Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

Reinventing the wheel

Why not use the round wheels of filmmaking?

Changes don't always equal improvements

I'm a fairly conservative guy when it comes to Film Aesthetics. I don't mind people experimenting with the form and trying out new approaches . It is actually required to improve the art-form. What I really don't get though is how some of the world's current directorial hot-shots seem to let style getting in way of their stories. Surely storytelling is what directing is all about?

The problem

Yet, several "modern" directors go out of their wits to cram so much spectacle and fancy camerawork in there that it's bound to detract from the story. When watching films with excessive Camera Movements and edits that seem to be made simply to look "cool" I'm just annoyed. Huge vistas, helicopter fly-bys and some incredible effects-work is perfect to make great trailers, but have to be used with care if they're not to hurt the story.

So if it looks cool what's the problem? The problem is it pulls me out of the reality of the story. I dabble a bit with film-stuff myself and am generally interested in the technical side of things. Yet, I find that if a film works I never consciously notice the techniques while watching a film for the first time. (I probably will on second or third viewing). When I notice the filmmakers have failed in my book. It would be like reading a Crime Novel and then starting to think about how the sentences are built or perhaps what a brilliant font they've used.

The Wheel - it really works!

There are of course times when an author wants to attract attention to the language, but this is seldom the case in Thrillers where the narrative is the main focus. The odd bit is that there is a classic, well established language of film that seems to be lost on some contemporary directors. In many ways honed to perfection as early as 1941 with Orson Well's Citizen Kane. The choice of lenses, the lighting, composition and angles are all made to enhance the viewers understanding of the characters' psychological state. The brilliance of this is that it works on a subconscious level. If you want the viewer to empathize with a character you make sure that character is close to the camera and that we see the world through his or her eyes it. When the majority of the camerawork consists of huge battle-scenes shot from afar the viewer will eventually loose interest.

Watch the master

The guy who knows how

The thing that makes the situation even more absurd is the fact that the most successful director of the last 30 years does use this language. Steven Spielberg seems to have an incredible understanding of the psychological value of the camerawork. This is probably the reason why many will have a hard time pointing out what makes his films work so well. Witness the T-Rex attack on the car in Jurassic Park: Almost the entire scene is shot from inside the car. This way we, the audience, can feel the fear and despair experienced by the charcters. This is done despite having the coolest and most expensive animatronic T-rex available. Oh, how tempting it must have been to show off the beast in all its splendour! Yet, Spielberg obviously knew that this would work against the film.

Unfortunately a lot of the younger filmmakers today seem to have missed the point completely. While they are more than willing to let themselves be inspired by the fantastic premises of Spielberg's films the key to great filmmaking seems to elude them...


Democratization of media, part deux

After finishing the "Uncle George and I"-piece I came across this somewhat related blog-post over at Agile Filmmaking. It's a speech by J. J. Abrams of Lost, Alias and Mission: Impossible III fame and it touches so many of the topics I've blogged about so far that I would be crazy not to present it here.

Mr. Abrams is something of a Hollywood wunderkind and I find it incredibly generous of him to share his thoughts with the world for free.

The message

The majority of the speech, or at least the most interesting part in my mind, is about how his grandfather helped him get the tools necessary to fulfill his creative ambitions. He goes on and points to the fact that today pro-tools are readily available for just about anyone. "Go make your movie, there's nothing stopping you!" he says. A statement that might seem oversimplified but for the most part it rings true as long as you are willing to put some effort into it.*

One of several highly interesting speeches to be found at TED

The delivery

I've never seen a public appearance by Abrams. I knew about him from his film- and television-work but knew little about what to expect. Being a truly talented visual storyteller I expected him to make a presentation with a lot of visual flare. He didn't. For the most part he simply presented his message by sharing personal experiences with the audience. He used a few physical props but only used the gigantic screen behind him for a few film-clips. When running the clips he simply stepped back and let them work their charms without interuptions.

I found this very interesting and highly effective. The visuals and his oral presentation never had to compete for the audience's attention. Now this is certainly not the only way to do a presentation and on the surface it might even sound boring. If you watch the clip you'll find that it is anything but though. Abrams heartfelt enthusiasm carries through even on a small flash-clip on my computer-screen.

None of this is exactly rocket-science as any communication-expert worth his money will tell you that enthusiasm is contagious. It does show though that with the right delivery you don't need fancy visuals. This might seem an odd statement to make on a blog about visual storytelling but the visuals should always be there to strengthen the core-message not because they look "cool".

*As long as you're not struck with poverty.