Film Language

Once 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 may 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 we wish to convey to the audience. Secondarily, that sentence/shot will be contained in a design of the scene, which may be an ingredient of an overall style. In Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), where there are but nine sentences — each 10 minutes long (the length of a film roll) — each sentence contains many subjects and a host of verbs and objects.

Let's look at a simple sentence/shot: a wristwatch lying on a table, reading three o'clock. Without a context outside this particular shot, the sentence reads, "A wrist-watch 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 (which 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 understanding a film shot applies to the camera angle also. No camera angle — extreme low, extreme high, tilted to left or right, and so on — in and of itself contains any inherent dramatic, psychological, or atmospheric content.

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