The Six Functions of the Shot

Every shot is independent of those that together with it make up the film.

A film is a collection of independent shots.

When we see a film of four hundred shots, we do not see a film, we see four hundred films.

Each shot is the figure of one or more events captured from a point of view.

In each shot there are events and a point of view.

When the point of view changes (when the camera moves), the event, in a certain sense, is settled by the change in the point of view.

When a given set of objects that make up a given event are settled in the change of point of view, we shall say that the scene is closed.

Yet a scene, a series of convergent and divergent actions, according to a more or less precise logic, will often open and close provisionally.

The provisional closures form a weak film that follows the main film (the official story) as a shadow or a faithful dog.

When the same fact is taken up by another shot – by changing the position of the camera  – there is not necessarily established a relation of question-answer or problem-solution within the shots, but such a relation does strengthen the links between both shots.

A shot is composed of objects linked by actions; the whole, enveloped by a point of view.

The objects linked by the point of view given by the camera have relations with each other, which are not in need of a point of view.

Even if the camera were not there to assume its point of view, the objects would tell their stories to each other.

The microfictions told by the set are hierarchised with the appearance of a point of view.

Yet this hierarchy implies other secondary hierarchies given by what the objects demand, and by that which other possible points of view – that may be deduced by the point of view that is imposed upon us – propose.

Even though the point of view renders the microfictions hierarchical, they are still there, latent, struggling to draw attention to themselves.

If it is known how to take them into account, one may assist the microfictions in constituting themselves as conspiring plot. In this case, one can say that they are the unconscious of the shot.

* * *

A shot is equally a paradigm and an allegory.
A self-reflective (and critical) image.
Centripetal and centrifugal.
It alludes to and synthesises the totality of shots and the stories they tell, that is to say, it is holistic.
It has combinatory potentiality. It will not always be internally coherent with the shots that precede or follow it.

The manner in which shots are linked we shall call the functions of the shot. These functions are the forms in which the shots fuse with each other and with the (provisional) totality that is the film.

The totality of the film is a collection of combined shots, organised in such a manner that they may be offered as a complete set.

Although its complete subordination to a strategic model (complete set) will bring about the loss of the film’s poetic force.

The forces (the functions) that upset the strategic model may be termed recursive. The recursive model counterbalances the strategic model.

(A model is a field of activities plus the rules that govern its functioning.)

As a matter of fact, a film has neither a beginning nor an end.
Every shot of the film is a world that is separate from other shots.

However, the functions that are present in each shot are only activated once in contact with other shots, though they are independent of those shots. They are like threads that tie and untie. They resemble the strings of a guitar. Yet each shot has an imaginary extension that is independent of its relations with other shots.

In many cases the ‘resonance’ of a shot with regard to others is due to rules not dissimilar to those of harmonisation in music. For example, two functions that link a set of shots may be dissonant. Though we must not take the comparison too far: counterpoint, for example, or the major musical forms (a fugue or a sonata) are not necessarily comparable to the problems that may arise from the play of diverse functions among various shots.

The strategic model is made up of various functions that are subordinate to the centrifugal function.

The centrifugal function consists of the dynamic organisation of the elements inside each shot, such that each element of the shot searches for its most proximate element in order to meet its death and thus activate the next element, which in turn searches out the next element and thus consecutively until the film comes to a rest.

Thus applied the centrifugal function provokes the progressive distancing of actions and things in each shot. While the film distances itself from actions, it gradually draws nearer to an intrigue (plot). The film’s images may be seen as a possible illustration of this.

The strategic model provides us with only one explanation of what we have just seen.

Narrative, in the strategic model, consists of a succession of created expectations that are resolved as they develop into further expectations, until the film reaches a global resolution. The events that the film shows us are explained at the end, at one stroke, in such a manner as to shed an exclusive light upon the totality of the film’s events, independently of the shots that constitute it.

In narration, the created expectation before an action (that is separate from the shots that clothe it) is presented as an enigma, and expectancy is advanced via true or false alternations.

The narrative rules that constitute a film, in which the relations between shots – created by the maximum activation of the centrifugal function – predominate, are not very different to those of a nineteenth century novel or play. This is the so-called ‘three act structure’.

This structure renders the creation of specifically cinematic emotions difficult.

Ben Hecht: “A filmic scene has only one objective: set out to die in the following scene. And this until the word ‘fin’”. It is more complicated than that, yet this is a fair summary of the centrifugal function.

What would happen if a film were made in such a manner so that once we had reached its end, it were possible to re-edit its shots in reverse order, so that the inversion be a sort of response to the film previously projected in the right form?

Alternatively: the film projected in reverse order favours the centripetal function, that is to say, that function in which everything demands that we thoroughly absorb the shot and remain within it (or complete it, giving the impression that the next shot presents the beginning of a new film.)

Make a film approximately ten minutes long, consisting of shots in which the centrifugal function predominates, so that when the film is projected in reverse we discover at the end a second story. Or the same story (narrative palindrome). Or that both stories complement each other, thus creating a third story.

* * *

A shot is composed, with respect to the position of the camera, of an event in the foreground, a set, and scenery.

The art of cinema (or one of them) consists of showing these three elements in a manner that makes it difficult to separate them.

When the three elements appear as distinct there is theatrical perspective. The shot remains inert until a narrative action that is foreign to it comes to activate it.

The set consists of objects linked to the actions in the foreground. Foreground does not necessarily mean that the objects and actions are nearer to the camera, but rather, that in the depiction of the events it carries out an organising role.

For example, if two individuals are speaking in the foreground and in the background we see that someone jumps out a window, that window and the pavement will now form part of the set. If, while two individuals are talking about the rain, people are jumping out the window in a regular fashion through all the windows of all the buildings in the background, that background will be transformed into an active background linked by the theme of the rain. It will be thought: these persons in the foreground see this fall or feel the fall of the multitude of monotonous suicides, “as one hears the rain fall”.

As can be seen, the relations between the foreground, set and background are not at all obvious.

Shih-T’ao provides a fair summary:

  1. Static scenery, dynamic foreground.
  2. Dynamic scenery, static foreground.
  3. What should remain static in the background becomes dynamic and vice versa, and on other hand, what should remain static in the foreground becomes dynamic and vice versa.
  4. Fractures and apparitions. Unexpectedly, elements within the frame emerge, without us being aware of their coming towards us, as a car that is about to run over the pigeons appears to them on the street, which then they are able to escape just in time. In addition, elements that should develop completely are briskly interrupted: the car that is crossing a field covered by pigeons, stops and bursts into flames, thus interrupting its expected course, or someone who is chasing another with a knife, suddenly stops and goes to sleep on the floor.
  5. Continuity with the rest of the world, that is to say, outside of the frame (off screen), and, why not, continuity with other virtual films that flow in parallel to the one we are viewing (see my “Cinema as Clandestine Voyage”).
  6. Vertigo, recapitulation of the previous elements in a manner that causes one to ‘enter the frame’.

Film a scene in which there are three objects that, while serving the action, also serve to awaken the background scenery.

* * *

Every shot contains within it other possible shots, more or less numerous according to the framing that is being used. A framing that dramatises excessively, thereby requiring some time to decipher  (in painting this is termed ‘rugose form’), will not allow the spectator to imagine other possible framings. A less eloquent framing  (‘smooth form’) will stimulate in the spectator the desire to provide visual opinions. Each shot thus viewed – but in general every shot – will awaken visual opinions, that is to say, ways into the shot, strolls inside the frame.

A shot may be linked to another by:
Resemblances, sharing the same set, same characters, etc.
Active variations that aid the strategic model.
Weak variations that are barely noticeable since they do not participate in the main story that we are being told. Though they do enter in the story that we are telling ourselves. The weak variations constitute an underlying temporality.
Resolutions. An element of the shot (or several elements) has an illusory aspect (somewhat like pareidolias) that is then resolved in another shot. That which seemed a teddy bear, due to a slight variation in the camera’s position, now appears as a cushion.
Through the progressive increase in complexity, we once more view the shot as if it were a supplementary element, and little by little, by addition, the shot is transformed.

Film a scene in which a situation, initially quite simple, is slowly modified until it becomes incomprehensible, simply by changing the camera’s axis.

* * *

I have already said that every shot is independent. Its independence depends on the activation of various functions at the same time.

Pound: “To write a poem that has the properties of a diamond: transparency, sparkle, hardness, impenetrability”.

The entry into the frame does not deny the impenetrability, we have simply exchanged diamonds.

We have to imagine a variety of overlapping shots that, according to the centrifugal function, search for each other and respond to each other. Though these are shots that should, once the centrifugal function has been activated, produce a double movement, so that on the one hand one can follow the sequence of shots from ‘1’ to ‘n’, and on the other, due to the centripetal function, stimulate our immersion into each shot.

This happens in the following manner: the revealed events, while making demands, beckon shots to come; they tend to arrange themselves around the centre of the scene, which is not the centre of the frame, but of the game the events are playing. This centre is the imaginary compensation of the perspective that the camera imposes upon us. It is the camera’s inverted perspective. When we watch a soccer match, the players try to dispossess each other of the ball, this we see from a distance or in close-up, though always following the movement of the players after the ball. If one is able to film the facts in a distanced and attentive manner, with some skill, we could see the ‘the ball’s point of view’ in relation to the whole of an action, and, furthermore, cause both points of view to meet and delay their encounter, seeking refuge in a mystical rejoicing.

Let us call this emotion, provisionally, ‘cubist vertigo’.

Film a scene so that a series of fixed shots ‘summon’ their reverse shot, which does not arrive.

* * *

Once the manner in which other functions – critical, holistic, allegorical, combinatory – are activated has been explained, it will be understood how it is that each shot is independent of others (how it can become so) and equally important.

The world is noisy. Each shot, being a register, a copy of the world, has its own sounds. It also evokes noises. A mute shot has tacit noises. There are two types of noises that coexist in every shot: the one that involves the totality of the shot and the one that draws attention to itself as part of the shot: someone’s footsteps in the frame’s background, or an aeroplane up there. But there are noises that lead us outside of the frame and there are, simply put, mental noises. All these sounds must be coordinated according to a global criterion. A strategic idea of the whole soundtrack. I often propose to render these sounds musically, in other words, to give these noises a structure, a perspective that is subordinate to a structure. To achieve this it is especially helpful to put into disarray the natural sound perspective, that is, giving things closest to the camera the loudest sounds, and giving increasingly quieter sounds to those things that are furthest away from the camera, ending in a murmur. The inversion of this perspective can provide the illusion of a reverse shot, even though the camera may not move. To put it simply, this is a sound focus change.

Yet it will be necessary to examine the mental noises, sounds, voices and music that an image evokes in addition to other ‘sound objects’: pairs or groups of sounds that take shape and stroll through the set of images without becoming part of the image and awakening the imagination. We should also become aware of object-sound pairings; a sound linked to a particular object: an egg-bell, a hen-pencil, a weening-finger, a bell-lamp.

Film three different scenes with the same soundtrack.

* * *

Sound puts image into perspective. Though, of course, this is a perspective superimposed on a visual perspective. Let us imagine a visual sphere traversed by a ‘tracking’ sound followed by a fixed sound perspective, accompanied by a tracking image that scours the visual sphere.

We will return to the visual sphere.

The soundtrack is the grammar of the image. The moving image is the grammar of the soundtrack. The latter is the usual case, but what about the former?

Let us imagine (turn into images) a series of combined shots in such a way that they trigger a noticeable yet weak intensity, so that in their first combination a desire to visualise the already seen shots in another order is brought about. And so that the new combination (the one we ‘dream’ of) seems, at the same time, a superposition, a substitution and the consequence of the previous combination. In addition, let other combinations swarm about like ants surrounding the former. I am here referring to the application of the weak combinatory function.

These ant-like swarming functions can be arranged from a higher to a lower intensity and thus create a sentimental perspective out of the revealed series. The proposed succession should adhere to the first combination.

Once (in The Golden Boat) I used a series of sounds that were supposedly simultaneous, making them heard in sequences: clock, crying child, passing train, hammering hammer. After a couple of sequences, one had an impression of simultaneity. We had been able to give the impression of analytical simultaneity.

Film a scene in which a roaming sound goes through various situations in search of its ‘natural’ place. For example: the noise a glass makes as it breaks while we see a window, then, the image of a frame and the noise of the breaking glass cause (or are they the consequence of?) a change of take. We see a book, a hand opens it, and once more, the noise of breaking glass. Finally (one may at one’s will add other images of unbreakable objects) we see a glass, we hear the shattering and the glass … does it break or not? (Both solutions may be used.)

* * *

There are objects that, let’s say, have a natural function: a glass is there so that liquids may be poured into it. There are others that privilege a symbolic function: a statue, a painting (double symbolisation). There are others that become symbolic (they generate metaphors) due to the context in which they are to be found: a nail in a table and a few drops of blood, a scream. We think of a fact of blood, though also of crucifixion. Yet it is enough for us to simply hear after the scream a hammering sound for the nail-object to regain its natural function. And so?

We have substituted the allegorical function for the critical function. The critical function requires another function to precede it, so as to put that other function in doubt.

Objects can establish links with one another in such a way that they become each other’s content.

Rain envelops the set’s objects and the background scenery, or, if we are in a house and it is from there that we are looking at the scenery under the rain, then, the rain solely envelops the background scenery. In the latter case, the house is enveloped by rain, though it is the window through which we are looking that contains the rain, and this tree in front of the window is itself the content of the window.

Each object on the set (that is, those objects that activate and are activated by some of the actions in which the flow of movement culminates: evident, discrete and potential objects) should have magical properties. Magical in the simplest meaning of the word, as one speaks of a ‘magical sword’, a ‘ magical key’, a ‘magical potion’. The action and passion of these magical objects – interwoven with each other and the actions – form a substratum of events that are not bound to verisimilitude: the sun’s light can shine for a scene that lasts fifteen seconds, a lamp can turn on by itself for no apparent reason other than to serve as the magical substratum.

The easiest magical element to accept is incidental music. We shall return to it later.

When on a set there are only magical objects, that is to say, each object having its own life, it can be said that the set is ‘charged’ – as one says that a battery is charged. In this case, one can say that the set is a museum.

On the ‘museum-set’, the set’s own presence renders passive the actions that should activate it, since there is no possible activation. This set is independent of the presence and actions of humans or animals that move through it or inhabit it.

The museum is the extreme case of a saturated set.

That a set is saturated does not mean that each object has exhausted its magical (or natural) connections. It means that each part has been touched ‘poetically’.

In this case the objects of the shot form an organism.

Confer poetic values on the objects of a set by arbitrarily using animal sounds and linking them to each other.
To give poetic value: to upset the rules that regulate how objects are ‘sonorised’.

* * *

In a shot, a series of weak and strong connections can be organised. The relations between the weak and strong connections can be organised in many ways, and the shot’s concept will be effective as long as the relations do not intersect. If this were to happen, both series would not be perceived as such. For example, a strong series might consist of the blows in a fight, organised as action and reaction. A weak series could be a tempest that bursts out in the street; the wind opens the windows and a woman enters the frame, she closes the window. She sees the fight and runs out of the frame, and, as soon as she exits, the window opens again and the water that has accumulated on the ground invades the room.

If the weak relation between actions is placed in middle distance, it acts as padding, if it is placed in the foreground (the window opens and in the reflection of one of its panes the fight is reflected) it then complements the series that primarily concerns us (the fight).

These are series of actions within a frame. Yet between two shots things do not work in a similar fashion.

A group of shots may establish relations amongst its shots by means of a dissolve or via webs or interweaving.

Shots will follow each other according to the centrifugal function; a web combines the centripetal and centrifugal function, a textile (let us call it tapestry) uses all of the shot’s functions.  At least the following functions: centrifugal, centripetal, critical, combinatory, allegorical and holistic.

The web extends beyond that which the shots articulate, but finishes before the end of the film.  A tapestry has a design that goes beyond the extension of the web.

The textile presupposes pre-established motifs. Consider the relation Persian tapestry-flute: a tapestry’s weave is dictated by a series of musical sounds played by the flautist. Consider a rug woven with tempos and melodies that dictate the tapestry’s motifs via repetition, duration and insistence.

Some useful antinomies that may help to understand the apparition of cinematic forms: the first one has already been mentioned, sound: the soundtrack controls and extends the flow of images. The emotion that the film’s immediate development can provoke depends on the relation between both flows.

Repetition of elements from the soundtrack in opposition to the vagrancy of the moving image.

Double wandering: images and sound roam, each one on its own and in an unexpected manner, now and then they coincide – the sum of coincidences – standing out from this ocean of dissension they create a poetic fabric that is outside of both flows that try to explain it, bestowing on them the impression of a corpus. Normally, the structure of a film is subordinate to the resolution of an enigma. But the contrary is also possible: a structure that leads into an enigma or that retroactively renders mysterious the elements of the structure.

Let us return to the image of the Persian tapestry that is woven according to the flute’s musical gestures.

The flute is, in a certain way, the needle (a needle) that evokes spatial images within time. The melody goes on, exposes pre-established motifs, though it may also fly away, let itself be carried off and thus distance itself from the provided motifs.

Let’s imagine a weaver who does the contrary to what the flute’s music specifies.

Imagine a series of events that, filmed sequentially, tell a linear story, though in real time occur simultaneously. For example, a hand picks up a kitchen knife at three minutes past twelve; a couple of kilometres away, someone falls to the ground having been struck by a heart attack; on the other side of the ocean, at the same instant (that is, six hours earlier, if we respect the time difference) another person begins to run without our knowing why, fleeing without our knowing from what; and in Saigon another person who is running is detained and accused of assassination.

Or the contrary: in this same room (any whatsoever) a man picks up a knife on the third of May, 1983, another died seven years later, another escaped 30 years later and the presumed assassin was arrested last Sunday, at the entrance of the building where the first criminal act was committed (picking up the knife for no apparent reason).

Make two short films using both situations.

* * *

A linear reading of the events is presupposed in both of the cases suggested above. Yet each situation, from the initial moment when the knife is obtained until the criminal is arrested, is surrounded by secondary elements: the kitchen where the knife is to be found, extras that are walking on the street at the moment the character is arrested, etc. These elements may be organised in such a manner so that instead of simply supporting the narrative presented to us in the foreground reading, they may function as tare, as a delaying force, slowing down the action and attracting attention to certain aspects of the set. These visual elements can be used as a centripetal force organised around a counter-narrative: (think about the first example, where events follow each other in narration, though they are in fact simultaneous) a clock – or its equivalent – is an indispensable element since it will allow us to notice that there is simultaneity in time. Consider the clock: when the character is in the kitchen, at the instant the character is about to grasp the knife, a clock can be seen in middle distance; at the moment when the other character is struck dead by the heart attack, he is setting the time on a wall clock; as the third man is fleeing down the street, a passer-by asks him for the time and when the fourth man is arrested, he hears the bell of a public building, checks his wristwatch and says: “Of course … the Post Office clock is fast” (since it is three minutes past twelve).

We could stop here, for with this brief play of images we have told a simple story, structured around an enigma. We have activated the centripetal and centrifugal functions.


First published in Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage (Rouge Press/International Rotterdam Film Festival, 2004), pp. 57-68. It was sent by the author to Adrian Martin in 2004 and is used here with the permission of Valeria Sarmiento. Translated from the Spanish by Carlos Morreo. Errors in the original presentation of the text have here been corrected.

© Estate of Raúl Ruiz 2004