Welcome to the first installment of our ongoing series, Highsnobiety Film School. In this series, we’ll use popular YouTube channels to teach you fundamental lessons about filmmaking, and then put their lessons in context to show you how to direct a movie and help you get started making films of your own.
For those who are just becoming passionate about the filmmaking process, the best thing you can do is pick up a camera and start working. But, as you start out with little more than some friends and a DIY attitude, there are some ideas you can consider that can help take your filmmaking to the next level.
Whether you prefer drama, comedy, horror or experimental fare, these five concepts should help you sharpen your directorial eye and improve your work.
Building Tension in a Film
The job of a director is to bring the words in the script to life with action. One of the most important ways this is done is through building tension – the emotional strain that the audience feels as the film builds to a particular moment.
Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense and tension. He has a particularly easy and digestible concept, "Bomb Theory," as it relates to that state of anxiousness and excitement you feel when watching a film.
The idea is this: if you simply set off a bomb, there is no suspense. But if you set a five-minute timer for a bomb and let the audience be aware it's there, but perhaps have one or more characters be out of the the loop, then that is suspense. Tension, then, could be understood as how the director spends that five minutes, ramping up the sense of danger as the time ticks down to zero.
Spielberg is a master of building tension through suspense. For Spielberg, tension isn’t about cheap shocks or scares. It is about point of view. What action are we seeing? Who is seeing it? These are the key questions when creating tension. This video shows how he deploys point of view to create tension.
In Jaws, Spielberg alternates between objective and subjective points of view. This means that first we see what the character sees (subjective), and then we see what the character cannot see (objective). The two don’t match up, of course, until it is too late.
In The Color Purple, Spielberg creates tension by refusing to shift point of view. The video shows a scene of a young girl shaving a man on a porch. We linger on the girl’s point of view, following each stroke she takes with the razor, often without cutting. When we do cut away, it is to a close-up of a razor, rather than a reverse angle on the man she’s shaving. This draws our attention to the knife, her hand, and the delicate act she is performing. We see every potential stroke as a moment of violence because we follow the hand through each motion, refusing to look away.
This analysis of a scene from Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario shows how Hitchcock’s “Bomb Theory” can be deployed in concert with point of view. In this clip, the Cinefix team breaks down the various uses of tension in one of the film’s key scenes.
Before the sequence, we are told that the most dangerous location for our heroes is the U.S.-Mexico border. The one thing they don’t want to do is stop at the border, but that’s exactly what they have to do. Instead of Hitchcock’s bomb, we have Villeneuve’s "sea of cars."
As in the Spielberg sequences, we switch back and forth from objective point of view (the sea of cars) to a subjective point of view (the Agents stuck in the sea of cars). For much of the sequence, we are confined to the subjective point of view of Kate (Emily Blunt), an agent new to the drug war.
When we leave her point of view, it is because of the threat of violence. We leave her to look at cartel workers and crooked cops who are at the border crossing or the agents who draw guns on them. The cutting shifts so rapidly, from a rolling down window to a cartel member preparing to exit his car to Alejandro’s (Benicio Del Toro) gun and back to Kate, you don’t even realize that there are only nine seconds of actual violence in the sequence. The shots vary in length and shift point of view to build maximum tension as we wait for the exciting finale of the scene.
How could you put these ideas to work in your own film? Let’s say you’re filming a scene in one location. First identify your “bomb.” Is it a hostage crisis or is it a big secret that is going to be revealed during Thanksgiving dinner? Then, think about each character’s point of view. At each moment of the scene, whose POV is most interesting, most dramatic? Keep that in mind as you think about your shot list, building the tension of the scene as the “bomb” is about to go off.
How to Shoot a Comedy Scene
If we’re going to talk about building tension, we should also talk about relieving tension. The best way to release tension on film is by making the audience laugh.
While many would assume that deriving laughter stems from the screenplay itself, the directing is of equal importance and actually involves using the same tools that go into drama. The only difference is the feel of the payoff.
Edgar Wright is among of the best in the world at directing visual comedy, as Every Frame A Painting demonstrates.
The video argues that one of Edgar Wright’s great strengths is shooting things in an unexpected way. For example, the standard “moving from one city to another” sequence, is usually shot with a mix of road signs, car b-roll and helicopter shots.
