Filmmaking, like many other fields of work and art, can be broken down into many components—and that is exactly what film theory is. A way to break down movies1. Simple, right? Film theory doesn’t have to be complicated, but at the same time, consider just how many technical and creative elements are compulsory for a film.
Film Theory: A Beginner’s Guide
Filmmakers—whether they realize it or not—use film theory all the time.
In fact, as a Writer, Director, Cinematographer, Editor or any other specialist in the entertainment field, it’s virtually impossible to be a competent creative or technician without film theory. So why do so many filmmakers scrunch up their eyebrows in confusion at this ubiquitous term? Or worse, shy away from even wanting to talk about it?
The many film programs and film schools across the globe have helped in making film theory feel more accessible to those wanting to pursue a career in entertainment, but it’s still a nebulous concept for many. And that is exactly why we’re going to dive right into what it is and why it truly is so important for filmmakers to understand film theory–both to discuss the intention behind what they want to make and to realize those goals on-screen.
You need to know these elements of film theory:
- Camera angles/shots
- Type of film
An Explanation of Film Theory
Elements of Film Theory
This is where film theory really begins. And as any film student can attest, conversation and debate can keep going and going when it comes to discussing these elements. Why? Because just like any other art form, film is open to interpretation. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go over some of these elements and their importance when it comes to film theory.
With every single film comes the decision of how to shoot every single shot in it2. And while many films rely heavily on some of the more standard eye-level long and medium shots, the sky’s the limit on the type of shots and angles available to them. Take for example the film Citizen Kane. For anyone interested in learning how camera angles and shots can inform story, this particular movie is a virtual masterclass. Specifically, take a look at the sequence when Kane’s parents are essentially selling him away. A choice was made to film that scene in deep focus, which allows the audience to watch the young Kane in the background, playing in the snow as his parents argue about whether or not they should keep him. This pivotal moment is then referenced upon Kane’s deathbed when he whispers the word, “Rosebud,” the name of the sled he had as a boy that he was playing with in that scene.
Though some in the entertainment world mourned the demise of black and white photography in favor of color filmmaking, the use of color since has become yet another element that contributes to film theory. Not only are camera angles and shots considered in the process of making a movie, but so too the images and objects that they will be picking up. Hence, the necessity of choosing a color palette that reflects the mood and themes of the film3. Edward Scissorhands is an excellent example of how color can inform story, as Edward, with his monochromatic look, suddenly is thrust into a pastel suburban wonderland, which only emphasizes the differences between him and everyone else.
Every element of film theory has significance, but it’s particularly important to not underestimate the power of the edit! Because at the end of the day, it’s the Editor who decides not only what the audience ultimately sees but also the order in which they see it—and both can have huge implications for how a film is interpreted4.
Take for instance the baptism scene in The Godfather, perhaps one of the most important sequences in the entire film, if not the Godfather series. As Michael stands before the priest and verbally agrees to become the godfather to his nephew, the sequence intercuts with his henchman who are systematically killing off his rivals, thus signaling his own baptism as the sole person of power in this underworld. Pretty cool, right?
Lighting in film is never just as simple as making sure you can see the Actors and their surroundings through the camera. Rather, lighting can help in setting the mood of individual scenes, as well as the film as a whole5. Depending on the intention behind it, lighting can also subtly inform character. Perhaps a choice is made to bathe a character in a soft glow to underscore their goodness or to forego the fill light so that the key presents them in harsher contrast, thus highlighting the darker side of their nature. In fact, some entire genres of film are defined by their use of lighting, such as film noir6. Film noir, which utilizes low key lighting, generally is defined by its permeating shadows that heighten the dark, mysterious and sometimes dangerous mood of its narratives.
Now film theory gets really interesting. Just as each of the above elements can help to inform the meaning of a film, so too can they do so as a whole. Hence, mis-en-scène. A quick and easy way to remember mis-en-scène is that it encompasses everything a viewer sees in the frame: lighting, décor, costumes, makeup, Actor placement and even type of shot7. While mis-en-scène is always considered in film theory regardless of the importance that the filmmaker puts on it, some Directors are particularly known for their unique sense of this element. Ever see a Wes Anderson film? They’re nearly unmistakable precisely because of his eccentric and wholly distinctive mis-en-scène.
It goes without saying that what a viewer sees in a film is inherently important to understanding its story. But what far fewer movie lovers realize is how their reaction to a film’s narrative can be affected by sound8. Now, sound is an incredibly broad term when it comes to cinema, as it can encompass sound design, sound editing, sound mixing, and score composition. But between all of these aspects of sound can be found another way of looking at film theory. Let’s break down one very simple scene in one of the most famous movies of all time, Jurassic Park. As the characters Grant, Malcolm, Tim, and Lex wait in their Jeeps, they notice a vibration in a cup of water. Now by just looking at the cup with no sound, the vibration could be made by any number of factors. But it’s because the audience can hear the distinct rumbling footstep of a dinosaur in the background just as the vibration occurs, it creates a moment of terrific horror and tension, as they know exactly who is about to show up.
Types of Film
Here’s a fascinating aspect of film theory: Just the type of film can help to inform the meaning of it. Without knowing anything else about a movie, if told that it’s a comedy, horror, western or war epic, we immediately begin to formulate ideas about what that particular narrative is about, right? That’s why some people immediately shut down the idea of watching a movie when told only its genre. That’s because, over the hundred-plus years of cinema, genres have been built upon certain precepts. So when a new film within that genre either stays well within the already established “rules” for it, that says something about it, as does when a film makes a choice to step out of those conventions. In this case, the movie Scream is a great example of a film that is a horror film but also a genre-defying movie, as it, in a very meta manner, discusses the rules of horror throughout the narrative.
How Film Theory Can Benefit Your Film Career
We’ve only scratched the surface of all that encompasses film theory! But for those who want to devote their professional lives to it, they might want to explore a career in film history, film criticism or even film education.
But what about those who want to be the ones making movies? Why should film theory matter to them? Because as mentioned earlier, many film specialists must collaborate to make a single film, and the truth of the matter is that it’s essential for any aspiring filmmaker to be able to speak “film language.” Without any understanding of why sound or lighting is important to a movie, how would a Director then instruct their Cinematographer or Composer on what they’re trying to achieve? Or in contrast, how would they be able to digest the suggestions of those individuals as the experts in their fields? Communication is vital in filmmaking and being well-versed in all aspects of it can only result in a better-made movie.
And for those saying that they only write the films and never even want to step foot on a sound stage? Think about the ultimate goal: Having that script realized as closely as possible to the Writer’s intention. That means understanding all of the above elements, even during the writing process, to better clarify the story on the page. Says Writer and filmmaker Kameishia Wooten, “I take color and sound into consideration when implementing the theme and subtext [of a script]. I also find film theory useful when prepping to direct.”
For anyone looking to one day teach about, write about or make movies, film theory is critical in being able to effectively communicate about them, as well as create a meaningful and enduring film to join the rest of the cinematic compendium.
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- 1Hellerman, Jason. "Understanding Film Theory: An Essential Guide". No Film School. published: 1 April 2019. retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 2Freer, Ian. "Film Studies 101: The 30 Camera Shots Every Film Fan Needs To Know". Empire Online. published: 10 August 2018. retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 3. "Color Palettes from Famous Movies Show How Colors Set the Mood of a Film". Digital Synopsis. published: . retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 4Dirks, Tim. "Best Film Editing Sequences". Filmsite. published: . retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 5. "The Importance of Lighting in Video and Film Production". Digicult. published: . retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 6. "What Is Noir?". Film Noir Foundation. published: . retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 7McGrail, Lauren. "5 Essential Elements of Successful Mise en Scène in Film". Lights Film School. published: . retrieved on: 15 February 2020
- 8. "23 Films That Revolutionized Sound Design". IndieWire. published: 7 May 2019. retrieved on: 15 February 2020