Watching a film is an investment. Each time we go to the cinema we part with our fifteen dollars, sit in a darkened space and engage in a personal relationship with the screen. In the space of two hours we open up and allow ourselves to laugh, cry, even scream. We invest in a film in the hope that it will engage us from beginning to end, taking us on a journey. Whether a film saddens, excites or angers, it is the intention of the filmmaker to affect the audience by spinning a tale, determining that journey. Filmmakers are modern-day storytellers. When they weave their stories well they flow effortlessly and seamlessly from the moment the lights dim to when the credits roll. The art of storytelling in film is the deliberate layering of complementary elements designed to mask the craft of filmmaking and give supremacy to character and story.
Screenwriting: Constructing a Story
Every story starts with an idea. At the heart of every great film you will find that idea. Whether it be ‘”love conquers all” or ‘”evil never dies”, the characters and events encapsulate that idea and express it in a unique way. This is no coincidence. Each action, character trait and line of dialogue has been carefully selected by the screenwriter and woven into the story.
While there is no definitive structure for a successful film, many mainstream films follow a three-act structure. The first act sets the scene, introduces the characters and relevant backstories, and provides the audience with the information required to not only understand the story, but also identify with the main character (protagonist). The first act culminates in an ‘”inciting incident” which Robert McKee describes as an event that “”radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life” (p.189). The inciting incident becomes the catalyst for the events of the film. The second act follows the protagonist’s attempts to restore balance in their newly imbalanced world. In the second act the protagonist experiences ups and downs, overcoming obstacle after obstacle until the point of crisis –- the ultimate obstacle and climax of the film. The final act resolves the story and restores balance to the protagonist’s life.
Great films have interesting protagonists, usually with emotional depth. While actors contribute to the development of the characters they portray, each character usually has 3-5 basic traits incorporated into the script by the screenwriter. Each action and line of dialogue is then tailored to illustrate one or more of the character’s traits. When a character is written well, each line of dialogue is revealing –- not only by what the character says, but what they choose not to say.
Direction: Telling The Story
The director takes a well-developed story, interprets it and organises its realisation through the production design, score and performances. Directing entails overseeing the layering of elements, such as casting, locations, and the use of color, and combines these elements to best tell the story. It is a collaborative process involving numerous departments and people. Together they create the film’s mise-en-scene.
Mise-en-scene is everything that you see when you watch a film. Make no mistake, in film every object and colour has been deliberately placed to amplify the power of storytelling. A certificate on a wall illustrates education. One chair at a table indicates loneliness and isolation. The predominant use of the color red incites passion. As an audience, we absorb this information, more often than not, subconsciously. We cannot help but feel comfortable in a warmly lit kitchen or scared in a dimly lit alley. Mise-en-scene, used effectively, enhances the storytelling by manipulating emotions and results in a more fulfilling journey for the audience.
The director can also control the audience’s emotional involvement with the film by shot selection. Steven Katz notes that “”[w]e can be made to feel detachment or an emotional involvement with events and subjects on the screen largely through the manipulation of space with the lens of the camera”” (p.124).
- Close-Up: Used to communicate the intricacies of emotion expressed by the human face. Usually, the higher the level of emotion in a scene, the closer the close-up.
- Mid-Shot: Often used as an alternative to the wide-shot, the mid-shot can convey movement while remaining close enough to communicate emotion.
- Wide-Shot: Used to establish scenes and indicate movement, the wide-shot has been used less frequently in recent years because emotion is more difficult to convey from a distance.
In general terms, the closer the shot, the greater the level of emotion communicated to the audience. A wide-shot of a girl crying may incite reserved feelings of sympathy. An extreme close-up of the same scene forces the audience into an intimate relationship with the girl and is therefore more likely to incite feelings of sadness, perhaps even empathetic tears. The human face is powerfully suggestive. A close-up, like a still picture, is worth a thousand words.
Editing: Re-Telling The Story
The editor takes the director’s footage and the screenwriter’s original script and combining them, re-tells the story to best communicate the idea of the film and give the audience the most rewarding journey. Shots are carefully selected to increase tension, to enhance emotion, to evoke laughter, tears or screams, or to make the audience squirm in their seats.
Poor editing can jolt the audience, jar the storytelling and interrupt the journey the audience takes. Disruptive editing can prevent emotional involvement in the story and leave the audience dissatisfied. Great editing seamlessly communicates the story and enhances the audience’s journey through subtle rhythm and heart racing visual effects.
Storytelling in film is a collaborative process that begins with the screenwriter and ends when we as an audience respond to the story. How we respond to a film is largely determined by how well a film is crafted. When the story of a film is crafted well, the elements combine to successfully spin a tale, taking the audience on an emotional journey.