2 How to Watch a Movie
Step One: Evolve an optic nerve that “refreshes” at a rate of about 13 to 30 hertz in a normal active state. That’s 13 to 30 cycles per second. Fortunately, that bit has already been taken care of over the past several million years. You have one of them in your head right now.
Step Two: Project a series of still images captured in sequence at a rate at least twice that of your optic nerve’s ability to respond. Let’s say 24 images, or frames, per second.
Step Three: Don’t talk during the movie. That’s super annoying.
Okay, that last part is optional (though it is super annoying), but here’s the point: Cinema is built on a lie. It is not, in fact, a “motion” picture. It is, at a minimum, 24 still images flying past your retinas every second. Your brain interprets those dozens of photographs per second as movement, but it’s actually just the illusion of movement, a trick of the mind known as beta movement: the neurological phenomenon that interprets two stimuli shown in quick succession as the movement of a single object.
Because all of this happens so fast, faster than our optic nerves and synaptic responses can perceive, the mechanics are invisible. There may be 24 individual photographs flashing before our eyes every second, but all we see is one continuous moving picture. It’s a trick. An illusion.
The same applies to cinematic language. The way cinema communicates is the product of many different tools and techniques, from production design to narrative structure to lighting, camera movement, sound design, performance and editing. But all of these are employed to manipulate the viewer without us ever noticing. In fact, that’s kind of the point. The tools and techniques – the mechanics of the form – are invisible. There may be a thousand different elements flashing before our eyes – a subtle dolly-in here, a rack focus there, a bit of color in the set design that echoes in the wardrobe of the protagonist, a music cue that signals the emotional state of a character, a cut on an action that matches an identical action in the next scene, and on and on and on – but all we see is one continuous moving picture. A trick. An illusion.
In this chapter, we’ll explore how cinematic language works, a bit like breaking down the grammar and rules of spoken language, then we’ll take a look at how to watch cinema with these “rules” in mind. We may not be able to speed up the refresh rate of our optic nerve to catch each of those still images, but we can train our interpretive skills to see how filmmakers use the various tools and techniques at their disposal.
Like any language, we can break cinematic language down to its most fundamental elements. Before grammar and syntax can shape meaning by arranging words or phrases in a particular order, the words themselves must be built up from letters, characters or symbols. The basic building blocks. In cinema, those basic building blocks are shots. A shot is one continuous capture of a span of action by a motion picture camera. It could last minutes (or even hours), or could last less than a second. Basically, a shot is everything that happens within the frame of the camera – that is, the visible border of the captured image – from the moment the director calls “Action!” to the moment she calls “Cut!”
These discrete shots rarely mean much in isolation. They are full of potential and may be quite interesting to look at on their own, but cinema is built up from the juxtaposition of these shots, dozens or hundreds of them, arranged in a particular order – a cinematic syntax – that renders a story with a collectively discernible meaning. We have a word for that too: Editing. Editing arranges shots into patterns that make up scenes, sequences and acts to tell a story, just like other forms of language communicate through words, sentences and paragraphs.
From these basic building blocks, we have developed a cinematic language, a set of rules and conventions by which cinema communicates meaning to the viewer. And by “we” I mean all of us, filmmakers and audiences alike, from the earliest motion picture to the latest VR experience. Cinematic language – just like any other language – is an organic, constantly evolving shared form of communication. It is an iterative process, one that is refined each time a filmmaker builds a story through a discrete number of shots, and each time an audience responds to that iteration, accepting or rejecting, but always engaging in the process. Together, we have developed a visual lexicon. A lexicon describes the shared set of meaningful units in any language. Think of it as the list of all available words and parts of words in a language we carry around in our heads. A visual lexicon is likewise the shared set of meaningful units in our collective cinematic language: images, angles, transitions and camera moves that we all understand mean something when employed in a motion picture.
