How to Learn Filmmaking by Watching Movies?

Is it really possible to learn filmmaking by merely watching them. I believe so and many directors’ primary schooling begin by watching movies. So I decided to give a complete breakdown on How to Learn Filmmaking by Watching Movies.

It is our Primary Schooling

You have been a fanboy all this while. You have followed your idols’ films and watched them umpteen
times. The scenes have subconsciously engraved in your mind. You can actually lip sync the lines perfectly
muting the sound. You have the passion to follow their footprints and that inner belief that you too can
make films like them or even better. You have the dreams and visions to realize it on the screen. But, You
don’t know the craft.

The reality strikes and you realize that you are not even a rookie. You know nothing about how the films
are made. Then, how will aspire to be a good filmmaker when you have no training?

The best solution is your home. This is where you can learn to make movies inexpensively, stationed on your couch. All you have to do is to get your DVDs and start watch movies.

How to Learn Filmmaking by Watching Movies??

It is the best way to learn filmmaking if you ask me. But, How? After all, filmmaking is not about learning one skill but many. It is impossible to learn all the skills just by watching them, you may argue.

We know that the film is a work of art as well as a product of a scientific process. But, one of the basic skills needed to be a good filmmaker is to have a good observing nature. Either you have it or you can develop it. With good observation, you will be able to comprehend the art as well as the science.

To understand this better, let us reverse engineer the whole process of movie making, beginning from screenwriting to the final print.

1. The Logline and the Synopsis.

Logline is the vital core of the film which has to be written in few words discreetly. You can say this the soul or the beat of the story. The entire screenplay is woven around the logline in or under 25 words. That is the norm, Hollywood follows. But, how will you arrive at a film’s logline?

First, watch the whole movie in its entirety. Then, analyze the movie after watching it in one go. It is always a better practice to run the whole story in your mind, scene by scene. Recalling the full movie will actually give you the basic plot of the story. Then grab a pen or your laptop, and quickly jot down the story in few pages. That is the synopsis of the movie. A synopsis is written before the treatment of the screenplay. So you got the rough synopsis of the movie.

Similarly, try to discover the logline of the movie. To write good stories, one should spend some time perfecting the logline of your movie. A good logline should cover the protagonist’s  desire and obstacle in the same breath. The core of the film is thus defined in this line and the entire screenplay is woven around it.

So, you can reverse engineer the entire movie to deduce the perfect logline the writer must have envisaged while approaching his script.

2. The Screenplay.

How to learn to screenwriting by watching movies? The answer is more or less the same as the previous one. But, here if you want to practice writing screenplay, you should then watch the movie, scene by scene.

Write down what you see in a proper screenplay formatted manner.The transitions from one scene to the other, the beats and rhythms of the story, how the sequences are structured?, The drama created by the conflicts, the setups, the structure, the character motivations will suddenly start surfacing when you start laying the screenplay. You will get a sense of how the filmmaker or the writer wants to tell you the story.

I still look at my watch from time to time to see the duration of the acts and the scenes while watching a movie, to get an idea of the timing of the scenes and the sequences. Time is the most vital parameter in screenwriting as you have to encompass the whole drama of the story in little over hundred pages. The temporal division of the acts and sequences thus become a very integral part of the script.

3. The Camera Movement.

The camera is the eye of the viewer as it peeks into the lives of the characters. The movement of the camera is the first thing that catches your eye and most of us aspire to become filmmakers because of the seduction of the dollys and the zooms.

When you plan to shoot a scene, where to place the camera becomes very confusing. Learning frame composition, and which shot to choose to enhance the drama is where you can score when you watch how great directors stage and cover their scenes?

So, my approach to learning cinematography by watching movies is that I take a scene which is very crucial in the story, and require a lot of intense performance and technique to make the scene legendary. I watch it repeatedly and break it down into shots. In no time, you have made a storyboard of the scene. I observe, how and when does the filmmaker use close up and long shots? How does he use a lens? When does he use zoom and when does he choose to dolly? The questions like – What is the approach to stage a scene and move the characters and in how many angles does the director cover scenes, are all answered if you do a break-up of a scene in the film.

4. Lighting a Scene:

A frame looks pale or bland if it is not lit well. Lighting a shot requires good observation, experience, and technique. You can only learn it by looking at real-life situations. How a light reacts to an environment and how it can be used to intensify the magnitude of the drama in the shot? Just by watching movies, you can deduct from where the source is placed? How do they use the key and fill lights?

Just by watching movies, you can deduct the placement of the source, key and fill lights. You start comprehending the play of highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. You will get a fair idea of how night scenes are shot? What kind of hue, they use for period dramas? These all are answered if you observe the frames of the movies very minutely. The whole education is hidden in the frames. You have to discover the treasure yourself.

5. Production Design.

The whole texture of the movie is its art and costume play. The cinematography is as good as its production design. The characters pop out of the frame because of the adept design of the background and the surroundings. The lighting of the scenes come to life due to great production design.

