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3.6. camera & cuts

I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker.” — Paul Schrader1

3.6.1. Overview.

If all other observations about the screenplay are open to debate, one is not: every screenplay is written for the camera. As Howard Rodman has argued, “Screenplays are, to use James Schamus’s fine phrase, ‘brutally instrumentalist.’ They either become films, or they don’t. Their worth is determined not by the quality of the writing but by which side of the previous sentence’s comma they fall on.”2 One cannot expect to fully appreciate the intentions of the screenwriter if the screenplay’s relationship to the camera is not understood. Likewise, films — with few exceptions — are shot to be edited, a fact that also shapes screenwriting. As David Mamet has argued, “You always want to tell the story in cuts.”3

Despite the importance of the camera and cutting in the creation of a motion picture, most screenplays eschew explicit instructions for the cinematographer and the editor. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that screenwriters have ceded all responsibility for camera and cutting to the director. On the contrary, screenwriters have employed a variety of strategies to influence the cinematographic and editorial designs of the motion pictures made from their scripts. This section will explore some of these strategies.

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3.6.2. The Scripted Camera. [Back to Page Topics]

William Goldman once quoted an anonymous actor as saying, “You goddam screenwriters — putting in all that camera crap — trying to direct the picture is all you’re doing. I hate all that camera crap. Just put down the words, I’ll do the rest.”4 The star in question is complaining about explicit technical comments in the screenplay text, but all screenwriters write for the camera, whether they appeal to technical comment or use other means.

In the past, screenwriters often filled their scripts with explicit camera directions in the form of technical comment, but that practice has fallen out of favor today except when the screenplay’s author is also the movie’s director. Nevertheless, formatting conventions have been established for how such instructions should be handled when employed.

The word “camera” when used in the script to refer to the motion picture recording device (as opposed to a camera that appears on screen as part of the story) is always capitalized, as is any camera movement (e.g. PAN, DOLLY, PUSH, etc.) and any shot type named (e.g. CLOSE ON, MED. SHOT, POV, etc.). Sometimes the phrase “ANGLE ON” is also used to direct the camera. Some screenplays are written not in the master scene format but in the style of a continuity script, where every slug-line includes detailed shot information and scenes are broken up into several individual shots. A common method of implicit camera instruction that side-steps technical comment is to use the phrase “we see,” and this is not capitalized.

One of the great challenges of the master scene format is the task of conveying the necessary visual information without boring the reader with filmmaking jargon. This requires a different stylistic touch than writing for literary prose or theatrical drama. For starters, writing for the camera requires at least some understanding of the visual language of cinema.

First, one must remember that motion pictures do not present a continuous reality but an illusion of that reality through the projection of 24 static frames per second on the screen. The static frame is the smallest unit of cinematic grammar. The cinematographer may manipulate multiple elements of this frame: (1) Aspect Ratio — the dimensions of the frame (sometimes native to format but often altered); (2) Aperture — the level of light exposure, which also affects depth of field; (3) Composition — the placement of the camera and arrangement of elements within the frame; (4) Color — may be affected by film stock, lighting, filters, processing, and digital manipulation; (5) Depth of Field — the clarity and sharpness of the image foreground, middleground, and background; (6) Focal Length — the apparent perspective and spatial relationships between objects within the frame as determined by the type of lens used; and (7) Texture — the image’s level of clarity, resolution, and grain, all affected by medium used, lighting, and post processes.

A series of continuously recorded frames is called a shot. The shot is the smallest dynamic unit of cinematic grammar. All of the frame elements listed above can be changed within the shot, from one frame to the next. Changes between frames within the shot create the illusion of motion that is the definitive trait of cinema. Various kinds of movement made in the filming process will affect the motion perceived on screen, including movement (1) of Subject, such as the movement of actors or props before the lens during the shot; (2) of Media, such as the speed with which the film strip moves through the camera gate (a process simulated in digital cinematography); (3) in the Lens, such as the movement of the glass as the lens is focused or during a zoom; (4) of the Shutter, which will affect both the rate of exposure and also the apparent motion blur; and (5) of the Camera itself, utilizing a variety of means.

