Archive for November, 2011

“When you do a scene (as a cinematographer) you ask yourself, ‘What do you want the audience to think or feel at the end of the scene that they didn’t at the beginning of the scene? What path do we take that will evoke their emotional response by the end of the scene.'”
ACS & ASC Cinematographer Peter Levy
Two-time Primetime Emmy winner whose credits include Justified, 24, and Broken Arrow
From an interview on the DVD Cinematographer Style 
(Interviews with 110 Prominent Cinematographers)

“A director of photography makes something more than a mere technical contribution to a motion picture. What the writer has created in the written word must be translated to the screen though the eyes and minds of the director and the cinematographer. With the proper lighting, a mood can be established, an emotion emphasized, and realism heightened.”
Four-time Oscar-winning Director of Photography Leon Shamroy, ASC (1901-1974)
Films include South Pacific, Cleopatra, The King and I, Planet of the Apes (1968)
From an interesting (and very old) article, The Future of Cinematography 

“I think the main reason I operate when I can, although I don’t always, is to see the performance. I do get involved when I’m looking through the camera and the actors are feeling these emotions. I will get emotional, too; several times I have cried on camera. You get the front seat of the best performances of the best actors in the world and you are right there, best seat in the house.”
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC (We Bought a Zoo, 8 Mile, Brokeback Mountain)
Cinematography for Directors, Jacqueline B. Frost 

“It’s also difficult to articulate the subtleties in cinema, because there aren’t words or metaphors which describe many of the emotions you are attempting to evoke.”
Three-time Oscar-winner Conrad Hall, ASC (1926-2003)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Road to Perdition,  American Beauty

“(John) Seale made another significant discovery—the use of multicameras, ‘It all started on Rain Man (1988) when we setup the camera on a scene where Dustin and Tom were down on the floor with matches; we only had one camera and they were adlibbing.’ The technique is a controversial one. ‘Some DPs don’t use multiple cameras because they can’t light each camera as perfectly as they want.’ The cinematographer has developed fans amongst film editors for his ability to cross-shoot images of different sizes and angels. ‘A couple editors have come up to me and said, ‘I love it because I can cut for emotion. I can cut where I want to cut. I don’t have to wait for a hand to drop away or a cigarette to be puffed on.'”
Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer John Seale by  Tevor Hogg
John Seale’s work includes DP on Ran Man, The Perfect Storm and an Oscar for The English Patient

Related Posts:

Cinematography & Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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Editing for Emotion

“Film is a popular medium, and the audience is never far from our thoughts, the way the ocean is never far from the thoughts of a shipbuilder.”
Feature film editor Walter Murch
Behind the Seen

Film editor Walter Murch has won three Academy Awards, and in a career that has spanned six decades he’s edited a list of well known films including The Godfather Part III, Jarhead, The English Patient, and Apocalypse Now. And along the way he’s worked with some of the greatest modern film directors (Coppola, Lucas, Sam Mendes, Kathryn Bigelow) so you figure he knows a thing or two about filmmaking. Fortunately for us, he’s written a couple books specifically on film editing.

In his first book he shares his six criteria for what he’s after when editing a film that is helpful to know even if you’re a director or screenwriter.

“At the top of the list is Emotion, the thing that comes last, if at all, at film school largely because it’s the thing hardest to define and deal with. How do you want the audience to feel? If they are feeling what you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do. What they finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story—it’s how they felt.

An ideal cut (for me) is the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once: 1) it is true to the emotion of the moment: 2) it advances the story: 3) it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and ‘right’: 4) it acknowledges what you might call ‘eye-trace’—the concern with the location within the frame: 5) it respects ‘planarity’—the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.): 6) and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).”
Walter Murch
In the Blink of an Eye 
page 18

Walter even puts a “slightly tongue-in-cheek” value on his six criteria because it’s not really quantifiable. But all the same, he says that editing for emotion and advancing the story are 74% of what makes a good cut.

P.S. If you’re interesting in learning more about editing I recommend you follow the excellent blog Digital Films by Oliver Peters. A good place to start is here:
12 Tips for Better Film Editing
Film Editing Tips Round II

Related Links:
A collection of Walter Murch articles and videos
NPR Interview with Walter Murch
Walter Murch letter to Roger Ebert on why 3D doesn’t work well and never will

Scott W. Smith

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“A dramatic story is any series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, striking interest or results.”
William Froug
Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade

Witness is a great little film that works on all levels. The ending of one thing is always the beginning of something else.”
Syd Field

If basic emotions are Happy, Sad, Disgust, Surprise, Anticipation, Love, Trust, Excited, Tender, Angry, and Scared then perhaps one of the reasons for the success of the 1985 movie Witness is that all of those emotions are hit in the first act. Not as if the writers went down a check list while writing the story, but they are organic to the story.

