Thursday, March 21, 2013

How Film Appreciation Changed My Writing

In my twenties, I thought for a while that I wanted to direct films.  I had a bevy of equipment:  8mm cameras, projectors, screens, a film splicer, video camera, editing deck, and titler.  During my freshman year of college, I was still torn however, unsure of whether to pursue a degree in film or English, so I chose electives which would be an introduction to both.  One of these classes was Film Appreciation. We would meet in the college’s theater every Thursday and the first half of class consisted of a lecture, after which we’d watch a movie which best exemplified the topic currently being studied.  We watched everything from Singing in the Rain to The Terminator to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

The topic which stuck with me most, though, was Mise-en-scene.   A French expression literally meaning “placing on stage”,  mise-en-scene is the art of composing a shot.   Before this class, I’d never given much thought to why particular props or actors were located where they were.  I’d just accepted the reality of the scene and flowed along with the plot, never realizing the subtle details at play.  In film, for example, things near the top of the screen usually carry a heavier weight and are thus more important than things at the bottom.  I can’t remember the film we watched as an example, but there was a scene with an argument between a man and a woman in it.  

When the scene began, the man was at the top of a staircase, glaring down at his companion, who stood at the bottom;  he controlled the argument at this point and had all the power, causing the woman to cringe at the bottom of the stairs (and thus, the screen), making her even smaller than what she already was.  Eventually, the woman had enough.  She charged up the stairs as he stormed down them to meet her.  Now they were both in the center of the screen and the argument was fairly balanced, each person making their point but no one really having dominance in the exchange.  Eventually the woman gained the upper hand and, uncertain how to proceed, the man stomped down the stairs, intent on leaving the room.  The woman, however, was having none of it.  She remained at the top and verbally controlled the argument, yelling down questions which flustered the now-powerless man at the bottom of the screen.

This, of course, was just one of the techniques we discussed.  We also learned how downward movement in film represents death (which is why it is raining in so many death scenes), how props can be used to both physically and symbolically isolate characters from one another, and so on. 

In the end, filmmaking proved too expensive for me… I simply couldn't afford all the things I required to create a world.  And, in all honesty, my passion for creating a story with words far outweighed my desire to create them with images.

These two interests, however, ended up merging.  I took what I’d learned about mise-en-scene and often apply it to my written works.  For example, there’s a scene in Apocalyptic Organ Grinder where the two antagonists (since I’m not really sure there is a protagonist in this book) are so close to one another their noses are nearly touching.  The scene is set at night and in the background, a torch burns in the darkness, filling the small gap between them.  This was meant to show the conflict raging between the characters, connecting them by something that can be all-consuming if left to its own devices.  At the end of Shadow of the Woodpile, Bobby was perched atop the massive mound of wood while Detective Maxwell and his parents stood below.  There are other examples of mise-en-scene in my work, but I think these will suffice.

Does anyone notice or even care that I apply film techniques to the written word?  Probably not.  But I’ve come to realize this is part of my personal style and I felt like writing a blog entry, so this was it.


  1. Very interesting. This makes me think about all of your work and some of the similarities. I had never heard about this, and it really does make sense.

    You can have a protagonist that is not "good." It can be an anti-hero, but I think in Grinder you really do have two people who are opposing forces, sort of dual-protagonists who serve as each others' antagonists, something you also pulled off well in Havoc.

    1. I was thinking much along the same lines when I wrote this. Perhaps Lila and Tanner from Apocalyptic Organ Grinder are really both anti-heros. Certainly, they are both well respected in their respective communities and would be seen as mighty warriors... even if the opposing side would view them as monsters. Most of my work, I feel, lacks an archetypal hero with clearly delineated lines between right and wrong.