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09/27/2005 - BOOK REVIEW - ?CINEMATIC STORYTELLING ? BY JENNIFER VAN SIJLL?
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"CINEMATIC STORYTELLING - BY JENNIFER VAN SIJLL"
Book Review by Matthew Terry
Published by: Michael Weise Productions
ISBN#: 1-932907-05-X

Years ago I placed two stickers on my computer monitor. One sticker said: "You are a storyteller." And the other sticker said: "Think Visually." The first sticker was to remind me that, in my simplest form, all I wanted to do was tell stories to move and entertain people. The second sticker was to remind me to not be so clinical in my writing and think visually as to how I want the scene to look; to look at other approaches, VISUAL approaches, so I don't become a static writer writing just the basic words to get the scene across.

Years later, those stickers are gone but the core ideas are not.

It is the most common thing I write on a script that I am editing: "How do you show?" The character is angry. "How do you show?" The character wears a t-shirt. "Does it say anything?" The character drives up in a car. "What kind of car is it?" And, more often than not, the writer looks at me with a blank look on their face to say: "You expect me to put that in?" "OF COURSE I EXPECT YOU TO PUT THAT IN! AREN'T YOU A WRITER?"

Then the argument comes back to me: "I've heard that Producers don't want lots of detail." "I've heard that Producers look at how much white space there is before they'll read the script." "I'm trying to keep it as basic as possible." Which tells me they want to keep it BORING! You are a WRITER. WRITE!

"Cinematic Storytelling" is a book that rubber stamps my continued arguments with writers. It breaks down, by explanation, script examples and photos, how a scene is put together visually - and all the different combinations there-in. The subtitle to the book is: "The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know"

Jennifer Van Sijll, using examples from the silent film "Metropolis" to Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill 1" (and everything in between) explores those 100 Powerful Film Conventions in great detail.

The book is broken up in 17 chapters, each with an introduction and then within those chapters she breaks down each convention. For instance, Chapter 5 deals with "Time" while Chapter 9 deals with "Lenses." As you read through this book she provides you with an explanation to the convention, she will often provide the bit of the script that refers to that convention, and then photographs from the scene to reinforce the convention.

In the chapter on "Lighting" (Chapter 12) she breaks down "Motion Lighting" showing how the opening scenes of ET used lights in motion to heighten the suspense of ET running through the forest. First, with the truck head-lights and then, secondly, with the flashlights the pursuers use. She also re-prints the part of the script where this scene is described to show you, the writer, how it translated from the page to the screen. There are quite a number of "script segments" that are, of course, different from the draft or shooting script to what was actually shot, printed and shown. Did you know the opening to the film "Adaptation" was actually in the 2nd Act of that film?

Besides the above, she also includes details on each example she used at the end of each chapter: Title, date, writer(s), director, production company and distributor. I think this information would be very helpful if you're doing research on these persons or the process.

I found myself, as I read through this book, thinking about the films I had most recently seen trying to find examples of what she was referring to. I was questioning some of my favorite films confirming a lot of what she explains in the book. These conventions really do add to the whole story-telling process and they do help the page "come alive" on the screen.

There are two complaints I have with this book:

1. 90% of the script portions she uses come from films that were directed by the writer. Joel and Ethan Cohen ("Fargo" and "Barton Fink"), Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane"), Luc Besson ("The Professional), etc. Obviously their vision is going to be more "complete" because they are directing what they have written. What I feel would have been more beneficial, especially for amateur screenwriters, is to show how a "Spec" Script was modified from the written version to what the director envisioned. Did the sparse description turn into a riveting scene because of what the director did with the script? Or was there enough on the page for the director to work with? As an amateur writer there is a "less is more" approach to writing which, in my opinion, saps the writer from being creative and stamping their script with a particular vision. A few more examples of this would have been helpful.

2. The other complaint piggy-backs the first. Many of the script examples she provides came from screenplays that were obviously shooting scripts or scripts that had been through the Hollywood mill. Jennifer explains in the "Note on Credits and Script Sources" how she came to the scripts and what she had to work with. I think it's excellent to have the script portions in the book and extremely helpful to the reader - but it also may confuse new writers who suddenly feel they have to include scene numbers or every single camera angle. She DOES note when the script portion is a draft or a shooting script but I still think this could add to some confusion.

But how does this book help that writer who's afraid a Producer will balk when they see a camera movement or a highly detailed description? What I feel this book DOES do is confirm that writing a screenplay is more than just typing: "Joan walks into a bar." And turns it into: "Joan, mid-thirties and wearing a slinky red dress, slinks into a smoke-filled sports bar." If a Producer doesn't get more drawn in with example number two - then you probably would not want to work with that Producer.

Overall this is an excellent book which goes beyond the typical screenwriting books. There is no mention of proper formatting. No talk of three act structure. The book challenges you, the storyteller, to look at your script in a visual way. To push those visual clues and see how you can write a script and add those images that fit YOUR vision, too.

Screenwriters, whether amateur or not, need to be reminded that they are, indeed, storytellers and they must tell their stories visually. This book helps you explore those visual options.

"Cinematic Storytelling" reminded me of the basics of screenwriting: "Telling a story in a visual way." It's a lesson all screenwriters need to learn - it's a lesson all screenwriters need to remember.


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