Film is a visual medium. It is at its best when it utilizes visual storytelling techniques. Some of these are similar to other artistic media, such as theater and painting. Some of them are indigenous to film. Understanding these techniques can enhance the film-watching experience.
When we talk about “storytelling”, we mean much more than plot or narrative. Storytelling certainly involves both of these, but it involves much more. Many times the “story” being told is a theme or an idea. Sometimes it is just a mood or an emotion. Story is what the film has to say, and storytelling is how it says it.
Composition is the way the elements are arranged within the frame. That is a basic and utterly insufficient definition. Composition involves many different elements. We could break it down further into set-design, lighting, camera angles, lens selection, and more. It might be the most complicated aspect of storytelling. There are composition principles that have evolved for centuries within painting. There are other principles that are much more recent in genesis. And, like any “artistic-principle”, there are ways to contort the established principles for a desired effect. Composition is much more noticeable for certain filmmakers. You can hardly watch an Welles’ film without thinking about composition. With others it is far more subtle. For Bresson, composition is extremely important, but not all that drastic.
This is one of the most exquisitely composed films. Tremendous care went into setting up each and every scene. This opening scene is as beautiful as a fine painting, which is exactly what it is supposed to be.
Playtime is a wonderfully funny and brilliantly directed film Every frame is filled from edge to edge, corner to corner with witty and significant elements. This scene is an example of how Tati using composition for an amusing visual gag.
Movement within the frame:
This type of movement is borrowed directly from theater. In theater, there is essentially one frame, and all the movement must be within that frame. Much early film focused primarily on these techniques. They were much more theatrical than cinematic. Over the years, filmmakers have devised ingenious ways to make movement within the frame more cinematic.
The General–canonball scene
Buster Keaton was amazing. Few comic actors have been as subtle and athletic as he. Notice how he uses the frame and the action within the frame to tell a very humorous story. As the commentator on the clip notes, that is a real train that is really moving the track, and this is really Keaton doing all the stunts.
Singing in the Rain–the dance
There is nothing for me to say here.
Movement of the camera:
Only in film can there be this type of storytelling. No other medium allows for it. This is possibly the most misused technique. Many filmmakers (i.e. Michael Bay) move the camera in every scene for no discernable purpose. With all these techniques, there must be a motivation behind them. The story is not the fact the the camera is moving. There must be something more behind it. With the great filmmakers, the camera moves for a reason. Not coincidentally, many of the filmmakers that are good at moving the camera are also good at not moving the camera.
Tarkovsky moves the camera often. He uses many long, slow tracking shots. They allow for much thought and observation. They give you chance to enter the time-universe of the film. This is a beautiful, wonderfully choreographed scene.
Touch of Evil–opening shot
This is the tracking shot of all tracking shots. It is one of the best opening scenes. Everything you need to know about the border town where the film takes place is in this shot.
Editing is another technique indigenous to film. Early filmmakers noticed you can imply many things by juxtaposition. They also learned that precise editing allows for a smooth flow of the narrative. We normally associate editing with action scenes, where it is most often misused (i.e. Michael Bay, again). Editing is also very important in dialogue scenes, maybe even more important than in actions scenes.
Because of the brilliant set-up and editing of this scene, you think you see more than you actually see. I think this one scene took several days to shoot.
Raging Bull–final fight (Warning: graphic and intense)
Scorsese used the same shot set-up and sequence as in the above scene. Notice also how he uses camera movement and composition.
This list is far from exhaust. The scenes included are far from the best examples. They happen to be the best examples I could think of and find on YouTube. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.
If you have not watched the movies, you should. They are all very good.