There’s an openly secret language spoken by every film. It has not much to do with what our favourite characters say or do. But rather with how they’re presented and the impact this has on the audience. In a well-crafted movie, nothing’s left to chance. Speaking the language of film enables us to make what we see and hear describable. Once we understand how these cinematic devices work, we may appreciate a film’s aesthetics even more.
In exploring examples of film language, we’re going to take a look at what is presented, how it is shown and most importantly what effect these devices have on the viewer. From pre-production to filming to post-production, here’s a list of ten ways movies secretly communicate with us.
1. Establishing Shot
An establishing shot is typically the very first shot of a film or scene. As we know, a film consists of film sequences that fall into scenes that again are composed of different shots. As the name suggests, an establishing shot sets up the narrative visually. As it’s the first shot we’ll get to see of a scene, it’s important to get that first impression right.
But what does the establishing shot establish? For one, it can give us an initial overview of a setting and/or the characters involved. If the film wants to make sure you know when and where it’s set, it’ll even spell time and place out for you. Another practical example is the classic sitcom Seinfeld. Brief establishing shots of Jerry’s apartment or the iconic restaurant ensure you immediately know where the next scene is about to take place.
Besides the obvious, an establishing shot also sets the audience’s expectations for mood, theme and context. Seeing a desert planet from outer space while a big spaceship is being chased by an even bigger spaceship immediately gives us the impression of watching a sci-fi adventure set in an inhospitable place.
Also, watch out for those re-establishing shots of the same location placed to remind us of a location and associated tone when transitioning between scenes. That is not to say we can’t use a close-up of a dripping water tab in the first shot of a scene. But it’ll have the reverse effect of orienting the viewer in time and place, invoking their curiosity as to what this is all about instead.
2. Character Introduction
What’s the establishing shot for the tone of a film or scene is the first appearance of a character. The characters are quite literally the souls of a story. Their first impression is crucial for the audience to connect with them. We learn who they are and what conflicts they face at the beginning of their character development. Where do they come from, what are their motivations, where do they go and how — if at all — are they going to get there?
The introduction of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is a perfect example. First, Sparrow is shown sailing in his vessel’s crow’s nest. He looks proud, determined with a hint of bitterness. In the next shot, it’s revealed that all he’s sailing in is a tiny leaky boat, juxtaposing the character’s demeanour and foreshadowing the conflict around his missing ship, the Black Pearl.
While our protagonist is sailing into a port, this atmosphere is supported with a bold film score. Sparrow passes a bunch of hanged pirates to whom he pays tribute, which tells us he’s most likely one of them. Eventually, when his half-sunk boat approaches the harbour in a perfectly timed fashion, the pirate steps from his crow’s nest right onto the dock.
It’s a crafty character introduction. The Captain is depicted as calm and calculating in the face of danger yet the whole scene has a humorous and quirky tone, too. It manages to convey a whole lot of information about the character while making him interesting and establishing suspense as to where the story will take him. All without having him say a single word.
3. Average Shot Length
Obviously, making a film is about more than stitching a bunch of perfect shots together. In terms of the movie as a whole, the average length of a shot (ASL) can have a profound impact, too. This statistical measure is expressed in seconds and calculated by taking the total running time of a film and dividing it by the total number of shots. For comparison: Since the 1930s, the average shot length has declined from 12 to 2.5 seconds across all genres.
That said, a more modern action movie such as The Bourne Supremacy (2004) has an ASL of 2.4 seconds. Think of the way the Bourne franchise shows us every detail and aspect of fight and chase scenes through fast-cut close-ups shot from various angles. Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has an ASL of 13 seconds. It features much more lengthy shots that illustrate the vastness of space and graciously moving space stations.
The pace and tone of our voice have an effect on how we get our message across. So does the ASL if we think of it as the pacemaker of the cinematic experience. Many short and succinct shots give the impression of a fast-paced environment. Longer shots are more conducive to slow-paced suspension building. While it seems the ASL has evolved with our more fast-paced lives, it’s also genre and director specific. The average shot length of action movies tends to be lower compared to horror flicks.