Cameras can be made to move in any number of ways, usually with the help of specialized tools that create different styles of movement. A tripod, for instance, allows limited movement, such as pans and tilts, creating a rigid, formal quality of motion. A hand-held shot allows maximum versatility of movement but minimal stabilization, often creating a jerky, documentary-like effect. In a steadicam shot, the camera is mounted to a steadicam rig for fluid, versatile movements that emulate the freedom of the hand-held shot without the jitters. Dolly shots are probably the most commonly used form of camera movement. Here, the camera is mounted on a rolling platform, usually on a track, that creates smooth, choreographed movements of a sweeping nature. For crane and jib shots, the camera is mounted on a long arm for sweeping, high-angle movements, usually creating an epic feel or point of emphasis.

Shots are generally identified by angle of the camera (high, normal, low, or Dutch) and the size of the subject in the frame (Close, Medium, Full, Wide, etc.). For a Low-Angle Close-up, for instance, the camera would shoot up at a subject’s head and shoulders from a point below the subject’s shoulder line. Low-angle shots will generally give a subject more authority or make him more intimidating, while a high-angle shot has a diminutive effect. Dutch angle shots (tilted to the left or right) create an off-kilter reality. We do not need to go into the full range of shot sizes here, but one can find detailed explorations elsewhere.

Filmmakers must take into account all of the variables of frame and shot discussed above when translating scripted sequences into cinematic ones, but screenwriters do not need to write “EXTREME CLOSEUP” in order to call the camera’s attention to a fine detail. Consider the following hypothetical sequence: “Michael enters the long hall and brushes an eyelash from his cheek. At the far end of the corridor, a small key lay on the ground. Michael walks to the far end, bends down, and picks up the key. He looks at an inscription on the key. It reads: Rm 382.”

This is not good screenwriting. However, without a word of technical comment, the text above has conveyed a number of technically restricting visual details to the camera crew. We know, for instance, that an eyelash on an actor’s cheek will escape perception in a wide shot and that a very tight shot will be needed if the audience is expected to read the inscribed numbers on a very small key. Further, it would prove almost impossible to shoot this sequence as written in one, uninterrupted shot without making the audience dizzy. Discrete units of visual information will be needed. We might call these discrete units visual beats.

A visual beat is an essential, isolated action or uninflected image. Visual beats create curiosity by withholding information to create a question in the viewer’s subconscious and satisfy that curiosity by answering that question with the next beat. In the hypothetical sequence above, we might identify eleven visual beats. Let’s count them (along with the questions they raise and answer):

  1. Michael enters — where has he entered?
  2. the long hall and — this is where he has entered. What will he do next?
  3. brushes — he’ll do this. What is he brushing?
  4. an eyelash from his cheek. — this is what he is brushing.
  5. At the far end of the corridor, — what is over there?
  6. a small key lay on the ground. — this key is over there. What is its significance?
  7. Michael walks to the far end, — does he see the key?
  8. bends down, and — he sees the key. What does he intend to do?
  9. picks up the key. — he will pick it up. Is this his key?
  10. He looks at an inscription on the key. — must not be. What key is this?
  11. It reads: Rm 382 — it is this key. What is in room 382?

In this way, dividing a sequence of action into a series of visual beats clarifies for the filmmaker what exactly needs to be shot, what actions or images can be grouped together in a single shot, and which actions or images will need a specialized approach. Beats 4 and 11 clearly call for extreme close-ups, for instance, while beats 2 and 5 may play best in a wide shot. Let’s apply this method to a passage from a real screenplay, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape:

EXT. JOHN AND ANNE MILLANEY'S HOUSE — DAY

Graham has parked in the Millaney's driveway. He opens the trunk,
revealing a Sony 8mm Video rig and a single black duffel bag. He
grabs the duffel bag and shuts the trunk.

Graham knocks on the door. He is stubbing out a cigarette with his
beaten tennis shoe when Ann answers the door. She is unable to hide
her surprise at his appearance.

