It was one of those nights where try as you might, you couldn’t keep yourself off the floor. Using some awkward gymnastics, I managed to drape myself over a sofa arm and found myself looking at the television with my chin skywards. Goodfellas was on, and watching the film upside down lead to a whole new appreciation of Scorsese’s masterpiece.
The advantage of watching a film upside down is you immediately get a sense of the director’s feel for composition. Freed from the reality of the right-side-up universe, you can immediately grasp compositional balance the director is going for. Strong visual lines and secondary lines pop out immediately revealing the compositional brilliance of the film.

Notice how opposing Fibonacci spirals converge at the single point perspective

So next time you want to analyze a film, consider watching it with your head hanging over the side of the sofa. You’ll be surprised how much you will pick up!

Or not…

Time to fess up, those last couple of paragraphs were complete and utter bullshit.

You won’t learn a damn thing watching a film upside down but I’m just waiting for some popular blogger or film analysis channel to make that claim (they already tried making Raiders black and white, dividing Drive into quadrants, and even looking at all the thumbnails of every one of 2400 shots from Fincher’s Gone Girl)

I’m all for visual aids but the filmmaking/cineaste blogosphere feels like a perpetual arms race of who can come up with the most unique and bizarre ways of analyzing a film. Just watching a film – looking for clues in the edit, the narrative choices in direction, acting, blocking…. some how that is no longer enough. Now we have to send a film through a digital meat grinder, put it under a black light and precisely measure the remaining corpse.

Well to me that’s just sophistry. I’m open minded enough to admit that there is some kernel of truth in these film analysis. For instance watching Raiders in Black and White forces you to see the contrast and shape. It may work for Raiders because the cinematography was designed like it was to be shot in black and white…But try it on a film where color is a key and we lose vital information: here a frame grab from Apocalypse Now the sickly mustard yellow smoke just looks like regular fog in black and white – the feeling of the image is totally lost and there isn’t really anything being “added” by subtracting the color.

When approaching film analysis, we need to evaluate the film as it is and how it was intended to be experienced. Any alterations to the image (black and white or adding compositional grids or patterns like Fibonacci spirals) alters the experience away from what the director may have originally intended. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate every conclusion but it should force us to take the findings with a grain of salt because they have been tainted by our own hand. By adding stuff to the frame, instead of seeing the film as it is- we create situations just ripe for confirmation bias for our pattern seeking brains.

This looks like a perfect representation of the Fibonacci spiral… except the position of the spiral is arbitrary and it only matches for this one second at the end of a camera dolly in.(and the image is cropped)

Even something as innocuous as screen grabs aren’t capable of conveying the message of a motion picture (and this method is used in many books). Take for instance this series of screen grabs from the famous Copacabana oner in Goodfellas:

If you’ve never seen the shot before, you wouldn’t understand the energy just by looking at these stills -in fact there’s nothing really remarkable here at all without the motion linking them together. The best they can do is serve as a reminder of the scene but frame grabs themselves don’t do it justice – after all, this is motion picture, not just plain still photography.

So when it comes to film analysis, I urge you to ignore these clever “tricks” and “techniques”. Use what everyone uses – your common sense. Film analysis is really easy to do – if you’re alive and you’ve lived in a society with other people around you (it’s the internet – you never know), then you have all the tools you need to do film analysis. Just watch a movie once all the way through. Watch it again. Then maybe a third time. Read some background on the film. Then watch each scene carefully and look at how the frame is composed, look at who’s talking and when, look at acting choices – pauses – glaces – business, look at tempo of the cut, listen for music and sound effects… Think about how this scene relates to the rest of the story which you should be familiar with by now. Just ask yourself questions – did the film or scene work? Why did it work? What did I like? What could have been better?

Just keep asking questions. That’s film analysis.

Maybe it’s a little too mundane for clickbait- but this is how you can learn filmmaking through watching films. All these other film analysis tricks serve only one purpose – to create a false smokescreen of mysticism in film geekery. They’re parlor tricks, houses built on sand. Without a basic fundamental foundation grounded in what’s there on the screen, we end up in crazy land where you might as well just be watching the film upside down.

 

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