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Chapter 3. Deconstructing the Problem: P... > Deconstructing Cinema: Looking at Mo...

Deconstructing Cinema: Looking at Movies from the Ground Up

As the most complex, sophisticated, and multi-dimensional form of human communication, movies provide a good example of how a consistent model can contribute to the understanding of a particular medium. Figure 3.1 illustrates one method for deconstructing a movie into individual, interrelated layers.

Figure 3.1. The experience of a movie can be deconstructed into nine separate but interrelated layers. By modeling the experience in this way, it is possible to isolate individual components while understanding their influence on the whole.


The model starts with three broad tiers: the story, the production, and the presentation, and then further dissects those tiers into three layers each. From a movie-making perspective, the three tiers equate to the pre-production, production, and post-production phases.

Although this model doesn’t reflect the experience of watching a movie, where all the elements are experienced simultaneously, it does provide a framework for creating a movie. In particular, it gives filmmakers an understanding of the interrelationships between the components and how those components serve as foundational or supporting. For example, the Editing layer of an action movie typically supports the Genre and Plot layers by using a fast-paced, action/reaction style. The goal of the outer layer—in this case, the Editing layer—is to support, augment, and enhance the inner foundational layers.

A more specific example of the interplay between layers comes from the film Citizen Kane. To accent the larger-than-life quality of his main character, director Orson Welles made the creative decision to place the camera at a very low angle, literally forcing the audience to look up at Charles Foster Kane. Welles pushed the effect so far that the camera was often positioned just off the floor, requiring sets with sunken floors to accommodate the camera and crew. This meant that the sets had to have ceilings because the lower perspective allowed audiences to see the ceiling; most movies are shot from the perspective of the actors, so ceilings are almost never a visible part of a movie set. Besides the additional constraint for the set designers, the decision also created difficulty in the lighting design because lights are typically hung from above. As a result, the production’s designers faced the challenge of creating sets to accommodate the unique choices made for cinematography. The relationships between these decisions are reflected in the model by placing the Production Design layer in a position that supports the Cinematography layer, and the Cinematography layer in a position that supports the Characters layer.

Even more important than its ability to provide a consistent way to deconstruct a film, however, this model gives filmmakers and screenwriters a predictive tool for understanding and creating movies. Following the model, they can recast the overwhelming challenge of creating a finished film into a series of prioritized, interrelated problems that can be solved in a systematic, controlled manner. Although it requires a different set of tiers and layers, deconstructing the user interface of an interactive product has similar benefits.

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