A film, whether it is a blockbuster Hollywood production or a small independent effort, has a number of elements that come together in order to guide the audience through the arc of the story. The actors may be the most visible elements on the screen, but a number of other craftsmen had to perform a lot of other functions in order to get that finished film in front of an audience. If you are interested in analyzing why one movie succeeds and another fails, it is important to understand how collaborative filmmaking really is. To really have a handle on why movies work, it's helpful if you watch a number of films in different genres to understand the conventions of each.
Here are some elements to consider when analyzing a film for a review or personal critique.
- Consider the effectiveness of the dialogue and storyline. Although many professional screenwriters do not get the same attention as actors or directors, they are the true architects of a movie. Screenwriters may adapt a book into script form, or they may create their own original stories for the screen. Either way, you should be able to sense an attention to detail in the dialogue and plotlines. A successful movie script uses authentic dialogue and scenarios that the actors can handle with ease. A less successful script places characters in situations that feel artificial or contrived. The language of the characters may be peppered with obscenities, or thoughts that seem to come more from a screenwriter's mind than the character's. When analyzing the writing in a film, ask yourself if the dialogue felt honest and the scenes flowed in a logical progression. Did you see all of the scenes you needed to see in order to stay with the storyline? Did you have any moments where the dialogue took you out of the movie?
- Look at the background and set pieces. The job of a cinematographer (or director of photography) is to create the proper atmosphere for the film. When you watch a film for analysis, try to ignore the actors and dialogue for a few minutes. Pay attention to the shapes and colors of the scenery, sets and costumes. They should all be working together to create a specific mood or ambience. The use of light and darkness can be very important, as can other atmospheric effects such as shadow and fog. In a good film, the background information should enhance the scene but not overwhelm it. When cinematography is not handled well, the audience might inadvertently focus on a distracting wall decoration or an anachronistic car in the background. When analyzing a film, ask yourself if the setting and background added more to the story or distracted you from it.
- The performance of individual actors should be considered. It can be easy to look at a particular lead character's performance and fail to notice the supporting actors' efforts. When analyzing a film, pay attention to what other characters are doing when they are not part of the main action. A good actor understands that his or her role is to drive the plot forward or establish a character in the audience's mind. The actor portraying a villain, for example, must be a formidable opponent for the actor portraying the hero. Supporting characters may not have much dialogue, but their presence can still be felt by the audience. When analyzing the performance of actors, ask yourself if they successfully inhabited the character and provided something for other actors to work against.
- Editing is a very important element of the finished film. Many film critics say the real movie begins in the editing room. Sometimes a potentially good film is less successful because of poor editing. Essential parts of the film's storyline may be cut out entirely, or scenes which do nothing to move the plot forward are left in the final cut. When editing is done right, it should be nearly invisible. When analyzing the editing of a film, look for anything that jars or confuses you. Scenes with dialogue should cut seamlessly between actors speaking the lines and others reacting to them. Action scenes should maintain a steady, exciting pace that builds to a climax. A good film should flow from scene to scene without denying the audience enough information to follow the arc of the story.
- Directors put distinctive fingerprints on their films. While much of a director's job begins and ends with film production, his or her vision should still be apparent in the look and feel of the finished movie. A good director understands the intentions of the scriptwriters, the capacities of the actors and the skills of the crew. When analyzing a film, it often helps to research the director's body of work and details of his or her distinctive style. How do they get the best performances from their actors? What is their reputation among other filmmakers? Two different directors could film the same scene and an informed audience member should be able to tell the difference. When analyzing the director's contribution to a film, look for signature elements such as familiar actors, edgy dialogue, unique devotion to particular camera angles or perspectives, or creative background music. Every director has at least one distinctive feature, so look for it when analyzing a new film.
Breaking a film down into its essential elements may not sound like fun on a date night, but it's a good way to learn the essentials of filmmaking. If you are an aspiring filmmaker yourself, it can be very useful to understand how some films become classics and others become distant memories.