I just ordered a fantastic little book on Amazon, thanks to MediaStorm's recommendation: On Directing Film. I'm not very far in, but one lesson keeps bouncing around in my head, and has made it nearly impossible to watch anything without analyzing the hell out of it. It's actually been a fun little journey.
In the very first chapter, author/playwright/screenwriter/film director David Mamet writes about the way Einstein suggested a movie should be made-- otherwise known as his "theory of montage":
"This method has nothing to do with following the protagonist around but rather is a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience.
"You always want to tell the story in cuts... A shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, 'you'll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.' It's unimportant that the audience should guess why it's important to the story. It's important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised."
Mamet functions in a different world than ours, because he can control every aspect of the story being told-- from the situations to the very characters living out those dramas. Our filmmaking is much different, but the same rules of good visual storytelling apply.
So next time you're inclined to cut back to a talking head-- and I know this can be really tempting in the advocacy/issue-reporting world-- think about what other visuals could more strongly portray that character's words and add some depth and complexity to the story being told. It takes good planning before the shoot, a clear, focused head during the shoot, and mindful and creative editing afterwards.
Here are a few videos that illustrate this idea really well:
This is a gorgeous film. Not once do you see this woman talking in a sit-down interview-- instead, you get a rich montage of her life, her surroudnings, and metaphorical images that create an emotional understanding in the viewer. Well done, Everynone.
Another beautiful example of what you can do when you think outside the obvious. You do get some sit-down interview shots with this one, and that's usually okay (and necessary) in issue-driven pieces-- but notice they don't linger there longer than they have to. Instead, they focus on making the other scenes as rich as possible-- from the symbollic focus change at :20 to the lit doorbells at 1:05, which makes viewers realize how precious such an inanimate thing as a doorbell must be to this character. That's truly powerful storytelling by Luceo Images.
How does one illustrate a sad and painful adoption story? Old family albums. A dark, rippling pond. Feet shuffling through dead leaves. A man, alone at a table, working on a Sudoku puzzle. Einstein must be smiling down on MediaStorm today-- especially TDN's Tucker Walsh, who filmed a hefty portion of the images being juxtaposed in this film.