Film Directing Fundamentals
eBook - ePub

Film Directing Fundamentals

See Your Film Before Shooting

Nicholas T. Proferes

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  1. 318 pages
  2. English
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  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Film Directing Fundamentals

See Your Film Before Shooting

Nicholas T. Proferes

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About This Book

  • Unique, focused approach to film directing shows how to use the screenplay as a blueprint for rendering the script to the screen.

  • Includes case studies featuring famous films as well as brand new analyses of contemporary films featuring female and minority directors.

  • Comprehensive companion website featuring study questions and assignments for each chapter.

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Part One
Film Language and a Directing Methodology

It is important in learning any language to understand its grammar, and it is no different for film language. This is covered in Chapter 1. Chapters 2 through 6 introduce the bedrock of this book’s methodology: a journey of discovering answers to questions such as How do I stage a scene? Where do I put the camera? and What do I tell an actor? The answers, I believe, are to be found in your screenplay; therefore, much of our time will be spent on the “detective work” needed to uncover these answers.
In June 2007 Frances Ford Coppola visited Columbia and talked candidly about himself and the influences on his work. Prior to going to film school, he studied theater for four years, and at Columbia he stated categorically that for him the two most important aspects of a film are its text and the actors; this from a director who is supremely cinematic.
However, Mr. Coppola made another important disclosure. When asked what his greatest asset was, he responded without hesitation, “my imagination.” Unfortunately this is not an ingredient any book or any teacher can impart, but my hope is that you will be encouraged by the methodology offered in this book to recognize and unleash your own wellspring of imagination. As we begin the introduction of this methodology, please keep foremost in your mind that its sole intention is to support, empower, and embolden your own unique vision.

Chapter 1
Introduction to Film Language and Grammar

The Film World

The first dramatic films were rendered as if through a proscenium. The camera was placed in position, and all the action in the scene took place within that camera frame. The audience’s view was much the same as a theater audience sitting front row center. The American director D. W. Griffith was one of the first to move the audience onto the stage with works like For Love Of Gold (1908), The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and the highly influential, but strongly racist, Birth of a Nation (1915). “Look here!” he said to the audience with his camera—“Now here!” Griffith was not only moving the audience into the scene, he was then turning their seats this way and that—moving them into the face of a character, then in the next instant pulling them to the back of the “theater” to get a larger view of the character in relation to other characters or showing the character in relation to his or her surroundings.
The reason for putting the audience into the scene is that it makes the story more interesting—more dramatic. But by moving the audience into the action and focusing their attention first here, now there, the director can easily confuse and disorient the audience. The geography of a location or the wholeness of a character’s body becomes fragmented. Whose hand does that belong to? Where is character A in spatial relationship to character B? Usually the director does not want to cause confusion. Rather, she wants the audience to feel comfortable in this film world—to be spatially (and temporally) oriented—so that the story can take place unimpeded. Usually the director wants the audience to know, “That hand belongs to Bob, and Bob is sitting to the right of Ellen” (even if we haven’t seen Ellen for a while). There are times, however, when we will use this possibility for confusion and disorientation to our advantage to create surprise or suspense.

Film Language

When film became a series of connected shots, a language was born. Every shot became a complete sentence with at least one subject and one verb. (We are talking about an edited shot here, as opposed to a camera setup, which can be cut into a number of edited shots.) Like prose, a film sentence/shot can be simple, with only one subject and one verb, and perhaps an object; or it can be a compound sentence/shot, composed of two or more clauses. The type of sentence/shot we use will first depend on the essence of the moment that we wish to convey to the audience. Secondarily, that sentence/shot will be contained in a design of the scene, which can be an ingredient of an overall style. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), where there are but nine sentences, each one 10 minutes long (the length of a film roll), each sentence contains many subjects and a host of verbs and objects.
Let us look at a simple sentence/shot: a wristwatch lying on a table, reading three o’clock. Without a context outside of this particular shot, the sentence reads, “A wristwatch lying on a table reads three o’clock.” The significance of this film sentence, its specific meaning in the context of a story, will become clear only when it is embedded among other shots (sentences); for example, a character is someplace she is not supposed to be, and as she leaves we cut to the very same shot of the wristwatch on the table reading three o’clock. Now the shot—the sentence—is given a context and takes on a specific significance. Its meaning is clear. The character is leaving behind evidence (that could cause her trouble). The fact that it is three o’clock might very well have no significance at all.
The necessity of context in interpreting a particular shot applies to the camera angle also. No camera angle—extreme low, extreme high, tilted to left or right, etc.—in and of itself contains any inherent dramatic, psychological, or atmospheric content.


Professionals in the film industry don’t usually refer to a shot as a sentence. But in learning any foreign language, we have to think in our native language first to clearly formulate what it is we want to say in the new language, and the same principle applies to learning to “talk” in film. It can be extremely helpful before you have developed a visual vocabulary to formulate the content of each shot into a linguistic analogue (the prose and syntax of your native language) to help you find the corresponding visual images. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that film, unlike the words of the screenplay, is rendered on the screen in a series of images that, when combined in a sequence, gives a meaning that goes beyond mere words. The late Stefan Sharff, a former colleague of mine at Columbia, in his book The Elements of Cinema, wrote:
When a proper cinema “syntax” is used, the viewer is engaged in an active process of constantly “matching” chains of shots not merely by association or logical relationship but by an empathy peculiar to cinema. The blend so achieved spells cinema sense—a mixture of emotion and understanding, meditative or subliminal, engaging the viewer’s ability to respond to a structured cinema “language.”… A cinematic syntax yields meaning not only through the surface content of shots, but also through their conn...

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