But here’s the trick: We’re not supposed to notice any of it. The visual lexicon that underpins our cinematic language is invisible, or at least, it is meant to recede into the background of our comprehension. Cinema can’t communicate without it, but if we pay too much attention to it, we’ll miss what it all means. A nifty little paradox. But not so strange or unfamiliar when you think about it. It’s precisely the same with any other language. As you read these characters, words, sentences and paragraphs, you are not stopping to parse each unit of meaning, analyze the syntax or double check the sentence structure. All those rules fade to the background of your own fluency and the meaning communicated becomes clear (or at least, I sure hope it does). And that goes double for spoken language. We speak and comprehend in a fluent flow of grammar and syntax, never pausing over the rules that have become second nature, invisible and unnoticed.
So, what are some of those meaningful units of our cinematic language? Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of them are based on how we experience the world in our everyday lives. Camera placement, for example, can subtly orient our perspective on a character or situation. Place the camera mere inches from a character’s face – known as a close-up – and we’ll feel more intimately connected to their experience than if the camera were further away, as in a medium shot or long shot. Place the camera below the eyeline of a character, pointing up – known as a low-angle shot – and that character will feel dominant, powerful, worthy of respect. We are literally looking up to them. Place the camera at eye level, we feel like equals. Let the camera hover above a character or situation – known as a high-angle shot – and we feel like gods, looking down on everyone and everything. Each choice effects how we see and interpret the shot, scene and story.
We can say the same about transitions from shot to shot. Think of them as conjunctions in grammar, words meant to connect ideas seamlessly. The more obvious examples, like fade-ins and fade-outs or long dissolves, are still drawn from our experience. Think of a slow fade-out, where the screen drifts into blackness, as an echo of our experience of falling asleep, drifting out of consciousness. In fact, fade-outs are most often used in cinema to indicate the close of an act or segment of story, much like the end of a long day. And dissolves are not unlike the way we remember events from our own experience, one moment bleeding into and overlapping with another in our memory.
But perhaps the most common and least noticed transition, by design, is a hard cut that bridges some physical action on screen. It’s called cutting on action and it’s a critical part of our visual lexicon, enabling filmmakers to join shots, often from radically different angles and positions, while remaining largely invisible to the viewer. The concept is simple: whenever a filmmaker wants to cut from one shot to the next for a new angle on a scene, she ends the first shot in the middle of some on-screen action, opening a door or setting down a glass, then begins the next shot in the middle of that same action. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the action on screen and not the cut itself, rendering the transition relatively seamless, if not invisible to the viewer.
Camera placement and transitions, along with camera movement, lighting style, color palette and a host of other elements make up the visual lexicon of cinematic language, all of which we will explore in the chapters to follow. In the hands of a gifted filmmaker, these subtle adjustments work together to create a coherent whole that communicates effectively (and invisibly). In the hands of not so gifted filmmakers, these choices can feel haphazard, unmotivated, or perhaps worse, “showy” – all style and no substance – creating a dissonant, ineffective cinematic experience. But even then, the techniques themselves remain largely invisible. We are simply left with the feeling that it was a “bad” movie, even if we can’t quite explain why. (Though by the end of this book, you should be able to explain why in great detail, probably to the great annoyance of your date. You’re welcome.)
EXPLICIT AND IMPLICIT MEANING
Once we have a grasp on these small, meaningful units of our collective cinematic language we can begin to analyze how they work together to communicate bigger, more complex ideas.
Take the work of Lynne Ramsay, for example. As a director, Ramsay builds a cinematic experience by paying attention to the details, the little things we might otherwise never notice:
Cinema, like literature, builds up meaning through the creative combination of these smaller units, but, also like literature, the whole is – or should be – much more than the sum of its parts. For example, Moby Dick is a novel that explores the nature of obsession, the futility of revenge and humanity’s essential conflict with nature. But in the more than 200,000 words that make up that book, few if any of them communicate those ideas directly. In fact, we can distinguish between explicit meaning, that is the obvious, directly expressed meaning of a work of art, be it a novel, painting or film, and implicit meaning, the deeper, essential meaning, suggested but not necessarily directly expressed by any one element. Moby Dick is explicitly about a man trying to catch a whale, but as any literature professor will tell you, it was never really about the whale.
