Everyone knows that if you want to make a movie, you first have to write down its story. Many of us have tried our hands at writing movie stories ourselves — as treatments, screenplays, or whichever other forms the industry has come up with — and some have made careers out of it. But even if a film begins on the page, it doesn’t, of course, remain there; up on screen, the final product has to tell its story visually as much as it does with words, and usually even more so. Lewis Bond, the video essayist behind the cinema-analyzing Youtube channel Channel Criswell, understands that better than most, hence his three essays dedicated to the three most important elements of visual storytelling, the first chapter of which, “Colour in Storytelling,” we featured a couple months ago here on Open Culture.
The second, “Composition in Storytelling,” explores the possibilities inherent in arranging people, places, and things within a shot. “Deciding the placement of subjects through the viewfinder of a camera isn’t merely a technical decision,” says Bond, “it’s an expressive one.”
Beyond showing the audience what they need to see to understand the story, filmmakers have relied on “tried and tested formulas to make an image pleasing to the eye” such as the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, and triangular composition. But beyond those basics opens up the vast creative space of composing images in order to carefully guide the audience’s attention, craft symbols and subtexts, and make the power of a scene felt — all as dependent upon what gets left out of the picture as what gets put in.
Finally, “Editing in Storytelling” covers the step of the filmmaking process widely considered one of the most important, even more so than writing the story in the first place. “Beyond the basic function of putting a film together,” says Bond, “the craftsmanship of editing can be dealt with such subtlety that it can be the foundation of a film’s pace, its atmosphere — it can even be the enriching ingredient to strengthen all the film’s themes, and you may not even notice.” Though the editor holds “total manipulation over our emotions,” deciding what we see, when we see it, and how we see it, they also labor under the responsibility of knowing the film will stand or fall on their skill. Watch Channel Criswell’s entire visual storytelling essay trilogy and you’ll notice all their techniques much more easily while watching movies — especially if you start watching them, as you might well find yourself inspired to do, with the sound off.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.