Elements of Filmmaking
Films we see today have some common elements in them that have been developed over many years since the inception of film making. I will examine three:
· Switching (of plot)
This process is fundamental to all movies made today. Simply put, it is the abrupt shift in the camera frame from one object of focus to another such object. Most viewers have seen films where one scene of action is cut and another scene of action is shown. The reason for making these cuts in the camera focus vary, but by far it is used to combine the action of two different scenes. A perfect example of the cut is found in Miller's Crossing, directed by the Coen brothers. At one point in this film, we witness two armed men entering a hotel with loaded shotguns. As they proceed up the stairs, the camera switches to a man lying on a bed with a .38 special aside him on the nightstand. He whirls around to an upright seated position and the camera switches to parts of his body, his feet, moving into slippers, his hand grabbing the gun then, the camera switches to the two armed men ascending the stairs, next to their shoes climbing each step with the muzzle of their rifles showing, finally back to the man in the room. This shifting continues, switching between the two different scenes, building tension and suspense as a viewer inevitably realizes, the two separate scenes will converge. Here we see one purpose of cutting. A director can build suspense and create emotional tension in the mind of the viewer, through cutting. But, there are many other uses for cutting. Cutting can portray passage of time, implied action, and can even aid the next element of film making I will discuss Misdirection. Cutting has become so prevalent in modern film making, that viewers barely ever notice it's a technique of the art. Cutting is used routinely to show the viewer change in time and place in film. We are used to seeing a film where actors discuss a place they will be and in the next frame they are there. Or one scene is set at a certain time, and in the next scene, time has passed. Strictly speaking these changes could be termed a subset of cutting known as scene change. But, in its most basic form any scene that ends and another begins is a cut. In fact, a whole profession within the movie-making industry is dedicated to cutting the entire production. The practitioner is most often called the film editor. In the broadest sense, anytime one scene ends and another begins it's a cut. This may seem trivial at first sight, until we remember that prior to modern cinema, works of art were performed live, like plays. Cutting in the sense I've described wasn't possible. One act had to end to be followed by another, after a short curtain fall. You couldn't stitch together scenes like the one in Miller's Crossing. Prior to the introduction of sound, cutting in silent films could easily confuse audiences if not accompanied by textual cues inserted between scenes and within them. It is phenomenal that our minds have been conditioned to understand through sounds and camera perspective, the action of films. The implication is that we have a different way of understanding what people a century ago did. This is a profound point! Just think of what this implies for the future, when the cinematic experience is fully 3D and maybe you can interact with it! They will perhaps say...well back in the early 2000's, people had to understand things through something they called the 'cut'.
As a good example of the implicative nature of the cut, I recently saw an excellent Russian production: The Return. In this film, a long-absent father has returned after 12 years of being missing. He has two sons that are virtual strangers to their father. However, to acquaint themselves with each other, they decided to go on a long fishing excursion. At one point the boys decide they want to go fishing on a lake for a while before leaving. The father is reluctant to let them, but gives in telling them they have one hour. They begin to fish but are catching nothing, and row farther off shore, coming upon a beached metal frigate. Within a hole in the hull, one boy spots what appears to be trout, he calls to his brother to bring the rod. In the next scene we see the fish being tossed on the floor of their small rowboat. This is a cut that lets us know three things: the brother brought the rod, they caught the fish, then carried it back to the rowboat. Just by cutting to the fish being tossed onto the boat the implied passage of the events has been communicated to viewers. Herein we see also that this cut has been done to accelerate the pace of the story. In the next scene we see the father is very angry that the boys didn't get back in an hour and lets them know it. So, the director is using the cutting to get passed what would have been a slow uninteresting passage in the film, e.g. them going through the three processes to get to what he really wants to show: the tension between father and sons due to their irresponsibility. So, cutting also quickens the pace of a movie when needed.
By far the best example I remember of the use of the cut was shown in the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock's film Strangers on the Train. I won't even set this one up. Suffice it to say, a protagonist has purloined the cigarette lighter of the antagonist, who is a star tennis player. He is trying to retrieve the lighter from a storm grate it has fallen into, while the tennis player is in the midst of a championship game. The tennis player is trying to finish the game quickly, then stop the blackmailing protagonist from using this lighter as evidence that he murdered a young woman at an amusement park earlier. The blackmailer intends to show the police the lighter. Of course the tennis player didn't kill the woman, in fact the blackmailer murdered the woman. As the blackmailer strains to reach it a few inches below the ground, we see his hand reaching for the lighter, then a cut to the tennis player lobbing ball after ball at his opponent. He keeps winning, but the set is not through. Then Hitch switches back to the man and his straining hand, and then the tennis game action, back and forth until the two cuts seem to be coming to a climax. The tension built in this way makes a viewer physically react: tightening their face, and clenching the their hands unknowingly, as he wonders who is going to get to their goal first. And to finish off this climatic tension, Hitch has the blackmailer, clasp the lighter just as the tennis player is still a few plays before winning. The continual cutting between scenes are imperceptible to the viewers, we are so taken by the diametric action itself.
