There’s a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling

Pixar in a BoxPixar: “There’s a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling.” Now anyone can learn that difference. In cooperation with Khan Academy, Pixar is offering Pixar in a Box, an online program in its own storytelling process.

The first course is online now. More will follow throughout 2017. Check it out.

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.

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.

The Power of Silhouettes in Filmmaking

“Use silhouettes to define characters and situations in an elegant, crystallized visual portrait.”

In a No Film School blog post, Max Winter talks about the way cinematographer Roger Deakins exploits light to “tell a story more fruitfully.” Winter bases his observations on a video essay done by H. Perry Horton.

Several highlights

Build gravity. Deakins uses silhouettes to help the audience understand the deep significance of a simple moment.

Heighten drama. A scene shot in silhouette can “push tension to the breaking point.” Too many details would distract.

Show the weight characters carry. “Consider the silhouette for stories in which morality plays a huge part.”

Applications for Storytelling

How can writers use these film techniques to improve their stories, their character development?

Too many details can distract. Write a scene in stark simplicity. Avoid background details. Center on the character to build tension.

Filmmakers use the extreme close-up for deeply emotional moments. When your book character comes face-to-face with emotion, write the scene simply. Focus only on what your character is feeling, seeing. The writing equivalent of an out-of-focus background. Little or no ambient sound. Describe your character’s face. Describe a simple, telling action.

Maybe it’s all about pacing. Deep emotion requires pinpoint focus.