Monday, June 11, 2007

Cinematic Storytelling

Not long ago, I read Cinematic Storytelling, which was written by the great Jennifer Van Sijll, and I just LOVED IT. This should be in the library of every aspiring screenwriter on the planet and every single technique should be memorized backwards and forwards. Period. This book is exactly what the screenwriting community needs right now.

If you’ve read every book under the sun about storytelling and how to write a screenplay, then Jennifer's your girl. She will take you to the next level, because her book is about how to render your story cinematically. Jennifer offers you 100 non-dialogue techniques to convey ideas in film. It's great. On the left page, she’ll give the technique, and on the right page, she’ll give screencaps and show you how it was written in the script. Writers are filmmakers, too, ya know, and this is quite literally an encyclopedia of “show, don’t tell.”

And yes, Jennifer’s qualified to write this book. She teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State. She has an MFA from USC's Department of Cinema-Television. She’s worked as a script analyst for Universal Pictures (Hey,
Billy, Jenn’s a cutie. Can you hook me up? Hehehe…). She’s also been an analyst for independent producers and pay television. In 1994, she won the Panavision New Filmmaker Award. In 1995, she was named honorary Gilliland Chair at San Jose State for teaching excellence. She’s taught intensive weekend scriptwriting courses for UC Berkeley for six years.

Get this - Section 1 (the first 16 pages of her book) are available for free in .pdf form
right here. (There are about 250 pages in all.)

Have you downloaded her sample chapter yet?


Turn to page 4 (page 7 of the .pdf document).

You will notice that this first free section talks about SPACE: 2-D & 3-D SCREEN DIRECTION. She explains things that should be common knowledge for every screenwriter - 2-D Space: the X-Axis (horizontal line), the Y-Axis (vertical line), and 3-D space: the Z-Axis (foreground to background).

Now consider this video:

From page 4 to page 7, she covers this opening sequence in Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train. First, this sequence is just plain fun. I love it. Consider how much information we learn about these two characters just by looking at their shoes and pants. One is a bit of a dandy with his two-tone shoes and fancy pants and the other has an every-man quality to him with his conservative lace-ups. Also, notice how the protagonist walks from left-to-right on the screen and the antagonist walks from right-to-left. To quote Jennifer:

As Westerners we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio-made movies, there’s a good chance that the “good guy” will enter screen left every time. When the “good guy” moves left-to-right our eyes moves comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences.

Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. Since our eyes aren’t used to moving from right-to-left, the antagonist’s entrance makes us uncomfortable. The screenwriter exploits this by transferring our learned discomfort to the character. The subtle irritant directs the audiences to see the character negatively. In the same way, we code a black hat as a negative symbol, we can also code screen direction negatively.

Now watching these two characters walk toward each other on the screen along the X-Axis like this implies an impending collision, and indeed, when they finally sit down, one shoe knocks the other one. As Jennifer says, “Visually, their meeting has already implied collision. This makes us lean in all the more as we suspect it is all going to be bad – very bad.

So what’s been accomplished here? What’s the “Dramatic Value?” “
By using screen direction to graphically suggest a pending collision, the film has set up conflict and character, and peaked our fears – all in under sixty seconds.

There’s another shot in this clip I’d like to point out. At :58 seconds we are shown a variety of train tracks along the Y-Axis, which is covered on page 6 of her book. To quote Jennifer:

“After already graphically suggesting that the meeting of the men will result in collision, Hitchcock cuts to an exterior shot. Hitchcock takes us to the train tracks upon which their train is traveling. At first, we see only clean linear lines of the track. The train is “on course.” It moves smoothly with a fixed speed and an unobstructed route ahead. Now we come upon an exchange of tracks. The lines are a mess of competing directions. Then – suddenly the train veers off. It heads toward the right side of the frame. This is the same side previously occupied by the antagonist. The graphics suggest that the protagonist has abandoned his true course and moved to the world of the antagonist.”

What’s the “Dramatic Value” of this shot? “By using the Y-Axis to set up a linear established route, one that represents safety and normalcy, Hitchcock could also establish its opposite – the dangerous detour. The metaphor is also a succinct synopsis of the plot: What happens to a good man when his path is suddenly diverted?”

I love it.

