Elements of Film Making

Film Making is the most recent of art. Even though digital art is more recent, it is really only a new tool and not a new form of art. Since filmmaking is a unique art form, it has its own set of elements and principles.

Film making combines theater, music and visual art. Early filmmakers would just set up a camera and film a stage production or an everyday event. The camera was fixed and static. Very quickly though, film makers learned that you could move the camera for new and more interesting angles. They were soon taking scissors to their film and cutting and arranging them into ordered sequences. The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903 used basic film editing techniques to create a story.

If you have every been to a live performance at a theater, you will remember that you probably had to sit still in a fixed position and you only had one view of the stage. The players did not change in size and the scale of the scene was always the same. You could not get close to the players and to see the expressions on their faces. The actors may have had to exaggerate their emotions so people in the back row could tell what the character was feeling. In contrast, filmmakers can place the camera 2 feet away from the actors face for a dynamic close-up. They can film the shot 2, 3, or 30 times to get it just right. They can film the production over 6 week and piece the best shots together later. Filmmakers can add sound effects and music. They can add the actors voice, called a voice over, if a mistake was made during production. They are not limited to real time.

Film makers can film inside a studio, outdoors or at a location remote from the studio. Many production companies would travel to areas far from Hollywood to shoot their films. The desert scenes in Star Wars IV were shot in Tunisia and Tremors was shot near Lone Pine, California.

The Elements of Filmmaking

Filmmaking also has basic elements that are inherent to the process. You will find these elements in every film

Image

All filmmaking uses a light capture/recording device. It is then projected upon a screen. In theaters powerful lamps are used to project the image through a focusing lens. In television a vacuum tube projects lines of electrons upon a phosphor coated screen. Although the image is a recording of captured light the aesthetics of what we are viewing is still determined by the use of the basic elements and principles of static, fine art. The rules of composition are still the same. Color theory still needs to be applied to any successful film production. Lines and shapes need to be pleasing to the eyes, and more importantly, they need to be used subliminally to direct the eyes of the audience to the next shot without creating a distracting "jump cut". The elements and principles of art need to be read, reviewed, memorized but more importantly, they need to be used consciously. When critiquing your film, you should be able to identify why your film is visually effective using the elements and principles of art. Together the intelligent use of the elements and principles of visual art can help you create dynamic compositions that will help give your film good overall continuity.

The single photographic exposure on film or video of the image is called the frame. Frames are combined to create a shot. Shots are combined to create a sequence. A shot is any uninterrupted exposed section of film or video. A frame is in actuality a still photo image. It doesn't record motion; it records light and the result of a single frame is the same as a still photograph.


Time

Film had two types of time. The first is the actual length or duration of the film, for example, a run time of 90 minutes. The other type of time is called diegetic time, or time that is the result of the story or narrative. The story may span the a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few years or a lifetime although it may only take 90 minutes to tell the story through the film. In Stanley Kubricks "2001 A Space Odyssey" he leaps his story over a span of 3 million years. Diegetic time also works with simultaneous actions, using a technique called cross cutting. For example, during the running home scene in "Ferris Bueler", shots of Ferris and his sister are shown in separate locations but happening at the same time. Film makers can quicken time or retard time. Often, stories are told in short sections of real time edited together in sequence. Anything unimportant to the story is omitted.


Motion

Motion pictures, whether video or film, give the illusion of motion by the movement of many still frames through a projector. Because of a physical property of the eye and brain called the "persistence of vision" you are able to perceive the illusion of motion using motion picture technology. This illusion of motion distinguishes motion picture photography from still photography. Some of the earliest motion pictures were made from paper photo prints arranged in a flip book. This technology had drawbacks since they could only be viewed as very short shots and the size of the audience was limited to one.

Frame rates of motion pictures are 24 frames per second. That means that the camera records 24 shots per second and it is played back at the same rate. If it is played too quickly the motion appears to quicken and if it it played back too slowly then it appears slow. If you were to shoot at twice the speed, lets say 48 frames per second, you would achieve a slow motion look when the film is played back at 24 frames per second. The video frame rate is 29.92 frames per second, however for simplicity sake we will refer to the rate as 30 frames per second.

The element of motion is the motion that we see while we watch a film or video. Since everything moves it would be difficult to shoot a truly still shot with a film or video camera. There is always some motion somewhere. You can easily tell the difference between a still shot taken with a still camera then inserted in the video, and a non action shot filmed with a motion picture camera.

Because we are so accustomed to seeing motion editors will add motion to still photos that are inserted. Any stop in motion will distract the viewer and cause a jump cut.


Sound

Sound is not essential to a motion picture however sound is so common in film that it is included as an essential element. For the first 30 years of cinema motion pictures did not have sound tracks; sound technology evolved more slowly that the motion picture technology. Since films had no sound track, an organist, pianist or small ensemble would accompany the film. The score was played live. Now sound is an integral part of the film and it has been since 1928. For a few years, sound technology, since it lagged behind photo technology, forced cinematographers to return to more primitive filming styles. Many of the camera motions had to be abandoned because the microphones could not record sound at a distance. Microphones were awkwardly hidden in props close to the actors but out of necessity, the sound technology quickly advanced to meet the needs of the dynamic film styles that were developed in the 1920's and even earlier.

Most films now include dialogue recorded on the sound stage, sound effects that are included during post production, music scores, narrations and voice overs. The explosions, gunshots, car crash sounds, wind, rain, and thousands of other sounds are all added during post production by sound designers called "foley artists."

Believe it or not, professional film productions do not use the built in microphones included with consumer camcorders. Professionals use expensive sound equipment that is beyond the financial reach and technical know-how of most amateurs. The quality of the built in mikes is poor and acceptable results can only be achieved in a indoors in a well "padded" room without a fan, air-conditioning or electric motors. Like the camera, the microphone does not differentiate and seperate the good sound from the bad sound. For this reason it is very difficult to do a good dialogue with the built in mikes and often you will need to resort to a narrative voice over to tell your story.

Lighting

When we record using photographic instruments we record light. We do not record objects, people, buildings or anything at all - we record light. Image is what the mind does to the light once it is recorded and played back.

Cinematographers strive to have control over lighting conditions. The most experienced ones have full control over lighting and work with the director to create mood and effect as well as consistent continuity throughout the film.

Like sound technology, lighting is expensive and requires knowledge to use it effectively.

Sequence

After filming is complete, the editing process begins. The editor and director together will decide the length and order of the shots and piece them together to create a sequence. The sequence tells the story using the visual language of film, or film syntax. We have a specific way of viewing shots that makes the most sense to us as an audience. The most common way of ordering and arranging shots is called continuity editing.

Composition

Composition is the use of the visual elements and principles to create a frame that is aesthetically interesting, attention holding, and consistent with overall continuity. Composition is the placement of the shapes within the frame that enhance the film reality or "mise en scene".

Because the frame has a fixed boundary, composition will happen automatically. However, good composition must be made to happen. It is rare that it happens by accident. Directors work with set designers, costume designers, lighting technicians and cinematographers to create the best possible placement of "filmic" objects. Actors must be blocked (placed) carefully in each shot so they can be clearly seen by the audience.

Choose a film you have seen many times and pause on a frame. Look carefully at how the director has placed the actors and objects in the shot. All the actors were carefully placed on their "mark."

Back to Video Film