The first stage in the production process is the creation of the script. This determines not only the dialogue of a piece, but lays down the basis of the film’s plot. In modern cinema before a film goes into production it is probable that it’s script has gone through a series of treatments and re-writes. Once a script is completed it is given to a director who’s job it is to realise the script. The director, however, has a multiplicity of choices to make about the way in which he brings a script to screen. It is the responsibility of the director to hold the attention of the audience whilst disseminating enough information and meaning from the script to make his piece coherent.
Before a director has committed a single shot to celluloid he has already made vital choices which will affect the way his film is viewed by the audience. One of the first considerations a film maker has to decide upon is the camera and film stock he will use. The choice of film stock has many artistic implications, since it dictates the texture, colour and shape of a film. If a director chooses a slow film, the look of his film will be high in contrast, whist faster films which are more light sensitive will produce a look which is lower in contrast. The choice of filmstock therefore dictates to a great extent the tone and feeling of a film. An example of how filmstock can affect a films meaning is seen in the Vietnam movie “Charlie M opic.” Here the filmstock used produces a contrasting, grainy look.
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Since the film is shot entirely from the point of view of a camera man following a platoon, the choice of filmstock lends the piece the feel of a newsreel. The camera in the film is not an objective bystander but in fact the leading character and the realistic look reflects the disillusionment that men at war feel. The feel of a script is therefore enhanced by the look it is given on screen. It would be illogic a to use a high contrast grainy film on a screwball comedy.
The feeling created by such filmstock would not be compatible with the desired feel of the piece, since this look is rarely associated with comedy. German expressionist film makers made extensive use of high-contrast films. “The Cabinet of Doctor Ca ligon”, for instance uses high contrast films to achieve a look which highlights deep black and bright whites to add to the strange dream like qualities of the film. Film making is a visual medium and the composition of a shot is not a random act. A director puts the same sort of thought into the framing of a shot as a painter does into a portrait. The dialogue of a piece is obviously very important since it drives the story along.
The way in which the dialogue is presented and the meaning we infer from it, is intrinsically linked to the way in which the director depicts the circumstances of the dialogue. For instance in “Citizen Kane” when Kane and his second wife sit down to dinner they are placed at opposite ends of a long table. The physical distance imposed between the characters highlights the emotional distance that has grown between them. This is an example of framing. Framing is highly important in cinema since it helps to define for the audience the meaning of an image.
Framing controls angles, distance and vantage point in a shot as well as defining on and off screen space. The angle at which a shot is taken has serious ramifications for the viewers perception of a film. A low angle, looking up at a character usually suggests power, and a high angle, weakness. For instance when we are introduced to the “femme fatale” character in “Double Indemnity” we first view her from a low angle as she stands at the top of a flight of stairs.
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The shot then cuts to a high angle, point of view shot as she observes the man with whom she starts an affair. Thus from an early stage in the film the director has given his audience a clue that the this woman will come to dominate the man. Techniques such as these are part of a cinematic language that has developed throughout the Twentieth Century. The most important need for framing is to guide the viewers attention throughout a shot. The size and shape of a frame concentrates the attention of the viewer to various points of interest, a face or an object. Attention can also be brought to certain portions of the screen by manipulating focus.
Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is filmed entirely in “deep focus”, everything on the screen is always in sharp focus. It has been argued that this technique frees the viewer to view the film as they want. I other words the audience is not being told what to look at. Other film makers shift attention from one part of the screen o another by use of “focus pulls.” This technique changes the focal point of a shot from one object to another without a cut.
This effect can give added meaning to a scene which words alone can not achieve. For instance if focus was pulled from a face to a knife, the audience will infer that the person, whose face they have just seen, will use the knife. Thus the audience has been led to an inference that does not rely on words at all. How a shot is constructed and framed can also support the meaning of dialogue.
The relationship that each shot has to each other helps to give the dialogue coherence and to further the narrative of a film. For instance when two characters are conversing it would be illogical to show only the face of one character. It is to keep the narrative of a film coherent that rules such as the 180 degree rule have evolved. The 180 degree rule states that the action of a film takes place along a centre line, or an axis of action.