That comparison between cinema and literature is not accidental. Both start with the same fundamental element, that is, a story. As we will explore in a later chapter, before a single frame is photographed, cinema begins with the written word in the form of a screenplay. And like any literary form, screenplays are built around a narrative structure. Yes, that’s a fancy way of saying story, but it’s more than simply a plot or an explicit sequence of events. A well-conceived narrative structure provides a foundation for that deeper, implicit meaning a filmmaker, or really any storyteller, will explore through their work.
Another way to think about that deeper, implicit meaning is as a theme, an idea that unifies every element of the work, gives it coherence and communicates what the work is really about. And really great cinema manages to suggest and express that theme through every shot, scene and sequence. Every camera angle and camera move, every line of dialogue and sound effect, every music cue and editing transition will underscore, emphasize and point to that theme without ever needing to spell it out or make it explicit. An essential part of analyzing cinema is the ability to identify that thematic intent and then trace its presence throughout.
Unless there is no thematic intent, or the filmmaker did not take the time to make it a unifying idea. Then you may have a “bad” movie on your hands. But at least you’re well on your way to understanding why!
So far, this discussion of explicit and implicit meaning, theme, and narrative structure points to a deep kinship between cinema and literature. But cinema has far more tools and techniques at its disposal to communicate meaning, implicit or otherwise. Sound, performance and visual composition all point to deep ties with music, theater, and painting or photography as well. And while each of those art forms employ their own strategies for communicating explicit and implicit meaning, cinema draws on all of them at once in a complex, multi-layered system.
Let’s take sound, for example. As you know from the brief history of cinema in the last chapter, cinema existed long before the introduction of synchronized sound in 1927, but since then, sound has become an equal partner with the moving image in the communication of meaning. Sound can shape the way we perceive an image, just as an image can change the way we perceive a sound. It’s a relationship we call co-expressive.
This is perhaps most obvious in the use of music. A non-diegetic musical score, that is music that only the audience can hear as it exists outside the world of the characters, can drive us toward an action-packed climax, or sweep us up in a romantic moment. Or it can contradict what we see on the screen, creating a sense of unease at an otherwise happy family gathering or making us a laugh during a moment of excruciating violence. In fact, this powerful combination of moving image and music pre-dates synchronized sound. Even some of the earliest silent films were shipped to theaters with a musical score meant to be played during projection.
But as powerful as music can be, sound in cinema is much more than just music. Sound design includes music, but also dialog, sound effects and ambient sound to create a rich sonic context for what we see on the screen. From the crunch of leaves underfoot, to the steady hum of city traffic, to the subtle crackle of a cigarette burning, what we hear – and what we don’t hear – can put us in the scene with the characters in a way that images alone could never do, and as a result, add immeasurably to the effective communication of both explicit and implicit meaning.
We can say the same about the relationship between cinema and theater. Both use a carefully planned mise-en-scene – the overall look of the production including set design, costume, make-up – to evoke a sense of place and visual continuity. And both employ the talents of well-trained actors to embody characters and enact the narrative structure laid out in the script.
Let’s focus on acting for a moment. Theater, like cinema, relies on actors’ performances to communicate not only the subtleties of human behavior, but also the interplay of explicit and implicit meaning. How an actor interprets a line of dialog can make all the difference in how a performance shifts our perspective, draws us in or pushes us away. And nothing ruins a cinematic or theatrical experience like “bad” acting. But what do we really mean by that? Often it means the performance wasn’t connected to the thematic intent of the story, the unifying idea that holds it all together. We’ll even use words like, “The actor seemed like they were in a different movie from everyone else.” That could be because the director didn’t clarify a theme in the first place, or perhaps they didn’t shape, or direct, an actor’s performance toward one. It could also simply be poor casting.
All of the above applies to both cinema and theater, but cinema has one distinct advantage: the intimacy and flexibility of the camera. Unlike theater, where your experience of a performance is dictated by how far you are from the stage, the filmmaker has complete control over your point of view. She can pull you in close, allowing you to observe every tiny detail of a character’s expression, or she can push you out further than the cheapest seats in a theater, showing you a vast and potentially limitless context. And perhaps most importantly, cinema can move between these points of view in the blink of an eye, manipulating space and time in a way live theater never can. And all of those choices effect how we engage the thematic intent of the story, how we connect to what that particular cinematic experience really means. And because of that, in cinema, whether we realize it or not, we identify most closely with the camera. No matter how much we feel for our hero up on the screen, we view it all through the lens of the camera.
