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Telling your story: using film language

  • You need to plan how to use pictures, sound and editing to tell the story
  • When you’re filming, you need to think how the shots will join together
  • You can learn a lot about film language by watching other people’s films

In a good film,  the audience understands the story that the filmmaker is trying to show them, and feels what the filmmaker means them to feel.

To be a successful filmmaker, you need to use different techniques to make sure this happens. You need to know what will happen if you frame a shot in a particular way; how you can use sound to help show what’s going on, and how to edit your shots together in sequences that build tension or emotion.

You need to know about film language.

For an example, watch this film:

Now watch the version below, where I’ve added text which shows just some of the aspects of film language that help to tell the story.

Here’s more detail about how to use different aspects of film language.


Shots (the picture)

When you plan your pictures, you can think about shot size (how big things are), composition (how things are arranged in the picture), position (where the camera is), how you use or show movement, what kind of lens setting you use, and how the scene is lit.


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Shot size

Shot size is one of the basics of filmmaking. It means how big things are in the picture. An extreme long shot just shows the setting; long shots and mid shots show people in the setting, and closeups show details of faces and objects.
More on shot size


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Composition

Think about exactly what to put in the shot, what to leave out, and how to arrange things in the shot. To make things look natural, put lines, edges or faces about a third of the way across, up or down the picture ‘frame’. To make them look formal, put them in the middle; and to make things seem uncomfortable, make the shot unbalanced or put it at on a slant.
More on composition


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Camera position and angle

As well as shooting different shot sizes, you should film from different places. Get closer or move further away. See what the shot looks like if you move round to the side. Crouch down or use a ladder to get unusual angles.
More on camera position


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Movement

Most shots need some kind of movement to give them life. Keep the camera still to show subtle movements;  move the camera  – pantrack or tilt – to follow action or move through a space.
More on movement


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The lens

Use wide angle (zoomed out) shots to get up close or make things dramatic, and telephoto (zoomed in) shots to make things bigger if you can’t get close. With bigger cameras, you can change the focus to pick out the important parts of the shot.
More on using the lens


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Light and colour

Light doesn’t just help us see things. You can make the mood happy, sad, romantic or scary just by using daylight or room lights and basic reflectors.
More on light and colour


Sound

Sound is a really powerful tool for telling your story and helping make an impact. Your soundtrack can include all kinds of different sounds: natural sounds which you record live (or fake with sound effects), dialogue, voiceovers and music.
More on sound


Continuity

Film-making is a bit like a magic trick. You can film a lot of different shots, add some sounds and music, and put it together so everything seems to flow naturally. You can shoot with one camera and make it look as if you have ten. You need to follow some tricks and rules to make this work.
More on continuity


Editing

You should be thinking about how your shots will edit together as you’re filming them. Each shot should show something new: either a different thing, or the same thing with a different shot size or camera position.
More on editing


Learn more

You can learn a lot more about film language by watching films, TV programmes and ads. Watch a short film (or part of a long film) and try to work out the reasons for the decisions the director made. Why did they put the camera there? Why did they include that in the shot? Why did they use that sound? Try watching some of the films in the Creative ideas section.

Now try it yourself

Put it into practice by editing a short film on your iPhone, iPad, Mac or PC. Editshots: Girl in Black is a set of 55 video clips with a full-colour interactive PDF guide. It’s pay what you want for private use.

learnaboutfilm.com: filmmaking for everyone