Cross Training For Writers: Think Like A Film Maker

As one year tips into the next, a lot of blogs look back as well as forward. I read an interesting post on Kristen Lamb’s blog that forecasts trends in the publishing industry, and she’s pretty spot on if you ask me. Artists in different disciplines will begin to work more collaboratively as we all get creative about building our careers: writers and video editors/editors and musicians/photographers with dancers with fashion designers. There are exciting permutations, and if technology is your thing, opportunities abound. (If it’s not, they still do.)

In looking at the writing process as opposed to a finished product, there’s a whole lot to be gained from an exchange of technique across industries and disciplines. If we consider cross training for a triathlon–or any sport for that matter–muscles get used to a certain way of working, and to get them into peak condition, we need to surprise them regularly. Over the next few weeks, I plan to explore how we can benefit from incorporating the approaches of film makers, ballerinas, sculptors, composers and photographers into our writing craft.

FilmStripGraphicI’m intensely visual; many of us are; it’s the way we’ve been conditioned. I love movies–who doesn’t? Film is the most powerful and entertaining medium there is. While not everyone reads, and sadly illiteracy is still widespread, even remote tribes in far flung places have access to TV antennas.

The film maker connects with an audience through two senses: the visual and auditory. Within these constraints s/he must tell a story that synthesizes elements writers are familiar with: characterization, plot, style, pace and so much more. The director relies heavily on dialogue and facial expression, body language, and setting, all of which are coordinated through the efforts of a highly skilled film crew, notably script writers, which I’ll leave to Heather, our resident screenwriting boffin, to tell us more about in an upcoming post.

The director, like the author, is the creative force behind putting a movie together. He gets to influence casting decisions; call for script rewrites; work with the actors to get the best performance possible out of them; and compose shots, all of which, when assembled, make a movie meh or memorable.

Here are two functions in the film industry we can use to take our storytelling to a new level:

The cinematographer and point of view. The camera becomes much more than a tool in the hands of a cinematographer, who works with the director on shot composition, lighting, and location. She knows camera functions inside out, including what lenses to use for what shot. In essence, she sees everything through the camera’s lens. By navigating close-ups and panoramic shots, camera movements and angles, the director and cinematographer achieve the film’s narrative flow, of which point of view is an intrinsic part.

There may be an omniscient point of view at work, with the camera able to achieve the distance that allows us, as viewers, to observe more than participate in the action. Panoramic city views don’t necessarily mean that the protagonist is sitting in a helicopter looking out. However, if a camera is attached to the straps of a skydiver’s parachute, we get a whole new perspective on the landscape. In a thriller or horror movie, watching the young woman wander into a dark hallway to investigate a strange noise is different from seeing the hallway through her eyes. Skillful interweaving of both points of view generates tension and even unbearable suspense. If the camera sees through the eyes of the baddie, we’d only see the victim/hero and surroundings; if an omniscient is at work, we’d see the two of them.

Many of the more grisly horror films rely on the victim’s point of view and the omniscient’s. Nightmare on Elm Street would be no fun if we never got to see how hideous Freddy is, and we wouldn’t get to see him if the camera only saw through his eyes (unless he looked in a mirror). A point of view that’s too restricted and consistent can make a film claustrophobic to watch, which may be a desired effect (Blair Witch Project). In writing, those authors who use a first person narrator know only too well the constraints this point of view generates.

Next time you see a movie, get curious about how point of view is handled. For example, when the actor speaks into the camera, whose point of view is dominant? The answer will be the other character on screen, (not the audience). Although we do come across actors who address the audience directly on film, this technique is most often used by journalists and talk show hosts. In writing, if the narrator wishes to engage directly with the reader, s/he will use the second person (“you”) in the narrative.  

SandraBullockGravityThe actor and characterization. Bad acting can sink a film. Conversely, talented actors who’ve done their research and are able to get into the skin of a character, will often carry even a flawed project.

For those of us who saw Gravity, we have to acknowledge Sandra Bullock’s exceptional performance and contribution to what’s acknowledged as a landmark movie. Extreme close-ups capture nuances of facial expression and body language, revealing a woman who, nursing personal tragedy and catastrophe, must tap into resources of courage she had no idea she could access. Other actors known for this capacity to immerse themselves in a character are Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) and Helen Mirren (The Queen).

What made these performances so extraordinary that writers can learn from them? Attention to detail and the ability to absorb a character’s story. To breathe life into a character, we must ask where that person comes from, what history informs their approach to their surroundings and relationships, what they think, and how they respond to conflict. Actors are able to move beyond the visual and auditory to engage and convey all the senses: how they eat, what they smell, their response to touch. The audience may only see two hours of a character’s life, but experience a lifetime. Flashbacks may be conveyed through dialogue or in scene or not at all, but the consequences of that past should be evident. Every character has been damaged or challenged in some way. In real life, no one is born, sails through life unscathed, then dies. That damage will reveal itself through gestures and mannerisms, idiosyncrasies of thought, speech and behavior, which the actor has to convey visually, and through dialogue or monologue.

There’s so much to be gained from this type of cross pollination. All we need is enough curiosity to think outside the proverbial box, to wonder how a director would handle setting, how a camera would zoom in from a wide angle shot to a medium or close-up, and how an actor would bring a character to life. And considering the other aspects of film making, there’s the promise of lots more to explore. Both point of view and characterization in writing merit blog posts of their own, and I’ll tackle them at a later stage. For now, just enjoy a sense of creative curiosity and see how expanding awareness is another step on the road to mastering our craft.

Next up from Jenn: Cross Training For Writers: Think Like A Ballerina.

One thought on “Cross Training For Writers: Think Like A Film Maker”

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: