Visual Language, History of Cinema and Animation

Visual Language: The Camera

Directors use “visual language” as a way to describe how they plan out their movies, which is a way to tell stories using moving images.

The basics: how to speak movie


  1. SHOT LENGTH: we’re talking about how fare the camera is from the subject we’re shooting that works horizontally. The particulars are fuzzy, but shoots can be described as wide (far – in which you can see the whole subject and seen as play on stage and let the action speaks for itself) or tight  (near).
  2. Extreme wide shot you watch the scene from a distance (this shot establish a place)
  3. Medium shot is a partial body shot of the subject usually from the knees or waist up (shows off a character)
  4. Two shot when two subjects are in a frame but we’re looking from each character’s shoulder (shows closeness or extreme closeness – Persona, Bergman)
  5. Close-up complete detail of actor’s face or important objects (powerful emotion)
  6. Extreme close-up  closer than the one before in which the whole head is not shooted (used for exposition or disorientation)

ANGLE (works vertically)

A nice neutral angle would be at eye level where the camera looks straight on at its subject. Also, we have interesting shots like

  1. High angle the camera looks down at the subject (The Big Lebowski- the angle make them seem small and silly)
  2. Low angle opposite to the previous, indeed it looks up at the subject (Pulp Fiction, Tarantino – generally this angle can make a person seem large and menacing)
  3. Dutch angle when the camera looks the subject from a tilted angle, the given name is due to the use in the German film which used canted angles to make everything seem a bit weird


The camera, like the eye, doesn’t focus on everything at once. How much a camera focuses on is called depth of field – the distance between the nearest and farthest parts in an image that appears acceptable sharp- how much is in focus the subject.

  1. Deep focus when everything is focused (Touch of evil, Orson welles)
  2. Shallow focus in opposite at the previous, short depth of field in which only part of the shot is on focus – usually used to show an important part of the frame.
  3. Rack focus is a neat trick done in short depth of field that changes the focus mid shot. This can draw the eye to important details.
  4. Tilt Shift has fake shallow focus. A special lens or digital post-productions can selectively blur part of the image that creates an artificial depth of field (Se7en).

Lenses are important tools in order to control focus which may include the

  1. Thelephoto lens which is a long lens that compresses space
  2. Wide angle lens which gives a space more depth
  3. The fisheye lens but when used it makes some disturbing images


The easiest way to add movement is to pick up the camera yourself in a

  1. Handheld shot, holding the camera gives more freedom with cameramen but less control that’s why we use Steadicams
  2. Steadicams: which is a handheld shot but with a rig that helps stabilize it and giving it a flowing dreamy effect (Shining, Kubrick)
  3. Pan leaving the camera on a tripod with controlled actions, swiveling the camera horizontally in two directions (L or R)
  4. TILT is when you swivel the camera vertically up or down
  5. Zoom in which the shot length is changed by adjusting the lens from wide to tight quickly and vice-versa but slowly
  6. Dolly/tracking shot is moving bot the camera and the rig. The camera is put on a moving dolly or on tracks and it moves with the subject or without from L to R or back to front (Arancia Meccanica, S. Kubrick) or on a curve (Marvel)
  7. JIB/Crane shot when the camera moves upwards. It is put on a platform and raised above the subject or brought down to the subject (Indiana Jones)
  8. Dolly zoom also called “Trombone shot”is combining the camera movement with rig movement. The camera is dollied while zooming changing the depth of the shot

 Some directors also like letting a scene play out, this is called:

Sequence shot or long take which is a long-running shot usually over a minute that takes in a lot of actions in a scene. Sometimes it covers dialogue and lasts for one minute (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) or a complicated sequence and covers more than one minute (1917 and Birdman).


  1. The cut: after light camera and action, every director has to say “CUT” which basically is the transition between the end of one shot and the beginning of another. This is the most basic transition.
  2. Dissolve where one shot slowly fades into another sharing the same space for a few seconds
  3. Wipe where the second shot rolls over the first shot. Wipe and Dissolve are done to mark the end of one scene and beginning of another (Star Wars), or to mark a change of location
  4. Fade in or fade out, common wat to start and end a film
  5. Continuity editing even if a shot last 5 minute there could hours, day or month of work, some filmmakers develop this technique as a syntax of shots to make you believe that this is happening simultaneously. This technique is invisible drawing you into the illusion that everything took a few minutes of shooting.
  6. Continuity errors are where the in-universe logic of scene doesn’t match with what shows up on screen
  7. Screen directions this is something subtle that directors do to establish continuous space. Having a consistent direction of movement between shots gives the audience a sense of relative location
  8. Match on action by having screen direction, respected cuts can be linked together by continuing the actions from one shot another. A good one lets movement carry form one shot to another
  9. Eyeline is when if the characters aren’t moving and directions are established by where the look. Person in shot A is looking to his right and person in shot B is looking to his right so our brain figures out that they are looking at each other. This can be used olso for object or by breaking the fourth wall ( Silence of the lambs).
  10. 180 degree rule when blocking a scene directors often use an invisible axis as a guide and the camera never goes to the other side of track of the scene in order to keep us oriented
  11. Crossing the axis breaks the 180 rule due to the eyeline of the characters and placement or when the director wants to makes a scene jarring (Batman, C. Nolan) making the scene chaotic but not unintelligible
  12. Establishing shot is a basic scene that shows where the scene is taking place
  13. Master shot is a wide shot that shows a scene in its entirety to establish everyone’s location, then you move to a closeup when someone’s talking and cut to the REVERSE ANGLE AT THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE PREVIOUS ANGEL and if there’s an important object it will be shown as an insert shot breaking away from the main action to show an important detail
  14. Shot / reverse shot  when two people is talking (When Harry Meets Sally)
  15. Cross cutting is when cutting allows you to easily jump from one scene to another when lines of actions to show that different scenes are happening simultaneously (the Godfather)
  16. Discontinuity is when the scene stops to reflect reality and starts reflecting emotions. The common technique used is playing with the nature of time such as the freeze-frame where a single frame of film is stopped
  17. Slowmotion is when time also can be manipulated with a clip that’s slowed down and let us see the tiny movements we’d miss in normal speed (Inception C.Nolan)
  18. Fast motion which speeds the action up often making it feel comical
  19. Reverse motion which plays the action backwards giving it a dreamy field
  20. Jump cut  is the oldest and most famous kind of break in which a piece of time is cut out of a shot.
  21. Match cut (2001 space odyssey, Kubrick) object linked as relative things
  22. Split screen two shots showed or spliced  in a same frame
  23. Overlay merged shots where part of one shot is placed over another compositing the two
  24. Montage  is the most complex and paradoxically editing technique. This is a quick series of shots linked together through a theme or through time (Corazzata Potemkin). Montage can also show unreality, symbolism, expressionism and dreams.

History of cinema

Cinema’s date of birth is December 28th, 1895, known as the first public projection for a paying audience. The idea came from the father of the Lumiere brothers (Louise and Auguste). “Left from Lumiere’s factories” was the first film shown and attended by George Méliès, considered the father of cinema. Méliès also managed to buy the Lumiere’s project even though, according to the Lumiere’s father, the cinema was a future-less invention. Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s films resume daily life and create extraordinary bourgeois life documentation of the time. They also began to make reportages by sending operators around the world.

In 1898 the “Train arrivals at Ciotat Station” is the first sensational film in the history of cinema. People who saw this were terrified because they did think they were going to get run over by a train.

But what cinema is?

Cinema is moving pictures projected onto a big screen. Before cinema, we had three different experiments known as Pre-cinema: the Shadow Theater (China), Camera Obscura (Egypt), and the Magic Lantern (Persia).

