Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Film Language Talk

This spring break I got to work with Charles Valsechi to put on some cross major talks & workshops. It's basically students helping students by sharing relevant knowledge that we may not be exposed to in our own majors. Hopefully students will pick this up and make it and annual thing. I know I would have loved to have something like this as an underclassman! Also, special thanks not just to Charles for organizing this whole shindig and talking but also to Scott Prather, Adam Campbell, and Christina Faulkner for pitching in and sharing in their areas of expertise!

I headed up a section on the basics of film language. These are the notes from that talk for anyone who was there and wants to refer back to them or anyone who missed it and wants to check it out. The goal of the talk wasn't to get really in depth into any one thing but to present the basic toolbox of the film maker, show some examples of how that stuff works, and get people thinking about how they can use it in their own work - film or otherwise. Also note that while doing these workshops is something I strongly believe in I'm also incredibly busy this semester. I have not been able to devote as much time I would have liked to preparing content for this talk, so a lot of the material here is brought together from various books I own. A bibliography will be supplied at the end of the notes. I highly recommend each and every one of them. And so, without further ado....


Film language isn't about the story, it's about HOW you tell the story.
Everything can be thought of with two goals.
-To show information
-To give an opinion on that information (emotional impact)


SHOT SIZES. Wide, Medium, Close.
-Camera Distance = Emotional Distance
-With cuts, creates rhythm and impact. ex: If you use all close shots the closeup will use its emotional impact, but it you stay wide and then cut in you will really feel that cut/shot will have much more power.
-Allows you to edit information through cropping. What do you want to show? What do you want to hide? What do you want to reveal?

This plays right into the idea of camera distance and emotional distance. Also shows the intense power of a closeup. (from Understanding Movies)

Here are 6 different shots with the same exact subjects in the same positions, yet every shot says something different. Each one comments on the relationship/tension between the two and decides who we identify with in this moment of the story. (from Shot by Shot)

ANGLES. High, Low, Eye Level, Oblique/Dutch Tilt, POV.
-Defines for the viewer power/status/relationships between who is shown and other characters. Subconsciously influences audience opinion.
-Does the angle you choose allow you to better show your information? Does it comment on it?

High angles make the subject weak and vunerable. (from Understanding Movies)

Low angles make a subject powerful, heroic, or threatening. (from Understanding Movies)

LESNES. Wide <---> Telephoto
-Wide shows things nearby. It shows more space in the same frame and can range in feeling from expansive to claustrophobic. Extreme wide lenses can distort things, and make things feel weird and strange. Greater depth of field. Shows more. Sharper. Greater exaggeration of size differences.
-Telephoto shows things further away. It shows less space in the frame and feels like it flattens space. Can feel cozy, romantic, confined, isolated, dreamy. Shallower depth of field. Shows less. Softer. Less exaggeration of size differences.
-Again, choice not only greatly affects what can be shown in shot but also has great impact on the mood.

Clear diagram of how lenses affect visuals and the feeling of space. (from Dream Worlds)

Some examples of how different lense types are employed for emotional effect. (from Understanding Movies)

There's lots of stuff going on in this clip (and the whole movie!) Notice how we stay in close on Bobby at the beginning. He is where our focus is directed, he is who we identify with emotionally here. This isn't about the teacher, that's why we stay with Bobby even when the other talks. We care about Bobby. Since we're in so tight for so long when we cut out to that wide shot we feel the impact of it. The shot decisions mirror Bobby's thoughts and emotions. After that we go back to a close telephoto view as Bobby focuses and leaves behind the rest of the world again. (from Searching for Bobby Fischer)

Crater Face from Skyler Page on Vimeo.
Crater Face is not only an incredibly entertaining film, it's also outstandingly clear. There is only one piece of information at a time and every shot, camera move, action, and cut reveals a new piece of information to progress the story. In the first shot alone everything is made clear and piecemeal with camera moves giving a new piece of information: 1) Where 2) Boy 3) Girl 4) Problem 5) Something's coming. All the language is kept simple, clear, and effective to serve the story and clearly present all those interesting animation choices. Every shot shows only the information you need and nothing else. Someone asked me during my talk as to what was the biggest mistake that I see people make. That mistake is clarity, hands down. This film is one of the best lessons in clarity.


The arrangement on your content. (Composition)
-Lead the eye to what you want people to look at.
-Let visuals, proportions, angles, and relationships tell your story visually. Stage for iconic images that say everything in one frame.
-Most importantly, keep your information clear. Everything you show, present it with purpose.

This frame for Superman not only shows the information clearly (him lifting a car) it gives additional layers of meaning through staging that are perceived by the audience subconsciously (that his parents are frail humans while he indeed is superhuman - power and status are communicated by the placement of the characters in frame). (from Understanding Movies)

Here is a great example of re-staging a shot to better communicate the emotional point. The first one communicates ok, but the second one communicates much better. It is dynamic and shows Bernard in immediate danger of falling. (from The Illusion of Life)

Staging is not only for communicating the idea, it's for leading the eye to the idea communicated. Everything is always to support the idea and the emotion. (from Dream Worlds)

Frame in a frame is a powerful way to lead the eye and isolate the important information. To see this in action watch the film Shanghai Triad. In that film lots of strong framing is used but you would never conciously realize that you were being manipulated to look where you do. (from The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video)

Studying films is one of the best ways to learn about making them. When you really sit down, draw, disect, and try to analytically pull out that information it opens your eyes to what's really going on in a film. Quick compositional studies are great to do. (from Dream Worlds)


Follows a subject.
Presents new information.
-The camera moves to reveal something new
-The subjects within the camera move to reveal something new.
Huge effect on the feeling of energy.

Punch Drunk Love is an incredibly formal movie. The film language is very bold and deliberate - which makes it easy to study. Notice the different cameras used, hand held, still, pushing in, and still again. Those moves are always supporting the emotion and feel of the shot. They're also very much telling Barry's story. At first the camera is hand held and shaky, mirroring him looking around, anxious. When he sees her the camera locks down and is stable, his attention locks onto her, and we cut in to see her better. The push ins build their emotional anticipation to meeting, and when they finally come together the camera locks down again and we/they experience the moment. (from Punch Drunk Love)

Watch the camera work in the first shot. We push in, and then once inside the camera simply follows the action. The moving camera builds emotion and tension much more than a still camera would. It also allows us to start further out and build the progression of the scene by getting drawn in to Barry's struggle. (from Punch Drunk Love)

Cloudy is much less formal, but it's just as controlled. Stop watching the movie and pay attention to the camera work in their exchange on the dock. We've got those romantic slow push ins for the smitten Flynn, quick zooms for the moments where Sam gets excited, and quick zoom outs for when she accuses him. We even get a slow push in to build the mystery when Flynn and Steve begin to examine the first mustard rain drop. All of these support the characters' emotion of the moment and maintain the energy of the film. Also in this clip we get that epic moving shot which is a great example of using a camera move to present new information. It's raining hamburgers... > hamburgers! > Flynn is freaking out (and we know why thanks to the information at the beginning of the shot, it's raining hamburgers!). (from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)

The camerawork in this shot (all one shot) is what really sells this gag. It totally matches the feeling of the camera work in horror/shooter kinds of film and is WHY this shot is funny. (It's also a bold contrast to the camera work before and after, so you really notice it.) (from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)


Where the real power of film comes from.
Eisenstein and the Theory of Montage (Juxtaposition of Images)
-Images may be unrelated and neutral (without emotional impact) but when you put them next to each other the viewer will create meaning and attach it to those images.
Creates the story from the pieces and has the power to COMPLETELY change the story and change who's story it is.
Editing is just as powerful as the camera. You decide the information you present and emphasize, how you present it, and the order you present it in.

