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.)

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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

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