The writers of Witness (William Kelly, Earl K. Wallace, and Pam Wallace) won an Academy Award for their script and story. (Six-time Oscar-nominated director/writer—and director of Witness—Peter Weir also had an uncredited hand in shaping the script.)

And the writers didn’t put down the emotions after the first act, they continued to build emotions and feelings of affection, pride, passion, nervousness, sadness, shame, shock, alienation, disappointment, panic, hope, courage, serene, affection, friendliness and I’m sure that’s not an exhaustive list.

It’s great to study this movie and script not only because it’s a contemporary classic film, but because quite a bit about it has been documented in various screenwriting books. One of those books is Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne. Dunne is a big fan of using index cards to work out the structure of the script. (That’s a pretty common practice and I wrote about it in the post Screenwriting Via Index Cards.) Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) uses index cards, so what else do I need to say?

The opening scene of Witness for Dunne looks like this on an index card:



We SEE the CULTURE and the PEOPLE. It is A GENTLE WORLD, SINCERE AND SWEET even at an emotional time as this.

(I think Sorkin might simply write; An Amish Funeral.)

What many writers are doing with index cards is building their dramatic structure. The sweeping flow of the story. The twist Dunne gives is he suggests writing out the emotional payoff of the scene on the back of the card.

Dunne writes, “We are creating an emotional structure for our screenplay, and this card is worthless unless it contains the emotional content and the emotional intent of the scene. We are not creating a plot and then forcing an emotional story into it. We cannot develop an idea for a scene without knowing first and foremost what the emotional reason for its being is. Right? Right.”

The example that Dunne gives in his book is not from the opening, so here’s my version of what you might write on the back of your index card; Sorrow and hurt fill the farmhouse as tears are shed at an Amish funeral that appears to be another time in another country—but is in fact current day rural Pennsylvania. The audience is disoriented by the Amish language and has compassion for a wife and young son who have lost a husband and a father.

Or you could write with more Sorkin-like brevity on the front of your index card:

Rural Amish Funeral. Tears and sorrow. Introduce widow and her young son.

Either way you are now on your way to emotionally (on top of dramatically) structuring your film.

“Scene after scene you will build on those emotions until eventually even the smallest occurrences in the plot will have emotional impact. An emotional shorthand develops for you, and sensorial touchstones appear. By that I mean your audience will begin to react viscerally to things late in the script that were introduced in the beginning of the script through emotions attached to them.”
Peter Dunne

Even if you aren’t the type of writer who uses index cards—or other visual aids— to track your story, asking what the emotional impact of each scene is important in understanding the emotional structure of your film. As we’ll see later this week, directors, actors, cinematographers and editors are all looking for the emotional thrust of each scene.

When I’m done with this thread on emotions and screenwriting it will be over a month of posts—far more than anything I’ve ever written about in the four years of doing this blog. The reason is simple; I think it’s the greatest void in the scripts I read and the movies I see.

P.S. Watching Witness for the first time in years reminded me that the film opens almost like a silent movie. The first 15-minutes of the movie are communicated visually with very little dialogue.  Director Weir (who also directed Dead Poets Society) said in an interview on the DVD, “I think I would have liked to have worked in the silent era.” And perhaps some of the credit for the scripts success should also go to Harrison Ford who starred in Witness and said, “I like very much to try and refine the dialogue to what’s both natural and essential to move the story along. When there are too many words I call that in my shorthand ‘talk-story’—We’re talking about the story rather than illustrating the story.”

P.P.S In that opening funeral scene in Witness you’ll see actor Viggo Mortensen in his first feature film appearance. One of the ways that the director Weir (from Australia himself) set the Amish apart in the film was to cast foreign actors. While Mortensen was born in New York, his father was from Denmark and Viggo spent time in his youth living in Venezuela, Argentina and Denmark.

Scott W. Smith


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“Doesn’t everyone feel in the same language? Emotion, which equals great writing, transcends genres, ages, economic classes, and political boundaries.”
Karl Iglesias

“The story is the journey for truth. The plot is the road it takes to get there.”
Peter Dunne 

I have yet to find a nice, neat, and concise definition of emotional structure—but I think I can unpack it a little and give you a few solid examples.

