Putting it together

Writing, Directing, Cinematography, and Editing

The Writer and Director's essential problems


Formal training on directing movies commonly goes two places, if I can be permitted an overly critical, and possibly self-indulgent moment, speaking as a critic: 1) Intellectual reduction to overstate the obvious, and 2) techniques. Both are equally useful and equally useless.

Writers and director's believe their job is to "tell a story in a visual medium." The following is a subtle shift, but often a very important one: "The writer and director's job is to understand what the audience wants or needs to see, and give that to them, so that they can imagine the story." - Dorian Cole.

My premise isn't meant to diminish the writer's and director's role. The writer and director manipulate the scene so that the story is related to the audience in a particular way. It depends on what the writer and director intend as to style and genre. To unfold the story in a particular way, such as a suspense or crime drama, they may need to hide information that the audience "wants" to see, because in the genre the audience doesn't "need" to see it - it would ruin the story's impact. "Wanting to see" what is missing engages the audience's imagination and propels the story forward.

Communication is not a simple thing. Much to the frustration of linguists, we don't actually communicate by phonemes. If we mispell, dispronounce, or misuse a word in a sentence, people typically still undrestand, and are able to distinguish the meaning of the incorrect word from other words. They may have to read the sentence again, but they will get it.

We communicate within context, and by distinguishing and amplifying context. Yes, I know, you haven't heard that before. I'm speaking from years of working to understand semiotic methods, and doing original work in semiotic theory for the visual medium.

The writer and director have three equally heavy problems: 1) Context. 2) What does the audience want or need to see so that they can imagine the story. 3) Technique.

Unfortunately some of what I am seeing tells me that some writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors, have no clue about problems 1 and 2, which means that when they tackle problem 3, they have no supportable idea what they are trying to accomplish.

Example: I won't discuss technique - I'm no expert - other than to say that the biggest technique problems that I see today, on some otherwise good productions, are the talking head problem - particularly the back of the head, and the moving camera problem. The back of the head shot doesn't portray drama. Here's why: Conflict, the heart of drama, is action - reaction - reaction - reaction.... Acting is action - reaction - reaction - reaction.... What the audience wants and needs to see is action - reaction - reaction - reaction.... But what the talking head technique gives us is the view of camera 2 or 3 during the exchange. We see the back of one person's head while the other is talking, so we don't see the other character's reaction. It's as if the other character doesn't react until it is time for him to say something. As important as dialogue is, much of communication is non-verbal, and happens long before the mouth comes open.

The moving camera problem is simply this: Camera movement pulls people out of the story and puts their focus on the production. Slowly pulling into the object to make it appear more dynamic, and shaky cams, shift the focus of attention to the camera. They are fine techniques for news programs, and when the production is a stylized part of the story (The Office). Those techniques don't work in movies - the last thing you want to do is distract the viewer from the fictional dream.

I took several courses in acting to become a better writer. You need to know how drama is accomplished before you can string together scenes into a story that communicates meaning. Actors emote. When one is speaking, often emotionally, the other is reacting, emotionally. So the most important shot is camera 1, the main camera, which is a closeup of the two or more characters. This is what the audience wants and needs to see, not the back of someone's head which only tells us his hair color.

The celebrated and accomplished director, Alfred Hitchcock, who I often use for good examples, didn't necessarily agree on the role of actors. Perhaps he simply didn't notice that his actors gave stellar performances, while he quietly diminished their role to others. Certainly actors can become self-indulgent in their screen time, their process, and also give themselves over to playing emotion, all of which can get in the way of relating the story, at least in a timely and entertaining way. Perhaps Hitchcock's attitude toward actors was misunderstood. At least Hitchcock stayed on the scene with the main camera, and gave editors much less opportunity to show the back of character's heads, so he must have had an excellent understanding of the contribution of "acting," whether or not he appreciated "actors."

My premise is always that a creative manager (writer, director, producer, editor) must understand the entire process, or he may get it wrong (or get snookered). Judith Weston, in The Film Director's Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques, which is heavy on directors working with and understanding acting, to summarize, says that directors must understand acting in order to direct actors. I would go further and say that you have to understand acting to know what the audience wants to see. Otherwise you will show us the back of the person's head who is trying to communicate something to us long before she opens her mouth.

