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Taylor & Francis
Film Directing Fundamentals: See Your Film Before Shooting / Edition 3

Film Directing Fundamentals: See Your Film Before Shooting / Edition 3

by Nicholas Proferes


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780240809403
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 07/03/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nicholas T. Proferes was the director/cameraman and editor of Free at Last, a 90-minute documentary on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was awarded Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival in 1969; director of photography and editor of Wanda, a feature film directed by Barbara Loden, awarded Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival in 1971; and co-producer, director of photography, and editor of The Visitors, a feature film directed by Elia Kazan. In 2008, his screenplay Romeros, Julieta, & the General won best screenplay at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival; and in 2009, his screenplay Handsome Harry, directed by Bette Gordon, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. He is Professor Emeritus at Columbia University.

Laura J. Medina is an educator and filmmaker. She has professional production credits on a wide variety of productions including studio and independent feature films, documentaries and TV series. Laura directed three short narrative films, screened at film festivals all over the U.S. Since 2011 she has been an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film and Theatre at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches producing, directing and advanced production. Laura has a BA in Political Science from Antioch College, an MFA in Filmmaking from New York University, and is a member of the Directors Guild of America.

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Film Directing Fundamentals

See Your Film Before Shooting
By Nicholas T. Proferes

Focal Press

Copyright © 2008 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-092754-1

Chapter One



The first dramatic films were rendered as if through a proscenium. The camera was placed in position, and all the action in the scene took place within that camera frame. The audience's view was much the same as a theater audience sitting front row center. The American director D. W. Griffith was one of the first to move the audience onto the stage with works like For Love Of Gold (1908), The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and the highly influential, but strongly racist, Birth of a Nation (1915). "Look here!" he said to the audience with his camera—"Now here!" Griffith was not only moving the audience into the scene, he was then turning their seats this way and that—moving them into the face of a character, then in the next instant pulling them to the back of the "theater" to get a larger view of the character in relation to other characters or showing the character in relation to his or her surroundings.

The reason for putting the audience into the scene is that it makes the story more interesting-more dramatic. But by moving the audience into the action and focusing their attention first here, now there, the director can easily confuse and disorient the audience. The geography of a location or the wholeness of a character's body becomes fragmented. Whose hand does that belong to? Where is character A in spatial relationship to character B? Usually the director does not want to cause confusion. Rather, she wants the audience to feel comfortable in this film world—to be spatially (and temporally) oriented—so that the story can take place unimpeded. Usually the director wants the audience to know, "That hand belongs to Bob, and Bob is sitting to the right of Ellen" (even if we haven't seen Ellen for a while). There are times, however, when we will use this possibility for confusion and disorientation to our advantage to create surprise or suspense.


When film became a series of connected shots, a language was born. Every shot became a complete sentence with at least one subject and one verb. (We are talking about an edited shot here, as opposed to a camera setup, which can be cut into a number of edited shots.) Like prose, a film sentence/shot can be simple, with only one subject and one verb, and perhaps an object; or it can be a compound sentence/shot, composed of two or more clauses. The type of sentence/shot we use will first depend on the essence of the moment that we wish to convey to the audience. Secondarily, that sentence/shot will be contained in a design of the scene, which can be an ingredient of an overall style. In Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), where there are but nine sentences, each one 10 minutes long (the length of a film roll), each sentence contains many subjects and a host of verbs and objects.

Let us look at a simple sentence/shot: a wristwatch lying on a table, reading three o'clock.

Without a context outside of this particular shot, the sentence reads, "A wristwatch lying on a table reads three o'clock." The significance of this film sentence, its specific meaning in the context of a story, will become clear only when it is embedded among other shots (sentences); for example, a character is someplace she is not supposed to be, and as she leaves we cut to the very same shot of the wristwatch on the table reading three o'clock. Now the shot—the sentence—is given a context and takes on a specific significance. Its meaning is clear. The character is leaving behind evidence (that could cause her trouble). The fact that it is three o'clock might very well have no significance at all.

The necessity of context in interpreting a particular shot applies to the camera angle also. No camera angle—extreme low, extreme high, tilted to left or right, etc.—in and of itself contains any inherent dramatic, psychological, or atmospheric content.


Professionals in the film industry don't usually refer to a shot as a sentence. But in learning any foreign language, we have to think in our native language first to clearly formulate what it is we want to say in the new language, and the same principle applies to learning to "talk" in film. It can be extremely helpful before you have developed a visual vocabulary to formulate the content of each shot into a linguistic analogue (the prose and syntax of your native language) to help you find the corresponding visual images. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that film, unlike the words of the screenplay, is rendered on the screen in a series of images that, when combined in a sequence, gives a meaning that goes beyond mere words. The late Stefan Sharff, a former colleague of mine at Columbia, in his book The Elements of Cinema, wrote:

When a proper cinema "syntax" is used, the viewer is engaged in an active process of constantly "matching" chains of shots not merely by association or logical relationship but by an empathy peculiar to cinema. The blend so achieved spells cinema sense—a mixture of emotion and understanding, meditative or subliminal, engaging the viewer's ability to respond to a structured cinema "language." ... A cinematic syntax yields meaning not only through the surface content of shots, but also through their connections and mutual relationships.