Yesterday, I read my first Kindle book—and it wasn’t easy. I don’t have a Kindle Tablet so I had to download the Kindle app on my iPhone. Then I purchased and downloaded the book Emotional Structure:Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne. Ever try to read a 400 page book on a cell phone—in one day? It comes down to 3,759 iPhone pages. I’m definitetly putting an iPad or Kindle Fire on my Christmas wish list.

Blame it on reading a book on an iPhone, but here’s my take on the core of Dunne’s book:

“Your script must always be building emotions. 

The reasons for this are critical. As the first scene’s set of emotions give rise to the second scene’s set, the audience rides with them. Your goal in doing this is to have them make a visceral connection between scenes, not an intellectual one. As they follow the plot they will intuitively relate to the deeper meaning in your story. And the meaning of your story, that is to say the whole reason you are writing this in the first place, is always found in the emotional architecture of your film, not in the action plot structure.”
Peter Dunne  (Emmy-winner & UCLA screenwriting instructor)

Another way of saying that is your hero’s goal is not really what the film is about, but the emotional transformation of the hero is what the film is really about. I believe that’s where emotional structure intersects with theme making this the prime 1-2 reason people cling to certain movies. Here’s a quick overview of how this has played out in film history:

1960s: The Apartment is about more than the plot of Jack Lemmon’s character getting his apartment back, but about him standing up for himself and becoming a man with a backbone. He becomes a more complete person.

1970s: Rocky is about more than the plot of him becoming a champion boxer, but about him becoming a better person–a more complete person.

1980s: The plot of Die Hard is a cop who want to stop terrorists, but emotionally it’s about reconciling with his estranged wife.

1990s: The plot of Schnidler’s List is about an imperfect man trying to save people from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust, but as we watch him stand up to evil the emotional connection to the viewer is they too can stand up to evil. And we watch Oscar Schindler become a more complete person.

2000s: The plot of Erin Brockovich is a woman leading a legal crusade against  a corporate giant, but emotionally and thematically it’s about a woman overcoming tremendous odds to provide for her family—and be a more complete person. (That tag is starting to sound like Sandra Bullock’s tagline in Miss Congeniality…”and world peace.” A character, who by the way, went undercover and stopped a crime…and became a more complete person.)

2010s: The plot of Toy 3 is basically the gang of toys trying to physically survive destruction after being accidentily being put in the trash, but emotionally and thematcially it’s about surviving change and finding new purpose in life. And, of course, they become more complete toys.

One of the key illustrations that Dunne goes into detail about in his book is the 1985 film Witness and we’ll look at that movie more tomorrow and look at its emotional structure.

But for now notice the short list of films above are not only strong on emotional structure, and were made decades apart, but span several genres. They are primal and universal stories and widely accepted by audiences and critics, on top of having won more than their share of Academy Awards.

They are films in which characters are transformed by difficult situations who come through the film with a sense of completeness and harmony that they didn’t have at the start of the movie. It’s not hard to understand why that connects with moviegoers, because overcoming our own flaws and becoming better people who live in a world of peace and harmony is a universal concept for all people, throughout history, and throughout all cultures.

P.S. Not all stories end with peace and harmony (The Wrestler, Death of a Salesman), but movies that end with a man, woman, animal, toy, robot, alien or whatever becoming a more complete being are by far more accepted by audiences. It’s hard enough getting any movie made, why not increase your odds by writing in the most widely embraced type of movies. Unless you’re an established writer, save your Magnolia/Crash/The Day of the Locust-type script for down the road.

Scott W. Smith


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Emotional Structure (Part 2)

“A.J. Appleyard, in a study of the various stages of reading through which we go as readers, insists that the major source  of literary experience is emotional. Without an affective dimension, without investing feelings, reading fictional texts would hold no interest. Reading is always ’emotional.’ To deny this fact of life is to supress a central aspect of the reading experience.”
Winfried Fluck
Emotional Structure in American Fiction 

How does that apply to a script reader reading your screenplay?

“I personally think in many cases the difference between a script I love and a script I’ll pass on is the emotional density of the project. When reading, do I feel deeply for the characters—does their journey make me feel? Do I laugh and cry with then or for them? Do I want to fight for them and want them to win? Do I hate the nemesis and want him to not succeed? 
Monica Partridge 
Screenwriter to Screenwriter blog post  The Seed of Your Story 

I didn’t plan on writing about emotions for three weeks—but these things happen sometimes when you kick over the right rock. Here’s the first part of the quote by the director of Se7en, The Fight Club and The Social Network that kickstarted this thread:

“Directors don’t make pictures, directors make things that you are supposed to get an emotional hit off of. You’re supposed to feel something.” 
Director David Fincher
From the post Filmmaking Quote #25 (David Fincher)

P.S. Please send any informative links on the topic of writing and emotions as I think this well runs deep and I’d like to explore it even more. It’d be great to find some quotes from writers and directors the caliber of those I’ve found from James Cameron, Capra, and Hitchcock.