Production design is a story’s nonverbal visual communication with the audience. Every genre has its own setup and style of the art.These all can be sought by watching great production designed movies.

6. Casting and Performances:

Casting can make or break a character. Why is it that you see Clint Eastwood in many westerns, Arnold Schwarzenegger in action flicks whereas Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino have done mostly crime dramas. Because they look real and believable in those roles. Did you notice most of the Indies, sci-fic or Horrors have secondary stars?

I suggest you watch many genres and identify how the casting is done for those films depending on the look, the ethnicity and the dialect of the actors.

To bring out great performances from the actors is the director’s biggest challenge. Ever wondered, How will you direct Robert De Niro for the famous Taxi Driver scene? Filmmaking gets real when you think like that. You just cannot go and start directing, you need to prepare for that scene yourself so that you articulate better.

You list out the series of events that happened earlier in the character’s life before shooting the scene. The mood of the character and the conflicts that surround his mind.This improves your art of directing as you can give discreet instructions and will have a  clear mind while directing.

7. Editing.

I learned a lot about editing just by watching movies. My process is pretty simple. I try to understand the basic technique of editing and the importance of ‘Cut’. I take a scene out of a movie and note the sequence of shots on a paper with a brief description of the shots. Another technique is that I scribble thumbnails of the image frames and lay them in a straight line like a comic book or a storyboard.

You will notice patterns when you see the lineup. There will be close-ups and long shots. Observe, how a scene is covered with master shots and the coverage shots.

A master shot is a process of shooting the whole or a substantial part of a scene from start to end. Here you keep all or most of the players in view and you tend to use long shots. Most of the time you will see a scene or a sequence open with a master shot. This I learned from watching movies.

Coverage shots are very crucial too, which support the master shot by filming the same scene from different angles. When you shoot dialogues, notice most of them are close-ups and their reverse angles. Action scenes are shot differently. They have a lot more shots and the cuts are snappy to enhance the speed and power of the action.

Transitions are another important aspect of film editing. You will notice cuts, fade to blacks or dissolves to move from one scene to the other depending on the aspect of time.

Editing is not just cutting the shots. It is assembling the shots and the scenes in the optimum possible way to articulate the story in a seamless and the most engaging manner. Watch movies of as many genres as you can. It will educate you of the different approach adopted.

8. Sound .

It is true that you cannot be a sound designer or a musician just by watching movies. But, if you want to be a filmmaker, you can pick some tips by watching them.

Sound and music are two different skill sets. The sound has recording, editing and designing streams which are entirely different from each other. Listen to the recorded sounds, the ambiance noise, the breaths, the footsteps etc. which are subtly used to bring life into the scenes, to make it look real. However, you will notice many times you don’t hear them at all. It is the editor’s choice when to pick or not to pick them considering the drama of the scene. Catch a whole scene on mute and then see it with sound. Observe how the overlay and playing of different sounds make the difference.

9. Music

Music is another effective way of enhancing mood and feel of the situation. Notice, how music varies in thrillers, romance and horror films and the layering of sound over each other. Catch which sounds tend to muffle and the ones which get amplified depicting the mood of the scene.

With this basic knowledge, you will learn the basic filmmaking techniques, on your own, just by watching movies.

6 Things to learn by watching movies.

1- How to direct different genres:

You should apply the above techniques to all the different genres of filmmaking. You will realize, every genre has its unique style and approach. In no time you will have a good idea on how to direct different genres.

2- Learn approach and techniques used by the best:

Follow the best filmmakers around the globe. Watch all of their films. Observe, analyze and apply their techniques and you will know, how and what they approach their films. Also, you will gather tons of ideas and techniques of filmmaking.

3- Find your own Voice:

Exposing yourself to great artists’ work will help you raise your standard of filmmaking too. Start applying and improving the styles in your creations. Slowly, you will find your own style and voice.

4- Create an alternative :

Another technique, I use, is to learn to find an alternative way to tell the same story told by others. Also, it is always good to use inexpensive ways, as they help you understand the value of a story. All the big filmmakers started small and that is why they succeed so well in the long run because they understand the importance of a good story.

5- Hone your skill :

Films are a collaborative effort and you should not consider yourself a master if you grasped it all. You only touched the surface and now since you know the basic techniques, go and apply the things you have learned. You can only gain the real experience by actually doing it. However, revisiting this knowledge will come in handy when your vision blurs.

6- Betters your communication :

You should learn to articulate your ideas with your cast and crew. They will also take your views seriously if you don’t sound like a rookie. When you cite examples from other movies and demonstrate your analytical skills, you will gather trust and a sense of authority and the crew will respect you more.

This is no secret that Quentin Tarantino created his own genre watching Chinese martial arts, Japanese period dramas, Spaghetti Westerns and Horror films. Any idea, where he did his early film schooling? By ushering in porn theaters. You have much better options today.

So, start your homeschooling now.


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