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This rule keeps the camera on one side of the line, and ensures that other shots (for instance close ups on a face) are taken from the same side of the imaginary line. Thus screen direction is kept constant in the whole scene. The 180 degree rule has become part of the unique language of cinema, a visual language that helps an audience to view a film coherently. It ensures that portions of space tally from shot to shot and thus the audience is not disoriented. When cutting between tow characters who are talking to one another adherence to the 180 degree rule and making sure that eye lines match means the audience understands the characters location, even when they are not in the same frame.
As cinema has matured, cameras have grown ever more mobile and camera movement has become an important way of enhancing the meaning of a scene. Slow camera movement such as the opening shot of “A Clockwork Orange” can create an atmosphere of suspense. A Clockwork Orange opens with an extremely slow zoom out which centres on the face of the main character, Alex, frames by his hoodlum friends. The slow, almost stilted, movement leads the audience to feel unsettled and makes Alex’s group stand out as anything but a traditional group of friends. Camera movement can also be used to disorientate the audience. An example of this is seen in Brain De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way.” When Carlito is shot and injured a handheld camera is used to follow the prone character up a flight of stairs.
The camera was passed from had to had and the result is a spinning image sometimes looking up, and occasionally looking down at the stairs. This supports the narrative of the film since it adds to the confusion of the moment and allows the audience to feel the same confusion that Carlito must be feeling at this point. An effect like this would be impossible to achieve through dialogue alone. Camera can also enhance script via the use of visual themes and images. Often an audience may not be aware of the themes which run through a film yet these themes aid understanding of a piece and can act as triggers to remind us of earlier events. In Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, for instance the theme of water and aridity is constantly returned to.
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Spit bubbling on a hot sidewalk or water running in the background. Colour is also useful in creating themes which enhance meaning. Psychologically different colour’s suggest different emotions and film makers play with this knowledge. The cinematographer Vittorio Storarro has constantly toyed with colour and graphic editing in his career. Storarro was Cinematographer on Bernardo Bertoluce’s film The Last Emperor, the use of colour is particularly fascinating since the story is told largely in flashback. Throughout the film it is not dialogue, but colour which triggers flashback.
Different colours seem to bring back different memories. For instance one flashback is triggered by the central character seeing the redness of his own blood as he attempts to commit suicide. The style and feel of a film is not only dictated by how shots are composed but by how each shot relates to each other. It is during the editing process that a film is given form and shaped into a finished product. Here too the film maker has a number of tools at his disposal all of which will have an effect on the meaning of a shot. The speed of editing will probably be connected to the theme of a film.
An action film will probably keep the pace fairly quick by introducing frequent cuts. The dominant style of editing in world cinema is “continuity editing.” This system is used to create a smooth flow from shot to shot. The rhythm of the editing is usually connected to the length of the shot and the lighting tonality remains fairly constant. Even though continuity editing has become the standard way of connecting shot, there are a number of techniques which can deepen the meaning of a piece. One such technique is graphic editing which matches colour from shot to shot. An even more noticeable effect can be achieved when the editing is graphically discontinuous.
Cutting between harshly contrasting colours can create a number of effects for instance if a couple argue during a scene a sense of discord could be achieved by associating the two protagonists with clashing colours. Editing can also be used to create special anomalies, such as in Carl Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.” When Jeanne meets the group of priests the profusion of close ups and the harsh white setting makes it virtually impossible to tell how the characters relate spatially. Cinema is clearly a visual medium and whilst the script is of vital importance it is what we see that effects us on an emotional level. As the viewer watches the film they pick up cues, recall information, anticipate what will follow and participate in the creation of film’s form.
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It is important to remember that cinema is an art form in it’s own right, quite separate from the world of literature. Just as writes obey the laws of grammar, so a film maker follows the language of film. Th use of camera can create nuances which dialogue alone is incapable of achieving. A script is given much deeper meaning by it’s transfer ral to celluloid where the blueprint of the script can be realised as a sophisticated work of art.