Stanley Kubrick’s “A” camera at the LACMA exhibit (possibly from Barry Lyndon, 1975)

Brief Guide to Film and Filmmaking

How Visual and Sound Design Enhance Drama and Shape Ideas

Welcome! This Brief Guide to Film and Filmmaking 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 a lifetime of engaging with films of all types, and being fascinated by how cinema works, technically, aesthetically, and psychologically. It is based on watching one film a day, diverse reading in history and technology, graduate school MFA-level filmmaking plus related courses, and hands-on experience creating short films.

Digital Post-Production (photo by Mark Cruz)

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…

Film production, Fassbinder style, from "Beware of a Holy..." LGBTQ+ film

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 character and conflict, both external (e.g., a character versus other characters, society, nature, fate, etc.) and internal (versus themself).This encompasses image, movement and sound as much as acting 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, Suspense, Westerns, et al. (here are 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 a 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?
  • In a broader context, are there references (or memes) we expect but are denied? For example, if you see a Western you expect a hero, garbed a certain way, but what if there is no hero — only psychological and moral ambiguity (as in John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers)? This impacts our emotional, and critical, response.
  • Has the genre been expanded, whether psychologically, dramatically, or visually?

B. Dramatic Structure

Fundamental / Mythic Structure

Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces

Paradoxically, historian Joseph Campbell’s book about mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), is one of the most influential books in the movie industry. Campbell isolates the fundamental structure of the world’s major myths. That underlying narrative has also served as the basis for dramatic structure in fiction, drama, and film. Campbell’s pattern applies equally to shaping comedy, thrillers, even “non-fiction” documentaries; for works as diverse as the ancient epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest surviving work of world literature, and a profound same-sex love story) written 5,000 years ago, Star Wars (as we’ll see below), to whatever movie or TV show you watched last night.

Here is the hero/ine’s journey in its essential form, as defined by Campbell:

  1. The hero/ine 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

Three Act Dramatic Form
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 – Comparison of “Acts” / Example of Star Wars / Mythic Structure

Star Wars (1977)
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].) PLOT “SPOILERS” AHEAD.

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 / 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 placement – 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 part of the drama

^ top || Dramatics | VisualsSoundTheme

Digital Camera (photo by CineDirektor)

Part 2. Visuals — What Do We See?

  1. Technology – Briefest 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
  11. Special Effects and Visual Effects

A. Technology – Briefest Possible Overview

Lenses, comparing 28mm, 50mm, and 135mm

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, comparing 1.33, 1.66, 1.85, and 2.35
4 most common 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
Shapes, comparing square (cube), circle (sphere), triangle (cone)
3 basic shapes

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

Space, comparing the 6 types of space: deep, flat, ambiguous, limited, closed, and open
6 basic types of space in filmmaking
  • 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
Deep Space - Welles's Citizen Kane

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)
Flat Space - Welles's Othello

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)
Ambiguous Space - Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc

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.
Limited Space - Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

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)
Closed Space - Griffith's Intolerance

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.
Open Space - Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin

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) — 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

  • 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
CMYK & RGB color models, Munsell color system

H. Color

  • Color Mixing – filmmaking uses two color models, CMYK (subtractive re paint) and RGB (additive re light)
    • 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 (Munsell Color System)
    • 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. Editing, Time, and Rhythm

  • Editing – a cut is a transition with one shot immediately following another
    • continuity – editing so that shots are cut together to preserve an uninterrupted sense of time and space; this does not mean that the film was shot in continuity (Welles spent many years making Othello, shooting a few scenes until funding ran out, then raising more money… repeat!)
    • montage – a sequence in which shots are juxtaposed to create emotional impact, condense the narrative, or suggest a concept.
    • cross cutting – rapidly cutting between two or more story lines that are occurring simultaneously (Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance is a masterful example, made over a century ago)
    • cutaway (or insert shot) – interrupts an otherwise continuously filmed action
    • match cut – rapid, sometimes shocking, cut between two very different elements (perfect example is in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, going from a bone hurled into the air by a caveman then immediately cutting to a similarly-shaped spacecraft from thousands of years later)
    • shot/reverse shot (“over the shoulders shot”) – alternation, often during a conversation, between the character being addressed and the character speaking; the angle is from just behind the other character, from over their shoulder
  • Time Conventions / Timing – effects achieved through editing, as noted above. How does the film move, and how does that move us emotionally?
  • Rhythm – accomplished both through the movement of actors or objects through space, as well as through editing. Compare cinematic rhythm to how it is created and used in other visual arts (dynamics of form in painting and photography, sculpture, architecture), music, and literature (the flow of words)

K. Special Effects and Visual Effects

King Kong (1933)
  • Special effects (achieved in real time) and visual effects (created in post-production) are related but distinct.
  • Special effects (SFX), are mechanical effects created in real time during production, and used in a variety of media including film, television. video, gaming, (live-action) theater, and more. SFX are used to make an imaginary effect (like a character gliding through the air) seem real. Examples include wire rigs (so that actors can “fly”), pyrotechnic effects (explosions), simulated weather conditions such as rain or snow, prosthetic makeup (countless werewolf, et al., transformations), animatronics (mechanical puppets, like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), and miniature models to represent sometimes gigantic creatures, that can be animated with stop-motion techniques (such as the 1933 King Kong). The earliest SFX, from the turn of the 20th century, were created in-camera and included trick lenses and multiple exposures (for example, to create “ghosts”), the projection of a moving background behind the performers, and undercranking (when a hand-cranked camera films at a slower frame rate so that, when played back, the action is sped up), or overcranking (filming at a faster rate, to create a slow motion effect). In the last century, matte shots allowed the combining of an imaginary setting, such as a city or landscape, painted on glass that included transparent areas through which live action could be filmed, creating a unified special effect. Today, digital mattes are used. (“Just paint and glass,” the beautiful matte shots in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.)
  • Visual effects (VFX), exclusively in film or video, are optical effects created during post-production. The most common VFX are Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), that covers a wide range of digitally-created VFX outside of the ‘real-world’ performers, sets and locations. Motion capture (mocap) records the movement of people or objects, that is then used to animate digital 2D or 3D character models, sometimes with astonishing fidelity to real life. In the final work, the VFX (such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings saga), are integrated with live action elements to create an ideally seamless whole. Compositing (“chroma keying” or “green screening”) is the combination of visual elements, from separate sources, to give the illusion that the scene is occurring in the same place. This technique requires filming with a green screen, or blue screen, that compositors later replace with another element (such as a background or object) in post-production. Decades before CGI, matte paintings (as noted above) enabled compositing done live in-camera.
  • Wikipedia article offers more details and links. Filmsite highlights Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X), decade by decade, from the 1880s through today, with many illustrations.

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Part 3. Sound — What Do We Hear?

Shotgun microphones (for targeted sound recording)
  • BASICS – Three Pairs of Sound Terms (after Kracauer and Reisz):
    • Related to Sound’s Source
      • actual sound – comes 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., Robert Altman’s Nashville)
  • 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]

Thought externalized in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

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

What do we 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)
  • Personal dimension – the role that each of us plays individually in ‘reading’ a film, by bringing in our personal experiences of other pictures, other types of artistic works (novels, plays,more), and most importantly, our unique diverse life experiences. Each of us is an integral part of every film we experience.
  • Aesthetics – Are the camera, and sound, ‘in the right place,’ to achieve the desired 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, along the lines of Plato’s concept of an “Ideal Form”? Explore these dimensions in a group discussion, focused on any film you choose.

^ top || Dramatics | Visuals | Sound | Theme

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.
Jim's Film Website

Begun 1997 / Updated May 25, 2021

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