I recently had the opportunity to attend the screening of a short film by a beginning filmmaker. The first scene started with a shot of a young couple sitting on a couch, having an increasingly heated argument. The shot was wide enough to include most of the room, which was littered with magazines, DVDs, empty beer cans, a collection of sneakers stashed under the couch, and movie posters on every wall (obviously the young director’s place). A small table could also be seen in the foreground of the shot, with a game console and a stack of video games prominently displayed on it. After the film ended, there was a Q & A session with the director, who looked very proud of his work and eager to answer questions. A man in the audience asked: “Was the guy on the couch trying to act like Travis Bickle?” The filmmaker look puzzled, and asked him why he was asking about Travis Bickle. The man answered he thought the large Taxi Driver poster right behind the actor was part of the story. “No, that poster just happened to be there,” the filmmaker replied. Another audience member asked: “Was he trying to scam money from her to buy more video games?” The director look confused. “Was she upset with him because he doesn’t clean up?” someone else asked. The filmmaker, obviously frustrated by now, stopped the Q & A to explain that the scene in question was really about the young couple trying to avoid having their first argument since they had just gotten married, and that he thought this should have been obvious by the way the young man’s hand was nervously twitching as he held his wife’s hand. The movie posters, video games, and the messy room were not really meant to be important parts of the scene and the story. The director was, however, pleased when someone asked him if a shot from the end of his film, where the couple was shown walking towards the camera in

slow-motion, was an homage to a similar shot from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). “Yes!” he replied. “I’m glad you caught that.” When asked about the significance of that reference to his story, he answered: “I thought it’d look cool,” to a still puzzled audience. The rest of his film had the same issues the opening shot and his homage shot had; there was a complete disconnection between the composition of his shots and their function within the narrative of his film. The biggest mistake this director made was failing to create compositions that reflected meaningful aspects of his story. In the opening scene, he framed a shot that was visually dense, filled with details that turned out to be extraneous to the story and prevented the audience from getting the point he was trying to make. By prominently including the movie posters, the game console, the sneakers under the couch, and the empty beer cans, the twitching hand of the husband was lost in the shot; the audience was unable to glean the intended meaning of the composition. When the director watched the shot through the viewfinder of the camera during production, he did not notice anything else besides the twitching hand of the husband in the frame, because he already knew that was a meaningful detail in the scene; his audience did not. In the last shot of his film, the director was able to duplicate a composition he had seen in another film, and although the shot briefly elicited a positive response from the audience, it later became a source of confusion when they realized that it had no meaningful connection with the story. The director simply did not think about his story in a cinematic way, to create shot compositions that visually emphasized significant plot details of his story as well as its themes, motifs, and core ideas. If he had

understood the relationship between the technical aspects of filmmaking, the narrative function each type of shot can have, and the rules of composition, his audience’s reaction to his film would have been vastly different. If you want to become an effective storyteller, one of the most important things you can do is to have a clear vision of your story, so that it reflects your unique take on it, not somebody else’s. You already do this without thinking whenever you share an anecdote about something that happened to you. Let us say, for instance, that you want to let a friend know about the time someone got upset when you accidentally cut them off while driving and they chased you down the highway. You would not begin your story by describing what you did on that day as soon as you woke up, how long it took you to take a shower, the articles you read on a blog while having breakfast, the clothes you were wearing, or any other meaningless detail that occurred before you got into your car and drove down the highway. Intuitively, you would edit your story to include only the most important parts, so that your friend would understand how terrifying/interesting/ crazy your road rage encounter really was. The director of the short film did not do this when he shot his film. By leaving all those unnecessary details in the composition of his shots, he did the equivalent of describing the color of the socks the guy sitting on the couch was wearing, instead of showing his audience how uncomfortable and nervous the husband was feeling while holding the hand of his wife. Anything and everything that is included in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as being there for a specific purpose that is directly related and necessary to understand the story they are watching. This is one of those conventions that has been developed over thou-

sands of years of visual storytelling (even cavemen knew not to include extraneous details in cave paintings!), and continues to be as important today as the first day it was used. If we take this principle just a bit further, we could add that the placement, size, and visibility of anything in the frame will also affect how an audience understands its importance to the story. Take a look at the shot from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) at the beginning of this chapter. It is an extreme long shot that shows a car parked on a deserted road, with someone in the backseat pointing a gun at someone sitting in the front seat. In the distant background, the Statue of Liberty is visible above a bank of wild grass. This seemingly simple composition has a very clear meaning: someone is being murdered inside a car on a deserted road. In fact, this shot’s meaning is so clear that even someone who has never seen The Godfather would have no trouble understanding what is happening at this moment in the story. This shot is an excellent example of including only what is absolutely necessary in the frame to get the point being conveyed by the director. If you have been paying attention and observed the shot closely, you should be curious about a little detail included in the composition of this shot. If everything in the frame is meant to be meaningful and necessary to understand the story, then why is the Statue of Liberty part of the composition of this shot? Is it there simply to establish the location of the murder? Why is it so distant and tiny in the frame? If you look at the shot carefully, you will notice that the statue is facing away from the car where the murder is taking place. Could this be a meaningful detail? If it is in the frame, then everything about it, from its placement to the angle from which it was shot, has to be meaningful.