How to Let Your Story Tell Itself

Filmmaker Magazine shares an interview with DP Sean McElwee. He recently screened his The Incredible Jessica James at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will air the film later this year.

Filmmaker asked McElwee: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

DP Sean McElwee
DP Sean McElwee

McElwee: When you’re presented with a script as good as the Jessica James‘ script, sometimes (and this may sound strange) the job as the DP is to sort of get out of the way, not overcomplicate things, and sort of let the story tell itself. Sometimes a really cool shot at the wrong moment can actually diminish the quality of a film – and we always wanted to preserve the nature of the script by approaching the aesthetic as simply and efficiently as possible.

Once again, advice from the filmmaking community translates to fiction writing. At times the author has to get out of the way. Don’t overcomplicate things. Let the story tell itself.

Characters need to move freely. Circulate through the story. Find their own way. Go easy on the plotting, and let the characters grope their way through the story. Their story. It’s okay if they’re walking blind for a while. They’ll find the light. If your writing is any good, it will offer paths for your characters.

A cinematographer works from a script. Enhances the storytelling. The fiction writer creates the story. A strong writer will let the characters create the story.

Your Take is Genius

Here are a couple of recent tweets that inspired me. One from actor Christopher Walken, the other from playwright John Patrick Shanley. I hope they inspire you too.

“None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an after thought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth that you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.” Christopher Walken

“Were you miscast in your life? Should the part have gone to someone else who would’ve played it better? No, I tell you. Your take is genius.” John Patrick Shanley

 

Fight the Dragons

All the experts urge writers to find their voice.

John Steinbeck found his voice. So did Ernest Hemingway. As did Maya Angelou.

Anne Lamott discovers her voice as she writes. Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Tim O’Brian: all finding their voices in their books.

They pave the way for us.

And we fight the dragons and we storm the castles
And I do the best that I can
For everybody knows that’s how the story goes
To turn each boy into a bigger man

So I’ll fight the dragons ’til you can

The lyrics are from Broadway’s Big Fish, “Fight the Dragons.”

So many writers developing their voices, showing us the way, till we can.

Pre-visualizing Your Shoot

Veteran camera operator Georgia Packard learned pre-visualization from Ansel Adams. When Packard was a kid, she took summer classes with Adams. “Ansel Adams was such a wonderful mentor,” Packard says, “teaching me pre-visualization in his still photography. We would go out with a pin-hole ‘camera’ shoebox with only one exposure. I knew I had to get it right the first time! I walked around my subject looking high and low, moving far left and right before releasing the cap.”

“I still do that on my film sets,” she says.

Camera operator Georgia Packard
Camera operator Georgia Packard

Pre-visualize Your Characters

Great advice for writers too. When you put your character in a scene, pre-visualize. Walk around the scene in your mind. Move your character right and left, high and low. Your character is a boy, a high school freshman. He comes home from school one afternoon to find his grandfather lying on the floor, gasping for breath, suffering a heart attack. Walk around the boy. What POV are you using? Looking over his shoulder as he spies his grandfather? Are you seeing his face freeze in fear? Is the grandfather conscious? Does the boy try to talk to him? Does he scan the room for the house’s cordless phone? Does he pull his own mobile phone from his backpack? Does he spin around, hesitating, looking for help that isn’t there?

What does the boy say to the 911 operator? Speak confidently? Stammer? Does he say, “I’m not sure” as a first response to each of the operator’s questions? Is he on the floor next to his grandfather? Standing over him? What’s his stance?

Writers Can Learn from Filmmakers

Packard’s advice: “Never let anyone tell you how impossible it is. Don’t let anybody steal your dreams. If you are passionate about your craft, wanting nothing more than getting an opportunity to live your dream, go after it. I often appreciate these warnings of doom because they focus my resolve and I ‘prove them wrong’. You will never know if you can do it unless you do it. Don’t try, do.

Here’s the full interview with Georgia Packard.

Storytelling Tools

Fast Company magazine features an article on the recent film Cameraperson, a documentary self-portrait on the 25-year career of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson.

Cameraperson is “an aptly visual memoir of a cinematographer, who invites us to join her behind the camera and watch as she sets up shots and listen as she interviews people and interacts with fellow crew members.”

“While we see that Johnson is a skilled practitioner when it comes to framing a shot and working with whatever light she has, this documentary is really about using cinematography as a storytelling tool and as a way to connect with people, and what’s most interesting about Cameraperson is seeing how Johnson, while not always vocalizing it, is constantly making on the spot judgments on a variety of matters for which there are no easy answers.”

Cinematography as a Storytelling Tool

More on storytelling tools. Check out a video from No Film School on how composition and framing can help you tell great stories with your cinematography. “If you know the basics of composition and framing, telling great visual stories becomes significantly more attainable.”

 

storytelling through cinematography is essentially the art of visually depicting change

Article author Robert Hardy says, “One of the key pieces of information that was only briefly touched upon in this video, however, is that storytelling through cinematography is essentially the art of visually depicting change. If your characters go through a major change during the script, let the your cinematographic choices reflect that change. Let’s say that a character starts out timid, shy, terrified of the world around him. You could start with framings that minimize character size while emphasizing and enlarging the environment around him. Wide angle lenses are fantastic for this purpose. Then, as the story progresses and the character becomes more confident, your framings and lens choice begin to mimic that change. Instead of wide angles, you choose longer focal lengths that isolate your character from his foreground and background, and frame him so that he is larger or equal in the frame than the other characters around him.”

Advice for Writers

Think about what Hardy says in his example above. Start with framings that minimize character size. As the character grows and changes, choose longer focal lengths that isolate your character from his foreground and background. How would you do this on the printed page? Minimize your character, then mimic growth by moving away from wide angles. Great technique for “framing” a character’s growth.