The use of cutting in film is quite large as you can see from the preceding examples.
Switching (of plot)
Plot switch is again a common element of filmmaking that we have all seen in many films. Switching like cutting is used in a variety of ways. Essentially a switch occurs when a character (or characters) reverses roles in the film. A weak character becomes a dominant strong one, or a set of circumstances favorable to one character or characters becomes the opposite, or emotional perspective reverses, for instance a loving actor becomes embittered and cruel. The number of ways a switch can be effected in a film is almost countless. The thread that runs through them all is the the change in opposition of characters or even circumstances. A perfect example of the switch can be seen in the 1972 film Sleuth, starring Sir Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine. In the first part of the film Caine is duped by Olivier into believing he was actually going to kill him due to the fact that he has had an affair with his estranged wife. But, Olivier is actually just having cruel fun with Caine. After pointing a gun with blanks at him and firing he is frightened into fainting. By the way, this film also exhibits the next element of filmmaking I will discuss: Misdirection. In the next scene Caine returns in disguise playing a village police officer claiming to be investigating a murder of a man from London. Olivier knows he didn't kill Caine in the first scene, so protests the inquiry the supposed officer is making. But the officer proceeds to roam all over the entire estate discovering clues of this supposed homicide. As Caine continues we see the first switch. Now, Oliver is the weak and scared character, being bullied about by Caine in disguise. Of course Olivier doesn't know it's Caine. Incidentally, the scenes are cut too. That is, when Caine faints in the first scene we abruptly shift to the next with Caine in disguise outside Olivier's front door. So, the two techniques have been combined.
Switching was used to grand effect in the 1960's drama The Magnificent Seven. I wonder who hasn't seen this American Western classic. Yul Brynner as Chris and all the others, Steve MacQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, even Robert Vaughn manage to switch the circumstances of poor Mexican farmers terrorized by ruthless bandits, led by Eli Wallach. Here the whole film hinges upon the climatic switch. The switch is used in many films several times and used to excess it becomes bland and distractive. The last installation of Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s ongoing sci-fi blockbuster is a good example of excessive switching. We saw the dinosaurs winning then losing, then the pursued characters losing and the animals getting close to capturing and killing them and--- uh-oh, they're back on top again and on and on. Watching this, I said to myself, okay this isn't so suspenseful now Berg. Last word, the switch is a device of filmmaking, when used properly enriches a film. When misused it is obvious and disengaging.
And now we come to what I think is by far the most powerful film making technique: Misdirection.
Have you ever seen a movie when you are following the plot and think you understand what is happening and then BANG, you find your understanding is completely wrong? This is misdirection at its heart. So what is misdirection? Misdirection is just what it sounds like. When the director makes you think the action of plot is leading to one conclusion, but then introduces another, after leading you to believe the plot is coming to an expected conclusion. Sometimes it's opposite to what the plot developed, but not always. It is ALWAYS surprising. And that is the power of misdirection. You thought this and then suddenly it was that. Misdirection often is used at the conclusion of films. The effect can be spectacular if you've bought the plot, prior to the misdirection resolution. Misdirection can be the entire point on which a film turns. This method is extremely powerful if done right. Yes, I do have a good example too.
Nuevas Reinas, or Nine Queens is an Argentinian film directed by Fabien Bielinsky that illustrates Misdirection better than any I can remember. I say this because misdirection is designed to fool the viewer until its deception is revealed and this one did just that to me. Since, the whole film is about misdirection, I must abbreviate my description. A seemingly big-time con artist, Marco (Ricardo Darin) watches as a small-time con artist, Juan (Gastin Pauls) pulls a money scam in a gas station convenience store. When Juan is caught, Marco steps in and pretends to arrest him. As they leave the store, he lets him know he's a con-man too. Juan is impressed and follows Marco through a series of confidence scams. Finally it comes down to one big scam. Marco wants Juan to put up money to pull off a phony scam involving a valuable stamp collection, but Juan is reluctant. He finally agrees with some reservations. He puts up 50 thousand. What Marco doesn't know is Juan has all the people on his side, and they manage to get all the money Juan put up back, leaving Marco broke and unknowing. This film was so well-done, I never saw the misdirection coming. I should have, but didn't. There were cues during the film. But I didn't pick up. This is classic misdirection. The uncertainty surrounding their situation kept me guessing. I actually believed, Juan was being taken by Marco and that was Bielinsky’s intent. Nuevas Reinas had much more than this short description for sure, and I would recommend it to any film lover. Misdirection can be used in part or whole to enrich even a film with bad screenwriting. Most crime mystery films use misdirection to keep audiences guessing who actually committed the crime.
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