Scott W. Smith


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Emotional Structure (Part 1)

“Plot is more than a pattern of events, it is the ordering of emotions.”
Irwin Blacker
Elements of Screenwriting 

“Without understanding Emotional Structure, the beginning, the middle, and the end of your script have a 100 percent chance of becoming the beginning, the muddle, and the end. Because emotions rule the central, most misunderstood and most feared element of a screenplay: that of the story’s underlying meaning. And only by understanding Emotional Structure can we bring solid, creative solutions to the writing process, and meaning to your story. It is the only sure way to turn your script’s problems into your script’s power.”
Emmy Award-winner and UCLA instructor Peter Dunne
Emotional Structure; Creating the Story Beneath the Plot

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“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

Happy Thanksgiving from Iowa.

I have two stories from Iowa that tie into not only Thanksgiving, but into the theme of emotions that I’ve been writing about a chunk of this month.

Jim and John Harbaugh are not just the only two brothers to ever be head coaches in the NFL, but tonight they will play in the first brother coaching against brother game in the history of the NFL. (USA Today called it the Harbaugh Bowl.)

Both Jim’s team (San Francisco 49ers) and John’s team (Baltimore Ravens) are top ranked in their divisions and could end up playing again in the Super Bowl. Think their parents are proud?  I’m sure they’ll have a memorable Thanksgiving. But it sounds are if they’ve always had a spirit of thankfulness.

In a tradition that goes back to when Jim and John, their sister Joan were little kids and lived in Iowa with their parents, their father would shout, “Who’s got it better than us?” In unison they’d shout, “Nobody!”

“At the time they lived in a tiny two bedroom-house in Iowa City, where Jack was an assistant coach at University of Iowa. Sometimes they had a car. If not, they were walking — what a terrific opportunity to work on basketball dribbling skills! Jack convinced the boys how great it was that they could bunk together in a tiny bedroom and talk philosophy and share each other’s dreams.”
Ann Killion
Sports Illustrated.com

That is a spirit of giving thanks. “Who’s got it better than us?” has been used by Jim Harbaugh to help fire his team up. (See the last video below.)

And since I’m on the topic of football, I should mention the game last Friday night that many have called the greatest upset of the season when Iowa State University had its most important victory in their entire history. ISU had never defeated a team ranked as high as Oklahoma St. (OSU was #2 at the time of the kickoff). The OSU quarterback was on a short list of favorites for the Heisman Trophy. OSU was just a couple wins from playing in the BCS championship game.  But by the time they left Ames, Iowa those hopes had ended. ISU won in double overtime.

Imagine the emotional journey of ISU coach 44-year-old Paul Rhoades who not only just became a head coach for the first time two years ago, but was raised just 20 miles away from where that memorable game was played.  So that explains why he’s a little emotional in the video below that was shot in the locker room right after the game.

And for good measure here’s a locker room talk where 49er Coach Harbaugh asks, “Who’s got it better than us?”

Scott W. Smith

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Aesthetic Emotion

“Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds.”
Barnett Newman

“Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”
Oscar Wilde

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “aesthetic emotion” or how long it’s been around, but this definition on Wikipedia is pretty good as I understand what it means:

“Aesthetic emotions refer to emotions that are felt during aesthetic activity and/or appreciation. These emotions may be of the everyday variety (such as fear, wonder or sympathy) or may be specific to aesthetic contexts. Examples of the latter include the sublime, the beautiful, and the kitsch. In each of these respects, the emotion usually constitutes only a part of the overall aesthetic experience, but may play a more or less definitive role for that state.”

Since I’ve been covering the topic of emotions in filmmaking and screenwriting for almost three weeks now I thought I’d throw aesthetic emotion in the mix. While the word aesthetic isn’t as popular a word as when philosopher Immanuel Kant and others kicked the term around in the 18th century, its origins go back to at least the Greeks who were concerned with the study of beauty. Ideals that had more to do with moral and spiritual implications of beauty than say the cover of Vogue magazine.