Next page: The director's first problem, Context.

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The director's first problem, Context

If we take the sentence, "She sails," we have no real idea what the sentence means because we don't know the context. Are we referring to a canoe, a Viking ship, an aircraft carrier, a space craft, or is it a metaphor meaning that something was successfully accomplished? Without context, there is no meaning of any kind.

When two characters begin to interact, the audience immediately has to know the context (unless it is being withheld for some reason, which is valid filmmaking). Establish Shots used to be used a lot to establish the context of location. But audiences usually get their cues without the Establish Shot.

What is context? The scene, sometimes even the first shot in the scene, has to be established in a place, time, locale, setting, situation, character motivation, mood, and the characters' emotional states. These are some of the things that communicate contextual meaning, and the director has many tools for doing this. Much of context can be carried over from previous scenes, if there are few changes. Scenes and context can actually be established in limbo (no setting), as you will see in the next section. But without context, there is no meaningful communication.

A scene is composed of visual and other cues that communicate meaning. These cues are signifiers that point beyond themselves to something else (the signified). Just as a word, such as a name, John, points to the person, cues on the set point to something. For example, a box knife seen laying on the floor behind a box, is a potential tool for escaping bondage. The massive lock seen on a door is a cue that escape is blocked. The situation is developed through visual cues, that the person can cut himself loose, but not get free. The next shot may be of the character displaying a hopeless emotional state. The writer and director show us this in story form by showing what the character sees in his situation: POV shot of the knife, shot of him smiling, then POV shot of the lock, shot of him crying, then dropping to the floor in a sobbing heap. Had the writer and director simply shot the person lying on the floor in a sobbing heap, the audience would not have seen the hopelessness of his situation. The writer and director establishes context by using visual and other cues.

Next page: The Director's second problem: What does the audience want or need to see so that they can imagine the story.





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The Director's second problem: What does the audience want or need to see so that they can imagine the story.

In some alternate universe, perhaps there is a scene interpreter to whom the camera shifts, and he tells the audience what the character is thinking and what his reaction means. To us, this would be lousy story-telling, probably no better than a Greek chorus. It's the device that novelists are forced to use (or get to use) in books. But the movie screen is much closer to real life. The observer of another's behavior has to interpret for himself what the other person is thinking and why they are doing what they do. The writer, director, actor, and editor's job is to make it as obvious as possible so that the person can imagine the story.

Story-tellers, particularly in the visual media, don't naturally think in terms of the audience's imagination. We think that we manage to tell the story through images and dialogue. We discount the role of the viewer's experience and language abilities (ideas), which are essential in understanding the behavior of another. We think that the causality that we show equates in the viewer's mind with the consequences (actor's actions) that we show.

David Bordwell, in Narration in the Fiction Film, posits that viewers are constructivists. The viewer constructs meaning from the images and dialogue in the movie.

Constructivism, as it is employed in narrative psychology, helps us understand that there may be multiple interpretations of an event. In fact, you can help your problems by changing how you interpret events. The lens through which you look at the world can be changed so that you interpret differently.

Since every individual differs in experience, education, understanding of specific words, and emotional development, (the viewer's context), every viewer is going to construct different meaning from the dramatic action. I've used examples for this, such as the word "radio." The word radio will have very different meaning to a listener, a broadcaster, and a technician, because their experience is very different. Experience and accompanying emotion are key differentiators in the meaning of words. (Read Eugene Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning.)

Jean Mitry developed this idea well in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. "Thus film presents behavior and attitudes. It suggests and implies, but never (generally speaking) draws any conclusions, leaving this to the audience presumed (often mistakenly) to be educated." "It is in fact synthetic, since the characters reveal themselves and psychologically 'construct themselves' through their actions." "Moveover, though film is not 'thought,' it must provide 'material for thought" and it is time perhaps to establish the following: film absolves us of the need to imagine what it show us, but it requires us to imagine with what it shows us through the associations which it determines. The image is not an end in itself; it is a start. Nothing will ever be understood in the cinema as long as the represented data are regarded as its final thematic purpose."

