Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Five Formal Elements of Film: How to Critically Evaluate Movies

Everyone has strong opinions about the media they consume. Movies especially are often the target of adoration or scathing sentiment in word of mouth reviews around the water cooler. But how do we academically assess a film?

When critically evaluating a movie, it is important to consider more than just if you “liked” or “hated” it – that is, whether it was to your taste or not. Instead, there are technical, universal elements of film that every movie can be judged by. These are known in the Film Studies world as the Five Formal Elements of Film.

The five elements are narrative, cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene, and editing. These elements compose every scene in a movie and together constitute the essence of film. We will cover each element only very briefly, but in reality, entire fields of study are dedicated to each.

Narrative is simply the ancient art form of storytelling. What a movie is about – its story, characters, and world – forms its narrative. The narrative is present as soon as a script is finished and before the production of the movie even begins. For example, literature is pure, unfiltered narrative.

For most casual moviegoers a film succeeds or fails by its narrative. Whether someone likes the story and can connect with the characters is the basis for their appreciation of the film. This isn’t really fair, as judgment of narrative is more often than not purely subjective. While there are standards of narrative and a certain professional expectation, a lot of the time assessments of narrative amounts simply to individual opinion.

Cinematography is defined as “writing in movement” and depends largely on photography. The art of cinematography is concerned just as much with how something is being filmed as it is with what is being filmed. Cinematography is not a rudimentary and arbitrary process of filming the actors. The cinematographer, or director of photography, adds to and enhances the narrative through control of the camera.

The way in which a shot is framed, lit, toned, and colored is a story of its own just as it is in photography. Moreover, in cinema there is a pictorial consideration that does not exist in still photography: movement. Unlike in photography or painting, in cinematography the framing of an image can move. Where as in photography there is only one frame of a single second frozen in time, in cinematography there are twenty-four frames for every second on screen. A scene will often stretch on for minutes, which allows the camera to shape our perspective of what we are seeing through pans, tilts, and angles. Sometimes just the movement itself, or tracking of an image, can tell a story.

Mise-en-scene is everything that appears in a frame. Sets, locations, actors, props, costumes, light, and shadow are all part of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene can be realistic or abstract, purely background or an interpretive active element. Mise-en-scene is contributed to by a variety of talents on the film crew – production designers, make up artists, set builders, cinematographers, actors – everything on screen in a film has been deliberately included at an artist’s direction and for a purpose.

Editing has been called “the key to cinema” as it is the only formal element that is unique to the medium. An editor uses time and continuity as tools in presenting the narrative. It is the editor’s job to piece the whole movie together from all of the scenes and different cameras. The editor connects one scene to the next, and sometimes several shots in the same scene, with a few different editing techniques. The most common of these is the cut, in which one shot simply transitions abruptly into the next. Other editing techniques such as the fade out, dissolve, and wipe are so stylistic that they are rarely used. The art of the cut, that is the contrast of one shot to the next in photographic terms, is the practice of continuity in editing.

The duration of shots in juxtaposition to each other also shapes how we perceive the on screen material. When the camera is still or slow for a long period of time it is often to create a contemplative and somber effect. In contrast, rapid cuts simulates energy and action. A dramatic scene will often be one long take, with cuts used sparingly if at all. In an action scene there will be dozens of cuts, sometimes of inconsequential jumbled images, as it evokes a frenzied, hectic feeling.

Sound is perhaps the most powerfully visceral and subtly influential aspect of film. There are three components of sound in film: dialogue, sound effects, and music. Music is the most evident and striking of the components. Sometimes a film’s soundtrack can become just as renown and remembered as the movie itself. Jaws, Star Wars, and James Bond all feature musical themes that are arguably more ingrained into popular culture than the actual films. More than any other element music has the power to shape the viewer’s feelings and perceptions of a scene. Dialogue and sound effects, while more subdued in effect than music, are essential in bringing us into the world of the film and suspending our belief.

Few films fail at all of the formal elements. While one should be critical when evaluating a film, they should not fault a movie beyond its weaknesses and should instead assess the good with the bad. The next time you’re watching a movie and not getting into the story or characters, instead of writing it off and shutting it down try to instead consider the other elements at play – cinematography, sound, editing. Conversely, even fewer films succeed with all the formal elements. When watching a movie you enjoy and hold in high regard, it’s okay to be critical and hold each element of a film to its own standard. Maybe you have always loved a film for its costumes and stage designs but have overlooked a lackluster soundtrack or poor writing.

Being critical isn’t meant to be a sour experience. It should be fun and help enhance our understanding and appreciation of movies. When we know how to assess a film we can better comprehend how and why something is happening on screen. In most cases a film is the work of hundreds of talented artists so it is fair to judge it accordingly. Every movie has its strengths and weaknesses and recognizing them doesn’t mean that you have to like or not like it. Your subjective opinion is only stronger when it is surrounded by an objective analysis.

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Page