Film language has only four basic grammatical rules, three of which are concerned with spatial orientation as a result of moving the audience into the action. The fourth also deals with space but for a different reason. All of these rules must be followed most of the time, but all can be broken for dramatic effect.


The 180-degree rule deals with any framed spatial (right-to-left or left-to-right) relationship between a character and another character or object. It is used to maintain consistent screen direction between the characters, or a character and an object, within the established space.

When a character is opposite another character or object, an imaginary line (axis) exists between that character and the other character or object. The issue is most acute in the sight lines between two characters who are looking at each other (Figure 1-1). As long as A and B are contained in the same shot, there is no problem (Figure 1-2). (The axis exists even if the characters do not look at each other.)

Now let's place a camera between the two characters, facing toward A, who is looking, not at the camera, but at B, who is camera right (Figure 1-3). (Characters almost never look into the camera except in very special situations, such as an object of a point of view (POV) shot, a comic take, or a reflexive moment that recognizes the presence of the camera.)

Let's now turn the camera around toward B who will now be looking camera left (Figure 1-4).

If we were to shoot separate shots of A and B then cut them together so that one would follow the other, what we would see on the screen is the two subjects looking at each other. In other words, their sight lines would be correct, and the audience would understand the spatial relationship between the characters. What happens to the sight lines if we jump the axis during a scene (Figure 1-5)?

Still shooting in separation, we have moved the camera across the axis for shooting A while leaving the camera on the same side of the axis for B. Subject A will now be looking camera left. B will also be looking camera left. When the two shots are cut together, the result will be that the subjects/characters will be looking in the opposite directions, and the audience will become confused as to spatial positioning between them, the dynamics of the dramatic moment thereby broken.

It is possible to cross the axis with impunity as long as we keep the audience constantly apprised of where the characters are in relation to each other. We could dolly across or around. Or we could cut to a two-shot from the opposite side of the axis. Other than the fact that character A will jump to the left side of the frame, whereas B will jump to the right side, the audience will still be correctly oriented (Figure 1-6). This "flip-flopping" of characters to opposite sides of the frame, at the right dramatic moment, can be another powerful dramatic tool.

Having characters change sides within the frame is also a staging technique often used by directors, and it is one that is highly effective in punctuating a moment. This is made even more powerful if, say, the position of characters A and B within the frame is changed forcefully. A good example of this exists in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), the highly memorable scene in which Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) exclaims to the private detective, J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "She's my sister, she's my daughter!" At the start of this hysterical outburst, Dunaway is on the right side of the frame. Nicholson tries to calm her down. He fails until he slaps her hard, sending her reeling from screen right to screen left. This change in their positioning vis-à-vis the frame serves to end that dramatic "stanza" and announces the arrival of a new one. Another good example of flipflopping of characters to the opposite side of the frame is in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976) as Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) makes her way to a taxi pursued by Travis (Robert De Niro) after a disastrous date at an X-rated movie. Keeping both in the frame, the camera crosses the 180-degree line four times, dramatically punctuating Betsy's exit.

Can we ever jump the axis between our characters while they are in separation? The 180degree rule often terrifies the beginning director, and so much heed is paid to not breaking this rule that it rarely is. But we can break it—jump the axis between characters—with great dramatic effect if we do it on an act of energy: This act of energy can be either psychological or physical. We will see an example of this when we add the camera to a screenplay in Chapter 8.


If we are going from one shot of a character or object (Figure 1-7) to another shot of the same character or object without an intervening shot of something else, the camera angle should change by at least 30 degrees.

The effect of disobeying this rule is to call undue attention to the camera; it seems to leap through space. If the rule is obeyed, we do not notice this leap. But in some instances, disobedience can be dramatically energizing. In The Birds (1963), Hitchcock ignores the rule to "punch up" the discovery of the body of a man with a series of three shots from the same angle, each shot coming dramatically closer: medium to medium close-up to close-up. (Three is the magic number in this style of elaboration, as well as in other stylistic and dramaturgical aspects of film. Given any two types of patterns we anticipate the third, creating dramatic tension.)

Sometimes, because of the geography of the set or other limitations, we have to cut to the next shot from the same angle. We see it done successfully fairly frequently, but the reason it works is because of one of the following mitigating factors: the subject is in motion, the second shot includes a foreground object such as a lamp shade, or the change in image size from one shot to the next is substantial.


The sections that follow explore various aspects of screen direction.


If a character (or car, or anything else) exits a frame going from left to right (Figure 1-8), he should enter the next frame from the left if we intend to convey to the audience that the character is headed in the same direction.

If we disobey this simple rule and have our character or car exit frame right (Figure 1-9), then enter the second frame from the right, the character or car will seem to have made a U-turn.


