Posted by: steveonfilm | November 9, 2009

When Watching A Movie

Kevin, a reader of the blog, asked an interesting question the other day in the comments. He asked, “What do you do when you watch movies?”

I think anyone who has educated themselves on the movie making process (be it in front of, or behind the camera) got to a point where they never really looked at movies the same way again. For me this occurred during my first quarter at Savannah College of Art and Design. Specifically it was the day in my “Introduction to Video Production” that I first learned about the shot reverse shot:

Now, this might not seem like much to you, but to me I could never look at this sequence of shots again without going in my head, “Oh, there’s a shot/reverse shot sequence.” It doesn’t matter the movie, the TV show, the cartoon, any time I saw it from that point forward I knew what it was.

The point I’m getting at is that I had reached a new level of understanding about what goes into the film making progress. Once I had understood what a “short/reverse shot” sequence was, and knew how to identify it, I quickly worked it into my own camera work. My video projects quickly went from a series of establishing shots, with a close up here and there for good measure, to something DRASTICALLY better visually just because I started to use “shot/reverse shot” sequences.

This type of creative growth easily translates into writing. As I went about educating myself on screenwriting I’ve come across a lot of theories on how movies should be paced. Ways to dissect movies into major and minor beats. How to identify when a major plot point is about to unfold. I could go on… but instead I’ll fall back to Syd Field’s paradigm to give a quick summary of how he suggests a two hour movie should play out.

In a screenplay, the first plot point comes at the end of Act One, which should be at about page 30. On screen this should be about thirty minutes into the film. The mid point comes in the middle of Act Two, which would be at about page sixty. On screen this should be about sixty minutes into the film. The second plot point comes at the end of Act Two, which should be at about page 90. One screen this should be about ninety minutes into the film. Finally, “Fade Out” should come at the end of Act Three, which should be at about page 120. On screen you should see the credits start to roll right at about the two hour mark.

So, visually it breaks down like this:
30 minutes – Plot Point One
60 minutes – Mid Point
90 minutes – Plot Point Two
120 minutes – The End

There are other minor beats that can occur, Syd refers to them as Pinches, and includes the first one in between plot point one and the mid point, and the second one in between the mid point and plot point two. However, those aren’t really important for what I’m talking about.

As I’ve learned about story breakdowns and structuring methods like this, I’ve again started to look at films in a different way. Instead of visual cues, I’m thinking about plot elements, and when they occur. I’m often checking my watch when I’m in the theater, taking a mental note of when something happened. Is it close to 30 minutes? Closer to 20? Was it rushed? Things like that. I pause DVDs when I’m at home, looking at the time line to get an idea of how far the story has progressed.

A lot of times I try to figure out where the acts all start and end. Not all movies fall into the three act screenplay breakdown, but I’ve found DRASTICALLY more do than do not. Especially the big budget summer films. These movies follow that formula almost to a T.

I don’t take many notes when I watch a movie. Though sometimes I’ll have my computer nearby to jot some things down as they pop up in my head. There have been a few times where I’ve really decided to study a movie as an example. I’ve taken significant notes on “HEAT”, which I’ve mentioned MANY times is one of my favorite movies of all time, “Thelma and Louise,” “Collateral,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “Tombstone.” These are all movies I’ve seen dozens of times, so breaking them down in to more detailed components was really an interesting case study.

Like I said above, I do hit the pause button a lot when watching movies. Often times ten or fifteen times in a viewing. It drives my wife nuts. But to me it’s important. Sometimes a movie is moving along so swiftly I feel like the mid point or third act should be coming up, but then a pause it and realize I’m only 40 or 50 minutes in. That’s when I knew the writer and film makers did a great job. I’m on edge anticipating the next big beat, completely lost in the moment. Unless I hit the pause button after certain things happen, I have no idea of how they’re being paced out, or what page they’d like appear on in a screenplay.

I also pay attention to how certain plot points play out, sometimes rewinding them and watching them again. I pay close attention to why the director, or writer, chose to go about structuring the scene the way they did. Why are certain characters there? What did the event play out that way? Was there more that could have been done? Did they give away too much? Did they not give away enough? Was it predictable? Was it cliche? These are the types of questions that run through my head when I watch.

The more I write and read screenplays, the better I’m getting at dissecting films on a technical level. I’m by no means an expert, but the move I learn about the screenwriting process, the more I find myself enjoying films. For example, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed “Ingorious Basterds” as much had I not been writing. There were just elements in how scenes played out I thought were brilliant. I still think it ran too long though. 😉

So there you have it. Some info on how I watch movies, and what I take away from them when I’m done. There is a bunch of stuff on the web, and in print, that can help you develop your viewing to a more educational and technical level. I don’t think any one method is better than the rest, but like with how I go about outlining, I read what I can and take what I need and make it my own.

Until next time, keep writing!


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