Watching Movies from a Critical Point of View

The first time you watch a movie, just watch it. Let yourself get lost in the experience of the film. That’s why we screenwriters work in this business — because we know the power of film to transport, to transform, and to transcend.

The second or third go ’round, bring a critical eye to your viewing experience in order to improve your craft and your film knowledge. Here’s how the Script Lab suggests us writers watch a film:

Many films are made to entertain. But cinema can also educate, indoctrinate, or propagate by allowing us to experience multiple perspectives: cultural, political, or ideological. Hence, we subscribe to the so-called experts, but who’s to say the average moviegoer can’t add to the discussion. Enlightenment is often a product of hard work and practice, so for the aspiring home-based couch “critics”, here is what to study when watching a movie:

(1) Screenplay. Hitchcock said, “The three most vital elements in any good film are the script, the script, the script.” And watching a movie in the right way can teach you a ton about how to structure “the script”. One of the best ways is to watch the clock as you go. At about 12 – 15 minutes in, you should hit the inciting incident. 24 -30 minutes – the character is locked-in, propelling him into the Second Act tension. The practical experience of seeing and analyzing the parts of a script, with stopwatch in hand, is key to identify major plot points, three act structure, and the eight sequences in a film.

(2) Acting. Good acting – you know it when you see it. Great actors, however, can do very little to improve bad material, but mediocre actors can shine quite bright when working with awesome material. So if a film has a fantastic screenplay with amazing talent – even if the execution of the many other elements are less than perfect – the movie should still be a success.

(3) Directing. Great directors are not necessarily “control freaks.” But control is an essential part of their job description. Directing is all about vision. And great directors are master mechanics of  (a) controlling a crystal clear vision (b) surrounding themselves with people who can execute that vision, and (c) making sure that all individuals involved understand and embrace that vision. If a movie loses its vision, or even worse, never had one to begin with… Blame the director!

(4) Cinematography. Film is a visual medium, and fantastic photography occurs when the camera becomes an extension of the human eye. A great DP makes us feel like we’re really there discovering for ourselves or along with the characters, versus watching as non-active observers from the outside. Look for cinematography that is rarely static, and instead transforms itself into the eyes of the viewer.

(5) Editing. If the script, as Hitchcock suggests, is the most important element in a film, then editing has to come in as a close second. Editing is basically visual writing. Sure, there’s the script as a guide, but often things change during photography, shots are missed, added, and sometimes the script was a mess to begin with. The editor has a monumental job: fix all the problems, create the illusion of continuity, and ensure smooth transitioning in the flow of the film. Many bad directors, actors, and writers have been saved in the editing room.

(6) Lighting & Art Direction. Stark hard lighting. A single, swaying light bulb. A beam of moonlight piercing through a dungeon cell. Mood – either in a particular scene or as an entire film – is often determined by lighting and location. The way shadows fall, the actual types of sets used, and how images are revealed are essential to establishing atmosphere.

(7) Soundtrack. The hero and heroine rush into each other’s arms and embrace in a passionate kiss. Music SWELLS… and it pulls us right out of the moment. Not good! A good soundtrack is the one we really don’t notice – it never overwhelms or distracts. Music should be used to elevate a scene, and the best emotional heightener is sometimes no sound at all.

(8) Special (Visual) Effects. George Lucas said it best: “Special effects without a story is a pretty boring thing.” He’s right. Too bad he hasn’t listen to his own advice.

The one thing I’d add to this list is to pay attention to the credits. If you like the writing, take note of who the writer is. If you thought it was well directed, learn that director’s name. And then look for the same names in other projects. You’ll increase your knowledge of past and present Hollywood players and sound more impressive at your next cocktail party.

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