Here again we can identify at least eleven potential visual beats:

  1. Graham has parked — where?
  2. in the Millaney’s driveway. — here!
  3. He opens the trunk, — what’s inside?
  4. revealing a Sony 8mm Video rig and a single black duffle bag. — these things!
  5. He grabs the duffle bag — but what’s the video rig for?
  6. and shuts the trunk. — we don’t get to know yet!
  7. Graham knocks at the door. — who will answer?
  8. He is stubbing out a cigarette with his beaten tennis shoe — why is a law school grad wearing crappy shoes?
  9. when Ann answers the door. — Ann will answer!
  10. She is unable to hide her surprise — what is she surprised at?
  11. at his appearance. — that he’s a bum!

While more than one of these visual beats may be covered in a single shot, at the very least, they suggest the minimum amount of information each shot must convey. By doing so, they also outline the parameters of what kind of shot will adequately communicate the necessary information. If beat number 8 above is important, a full shot won’t suffice, since the quality of his tennis shoes needs to be evident to the audience.

By breaking a scene into visual beats, directors can determine the best way to convey the necessary information with the camera. Screenwriters may not consciously write in visual beats, but the good ones tend to create them automatically. Visual beats inherently suggest instructions for the camera without resorting to technical comment. Visual beats also suggest a method of telling the story in cuts by appealing to montage theory, which brings us to the role of the screenplay in the editorial process.

3.6.3. The Screenwriter as Editor. [Back to Page Topics]

The master scene format typically conveys no explicit editorial instruction beyond an indication of when one scene should cut to another. Scene transitions, when used, are always capitalized (e.g. FADE IN:, CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:), but since most transitions are assumed to be a straight cut, they are usually omitted altogether, so that slug-lines alone suffice as scene transitions. Editorial direction may come in the form of a “SERIES OF SHOTS” (referred to colloquially as a montage sequence but not to be confused with montage theory). In these cases, each shot is presented in a numbered or bulleted list that indicates how the sequence should be cut together to convey the passing of time.

While the master scene format does not include much explicit shot detail, good editors are skilled at reading for visual beats that imply shot transitions, and they use this information to shape scenes editorially. Good editors are excellent storytellers, and screenwriters can learn much from the theory that informs their work.

The foundational principle that guides the art of editing is montage theory. As Mamet writes, montage theory proposes “a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience.”5 Montage, according to George Bluestone, is “the basic formative function. For the two strips, joined together, become a tertium quid, a third thing which neither of the strips has been independently.”6

To illustrate the principle of montage theory, we can return to our hypothetical scene with the key in the hallway. The final two visual beats of the sequence are as follows: “He looks at an inscription on the key. It reads: Rm 382.” It may be possible to cover this action is a single shot, but montage theory suggests that the most effective way to present this action is in two shots rather than one: a shot of the eyes looking and a shot of the inscription on the key. Either shot on its own is meaningless. A shot of a pair of eyes tells the audience nothing, but it does invite participation from the audience, encouraging them to guess at what the eyes are looking. A single shot that covers both bits of information creates no curiosity and allows the audience to adopt a passive relationship to the film.

Great editors understand that montage creates anticipation and infuses the audience with interest. Great screenwriters reflect this principle in the design of their scripts. Sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraph rhythms can all be manipulated to suggest visual beats for the editor. Writing for the screen requires writing in cuts, if only subliminally.

It is often said that movies are made three times: when the script is written, during principal photography, and on the cutting table. Screenwriter who don’t understand visual language are likely to see their intentions significantly altered in the process of shooting and editing a motion picture. The more screenwriters understand the role of the camera and cuts in cinema grammar, however, the more likely each of these stages will tell the same story.

3.6.4. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • “ANGLE ON”
  • “We see”
  • Frame
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Aperture
  • Composition
  • Color
  • Depth of Field
  • Focal Length
  • Texture
  • Shot
  • Movement of Subject
  • Movement of Media
  • Movement in the Lens
  • Movement of the Shutter
  • Movement of the Camera
  • Shot Angle
  • Shot Size
  • Visual Beat
  • Series of Shots
  • Montage Theory

Questions:

  • Why is it important that screenwriters understand cinematic language?
  • How can screenwriters evoke cinematographic and editorial choices without explicitly guiding them through technical comment?
  • How is montage theory relevant to screenwriting?
  • How do screenwriters use visual beats?

3.6.5. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

 

  1. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 48.
  2. Rodman. 86-87
  3. Mamet. 2.
  4. Goldman. 287.
  5. Mamet. 4.
  6. Bluestone. 25.

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