How to Read a Movie

Siskel & Ebert was a popular film review show from 1975 to 1999. Siskel passed away in 1999 but Roger Ebert continued on in reviewing film and writing articles. In 2008 he wrote an article, How To Read A Movie. I will play the part of Ebert by reviewing his article.

Ebert begins with a little background about himself and then gives us a tip about watching film, “Just pause the film and think about what you see.” I think this is a great idea and I have been doing this for years, especially since DVD’s were launched back in the 1990’s. You can pause the movie and then advance the movie frame by frame. I really liked to use this method for one reason: special effects. Sometimes when you frame by frame an effect you can see a string/fishing line/blood tube/etc that gives you an idea on how the effect was done. I wouldn’t recommend pausing scenes with CGI (computer generated images), sometimes a still shot will show how bad an effect can be – see every Sharknado movie for an example.

Ebert later brings up that in a two-shot, the person on the right will “seem” dominant over the person on the left. To better explain this here is a picture from his article.

two shot

I do not agree with this theory. While some people may see things in that perspective, in this picture I feel the man on the left is dominant over the man on the right. I believe this as the man on the left is in the foreground and the man on the right is in the background. My train of thought is foreground character> background character in a shot. This is always going to be situational though. If the man on the left was an extra and the man on the right was The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson), then obviously The Rock is dominant over an extra. In further review of the article Ebert even says himself “The foreground is stronger than the background.”

Ebert continues on with “Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods.” This is a method I agree with and I have heard in behind the scenes segments many directors use this. By shooting upwards towards your character you give them a sense of power. Think about all the superhero movies that have come out over the last decade. The heroes and villains have many shots employing this method, Superman is the superhero who comes to mind where I’ve seen this method used the most. Shooting from a low angle pointing up at Superman. His hand’s on his hips, arms out and the big S on his chest. Power, justice, truth in one shot.

One last thing I’d like to mention is his comment “The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left.” I think that is accurate because most people/books draw timelines with the past on the left and future on the right. Here is an example from Back to the Future 2:


Doc Brown is confirming Ebert’s comment – the past is on the left and the future is on the right. He has the present right in the middle.

This was an interesting article and I am really going to try to pause movies in random parts more often so I can try to read the scenes. I may also try this with friends and so we can have our own “Cinema Interruptus.” Since I make films myself, I’d like to also use the low/high angle theory more in shots to give or take away a sense of power.


4 thoughts on “How to Read a Movie

  1. Natalie Beyer

    I thought it was really interesting that you disagreed with his theory that the dominant is on the right and the left is less dominant and I can see your point! I think the only reason I agreed with Ebert’s left-right idea is because I’m right-handed and thus is probably more inclined to the right hand side of things (that was not meant to be a pun) but I think its important to sometimes challenge what these experts believe because everyone sees things differently and not everyone is going to watch a movie and see the same things.

    1. richbarnes106

      Thanks Natalie. Everyone interprets things differently and I just did not agree with that one theory!

  2. Adriel Brooks

    I really think I understand the article a little more then I did since I do not have a background in film or understanding of film I felt that my report of the article was a little lacking. I did understand that if you shoot some one from below it seems like the character is powerful I can see how that is true. I learned from your post that one of Roger Ebert principles is that people should take the time to look at film frame by frame. Funny you should post about back to the future I just watched that a couple of days ago !!

    1. richbarnes106

      Adriel, I have been filming for thirteen years and I learn something new all the time. Back to the Future – one of the all time greats!