A cozy living room, an anxious movie theater or a sombre long haul flight. Dimmed lights. A bright screen. The opening credits unwind and musical notes from a parallel world begin to float.
We float along with them.
The symphony of sound and visuals embrace us, immersing us into a reality more interesting than our own. We blissfully forget who, where and what we are.
As the film ends and the lights ease us back to consciousness, we are left with a euphoric rush. Weeks go by and we still find ourselves reliving the experience.
How can a film feel this real? How can we become so invested in something that doesn’t exist? Why do some films hit us right in the emotional gut, whereas others enter through one ear and exit the other? Indeed – what makes a film great?
1. Beyond personal taste
We may not always enjoy a creative piece, but we can appreciate the talent and intentions behind it. Talented planning and execution creates architectural monuments – like the illustrious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Cinematic masterpieces are no different. Regardless of genre, mood, setting or subject matter, a well crafted film stands out and shimmers beyond the concept of personal preference.
Each frame of a great film is carefully composed and each individual image intricately balanced. Thought has been put to movement, perspective, texture and light. The cast, the editing, the soundtrack – everything planned to fit the director’s motive. Techniques are used to reveal and emphasize what is important and what is not. Directors play to the weaknesses of the human eye. They create focus with moving and shiny objects. They abuse our responses to various colors and our love for symmetry. Such techniques are used to guide (or misguide) our attention.
Good directors achieve all this without us noticing. They create believable illusions with thousands of attractive pictures, reflecting the dexterous work of an artisan.
2. Honesty about human nature
What does it mean to be human? How does being human feel?
Good directors invite us to ponder these questions. They understand the human mind. They know how to create empathy, fuel hatred and jerk tears. They are aware of our expectations and know how to manipulate them. They understand our craving for reward after emotional hardship, our temptation for selfishness, and our fear of the unknown.
Bad films categorize people into extremes of good or bad, attractive or unattractive, stupid or intelligent. Stereotypes simplify human nature and mask our dimensions, whereas great films are honest about our quirks and imperfections. We need characters we can understand. We yearn people to relate to, people who mirror our everyday emotions and problems. When they feel affection, nostalgia, melancholy, embarrassment or isolation, so do we. Witnessing real human emotions expressed through real human moments creates believability.
3. Communicating a message
Like novelists and other artists, directors address a message to their audience. They wish to plant unconscious thoughts inside our mind and challenge our worldview. Cinematic tricks manipulate our emotions, and make us physically engage with the given themes. We enter into situations we couldn’t otherwise access and we learn the consequences from the comfort of our seats.
As an example, framing, lighting and character positioning creates claustrophobia in the American drama 12 Angry Men (1957). Our focus is limited to the issues discussed in a small jury room. Trapped in sweaty heat, we are pressured to re-evaluate our thinking again and again, until we question the meaning of justice. The director confronts us with our own prejudices, and the fallibility of human judgement. Air has never felt as fresh and relieving when the case finally abates and the characters exit.
To create a long-lasting impact on the viewer, the director doesn’t spell out any lessons or morals. As pointed out by author Dale Carnegie: “Isn’t it wiser to make suggestions – and let the other person think out the conclusion?”
Great films contain subtle hints – careful dots, which the audience must connect. This often requires a re-watch and a fair amount of mental chewing. Finally understanding the director’s intent can leave us glowing with pride and satisfaction.
Scenes that successfully capture attention:
A director who provokes both senses and thought:
Inside the mind of a visual and technical perfectionist: