Understanding the Language of Film (Part 1)

I had a recent discussion with a literary person about the merits of film as a language. She couldn’t fathom the existence of a language filled with images. Yet, as a director, I’m more fluent in visual communication than any literary form.

In fact, most men understand certain visual dialects more than a barrage of words from a friend. But that topic is for another day.

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Today, I want to clarify how important it is for a director to be visually literate. Film is not only a language but an argument. The more a director masters the language, the more successful he can present his view or argument.

All directors can improve storytelling by practicing these three areas of film language.

Films are Built with Shot Sentences

In the literary world, every sentence has at least a subject and a verb. In film, every shot has at least a subject and an action verb.

In film, a short sequence of shots is like a paragraph. The order and pacing of those shots tell a clear story. Here is an example:

The little boy’s eyes open wide. His feet stand next to a corpse wearing a pinstriped suit. The boy glances at his ragged clothes and rubs his belly. A group of boys surrounding him nods toward the body. The boy hesitates, then bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves. He puts his shaking hand into the deceased’s pants pocket. He smiles as he pulls out a fist full of coins. The boys cheer. The little boy runs. The other boys chase after him.

Each sentence is a camera shot. The organization of the sentences tells a story to the audience.

The visual also allows the story to unfold as the director selects what shot the audience sees next. His chosen sequence also makes clear who and what the scene is about.

The first sentence, “The little boy’s eyes open wide,” plants an idea in the director’s mind. This moment is either startling, intimidating, or raises the boy’s level of curiosity. The director finds further clarifying hints as he reads further into the script.

Making a Choice

How the director has the young actor play the scene determines a lot. The most important item is what message or perspective the audience receives.

If the actor receives no direction, he may or may not portray the right message to the audience. The story might not be cohesive and the meaning of the scene becomes vague. Most meaningless scenes end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

The director must also pay attention to the order of each shot/sentence. The order and pacing alter the audience’s perception. It also determines what they embrace or understand.

The sequence in the above story paragraph suggests that the boy is being pressured by the other boys. Whether he lost a bet or is the runt of the group, the boys are forcing him to do the unthinkable.

The boy is curious and careful as he grabs the dead man’s money. The audience wonders what will happen next as does the character.

Soon the boy shows the spoils of victory on his face as he holds up his fist full of money. The audience feels relief and a sense of thrill with the lad’s success. Then comes the twist—The boy decides to keep the money and takes off running.

As the boys chase after him, the character and the audience wonder what will happen next—will he get caught or not?

Changing the Story

By changing the order of the shots and/or the length of those shots, the audience gets a very different story. Here is an example:

A small boy’s feet stand next to a corpse wearing a pinstriped suit. A group of boys nods to the body. The small boy bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves. He puts his hand into the deceased’s pants pocket and pulls out a fist full of coins. The boys cheer. The little boy runs. The others chase after him.

The emotional impact of the above scene is very different from the original. The audience was never drawn into the character’s plight.

The first version was about overcoming the emotional experience. The boy had to overcome his hunger, the group of boys threatening him, and touching a dead man.

The second version was more about the dead body and a boy’s opportunity in a less emotional situation. The audience was never invested in the character. They received a very different message from the first version.

The first version brings the audience into the little boy’s world. We get a sense of what he is feeling. This results in an emotionally invested audience about the young boy’s outcome.

We need to know what will happen next. The audience’s emotions grow to the level of compulsion as they cheer the boy on.

We had no investment in the second version. The director blocked the audience from caring about the boy. How the director formed the shot/sentences determined what message the audience received.

The story fell flat (bad director, naughty director).

These simple examples prove that film is a language that communicates. How we form and order our shots changes the message. Thus, it’s critical that directors learn and master the grammatical rules of film.

Check out part two of Understanding the Language of Film soon.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers

A Director’s Influence

When it comes to storytelling, a great director can influence his team to bring their best game. A director’s collaborative vision can bring out the best in their team — creating an amazing final product. A director also has the power to destroy the energy for crafting a unique and memorable story.

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Both the good and the bad get shared through the director’s ability to influence his team. Every director can ensure their influence is productive by following these three steps.

1. Inspire Your Team to Contribute to the Creative Process

Inspiration starts the moment someone joins the film. The director’s attitude and demeanor set the tone for the entire production. And it’s not by chance. The director must plan ahead so he can show his intent in the proper light.

I remember watching footage of Tom Cruise speaking to his cast and crew. The first words out of his mouth were enthusiastic, “We get to make a film today!” His team was grateful based on the tone he set for an incredible day of shooting.

When I share my first words on set, I like to motivate the team with a sense of purpose. I tend to share a brief story that reminds everyone why we’re there. The goal is to jump-start their artistic superpowers.

It’s my hope that my story is one that inspires the team to give 1% more than the day before. This empowers many to level up and extend their skills beyond what they thought was possible. The added effort always shows up on screen in a miraculous way.

2. Mine the Treasure from within Your Team

The skill of observation is the most important tool of a director. He uses it to gather real-world content and gain the intent of the screenwriter. The director also uses observation to discover the qualities of his team members.

I’m humbled when I’m told by a team member that I drew more talent out of them than they thought was possible. While some credit me for their actions, I know that all I did was see the treasures that were within them. And yes, I drew those talents to the surface to take advantage of what the story needed.

