The Basics of Film Grammar
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In the English language, grammar is utilized to keep a consistent flow of ideas through a purposeful structure. This very fundamental concept translates over to the medium of film through the principle known as film grammar. Film grammar refers to the way that images use angles, cuts, and lighting to tell a story or convey emotion. In a similar fashion that English speakers need to comprehend basic grammar to communicate, filmmakers need to learn the fundamentals of film grammar to tell a cohesive narrative and master them to tell a great one. But like learning a language, it’s difficult to figure out where to begin. When deconstructing film language, many analysts can trace the fundamentals into a few basic rules: the 180° rule, the 30%/20° rule, and Screen Direction.
When reading a novel, article, or text, many psychologists argue that most humans tend to read from left to right instead of vice versa. The same principle applies to screen direction. This principle states that if a character is moving from point A to point B from left to right, then the next scene should show the character moving from left to right to maintain consistent movement. As I continued to expand my knowledge of screen direction, I realized that a lot of these techniques, specifically screen direction, are meant to keep the audience from being confused by creating an invisible movement of images. Editing is often misconstrued to be blatant and apparent when in reality editing and film grammar are designed to go unnoticed by the audience.
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The 180-degree rule is primarily used whenever filming conversations or dialogue scenes that feature 2 characters facing each other. If you look at one character, they are on the left-hand side of the scene facing right while the other is on the right side facing left. Whenever filming close-up shots of each character, imagine there is a line that divides the space of the set into 2: the left side of the actors and the right. To maintain a consistent flow of cuts, the rule states that you must never cross this line while filming a dialogue scene. If you were to cross the line and film the actors' close-ups from opposite sides of the lines, then it would appear that the actors are looking the same way. While on the topic of shot consistency, the 30%/20° rule is a perfect example of how basic geometry is needed for shot composition and set coordination while filming a scene. If you are filming a character in two shots in the same scene, each shot needs to be at least 30 degrees apart from the first shot. This is to prevent two shots from looking identical with slight distortion in appearance. If these two similar shots were cut together, the transition between the two shots would appear to be jumping back and forth, creating a confusing sense of time and space. Although I heard the phrase “crossing the line” before, learning about why I shouldn’t cross it made me realize how meticulous shot composition is and why directors have to be strict about their setup. The difference that a few inches of camera position causes can make or break a scene.
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The biggest takeaway that learning about film grammar has taught me would be how much goes into the structure of the tiniest of details when filming a scene. Audiences tend to draw their attention to big set pieces, acting, costumes, and special effects without even noticing the specific techniques that go into filming a basic conversation or reaction shot. I learned that there are many rules that filmmakers need to follow to construct a basic form of storytelling. However, this also shows me how and when I can break these rules. The film is an art, and by mastering these principles of storytelling, I can now learn when would be an appropriate time to disregard the rules and create a new form of storytelling to better fit my experimentation and creative storytelling methods.