Excerpted from Film Directing Fundamentals by Nicholas T. Proferes Copyright © 2008 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword     xiii
Acknowledgments     xv
Introduction     xvii
Film Language and a Directing Methodology     1
Introduction to Film Language and Grammar     3
The Film World     3
Film Language     3
Shots     4
Film Grammar     4
The 180-Degree Rule     4
The 30-Degree Rule     7
Screen Direction     8
Film-Time     9
Compression     10
Elaboration     10
Familiar Image     11
Introduction to the Dramatic Elements Embedded in the Screenplay     13
Spines     13
Whose Film Is It?     14
Character     15
Circumstance     16
Dynamic Relationship     16
Wants     16
Expectations     17
Actions     17
Activity     17
Acting Beats     17
Dramatic Blocks     18
Narrative Beats     18
Fulcrum     19
Organizing Action in a Dramatic Scene     20
Dramatic Elements in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious Patio Scene     20
Notorious Patio Scene Annotated     21
Staging     28
Patterns of Dramatic Movement     30
Changing the Stage within a Scene     30
Staging as Part of a Film's Design     31
Working with a Location Floor Plan     31
Floor Plan for Notorious Patio Scene     31
Camera     36
The Camera as Narrator     36
Reveal     36
Entrances     36
Objective Camera     37
Subjective Camera     37
Where Do I Put It?     38
Visual Design     40
Style     41
Coverage     41
Camera Height     42
Lenses     43
Composition     44
Where to Begin?     44
Working toward Specificity in Visualization     44
Looking for Order     45
Dramatic Blocks and Camera     45
Shot Lists, Storyboards, and Setups     45
The Prose Storyboard     46
Camera in Notorious Patio Scene     49
First Dramatic Block     49
Second Dramatic Block     53
Third Dramatic Block     57
Fourth Dramatic Block and Fulcrum      59
Fifth Dramatic Block     63
Making Your Film     67
Detective Work on Scripts     69
Reading Your Screenplay     69
A Piece of Apple Pie Screenplay     70
Whose Film Is It?     75
Character     75
Circumstance     75
Spines for A Piece of Apple Pie     76
Dynamic Relationships     76
Wants     77
Actions     77
Acting Beats     77
Activity     78
Tone for A Piece of Apple Pie     78
Breaking A Piece of Apple Pie into Actions     78
Designing a Scene     79
Visualization     79
Identifying the Fulcrum and Dramatic Blocks     79
Supplying Narrative Beats to A Piece of Apple Pie     80
Director's Notebook     86
Staging and Camera for A Piece of Apple Pie     87
Staging     87
Camera     89
Conclusion     115
Marking Shooting Script with Camera Setups     116
Working with Actors     123
Casting     124
Auditions     125
First Read-Through      126
Directing During Rehearsals     127
Directing Actors on the Set     130
Managerial Responsibilities of the Director     132
Delegating Authority While Accepting Responsibility     132
The Producer     132
The Assistant Director     133
A Realistic Shooting Schedule     134
Working with the Crew     134
Working with the Director of Photography     134
Postproduction     136
Editing     136
Music and Sound     138
Locking Picture, or, How Do You Know When It's Over?     138
An Audience and a Big Screen     139
Organizing Action in an Action Scene     141
Staging and Camera for Over Easy Action Scene     143
Development of Screenplay     146
Director's Preparation for Directing an Action Scene     147
Where to Begin?     147
Over Easy Action Scene/Staging and Camera Angels for Storyboard Artist     148
Organizing Action in a Narrative Scene     185
Staging and Camera for Wanda Narrative Scene     187
What Is the Scene's Job?     187
Choosing a Location     188
Staging     188
Camera Style in Wanda      189
Learning the Craft Through Film Analysis     219
Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious     221
Overview of Style and Design     221
First Act     222
Second Act     224
Third Act     235
Summary     236
Peter Weir's The Truman Show     237
Overview of Style and Design     237
First Act     238
Second Act     243
Third Act     252
Summary     256
Federico Fellini's 8 1/2     257
A Masterpiece?     257
The Director as Auteur     257
Dramatic Construction     258
Overview of Style and Design     258
Detective Work     260
First Act     260
Second Act     269
Third Act     281
Summary     284
Styles And Dramatic Structures     285
Style     285
Narrative, Dramatic, and Poetic Visual Styles     286
The Variety of Dramatic Structures     286
Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan)     287
Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder (1959)     288
The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (1965, France)      289
Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski (1994, Poland, France, Switzerland)     290
Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh (1989)     292
Shall We Dance?, Masayuki Suo (1996, Japan)     294
The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark)     295
The Insider, Michael Mann (1999)     297
The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick (1998)     299
In the Mood for Love, Kar Wai Wong (2001, China)     300
Little Children, Todd Field (2006)     302
What Next?     304
Building Directorial Muscles     304
Writing for the Director     305
Begin Thinking about Your Story     305
Concocting Your Feature Screenplay     306
"Writing" Scenes with Actors     307
Shooting Your Film before You Finish Writing It     307
The Final Script     308
Shooting without a Screenplay?     308
Questions Directors Should Ask about Their Screenplays     308
Conclusion     309
Bibliography     311
Index     313

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