Category Archives: artmaking
The screenplay for the film Lost in Translation (2003) was only 75 pages.
Lost in Translation is one of my favorite films. Typically, feature length screenplays are 90 to 120 pages.
Many of my favorite directors use few words in their films: R. Bresson, A. Tarkovsky, E. Rohmer, T. Malick.
I love great dialogue, but sometimes I prefer films with little or no talking. Many of my favorite scenes are ones that are purely visual, relying on the moving image to tell the story. Relying on dialogue to tell the story is sometimes just laziness.
The screenplay I’m currently working on is 92 pages and will probably increase to around 95 pages. I was worried I didn’t write enough, but now I think it’s fine, even a bit long.
Back in 2008 I wrote a little post on Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), or Vagabond. Recently David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson put together a video short on Elliptical Editing, and they used Varda’s film as the example. Bordwell and Thomspon have been important in my own thinking about film.
Elliptical editing is one relatively common characteristic of what we might call “art films” that distinguish them from more traditional or “classical” films. I find it’s often a matter of taste; some love this kind of storytelling and some are annoyed by it. I love it. But one can also find elliptical editing in any genre; it just depends on the needs of the filmmaker.
“…the arrival of perfect realism coincided with perfect decadence.”
“…whether man’s gift for beauty isn’t in spite of himself.”
“I don’t believe we create our lives. Our lives create us.”
Andrew Newell Wyeth (July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009)
Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.
The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:
Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.
In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.
Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. Here are the images from film (I, of course, added the white lines):
This is a simple process of analysis. More involving would be to examine how the rule applies to changing composition withing shots as they are re-framed or the actors move about. One thing I noticed was that all the extreme close-ups put the object of focus directly in the center of the middle square. Placing visual elements along the “third lines” was reserved for medium shots and long shots. Finally, the rule of thirds does not guarantee that an image will be good, or work well for a particular scene. However, fundamentals are fundamentals. Without them one will not only have difficulty maintaining a consistent quality, but one cannot truly “break the rules.” The irony is that fundamentals are what allow filmmakers to innovate and stay fresh.
* This is my opinion, of course, but there is a quality in the film’s imagery that is truly wonderful and yet difficult to pin down.