Did you know that, in many ways, the art of making movies (visual storytelling) is often similar to the art of writing? How the director and director of photography choose to portray a story by way of camera is, believe it or not, comparable to some extent with writing books. And that is what I will be doing in this post: showing the similarities in the psychology of camera storytelling (movies) and storytelling by way of written word (your favorite book, for example). This similarity may stem from the fact that Storytelling is a universal art, developed over the millennia of mankind. Movies and the written word are merely different categories of storytelling, so it makes sense that there would be many similarities between the two. I will show you just a few of them in this post.
So, if you’re starting to write a book, your job will be to decide how to tell the storyline you have decided upon. Comparably, the movie studio has their story, as dictated by the screenplay. So the Director and the DP (director of photography) have the important job of deciding how to portray this story visually. I will be writing this post specifically on just 3 main Camera Angles, even though there are a plethora of different kinds used; these 3 types are the most common. These angles are Close-ups, Medium Shots, and Wide angles, which basically explain how close or far away the camera is from the subject or object in question. Decisions on these angles are made the same way You the Writer would make writing decisions for your novel. The physcology is the same. Directors choose wide angles when they’re setting up the scene for you. Then usually in dramatic beats, wide angles will be followed by closer angles: the Medium is generally closer, and the Close-up is where just the shoulders and head of a person are visible in the frame. The Close-up is used frequently to let the audience get inside the head of the character.
In writing, though, you’re using only language to express the same things that the camera represents visually. I will go through more detailed break down and explain how each of these three camera setups apply to writing:
Wide Shot (WS)
In writing, you may decide to open your scene with expository information — the movie equivalent of opening a scene with a wide frame to establish the setting. Instead of shooting a wide angle, however, you would instead open your paragraph with expository language: The forest glowered down on him. The fog hung heavy, blanketing the air, hiding the trees from the sun. In movies, as I said, this could appear as a wide or master shot: a shot in which the camera is capturing a large amount of landscape, giving a general sense of setting, and building the scene, so that you’re not confused where the actors are located.
Medium shot (MS)
With this accomplished, traditionally, directors usually move in. Now that they’ve set up the sun and the silt and the shadows and the road, now they can move the camera closer, capturing the character’s journey along the road. We’ll name this character Fred. He may be plodding deliberately, determined to get out of dark forest as soon as possible. He’s a bit tense, maybe. This could easily be captured with the medium shot, and the fun thing with storytelling is that you can decide. In writing, you would also do this ‘zooming in’ on the character. Fred moved along the trail carefully, his eye set only before him, into the distance, seeming slightly worried about the golden metallic object in his right hand. He’d been carrying it all day. If I may be so bold, I may say that this is very much the equivalent to what a medium shot would try to accomplish in traditional cinema in a scene like this. This is because you’re ‘zooming in’ on the character, diving more and more into the detail of the scene, which is mostly centered on Fred, and his journey through the forest.
Close up (CU)
Now, for this example, I’ll have the director choose a close up — two of them — to capture intensity and surprise which is about to come up in the scene — an owl hoots and takes flight, upsetting its perch on a branch just above Fred, and Fred looks up, startled. This could be covered with two close-ups: a close up of the owl taking flight, and then another close up of Fred’s face, showing his reaction: startlement (is that a word?) As I said before, a closeup most of the time captures what is going on inside the head of the character; and that is what the close-up is doing in this example. In your book, however, you might write something like this instead: Just then, Fred heard a rustling overhead, and a screech. His eyes jolted towards the sound, and he forgot all about the golden object which he’d been carrying. But just as his pulse started up, he realized that it was only a barn owl. See what just happened? You have now taken the reader into the deeper level–the inner state of the mind of your character (Yes, I do know that is Frodo, not ‘Fred.’) This is what the close-up is used to do in film, too. More importantly, the audience will be more likely to connect and relate to the character, because they know what the character is thinking or feeling. Whereas the medium and wide angle in these examples served as the ‘passive storyteller,’ the close-up became much more dynamic and interesting. In other words, the tone went from: ‘What is Fred doing’ to ‘What is Fred Thinking?’
So, in conclusion, all these techniques discussed are most likely second nature to you as a writer. You know how to set up a scene, and also know how to go into more detail at the appropriate times, and pull the reader into the character’s thoughts and motivations, thus being an Author who specializes in Story and its Drama. What you may not have thought of, however, is how this all relates Movie-making or Cinema. Directors and Cinematographers have been trained to tell stories through visual art, whereas authors have been trained to tell stories through the written word. But the psychology to both their processes are to some extent the same. As I said before, and in conclusion, this is because Storytelling is one of the most ancient of human practices. It started by word of mouth, but obviously has branched off into the many forms of storytelling that we see today–like movies and books. It only makes sense that all these forms of storytelling would have a similar foundation–that similar psychology would be entwined in almost all of their artistic stages.
Just something to be aware of.
4 Comments Add yours
It is fun to think about how cinematographers use different shots to imply tone and emotions. They have quite an advantage in setting the pace with quick visuals, angle changes, and slow motion. But I remember how excited I was when I found I could do something similar when I altered my sentence length and word choice. Repetition is a powerful tool for an author when used correctly. Love this topic! I could talk about it for hours.
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I agree! Yes, cinematographers have massive control over how their story is portrayed; but also so does the writer–so it is cool to see how writers accomplish in writing what movies accomplish on screen. 🙂
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Hey, that’s pretty cool! Thanks for pointing that out! 🙂
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