Sometimes I want to sit and watch a film and just enjoy it for its story or the spectacle of it, but often I enjoy digging in deeper and trying to explore what I’ve seen. I think the reason this is so rewarding is that what we see on screen is the culmination of a series of deliberate choices made by the film-maker. They’ve chosen to show us this specific series of images in this specific way, and it’s always found it interesting to try and wonder about the why of that.
I didn’t really think about why I liked analysing films until one week at university, the weekly reading assigned for one of my classes was “How Cinematography Creates Meaning in Happy Together”, by Cathy Greenhalgh, a chapter from the book “Style and Meaning”. Although the chapter focused on cinematography in a single sequence from a single film, it made me consider the reasons we think about film as a whole. Part of the chapter is dedicated to an examination of three successive sequences totalling around 4 minutes, with the technique and content of each shot broken down and analysed with a description of each shot ranging from a single sentence to a paragraph detailing the action and techniques such as focus, camera movement and framing.
The analysis deals with 35 separate shots and unfolds over the course of 7 pages. It wasn’t the analysis itself, or what is happening in this particular film that led me to think about film more generally but instead it was thinking about the sheer amount of planning that went into the shots for this 4-minute stretch of Happy Together and by extension, the number of choices that must be made in any given shot in any film. Multiply this by the total amount of shots in a film and you can imagine the almost overwhelming number of choices made in film-making, each choice reasoned and made by the film-maker who, we would assume, puts some degree of thought into each one.
There’s just so many choices that can be made.
For example, what size should a shot be?
A Long shot? Medium? Close up? Extreme close up?
What about angles? Which angle should be used? A Low angle? A High angle? Dutch angle? Over the shoulder? Point of view?
Should the camera stay still and static? If it moves, how should it move? Should it pan? Zoom? A tracking shot? With Steadicam?
This is just a small selection of the options available to a film-maker, and that’s before we even think about things like costume, set design, sound, music or editing, and how all of these things combine with each other and the story, and the actors. There are just infinite combinations.
Everything we see on screen is there for a reason, not just what we see but also how we see it, and that is why it makes sense to me to think about film, to try and uncover the intentions behind the choices made.
Those intentions can range from the artistic to the fiscal, and anywhere in between. Films and film-makers are giving us things to unpack, and to think about. Personally, I’m more than happy to try and oblige them…