Sunday 2 July 2017

A story told with pictures

Syd Field wrote Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting back in 1979. The book enjoyed enormous success, but became a bit of a target for critics in later years.

Whatever you think of the argument over Three-Act Structure, Syd Field's book is a good read and has many helpful things things to say.

The following excerpt (from Chapter 3, The Creation of Character) illustrates the maxim about using pictures to tell a story.

My favorite film marriage is seen in Citizen Kane. Kane's marriage is revealed in one incredible sequence, which begins with the marriage and honeymoon of Kane and his first wife. In the next cut, we see them at breakfast having an intimate conversation.
There is a swish pan (the camera swishes quickly out of the frame) and we see them in different clothes talking and reading the paper at breakfast. Swish pan and we see them at a slightly larger table having a very heated discussion. Swish pan to them having a more vocal argument about his spending so much time at his newspaper.
Swish pan to them at a much larger table, both silent, both reading the paper, he reading The Inquirer, she reading the Post [actually, the  Chronicle], his primary competitor. She asks him something and he simply grunts in reply.
Swish pan to them at a very long table eating in total silence. A significant period of time covered in about a minute [just over two minutes, actually]. The sequence tells us so much about their relationship, and it's all done in brief shots, using pictures instead of words. A screenplay, remember, is a story told with pictures.

The book contains a number of small factual errors, but keep in mind that Syd Field was writing this in 1979, when he didn't have the benefit of DVDs. I assume he wrote his description of the scene from memory. The screenplay for Citizen Kane has none of this. It restricts the elements to two sentences in a single scene.


High angle downward - what Bernstein and Miss Townsend see from the window.

Kane is just stepping into an elegant barouch, drawn up at the curb, in which sits Miss Emily Norton. He kisses her full on the lips before he sits down.  She acts a bit taken aback, because of the public nature of the scene, but she isn't really annoyed.  As the barouche starts off, she is looking at him adoringly.  He, however, has turned his head and is looking adoringly at the "Enquirer."  He apparently sees Bernstein and Miss Townsend and waves his hand.

I think Orson Welles improved on the screenplay (which he co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz) in this scene, but I wonder if it was a sudden inspiration at the last minute or a disagreement with Mankiewicz, which Welles, as director, decided in his own favor.

First posted: 5 August 2013

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