A brief explanation of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. This stuff revolutionized film. Watch the scene below.

One common continuity editing technique is clean entrance/clean exit. These are some examples of how to make effective use of it. (from The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video)


Film Language at it's foundation is a way to communicate that was crafted and discovered through the rise of film as a medium. Film has pervaded our culture and instilled its language conventions into the vernacular of our visual vocabulary. Everyone understands it these days. What's more, film conventions have been taken beyond the traditional realm of film into other formats and hybrid projects. Most apparent are the ties with the comics/graphic novel form but if you look more similarities can be found all over the place.

Just as each new shot presents a new piece of information in film, each new panel in comics presents a new piece of information. Here we've got a series of three on the mother montaged to build up to the end where we cut outside for the joke and payoff of that buildup. (from The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes)

Here we have two overhead shots, much as the view from a camera, showing our key players at the moment. We cut in to the closeup of the hand on the map and follow its action for the three frames. This not only emphasizes the information on the map, it also makes us feel like one of the crew in this moment - our attention is directed to the map just as theres would be in that situation. Also notice how the camera work is much more dynamic when compared with Calvin and Hobbes above. Calvin and Hobbes often times operates much like a sitcom or comedy, it focuses on clearly presenting the information with an entertaining rhythm. Rocketo seeks to capture the sprit of adventure and so has similar camera work to adventure films to support and help evoke that feeling. (from Rocketo vol. 1)

Notes for a War Story is one of the most cinematic graphic novels I have ever read. In contrast with Calvin & Hobbes and Rocketo, the camera work in Notes for a War Story is much more evocative of action, horror, and realism. The drawings feel more disproportionate and vast, the are drawn as though they were shot through a wider lense than the other two. It feels more dangerous, visceral, real. Gippi makes use of lots of other film conventions in this work too, at the end of the second page when the boys get attacked the angle of the camera changes to a dutch tilt from the POV of the main character to communicate the chaos and make you feel his confusion. (from Notes for a War Story)

The left page here is a great example of a powerful dialogue sequence. The focus of this shot is Little Killer (the guy with the helmet hair). We spend the most time on him - this scene is a important moment that starts to illustrate the change in his character. Just like film, the dialogue is edited and slipped over the imagery. We don't look at who's talking, we look at the information of the shot. We follow the thoughts and reactions of the characters we are looking at. That's the important thing to craft in these kinds of sequences - not just a he said she said. This page is also a great example of communication of power through placement in frame. Little Killer is the shortest of the three boys, yet, in every frame here he is placed higher up on the page (yes I know the other two are sitting and he's standing, forget about that - this technique can be seen in other places too). Here he holds the power, he's running the group, and he's driving them further and further into trouble. The other characters are weaker and spatially subservient to him. The main character (seen in the last frame on the page) is smallest of all. (from Notes for a War Story)

This spread works in a way very similar to film. The left is comprised of various shots, their shape and size controlling their length of time in our attention's edit and oblong shapes suggesting subtle camera drifts as our eyes travel. We get two extreme close ups of the characters initial meeting, three cut-aways to build mood, a close up for dialogue and character introduction, (on the 2nd page) a close up for information, and then cut out for the epic wide shot like a grand breath of fresh air. When I first read this in middle school I was really taken with it but couldn't really explain why. Now I know it was because of the amazing page layouts and experience they create for you - a very different feeling from most other graphic novels that focus on compressing the information into the pages. (from Clover vol. 1)

Even in children's books you get lots of film language. The page turn is effectively a cut, and attention must be directed around the page and information revealed in a timely manner. Just like the theory of montage in film, we connect the pictures and words to form meaning between them - even when they may show different content. Here Lane Smith uses a cut from wide to close up to best show the information. First we show the aftermath of Wolf's sneeze, then we cut in to show him thinking which builds our sympathy with the character. (from The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!)

