It’s often said that in order to become a good filmmaker, one needs to watch a lot of films. Filmmakers have always been inspired by their predecessors, colleagues and competitors’ works. As a result, one can learn a lot through analysis and observation. But what do you actually look for when watching a film? What elements captivate the audience, improve a film overall and teach you about filmmaking?

Here are 5 elements that we suggest to pay attention to while watching a film:

Watching Films for Structure

When we talk about structure, Christopher Nolan immediately comes to mind. His mind-bending circular, boomerang or pyramid narrative structures make his film so successful and memorable.

The most important aspect of analyzing the structure of a story when watching films is actually knowing it. For example, works like Aristotelian Poetics that elaborate on a traditional 3-act structure. Or, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. All are essential to understanding what makes a good story.

Understanding the structure can help you understand how story functions. Therefore, ask yourself following questions when watching films:

  • Is this a traditional story structure?
  • Was the structure contextualized for this particular genre? Period?
  • How unique was the structure of this particular film?

Analyzing the Character’s Arc

A good story, first and foremost, is driven by a strong character. But what exactly makes a character strong, effective, or memorable?

Something filmmakers and writers call character arc is a good measure to see how intricate the character can get. Hence, having a strong character’s arc means a powerful change that happens with your story’s hero.

A few factors to consider when thinking about character’s arc when watching films:

  • What did the character learn in this film?
  • How did they start off their journey in the beginning?
  • How did they end up?
  • What themes did this arc help to develop?
  • How does this arc relates to the archetypal arcs of the same genre?

Cinematography and Watching Films

The best way to define cinematography is as a practice that captures the art of moving images. The word cinematography derives from Greek, which literally means writing movement. It is something that makes people fall in love with film in the first place. But, it is also perhaps the most challenging aspect of film to perfect.

When thinking about cinematography while watching films consider following aspects:

  • How does cinematography help to tell the story?
  • What colors, camera movements does the Director of Photography use?
  • What lenses and shot set ups are being used?
  • Are there a lot of wide shots that make you feel detached?
  • Or, are there more close ups that makes you feel more involved?

Sound – Watching Film with Your Ears

One of the most overlooked elements that film audiences tend to ignore is sound. Subconsciously, the human brain processes 40% more information than our visual spectre. Asa result, music and sound are really what makes a film-watching experience so immersive and effective.

Mostly, when thinking about sound, people emphasize film’s music. They completely ignore sound effects, leitmotifs, and ambiance. However, noticing the sound effects that are used, and observing how they make you feel, can really help grasp a better understanding of the film.

Here are some aspects to consider while thinking about sound:

  • What sounds can you actually hear?
  • How many layers of SFX, dialogue, and music can you distinguish in a film?
  • How does the film sound make you feel? Is it immersive? Detaching?

Watching Film for Style

Nothing defines the mastery of filmmaking as much as a definitive manifestation of filmmaker’s style on screen. When one sees a pulpy dialogue set-up followed by a gory scene, one can immediately recognize Tarantino’s handwriting. Likewise, a subverted gangster-noir film set in New York City can immediately be attributed to the legendary Martin Scorsese.

Filmmaker’s style incorporates all four elements listed above, and more. When watching a film try asking yourself following questions:

  • What themes, motifs and issues does this film explore?
  • What imagery and colors does the filmmaker use?
  • How do they tell a story?
  • What attributes of this film are similar to other filmmaker’s works?
  • What techniques are similar/different from those other films?

Conclusion

In conclusion, the truth is that, in order to learn, watching just good films and observing the arrangements of these 5 elements is not enough. One needs to watch a handful of bad films to learn what absolutely does not work.