So…What Really Makes a Good Film?

Is it the plot line? The actors/actresses? The relevance to your life? The quality of camera? What about the colors? The technique? The lighting? The structure? The format? The intentionality? The hidden puns and irony? Well, I have decided to explore this baffling question. By watching two documentaries, one directed by a qualified filmmaker and another by no one but three young filmmakers, and two narrative films, one directed by the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director and the other by a man who graduated with a degree in philosophy. These four films explore different techniques and ideas that the filmmaking world qualifies as “good,” or even “great!”

Babies. Dir. Thomas Balmes. Focus Features, 2010. Film.

“Everybody loves babies.” These words are true. Everyone does love babies. But that’s not why this documentary is named one of the Top 100 Documentaries by IMDb, is it? No. In fact, this movie doesn’t have many words, nor does it have much of a plot line. It is based almost entirely on the talent of the filmmaker. Thomas Balmes, an independent director, who specializes in international co-productions, (Balmes) follows the lives of four babies around the world. “Balmes’ style is highly formal, with an unmoving camera, carefully composed frames and very long takes” (Galvin). Following these babies from before birth to their first steps, Balmes explores the lives of each infant, mother, and father (if present). All around the same age, these families lead contrasting lives. Hattie, Bayar, Mari, and Ponijao are from the developed United States, the plains of Mongolia, the busy Japan, and the barren Namibia. Balmes was challenged with connecting these four babies in a film without literally connecting them by means of interacting with each other. As a result of his several films including Bosnia Hotel (about Kenyan peacekeepers in Bosnia), Holy Cows (about mad cow crisis from Indian perspective), The Gospel According to the Papuans (2000) (tracking the conversion to Christianity of a Papuan Chief), and Waiting for Jesus, Balmes has become a qualified filmmaker of documentaries. He is known in the filmmaking world and he continues to establish his name.

This is the Mongolian baby, Bayar, after being put to sleep.

So, yes, Thomas Balmes is a qualified and experienced documentary director, but why? Maybe it’s because of his deliberate use of colors in the film Babies. In Mongolia, the focus is red and green. The idea of these colors probably stemmed from the natural red tint of the sand surrounding the Mongolian family. In San Francisco, the color scheme is based off of blues and yellows. Balmes tends to use one color that happens to be in his filming range, and he chooses that color’s complementary color as the other to emphasize and concentrate on the composition of the film rather than the color itself. Well, maybe it is because of his extraordinary composition. His use of rule of thirds and dead center focus points are crucial to the intrigue of his film. This film, though following the unforeseen events of a baby’s life, shoot painfully purposeful shots. A baby may be crying in his sleep (unforeseen), but Balmes may choose to film directly over the baby and center him completely (purposeful). Each shot in this documentary has intentional and unintentional qualities. Balmes figured out how to highlight his intentionality by his structure and composition. Maybe its because some things are in focus and some things are out of focus. I think that one is simple enough to self explain. Maybe it’s the light. I don’t think that it’s the light in this film though. I mean it’s great and all, but nothing special. Anyway you look at this film, the high quality shots advance it from a boring and unoriginal idea to an intriguing work of art.

Many of the child refugees sleep in hospital basements or anywhere underground because they are the only places the children are relatively safe.

Why does IMDb name a documentary directed by three inexperienced young adult filmmakers (debatably not directed at all) successful? Originally set to be about the War in Dafur (Africa), this film quickly proves that there is more than one ongoing tragedy throughout the Africa itself and the many other developing countries. Bobby Bailey, Jason Russel, and Laren Poole explore the ongoing conflict in Uganda. This conflict is ongoing and real. Hearing about these problems and genocide and Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army is heart aching to outsiders, but before seeing this film, it was all too distant to me. These three men risking their lives to expose and inform our first world nation sounds reasonably extreme to us, but they were only thinking of the children living in such horrific conditions. Taken in the middle of the night, forced to kill their siblings, raped, abused, and taught that emotions will get you killed, these kids deserve to be heard. Invisible Children: Rough Cut portrays the darkest parts of the world as places with just a sliver of light; Bailey, Russel, and Poole depict the area to us as a place we can still aid and as a place we should still aid.

The eye of an orphan child and escaped child soldier.

Invisible Children: Rough Cut focusing primarily on the content of the situation, emphasizes the cruel, abusive, and dirty lives children in Uganda carry. Bailey, Russel, and Poole successfully direct a film that captures the gruesome struggle of the adolescents that often grow up without adults in their lives. The unstructured rectangular shot of each scene added literal and effective understanding (to an extent) of these events. Using a handheld camera was probably easier, but it also added mobility and realistic documentation of the lives of Ugandan people. When people were interviewed, the interviewer was not generally captured, but the focus was on the person being interviewed. This allowed for emotions to be exposed and the depth of feeling to be captured in a frame with only four sides. Breaking the fourth wall was carried out informally in this documentary. When a child cries at the loss of his brother while he stares into the lens of the camera or when a camera of one of the filmmakers makes it into a shot, that breaks the fourth wall (Strassberg). No, this film doesn’t contain special lighting, intentional rule of thirds, or any of those other form techniques, but it effectively intrigues the audience by its depiction of reality. This film differs from the usual documentary of purely interviews or revisiting a place after a dangerous and life-threatening event. It is real. It is present. It is captured…in a 2-dimensional rectangle.