This really helps aspiring screenwriters to think more visually and consider what information certain visuals conveys to the audience and empowers them to exploit that effectively. Every writer should have these techniques in the back of his/her mind when he/she writes in order to avoid excessive dialogue and verbal exposition.

My only complaint about this book (beyond the few minor grammatical errors I noticed) would be the screenplay insertions, because so many examples are very dated format techniques. We know from Dave Trottier, author of the Screenwriter's Bible, that contemporary specs cannot have camera angles or big, overwritten blocks of action lines as we see in so many of those examples. (This book was, in part, what inspired the
Psycho Shower Scene post.) But I look at those techniques and feel inspired and wonder how we would write those techniques today and how I can incorporate those examples into my own stories and well, that should make Jennifer very happy.

Her book also reminded me again how Citizen Kane is so masterful in terms of cinematic techniques. You should turn to page 10 (page 13 of the .pdf document) where Kane paces along the Z-Axis and walks from the foreground to the background and back to the foreground again. Without a word of dialogue, Orson Welles communicates to the audience that Kane has returned to a state of boyhood.




Ann said...

This is the type of stuff I LOVE to see you guys talking about. It gives me so much insight into not only my favorite old moveies, but also how to make my novels better.

This piece in particluar is so brilliant, MM. It's stuff I NEVER would've noticed as a viewer, yet it's so deviant, manipulative and could any writer not LOVE it to bits? Awesome post. I'm gonna buy her book AND C&P this into my files.

Webs said...

My question is how much of this is the writer's art versus the director's art?

Can you imagine the tzuris you'd get on TS, or even from pro readers, if you wrote that Abe enters scene right, crosses to meet George who entered scene left, and knocks shoes?

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Ann. This is the stuff that lights my candle, too. Hehehe... What did you think of the Sopranos finale?

Webs - Hey, man. I knew I'd get this question, and I meant to address it somewhere in the article. You can write about those shoes stepping out of cabs and walking through an airport seemingly headed for a collision without inserting a bunch of crazy camera directions. Why write about the whole man stepping out of a cab and describing his hair and his entire suit when you could get all of that same information by just his shoes? Sounds funny, I know, but hey, that's cinematic storytelling. And I think you could imply somehow that a man steps out of a cab, describe the funny shoes and how those shoes walk to the left and on the other side of the airport, a different pair of shoes steps out of another cab and walks to the right. And then, with the use of SECONDARY HEADINGS, you cut back and forth between the two men seemingly headed for a collision. Even though contemporary specs will not allow you to write camera directions, you can still play and have fun and incorporate all of those 100 techniques into your stories.

Hope that makes sense.


Ann said...

I liked the ending! It was very close to the way I envisioned it.

I loved the way Tony manipulated everyone back into the biz, even his own kids. It seemed operatic, tragic and most of all, realistic.

If he hadn't been VERY good at what he did, he wouldn't have lived so long and achieved that kind of status. We really got to see his character arc--an uncomfortable one--but, in my humble opinion, an organic, brilliant one. Kind of made up for some of the lackluster shows these past few seasons.

I'm happy! What about you?

GimmeABreak said...

I bought the book about eight months ago. I guess I should read it, huh?

Mim said...

I have the same concerns as webs, but I see a different issue.

We already have so many new writers on TS who describe their action as if they are watching it on a flat screen, instead of as if they were in the room, or area of action.

This is a valuable tool, but I worry that it will not encourage the new writers to think 3-dimensionally, even with the Z-axis brought to their attention.

Getting them to think about the Z-axis will encourage some of them to step through the fourth wall and look at their action from within, but others will just start describing how it looks 2-dimensionally: "CHARACTER steps to the back of the screen."

But it is pretty cool. I want to get the book and watch Star Wars and The Matrix again, to see how the philosophy can be applied to movies where movement through space (and time) becomes distorted.

Thomas Rufer said...

Thanks for the post!

I'll have to write something on cinematic storytelling in my blog. It's something I have worked on for years.

Mystery Man said...

Do I really have to defend myself all over again like I did in that Psycho Shower Scene post? Come on, guys, how can you not be with me on this?

There's no issue here.

A) A writer should KNOW cinema and think and write CINEMATICALLY, because hey, this is being written for THE SCREEN.