In contrast, Bemelmans almost exclusively uses wide shots from the elevated angle of an observer to illustrate this book. This makes great use of the opportunities children's books afford. You hold them on your lap and explore the images on your own time. You discover the information, connect it, and edit the story with your eyes. This may be against the conventions of film language but it works for the medium of illustrated children's' books. Interesting too is the amount of attention it demands. On a spread like the one above the information is presented clearly and not much more has to be discovered. We read the images instantly and move on. The illustrations in Madeline take a little more time to decode and thus create a slower, more atmospheric, experience. Pictures edit the viewer's attention and thus create their own effects. (from Madeline's Rescue)

This music video isn't animated at all. It uses simple film and a drawings communicated through camera work that are edited together and work together stylistically for humor and appeal. Great use of basic film language is used to direct the viewer's attention through single drawings and between separate drawings. Information is controlled and revealed in a deliberate and interesting way. This music video is actually a choose your own adventure song by Neil Cicierega and this clip is one of the endings. Play it through from the beginning, it's great fun and well done!

UPA's The Tell Tale Heart is a famous example of low budget animation and the artistic liberties taken in animation during this time. The animation is very limited but the film is exceptionally powerful through its bold expressive imagery and brilliant use of film language and montage.


The key points I want to leave you with are not technical details but powerful ideas that you should always be aware of.

-Create something out of nothing.
-It's not the story, it's how you tell the story.
-How you present information gives that information meaning.
-An audience involved in understanding is an audience engaged.
-The story is not told on screen, it's told in you.
-We only know what you show us.

That last one's a pretty good one. As the creator you control the information that is given to the audience. It is then the audiance's job to interpret that information and give it meaning. By controlling what pieces you give them you manipulate the outcome but the audience plays and essential role that should not be underestimated. They're really good at connecting the dots too. All the emotion you work to create does not exist in your work - it exists solely in them. (from The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video)


During my talk someone asked me what the common mistakes that I see people make are. I thought that was a great question because I see myself and others making a lot of the same mistakes over and over again but they're easily avoidable if you identify them and keep yourself in check.

-Clarity. This is the number one thing that will get people who are drawing storyboards and I've seen it trip people up over and over again in my concept classes. If people can't identify the action they are going to be confused. If people don't know where to look right away they are going to be confused. If edits don't make sense or feel motivated they are going to be confused.

-Perspective. People often get lazy or struggle with their drawings and perspective is often the first to suffer. Perspective is critical though to communicate where the camera is in relation to the subjects (angle) and also accurately portray size relationships (visual hierarchy and lense). You can (and should!) simplify and use cheats and shortcuts in your drawings but don't lose your camera information. Even horizon line placement will give you so much information about your shot with minimal drawing effort.

-Getting caught up in story. The first thing people want to do is communicate the story, and that's essential for sure. The problem with that though is that all this great film language stuff tends to get overlooked when it could really make someone's project spectacular. How you tell the story is just as important as the story itself and through the telling you sculpt the story. Even if you do pretty standard boards at first don't get attached to them and instead make the time to give them all a second pass where you're really thinking about how your camera and editing is telling the story. If you're in the Computer Animation department here at Ringling this is basically the "Hickner Pass" and if you've seen any of his drawovers for people's stuff you know how powerfully it affects a film. Also, don't forget film is a medium based in photography. There's tons of photographic tools to be used but since most of us draw we usually don't think about them - but these too are so powerful.

-Energy. It's easy to get caught up in shots and acting and lose sight of the big picture. Not creating the right energy for a piece can really take the audience out of it and kill the mood, which is a big problem because film appeals so strongly to the emotions. Keep in mind the rhythm and progression of a piece, where you start and where it takes you, and how your editing, camera movement, and timing creates or breaks flow. Those clips from Punch Drunk Love are pretty straightforward in content and execution but the progression and energy is totally nailed and that's why the do such a great job of bringing you into the film. You need to remain conscious of this stuff and deliberate in your decisions.


