A Marriage of Sounds, Pictures and Ideas – A Brief Introduction to Analysing Films
Now that most of us are staying home to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay, we’ve also got a little bit more time on our hands. So why not enhance our movie-watching experience? Instead of simply watching movies during streaming parties with your friends, familiarise yourself with some of the basic techniques in film analysis.
Technical and creative techniques that filmmakers use to convey their themes are often subtle, but being able to detect them is all part of the fun. Here are just some of the basic methods used in film to communicate ideas.
Speaking Through Light and Colour
Filmmakers can evoke great emotion from the audience by manipulating the colours they choose to display in their works. Colour psychology isn’t too complicated and it taps into an instinctive tendency to associate colours with certain emotions that we’re all familiar with to a certain extent.
Zhang Yimou, for example, is renowned for his uninhibited use of colours in his films. The choice of colours aren’t simply indulgent, but are thoughtful choices that coincide with the thematic concerns of his work. Let’s take a look at his 2002 film, Hero, as an example. I was first introduced to Zhang Yimou in my introductory English Literature module in university, and the use of colour symbolism in Hero blew my freshman socks off. Hero is a good place to start if you’re just starting to get used to film analysis.
Red usually symbolizes aggression and anger. The fight between Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi) is enveloped in red tones, representing the jealousy and hatred the two characters share. The colour red also highlights the fiery intensity of their conflict.
On the other hand, blue is the dominant colour between Flying Snow and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), fitting of their tenderness and self-sacrificial love for each other. Blue typically represents true, peaceful love that is devoid of any jealousy or selfishness.
I think much like the rest of the world, I found Parasite to be an unique film experience. The sinister isn’t only in its eerie tone, but also in the social commentary it makes. But if you look closer at Bong Joon-ho’s directorial decisions, it becomes all the more fascinating.
Take a look at the lighting and colour differences between the two houses in the movie. It’s this manipulation of light and colour that reinforce the troubling class divide. It’s subtle, yet effective.
Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo reflected the motif of class inequality by exploiting the amount of sunshine the respective families get in their houses. Park’s (Lee Sun-kyun) extravagant mansion is brighter, shining through the wide, floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Kim household is in stark contrast, where little sunlight is able to come through a small window in the basement apartment. Using greenish fluorescent lights also creates a sense of discomfort.
The Parks’ luxury is further enhanced by the warm, gentle lights during nighttime. I found this element particularly fascinating, because despite the warm tones, the house doesn’t feel like a home. The family appears to be devoid of genuine affection.
But the cold semi-basement apartment that the Kims live in is also the opposite. It’s cold, and the greenish hue makes the place look musky and uncomfortable. Yet, this household looks more like a loving family, dysfunction and all.
There’s other visual elements that are vital in storytelling. This usually falls under the broader category of cinematography.
Writing With Images Through Cinematography
Of course, the camera is one of the filmmakers’ most instrumental tools in their storytelling. The mise-en-scène is pivotal in portraying and enhancing the story, so it’s no surprise that almost all good films have expressive visual elements. In film, the mise-en-scène refers to everything that the camera framing captures such as composition, props, actors, and also the editing.
Analysing these elements may take some getting used to, but once you’re able to detect simple artistic decisions, you’ll see that even the slightest detail in the frame is for a reason. Let’s start with an obvious technique: framing.
Any discussion about cinematography is not complete unless Wes Anderson is brought up. Anderson is a master of visual storytelling with a distinct style. But his trademark framing techniques aren’t done simply for the visual aesthetic value; they also serve to accentuate the deadpan comedy he so loves.
Symmetry and one-point perspectives are Anderson’s hallmark visual style. He captures our entertainment by contrasting the centre-balanced composition of the frame to the peculiar and outrageous shenanigans his characters are up to. This fits the endearingly off-beat charm of Wes Anderson movies.
Now consider Stanley Kubrick’s visual style. Kubrick uses similar framing techniques, but Anderson and Kubrick couldn’t be any more different from each other. This much is clear. For Kubrick, the one-point perspective is disorienting and unsettling.
Of course, we’re not blatantly aware of the effects of such directorial decisions, but after we first recognise them, they’re inescapable. This is particularly appropriate for Kubrick’s ominous films.