A self image of the three men who created Invisible Children: Rough Cut.

What’s different about a documentary and a narrative film? What’s similar about a documentary and a narrative film? Can you even compare the two? Well, maybe they vary in content and structure, but the form of every film overlaps with all the others. In a fictional film, the director probably won’t show up, but in a documentary, the director is often pictured. In a fictional film, each shot may be set up and purposefully created, but in a documentary, the director may capture an unexpected, sporadic event that changes the course of the entire picture. In a fictional film, the director may wait for a storm to pass, but in a documentary, the director may go out and discover the changes in living during a storm. These contrasts make a film what it turns out to be, good or bad. However, these variances only focus on the difference between documentaries and fictional/narrative films. Both types of films can tell stories that relate to reality. Both types of films may practice the use of rule of thirds or vanish points. They could both use hand held camera or panning. Angles are often explored as well as music that fits the scene. So, if you still believe I shouldn’t be writing about documentaries and narrative films in the same blog, I don’t know what to tell you.

A bird’s eye view of an actor in The Hurt Locker dismantling a bomb.

Kathryn Bigelow. That sounds different from all the other directors, doesn’t it? You’re right! Kathryn is the first woman I have included in these posts. She is an establish film director. After spending two years at the San Francisco Art Institute studying painting, Bigelow won a scholarship to study film at Columbia University School of Arts (IMDb). Her qualifications, impressing as they are, don’t amount to her capabilities and accomplishments as a filmmaker. The Hurt Locker explores wartime experiences of a bomb squad. This film, written by Mark Boal, is fact-based but fictional (Rotten Tomatoes). Bigelow had a huge task laid out for her. Boal had experienced war. He knew what he wanted. He had seen the reality of the warfare. He wanted it done right. Bigelow went above and beyond the limited content. Amy Taubin wrote, “Each of the team’s seven missions has its own dramatic arc and the last of them is no more intense than the first. Tension is stockpiled; it’s not anchored to plotlines. There are no character arcs; these three guys are the same at the end of film as they are at the beginning.” I agree, the plot was interesting, nonetheless, but there wasn’t much of a climax. Bigelow’s stylistic and thoughtful techniques transformed The Hurt Locker from an average war film to a high intensity and personalized masterpiece.

The result of a bomb exploding captured in a slow motion shot.

I think I expanded enough on Kathryn Bigelow’s greatness. If you can’t tell, this film was my favorite out of the four (Sorry, I know I haven’t even gotten to the name of the fourth film), and Bigelow might be my new favorite director. Anyway, Bigelow took a film, inspired by an event that civilians can’t really relate to: a warlike experience, of course. She took this film and made it “a totally immersive, off-the-charts high-anxiety experience from beginning to end” (Taubin). Her angles vary from bird’s eye view to face-level to high angle to low angle to oblique angle and everything in between. Bigelow’s camera creates a visceral reality for the audience. Is visceral too vivid? I mean I enjoyed it! Not only did Bigelow play with angles, but she worked with panning and zooming and off-balance tilts (Taubin). In The Hurt Locker, the shots were often taken with handheld cameras, which I don’t typically support. In this film, though, the reality and intensity of each scene is enhanced because of the shakiness. The few shots involving life at home (not in Iraq) were long shots, balanced, and still. These quick changes in the film’s shots exemplify Bigelow’s experience and award-winning qualities. One scene of an explosion switches from normal speed to slow motion and back to normal speed within five seconds. Along with the eye level shot of the entire explosion, Bigelow includes close ups of dirt bouncing off a car and a metal piece hitting the ground all in slow motion. Close ups of high quality, sharpened, and still shots depict all of the blood, sweat, dirt, color, and emotion of the men within the rectangle. Beside the visuals themselves, the sound of this film stood out from all the others. Listening to a man’s breath inside a bomb suit, hearing water droplets from leaking pipes hit puddles below them, and knowing when to anticipate a high intensity scene, made the film even more of an emotional experience. Bigelow had to and did experiment with all sorts of cinematography techniques to create a film such as The Hurt Locker.

A picture of a landowner and his soon-to-be wife standing on opposite sides of the landowner’s home.

How can Terrence Malick compete with Bigelow? He films Days of Heaven is how. Malick is a reputable visual poet and narrative iconoclast (Rotten Tomatoes). For a film created before the 2000s, Malick used all of the resources he had. He is known for his use of nature and exposing its beauty. (Rotten Tomatoes). Most of Malick’s films are shot almost entirely outside (IMDb), and Days of Heaven does just that. Except for the few scenes inside a house surrounded by acres and acres of open land, this film always has sight of the outdoors. Malick has the challenge of filming a movie with a narrator that isn’t one of the main characters. The narrator is a little girl who watches the events of the story from the outside. Roger Bert criticized, “Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm’s length.” This statement was followed by a retraction. The writer recognizes the intentionality in this separation of emotion. The little girl is not involved in the vicious love triangle. She experiences the events as an outsider, and as an audience, so do we. Her voice, removed from emotion and recognizably monotone, is perfect for the young character this sixteen year old plays (Bert). None of this has to do with Malick, but it helps to understand what he had to deal with when he shot this film.

A day worker gazing beyond the lens of the camera.

Land, dirt, sunshine, rain, ponds, animals. All of these natural things appear a significant amount in Days of Heaven. Terrence Malick arguably enjoys shooting things such as these, but this fits into the plot of the film, as well. By filming the lonely and empty land Malick captures a story of loss, love, and. Malick includes scenes from far distances to show the immensity of the land and the world and to emphasize the smallness of people and their trials. Sometimes Malick shoots close-up to a singular person to evoke emotion and feelings from the audience for that character. Malick, unlike most directors, does not frequently use rule of thirds or center point focus. He often includes the focal point just off-center. I noticed this a good amount and sometimes it even bothered me, but Malick definitely got my attention by doing that. Malick used a good amount of natural light, but he included artificial light for some scenes. The colors were often green and red because the grass was green and red is green’s complement. Malick may have done this purposefully, but nature tends to be those two colors anyway. This is the first director of the four films to intentionally and effectively use costumes to demonstrate something larger than the character itself. The clothing of each character vividly depicted their class. Seasonal field workers and the landowner have clothing that may appear the same at first glance, but they are quite different. The field workers have dirty, ripped, and disheveled clothing, whereas the landowner has a different outfit each day, always clean, and always fresh (Sandra). Terrence Malick had significantly less resources than the other filmmakers analyzed in this blog, but he effectively used what he had and beautifully created a meaningful film.

The Friends cast sitting at Central Perk (the coffee shop).

Now that I am all finished, are you wondering why I picked these films? To be completely honest, I started this project attempting to watch documentaries on things that sounded interesting to me. I didn’t really understand intentional color schemes, shot placement, panning versus zooming, or anything else about the structure of a film. I liked a film because it made me laugh or it made me cry. I didn’t base the quality of a film on its form but content. Now, I can’t even watch Friends without contemplating if that’s how David Crane and Martha Kauffman wanted it to be. Did the directors add or deduct details of form? I wonder if the camera angles were shot because of convenience or because it was more interesting. I notice when Rachel and Ross are matching or if the window in Monica’s apartment is centered. I pick out when a camera is being zoomed or panned. I can’t go an episode without thinking to myself, “If the director moved the camera four inches to the left” or “If only she was wearing blue.” Sometimes this gets really annoying inside my head, but other times I think “Hey, only a very select group of people that watch this would pick that out.” My point to all of this rambling and nonsense is I picked my films because of content, but now I can’t go twenty-two minutes without thinking about form.

Works Cited

Babies. Dir. Thomas Balmes. Focus Features, 2010. Film.

Balmes, Thomas. Babies Images. Focus Features Media. Focus Features, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <>.

Bigelow, Kathryn. The Hurt Locker Images. The Black Box Blue Blog. WordPress, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <>.

“Biography.” Thomas Balmes. 2015 Thomas Balmes Film Maker, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Days of Heaven. Dir. Terrence Malick. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Film.

Days of Heaven Image. Blog Spot. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Ebert, Roger. “Days of Heaven.” Roger Ebert .com. Ebert Digital, 7 Dec. 1997. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Friends Director. “‘Friends’-style Central Perk Pop-up Coffee Shop to Open in NYC in Late September.” Complex Movies. Dennis Velasco, 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <>.

Galvin, Peter. “Babies: Thomas Balmes Interview.” SBS Movies. SBS, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.

IMDb. Amazon, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <>.

Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Dir. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren

Invisible Children Rough Cut Trailer. YouTube. Google, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Poole. Invisible Children, 2006. Film.

Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Sandra. “Latest Inspiration: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.” Parisian Apparel. Blogger, 4 June 2013. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Strassberg, Rebecca. “14 Films That Famously Break the Fourth Wall.” Backstage. Backstage, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2015 <>.

Taubin, Amy. “Hard Wired.” filmcomment. Film Society of Lincoln Center, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

The Hurt Locker. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. 2008. Film.

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