What We Talk About When We Talk About Filmmaking

When I started this article, I thought I would have something witty or complex to say about filmmaking and YouTube’s cottage industry of film analysis videos that has cropped up in the last few years. And I wish I did. But all I can really muster is a long, exasperated sigh and a hope to be clear and concise enough to get my points across with little or no misinterpretation. So let’s start with a harsh truth.

You don’t truly know anything about a craft until you’ve done it for real. I am by all accounts a starting, independent filmmaker, with a few shorts to my name and a great deal of written features I would like to produce. I work in both live action and animation and I don’t know everything, nor would I proclaim to. But in the last few years we’ve come to a point where the internet is saturated by videos on the ‘filmmaking techniques’ of various films and filmmakers. These are nominally well-produced videos, often with a clear, well-enunciated narrator who espouses for up to half an hour at a time. There’s only one problem. Almost everything these people say is nonsense.

In fact it’s not just nonsense, but incredibly wrong, misinformed nonsense. Their breakdowns rarely have anything to do with what is actually happening. They will proclaim doing a sound match cut is a brilliant, unique transition, or devise some explanation for a cut to flashback as building on thematic structures that don’t exist, when it’s actually carried by a repeating element in the frame (such as a Coke can). These videos are fundamentally wrong ninety percent of the time, but spread through otherwise reputable filmmaking websites and Twitter without any sort of vetting or proper fact checking.

By why is this? Well, to understand the cause of this phenomenon we need to understand that good filmmaking essays do exist. Essays that deeply examine how filmmaking works from a technical, creative or social aspect. Every Frame A Painting, Lessons from the Screenplay, Royal Ocean Film Society, Cinematography Database, Matt Zoller Seitz’s Videos, Dan Fox’s Essays, some of the early Press Play stuff. These are all great, but they are also important because they demystify the filmmaking process and expose the reality of what often seem like inscrutable creative choices.

Every Frame a Painting examines creative choices across the board, with a focus on how films are edited and shown visually. Lessons from the Screenplay looks at how scripts are structured as works of dramatic fiction. Royal Ocean Film Society examines films as sociological artifacts and creative works, and their role as art within modern culture. These and the rest are all good, insightful stuff.

But the rest? The Mister Nerdistas. The Nerd Writers. The Entertain the Elks. The Film Radars. They spew largely uninformed nonsense to their viewers, built of no real knowledge but instead vague impressions, and so do the opposite of good essays. They’re unable to really say anything and instead fill their time with vagueries, that neither elucidate the craft of filmmaking nor provide any insights that you couldn’t get from any other over-confident, mediocre white man with a Yeti microphone and Sony Vegas. They are overly long, florid treatises on nothing more than the essayist’s view of their own intelligence.

So why do they exist? First, if something good exists a cottage industry will spring up around it. This is especially true for art forms that are easily co-opted by anyone on a modest budget. The barrier to entry for internet videos is almost nonexistent, and so many people use them as a way to get easy money. They pump out cheaply-produced filler on a weekly basis and gather quick sums via Patreon, feeding off their audience’s desperation to learn about the medium they love. Whether this is intentional or an unintended outcome this cottage industry has a parasitic relationship with its viewers, masking snake oil as education. They are no better than CinemaSins in this regard.

Second, everyone thinks their opinion matters. That what they assume when they notice a vague outline of craft in a film is automatically right. It’s true that in analysis we can argue the fluidity of media makes reading any film from any perspective possible, but this free hand does not extend to craft. Films as they are made are not something you can wax philosophical about. In the act of making, the lines between conceptual, creative and practical blend to the point where the understanding of the nuts and bolts of construction becomes integral to how we express their intended affect and effect. How we do something ties into the why of it. There is no discreet element that can be divorced from its practical filmmaking. It’s a cohesive gestalt. Techniques don’t really change, just their application. A match cut is a match cut, just as a close-up is a close-up and a transition a transition. These formal guidelines were established in the history of film to develop a common language for people collaborating on a production, and to give conceptual reference points when people want to experiment. And they experiment a lot.

So what are the concise rules of filmmaking language? Well the truth is that, aside from continuity and eyelines, there are none. Each filmmaker creates a tacit contract between themselves and the audience. The language used is a unique dialect spoken by them and them alone. It’s their voice expressed in image, edit, semiotics and dramatics. Their dramatic eye we see through. This isn’t to say I believe in auteur theory, but that the director guides the collaboration between everyone in the creative body to a specific dramatic end, and elements of their preferences and style inevitable shape the work. They interpret the script and imbue the film with their own (or just reflect the script’s) dramatic intent. And those guidelines guiding the viewers have refined and stylized with the times, but their roots and languages remain the same.

So what do we talk about when we talk about filmmaking? We talk about camera language and its meaning and intent. We talk about editing and how we form and shape our words with the grammar of cuts and dissolves. We talk about colour and shape in production design. We talk about performance and goals and wants and needs in a scene. We talk about intent and affect and effect and all that nonsense. What we talk about in filmmaking is craft. The work. But what of the art of it?

