Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to make Movies a Visual treat..

We live in a space jammed with visual images, a daily overdose of sound n visuals. In industrial societies, most people spend much of their time looking at television screens, Web graphics, print illustrations, and other types of visual displays (Messaris, 2001). Because of this, many would argue that we need a more visually oriented educational system, one focused more directly on “visual literacy” -- which may be defined, for our purposes, as competence in the production and consumption of visual messages. Even in movies a lot of effort is put into animation and VFX.

There is also a widespread belief that young people today are highly knowledgeable about visual media as a result of growing up on a steady diet of TV shows, video games, computer images, movies, and, of course, advertisements. If kids are indeed becoming more “media savvy,” do arguments for visual education lose their force? Is the introduction of visual media into our schools redundant and futile?

There are at least two good reasons to be skeptical about claims that young people acquire significant visual skills through mere exposure to television or other visual media. To begin with, one should not take for granted that a preference for visual entertainment is necessarily accompanied by superior understanding of visual information. When MTV was still a novelty, it was often remarked that young viewers seemed to be much more comfortable with MTV-style editing in videos or commercials than were older viewers. The fast paced, jump cuts n white flash kind of editing style is not understood or absorbed by youngsters, the adults were more receptive to this kind of was revealed in a statistical study...!!

We will address these questions by examining some examples from a feature-length movie made by college students. Produced in my Visual Communication Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, this comedy-thriller, titled Grad-School B-Movie, was shot and edited by students who had not had any previous film-making experience. The points made below are illustrated with images taken directly from the movie.

Thinking in Pictures

One of the most important things that novice film makers need to learn is to go beyond the literal content of images. The meaning of an image is not just a matter of the people or places that appear in it, or the action that it depicts. How those people or places or actions are portrayed -- in close-up or long shot, in balanced or asymmetrical compositions, in high-key or low-key lighting, etc. -- are essential ingredients of the creation of visual meaning.

As Rudolf Arnheim (1969) argued in his pioneering study of visual intelligence, to learn to think in pictures is to learn how to use these ingredients effectively as elements of one’s overall message. Among inexperienced film or video makers there is a very strong tendency to compose every image as if it were a snapshot. If there is a single person in the image, he or she is framed dead center; if there are two people, they are framed symmetrically and at equal distances from the viewer. It can be argued that this type of composition is based on the way in which people tend to orient themselves toward one another in real life. However, as a quick glance at almost any professionally produced movie or TV show will demonstrate, this is not the way most images are framed by professional directors and cinematographers.

An example from Grad-School B-Movie illustrates this difference. In the scene, Natasha, one of the movie’s three female protagonists, is talking to her office mate, Elsa. As the scene progresses, Natasha learns that she has made a mistake that may have serious consequences. When this scene was rehearsed, the two women were placed at equal distances from the camera, and Natasha, who is working at her computer at the beginning of the scene, was facing away from the viewer (Image 1). However, in the scene as it appears in the movie, this composition was altered radically. Natasha, who was now shown working on a laptop, was placed much closer to the viewer, facing forward rather than backward (Image 2).

Although the dialogue remained exactly the same in both cases, the visual composition in the final filmed version produced a fairly substantial shift in emphasis. The fact that Natasha’s image is now much larger highlights her status as the principal character and focuses the viewer’s attention on her reactions. These two ingredients -- image size and orientation -- were also used, together with color, to underscore Natasha’s plight at the end of the scene. As Natasha realizes her mistake, Elsa moves forward and casually sits on the edge of her desk, facing away from the viewer and blocking much of the image with her body (Image 3). Natasha’s face is confined to a small section of the frame, between the black laptop and Elsa’s black-clad figure -- graphic representations of the fact that Natasha may have stepped into a trap.

Spatial Intelligence

Although the acquisition of visual literacy is valuable in and of itself, it is worth noting that the intellectual benefits of a visual education often extend beyond the realm of visual media as such. As students become more fluent in creating and combining images, they also develop certain broader mental aptitudes that these activities bring into play. This connection between visual creativity and general cognition has been explored extensively in the well-known work of Howard Gardner (1983), who used the term “spatial intelligence” as an encompassing label for the kinds of mental skills that are cultivated by working in visual media.

Spatial intelligence is the process of forming mental representations of three-dimensional reality as a basis for understanding one’s environment and interacting with it effectively. It is a type of intelligence crucial for success in professions such as architecture or carpentry, but it is also a vital ingredient of any person’s everyday physical activities. What role does it play in visual media?