It is the writer's and director's job to engage the imagination of the viewer. It's a step beyond "show don't tell." You can comprehend it best when you are creating suspense. You may not show what the threat is, but it is very real in the mind of the viewer. You may not indicate when the threat will materialize, but it is continuously present in the mind of the viewer. In suspense, the viewer's imagination is fully engage. I will go one step further with this. "Never miss an opportunity to let the viewer use his imagination." - Dorian Cole. The imagination is a much stronger tool than anything you can show on the screen. Like the image projected on Plato's cave wall, it is much bigger in the mind and much scarier than the real image.

The writer's and director's challenge is more often how much to "tell," and how much to "show." To use modern art as a metaphor, each person may see something different in it. A piece of modern art, an abstraction and distortion of reality, is perhaps more something to allow the viewer to project his own meaning, even though it tries to communicate the artist's vision.

It would probably drive a writer, director, and editor nuts to try to continuously consider the context of each scene and the context of many viewers. It is generally an intuitive process that some are better at than others. If it does not come naturally, then it has to be learned how to see things from another's perspective, or shift perspectives. And it is never the same from moment to moment. Audiences, and their experiential and educational context, get more sophisticated over time. They understand story elements so that they are not easily surprised or engaged by yesterday's novelty or uniqueness or events, or filmmaking technique. What is new today is passé tomorrow. Making new movies is always a moving target.

The writer and director work more as a guide into perspectives. He may create an entirely new world with new rules, as in science fiction, and he will have to explain this new world through character interaction with the new world. In another example, he may create a criminal with a certain mentality, and have to explain that mentality through the character's dialogue and interaction with others. Norman Lear created worlds in people's minds by bringing them into collision with each other. He introduced people to a new world in the TV series, All in the Family. Lear understood the experiential and attitudinal context of the audience and of his show. World views collided in his characters, and collided in his audience. Without understanding those world views, and being able to collide them in comedy, there would have been no show. The context of comedy makes it possible for opposing views to be considered. Norman Lear helped people change the lens through which they interpreted the world. It assisted them to use their imaginations to reinterpret - a very constructivist approach.

My personal favorite director is Richard Donner (now apparently retired). He was also an actor. His movies included the Lethal Weapon series, and Scrooged, and he worked on several excellent TV series, such as Perry Mason, a legal drama, Have Gun Will Travel, a western, and the Twilight Zone, science fiction.

In Lethal Weapon, Donner took us into the context of a cop who no longer cared if he lived. To do that, he showed us how crazy dangerous a cop who had no fear could be. In Scrooged, he took an old story from the 1800s of terrible poverty, and placed it in the context of a new world of glittering images contrasted with the context of today's poverty. I don't know if his planning was with full knowledge and deliberate, or if it was simply intuitive from long experience filmmaking. But Donner accomplished it.

Donner was able to switch from genre to genre and always tell a good story (some of my favorites). His selection of story, actors, and scenes were impeccable. (And he didn't show the back of people's heads - in fact if you look at his film technique, his actor's positions were angled so that he could record both actors and their reactions on screen at once. I'm sure it took some planning.) I find nothing in Donner's movies to criticize - he always seemed to get it right.

Lest this commentary be taken as a bitter pill of absolutes, I should add that much of what we take as essential, are not bound in hard rules, but in fact can be done in many ways. We should know the essentials, and know how to manipulate them. Consider that plays can be performed in limbo - that is without a setting or even props. Where is the context? The audience very effectively uses its imagination to create the setting. The cues of time, location, space, setting, and even props are all gone. But it works. The only reasons it can work are because cues to context are there: 1) The cues are in the characterization, dialogue, motivation, dramatic action, and references to off stage things and events, and 2) The drama engages the audience's imagination. And on stage there is only one camera - the audience.

Having said that setting may be unnecessary, the other end of the spectrum is the fantastic movie extravaganzes that Hollywood produces - visual thrill rides without which the world would be a less exciting and entertaining place, and the movie theater would be much less compelling.

Next in this series, I will add a few notes about the qualities of films and filmmaking:

  • Movies that emphasize visual story telling
  • Movies with minimal setting
  • The use of visual symbols
  • The set as character

- Dorian


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