Mining someone’s talent is about empowering them to shine. But, sometimes a director must get the person out of their own way so their talents can surface. That often takes a jolt of inspiration.

I was working with a kid actor on a sci-fi set who needed to get mad in the scene. The kid was a peacemaker that rarely raised his voice at anyone. But his character had to get in an adult’s face while spewing intense dialog.

After the kid’s performance suffered through many takes, I got in his face with an intense voice. Before tears formed in his eyes, I rolled the camera. The team gave his five-star performance a standing ovation.

I had observed his internal fear of failure and I brought it to the surface. He was fast to shroud his fear in anger out of self-preservation. He produced the exact emotional moment the film required.

I sometimes wonder if what I did was necessary.

The producer shared strong words with me for going about it in the wrong way. I’ve made it my life’s goal to continue searching for better techniques ever since.

But that doesn’t mean I chose a bad technique. You see, every time I received an award for the film, the presenter mentioned the kid’s performance in that scene. He loved the accolades. He also forgave me. And his performance landed him an audition at Nickelodeon.

I’m not suggesting that the ends justify the means. I’m saying that I did the best I could at the time. That action drove the kid to do his best too. The end results were awards and more film and TV projects for the kid.

3. Shape Your Team’s Passion for the Project

The key to good storytelling is to realize that a like-minded group can do more together than apart. To that end, the director must find a way to draw the most out of every person on set. The best place to start is to learn about the passion within each person when possible.

Some think the director is only responsible for what’s on-screen. But he is also responsible for guiding the team to achieve the desired results.

The director is not a powerless figure who must work within the strict confines of the script. In reality, the director has a tremendous amount of power to shape the team and the story. The on-set tone has a lot to do with how the team works together to tell the story.

Leading the Team to Success

To succeed is to fan the flame of passion within the entire team. Strong directors remind the team about the core elements of the story. They also point out how it will impact the audience.

The director will help the cast and crew see how the project will push them to their next level of expertise.

A director’s job is not simple. But he can influence his team to succeed by inspiring them to contribute. He can also mine the treasures from within his team and put them at the forefront of their actions.

And finally, the director can shape the entire team. Turning up the passion meter will energize the cast and crew. This gives the director a front-row seat as everyone embraces their newfound power.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers

Directors Embrace Adaptability

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Newbie directors ask what are the most important elements needed to be a great director. Most hope that the answer has something to do with technology or watching a lot of movies. They rarely expect the answer to be a character trait.

Thanks to my festival judging opportunities, I’ve talked with hundreds of directors. They’ve had a vast range of skills.

The director’s passionate stories always include a turning point in their film project. It included a moment when they breathed life into a scene that was about to turn bland or die on the vine.

The director saved the project’s near-death experience by choosing to be adaptable.

All directors can protect their stories by embracing three basic forms of adaptability.

Go with the Flow

In an ever-changing landscape, directors who go with the flow are more likely to thrive. No matter how well planned, there are opportunities for a director to take a creative risk.

I directed one of two promotional pieces at an old firehouse. I had time to scout the area in advance and determine the perfect set-up for speed and artistry. I asked the production manager to have 1-2 12X12 butterfly scrims available for the shoot.

On the day of production, the producer wanted my team to shoot first. I asked the production manager for the scrims to diffuse the sun. He had decided not to rent any scrims. That put the lead actors looking into the sun.

I had to adapt by moving the talent from the sidewalk onto the shaded porch and re-block the entire scene. This forced my director of photography to adapt. He had to adjust his settings to cover the 2 – 3 stop lighting difference between the shaded area and the bright sun.

Be Resilient

Directors plan out their rehearsals and production. But sometimes an outside influence causes a major setback. The director has to bounce back and show resilience to get the team back on course.

I directed a musical for the stage. The venue forced us to hold auditions the night before rehearsals started. Since the show required a large cast of kids, the auditions went long—which everyone expected.

The unexpected moment showed up in the form of the venue’s manager who decided it was time for everyone to go home. He gave us a 20-minute warning. The producer managed interference, hoping I’d finish before he lost the argument.

The manager shouted for me to stop until they could square things away. While the two argued, I went up to each nervous kid and help them understand that they were not in trouble. After 45-minutes of heated debate, he gave us 30-minutes to finish.

At that moment, I had to come across to the kids as the leader of fun. I needed to bounce back and show that it was time to play. My sole goal was to turn their concerned faces into smiles. I had to help the kids let go of the intensity and embrace playfulness.


The key ingredient to adaptability is innovation. Directors have a team of experts with various life experiences. Directors that are innovation-oriented are on the lookout for the next best thing.

I was shooting a spring day in a YA film in October. The scene required a goose to attack a new foster child, but the goose and its wrangler didn’t show up on set. Thankfully the attack-goose puppet and the puppeteer did show up.

I worked with the stunt coordinator, puppeteer, and the director of photography. We determined the best angles and moves to reduce the number of live goose shots needed. I figured that a second unit would shoot the live goose to match our principal photography.

Three weeks later, the second unit started to film. But the deep green grass was now a light shade of November brown.

The second unit director researched solutions. He bought a type of green paint that could match the footage. The paint was unique in allowing sunlight to pass through—keeping the grass alive.

Adaptability empowers a director to succeed when plans get blocked. Directors can practice the above characteristics until it becomes a part of who they are. Then they’ll be ready to protect their next project from surprises.

© 2022 by CJ Powers