I am an old movies fanatic, but I don’t “watch” these films: I experience them. It’s not enough to just stare at the images and listen to the sounds that emanate from the audio tracks. A worthwhile film should envelop me. I should lose myself for those few hours. That is what the best of films do. I give my eyes, ears, heart and soul when I enter the celluloid universe. Since film incorporates two of five of our senses I’ll break down how I technically experience film into two categories: Look and Listen.
Look is about using one’s eyes to absorb the visuals. You need to do more than look, you need to see. Don’t just focus on the main action of a scene, that is don’t casually observe what the character is saying to another, or what basic actions are occurring.
First, study how a shot is constructed. The screen is a rectangular box, so analyze how it is filled, what is inside and what is omitted. See how the picture is fashioned: is it a singular shot of a character or a group of people? Close up or from a distance; and if from a distance, how far away? Is the camera at eye level or from high or low angles? Is the shot stagnant or moving? If moving, check its speed, the motion itself: moving in or out (zooming or dollying); sideways from a stationary point (panning) or mobile (tracking). Each set up should be broken down because this is where directors add extra dimensions that can’t be expressed solely through dialogue, costume, scenery, and props.
Lighting will also enhance the mood by setting the time of day and/or season of the year. How characters are illuminated can give hints to their personalities, or even clues to the story. For instance bad dudes are often shown in high contrast lighting to give them an edgier appearance.
Nowadays, many shots are very quick takes, born out of the MTV video age, so notice if there is a long take, one which lasts more than a few seconds. Something important is happening and the director wants you to pay attention to the moment. Sometimes though bells and whistles are just that, extra fancy stuff so a director can display his/her technical wizardry.
Listen to a movie, not just the dialogue but the ambient sounds. Is a song playing in the background, or a snippet of a movie or TV show? Oftentimes those are hints. Music is added to lend atmosphere, to prompt an emotional response from the audience. Enjoy a soundtrack’s selections, but take note which verse(s) of a song is played in relation to a scene. The song can efficiently add to a story by playing a few bars. Confession: I have difficulty with contemporary films because they are loud and noisy, with multiple levels of sound. These layers provide oomph, but do not necessarily add quality. Silence can be a very powerful tool. What is omitted on the auditory level can speak volumes. I’m not just addressing the silent films of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. The quiet of a scene can add a meditative quality or raise the dramatic tension.
A Prime Example
An excellent synthesis of sight and sound blending seamlessly together is the Louis’ Restaurant execution scene in The Godfather. Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is about to commit his first executions at a small restaurant:
Michael Corleone kills Solozzo
We begin with a close up single shots of Michael Corleone and his enemy, Solozzo. The tops of their heads are cut off in this tight framing. The lighting is somewhat harsh, not soft. This is supposed to make the audience feel uncomfortable. The meeting between the two characters is about revenge and vengeance. When there is a two-shot of them it is done with Solozzo’s body in the foreground, his back to the audience, blocking Michael who sits in the mid-ground. Why the strange blocking? Michael is trapped at this point.
Next Michael enters the toilet and in medium close-up, tightly framed shots– he is still cornered, the odds are against him– he searches for the gun, finds it, and checks himself before returning to the dinner table. The audience empathizes with Michael and his tenseness. He is intercut with two-shots of his enemies who are casually dining. Solozzo is still shown with his back to the audience because: (1) Solozzo can not be trusted; and (2) this is Michael’s POV. Michael’s body enters the frame, his back nearly blocking out the foreground (hint: this means the tables are turned and he is in a dominant position now). The color red from the background window (lettering and curtains) frames the two men dining. The red indicates that there is danger afoot, that bloodshed is about to occur. From this point on, the scene is shot from a subjective POV, that of Michael’s– not that we are literally looking through Michael’s eyes, but we are emotionally and physically with him for the rest of the ride.
Now let’s address the sound. Once Michael is in the toilet the dialogue has stopped. Only the roar of an outside subway train is heard. When Michael returns we hear Solozzo speaking but the focus is on Michael. The camera moves in slowly on Michael’s tense face as he pretends to listen to Solozzo talk. We hear another train approaching as Solozzo’s speech fades away, which means we are in Michael’s mind. The tension builds, the moment of truth approaches. The train screeches until that moment when– bang, bang, bang! The music interrupts our shock and we face the reality of what has just happened: a public execution by the godfather-to-be.
Pulling it all together to fulfill a director’s vision is the editor’s job. A gifted editor should be like having Tim Gunn on your team when presenting to the judges. He/she should sew up the elements of sight and sound into a tightly coherent piece as in this movie clip. The fabulous Walter Murch edited the Michael Corleone/Louis’ Restaurant scene.
My preference for movie viewing is at home either from a DVD, CD-ROM, or a taped on my DVR. Often I will repeat sequences and view them in slow-motion, often freeze framing to study the visual elements. If possible I will also turn on the Closed Captioning to better hear and see the dialogue. Additionally CC may sometimes provide the titles of songs that are played within the movie, which is handy. With repeated viewings I can revisit and re-experience a fine work of art. Make your DVR clicker your friend. It’s most helpful when watching mystery movies.
A good glossary of movie making terminology can be found here at IMDB (Internet Movie Database). For fun, there is also Roger Ebert’s film glossary. Lastly, remember that rarely is something accidentally inserted into a movie. The director, like a painter, wants you to pay attention to all that he/she has placed on the silver screen canvas.