Watch: This Simple Exercise Will Make You a Better Director
All you have to do is watch a bunch of movies.
There's no easier way to learn how to make a movie than by watching a bunch of movies. The trick is not to be a passive audience member. As you watch, look to deconstruct the film in as many ways as you possibly can. In breaking down the most minute details (such as editing, framing, types of shots etc.), the intentions behind a director's choices grow more and more evident.
If we're trying to learn from the best, then there's no better entry point than through a combination of The Nerdwriter and Paul Thomas Anderson. in the video below, today's premiere video essayist takes us through a simple film analyzation exercise that he likes to employ when watching movies. Let's call it the "Count The Shots Method."
Nerdwriter breaks down the shot count of There Will Be Blood to near Pythagorean levels. Ultimately, he finds that there are 678 shots in the film which, over a two and a half hour run time, averages down to 13.3 seconds per shot. By today's standards, that's a really long average shot, a statistic that has seen a steady decline over the course of film history. This average pretty much holds true throughout the three acts of the film's structure, which may account for its exemplary pacing.
So what can we learn from this? Mainly, the value of a cut increases as the number of cuts decreases. Of course, this could be said with many other aspects of film. Using certain shots sparingly in order to emphasize the emotional peaks in your film is a common strategy among filmmakers. The best cuts, however, are developed out of a strong attention to framing by the director.
If you want your cuts to mean something, you have to use them sparingly and with great care (unless, of course, a crazy number of cuts is part of your storytelling technique, like in Requiem for a Dream). That needs to be accounted for as you're shooting. With so few cuts, the contrast of each is dialed up considerably; this is aided by the editor's choice in juxtaposing light and dark frames, loud and quiet scenes, or even cuts that serve to show the contrast in characters.