What you can learn from movie screenshots

There`s a lot that can be learned from movies.

If you`ve read anything about story structure like “the hero`s journey” or read books like “Save the Cat!” then you`ll start to see how movies are build up and how scenes and events are connected to the character arcs and themes in the movie. (I`ve had people tell me that it won`t be fun anymore to watch movies this way, but I`ve always looked at movies with more of an artistic eye and I love spotting these things)

But movies are a great resource to study painting and drawing (comics) too. You can take any screenshot from a movie and learn a lot from the way the creators worked with lighting, composition and how the shot is framed.

I painted some quick sketches in Photoshop last week from screenshots I referenced from Youtube. I focused on the composition of the different elements and the colour, and I think they took 10 to 20 minutes each.

Screenshots of various movies

Can you guess from which movies these screenshots are?

From left to right and from top to bottom the movies are:
Puss in Boots trailer, Pride and Prejudice, Kung Fu Panda 2, Beauty and the Beast, the Avengers, the Hunger Games, Disney`s Tarzan and the Fellowship of the Ring.

There are lots of things you can focus on to improve your painting and/or drawings skills.

For example:
– lighting
– use of colour
– shape
– reading direction (in what way do your eyes go through the shot?)
– positive and negative shapes
– camera angles and distance
– rythm and balance of a composition

It would take too far to go over all of them right now. If you have any questions, leave a comment below. Also: a lot of these ideas are taken from the book “Dream Worlds” from Hans Bacher. I highly recommend it if you`re interested in these sort of things. Bacher is an animation art director, who worked on a lot of Disney movies. He may be best known for his work on the look of “Mulan”. He discusses a lot of these things in his book, not to mention it features a ton of production design art from (mostly) various Disney films, and all of it is gorgeous!

Let`s look at another example:

We`ll talk about lighting and contrast for a moment: how is light and dark (also called “values”) used to make the different elements “read” clearly?
Take the shot above of Gale and his friends waiting on Reaping Day in “the Hunger Games” (6th image, second image from the bottom right) They all have light faces and the background is a very dark value which makes their faces stand out clearly.
This is used in opposite way in the top right shot of Mr. Darcy, striding through the morning mist to meet Lizzy. His dark figure contrasts strongly with the light misty background.
Light can also be used to direct the eye around the shot, or to emphasize a place or a character.

From movie to comic.

Here is another example I did a while ago. This is a drawn out scene (kind of like a storyboard) from the beautiful BBC series “North and South.” I focused on lighting and composition in this and looked at how the camera moves throughout the scene. I`m sorry if you can`t quite “get” what is happening, I`m probably the only one that can decipher some panels.

North and South scene

After that I tried to translate the moving sequence to comic panels. I chose some panels from the “storyboard” that I would keep and merged some others:

North and South comic page

For study purposes you sometimes only need a few seconds to scribble down the essence of a shot. The point is learning, not to make great art.
Now, I encourage you to take some screenshots and draw/paint away! Have fun!

Comment and share:

What did you learn from movies that you can use in your craft? Have you ever made studies like this? If you have some online, post a link in the comments.

4 comments

  1. Byron says:

    My favorite film genre is Film Noir, which has some very interesting uses of values/lighting. In film, they refer to the use of dark shadows as “low key lighting”, which gives the mis-en-scene a forboding, moody feel to it. One of the best applications of film noir-to-illustration was in the early 90’s show “Batman:the Animated Series”, which was the first cartoon (or one of the first), to use shadows and black in a kids cartoon.

    I gotta admit, you have a good idea here. I love movies and I love drawing and comics, I need to practice my composition – – why not from movie stills? I would add that, to any other people out there who want to study art, a film studies class is great and fun way to get some new perspectives on lighting, character placement, color, values, and perspective.

    • Hi Byron,

      Exactly, and since every movie is made by different people, you can always discover something new. I`d advice people to go see movies from many different genres and directors.
      I`d love to see some Film Noir (sad to say I haven`t yet), do you have any recommendations in that genre?
      I have seen that Batman series when I was young.

      Thanks for following the blog by the way!

      • Byron says:

        Its my pleasure! When it comes to noir, I would suggest “Maltese Falcon”,
        “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Narrow Margin” “Asphalt Jungle” and “Chinatown”. Those are some good ones to start off with.

        Also, for more mood lighting/values examples, I would also check out “Citizen Kane”, which is not a film noir, but is the first American movie to utilize mis en scene and different camera angles to invoke mood.

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