Highly recommended activities to learn about film and get better at using it:

-Film studies! Quickly sketch compositional thumbnails. Just plain taking the time to go through a part of a film and figure out what they're doing and why like I did in some of the above clips with really make you more aware of these things. This is the film equivalent of master copies and still lives, and just like those it serves to make you see, broaden your awareness, and deepen your understanding. Active study is great for everything too! You can learn a lot about light and color, acting, sound design, etc, etc, in addition to composition.

-Make some boards! But don't get bogged down in story. A lot of frustration in film/concept classes can come from trying to wrestle out a decent story before you even get to make the thing. Pick a story, a piece of a story, a moment, and idea, or a section of dialogue, and story board that out! Don't focus on all the actions within shots. Just decide on what your shots are going to be and make one key drawing for each of them so you can take the time to make decisions and craft it. Don't go crazy, keep it to 7-15 shots so you can stay focused. Maybe even pick one or two key devices and focus on exploiting those to tell your story.

-Use a camera! A lot of people in our department only draw their ideas and never touch a camera. Using a an actual camera to make your shots though will really open your eyes and allow you to try things more readily than you would with re-drawing everything. If you can get access to some 3 or 4 different lenses that's awesome! If not you can still do a lot with just a point and shoot and you can cheat lenses to a degree by zooming in to mimic a telephoto lense.

-Edit some footage! It doesn't even have to be yours! You can probably google some up. In the film editing class we used some Gunsmoke and random jeep footage that I think a lot of other students at places use. Seriously though. You do not know the power of editing until you start doing it. Get some footage from a few different angles, look over it carefully, make notes, and start putting that stuff together. It's incredible how much power editing holds. You completely determine whose story it is, can pretty much rewrite the story, control the rhythm and tone, determine what information is given or left out, etc. It's incredibly amazing too at accepting things and giving them meaning - you can do the craziest stuff and completely get away with it. It's awesome. I think this is really important for artists/animators to do because we always do our editing up front and only make what we're going to use. Actual film is the total opposite and it's incredible to experience when you've been on the other side of the fence all this time. None of these words will mean anything though until you get in there and experience editing for yourself.

My, that was a lot of words. I'll just end with this:



Understanding Movies by Louis Giannetti. It's a little more expensive because it's a technically textbook, but it's a good textbook with lots of great well explained examples from real films on every page.
The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video by Tom Schroeppel. People tend to be turned off by the simple drawings in this book but they convey tons of useful information simply and clearly. This is a great book if you're looking for a solid primer. It's pretty cheap too.
Dream Worlds by Hans Bacher. An amazing and inspiring book full of preproduction artwork for animated films. This should be a textbook for our DFA class. It's definitely much heavier on pictures than it is on words so there's less explanation, but the words that are there are far from filler. His website "Animation Treasures" (linked below) has very similar content.
Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz. I'll admit I haven't gotten around to actually reading this one but I've heard it recommended countless times and from what I have seen I can tell it's a very good book on film language.
The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The "animation bible", this book talks a lot less about actual film language and more about other subjects such as animation and story. It still contains relevant information though.
On Directing Film by David Mamet. This book talks much more on film theory.
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I read this book a year ago and it blew my mind. It talks about comics but is completely relevant to anyone dealing in visual storytelling.

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Classics by a genius.
Rocketo vol. 1 by Frank Espinosa. A wonderful adventure graphic novel. Oh, and it got nominated for some Eisners too.
Notes for a War Story by Gipi. Beautiful and great story telling too.
Clover vol. 1 by CLAMP. Killer layouts.
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka. Smith and Scieszka always make an amazing team. This book is no exception to that.
Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans. Madeline books are amazing, that's why we still read them.

Yale Film Sudies
Animation Treasures
Sherm Cohen