAME from Intolerance (Griffith / 1916) — as of September 2020, a good print of this landmark film is available free on YouTube. To turn off Spanish subtitles, so that only the original English intertitles remain, click on the ‘gear’ icon (Settings) on the lower right. Reportedly, Griffith was so repulsed by the racist violence inspired by his Birth of a Nation (1915) that he attempted to atone by making this stunning 3-1/2 hour epic that exposes intolerance in many forms. Griffith masterfully crosscuts between four different historical periods, from ancient Babylon to 1916 America. On the night I first saw it, on a large screen at Yale, afterwards I walked around New Haven for an hour, stunned. I have since seen it several more times; it remains for me one of the ten greatest films.

6. Open Space

  • action in the frame blasts the shot open – implies a much more expansive area than what is shown
  • FRAME from Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein / 1925) — as of September 2020, a beautiful high-definition print of this masterpiece is available free on YouTube. To turn on English subtitles click on the ‘gear’ icon (Settings) on the lower right.

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

color models
  • Tone – black & white and shades of gray (the gray scale) [also a component of color, i.e., brightness]
    • contrast and affinity
      • maximum. contrast: black & white
      • maximum affinity: any 2 or 3 grays next to each other on gray scale
    • brightness or darkness of objects in scene
    • two lighting schemes: to talk about brightest object in frame and subject of the shot
      • coincident/ non-coincident lighting scheme
        • coincidence of tone (subject coincides with brightest object)
        • non-coincidence of tone (something besides subject is brightest object; gives silhouette effect)
      • incident/ reflected lighting scheme
        • incident lighting (gray scale rendering of objects stands for the actual gray tone of the object itself, i.e., control of tone from use of actual objects – for dark tone, use dark objects)
        • reflected lighting (gray scale controlled by amount of light falling on the object, e..g., stripes from light falling through 1/2 open venetian blinds)
    • shadows
      • cast (not on object)
      • attached (on object)
  • How to Control Tone
    • control amount of light and brightness of objects in frame
      • maximum contrast (non-coincidence of tone): white people in white clothes in black room, with night outside
      • maximum affinity (coincidence of tone): white people in white clothes
Munsell color sysstem

