Filmmaking is probably one of the most complicated art forms there is, and it is one of the few art forms that relies so heavily on technology. But even beyond that, being a filmmaker is a little like being the conductor of a
street orchestra. And what this means is that you have a lot to
focus on with a lot of background distractions too. With so many
things going on at once, it is a wonder great films get made at all, and no wonder so many bad ones do. There is no comprehensive text tying everything together yet, but generally speaking you can say that a film has at least seven layers to it with each layer taking years of practice and study to master. Before listing the seven layers, we would like to clarify that this is just our perception of things. These layers are by no means the only way of seeing the filmmaking process; it is just how we see it. After listing each layer, we will briefly discuss each one.
Story dynamics is about what roles the actors are playing. What are they saying and doing and why? This is a subject in its own right. Robert McKee
has already written about this in great detail, so there is no need for us to go over that again. But we will say that story is about the
increasingly difficult choices a character makes as increasingly
difficult obstacles surprise and prevent him from getting what he
wants. Stories that sell put someone we can relate to against an
opponent we don't like, and in the end, the good guy wins, but
at a higher cost than anyone expected. And all of this plays out
against political and social backgrounds too. For our purposes, you might think of story as the CONTENT of your film and the other six layers as the FORM. The story layer is what your film is about. It is the message. The other six layers are the FORM or how that message is conveyed.
As a filmmaker, you have to understand spatial relationships and what these mean. Are things close or far apart? Are things big or small? In every scene, the choice is yours to make. The relationships between objects in three-dimensional space should, in general, match the content of the scene. However, you can add complexity and depth by misaligning CONTENT and FORM, but you should know why you are doing this. For instance, if you have a married man flirting with another woman, and he is doing it from a distance, what are you saying? If he is genuinely attracted to her, then he should be close, but if something else is going on, maybe you want him farther away. Another example might be a person who is depressed and is feeling like his world is collapsing on him. Do you put him in a wide open field of flowers or do you compress him into a tiny apartment? The answer seems clear, unless you are trying to make another point. Lens choice is one of your tools for controlling this dimension.
This is a big one. You have to be aware of what certain movements mean. Are you pulling in or out? Up or down? Sideways or at a Dutch angle? Fast or slow? Left to right or right to left? There is a whole psychology of movement, but the body of knowledge on this subject is sparse. Some books
on cinematography have touched on this, but it is largely a subjective feeling you learn over time. Generally, moving in conveys intensity and drama. Moving out has a distancing or good-bye effect. Your tools for managing motion are dollies, tripods, cranes, sliders, hand-held rigs, and Steadicams.
Of late, we have seen so many people using slider shots for no
reason other than they must have just bought a slider and think
it brings production value. The general rule is not to move your
cameras unless there is some reasoning or purpose behind it.
This could almost be a sub-section under spatial relations, but we feel it is important to warrant its own. By geometry we are really referring the shapes of objects in your film and to how multiple objects, taken together, might form a shape. Shapes, as do motion and spatial relations, carry emotional connotations. A triangle might show conflict, dominance, or aggression; a circle, harmony and union; a square, stability or foundation. The psychology of shape is again an arcane art not well understood. Again, many of these are subjective feelings that are not easily put into words. But again, it is something to be aware of as a filmmaker.
When we talk about lighting, we are also talking about shade. Lighting creates shade, and of course, lighting conveys a wealth of information and is also a way of directing a viewer’s attention. We light what we want you to see and put in the shade what we don’t. The psychology of light and shade is a little easier to grasp than that of space, motion, and geometry. Light connotes purity, cleanliness, and good. Dark connotes mystery and the unknown. In Star Wars, evil is straight out “the dark side.” The fear of the dark is visceral and no doubt embedded deep in our psyches. Your choice of lighting is huge because it will convey
the mood, what is important and what is not, what is a mystery and what is not.
If you can only buy one book on color, it should be Color - Messages & Meanings
. This book will give you a general idea of what colors mean and the emotional tones they convey. Some of these are fairly obvious. Red means
blood, passion, provocation. Blue means oceanic, calm, peaceful. Green is
growth, renewal, hope. What is even nicer about this book is that it goes over what certain color combinations mean. As a filmmaker, you need to be aware of colors and what they mean. Do the meanings support your characters and the theme
of your film? Unless you have some understanding of what colors mean, you will never really know for sure. The point is to learn the rules, then break them if you want. But know that you are breaking the rule for an artistic reason. Again, you might deliberately choose to give a contradiction in color. For instance, you could have a happy character always wearing black, but then again, this is still saying something about the character, isn’t it? Is the character not who he pretends to be? He says he is happy, but wears black. That’s a contradiction. It just depends on your story and what you are trying to say.
