In the past, I read the sentence above multiple times without really thinking about what it meant. This is a basic concept in film, but it’s easy to acknowledge it without really understanding it.
So to help clarify it, I’m going to break down a small scene in Die Hard and attempt to put this sentence in perspective.
Many times we watch films and critizice them for having pointless scenes or scenes that do not mean anything in the larger scheme of things. Many times, scenes don’t go anywhere… and that’s a problem.
In the audio commentary for “The Game” director David Fincher states:
“Here’s the tricky thing, you are making a movie and the audience knows… you have control over everything that somebody sees and hears for two hours… and the audience knows you can show them anything… they know you can do anything, so the question is ‘what don’t you do?´ not ‘what do you do?’… every time you go to a close-up the audience knows, subconsciously, that you made an editorial decision, that you said ‘look at this, this is important’…”
That means that good filmmakers do not waste anything, that every single shot and moment is there for a reason.
One of the reasons good scenes work is that they’re structured, they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They also have a goal and a climax. Also tension, urgency and stakes…. and sometimes they have dramatic irony… and great dialogue…. and characterization… and great visual storytelling… and purposeful cinematography… and a decent score… Oh, and did I mention we should be invested in the characters so that we can care about what happens to them?
Well, that’s a lot of stuff to take into consideration… but don’t get overwhelmed! The important thing is that every scene has a purpose so that the story can progress. And there’s a lot of stuff that can make a scene work or work better, it really depends on the scene in question. Remember, these things aren’t formulas, each scene has its own needs and mechanisms. Don’t forget that content dictates structure
Anyway, let’s get right to it!
The scene we are going to analyze is when Hans Gruber barges in the Nakatomi Christmas party with his merry band of wrong-doers.
Right before this scene starts, it has been established that these guys are dangerous and professional and that Hans Gruber is the guy in charge. In this frame he is in center stage and high in the frame. His second-in-command, Karl, stands behind with arms folded. This establishes the power dynamic between the criminals.
This scene also places Hans as a “classy” type of villain, he doesn’t curse or yell at people, his demeanor is calm. Alan Rickman’s casting as Hans Gruber couldn’t be more perfect.
Next, they establish the geography of the location as well as the dynamic between the two groups of characters. The frame can clearly be divided in two separate parts. Lighting also helps since the side with the criminals is a little more illuminated (squint to see the value difference). The guests at the party are terrified and their body language helps confirm this, while the criminals are standing straight. Also, they used the stairs to place Hans higher, notice also how he is illuminated a bit more to make him stand out.
This next shot focuses on Hans, his announcement establishes for the hostages (and for the audience as well) that they are terrorists (this is a plot point that will become important later in the film).
He then asks for Joseph Takagi.
Ok, so now we have the goal for the scene: Find Mr. Takagi. The scene is driven by Hans since he’s the guy with the upper hand and asking the questions. In his book “Acting for Animators” Ed Hooks states that a scene is a negotiation. This becomes really clear with this scene, Hans wants something and either he’s going to get it or he won’t.
The scene is tense and suspensful, but why? Well, we (as the audience) know something Hans doesn’t, we know who Mr. Takagi is, we met him before in the film. This dramatic irony is what makes the scene suspensful. Also, we like Mr. Takagi, not only he seems like a good boss, but he also helped John McClane and Holly reunite for Christmas. So Mr. Takagi is a good guy and we don’t want anything bad happening to him.
As soon as Hans ask for Takagi, Takagi attemps to step forward (he’s no coward.. we like him even more now), but is stopped by Holly.
The camera follows Hans, the scene is now in motion.
Holly whispers “Don’t move” to Takagi. Holly, like us, cares for Mr. Takagi. This composition allows the viewer to clearly notice the moment she says her line as well as placing both characters off-center, making us feel they are cornered.
Hans walks amongst the hostages while listing Mr. Takagis biography and résumeé. The camera movement follows Hans purposefully.
Every single Japanese man in the party fears for his life as Hans scrutinizes them.
Holly looks over at Karl..
This is Holly’s POV, Karl approaches the hostages as well.
Hans continues and stops in front of Ellis, who looks at if he’s going to crack any second…
Hans walks right past Mr. Takagi. Notice how, visually, Holly and Takagi are cornered, looking at Hans who is off-screen As Hans walks into the foreground he “invades” the space screen left. If we felt they were cornered before, now they look pressed between the sides of the now reduced screen. The effect of light reflected in water hitting the character’s faces adds up to the tension. It’s a visual way to express how the characters are feeling inside.
He continues… tension building up even more.
We see Takagi in the background with Karl looking at him directly.
Takagi can’t take it anymore and steps forward. “Enough!” he states firmly. All the tension building through that last moment has finally tipped over. We’ve reached the climax
“And father of five”
Shit! Takagi’s a dad! Now we are more invested in his survival since is children probably depend on him….
Notice how the lighting chages in Hans’ face. The water reflection adds a hint of viciousness to his expression.
“A pleasure to meet you”
The scene is wrapping up, but we need some energy for the following scenes, so the scene ends with a small “bang”.
The camera has been still during Takagi’s and Hans’ encounter, but now it becomes dynamic again. Karl takes Takagi away, crossing the frame from right to left…
The camera adjusts quickly, focusing on Holly. Both movements raised the intensity of the moment.
Visually, he towers over everybody, he has won.
That’s it, it’s a simple scene with a simple goal and a very clear dynamic between characters. But there’s a lot of thought put into it in terms of structure and visuals.
The scene could have lasted five seconds.
“Who is Takagi?”
“Alright, let’s go”
Instead, the filmmakers are using everything at their disposal to provide the audience with thrills and suspense. The scene is also doing what good scenes do, they help other scenes. Scenes do not exist by themselves they are interconnected and everything done in this scene informs and endows what comes after.
So, to recap, the scene managed to do a number of things:
-It propelled the story and the audience’s interest towards the next scene “What’s going to happen to Takagi? What do these guys want??”
-It established Hans as the villain “That classy bastard!”
-It also provided glimpses into what the other character’s are all about.
So, as you can see, the scene is structured as a small film, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. A goal and a clear climax. The intensity and energy level went up and down as the scene needed it and it’s visuals told the story. You could watch the scene without audio and you would still “get it”, that’s good visual storytelling right there.
A scene like this stands on it’s own, even if it’s part of a whole.
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