H. Color

  • Color Mixing – two basic systems used in filmmaking – see DIAGRAM at right
    • CMYK Color Model (Cyan / Magenta / Yellow / Black) – subtractive system (mixing paint or dye – where 95% of color control for film comes from)
      • CMYK primaries
        • cyan
        • magenta
        • yellow
      • CMYK mixing primaries
        • yellow & magenta (red)
        • magenta & cyan (blue)
        • cyan & yellow (green)
    • RGB Color Model (Red / Green / Blue) – additive system (mixing colored light – usually in theatrical lighting or color TV picture tube)
      • RGB primaries
        • red
        • green
        • blue
      • RGB mixing primaries
        • green & red (yellow)
        • red & blue (magenta)
        • blue & green (cyan)
  • Components of Color
    • hue – the color itself – 6 hues: red / orange / yellow / green / blue / violet
    • brightness – addition or subtraction of white or black to hue
    • saturation – addition or subtraction of the hue’s complement to/from that hue
      • complement – color opposite the hue on the color wheel, e.g., magenta/green; blue/yellow; cyan/red
      • desaturation – moving towards gray: as a complement is added to a hue, the hue desaturates and moves toward gray
  • Characteristics of Color
    • colors saturate at different levels on the gray scale, which runs from “1” (darkest) to “10” (lightest)
    • as colors move towards the middle of the gray scale, they become ‘grayer’
    • Munsell Color System – most accurate representation of characteristics of color: white / cyan / yellow / red / violet / black. NOTE: its shape is irregular because yellow saturates higher on the gray scale and violet saturates lower
    • on film it is almost impossible to capture several different deeply saturated colors, e.g., if you go for a saturated yellow, you can only get a very desaturated blue, etc.
    • on film, it is impossible to have colors of equal saturation and equal brightness (in this case, saturation and brightness are completely unrelated)
    • eye moves to saturated color first (when other colors are desaturated)
  • Color Structure Enhances Dramatic Structure
    • for a film, development of color can be structured and graphed – like story, space, and line – to help heighten the film’s total effect
    • “color scripts” – used to schematize color [hue, brightness, saturation] for each shot/ scene/ sequence
  • Color Interaction – what happens when one color is placed near another color:
    • Two basic principles
      • when complementary colors are placed next to one another, they intensify (red next to green: red looks redder, green looks greener)
      • when analogous colors (those next to each other on color wheel) are placed next to each other, they separate (red appears more orange; magenta appears more violet; etc.)
    • a black stripe or a white stripe makes color/hue look very different
    • violet – can be either warm (red component) or cool (blue component)
  • Contrast and Affinity in Relation to Color
    • contrast or affinity of hue (6 hues)
      • within a shot
      • shot to shot
        • maximum contrast: any pair of complementary colors, e.g., yellow & violet
        • maximum affinity: analogous colors, e.g., red & orange
    • contrast or affinity of brightness (color) or tone (black & white)
      • within a shot
      • shot to shot
        • maximum contrast: pink & maroon; yellow & violet
        • maximum affinity: pastel blue & pink (both have hue with great deal of white)
    • contrast or affinity of saturation
      • within a shot
      • shot to shot
        • maximum contrast: super-saturated red & gray
        • maximum affinity: gray blue & gray green; gray-green & greenish gray
    • contrast or affinity of warm (yellow, orange, red, red-violet) and cool (blue, green, blue-violet)
      • within a shot
      • shot to shot
        • maximum contrast: red & blue; orange & blue
        • maximum affinity: green & blue
    • contrast or affinity of extension (the amount of area that a color occupies: Different colors have different visual weights, and visual weight corresponds to attention – weight depends on amount of white or black in hue – as a color gets more white into it, it has less visual weight, as a color gets more black into it, it has more visual weight: This allows us to throw colors into and out of balance with each other.)
      • within a shot
      • shot to shot
        • balanced weight: red & green
        • unbalanced weight: blue (heavier) & orange (lighter)
        • extremely unbalanced weight: violet (very heavy) & yellow (very light)
    • simultaneous contrast – contrast or affinity within a singleshot
      • susceptible color – color which can be shoved around the color scale in as many ways as we want regarding hue, brightness, saturation), e.g., violet gray, brown, etc.
      • in film, we can manipulate color a great deal, e.g., “bluish” or “greenish” or “orangish” skin tones (audience has bad color memory; eyes “dial in” complement to see “white”)
    • successive contrast – one, then another (hue, brightness, saturation)
  • Visual Economy in Relation to Color
    • how few colors can we use to give the audience the impression that they are looking at more colors than they actually are?
    • we can take a very limited palette (say, 3 or 4 colors), and by using contrast or affinity of extension, give a sense of an extraordinary variety of color
  • How to Control Color
    • light (for exposure)
      • natural light (the sun)
        • sunlight more pink in morning
        • sunlight more blue at midday (and on clear days)
        • sunlight more red at dusk
      • artificial light (3200o K) – also colored gels over lights
    • control the color palette, i.e., color of objects filmed
    • filters (filter absorbs its complementary color so it can only take away color)
    • film stocks
      • slower film – needs more light for exposure; best color; widest range of colors (brightest & darkest)
      • high speed / fast film – needs less light; colors desaturated; lose detail
    • in original photography
      • overexposing – desaturates colors
      • underexposing slightly – saturates colors
    • color timing in the laboratory (for each shot) – to smoothe out differences between shots
      • force developing/pushing – desaturates color; more grain
      • post-flashing – desaturates color; more detail in shadows
    • prints – at each of these stages can make lighter or darker; can shift the color, i.e., bluer or greener
      • camera original / negative
      • work print
      • interpositive (“P.”)
      • release prints
    • digital filmmaking offer enormous flexibility in controlling light-dark values, color