And that central importance of the camera is why the most obvious tool cinema has at its disposal in communicating meaning is visual composition. Despite the above emphasis on the importance of sound, cinema is still described as a visual medium. Even the title of this chapter is How to Watch a Movie. Not so surprising when you think about the lineage of cinema and its origin in the fixed images of the camera obscura, daguerreotypes and series photography. All of which owe a debt to painting, both as an art form and a form of communication. In fact, the cinematic concept of framing has a clear connection to the literal frame, or physical border, of paintings. And one of the most powerful tools filmmakers – and photographers and painters – have at their disposal for communicating both explicit and implicit meaning is simply what they place inside the frame and what they leave out.
Another word for this is composition, the arrangement of people, objects and setting within the frame of an image. And if you’ve ever pulled out your phone to snap a selfie, or maybe a photo of your meal to post on social media (I know, I’m old, but really? Why is that a thing?), you are intimately aware of the power of composition. Adjusting your phone this way and that to get just the right angle, to include just the right bits of your outfit, maybe edge Greg out of the frame just in case things don’t work out (sorry, Greg). Point is, composing a shot is a powerful way we tell stories about ourselves every day. Filmmakers, the really good ones, are masters of this technique. And once you understand this principle, you can start to analyze how a filmmaker uses composition to serve their underlying thematic intent, to help tell their story.
One of the most important ways a filmmaker uses composition to tell their story is through repetition, a pattern of recurring images that echoes a similar framing and connects to a central idea. And like the relationship between shots and editing – where individual shots only really make sense once they are juxtaposed with others – a well-composed image may be interesting or even beautiful on its own, but it only starts to make sense in relation to the implicit meaning or theme of the overall work when we see it as part of a pattern.
Take, for example, Stanley Kubrick and his use of one-point perspective:
Or how Barry Jenkins uses color in Moonlight (2016):
Or how Sofia Coppola tends to trap her protagonists in gilded cages:
These recurring images are part of that largely invisible cinematic language. We aren’t necessarily supposed to notice them, but we are meant to feel their effects. And it’s not just visual patterns that can serve the filmmaker’s purposes. Recurring patterns, or motifs, can emerge in the sound design, narrative structure, mise-en-scene, dialog and music.
But there is one distinction that should be made between how we think about composition and patterns in cinema and how we think about those concepts in photography or painting. While all of the above employ framing to achieve their effects, photography and painting are limited to what is fixed in that frame by the artist at the moment of creation. Only cinema adds an entirely new and distinct dimension to the composition: movement. That includes movement within the frame – as actors and objects move freely, recomposing themselves within the fixed frame of a shot – as well as movement of the frame itself, as the filmmaker moves the camera in the setting and around those same actors and objects. This increases the compositional possibilities exponentially for cinema, allowing filmmakers to layer in even more patterns that serve the story and help us connect to their thematic intent.
FORM, CONTENT AND THE POWER OF CINEMA
As we become more attuned to the various tools and techniques that filmmakers use to communicate their ideas, we will be able to better analyze their effectiveness. We’ll be able to see what was once invisible. A kind of magic trick in itself. But as I tried to make clear from the beginning, my goal is not to focus solely on form, to dissect cinema into its constituent parts and lose sight of its overall power. Cinema, like any art form, is more than the sum of its parts. And it should be clear already that form and content go hand in hand. Pure form, all technique and no substance, is meaningless. And pure content, all story and no style, is didactic and, frankly, boring. How the story is told is as important as what the story is about.
However, just as we can analyze technique, the formal properties of cinema, to better understand how a story is communicated, we can also analyze content, that is, what stories are communicating to better understand how they fit into the wider cultural context. Cinema, again like literature, can represent valuable cultural documents, reflecting our own ideas, values and morals back to us as filmmakers and audiences.
