Why do we watch films? Is it for fun, for entertainment, for escape?
In the early years of cinema, films were largely for entertainment. Pleasure was all that mattered once but now movies do more and are expected to do more. They have more nuanced characters, more complex storylines. They are longer and can come across multiple formats. There are many more things that can count as a ‘moving picture’. Where this was once your only screen and movies were only showing for a limited time, now this, this, this and this make moving images available all of the time.
We are surrounded by films, yet very little is said about how to make sense of them.
To get the most out of the viewing experience, you need to be conscious of the way a movie is trying to make you see its subject and react to it. How the filmmakers want you to be carried along. It is not just about the elements that make up the film but about the impression that it is meaning to convey. This goes just as much for fictional films as it does for documentary/factual works.
It is not just about watching a film but also about watching the way we watch film.
This article serves as a guide for studying film, for enjoying it more and being moved by it. But instead of showing you one correct way of perceiving film, instead, notice how different factors can contribute to its interpretation:
At A Glance
- The Screen
- Watching Film (and Rewatching)
- Film Elements
- Film Heroes & Villains
- The Film’s Intention (The Messaging)
- The Reality
The screen is your window into the cinematic world, and it’s important to optimise your viewing experience. Consider the size and resolution of the screen you’re watching on, as well as the aspect ratio. Different films are presented in varying ratios, affecting how you perceive the visuals. Watching in a dark and quiet environment can enhance immersion, allowing you to fully absorb the film’s visuals and audio.
Watching Film (and Rewatching)
Watching a film demands your full attention. Put away distractions and immerse yourself in the narrative. Engage with the characters’ emotions and motivations, and allow yourself to be transported to the world of the film. Rewatching films offers a chance to appreciate details that may have gone unnoticed during the first viewing. It’s like peeling back the layers of a story to uncover new insights and interpretations.
Cinema is a visual language, and each frame communicates a wealth of information. Cinematic information is embedded in every frame. Pay attention to:
The composition of shots is a language, and understanding it allows you to decode the emotions, perspectives, and themes that the filmmaker intends to convey. Each shot is a deliberate choice that contributes to the storytelling canvas. Here’s how to delve into the world of shots:
Types of Shots
Different shot types create distinct visual experiences. Wide shots establish the setting and context, while close-ups focus on emotions and details. Medium shots strike a balance between the two, emphasising character interactions. Tracking shots follow movement, immersing you in dynamic scenes.
Framing and Composition
The placement of characters and objects within the frame is critical. A character’s position can convey power, vulnerability, or isolation. The rule of thirds guides composition—imagine the frame divided into nine sections, and position elements along the lines or intersections for visual harmony. This is just one of many composition considerations – read this article for more.
Movement can influence emotions. A steady shot evokes stability, while a handheld shot adds an element of rawness. Pan shots sweep across a scene, revealing new details, while tilt shots shift the focus vertically. Tracking shots follow characters, creating a sense of involvement.
Classic continuity editing maintains seamless transitions to ensure the story flows smoothly. Pay attention to eyeline matches, where characters’ gazes guide your attention between shots. The 180-degree rule maintains spatial coherence by keeping characters oriented in the same direction.
Montage involves juxtaposing images to evoke emotions or convey information quickly. It can compress time or provide insight into a character’s thoughts. Analyse how the sequence of shots creates meaning beyond the individual images.
Jump cuts intentionally disrupt continuity by showing abrupt shifts in time or space. Filmmakers use jump cuts to emphasise a character’s emotional state or to introduce a sense of disorientation. Notice how these cuts affect the pacing and atmosphere of a scene.
Sound is an often underestimated aspect of filmmaking that has a profound impact on your cinematic experience. It complements the visuals, adding depth, emotion, and atmosphere:
Diegetic sound is the audio within the world of the film, like characters’ voices or environmental noises. Non-diegetic sound, such as music or voiceovers, exists outside the film’s reality. Pay attention to how these sounds interact to evoke mood and emotion.
The musical score sets the emotional tone. A melancholic score enhances a sad scene, while a suspenseful track creates tension. Listen to how the music swells and subsides with the narrative’s rhythm.
Sound effects (SFX) amplify realism and immerse you in the film’s world. From footsteps to explosions, these effects contribute to the sensory experience. Notice how they enhance action sequences or provide subtle cues about a character’s surroundings.
The heart of any film is its story. Follow the narrative structure, from the introduction of characters and conflict to the climax and resolution. Consider the character arcs—how they change and evolve over the course of the film. Delve into the themes explored, and analyse the choices characters make in response to challenges. Look for foreshadowing and narrative twists that add layers of complexity to the story.
Films are collaborative endeavours involving many, many creative minds. Research the key figures behind the film—director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and more. Understanding their artistic styles, influences, and previous works can provide insight into the choices made in the film you’re watching. This knowledge adds depth to your appreciation by revealing the creative processes that shaped the final product.
Film Heroes & Villains
Heroes and villains are the driving forces of a film’s narrative. Analyse their motivations, actions, and character arcs. Often, the line between hero and villain is blurred, making characters more compelling and realistic. Consider the gray areas that challenge traditional notions of good and evil. Examining the dynamic between heroes and villains can shed light on the film’s exploration of moral dilemmas.
The Film’s Intention (The Messaging)
Can you see the money?
Films often carry deeper messages, themes, and social commentary. Look beyond the surface to identify the allegorical elements and symbolism woven into the narrative. Consider the cultural and historical context in which the film was made. By deciphering the filmmaker’s intentions, you can gain a deeper understanding of the societal or personal issues being addressed.
Where does it start and where does it end?
Though films are fictional, they often mirror the realities of human experiences. Connect with the emotions, struggles, and triumphs of the characters on screen. Consider how their stories resonate with your own life or the broader world. By empathising with the characters’ journeys, you can gain insight into universal themes and emotions.
Watching a film is more than a passive activity—it’s a journey of exploration, discovery, and connection. By paying attention to the screen, analysing the film’s elements, understanding the intentions of the filmmakers, and immersing yourself in the story and characters, you unlock the layers of storytelling that make cinema a powerful and transformative medium. So, the next time you watch a film, keep an open mind and a keen eye, and allow yourself to be transported.
Recommended Reading: How to Watch A Movie by David Thomson