How films work

I’ve found a few pieces that work really well for teaching about film. For teaching how to construct a short film, I find adverts really useful: they use film language effectively to tell a story in a very short time. An evening’s off-air recording should provide several usable advertisements, or you could use compilations like the Canadian pack Scanning Television which has some good public service advertisements.

The first example I use is a thirty-second television advertisement that was first shown about four years ago. I think it’s important not to use anything too recent: unfamiliarity means that they won’t jump to conclusions. This particular ad is particularly useful as it uses a lot of different kinds of shots and camera positions to tell a complex story, but it has very few camera movements.

Shot by shot

I start by looking at the basic building block of film: the shot, or single image. This particular advertisement starts with a wide shot of a car driving along a dirt road between fields of crops. So I ask the children what they can see in the shot. Then I ask them to guess which country the film is set in.

Where’s the camera?

I draw a plan on a flipchart and ask children to draw on the camera position for the first few shots. This helps them to understand how changing camera position or distance from the subject – not just framing – can help the film-maker to provide the audience with information to understand the story.

We move through the film, looking at the use of closeups and reaction shots. The film uses parallel editing or ‘cross-cutting’ at one point – the camera cuts between shots in different locations. I ask them how they can tell which location is which (they are distinguished by different coloured lighting).

How many shots?

Once we’ve watched all the shots once, I then show the whole film, still without sound, and get them to guess how long it is and how many shots it contains. Usually they guess far too few – sometimes just three or five – but we eventually get to the right number (26 shots in 30 seconds). This is important for helping them to realise just how complex a film is.

Sound and vision

Once they’ve seen the film without the soundtrack, I then play the first couple of shots with the sound. The ad starts with flamenco, which – for those who recognise it – immediately anchors the film in Spain. We then play the whole soundtrack without the images and I get the children to call out the things they hear. I list these in two columns and ask them to tell me what is the difference between the columns. It’s the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound: I don’t usually use these terms, instead I talk about the sounds that a character in the story would hear (dialogue, natural sound) and sounds that the audience knows have been added afterwards (such as voiceover and music).

Look no editing

The next step is to look at how you go about planning to tell a story through pictures. My colleague Tom Lewis suggested using a one-shot silent film to show the importance of editing. So what I do next is to show them the Lumiere Brothers ‘L’Arroseur Arrosée’, the first ever film comedy, in which a gardener is watering some plants when a young lad comes up behind him and stands on the hose. When the gardener looks into the hose the boy takes his foot off the hose and the water blows the gardener’s hat off.

We watch this, and then I ask them: what’s the difference between this and the other films we’ve seen today? The obvious answers – eg it’s black and white, it’s silent – and eventually somebody  will realise that it’s just one shot. So the next task is to show how we could plan a new version of it. I go back to the beginning of the film and get the children to tell me which shots to include, drawing a storyboard as they do. So the beginning of the film – which is just a long shot – could also have a mid shot from the front of the gardener with the hose, a closeup of the water coming out of the hose, a closeup of the flowers, a closeup of the gardener’s contented face.

Other resources we use

The opening sequence of David Lean’s Great Expectations is very useful: we play just the soundtrack until just before Pip screams, and ask the children to list the sounds they hear and to guess who’s there, where it is, and what’s going to happen next.

We also use the part where Magwitch confronts Pip to look at camera position (high and low angle shots) and the 180 degree rule (which says that the camera has to stay on one side of an imaginary ‘axis of action’ in order for the audience to understand how the shots link together). I do this by getting children to act the roles of Pip and Magwitch while a third child, helped by the class, works out where the camera should be.

Virus, from the BFI compilation Screening Shorts, is also useful with older children (it will give younger children nightmares).  I use a section in the middle, where the camera cuts back and forth between a closeup of the main character, a picture on the desk, a telephone and a computer screen. This is a good example of shot/reverse shot (showing a character and then what he is looking at) and the use of inserts (closeup details of the scene to give information), and also shows how you can repeat shots.

L’arroseur arrosée (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) – or Le jardinier et le petit espiegle – is available on the BFI compilation Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers.

Tom Barrance

©2007 Media Education Wales

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