4. Vertigo Effect
The Vertigo Effect was first invented by Alfred Hitchock in his 1958 classic, well, Vertigo. It’s achieved by moving the camera towards the subject while simultaneously zooming out or vice versa. While the subject remains the same size in the frame, the background appears to shift to or away from the foreground. The effect has many names. Since it’s often done on a small wheeled cart called a camera dolly, it’s also known as the Dolly Zoom. You may also know it as Trombone Effect or Hitchcock Effect.
Because in 1958, Hitchcock used it to illustrate the vertigo of the characters experiencing great heights and the fear of falling. The idea was to create the same feeling in the audience. It’s a classic technique used in many films to invoke feelings of uneasiness, pressure, or light-headedness. Add a bit of screechy music and you get an idea of how Roy Scheider’s character feels in Jaws (1975) witnessing a shark attack.
5. Long Take
This example of film language requires even more skill. A take is an uninterrupted recording of a single shot. Many takes may be necessary to get a perfect shot to be used in the final version of a movie. The longer the take, the more difficult it obviously is to get everything just right. A well-executed long take can achieve quite a bit.
The opening scene of Orson Well’s Touch of Evil (1958) manages to pull off an over three minutes long take in real-time with no cuts. What’s more, the uninterrupted take is done with a tracking shot, that is a camera on a crane following the action over roofs and through the busy streets of a city. In the beginning, we see a bomb with a timer placed in the boot of a car. The viewer follows the car until it switches to the protagonists losing sight of the car with the bomb. When is the bomb going to go off?
The dramatic effect becomes immediately apparent. Well’s use of a long tracking shot creates tension and suspense. The audience can count down the seconds of the bomb’s timer in their head, wondering where the car will be when the explosion is set off.
6. Method Acting
If the characters are the souls of a film, their acting is what animates them. While the language of film knows various methods of acting, Method Acting, aka The Method, is probably the best known. Roughly speaking, Method Acting is a set of acting techniques in which the thespian attempts to find the traits of the character within himself or herself. What are the character’s deepest emotions and motivations? How can I tap into and magnify them in myself to become the character I’m playing?
Forest Whitaker and his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) is widely considered an example of Method Acting. He studied Uganda’s history and learned Swahili. Whitaker spent time in Uganda with close relatives of Idi Amin and searched himself for the madness of power, betrayal, unpredictability and paranoia that’s so central to the dictator’s character. Even though this is not strictly considered part of Method Acting, it’s worth noting Whitaker is said to never have broken character while on set.
In the case of Whitaker, the result is a captivating and genuinely terrifying performance that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2007. By his own account, he had a bit of trouble snapping out of the Idi Amin character once filming was done.
Show a lot of things happing at once,Team America: World Police, Montage
Remind everyone of what’s going on
And with every shot you show a little improvement
To show it all would take too long
That’s called a montage
Oh we want montage
In common cinematic parlance, a montage is a series of brief shots edited together to give the audience the illusion of time passing. Typically, it shows different events with underlying music and no dialogue. As the Team America quote implies, it’s often used to show a hero’s progression in training without blowing out the movie’s running time and testing the patience of your audience.
A rather sophisticated example of this type of film language is a montage from The 13th Warrior (1999) which illustrates the long process of learning a new language. During his travels, Arab court poet Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) is saved by Norsemen. He joins them on their long way back North during which he’s immersed in their language and learns it by mere listening. The montage shows him night by night, sitting by the campfire, watching and listening to the Norsemen speaking their language.
As his language skill progresses, Ahmad (along with the audience) understands more and more words. Until one day, he’s finally able to respond and join his fellow travellers’ banter — much to the surprise of the Norsemen. Apart from giving the audience ears, the montage is also a testimony to the character’s intelligence, wit and patience. As much of a storytelling trope as it has become, thank Odin for the montage. Who wants to witness the trials and tribulations of learning a new language in real time?
