Directing and Cinematography tips: Connotations - What does the shot mean?

(Excerpt taken from my film book, "Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" now available on Amazon. Link at end of post.)

Connotation is a great word to remember. A connotation is an associated meaning. Connotations are the origins of thinking a little more abstractly. It helps to think about the meanings behind shots and colors being used in the film.

Ask, "What are the connotations of this shot?" The opposite of connotation is denotation, which is its 'literal meaning.' So, the connotations of the color 'red' are danger, warning, passion, blood . . . the denotation of red is red.

It’s important to consider the connotations of lighting when shooting something. It’s your instinct, really, telling you what it means to you and what it could mean to the audience. Thinking about what your shot might mean helps you in your decision-making process and your approach in how to capture it. Sometimes you might like to have an unbalanced frame and break your ideal composition to help show a character is a little shifty. Or in order to make a character appear a little warmer, I might not use a color temperature blue (CTB) gel to correct a tungsten light in play during a daylight set scene. Maybe there’s a character sitting in a bar who is so stressed and fed up with life, they’re about to have an emotional breakdown. You could frame that bright red, out-of-focus neon light behind the bar, next to his head. You’re subtly using color and the frame to reflect their thoughts. Cinematography is all about feeling and emotion; how can you use your skills to convey these feelings and emotions on screen?

Subtly the audience picks up on these touches, and a little more resonance is infused into the moment. Being able to think this way might help you to decide between two different lenses, or whether to have smoke as diffusion, or whether the actress wears the red coat or not. Stylistically, handheld connotes a point of view or immediacy, or even a slight apprehension. Static shots could mean rigid, boring, quiet, confident. However, you might want to use these connotations to your advantage. The static wide, with its association of nothing happening, might work in your favor if something dramatic is about to happen or someone bursts into a room. Your choice of shot here lulled the audience into a comfortable place and therefore made the surprise even more effective.

One of the best examples of shots and their meaning that I’ve seen is in the film The Pledge (2001), starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Sean Penn. In one scene Nicholson’s cop is reluctantly attending his own retirement party. In one wonderful shot, we see Nicholson center frame with the party taking place behind him, and everyone else having fun. Nicholson is out of focus, and the party-goers are all in focus. He simply doesn’t fit in here, and the subtle direction and camerawork tell us that. No dialogue required.

Try to find a way of thinking in these slightly abstract terms. They help inform your choices. It’s a gut feeling about what things mean beyond their literal sensibilities. Sometimes it may just be an instinctual feeling, and you can’t quite put it into words and articulate it just yet. As a director or DP, your job is to hold these feelings and approaches all in your head. When you know your film so well that all the things that work and don’t work become obvious, your main job, making decisions, becomes much easier.

One word of caution with shots and their meanings, though. Be careful not to stretch this idea too far. I’ve witnessed a few directors disappear down the abstract rabbit hole with ideas that will never translate to the audience and only ever mean something to them. A lot of what you might introduce to the frame could work consciously or subconsciously, making the audience feel a certain way without them really knowing why. This is good filmmaking. Having a wide shot to help demonstrate the character’s loneliness translates to the screen and to the audience. Having an extra feather in the character’s hat to show they secretly want to fly away from their boring life does not.

"Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" is published by Michael Wiese Productions and is available to buy from Amazon here:


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