B) Even though you don't write "X-Axis" or "Y-Axis" in your scripts, there's nothing wrong with thinking about film in those terms or even discussing film in those terms when you talk about scenes and ideas. You can still write about a character pacing and walking to the far end of the room and then returning to table without actually saying "foreground" or "background." Many, many directors will know exactly what you're trying to accomplish without having it completely spelled out. If the director doesn't get it, you can explain it later.

C) There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a sequence in your script where we, say, watch the feet of a protagonist and also the feet of the antagonist until finally they meet. If the director doesn't like that idea, he/she may certainly change it. But it's our job to try to tell our stories cinematically and offer up cinematic ideas. There are all kinds of information conveyed with a sequence like that: it implies a collision, foreshadows the conflict between the two, and we get an early sense about the differences between the two based up their shoes. Hey, it's fun. Remember the visual statements I pointed out in my "Senator's Wife" review? We should all be striving to "show, don't tell" in a like manner.

D) The train tracks is one example of many of visual ideas that writers should be looking to incorporate into their scripts. And this book helps writers to think in those terms.


Unknown said...

I asked for this book for father's day, we'll see if la familia comes through for me.

I do my best writing with my eyes closed, visualizing what I want a scene to look like. The trick is distilling that into concise sentences and phrases.

I think those little visual cues and themes are critical and I tried to incorporate them into my last screenplay. I think they can be hard to incorporate into your thought process when you are reading a script but you hope they will burn into a viewers brain when and if they ever watch the script come to life.

Christian H. said...

This is a great post and admittedly, I got something out of the X-axis, y-axis, z-axis thing.

I have already thought of some ways to use it. It is very abstract though and is something that has to be "low-key" or it will seem contrived.

The key to remember is that these kid of visuals are what make people come back again to figure how things fit together so well.

Kind of like the way M.Night did the scene with Bruce Willis being shot. I had to watch that movie THREE times before I figured out he was dead.

That was a first for me as I can sometimes figure out what the next line of dialog will be in the average movie.

I will probably add this to my collection.

Laura Deerfield said...

Soon as I get a job and know how I'm making my car payment - I'll be getting this book.

I think visually, and usually dialogue is the last piece to come into place for me in a scene.

This will help make some of my ideas more concrete...

... and for the record, I didn't really disagree with you in the Psycho post, just meant to point out that the script was written off the director's storyboard... and it was a series of shots, just written in paragraph form.

I actually agree completely that a challenge facing screenwriters today is to understand what is possible and what works well visually, and find ways to clearly express what we envision.

Kieslowski talked about the importance of building up and repeating images and symbols, saying that the audience may not recognize most of them on a conscious level, but after a while they would see things and know that they were significant, or associate a certain emotion with them - if only because these things resonated on a subconscious level with what had gone before.

I think the same may be true even of a reader. They may not "get" all your brilliant symbolism, or "see" your imagery - but, as long as they do their job in helping to tell the story, they will sink in on a subconscious level, and help your screenplay resonate in their mind.

(At least that's what I'm hoping!)

Thomas Rufer said...

so, now I wrote a small thing about Cinematic Writing in my blog. Again thanks for the post. Now I have at least one usefull post. Hehe!

Mim said...

Sorry to make it seem like I was disagreeing with you, MM. I really wasn't. I'm just concerned that this book would give inexperienced writers the wrong idea.

There are all kinds of visual clues you can give the director. Just this weekend my partner and I debated whether or not to refer to the killer's eyes as focused and intent. Then we noticed that we had the knife in the same line and it might inspire the director to reflect the killer's eyes in the knife.

And it's good to know how movement can imply conflict.

I just read a screenplay this weekend where the first 10 pages were described as if the writer were watching it on a flat screen.

Mystery Man said...

Okay, I really should apologize, especially to you, Mim and Laura, for that comment about the Psycho Shower Scene post.

I am very sorry.

Perhaps the reason that there was so much discussion is because this subject's so unfamiliar to us? Are we stepping into an area that writers don't talk much about?

I'm not even trying to say that there should be a bunch of heavy-handed deep symbolism, but simple touches, you know, like the example in "The Senator's Wife" in which Rosalind looked out the window at a "thrashing sea." That kind of technique is not uncommon (I pointed out a similar usage in "The Piano") and that kind of thing is to me a great "show, don't tell" statement about inner turmoil than, say, a page and a half of dialogue.