If you must know one thing about filmmaking, you must know that
sound is incredibly important to your film. We used to think of
sound as simply an audio track, a flat line recording what people were saying and doing and what was going on in the background. It
was only after years of study did we learn that sound is at least 51% of your film and should not exist as a flat line. In your story or film, you should be using sound to reinforce what is important, what is not, and what the message of the scene or sequence is. Sound can help get your audience into the mind of your character or the theme of your movie. For instance, we know that certain sounds bother certain people (think fingernails on a chalkboard!) while that same sound might not bother someone else. Let’s say you have a character who is a walking time bomb. Is everything he hears the same volume in his mind? Probably not. Maybe he hears water dripping and it irritates him. Maybe the dog barking next door is really loud and annoying to him but not really that loud in reality. But how would we know that, as an audience member, if all the sounds in your movie are the same volume
and tonal quality and you don’t accentuate them? Sound does not exist on a flat line and you, as the filmmaker, need to figure out which sounds are important and which are not. For the sounds that are important and significant to your story or character, then you need to record them well and emphasize them in post-production, giving them the attention they deserve.
So let's say that you are going to film a conversation between
two friends in this living room. The story dynamic is that one
of them feels neglected by the other and is going to bring this
issue up. Now considering what we have been talking about, how
would you proceed if this room is all you had to work with? What
about the space? It is cluttered. Is that what you want? How
will the characters enter and exit? Where will they sit? Do you
see any shapes or use of shapes? What about the lighting and
colors? Would this scene work better at night? And the main
thing---sound. What sounds would you want to emphasize? What
about using no sound and silence? You can see, from this example, that
there are countless possibilities and no one that is necessarily
right over the others. It just depends on the story and what you
want to convey. How can "the layers" of this room be used as a supporting cast?
The truth is most of the items in this
room will have absolutely no relationship to your story. It is
just a random room with random things in it. What are the odds
that this random space would support the theme of your story?
What you will have to do is creatively focus on the 10% or less of those things
in this room that might be helpful. Your job is to figure out
what those are. The reality is that you might not even be able
to create what you need from this room, all of it might just be
distraction. The easiest solution might be to simply move in
close on your actors with a shallow depth of field and blur
everything else out. But as the filmmaker, you have to have the
artistic confidence to know to make that call.
Another solution might be to remove the clutter to make the room
feel barren, take the items off the top of the book case, get
rid of the covers and pillows on the chair and couch to
emphasize black, and take the center panel out of painting
on the wall, so you have two panels oddly separated from each
other (supportive of theme, yes!). You could black out the
windows with a blanket, turn on a lamp, and with shadows
create a more dramatic tone. You could also use a wide angle lens
to create more of a sense of distance between the actors. For
sound, you could have pauses between the dialogue and perhaps
record ambient sound with a cricket chirping or just the sound of a fan.
This has just been a quick overview of the layers involved in the filmmaking process. If you can begin to see the complexity and the interplay between the layers and dimensions, you will be on your way toward becoming a great filmmaker. Think of it this way. Nothing exists as a flat line or inert object. When you are looking at a scene, you are looking at a
potential supporting cast of characters. Space, motion, shapes, colors, lighting, and sound exist in every scene. The challenge is that 90% or more of what you are looking at has no bearing at all on your story. Your job, as a master filmmaker, is to figure out what supports the story and what doesn’t and to draw attention to those things
that are truly important to your theme. That’s the challenge, and the true mark of a master. In short, you have to cut out 90% of what you see and hear, and with the remaining 10%, you have to showcase and accentuate it,
with the tools you have, in a way that supports your message. It
is as if everything you see through the camera lens or monitor
should go through an audition. You can imagine the chair showing
up to a casting call and saying, "Hey, I want to be in your
movie?" And you, again, would have to ask yourself, "But why do
I need this chair? What does this specific chair add to the
Or the sun shows up to the casting call and says, "Hey, I want
to bounce some light through the window in your movie?" And you,
again, ask why do I need sunlight for this? Maybe you need
shadows, not sunlight! A
lot of what you see matters very little but a little of what you
can hear matters a lot! More than anything else, your job is to
figure that out.
Best of luck with your filming!