How to watch a film




What on earth is this about? Everyone knows how to watch a film!

In fact, though you may know how to watch a film, you probably don’t know how to get the best out of the film that you watch. These are things that are so regarded as ‘automatic’ that they are rarely considered in any rational way.

The first step is to understand the nature of the film experience.  The cinema, that great invention of the Brothers Lumière, was a mechanism for immersing the audience in the film experience.  Its main characteristics, for the purpose of this post, are :

a) It is larger than the person watching it: not necessarily ‘larger than life’, but the screen is physically bigger than the person watching it.

b) It is not in the control of the person watching it.

This is why to watch a film in a cinema environment is very much the best way to get the maximum emotional benefit from it.

Hence Part 1: in a cinema

I know only too well that there are numerous ‘personal’ likes and dislikes about where to choose your seat in the cinema, but the following observations are aimed at giving you the viewer, the best possible experience.

Choosing the best seat is all about physics and geometry. I won’t do the physics and geometry, but I will now tell you the results. Basically the best seat in the cinema is the seat in the centre of the row at which you can comfortably view the entirety of the width of the image on the screen, and not much more.

If the auditorium is well-designed and you enter furthest from the screen, you should simply advance until the portion of the screen where you expect the image to rest is only just in your vision.

The little realised corollary to this is that the place you should sit in the cinema varies depending on the type of film – closer for silent and classical “academy ratio” (all films before 1950) , further for ’60s and ’70’s European widescreen films, even more so for American widescreen films and furthest for CinemaScope-style anamorphic projection.

aspectratioThis image shows the different aspect ratios (screen shapes). There is no way of knowing if the ‘optimum place will be towards the front or the rear of any individual auditorium without having the dimensions to hand.

I said that you should sit ‘in the centre of the row’. This is a general rule that is massively more important now than it was when I started to watch films. Virtually all films these days have stereo soundtracks, so to get the full stereo effect, you should sit on the central axis of the auditorium. The sound is balanced for the centre of the auditorium – that is the midway point between each set of walls, but it is more important that you sit at the correct distance from the screen for ‘full screen’ viewing than try to optimise the sound. There will probably be one ratio of film for which the ‘best seat’ is the same for picture and sound, but it is again dependent on the auditorium which ratio that will be.

Part II: Home viewing

This is where things start to go awry.  Watching films outside of a cinema environment has been with us for over sixty years, indeed for longer than the earlier era when cinema was the only ‘platform’ available.  Originally in the fifties, film companies started selling TV transmission rights to their old stock from the thirties, then gradually more and more. Originally the problem was that early TVs were very small, and for westerns (to name one instance) the great vistas that were often shown lost an enormous part of their impact. Then, as colour became the de facto standard for film production,  while TVs remained in black and white, that became a major issue. Eventually, in the seventies, colour TVs and ever increasing size of TV screens made TV presentation the favoured choice of many – for reasons of economy and convenience.

But for all art, and especially visual art, scale is an integral part of the experience, and on TV, the essential scale of image to viewer is inverted. At home, you are larger than the image. (unless you have a video projection system).  There are clear analogies to be drawn – in visual art, you cannot say that you have really seen a painting if you have only seen a postcard of it, or a reproduction in a book. The same thing goes for music: the recorded music experience is not as powerful as the concert experience (except where the performance is execrable).

In the theatre, digitally broadcast performance – drama, opera or ballet – is not as electrifying as the ‘real thing’, and you will not get the real sense of a great building by looking at a 3D walk-through on your computer. Nor will you experience a great novel in all its magnificence by reading the Readers’ Digest version.

The same thing goes for film at home, but there are some things you can do to improve your experience.  First, get the best quality and biggest TV you can afford. There are lots of physical differences between a reflected/projected image and an emitted/broadcast one, and one of the most important is the ratio of luminosity to darkness and the intensity of colour. Film makers spend huge effort and money in capturing their images with certain visual characteristics. The least you can do is to put some small effort into trying to reproduce the effect that they were trying to create.

That means trying to black out your room, ensuring there is the minimum of interruptions (disconnect the phone !). Sit reasonably close to the screen – if you are only two metres from a 120 cm screen you are getting almost 70% of the cinema experience.  Then there are the psychological things. Commit yourself to watching the entire film at one sitting. Sit for five minutes in semi-darkness before the film.

I will be staggered if you don’t conclude that the extra effort was worth it and your experience was better than you had anticipated. This is really only common sense when you remember the old adage: you only get out of life what you put into it. That which arrives apparently free, is rarely valued in the subconscious.

This brings me on to the notion of downloading. I am not against downloading for any po-faced semi-legal reasons, nor because I want the film companies to make massive profits (though, of course, without today’s blockbuster, tomorrow’s intimate masterpiece might not be made).

The problem is that if you download for little or no cost, you are unlikely to give the film your full attention when you watch it (an extension of the ‘you only get out what you put in’ idea. Buying used DVDs is relatively inexpensive and you can re-sell them to minimise the cost, but the act of buying them is a commitment and you are much more likely to get the most out if the film.

Keep watching the masterpieces…






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Retired cultural cinema director and film magazine editor living in deepest rural France.

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