Well the work is the art. You can’t make a Caravaggio without first learning the mechanics of painting. How to mix colours, lay down blocks of colours and fill them in before fine-tuning the details. How to recreate light with soft washes. We disregard the mechanics of filmmaking, because to be labelled a technician is seen as exposing oneself as a worker and not a creative nowadays. But you can’t sculpt marble without first learning to cut stone. No-one picks up a camera and is a virtuoso filmmaker. Even Kubrick made several weak films before producing his first actual Kubrick movie, The Killing, and Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket is a world away from his work today. Artists evolve and change over time, growing with their craft and experience. But they had to learn the mechanics of visual storytelling before they could form their own language by breaking them.

Filmmaking is such a mash of creative and artistic and practical and conceptual and sometimes blatantly obvious decisions and gut feelings, that bad filmmaking essays treating them as the mystical sorcery of geniuses is hilarious. It’s stage magic, not real magic; carefully crafted smoke and mirrors to make artifice feel like reality.  We deal in the grey areas of that vague notion of authenticity, performers here to make you think and laugh and cry and feel, and we will use any means to get you there.

And people want to know the secret. They want to understand the trick to better appreciate the art of it. But these videos don’t show how the trick is actually done. They just make gut assumptions and then trot around acting like they know the answer. This isn’t just contained to YouTube videos. I read a screenwriting book once which began “Film is not a visual medium”. Seriously.

But what if you want to genuinely learn about filmmaking language? Well, you need to learn how the art and craft of film functions as a whole, both for the sake of academic knowledge and personal appreciation of the medium. You need to read Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell.

If you want to understand how filmmaking works you have to do it. You have to make it your career. You do what I did. You prepare for the long haul because you have to dedicate your life to doing this. Because it takes so long to figure out and so much failure before you get good (which may not even happen) that you will question yourself as an artist long before you produce something people will want to see.

First, you need to go to Amazon or a bookstore. Find memoirs and books on the craft, and before you buy anything research who wrote it and what they did. Who contributed, and who attests to their work. Or if that’s too much, look up books by the following:

  • Sidney Lumet
  • William Goldman
  • Elia Kazan
  • Robert Rodriguez
  • Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Sergei Eisenstein
  • Ted Kotcheff
  • Walter Murch
  • John Badham
  • Richard L Bare
  • David Mamet

Or look up collections of interviews with your favorite filmmakers.

  • David Fincher.
  • James Cameron.
  • Ridley Scott.
  • Walter Murch.
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Soderbergh

Watch the extensive supplements created by Michael Bay and Ridley Scott and James Cameron and Peter Jackson which show them directing. Take acting classes and read books on acting, which is just as important as camera language. If you can’t make actors give decent performances you undermine the empathic building blocks of your story, as you won’t have compelling characters to build your drama around.

Make images and cut them together. If you can’t shoot them, take a cue from La Jetée: draw them and cut them together in editing software. Learn about lenses and lighting and what makes them important. Experiment if you can afford it and study if you can’t. Make bad films until you don’t anymore. Often the only way to learn is through trial and failure.

If you want to learn how to write, don’t just read scripts and especially don’t just read scripts written by your favourite filmmakers. Read everything: fiction, non-fiction, genre, comics, plays, scripts, books, essays and news. Everything is dramatised, and we learn to dramatise by filtering all our exposure to media and let it stew in our brains and spark our creativity. And most importantly, write! Write reams and reams of crap until it doesn’t suck anymore. Feel down when you fail to tell a compelling story the first ten times. Get angry when your script has terrible characters and worse dialogue. Write and re-write and put away and write something new. Do it in your spare time. Keep your inane ideas in a notebook. And don’t keep everything to yourself, give it to friends who will recoil at its awfulness and tell you in excruciating detail how badly you failed and how. Then learn from it, move on to the next thing and hope you do a little better.

And watch films! A criminal number of them. Stop trying to analyse them and just watch. Become suffused in them and sway with their emotions and movement. Concentrate on what they make you feel before trying to figure out how they did it. Movies really aren’t that opaque in meaning and language, they usually wear their technique and storytelling on their sleeves. They speak to you, and if you let them you begin to notice the little things that make them tick, the clockwork performance of the production revealing itself like an open book. Cutting on motion and sound to smooth out and make obvious shifts in viewpoint seem invisible. The use of close-ups and inserts to guide your attention. How blocking and framing, composition and lens choices mix with production design and lighting to create the feeling of a scene. Shifts in lighting between shots to maintain a feeling of continuity when it’s actually broken. How much of modern film is guided by sound design and subliminal cues to sculpt our emotional experience. How editors use blank space at the end of takes to get reaction shots that feel authentic, even though it’s not intentional. If you pay attention long enough, it’s not even really hidden.

So what do we talk about when we talk about filmmaking? We talk about everything. Because filmmaking is everything. We have to talk about it because it’s a compulsion to tell stories that drives us to the very core of our being. You have to want to tell stories in this particular medium so badly you can’t fathom doing it any other way, because every other way is easier than this and requires less time to learn.

And if this sounds like the best thing ever, good luck. I’m rooting for you because we’re all in this together.

(Thanks to Adam Pilfold-Bagwell for his help editing and wrangling this essay to a more manageable size.)