Understanding the Language of Film (Part 2)

All directors can improve their storytelling by practicing three areas of film language. (See Understanding the Language of Film (Part 1) to learn about How Films are Built with Shot Sentences.)

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Pexels.com

This second part covers how Films Use the Rules of Visual Grammar, and how Films are Visually Read by Directors.

Films Use the Rules of Visual Grammar

When I was working on my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, I had to review many rules of grammar. It was painful to remember all the rules while trying to tell a story. It made me realize that my first draft needs to be brain dump without rules so I can get the basic story down.

The good news is that there are only four rules of grammar in film (that I know of). They include the 180° Rule, 30° Rule, Screen Direction, and Time Compression/Elaboration. A director that understands visual grammar can tell their story in a way the audience can follow.

180° Rule

This rule is in place to keep the audience in the story. Whenever the director breaks the rule, the audience gets pulled out of the story.

Outside of the story, the audience becomes very conscious about watching a show.

The audience is no longer entrenched in the development of characters and plot.

I’ve never understood why some directors yank their audience away from the story. It causes the engrossed audience to snap back to reality. They realize that their emotional experience is fake.

They have to decide if they’ll allow themselves the opportunity to slip back into the story or not. For those who hesitate, they watch the rest of the movie from an outside perspective. They miss the entire emotional throughline of the story.

The 180° Rule is about audience orientation. In other words, it’s about camera placement to keep the viewer in the story.

If a director starts with a two-shot the audience understands who is in the image and their location. In the two-shot, Character A and Character B are looking at each other.

Character A is screen left looking to screen right. And, Character B is screen right looking to screen left. The audience understands when Character A turns his head to the right, he looks away from Character B.

This spatial understanding frees the director to use other shots. He can focus on entertainment factors of nuances, points of interest, and storytelling.

To keep this perception intact, the director must draw an imaginary action line. He then places all the cameras he’ll use on one side of the line. This gives him 180° of camera angles that he can use.

If he crosses that action line with a camera, the audience loses their orientation. They get yanked from the story and have to make a conscious decision to get back into it.

You can learn more about this rule from an earlier post by clicking here.

30° Rule

The 30° rule is about the physical placement of the cameras. Each camera angle must be between 30° and 180° from the previous camera shot. This rule shows up in the editing room when the picture cuts together.

The name of these cuts is Axial Cuts or Jump Cuts. The axial cut is between a camera that is closer and another that is farther away from the subject.

The jump cut is between cameras on the same focal plane. The jump happens when the second camera is further to the right or left side of the other camera.

Jump cuts can be disorienting when the camera is less than 30° from the previous shot. And as you may have guessed, being over 180° breaks the 180° Rule, which is also disorienting.

The French director Jean Luc Godard popularized the jump cut in his film Breathless (1959). His goal was to use gratuitous jump cuts to create a rhythm and mood during a bank robbery. You can often see this same heightened emotional rhythm in fight scenes.

Screen Direction

When a character moves, it creates a screen direction in the audience’s mind. Most people can extrapolate that direction within their minds.

For instance, let’s say Character A moves from the left side of the screen to the right side and beyond. The audience understands the character is somewhere to the right of what they can see.

If the next shot shows Character A walking into the scene from the left, there is a sense of disorientation. The audience wonders how Character A, who was screen right, got to the left side of the screen.

When Character A moves from offscreen right to screen left, we know they returned. This is true even though we never saw them turn around.

These spatial understandings come from the grammar of screen direction. The director teaches viewers the placement of everything through a series of shots. The director created rules for the environment that he can’t break during that scene.

A good example is Character A playing catch with a ball. If Character A tosses the ball offscreen right and it soon comes back from screen right to left, it makes sense. We know there is someone offscreen that is playing catch.

But a ball thrown offscreen right and reentering from screen left doesn’t make sense. This action pulls the audience out of the story.

Time Compression/Elaboration

Time compression is a tool a director uses to cut out unnecessary action. Time elaboration is a tool that allows us to expand the information over a longer piece of time.

For instance, let’s say a film opened with Character A going through his wake-up rituals. Most could take 10-20-minutes in real-time. The director might want to compress the time so boredom doesn’t set in.

He might show highlights or hints of the steps in a minute-long montage. The series of shots might look like this:

A hand hits the alarm clock.
Toothpaste squeezes onto an old toothbrush.
The closet door flies open revealing shirts and slacks.
Toast pops out of the toaster and gets grabbed in mid-air.
A computer bag strap flops onto a shoulder.
A car backs out of the driveway.

Time elaboration is the exact opposite. Let’s say a bomb blows up in a scene and destroys lots of stuff within 5-seconds. The director might explore that explosion from many camera angles.

The director might also capture the explosion in slow motion. When cutting everything together, the explosion turns into a minute of screen time.

Here is a simple example. The first paragraph represents real-time and the second represents time compression.

A car stops alongside a curb in a residential area. The key turns off and gets removed from the steering column. The car door opens and a reporter steps out. He reaches back into the car for a pen and notebook. The reporter closes the door and locks it. Walking around the car, he moves up the sidewalk toward a house. His winged tip shoes shuffle up the staircase. He pushes the doorbell. The reporter readies his notebook and pen. The door creaks open revealing a nervous woman who doesn’t want her story published.

A car stops alongside a curb in a residential area. The ringing doorbell echoes within the house. A nervous woman opens the door to find a reporter standing with pen and paper in hand.

For an example of time elaboration, read the short paragraph above followed by the longer one.

The director always has a decision to make. Should a ticking time bomb blow up in the two minutes set on the clock, or should he milk it for ten minutes?

Films are Visually Read by Directors

The screenwriter creates the initial story. He knows that the director and editor will put their spin on it. Adding to these creative roles are actors and artists that also bring nuances to bear.

The director orchestrates the full collaboration. This melding of great minds and actions generates the final look and feel of the story.

The director is like an orchestra conductor. He has full control of the volume, pace, and other artistic embellishments. His job is to create the emotional baseline of the story.

Yet, some choose to approach directing more from a technical aspect. They know how to make a visual impact, but not an emotional one. While there are some stories well served by this choice, they are rare.

Directors that take their eyes off of the emotional thread of the story lose sight of the language of film. Directors must read the nuances of a scene and determine how to show it visually. When missed, the impact of the story weakens.

To understand the emotional elements, the director must learn how to read film. Developing this skill will empower the director. He’ll be able to translate the written page to the visual screen with the story’s emotional spin intact.

Since this article is already long, I won’t go in-depth about how to read a film. But I will share that learning how to “show and not tell” elements of a story is the primary level of reading a film. Add to it the understanding of symbols, props, and nuances and you’ll begin to learn the language of film.

Directors Must Be Visually Literate

To be an effective director, you must learn how to understand the language of film. This starts with being able to build shot sequences within a scene like sentences. Mastering visual grammar helps audiences understand the time and space where the action unfolds.

A director with knowledge of these elements can couple them with the emotional throughline of a story. The end result is a visual language that transcends global literary boundaries.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers


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