In Hot Fuzz, Wright makes the mundane travel from point a to point b seem dangerous, mocking the ho-hum nature of everyday life. For this narrator, filming comedy is about “finding simple mundane scenes, and finding new ways to do them.”
As the above clip discusses, a simple example of this principle is demonstrated in one of the most beloved scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Lancelot (John Cleese) is charging a castle. He is a dedicated and able warrior, so we think he’ll storm the castle in no time. However, it is much farther away than we or the the character expect, so it takes him forever to get there. This sequence is even funnier because of the lazy guards who watch him as he “storms” the castle, stupidly awaiting their certain demise.
Every Frame a Painting also explored how action is directed for comedy in Jackie Chan’s films. When you think of great comic minds, you may not first think of Jackie Chan, but maybe you should.
In this video, you can see how the basic idea of finding new approaches to familiar ideas plays out on a micro level in Chan’s work. You expect to see Jackie fighting the bad guys. You don’t expect him to use picture frames, dresses, and refrigerators to beat them. While most action stars’ egos won’t allow them to show pain onscreen, Chan uses pain to humanize his characters and draw humor from scenes. Chan's career has been far longer and more successful than many action stars and directors because he knows how to deliver the unexpected.
Thor: Ragnarok director, Taika Waititi, is also a brilliant comedic mind. While much of Edgar Wright and Jackie Chan’s comedy comes from juxtaposing action and comedy in unexpected ways, Waititi is a master of combining happiness and sadness for unexpected laughs.
In the beginning of this clip, we see Ricky’s (Julian Dennison) birthday party in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A boy’s birthday is supposed to be joyful, but the grimness of this celebration in a dark room with a busted toy piano is unexpected and hilarious. This isn’t a wasted scene by any means. It illuminates the given circumstances of our main character. Though his new mother and father care about him very much, he is isolated and bored. This clip goes onto explain these same principles at work in the films Waititi made earlier in his career including Wilderpeople, Boy, and Eagle vs. Shark. In each of his films, Waititi finds humor in the unexpected contours or life’s dark moments.
You may not have the gift for activating the mundane that Edgar Wright has. You may not have Jackie Chan’s martial arts expertise. You may not quite grasp Taika Waititi’s ability to wrestle humor from sadness. But, you can start to think about the principle that unites all of their work. Once again, it is about “finding simple mundane scenes, and finding new ways to do them.” One of the best jokes in Blazing Saddles didn’t cost any money. It didn’t require a huge stunt budget. Mel Brooks simply had the foresight to write and cast a black sheriff in an Old West town.
This allowed Brooks to examine the contradictions of the Western genre, and America at the time he was making the film.
Write the funniest script you can. Cast the funniest actors you can. Find the funniest collaborators you can. Once you’ve done that, look at your project and ask yourself what new and inventive ways in which you can tell this story. Don’t shoot your first draft. Do go with your first visual gag. Laughs are earned, and they are about delivering unexpected surprises.
Character Motivation in Film: Dominance
According to Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski (of which the Stanislavski acting method is named for), acting is about motivation and exploring what a character wants. For a director, his/her job is to show who is getting what they want at a given moment of a scene, or, more simply put, who holds the power.
There are a number of ways that a director can demonstrate dominance in a scene. In this scene from Citizen Kane, Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris) comes to take young Charlie (Buddy Swan) away from his simple rural childhood and into the life of immeasurable wealth that will be his undoing. The short scene is legendary because of how director Orson Welles uses camera movement and blocking to establish dominance.
As Thatcher explains what's happening to the boy, Charlie’s parents (Agnes Moorehead and Harry Shannon) behave very differently. His father, shocked and unsure about the boy’s fate, stays still in the back of the shot. His mother, Mary, coldly confident that the boy should leave their home for a new life, walks with the camera, landing front and center in a medium shot. With each step, Dad is left smaller in the background while Mom increases her dominance. The only person with less power in the scene is young Charlie, who we can see through the window in the distance playing in the snow. We can barely see him as his future is being signed away.
You can see how similar principles are applied in a longer scene in this clip from the Alfred Hitchcock film, Vertigo. Without spoiling too much, in this scene Gavin (Tom Helmore) is luring Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) into the film’s central deception.