Ever wondered what makes The Shining so unnerving? Maybe it’s because it feels as if there’s no escape. It’s as if I’m trapped in the hotel myself. The one-point perspective makes you feel like the exit is only getting further and further away, disappearing into an unreachable point.
Kubrick and Anderson’s visual trademarks are similar, yet they communicate vastly different themes.
There’s also much that we can learn about a narrative in a single frame from the props and how everything is arranged. For example, take a look at this scene from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016).
Just from this frame alone, we can sense the tension brewing between Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri). It’s the understated elements that can make the loudest statements. If you watch this film, the tension is remarkable even though it’s such a simple scene.
The composition is straightforward, with the main subjects in the centre of the frame. Yet if you look at this frame, there’s a kind of emotional complexity that’s not easy to detect at first glance. We may think that the bottles of soap and other props scattered around are simply serving a functional purpose, but they’re actually useful in conveying emotions.
The props make it look like there’s a lot going on unnecessarily, but they fit the scene perfectly in terms of framing the central subjects, Hideko and Sook-hee. The mise-en-scène serves to heighten the tension between the characters, like all that matters to them is each other. It’s as if we’re suspended in this tense moment that they’re having.
This is representative of Hideko and Sook-hee’s current relationship dynamics. Their feelings are quietly developing for each other, in the midst of a chaotic and tortuous environment.
But with all the importance of visual elements in our film experience, let’s not forget another critical aspect of film. After all, some say that films are “50 percent visual and 50 percent sound”.
The Quiet Power of Sound
Since film is a visual medium, the element of sound is often neglected when considering the thematic concerns of the movie. But it’s precisely in this subtlety and understatedness that not only makes sound so fascinating, but also crucial in the storytelling.
Who among us is constantly aware of the music and sound design in movies? Unless you’ve got some kind of experience in the industry or film analysis, most of the time they go by unnoticed. That’s exactly what good sound design is supposed to do. Music and sound serve to reinforce emotional and narrative depths, by complementing the visuals and dialogue.
Personally, sound is my favourite element in film to pay attention to. Because it’s so subtle, its emotional impact is all the more powerful. It’s like sound creates a subliminal reaction from you that you’re unable to pinpoint, and I think that’s what makes a film emotionally compelling.
A good place to start to understand the value of sound is through David Lynch’s works. You can identify the story and thematic beats just through his sound design alone.
The soundscape in Eraserhead (1977) is a perfect example of storytelling through the ears. The eerie and industrial sounds that penetrates the screen amplifies the surrealistic horror of the movie. Most of the sounds that we hear on screen are coming from an unknown source off-screen, in tune with the theme of paranoia.
During the dinner scene, the squelching noises of blood when the turkey is being cut is so visceral, that you can’t help but wince yourself. I know I couldn’t. But despite the daring soundscape that Lynch uses, it doesn’t distract you from concentrating on the visuals and dialogues.
The profound influence of sound is that they can have significant emotional impact, yet remain in the backdrop, quietly enhancing your experience of the film.
Music in films also complement the emotional beats in the narrative. In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), the song “California Dreamin” by The Mamas & The Papas becomes a leitmotif for Cop 663 (Tony Leung) and Faye’s (Faye Wong) relationship. A leitmotif is a recurring melody that’s associated with certain characters or ideas.
The song is obsessively played throughout the film. When I heard it for the first time, I felt the excitement and thrill of the characters’ first meeting. And then eventually melancholy. Hearing the song at differing junctions of their story evokes very different sentiments as their relationship develops. The music functions also to tell the story.
He also does this in In the Mood for Love (2000) with “Yumeji’s Theme”.
‘Yumeji’s Theme’ plays an important role in setting the emotional tone of the film. The melancholic orchestral movements harmonise with the lovers’ dance with fate. The song plays whenever Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) run into each other, with a subtlety that highlights the intimate and sentimental nature of their encounters.
When Mo-Wan and Li-Zhen pass each other in the hallway, their movements are slow and delicate, just as the melody is tender and languid. ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ perfectly encapsulates the emotional aspect of the film, and it becomes a powerful narrative device.
We’ve just looked at some of the technical elements that make our film experience emotionally compelling. They all come together into a singular, refined product, so being able to detect the subtle directorial decisions can make watching films even more entertaining. Now that you’ve got a run through of some of the basics, it’s time to put them into practice and impress your friends during your next streaming party.