Maybe we should be having more talk about the meaning of visuals?


Anonymous said...

Great post MM...

I bought the book when it came out and it is now quite dog-eared... A great reference to have standing by as you continue to make passes on your drafts.


Nicklaus Louis said...

MM, I think one problem a lot of screenwriters have is that they don't want to direct the camera because that is what they're taught.

Thing is -- you can direct the camera without directing the camera.

Laura Deerfield said...

I think it's a little bit of a misnomer, even though it is what is usually said. It's not "directing the camera" that's verboten - but writing specific camera directions.

It is definitely part of the writer's job to see the story visually and to share that vision. Otherwise, you might as well write a stage play.

Thomas Rufer said...

We could pick a movie and analyze its symbols. Like Rob Ager (who does a tremendous job). I liked his analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What I like about Once Upon a Time in the West how the main characters are themselves symbols for the movies theme. It makes the movie much more richer because you subconsciously get it.

Christian H. said...

Maybe we should be having more talk about the meaning of visuals?

Excellent point. That's something you don't hear a lot about. This book lends a lot to the topic also.

I would bet though that most writers maybe myself included - think of visuals as something you should notice, but not always.

I am working on a script right now that actually has the premise for the story on a PC screen momentarily.

I also use a visual to describe a person's personality, sort of like the "thrashing sea" you mentioned.

I also wrote a little short that has several visuals to represent a sex act, kind of like the candles in - I believe it was - Body Heat.

It does seem weird though that a visual medium such as this doesn't force people to think as visually as they can.

Your mention of the scene transition is a good example as I have read so many scripts where we are slammed in to a new sequence with seemingly no connection to the old one.

That's the first thing I do when writing scenes; transition a sound, picture, or action to the next sequence.

I mean the best dialog and descriptions are useless if no one can keep up with the changes in scenes.

I think action/thrillers work with that method but character-driven dramas can suffer if you jerk people from, say, a sad scene in a field to a happy scene in a bakery.

I see it in most of the scripts I read. I was reading one at WriteMovies and it was a great story but I couldn't keep up with the jumps between scenes with different characters.

I'd have to stop and think "what the hell does this have to do with the last scene?"

I mean I like to have a clock in the background or the same song playing or one scene ends with a person going down steps and the next starts with a person going up, etc.

That's why this is defined as a craft as there are artistic and scientific elements to it.

I have been reading books, blogs and articles for the last three months and I still find something new ( at least a new "terminology" for something old).

Mim said...

This is a great post, MM. See how much debate it's generating? No worries about getting psycho over Psycho, or getting worked up into a lather over the shower scene.

Mystery Man said...

Nick - Thanks!

Laura & SP - I agree! Thanks so much. All in all, I think I have to be very careful about what I say concerning "directing the camera." It's a lot of yes and no. In a sequence like with the shoes, yes, of course, you're directing the camera, but you wouldn't be directing the camera for the entire script either. And personally, I wouldn't have a sequence like that unless those shoes played a role in the story, like those shoes showed up again and say, the two-tone shoes are the reason the antag would eventually be caught. Do you know what I mean? If I were to attempt something like that, it would not only be meant for fun, but it would also be essential to the story in some way. I would also be careful not to have too many sequences like that because it might offend people if I was directing the camera too much. A little goes a long way. Plopping a visual into a story that shows instead of tells and makes a visual statement (like the train tracks) is really my big point here and that's the big point of the book. Just because you mention a visual in the script wouldn't necessarily dictate how that visual would be filmed because that would, of course, be up to the director. Hope that makes sense. I think you have to be able to DEFEND writing a technique like that with very good reasons. "I needed to find a way to introduce the shoes in Act One because it would play a major role in Act Three." Do you see what I mean?

Christian - I loved this line: "It does seem weird though that a visual medium such as this doesn't force people to think as visually as they can."

Mim - Hehehe...

Mystery Man said...

Unk - Thanks so much! You're always an inspiration.

Christian H. said...

Thx MM. I learn so much at blogs like this, I'm just happy I have anything worthwhile to say.

Mystery Man said...

You've had a lot of great things to say. Sometimes you just have to write it out to find it. I'm glad you're here.


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