Underlining Joseph Plateau and Thomas Edison’ creations

J. Plateau invented the Phenakistiscopio which developed the Retinal Persistence Theory, based on an illusion our eyes see by sliding many fixed images per second. Those images do not disappear instantly on our retina and manage to give the illusion of movement. However – after the shutter speed of photography began to reduce – in 1891, Thomas Edison designed the Kinetograph (a device used to capture images) and a Kinetoscope (a device used to see those images through a peephole). Although, we must remember that the most important creation of Edison was the sprocket holes, to avoid the slippage of a film.

In 1892 Emile Reynaud designed another great device: the Paxinoscope – the optical theatre- which was a device made up of a prism of mirrors and paper strips that can be projected on a wall. Those strips were composed of over 700 drawings and 50m long. Reynaud’s shows were known as Luminous Pantomime.

In 1895, in England, Robert W. Paul and Bert Akers had invented the first British 35-millimeter camera. On February 21st, 1896 R.W.Paul demonstrated The Theatre Graph. The same day the Lumiere’s system was displayed in London. His most successful early film was The Derby.

In Germany Mutzel and Emile Danowski had invented the Bioscope, projecting moving images two months before the Lumiere screening. Lumiere’s cinematograph was a much more reliable system though.

The history of cinema was divided into two currents from the very beginning: Documentaries (Lumiere) and Fiction (Méliès).

From the very beginning of his life,  George Méliès has shown a great passion for magic tricks and illusionism. His mother sent Méliès to study in London, but once in Paris again, Méliès’s father left his luxury shoes company to his children and George decided to invest an amount of the company’s money into a theatre hall, Roberto Houdini.

After the Lumiere brothers sold to Méliès their camera, the French artist found out a new camera trick: the disappearance. While he was recording in Paris, the camera crack jammed and restarted a few minutes later. Once the reel was developed, Méliès realized that some boys he was filming had been replaced by a group of nuns. Thanks to that, his production house “Star Film” was born. By 1909, his films started to be outdated though.

The trip to the moon (1902) was one of the famous films at the time and remained in our history. In Barcelona was found a print of the film in color. Women workers hand-painted each frame (tot 13000).

In the 1890s the most important British film producers built a new group known as Brighton School. The founders were George Albert Smith and James Williamson. Both wanted to attempt new and special effects for their films. As matter of fact, these two pioneers attempted the double-exposure (as well as Méliès did), close-up shots, reverse motion shots, the use of different cameras, and camera angles.

In 1904 Max Linder began his stage career. Linder ought to be one of the most revered and widely known names in film history due to being defined as the inventor of the comedy film language. His works had an enormous influence on the comedy giants that came after him. Due to the First World War, Linder’s career started declining into obscurity.

When Hollywood took over as the leader of world cinema at the end of the Great War, the language of cinema was already fully formed. Not only had film pioneers as inventors of moving pictures cameras and projectors but also as inventors of film techniques (editing, fades, screen wipes, double exposure, and early system for color and the camera movement).

History of animation and CGI

Animation is when so many pictures are moving at once, too fast for the human eye.

Today’s animations are mainly done on computers and our generation will not even remember the time when animation was just a moving drawing.

In 1609 we had the magic lantern which was a machine that projected images on a wall in front of an audience gaining the illusion of movement.

The first actual animation would be in 1800 thanks to the Formotrope, a toy with a disk with pictures on each side. In this period, we also had the Zoetrope which was a spinning cylinder with a ring of pictures inside it and if spun could show a moving image.

In the 1900s thanks to the development of the camera, animation can truly exist. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces was a series of moving drawing that can have each time a different feature added to it.

In 1914 we moved to the very first characteristic animation: Gertie the dinosaur. It’s about a dinosaur that has been given different commands by its creator. This was the first moving drawing animation in good quality and also the first animal character: she had a personality and an agenda.