A scene in an office allows for an easy measure dominance: who is sitting and who is standing? Who is behind the desk and who is on the other side of it? As the narrator of this clip points out, at first Scottie, who is standing, stalking around the office, is dominant. As the power shifts, Scottie sits and Gavin stands. This is a simple, but effective way to show how the tables have turned. The scene ends with both characters standing on the same level, looking eye to eye. Gavin wants to convince his patsy that he is on Scottie’s level, and gives up his dominance in order to demonstrate that.
There is another element of the scene’s blocking that further emphasizes dominance. Hitchcock had the set built so that the conference area was physically a few steps higher than the office. At the height of Gavin’s power in the scene, Hitchcock has him in the conference area, literally higher up than Scottie. He looms over his prey before coming back down to Scottie’s level.
You might ask, “How do I establish dominance if I don’t have a ton of room for blocking?” Think about the same principles we just discussed. How do you convey a sense of power? One possibility is with the camera. You can create the same feeling of one character looming over another through the shots you choose. You could shoot one character from high angles (looking down at them), making them look small and weak, while you shoot another from a low angle, making them look powerful and mysterious. Quentin Tarantino loves using a low angle shot to show power. Often characters shot this way are looking at a corpse or a character they’ve beat up. If that’s not holding power over someone, I don’t know what is.
Stanley Kubrick liked to use lighting to establish dominance. He often did this through the use of practical lights (a light that “exists” in the film, like a candle, car headlights, or a chandelier). The benefit of practical light is it is easy for a character to walk in and out of the light from a practical source. In this video, there are a number of scenes where two characters are speaking, and a character can exhibit power by leaning into the light. As the narrator points out when describing a clip from The Killing, with practical lighting, a character could step out of the light and “disappear.”
Dominance can even be shown through costume design. If one character is wearing darker colors, more expensive clothing, or more formal clothing than a counterpart, that too can establish dominance.
As a director, you have a number of tools at your disposal when it comes to establishing dominance. First, think about blocking in your scene. Is one character sitting and another standing? Is one character closer to the camera than the other? Is one physically standing on a higher plane? Once you’ve thought through the blocking, think about what other ways you can convey dominance in the scene. Do you want to shoot the boss at a low angle? Do you want to give the spy more light than the man she’s deceiving? Do you want to show a powerful general in full regalia, while the private is caught in his undershirt?
There are myriad ways to establish a power dynamic on screen. As a director it is your job to demonstrate these dynamics.
How Costume Design Works
Costumes can tell us a great deal about character and can convey important information efficiently. If you’re able, you should use a costume designer, but to best leverage their skills, you’ll have to be able to describe to them what you want. Costumes can convey so much about character, the world, tone, and emotion, but you have to know what you want to say.
This video interviewing costume designers from BAFTA is a nice primer on what a director should consider when first thinking about how costume design works. One designer describes themselves as a “psychologist.” Another talks about working with actors to draw out character in their designs.
Let’s talk a bit about the various choices the director and costume designer partner to make. In this round-up of some of the best costumes in film history, you can see some of the ways that wardrobe can be used in storytelling.
Color alone can convey so much. This video discusses Hero by Zhang Yimou, and how the costume colors of various segments of the story convey the film’s emotional tones. The bold colors in the film situate story that is rooted in Chinese culture in terms that are readily understandable to a global audience. They amount to a simple visual language. In Hero, the various vignettes are divided into different colors. The passionate first vignette shows us characters dressed in red. The triumphant final vignette features actors clad in white. Pretty much any scene from the film offers a study in the use of color in storytelling.
Costumes can also help us differentiate characters from one another. In the video above, the Cinefix team picks Royal Tenenbaums as an example of just how much deeply costumes can convey character. We get a keen sense of who the three siblings are just from what they are wearing. Margot’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) coat is at once a hipster fashion statement and a nod to her old money roots. Chas (Ben Stiller) wears a vintage track suit that reminds us of his arrested development. Richie (Luke Wilson) hides behind long hair and aviators, rejecting his identity and his family’s odd legacy; but the fact the he continues to wear a tennis headband shows that he is still wrestling with his past.