8. Story Time
Unless you’ve only been watching 24, you’re probably familiar with the idea that the running time of a film is very different to the time of the story told. For example, the running time of Forrest Gump (1994) is about 2 hours and 15 minutes (no pun intended). The storytime on the other hand spans over 30 years from the 1950s to the 1980s, which gives the viewer the feeling of truly experiencing an epic story.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) go one step further, playing with surreal concepts of time within the film. When dreaming, the characters of Inception experience five minutes in their real world as one hour in the dream. Interstellar on the other hand plays with the concept of time dilation and time moving much faster for some characters due to their proximity to black holes.
In other words, for some characters the story takes place over the course of a few moments or months, for others it lasts hours or centuries. How Nolan plays with story time can be quite disorienting and mind-blowing for an audience. It certainly adds a fascinating extra layer to his films.
In the language of film, what’s in a shot (or isn’t) is as significant as what the characters do and say (or don’t). The effect a single image of a shot has on the viewer is not only determined by the choice of camera distance and angle. It’s also affected by how subjects and objects are composed within a frame. Admittedly, framing often seems to be done pragmatically. Not every motion picture delivers images you could easily frame as a painting. Though, the right framing can make a huge difference.
So-called loose and tight framing leaves much space between a scene’s subjects. It can illustrate a character’s freedom — or the lack thereof. Also, watch out for positive space in a frame, the area that is populated with characters and objects. Conversely, negative space is the empty area that can be used to draw attention to the characters in the frame. A lack of negative space can make a frame look busy and invoke feelings of uneasiness.
But it really depends on how we compose our frame. In ‘Red Light, Green Light’, the first game of the Korean series Squid Game (2021), the players must cross a plain field to win. The framing of the characters manages to use both tight and negative framing to a disturbing effect. The players are free to move, albeit within the unrelenting rules of the game in which they’re trapped together. The feeling of uneasiness comes from the juxtaposition of freedom and captivity communicated through framing.
10. Hitchcock’s Rule
In fact, framing is so important, Alfred Hitchcock coined a very specific rule about it. What should be in it in the first place and how prominent should it be displayed? Hitchcock’s Rule is a film language that answers those questions:
The size of an object in a frame should be as big as its importance in that moment.
In fact, the above-mentioned opening scene of Touch of Evil plays with this rule quite a bit. The framing of the first shot places lots of significance on the bomb and timer being placed in the car. As the scene continues, the car with the bomb stays in the frame quite prominently. Though, the camera focuses more and more on other objects and characters. We might say, the subsequent framing is intended to take the audience’s mind off of the rigged car. That is until it suddenly makes a reappearance as a giant fireball that fills the whole frame.
Hitchcock’s Rule almost seems like a version of Chekhov’s Gun, the rule about not making false promises to your audience. This brings us back to every frame being a work of art. A bit of miscommunication here and a bit of a misunderstanding there and your audience is watching a completely different film than you intended.
Bonus: Kuleshov Effect
It’s a trope that films are made in the cutting room. How they’re cut can significantly change what they communicate. The phenomenon that editing alone can influence the emotions of the audience is known as the Kuleshov Effect. Lev Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker and theorist. He established the eponymous effect in an experiment as early as 1918.
First, Kuleshov shot a long close-up of an actor’s face, just sitting there with a neutral expression. Then the Russian filmmaker cut to a variety of second shots, including a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin and a woman on a sofa. Paired with the same shot of a neutral facial expression, the bowl of soup scene invoked feelings of hunger. The coffin shot caused the audience to feel sad. The woman on the sofa was linked to feelings of lust.
Kuleshov’s experiment demonstrated that two subsequent shots are more meaningful than a single one. When it comes to guiding the audience through a film and influencing the emotional impact of the scenes, editing is quite significant. It also looks like a film editor can turn even the most unskilled wannabe performer into a Shakespearean actor.
Films communicate with us well beyond what’s being spelled out. Once we speak the language of film, it’s hard to take our ears off all those subtle ways our attention is being captivated. However, as with any language, mastering the language of film also means having the ability to play with its rules. There’s nothing better than skilful rule-breaking to surprise and entertain even the most eloquent audience; invoking an appreciative “I see what you did there.”