In 1928 is when animation started to develop itself to the next step, as we can see with Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first shot of Mickey Mouse. What is important in this animation is not about the character but about the music. This is the first animation with sounds. We must underline that violence is also shown on this show and this is something that stays for a life sentence (such as The Simpson etc…).

In 1929 something new happened, making people aware that this kind of communication was entertainment since during that time people suffered from economic depression. They were bored, still could go to one place to watch a lot of cartoons: the theatre.

Now we should bring up a new type of animation: claymation.

Claymation is when you model an object with clay or soft materials and then you move it in tiny movements and take a frame until you have enough images to make a small video clip. This phenomenon was used to create bizarre creatures. The fully articulated puppets had to be moved in small increments and photographed for every single framed film

In 1937 Snow White was the first film animation ever developed. The movie used a bunch of different new techniques like rotoscoping – detecting real human movements. They filmed at first actual persons dancing and then drew on frames the actions the cartoon had to do, giving the character real human movements. Also, to get a depth of field, the background used to be divided into different layers.

Animations work the same as any video, technically cameras are always filming animations. Animation is a series of pictures all squeezed together which each has tiny movements.

FPS– frames per second. With 12 frames per second, you see some lacks that make the animation jumpy. In business, you usually use 24 fps that makes no lacks. Since the images pass fast, your brain can trace them (this works also for movies). Matrix used 300 fps to do a good slow-motion.

In 1963 Harryhausen created his most famous stuffed motion sequence with claymation, The skeleton battle, which inspired filmmakers to this day and took over 4 months to complete.

We must underline that in 1970 cartoons were not only used to entertain lazy or bored people but also as advertisements (Cresta Bear).

In 1985 the artists that industrialized magic or ILM would bring the first photo real computer-generated character to the screen.

In 1986 Steve jobs (after having released Macintosh in 1984) has bought the graphic division from G. Lucas to give a new breed animation of the company Pixar which used CGI. CGI means Computer Generated Imagery, which basically is using computers to create an animation making cartoons almost realistic. Also, Job’s coworkers in this new era – John and Ed – both helped with the Star Wars’ CGI animation.

In 1989 the 75 seconds screen time of the liquid water tentacle in The Abyss took 6 months to finish. Part of those was spent using an early version of Ps, the first use of the program in featured films.

In 1991 camera and IL recycled and improved upon the water effects and used them for the liquid metal cyborg in Terminator 2.

In 1993 Spielberg produced Jurassic Park and revolutionized computer graphics. It brought to the screen photo-real dinosaurs complete with skeleton, textured skin, and detailed muscles. The director originally intended to use stop motion or go-motion dinosaurs. Yet abandoned the idea when ILM proved that they were able to accomplish the task.

In 1995, ILM created the first computer-animated title character in Casper. During the same year, Pixar released the first feature-length film made entirely by computer animation, Toy Story. This film was a great box-office hit and gave a great start to the animation world.

In 1996, 15 months of post-production were necessary to complete the effects for Dragonheart. The face of the dragon was modeled after Sean Connery, who also voiced the character.

For the return of Star Wars in 1999, Lucas envisioned an epic computer-generated fairytale. ILM had to finish over 2000 VFX including 60 digital characters and a CG humanoid Jar Jar Bings.

In 2002, the work of P. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was awarded the Oscar for Best VFX for 3 consecutive years.

In 2003, the sequel of Matrix, artists have escaped using a process called Universal Capture, which is basically producing the 3D recording of the real actors’ performance that could be played back from different angles and under different lighting conditions.

In 2005, after 70 years from the first release of King Kong, Jackson’s remake of the story featured CGI. The actor was provided both onset reference and motion capture performance for the title character. He had 132 sensors attached to his face so that his every facial expression could be captured and shown on King Kong’s face. The same was done in 2006 for The Pirates of the Caribbean.

2009 – Avatar is one of the extraordinary craftsmanship films ever done. Its achievements and awards in the world of cinema are numerous.

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