Because costumes can both convey character and tone, they are essential if you are trying to familiarize the audience with a story. Star Wars illustrates how this can be done. The clip points out that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), while from another world, has traditionally royal aspects to her outfit. The done-up hair, the flowing outfit, and the white costume: all of this serves to frame her as a princess, even if she is extraterrestrial royalty.
What can you do in terms of costumes if you have a limited budget? First, think about your characters. Who are they? What is their job? Are they rich? Are they flashy? Do they follow the rules? Next, think of how that character exists in relation to other characters. Reservoir Dogs is so memorable largely because all the characters are dressed the same. Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde immediately sticks in our minds because she is dressed differently from the other characters.
Now, think about the world of your film. What do people look like in this world? Is this world like our own? Is there crucial information you can provide that will make the world more clear to your audience? Finally, think about emotions and tone. What feelings to do you want to convey with the costumes in the film?
Your characters (usually) have to wear something. Make it count.
Close-Up Shots in Film
The close-up is the most basic shot in cinema; you shoot the character’s face. As a result of this seeming simplicity, many directors take the close-up shot for granted. Many young directors obscure the face, shoot it at an odd angle, or complicate the shot in some other way. Before you complicate the close-up, you have to master its fundamentals.
A close-up, first and foremost, is a moment of emphasis on a particular character's emotion.
This video discusses the essential use of the close-up, and how to use discretion in creating a close-up, by looking at the work of classic director Howard Hawkes. In Rio Bravo, Howard Hawkes only uses five close-ups in the entire film. This is not how films are made today, but in exploring his choices, you can see the kind of meaning close-ups can carry. Each one of them emphasizes a dramatic moment: a gunshot, a bloody glass, a tough decision. The argument that the narrator makes is that you shouldn’t use the close-up if you aren’t emphasizing something.
What sort of emphasis can a close-up provide? This video dives into the many virtues of the close-up.
Of course, we get a great sense of emotional expression in a close-up. We see eyes darting, eye brows raised, lips pursed, nostrils flaring. Here we see a variety of examples of what can be expressed in a close-up simply by looking at an actor’s face.
This brief clip of students reacting the assistant principal (Paul Gleason) chewing them out in The Breakfast Club demonstrates the variety of emotional responses that can be shown in close-up.
Close-ups can also help build tension and rhythm in film. For example, by cutting to tighter and tighter close-ups, you can heighten tension. A close-up on a character at an unexpected moment can have a similar effect.
This immortal stand-off sequence from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a perfect example of how close-ups can be used to build tension.
When using close-ups, the audience is impacted both by what you show and when you show it. Towards the end of that first clip, you’ll hear a quote from David Fincher, who puts it succinctly, “Every time you go to a close-up, the audience knows, ‘Look at this. This is important.' You have to be cautious and careful about when you choose to do it.”
How do you make sure that your close-ups are worth using? In this video, Edgar Wright makes a great argument for close-ups as punctuation in a scene’s visual language.
Wright is known for close-up and inserts (close-ups of objects) that are incredibly memorable: from the mundane cop montages in Shaun of the Dead to the otherworldly end of the bar crawl in The World’s End. This is because Wright often plans them outside of his standard shooting of a scene. Many close-ups are part of the broader coverage in a scene. Coverage means the different shots you shoot when filming a scene: often an establishing shot of the space, medium shot of the characters, then close-ups. Wright shoots some close-ups separate from his scenes, making them that much more unique and memorable. Though Wright puts many close-ups in his films, this approach of shooting close-ups out of sequence allows him to think through and emphasize the particular motivations behind each of his close-ups.
There are several things you can do in your next film to give more thought and weight to your close-ups. You should always have a shot list. Know what you want to shoot before you shoot it. While you won’t have time to shoot every close-up as a separate set-up, you can pick some punctuating close-ups that you could shoot out of sequence.
Once you get to the editing room, consider how the way deploy close-ups effects rhythm, tension, and tone. What would happen if there were fewer close-ups? How would the scene change if you were close-up on a different character? Consider these possibilities as you cut the film.
Regardless of what choices you make, the important thing is to think about the close-up as just one tool in your toolbox, and understand that when you go to close-up, and who you show a close-up of, will change the way the audience interprets a particular moment.
That’s all for our Highsnobiety Film School on the basics of how to direct a movie. Look for our next installments in the series, when we’ll talk about cinematography, screenwriting, and more.