Using lenses to enhance visual storytelling

I teach a cinematography course for Northern Arizona University’s Creative Media & Film program. We do several Friday classes that meet from 10-3:30pm, giving us enough time to work hands-on. I’m a firm believer that filmmaking must engage in visual storytelling.

Truffaut realized that the cardinal rule of cinema is at the heart of Hitchcock’s art: “Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer” (17).

François Truffaut, the famed French New Wave director of The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), among others, was astounded at serious film critics’ mainly negative reception of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. He was flummoxed by what he saw as Hitchcock being “victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers”; Truffaut felt “it was obvious that [Hitchcock] had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues” (11-12).

In this way, Truffaut felt that Hitchcock was one of the few filmmakers who understood how to execute a story visually, cinematically. With the release of “talkies”, dialogue took predominance in filmmaking, which, as Truffaut says, “serves to express the thoughts of characters, but we know that in real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel” (17). Cinema is not found in dialogue, both Truffaut and Hitchcock would argue. Indeed, Truffaut believed that one of the reasons filmmakers and critics should take Hitchcock seriously stems from his “unique ability to film the thoughts of his characters and make them perceptible without resorting to dialogue” (17). Hitchcock made dialogue scenes cinematic by filming subtext—what characters think and feel made visible through the eyes and body language of his performers.

Hitchcock felt that “one of the biggest problems” in the entire film industry stemmed from the “inability of people to visualize” their stories (Gottlieb Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews 91). The rules for Hitchcock should become our rules:

  1. “Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer” (Truffaut 17).
    And its corollary:
  2. “Film the thoughts of … characters and make them perceptible without resorting to dialogue” (Truffaut 17).

Hitchcock explained to Truffaut how he would train his performers to act for the camera especially during a close-up: “how to use their face to convey thought, to convey sex, everything, in an unstated subtle way” (Gottlieb “Hitchcock on Truffaut” 11). The power of the close-up takes us into the intimacy of being close to the subject, since in real life we’re only in such proximity during intimate moments—therefore the importance in focusing on the eyes, so much so that Sydney Gottlieb notes how there needs to be a “study of the full range of ‘looks’ embodied in [Hitchcock’s] films—some of which are not exercises of power, control, abuse, or voyeuristic pleasure—and the ways in which they are presented and interrelated” (“Hitchcock on Truffaut” 14).

To emphasize the importance of utilizing eyes and body language to tell a story visually, let’s look at Truffaut’s The 400 Blows when Antoine sees his mother kissing her lover. In the discussion between Hitchcock and Truffaut, Sydney Gottlieb describes how there is a “complex choreography of several kinds of looks: direct, returned or reciprocated, and averted” (“Hitchcock on Truffaut” 14). These looks tell the story—the inner thoughts and lives of the characters as they sift their way through human emotions. In commenting on this scene, Hitchcock tells Truffaut:

[Antoine] looks and he sees the mother going along there. The mother turns her head and sees the boy looking in her direction. The boy turns his head, embarrassed, and the mother turns her head, embarrassed. Now when they meet, with that, that in the background, they don’t like to look at each other, they don’t look at each other, they avoid each other’s looks when they first meet again. (Gottlieb “Hitchcock on Truffaut” 20.)

Such visuals say much more than words in a dialogue (and certainly far more than narration could ever convey), and how the characters behave toward each other in a later scene, Hitchcock explains, reveals how the impact of that moment averted causes changes in body language, and therefore the meaning and emotional flow of Truffaut’s film. The emotions flow out from the body language we see expressed when Antoine sees her mother kissing a man that’s not his father. She looks away in shame as Antoine looks away in shock and shame—the body language conveys the emotions, which comprises the story. It delivers a lot of information in less than thirty seconds with twelve cuts (there are fourteen shown here, since I showed the before and after actions and reactions in the same in cuts seven and eight).

A scene (shot order going down) from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Hitchcock, in a discussion with Truffaut, notes how the mother looks away from her son, Antoine, and he looks away from his mother—body language conveying the emotion beats of shock and shame.

Another element of our filmmaking tool we can utilize includes the psychological impact of the type of lens used to capture and convey subtext and body language. Bill Dill, ASC, in his great course on lynda.com (Cinematography 01: Narrative Fundamentals, he explains:

When someone sits too close to you, no one has to tell you to feel uncomfortable, you just do. … We are extremely sensitive to changes in the human face. There’s an entire section of the brain dedicated to the recognition of the human face. This is why we can see a face in clouds, a piece of burnt toast, or just about anything. We’re sensitive to the increase in the three-dimensional separation in a character’s facial features that happens when a wide-angle lens is too close.

A medium focal length lens is sometimes called a normal lens, because it represents the perspective of the human eye. This focal length pushes the camera slightly further away from the subject and gives the audience some distance from the character. There tends to be less tension generated by this shot, because it’s a more commonly experienced perspective of the world. With slightly longer lenses, we tend to find it pleasing that there’s a bit of flattening of a character’s features that happens with the lens and the slightly increased distance needed for the same field of view.

That’s why we sometimes call them portrait lenses. You will know the right choice here. You’ll have to think about what you want to say about your character at a given moment in the story. However, know that the lens choice will say something about that character. The placement of the camera is one of the most important decisions you make as a filmmaker. Be careful not to simplify this down to convenience. Take a few moments to consider your focal length and where that places your camera. (https://www.lynda.com/Filmmaking-tutorials/Choose-focal-length/423992/544681-4.html)

In this exercise, we experimented with Dill’s concept of lenses and Hitchcock’s desire to tell a story, visually, through blocking. I transcribed a scene from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight (1957), then added blocking and camera notes (script by Ozu and Kogo Noda):

Here we can see how the blocking helps tell the story visually and with the lens choices supporting this visual story, we can begin to see how a combination and the right lenses help shape visual storytelling. The camera work was done by different students, and you can actually see how that also change the story! Also note that the directing and camera notes evolved on set, lens choices and blocking changed as needed. Here’s the edited scene, but there’s no lighting design–this was simply a lens and blocking exercise (shot on a C100 mk II, C-log, Rokinon cinema lenses):

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Gottlieb, Sidney. “Hitchcock on Truffaut.” Film Quarterly. Summer 2013: 10-22.

Gottlieb, Sidney, ed. “Dialogue on Film: Alfred Hitchcock” in Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. Simon and Schuster, 1984.

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