Filmmakers can use a number of techniques to establish and develop characters. Their choice of camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound all contribute to the representation of a character. When you’re writing about the representation of a character in film, it is useful to watch the scene a number of times, noting how the use of these techniques have been used to develop the character.
Think carefully about the director’s use of camera techniques. What does this help to tell us about the character? The use of a close up might help to accentuate an actor’s facial expression. Likewise a high angle show might make them appear weak and powerless.
When writing about the use of camera techniques, think about how the following techniques have been used:
Camera movement. Crane, dolly, dolly in, dolly out, handheld, pan, pedestal, point-of-view shot, snorricam, static, steadicam, tilt, tracking, whip pan, zoom.
Shot size. Extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up.
Camera angle. Overshot, high angle, eye level, low angle, undershot, canting.
Focus. Deep focus, depth of field, pull focus, shallow depth of field.
Everything an actor does is part of a scripted performance which has been directed. Writing about acting can sometimes be difficult because it requires focusing on the small details of a performance. A simple glance or gesture actors can convey a great deal about the inner lives of their characters. How does an actor move? What sort of facial expressions do they use? What tone of voice do they employ? How do these small details contribute to the development of a character? Always remember that actors have been directed, their performances is as deliberate and purposeful as the lighting or camera movement in a scene.
Mise en scene
Mise en scene refers to everything that’s put in the scene. It includes colour, costume, make up and the placement of props. What does the selection of costume tell us about a character? Does the composition of the shot convey information to the audience about character? How does the use of colour in the frame contribute to the representation of character?
Films are edited. Filmmakers think carefully about how the sequence of shots, pace of editing and use of editing techniques contribute to the narrative, development of characters and audience engagement. Every scene has been painstakingly constructed. There is nothing normal or natural about the way a scene unfolds. Filmmakers agonize over every cut. Watch the scene that you’re studying carefully and think about how editing contributes to character development. Consider the pace of editing and whether it changes. Do the filmmakers choose to linger on a particular shot instead of cutting away. If so, why? Are there any particular editing techniques that stand out? What do they tell the audience about character?
Does the scene you’re analysing use any of the following editing techniques? Audio match cut, continuity editing, cut away, cut in, dissolve, fade in, fade out, fast motion, jump cut, match on action, montage, parallel editing, shot reverse shot, slow motion, speed ramping, superimposition, time-lapse, visual match cut, wipe, wipe by cut.
It’s important to remember that in most feature films, although the lighting might look normal and natural, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to achieve a particular lighting effect. Lighting always makes a significant and meaningful contribution to the narrative. Filmmakers think carefully about how the quality and placement of lights contributes to the narrative, character development and audience engagement. When you’re watching a scene, think carefully about the use of lighting and what it tells the audience about a character. What type of light is used? Natural, fluorescent, incandescent? Is it diffuse or hard light? Where is the key light placed in the scene? What sort of shadows are cast by the key light? What do these choices tell you about the representation of a character?
Just as filmmakers think carefully about the visual editing of the film, what you hear has also been carefully constructed. In consultation with the director, sound editors and foley artists work tirelessly to construct the soundtrack. Every decision they make about the quality and placement of sound effects and music contributes to narrative, character development and audience engagement. When you’re watching a scene, think about how sound contributes to character development. What do the characters say? What type of music has been used throughout the scene and how does it contribute to the representation of characters? Are there any prolonged silences? What sort of sound effects and ambient sounds have been used? Are some sounds more prominent than others? Are they faded in and out?
Writing about the representation of characters
When you’re describing the representation of characters in a film, it is important to make specific and detailed reference to how production elements – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound – contribute to character development.
Whether you’re writing about how teenagers are represented in films like The Breakfast Club or how The Joker is established as a villain in The Dark Knight, your description of this representation will follow the same sort of structure.
It’s a good idea to start off with a topic sentence which identifies how the character is represented and explains which aspects of the representation you will be discussing.
Here’s an example of a paragraph describing the representation of the title character in Ruby Sparks (2012):
In the film Ruby Sparks, the title character is literally dreamed up by a frustrated writer. In the film, she is constructed as a quirky and ethereal character using a combination of acting, lighting, editing and sound. As Calvin (Paul Dano) falls asleep, the audience hears a voice saying, “She’s so cute.” Director Jonathan Dayton cuts to the first shot of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). At this moment a combination of lighting and sound are used to establish this character. The key light in this shot comes from the sun which is positioned behind Ruby, casting her in warm yellow light that makes her appear angelic. In the background, a romantic choral motif by composer Nick Urata helps to create the impression that this character is angelic and, indeed, a dream girl. As the conversation continues, dialogue helps to establish Ruby as a quirky and carefree character as she suggests his dog peed “like a girl”. She reveals that she’s an artist who’s “super good” and produces a “beautiful” sketch of Calvin’s dog. In a session with his psychologist, Calvin admits that he goes to sleep at night just to get back to his typewriter “so he can be with her”. Like many Manic Pixie Dream Girls, this character is represented as a muse who inspires the male protagonist. Later in this scene, Dayton uses a montage accompanied by voice over from Calvin’s character to further establish this character: “Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead.” The opening of this montage is accompanied by shots of Ruby rollerskating in a park. Throughout this scene, director Jonathan Dayton uses a combination of acting, lighting, editing and sound to establish the character of Ruby Sparks.
Here is an example of how you might write about the establishment of The Joker as a villain in The Dark Knight:
In the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan uses a number of techniques to establish The Joker as particularly villainous. In the early part of this sequence, dialogue is used to establish The Joker before he appears onscreen. “I heard he wears make-up,” says one of the goons, hacking his way into a switchboard. “To scare people. You know…war paint.” One of the men reveals that they’re robbing a mafia bank: “I guess the Joker’s as crazy as they say.” After shooting the bank manager, The Joker kneels down and removes his latex clown mask. Christopher Nolan uses a tight close-up of Heath Ledger’s face, accentuating the scars and grotesque make-up. The key light in this scene comes from a large window over his right shoulder. While one side of his face is clearly illuminated, the rest is in shadow. Ledger’s voice is low and sinister as he delivers his response: “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” Ledger shoves a grenade into the mouth of the terrified bank manager and leers at the camera, revealing a set of yellow teeth. This shot is also filmed from the perspective of the bank manager, making The Joker seem all the more sinister to the audience. James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer collaborated on the scores for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Their leitmotif for The Joker – a single note played on the violin which increases in intensity and pans rapidly from left to right, gradually joined by other discordant and distorted electronic instruments – is also used to establish the character as particularly villainous. Throughout this sequence a combination of camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, lighting and sound are all used to establish The Joker as a villain.
Photograph: Vancouver Film School. Image slightly cropped.