An example from Grad-School B-Movie illustrates one of the most common situations in which film makers are called upon to exercise their spatial intelligence. This scene begins romantically, as a young woman and her boyfriend take a leisurely stroll across a college campus, ending up at a secluded lakeside. However, as the scene progresses, a sinister note obtrudes, and it eventually becomes clear that the couple is being followed by a mysterious woman who had been spying on them earlier in the movie.

Because of scheduling difficulties, this scene had to be filmed on two occasions: one shoot was devoted mainly to the mystery woman, the other to the romantic couple. Consequently, in the final edit it was impossible to show all three characters together in a single shot. Instead, an illusion of coherent space, time, and action had to be created through editing -- a task required for any scene involving more than one shot but made specially complex in this case by the absence of group shots and the fact that the filming took place in different locations.

In dealing with such situations, film makers can draw on a variety of devices for linking one shot to another and to the scene as a whole. In the first shot in our example, we see the young woman and her boyfriend standing by the lake, looking pensively at the tranquil scene that surrounds them. Our view of the couple is from the side, and the camera is hand-held, making the image somewhat shaky (Image 4). To an experienced film viewer, the sudden appearance of a shaky, hand-held shot in a scene in which all previous shots are smooth (the camera had been mounted on a tripod) serves as a fairly clear visual cue. It signifies that this is a “subjective” shot -- it represents the point of view of a character inside the world of the movie. In other words, this shot tells the viewer that someone is watching.

Consequently, when shot number 2, a close-up of a woman, appears on the screen, the viewer is already primed to assume that this is the person who is looking at the couple (Image 5). This assumption is reinforced by the woman’s off-screen glance, which serves as a further link between the two shots, placing both the woman and the couple in the same space and time frame, even though she and they do not appear together in either shot.

Next we get a close-up view of the couple from the front (Image 6).

They are both looking off-screen, in different directions. Here the experienced viewer should automatically make a spatial connection between the orientation of these looks and the spatial layout that was implied by the first two shots, leading to the conclusion that the younger woman has caught a glimpse of the mystery woman off to the side. This conclusion is also suggested, of course, by the hint of a troubled expression on the actress’s face. Therefore, when the mystery woman appears again in a subsequent shot, looking straight into the camera, the viewer can infer that this is another subjective shot, this time from the younger woman’s perspective (Image 7).

This kind of connection between shots should happen spontaneously, without much conscious reflection, in the minds of experienced viewers. However, making sure such connections work properly requires considerable planning on the part of film makers and editors, and there is good evidence that this part of the film-making process can bring about an enhancement of students’ spatial intelligence. In research on the relationship between film-production experience and cognitive skills, it is editing in particular that appears to lead to the most substantial gains in spatial intelligence (Tidhar, 1984).

One of the things that separate 'good' directors from 'great' ones is
the ability to visualize the scenes and shots of their movie before
they even shoot the first take. Cast and crew appreciate this ability
in a director because it means the director won't waste a lot of time
on takes that will never end up in the movie. If a director knows what
he or she wants to shoot, it also helps immensely in communicating
their needs effectively to the cast and crew- another hallmark of a
professional director.

One way that is used extensively in the film industry to visualize
scenes is to storyboard them. Typically, straightforward scenes such
as a simple exchange of dialog between two characters will not need
storyboarding. Complicated or action-packed scenes on the other hand,
will often need extensive storyboarding in order to ensure that all
the required shots have been gotten, and also in order to effectively
communicate the scene to everyone else on the set.

The good news is that you don't need to be a world-class artist in
order to produce storyboards for your movie. Depending on your needs,
here are three methods to get your vision across using storyboards.

If the only thing you can draw is a stick figure, this is the method
for you. This method is great for a quick discussion on the set when
you need to convey what you want a shot to look like. Draw a square on
a piece of paper... It doesn't have to be perfect. Now ask yourself,
are you talking about a wide shot, a medium shot, a close-up, or a
'specialized' shot (such as an extreme close-up, or a shot from an
unusual angle)? Now draw the character(s) in the box at the proper
height for the shot you're looking for. Remember, just make them
stick-figures- you only need to be able to convey where the characters
are on the screen and how big they will be in the shot.

Next ask yourself if there will be motion in the shot. What kind? Will
the characters move? Will the camera move? Both? Draw a second box and
sketch how you want the shot to look when you cut the shot. Again,
keep it simple, don't try to draw everything in your shot- just the
items that will be moving, and the camera movement.. Don't look now,
but you've just expressed visually how you want your shot to look.

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