We’ll spend more time on content analysis – the idea of cinema as a cultural document – in the last couple of chapters of this book, but I want to take a moment to highlight one aspect of that analysis in advance. I’ve discussed at length the idea of a cinematic language, and the fact that as a form of communication it is largely invisible or subconscious. Interestingly, the same can be said for cinematic content. Or, more specifically, the cultural norms that shape cinematic content. Cinema is an art form like any other, shaped by humans bound up in a given historical and cultural context. And no matter how enlightened and advanced those humans may be, that historical and cultural context is so vast and complex they cannot possibly grasp every aspect of how it shapes their view of the world. Inevitably, those cultural blind spots, the unexamined norms and values that makes us who we are, filter into the cinematic stories we tell and how we tell them.
The result is a kind of cultural feedback loop where cinema both influences and is influenced by the context in which it is created.
Because of this, on the whole, cinema is inherently conservative. That is to say, as a form of communication it is more effective at conserving or re-affirming a particular view of the world than challenging or changing it. This is due in part to the economic reality that cinema, historically a very expensive medium, must appeal to the masses to survive. As such, it tends to avoid offending our collective sensibilities, to make us feel better about who we already think we are. And it is also due in part to the social reality that the people who have historically had access to the capital required to produce that very expensive medium tend to all look alike. That is, mostly white, and mostly men. And when the same kind of people with the same kind of experiences tend to have the most consistent access to the medium, we tend to get the same kinds of stories, reproducing the same, often unexamined, norms, values and ideas.
But that doesn’t mean cinema can’t challenge the status quo, or at least reflect real, systemic change in the wider culture already underway. That’s what makes the study of cinema, particularly in regard to content, so endlessly fascinating. Whether it’s tracking the way cinema reflects the dominant cultural norms of a given period, or the way it sometimes rides the leading edge of change in those same norms, cinema is a window – or frame (see what I did there) – through which we can observe the mechanics of cultural production, the inner-workings of how meaning is produced, shared, and sometimes broken down over time.
EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
One final word on how to watch a movie before we move on to the specific tools and techniques employed by filmmakers. In as much as cinema is a cultural phenomenon, a mass medium with a crucial role in the production of meaning, it’s also an art form meant to entertain. And while I think one can assess the difference between a “good” movie and a “bad” movie in terms of its effectiveness, that has little to do with whether one likes it or not.
In other words, you don’t have to necessarily like a movie to analyze its use of a unifying theme or the way the filmmaker employs mise-en-scene, narrative structure, cinematography, sound and editing to effectively communicate that theme. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), arguably one of the greatest films ever made, is an incredibly effective motion picture. But it’s not my favorite. Between you and me, I don’t even really like it all that much. But I still show it to my students every semester. Which means I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times and it never ceases to astonish in its formal technique and innovative use of cinematic language.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: You can really, really like a movie that isn’t necessarily all that good. Maybe there’s no unifying theme, maybe the cinematography is all style and no substance (or no style and no substance), maybe the narrative structure is made out of toothpicks and the acting is equally thin and wooden. (That’s right, Twilight, I’m looking at you.) Who cares? You like it. You’ve watched it more often than I’ve seen Citizen Kane and you still like it.
That’s great. Embrace it. Because taste in cinema is subjective. But analysis of cinema doesn’t have to be. You can analyze anything. Even things you don’t like.
Video and Image Attributions:
An example of beta movement. Public Domain Image.
Lynne Ramsay – The Poetry of Details by Tony Zhou. Standard Vimeo License.
Kubrick // One-Point Perspective by kogonada. Standard Vimeo License.
MOONLIGHT // BLUE by Russell Leigh Sharman. Standard Vimeo License.
- Okay, it's actually a lot more complicated than that. Optic nerves don't "refresh" in the way we normally think of that term. In fact, the optic nerve is part of a complex system that incudes your eyeballs, retinas and brain, each of which performs at varying degrees of efficiency and changes as we age. But the numbers here are a good rule of thumb for thinking about how quickly we can process images. For more on how the optic nerve works, check this out: https://wolfcrow.com/notes-by-dr-optoglass-motion-and-the-frame-rate-of-the-human-eye/ ↵