I had a recent discussion with a literary person about the merits of film as a language. She couldn’t fathom the existence of a language filled with images. Yet, as a director, I’m more fluent in visual communication than any literary form.
In fact, most men understand certain visual dialects more than a barrage of words from a friend. But that topic is for another day.
Today, I want to clarify how important it is for a director to be visually literate. Film is not only a language but an argument. The more a director masters the language, the more successful he can present his view or argument.
All directors can improve storytelling by practicing these three areas of film language.
Films are Built with Shot Sentences
In the literary world, every sentence has at least a subject and a verb. In film, every shot has at least a subject and an action verb.
In film, a short sequence of shots is like a paragraph. The order and pacing of those shots tell a clear story. Here is an example:
The little boy’s eyes open wide. His feet stand next to a corpse wearing a pinstriped suit. The boy glances at his ragged clothes and rubs his belly. A group of boys surrounding him nods toward the body. The boy hesitates, then bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves. He puts his shaking hand into the deceased’s pants pocket. He smiles as he pulls out a fist full of coins. The boys cheer. The little boy runs. The other boys chase after him.
Each sentence is a camera shot. The organization of the sentences tells a story to the audience.
The visual also allows the story to unfold as the director selects what shot the audience sees next. His chosen sequence also makes clear who and what the scene is about.
The first sentence, “The little boy’s eyes open wide,” plants an idea in the director’s mind. This moment is either startling, intimidating, or raises the boy’s level of curiosity. The director finds further clarifying hints as he reads further into the script.
Making a Choice
How the director has the young actor play the scene determines a lot. The most important item is what message or perspective the audience receives.
If the actor receives no direction, he may or may not portray the right message to the audience. The story might not be cohesive and the meaning of the scene becomes vague. Most meaningless scenes end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
The director must also pay attention to the order of each shot/sentence. The order and pacing alter the audience’s perception. It also determines what they embrace or understand.
The sequence in the above story paragraph suggests that the boy is being pressured by the other boys. Whether he lost a bet or is the runt of the group, the boys are forcing him to do the unthinkable.
The boy is curious and careful as he grabs the dead man’s money. The audience wonders what will happen next as does the character.
Soon the boy shows the spoils of victory on his face as he holds up his fist full of money. The audience feels relief and a sense of thrill with the lad’s success. Then comes the twist—The boy decides to keep the money and takes off running.
As the boys chase after him, the character and the audience wonder what will happen next—will he get caught or not?
Changing the Story
By changing the order of the shots and/or the length of those shots, the audience gets a very different story. Here is an example:
A small boy’s feet stand next to a corpse wearing a pinstriped suit. A group of boys nods to the body. The small boy bends down and nudges the bluish skin. Nothing moves. He puts his hand into the deceased’s pants pocket and pulls out a fist full of coins. The boys cheer. The little boy runs. The others chase after him.
The emotional impact of the above scene is very different from the original. The audience was never drawn into the character’s plight.
The first version was about overcoming the emotional experience. The boy had to overcome his hunger, the group of boys threatening him, and touching a dead man.
The second version was more about the dead body and a boy’s opportunity in a less emotional situation. The audience was never invested in the character. They received a very different message from the first version.
The first version brings the audience into the little boy’s world. We get a sense of what he is feeling. This results in an emotionally invested audience about the young boy’s outcome.
We need to know what will happen next. The audience’s emotions grow to the level of compulsion as they cheer the boy on.
We had no investment in the second version. The director blocked the audience from caring about the boy. How the director formed the shot/sentences determined what message the audience received.
The story fell flat (bad director, naughty director).
These simple examples prove that film is a language that communicates. How we form and order our shots changes the message. Thus, it’s critical that directors learn and master the grammatical rules of film.
Check out part two of Understanding the Language of Film soon.
Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers