YSA Directing for Meaning Across Media

Posted by admin on December 9, 2010 in Development, Directing, Production, Writing |

How does one direct across media? In her book on Cinematic Storytelling, Jennifer Van Sijll offers 100 ways to convey ideas in movies beyond dialogue. Jennifer talks about the overemphasis on books that cover plot, structure, and character, but not how ideas are conveyed cinematically. Screenwriters need to convey to the reader of their script what they will see and hear on screen; and importantly, they need to communicate by more than dialogue and narration. Directors need to “understand the technical properties of film and then employ them creatively to advance the story. Without the connection between content and technique, you are watching two disjointed parts; the result, more often than not, is a technical exercise” (xii).

An example Jennifer gives is from Francis Coppola’s movie The Conversation. Jennifer talks about how this film grew out of Coppola’s interest in repetition, which he symbolises with ‘the circular’. The symbol of the circular was used in the film with images such as spiral staircases. There are many director’s commentaries on DVDs that reveal how certain shots or edits or sound was structured to convey meaning, but a lengthy treatise is filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s book.

Sidney Lumet, the director of many award-winning films such as 12 Angry Men, The Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. In his book Making Movies, Lumet shares how makes meaning through all the stages of production, across all departments and areas — rehearsals, costume, lighting, editing and so on. When talking about his process, Lumet discusses the importance of theme:

Having decided, for whatever reason, to do a movie, I return to that all-encompassing, critical discussion: What is the movie about? Work can’t begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled. (13-14)

Lumet then offers examples of themes, of what a movie is about:

The Pawnbroker: How and why we create our prisons
Dog Day Afternoon: Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the most outrageous behavior than we know or admit.
12 Angry Men: Listen
Running on Empty: Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents?

Such core ideas then influence all creative decisions such as (from the writers perspective) characters, settings, plot, and (from the directors perspective) costumes, props, sets, composition, sound, editing and so on. An example, Lumet describes is his choice of camera lenses based on the theme of the movie Prince of the City:

Going back to its theme (nothing is what it appears to be), I made the decision: We would not use the midrange lenses (28 mm through 40mm). Nothing was to look normal, or anything close to what the eye would see. I took the theme literally. All space was elongated or foreshortened, depending on whether I used wide-angle or long lenses.

This process of making meaning with every element a person sees and hears in a film is not, of course, specific to film. Any medium has its technical elements that can be drawn on to communicate meaning. In interactive arts, what a player does is sometimes designed to be a significant event. For instance, game designer and theorist Ian Bogost talks about how gestures can work in persuasive games. Bogost cites designer and educator Brenda Brathwaite‘s art/persuasive game Train. Train is a game about the holocaust, that involves a point in which the player smashes glass. This gesture and the feelings it evokes in the player are meant to be part of the meaning making process. Indeed, the game is part of Brathwaite’s series called Mechanic is the Message.


Actions can also be meaningful in trans/cross-media projects. An example is the film Untraceable. If you watch the first part of the trailer, you’ll see a website and its significance mentioned.

The website featured in the film, KillwithMe.com, was actually created (as part of a marketing campaign). As you will notice on the site, visiting it and choosing to enter is implied to be an immoral act. The film audience are given the same option as the characters in the film. Although without doubt a marketing tactic, the significance of user action was not lost. In fact, a fan (?) created a page/group asking people if they visited the site after seeing the film (the group is no-longer online).

Lets look at other ways meaning can be communicated across media, between a film and its website. Take the film Stranger than Fiction: it has digital effects and narration that contribute to the story about storytelling:

The website for the film, Stranger than Fiction website (click on Enter to open it up), continues the visual and conceptual approach of the film. In the past, continuity across media was purely governed by visual concerns. Franchise bibles were style guides that ensure the ‘brand’ is depicted in the same manner. What is described as a transmedia approach, on the other hand, involves ensuring that the theme that dictates meaning in one medium, also does another. This is, to me, one of the first approaches that reflects a transmedia process. But another is to think of an overall theme, with other medium-specific iterations on that theme as well. But I digress.

Another example is Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream, with some excerpts here:

The website for the film draws on the TV show featured in the film, as well as explores the themes of the film – addiction and corruption…but in a manner specific to a website. In fact, the navigation (if you noticed) is structured on a z-axis (it keeps getting deeper). This is a characteristic of some websites created by HiReS!. They’re talented designers who have worked on many websites (including Aronofsky’s other film sites, and the Donnie Darko website, and the had a large role in The Lost Experience). Here is the designer talking about the Requiem website and how the theme of the film influenced its design:

In these film and website examples, the web designers were talented enough to conceive of a site that is thematically meaningful (and the producers or marketers selected the team well). These sort of designers are hard to find. This is one issue associated with transmedia. But another is the director. A transmedia director needs to know not only how to direct (in their own way), but also understand the medium (that is the point). In transmedia they need to know enough to work with more than one medium confidently.

I’m currently developing my own projects and am writing and directing (and doing the producing until I find someone suitable). I’ve also spoken with Steve Peters about his work as an experience designer and how many aspects of what he does is directing (I had the pleasure of working with Steve, Jon, Maureen, and Dee on a global ARG for Cisco). Lance Weiler also talks about what you do with social technologies in a way that is meaningful too. It is also interesting to see articles about directors such as Chris Milk, who directed the film production, post-production, and web production of Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown. Exciting times this transmediary thing. Do you have some experiences to share about directing across media, or at least directing distributed online projects?


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