I. Movement

  • Types of Movement
    • horizontal
    • vertical
    • diagonal
  • movement changes composition
  • movement is always based on its relation to the frameline
  • relation of object and background
    • maximum contrast of direction or movement: horizontal & vertical
    • maximum affinity of direction or movement: 2 horizontals or 2 verticals
  • dynamic movement
    • maximum contrast: horizontal & diagonal
  • any background can be reduced to a series of lines
  • most dynamic arrangement of linear background & linear foreground:
    • diagonal on diagonal
    • parallel diagonals
    • horizontal on vertical
    • vertical on vertical
    • vertical on horizontal
    • horizontal on horizontal
  • continuum of motion (movement catches eye first; we can only look at one point; continuum of motion asks where is audience’s point of attention from shot to shot, so that matching of eye placement, i.e., keeping audience’s attention, can be maintained)
  • discontinuum of motion (contrast of eye placement from shot to shot – disorienting, can be violent; e.g., use during fight or drunken scene)

J. Time, Editing and Rhythm [DRAFT]

  • time / time conventions / timing and rhythm – how does the film move, and how does that emotionally move us?
  • editing
  • rhythm in film – compare to rhythm in other visual arts (dynamics of form in painting and photography, sculpture, architecture), music, literature (the flow of words)

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Part 3. Sound — What Do We Hear?

  • BASICS – Three Pairs of Sound Terms (after Kracauer and Reisz):
    • Related to Sound’s Source
      • actual sound – emanates from within the scene itself, e.g., dialogue, music from a radio, etc.
      • commentative sound – heard only by the audience, e.g., voice-over narration, musical scoring
    • Juxtaposition of Audial & Visual Images
      • synchronous sound – we simultaneously see and hear the source, e.g., dog barking
      • asynchronmous sound – either sound heard but source unseen (off-screen actor or animal) *or* sound not heard but source seen (person talking inside a phone booth but we do not hear what’s being said)
    • Meaningful Juxtaposition
      • parallel sound – audial image matches visuals in emotional content
      • contrapuntal sound – audial image is in contrast to visuals in emotional content, creating a complex interplay
  • sound rhythm in film
  • synchronous sound vs. asynchronous sound
  • “realistic” vs. “stylized”
  • dialogue — clear vs. overlapping (e.g., Altman)
  • voice-over narration
  • sound effects, including “noise”
  • music
  • types of sound to use depend on the film’s dramatic and thematic goals

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

How do all of these dramatic / visual / sound elements combine – in general terms, as well as related to specific films – to express, and explore, a point of view and its implications: psychological, socioeconomic, political, philosophical, aesthetic, and more? To be continued… What do you think?

  • THEME fundamentally ties everything together, FORM and CONTENT – the CONNECTIONS between dramatics, visuals, and sound
  • Explicit dimension – including formalist approach, as well as connections to its genre; “referential” aspects of a film refer to its specific plot
  • Implicit dimension – ideology, including assumptions (moral: wrong vs right; degree of “realism”) and attitudes (towards characters and plot)
  • Social and cultural context – including critical approaches (psychological; political including socioeconomic, feminist, historical; philosophical)
  • Aesthetics – is the camera, and sound, ‘in the right place,’ to achieve the desired (or implied) emotions and ideas? If not, why? What is the specific interplay of form and content, including ideas, in a particular film? To what extent is this “purely” subjective in the individual viewer? Can there be an absolute aesthetic, as in, say, Plato’s concept of an “Ideal Form”? Explore, as an example, Dreye’s The Passion of Joan of Arc – and discuss with a group!

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Recommended Books

These are three film-related books that I find indispensable.

  • Best Guide to Film: James Monaco’s How to Read a Film offers concise discussions of film history, technology, theory, and more.
  • On Film Narrative: Syd FIeld’s Screenplay clarifies the mysteries of narrative structure – still, the only “how to” screenwriting guide I recommend.
  • Study of Visual Style: Rudolph Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception is a revelation for understanding visual structures. Although focused on painting, its principles apply equally to film. Densely-written, but worth the effort.

NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate link for any purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.

Begun 1997 / Revised January 31, 2021

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