How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part 2)

We’ve covered the raw basics, now let’s start to narrow our focus. This week we are talking about setting scenes.

The first thing to clear up is the difference between a shot and a scene. A shot is the film between one cut and another. Which I suppose brings us to another vocabulary term. Back in ye olden days of analog film in order to join two different pieces of film you would cut the film with a razor then join the two new pieces with tape. Thus a cut is any point where the camera moves from one piece of film (or what would be one piece of film if they were using film) to another. A shot is the film between two cuts. And a scene is a group of shots that tells one small piece of the story, usually focusing on a single location. Movie scenes are pretty much like scenes in plays, if that’s any help.

Now probably when talking about scenes you will come across a very fancy french term, Mise en Scene. Basically this is all that which falls in the scene. It’s everything. Acting, set design, shot composition, lighting, and all the rest that can be seen by the camera. Because it’s so all encompassing I don’t really find this term useful for anything other than sounding like a film snob, but you should probably know it anyway. And of course there are one or two times when you might want to talk about everything all at once, and then it might actually apply. Take for instance this scene from My Fair Lady:

The whole scene is brilliantly shot, but I want you to pay attention to the very last shot. For those not familiar with the film, Audrey Hepburn’s character has just charmed everyone at a ball into thinking she is aristocracy after starting as a poor street merchant, and now Rex Harrison is taking all the credit because he was her teacher. We see her moving slowly while everyone else bustles around. In a fairly well lit scene she manages to put herself in one of the only shadows. And she’s in the background causing her to appear smaller than everyone else. It all has the effect of making her almost disappear if you aren’t looking for her, visually mimicking what is happening for her emotionally. That, kiddos, is what we call analyzing mise en scene. Don’t we all feel clever now.

So, why is it that we use multiple shots in a scene? If all the action is focused around one location, surely one cut would do the trick? Cutting to a new shot is done to change the angle of the shot. This creates a more dynamic film. First, it simulates the way we shift our focus around parts of our environment when we look at things. Second, it makes us feel closer to the action and less like we are watching something performed on a stage.

There are two big rules that must be obeyed when making cutting between shots. The first is the 180 rule. This states that you shall not swing the camera more than 180 degrees around your subject between shots without first stopping at one of the poles. This is done to keep the direction of the action consistent.  Imagine if you will that you are filming a woman walking down a hall. In your fist shot you are on the woman’s right. She enters the scene from the left edge of the frame and moves to the right. Now if you go and film her from her left side she will enter the scene from the right edge of the frame and move to the left. As far as the viewer can tell, she will have reversed directions and have started walking in the opposite direction. Not good. If however you were to shoot her from directly in front of or behind her and place that between those two shots, the viewer would probably be able to work out what happened because you would have walked them around the scene as it were.

Diagram of 180 rule, showing how reversing the camera angle makes it look like the people switched sides.
Visual aid! Everyone loves a visual aid!
From Wikimedia Commons.

The other is the 30 degree rule. This time it’s that you have to move the camera more than 30 degrees between cuts. If you don’t, it looks jarring to the viewer. It creates what is called a jump cut, so named because the subject seems to jump slightly. Some filmmakers will do this deliberately to purposefully throw off the viewer, particularly in French Avant Guard films.

Next week will be all about how the techniques used to change the angle in a film without cutting.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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