Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How to Read a Movie (Reading Pictures)

Nixta recently sent me this piece by Roger Ebert, How to read a movie, in which he discusses the "shot by shot" workshops he conducts. Anyone in the workshop can stop the film they are watching and give their thoughts or talk about what they see.

In the article he talks about reading composition and how visual devices create meaning. It's actually a nice intro to that type of thinking.

It amazes me how few books on this and the related subject of image reading and interpretation exist. A classic in that area is "How to See" by George Nelson (Available from Design Within Reach).

Excerpts form Eberts article:

He (Louis D. Giannetti, author of Understanding Movies) introduced me to the concept that visual compositions have "intrinsic weighting." By that I believe he means that certain areas of the available visual space have tendencies to stir emotional or aesthetic reactions.

To reduce the concept to a crude rule of thumb in the composition of a shot in a movie: A person located somewhat to the right of center will seem ideally placed. A person to the right of that position will seem more positive; to the left, more negative. A centered person will seem objectified, like a mug shot. I call that position somewhat to the right of center the "strong axis."

In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to "move" in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive. Movement is dominant over things that are still. A POV above a character's eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods. Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the "dominant contrast," which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them.

On written language George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By is excellent.

Some examples from the book:

The number of books printed each year keeps going up. His draft number is high. My income rose last year. The amount of artistic activity in this state has gone down in the past year. The number of errors he made is incredibly low. His income fell last year. He is underage. If you're 100 hot, turn the heat down.

Physical basis: If you add more of a substance or of physical objects to a container or pile, the level goes up.

All upcoming events are listed in the paper. What's coming up this week? I'm afraid of what's up ahead of us. What's up?

Physical basis: Normally our eyes look in the direction in which we typically move (ahead, forward). As an object approaches a person (or the person approaches the object), the object appears larger. Since the ground is perceived as being fixed, the top of the object appears to be moving upward in the person's field of vision.

He has a lofty position. She'll rise to the top. He's at the peak of his career.He's climbing the ladder. He has little upward mobility. He's at the bottom of the social hierarchy. She fell in status.

Social and physical basis: Status is correlated with (social) power and (physical) power is up.

Things are looking up. We hit a peak last year, but it's been downhill ever since. Things are at an all-time low. He does high-quality work.

Physical basis for personal well-being: Happiness, health, life, and control--the things that principally characterize what is good for a person--all are up.

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