Thursday, January 10, 2013

Visual Storytelling

Of the many reasons I'm so fascinated by silent film, one of the most important aspects of the medium is what it can still teach film makers about structuring a story with images. The idea of "telling stories with images" is one of the most oft-repeated ideas we hear about film's capability, but still, the image remains the foundation on which the grammar of film was constructed.

Henri Langlois, archivist at the Cinematheque Francaise, famously ran silent films without musical accompaniment, arguing that the images constituted their own visual rhythm. While historically dubious, Langlois' approach of totally silent presentation does at least invite the viewer to be more conscious of the structure of the images in telling a story. I once sat through a screening of Josef von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD at NYU without musical accompaniment, and while I found the experience less than ideal, it did force me to consider the visual information in the film that much more closely since I didn't have the music to cue responses.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about filmmaking occurred during my time in film school. At the time, the program I attended emphasized shooting on film as opposed to video, which was a great learning experience on a number of levels as I'd find out. As a kid, I had taught myself the basics of moviemaking through repeated experimentation using the family video camera, mostly imitating and copying techniques that I had seen in my favorite films. Because the video camera recorded in color and sound, I took those elements for granted. But when I got to film school, I found that I'd be shooting on 16mm using a Bolex. Working with a group, we were given a number of assignments that required us to use different techniques.

For the two projects I directed, the first presented a great challenge for me for two reasons. For one, the lack of sound meant that whatever I needed to convey had to be done so purely through the image. For another, the project required me to create two separate films using the exact same shots - only arranged in a different sequence - to achieve a different effect. Think the Kuleshov experiment.

This gets at the larger challenge I faced with the assignment. Given that I am inclined toward narrative filmmaking, my approach was to try and tell two very similar stories, albeit ones that reverse the beginning and ending shots of each other, thus making one a "comedy", and the other a "tragedy" (I use both terms very loosely, though). I considered my work on this project a personal failure, because the non-linearity of the narrative didn't feel authentic, and the story was not clearly conveyed enough by the shots, which I had to keep intentionally ambiguous so that they could be re-arranged for different purposes.

With my second project, however, I was given the assignment to shoot a film consisting of takes shot from a variety of angles (closeup, medium, wide, etc.) In other words, classical style. For this project, I decided to draw on my knowledge of silent film, and comedy in particular. Shooting at 16 fps, I created a slapstick comedy that drew on the techniques of silent comedy filmmakers. I was not setting out to merely re-create a silent comedy but to use the pure visual storytelling of the silent, black and white image to tell a quick, comic story entirely through images. The narrative was much more clear given the linearity of its presentation, and the shooting of takes from a number of different angles forced me to maximize the information I would convey through each one, and to pay close attention to the sequence in which they were arranged to convey each point. The result was THE WRONG HOUSE, a simple comedy that I considered my best work up to that point.

What I took away from the project, above all else, was an appreciation for what it really means to tell a story with images. I also came away with a much higher appreciation for the elements of sound and color. Though there are good arguments to be made for shooting on video (as that is quickly becoming the industry standard, and because of the low cost makes experimentation much more feasible), I realize I would not have come to appreciate these elements in quite the same way had it not been for forcing myself to strip them away in the first place.

No comments: