In my last post, I recommended a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. As a companion, I recommend another book from the same publisher, Michael Weise Productions. This one is entitled Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. It’s written by Jennifer van Sijll. Like The Writer’s Journey, Cinematic Storytelling is useful to the one telling the story, and to the reader or audience member on the receiving end. Why does this book matter? Because we’re rapidly developing into a world of visual storytellers–smartphones and digital cameras in hand–and it would be wonderful if everyone could do their job just that much better.
Basically, this book is an encyclopedia of visual storytelling techniques, but it’s fun to browse because every idea is illustrated by frames from a well-known or significant film–and each sequence is presented with the relevant bit of the screenplay along with perceptive commentary from the author.
Some are easily understood by the audience, and as a result, they must be used judiciously by the filmmaker or storyteller: the slow-motion sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the freeze frame that ends Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the fast-motion sequence in the French film, Amelie; the famous flashback in the Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard; the visual match cut that transforms a bone into a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the long dissolve between young Rose and Old Rose in Titanic.
A specialty lens was used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane–perhaps the movie most often used as an example to illustrate a variety of techniques. Sometimes, a telephoto is the appropriate storytelling choice, and sometimes, it’s the wide angle. These are not random, on-the-fly choices; instead, they are carefully considered during the storyboard phases of film development.
Selecting a particular point-of-view (POV) can be a critically important aspect of storytelling, as with the below-the-swimmer underwater sequence just before the first swimmer is killed by a shark in JAWS. For which scenes is a low-angle shot most appropriate (character POV for E.T. would be one example), or for which would a high-angle shot be the better creative choice? When does it make sense to use a tracking shot (the camera is mounted on a tripod that glides along tracks; some low-budget achieve similar results by employing a wheelchair)?
Lighting is another variable. In American Beauty, there’s a scene illuminated by candlelight. In E.T., the search is conducted by flashlights and car headlights that illuminate an otherwise dark nighttime landscape.
In Barton Fink, individual shots of props (hotel stationery, an old typewriter) add visual context. Wardrobe is another defining option. So, too, is the use of location as a theme, a concept so masterfully used by director David Lynch in the vaguely creepy Blue Velvet.
It’s not always about what is seen. Sometimes, the scene contains less information, and the story or theme is carried by music or sound effects. Back to Barton Fink for the eerie sense of surreal sound and its ability to paint a picture of each character’s inner world.