An article I found online about British art critic and philosopher Clive Bell reads:

“He claimed (in his book Art, 1914) that there is a certain uniquely aesthetic emotion, and that aesthetic qualities are the qualities in an object that evoke this emotion. In the visual arts, what arouses this emotion is certain “forms and relations of forms” (including line and color), which Bell called “significant form”. Aesthetic response to significant form is not to be identified, according to Bell, with other emotional responses. For example, a photograph of a loved one might evoke fond memories and feelings of love; the statue of the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima might arouse feelings of patriotism; the Vietnam War Memorial might evoke feelings of grief or lament (my examples). While these are all perfectly appropriate responses, they are not aesthetic responses. Rather the aesthetic response is a response to the forms and relations of forms themselves, regardless of what other meanings, associations or uses they may have. It is a strong emotion, often a kind of ecstasy, akin to the ecstasy felt in religious contemplation. The emotion, and the kinds of significant form that evoke it, are the same for cave art, Polynesian carvings, a Vermeer painting or a Cezanne.”

Robert McKee in his classic book Story dedicated a few pages to aesthetic emotion, including this passage;

“When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge, it becomes all the more powerful, all the more profound, all the more memorable. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever… A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.

In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual. It does not express ideas in dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion. It requires no mediator, no critic to rationalize the transaction.”

A movie scene that jumps to my mind of showing  aesthetic emotion is from The Shawshank Redemption written and directed by Frank Darabont, where Mozart’s music is played in the prison courtyards;

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is—I don’t want to know, some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful that it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.” 

(Go to the 3:00 minute mark of the clip below to get the essence of the scene.)

Scott W. Smith

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Cinematography & Emotions

“There was certain quality of melancholy that Connie (Conrad Hall) carried with him that he was very in touch with and you feel it in the films.”
Director  Glenn Gordon Caron

Melancholy can be defined as a pensive mood or depressing spirit. If you read many bios of artists across the board (painters, writers, musicians, etc.) you will find a common thread of melancholy. Apparently three-time Oscar winning director of photography Conrad L. Hall (1923-2003) brought that to his cinematography.

“He shot (Searching for Bobby Fisher) from the eyeline of the child. Chess was a distant intellectual pursuit and somehow (the movie) seemed visceral and emotional and suffused with a different kind of power and it was entirely with how it had been shot an lit.”

Director Sam Mendes

Mendes was a 34-year old director making his first film when he first worked with Conrad Hall who was then in his seventies. Both of the films that Hall worked on with Mendes (American Beauty and The Road to Perdition) earned him Academy Awards. They were also Hall’s last two features before he died.

Looking over Conrad’s long list of credits I recall certain scenes—emotional scenes. The fight scene in Cool Hand Luke (1967), the endings Electra Glide in Blue (1973), the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a visit to the dentist in Marathon Man (1976),  and the reflection of the rain on Robert Blake’s face in In Cold Blood (1967).
Obviously there was a team of talented professionals working in collaboration with Hall on those films, but in writing the past couple of weeks on emotions in regard to screenwriting I thought I’d touch on what a director of photography brings to the table besides just a camera and some lights.

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For just over two weeks I’ve been writing about the role of emotions in filmmaking and screenwriting and somehow I missed that Richard Walter has a whole chapter in his book Essentials of Screenwriting simply titled Emotion. Here is part of what the Professor of Screenwriting at UCLA’s MFA program wrote:

Film is for feeling.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but first and last there is that. Moreover, what audiences feel need not be pleasure. Frighten the folks, make them cry, make them angry; they will stand in line to see your movie. Human beings need regularly to experience strong emotions; it’s how we know we are alive. As surely as muscles atrophy from disuse, so also do feelings.

Consider the movie theater a gymnasium for the senses. It is an arena not for serenity and logic, not for intellect and reason, but for passion.

…The hard fact is that our daily lives are racked not so much with pain as with tedium. Our hours overflow with trivial chores. Sadly, the predominant feeling experienced by most people most of the time is no feeling at all but rather the absence of feeling: numbness, boredom. If art is first and foremost concerned with feeling, it should come as no surprise that artists are people who experience feelings intensely. When they feel bad they feel despondent, even suicidal. When they feel good they feel ecstatic. 

Screenwriters should embrace screenwriting for what it is; the business of feeling.”
Richard Walter

Earlier this year I did several posts from an interview with Richard:

The Enemy of Creativity

Screenwriting’s Great Divider

Keeping Solvent and Sane

The Death of Originality

The Advantage of Being from ______

Filmmaker as Artist/Entrepreneur

Finding Your Voice

Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter

Scott W. Smith

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