Whether you’re currently a student or just wish you were, summer’s last gasp will always be a reminder that it’s back-to-school season. As August flickers into September and you reminisce about the hours you once spent shopping for school supplies, we at Fandor want to provide you with our own little seminar: a primer in filmmaking. From screenwriting and cinematography to editing and sound design, we’ve got you covered with a selection of videos designed to educate and enlighten you about the wonder and magic of the filmmaking process. The only prerequisite is a love for movies, and there won’t be a final exam, so dive in and enjoy, and see what you take away.
Click the images to go to the videos.
Lesson No. 1: The MacGuffin
A story has to begin somewhere.
We’ll start with screenwriting, and no lesson in writing for film is complete without an introduction to the MacGuffin. First popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the term stands for something (often an object) that exists solely to motivate characters and advance the plot, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the falcon statue in The Maltese Falcon. Often, the specific narrative device used is meaningless in and of itself. The envelope of money in Psycho and the microfilm in North By Northwest could easily be substituted without altering the movies’ plots, but don’t let their simplicity fool you: MacGuffins have come to define some of the greatest films in history.
Lesson No. 2: The Deus Ex Machina
Don’t use one…Unless, of course, it works.
Coined during Ancient Greek theatre, deus ex machina translates to “god from the machine,” and refers to a mechanical device that the Greeks would use to lower actors playing gods onto the stage. In the language of filmmaking, the term has come to represent one of the most frowned-upon tropes in screenwriting. It typically refers to a narrative device that constitutes an improbably easy — and often lazy — solution to a major dramatic problem. In the iconic last scene from Jurassic Park, the T-Rex shows up out of nowhere to save the humans from the velociraptors (and, conveniently, only attacks the raptors). In The Lord of the Rings, giant eagles suddenly appear to provide crucial aid during the final battle for Middle Earth. But while it’s usually best to steer clear of incorporating a deus ex machina, there are occasions when using one actually bolsters the story.
Lesson No. 3: Different Film Gauges
Choosing the “look” of your movie.
Once you have your story squared away it’s time to actually shoot your film. First, though, you’ll have to decide just how you want to shoot. There are three major gauges of film in use — 16mm, 35mm, and 65mm — and, in addition to a slew of digital options, each style provides a different look and feel to the images one conveys. Just how does one decide what they want to shoot? Take a look at this video to get a better idea as to how great filmmakers use different film gauges to guide their visions.
Lesson No. 4: Camera Techniques
The four essential moves.
Camera movement is one of the most fundamental filmmaking devices. Even the subtlest of moves can create an entirely new feeling, completely altering our perception of a scene and its characters. There are four core camera moves that everyone should be familiar with: The pan, the tilt, the boom, and the dolly. On the surface, they’re rather simple, but there’s far more nuance to each than one might expect, and, used correctly, each one offers filmmakers a world of opportunity to make powerful cinematic gestures.
Lesson No. 5: The Zoom
When you’re ready for your close-up.
Zoom is one of the most basic and well-known camera techniques. It’s also one of the more misused terms because people often mistake the zoom for a dolly shot. Whereas a dolly shot occurs when one pushes the camera closer or further from its subject, with a zoom, one adjusts the focal length of the camera’s lens, generating a magnification of the image without moving the camera at all. In that sense, it’s a perfect complement to those four core camera moves. Unsure of when to use the zoom? Take a closer look at this video to bolster your knowledge.
Lesson No. 6: Aspect Ratios
A crucial shift in perspective.
Aspect ratios are one of the most important — and, perhaps, least acknowledged — technical and stylistic touches in movies. In essence, the aspect ratio represents the size of the frame that surrounds a film’s images. In our increasingly digital world, one with ever-expanding resources at filmmakers’ fingertips, a filmmaker can pretty much choose whichever aspect ratio he or she desires, from the more square “Academy Ratio” to the wider formats preferred since the late 1950s. The choice is crucial to informing a film’s story. It may seem like a technical touch, but frame size can have a tremendous impact on the way one perceives a film.
Lesson No. 7: Frame Rate
Making your movie move.
When you’re watching a film, you’re really watching twenty-four images per second. Your favorite movies are comprised of sequences of twenty-four individual photos, played back-to-back at a speed fast enough to create the illusion of motion. This speed is referred to as frame rate and, since the late 1920s, twenty-four frames per second has been the gold standard. That’s not to say one can’t get creative, though. While twenty-four frames per second are the norm, countless filmmakers — from Ang Lee and Christopher Nolan to Stanley Kubrick and Wong Kar-Wai — manipulate the number for creative effect. Reducing it can generate an accelerated, energetic feel while increasing it is the key to creating the smooth beauty of slow-motion. Frame rate is one of the more background technical aspects of filmmaking, but it’s fundamental to the moviemaking process.
Lesson No. 8: J-Cuts and L-Cuts
The essential editing techniques you’ve never heard of.
You won’t get anywhere editing your film without J-Cuts and L-Cuts. Though you may have never heard of them, they are essential to the editorial process. In a J-Cut, audio from the next shot or scene occurs before one cuts to that scene. In an L-Cut, the reverse occurs: Audio from one shot or scene carries over into the next. These subtle transitions help to set a mood and convey thoughts or feelings. They may not be the most glamorous or flashy concepts, but, in a sense, that makes them all the more important. Without J- and L-Cuts, our favorite films would be sorely lacking.
Lesson No. 9: The Pleasures of Minimal Editing
How to cut, or not cut, your film.
To cut or not to cut…That is the question. When editing a film, sometimes less is more and in some cases, too much editing can actually work against a story. There is, in fact, a distinct power to conveying raw, uninterrupted action. It can influence the film’s sense of humor, or sense of danger, as well as its intimacy and the perception of time. Gifted filmmakers, from Alfonso Cuarón to Andrei Tarkovsky, have incorporated minimalistic touches to their editing in order to create their iconic movies.
Lesson No. 10: The Origins of Sound
Half of what you see is what you hear.
When we talk about “watching” and “seeing” a film, it’s easy to forget that, most of the time, we’re also hearing a film. Starting with early movies like The Jazz Singer, filmmakers transitioned from silent films accentuated only by scores to movies in which the visual action and dialogue are entirely audible. This change fundamentally altered cinema as an art form, forever. Before you even think about the sound you record for your film, you should take a look back at the history of sound in film, and why its introduction was nothing short of revolutionary.
Lesson No. 11: Sound Editing & Sound Mixing
Spoiler alert, they’re not the same thing.
How’d they constructed the T-Rex’s roar in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? Who was behind the alternation between the sounds of bombs dropping and quiet ocean waves in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk? Both have to do with sound editing and sound mixing. You likely hear the two terms every year during the Academy Awards, but do you know the difference between the two? Despite frequently being grouped together, they are actually quite different — yet both are equally crucial to the filmmaking process. Sound editing refers to the process of capturing sounds, both on set and after filming, and sound mixing refers to how the sounds are adjusted and layered during post-production. Putting the terms that simply, though, belies the artistry that goes into generating a film’s auditory feel.
Watch Now: To see how the greats do it, check out our spotlights on fearless directors and critically acclaimed films. For a lesson in screenwriting, check out our spotlight on masterfully written films, script to screen, and for a better idea of how things work behind the scenes, you can peruse our list of movies about movies.