Sometimes when we’re sitting in the theater, mouths full of popcorn, we may think of the movies as a passive activity. We may not be giving much thought to how the film maker has made a conscious effort to involve the audience. Some methods are more subtle than others, but you don’t need to be an expert in film theory to appreciate them. Here are some of the major ways film makers interact with their audience.
Our current age of green screens and CGI is one way of thinking about the technology of film, but movies have always been a technological pursuit. Ever since the invention of the camera, film makers have relied on the latest technology to tell their stories.
While technology has certainly changed over time, the goal has always been the same: how does a film maker transport an audience into the world of the film? Think of how The Wizard of Oz (1939) used color film to transport its audience alongside Dorothy to a strange new world. Even the development of 3D movies over the past 20 years is interesting to note. While the technology once relied on the thrill of larger-than-life objects shooting out of the screen, today’s 3D films often create a more cinematic sense of depth, as if we’re flying into the film rather than the film flying out at us.
How will technology continue to change? Today, we continue to see more virtual reality and 360 films—but will these be the films of the future? And what’s to come after that?
The fundamental technology of film making is, of course, the camera, which the film maker uses to mediate the space of the screen. Through the camera, we in the audience either feel as though we’re in the action or removed from it.
Alfred Hitchcock was famous for interacting with his audience through the use of his camera and the transitions between his shots. The famous shower scene in Psycho (1960) is a great example. Think of how the audience moves with the action—inside the shower to outside, almost between blinks, and eventually down the drain. It’s an unsettling and intimate depiction of violence. We feel vulnerable alongside Janet Leigh’s character but also somewhat protected. The curtain separates us from the attack, if only for a moment. The knife never quite seems to make contact. As the camera cuts back and forth frantically, we feel displaced. We’re unsure whether we’re supposed to be the viewer, the victim, or the attacker.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) provides a more recent example of this kind of interaction. In this movie, we watch a film actor (Michael Keaton) attempt to stage a play that he’s adapted from one of Raymond Carver’s short stories. For this reason, the movie is entirely self-aware of the space of different mediums—the movie screen, the theater stage, and even the printed page of the script. At the same time, however, much of the film creates the illusion that there is no separation between the audience and the actors. The camera appears to follow the action in one shot, without any cuts or transitions. We try to keep up as Michael Keaton paces backstage, wanders out into Times Square, back into the theater, and onto the movie screen as he remembers (with wonderfully bizarre CGI) his former glory days as the star of a superhero franchise. We alternate between getting lost in a feeling that this movie is real life and the reminder that it’s a work of art, something we’re detached from, watching on a screen.
Here we begin to see a more conceptual interaction between film makers and their audience. We could also talk about the space of the movie screen as the 4th wall and how there are various ways of breaking it down, but this is usually meant to be pretty obvious. We’re supposed to know when a character is speaking directly to us, the audience. So what are the more complex ways of thinking about it?
Ultimately, we can think of these interactions in terms of an overall attitude toward the audience. Does the film maker respect his audience or tease them? Does the film pander or give “fan service?” Does the audience feel in control?
We often forget that films rely on their audience to make meaning. From start to finish, a film is a complex collaboration between script writers, directors, cast, and crew—all the way down to the audience. While a film tells a story, the meaning is found in the interaction between each of its many elements.
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