Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I’ve never done this before, but if I had to pick ten movies I saw in 2008 (some of them came out earlier, I know) that made a lasting impression on me, I would pick the following:

The rest of the list is in alphabetical order:

Of all the classic movies I saw for the first time this year, I must include David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) here. I wonder how I’ve managed to miss this masterpiece until now.

Among the films that almost made it into the list were In the Valley of Elah, Into the Wild, Wall-E, Heimatklänge, Sweeney Todd and Paranoid Park.
It is the second year in a row that some of the most violent movies I have seen are also among my personal favorites. I’m not so sure how this makes me feel… Let’s hope this is merely a coincidence...

As far as short subjects go, I’ve chosen Skhizein by Jérémy Clapin (I wrote about it here and here).

The five films with the most interesting color schemes I saw in 2008 were all classics (most of them revisited):
  • Alice in Wonderland (Geromini/Jackson/Luske, 1951): most playful of all the Mary Blair films (along with segments of the package features).
  • All that heaven allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955): Sirk at his most stylized, Fassbinder’s inspiration.
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958): Subtle primary and secondary colors; traffic lights.
  • 101 Dalmatians (Geronimi/Luske/Reitherman/Peet, 1961): Well, who’d have guessed?
  • Don’t look now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973): A red raincoat in overexposed Venice.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Schwizgebel revisited: L'année du daim

Originally, I was about to post some thoughts about the artistic premises of 3D in standard narrative films. But in the middle of putting the piece together I came to the conclusion that a lot of ground has already been covered lately by people like Roger Ebert (here and here). So for the time being, I decided to direct your attention to something entirely different (maybe I’ll come back to 3D later):

I have often stated that I’m most drawn to animation because of its potential to marry music and image in a way no other medium can. One of my heroes in this respect is Georges Schwizgebel, one of the few Swiss animators with a reputation outside his native country. For a short biography look here.

In anticipation of his latest film Retouches that I hope to see on January 22 at the Solothurn Film Festival I’d like to focus on some of my favorites within his oeuvre.

Let me start with a film that is rather untypical of Schwizgebel’s personal trademark style: L’année du daim (The Year of the Deer, in the following abbreviated as “Daim”), made in 1995.

What sets it apart from most of his other works is the fact that Daim is more narrative than associative. While L’homme sans ombre (The Man Without a Shadow, 2004) is based on a Chamisso novella, it is not important to understand anything about the Faustian pact (one of Schwizgebel’s favorite subjects) in order to appreciate the film. Here on the other hand, the underlying Chinese fable is paramount and easily comprehensible.

In fact, the deer may be the only Schwizgebel character with actual facial expressions. He originally wanted to take the concept even further from a natural deer in the beginning to a finally domesticated Bambi-clone, but discarded the idea in preproduction.

As always, music – and in this case for the first time professional sound effects – is crucial to the filmic structure. Inspired by Schubert’s unfinished string quartet in c-minor (Op. posth.), he had someone compose a dense score that fit his storyboards based on Schubert’s motifs and style. The first and last notes are roughly the same as in the original piece, only a little faster.

Schwizgebel as interviewed by Olivier Cotte (English by Sarah Mallinson):
GS: I constructed the film like this: There are four parts and in these four parts are bits of animation, steady shots, dissolves and cuts that appear when the animal is hit to make him change his behaviour. […] As the film progresses [it] is hit less and less violently, but always on the same piece of music, so it’s like a refrain. […] I wrote four pages that represented the four seasons with the intersection points at the same moments for the four parts, after which Philippe Koller, the musician, composed the music following this structure.
OC: Was the fact that the film is divided into four parts and that each one has a similar structure a personal constraint?
GS: Yes, and it was also done to make sure the narrative was clear, because I was afraid the audience wouldn’t follow the story and that would have been a real shame. Putting those fixed shots always at the same moment helps the audience to understand the evolution, because we see the same element and the changes at the same time. Winter follows autumn and the dog is beaten less. I repeat: I like constraints and aesthetically, it pleased me to have the same thing four times.*
These four seasonal parts are already introduced in the “Leader”, the 11 second countdown that is one of Schwizgebel’s trademarks.

The first “shot” then looks exactly like we have learned to expect it in a Schwizgebel short: the title morphs into fog while an imaginary camera flies over a painted landscape (animated mostly on 4s). But unlike most of his other films, Daim isn’t primarily based on metamorphoses and constantly moving cameras. There are unusually many cuts that rather emphasize the musical structure than contribute to a more conventional continuity.

in fact, these are the only two morphing shot connections

Virtuoso camera movements that require constant repainting of foreground AND background are confined to scenes of the deer running around. Most of the violent shots consist of only a few stills with hardly any animation at all. “Illusion of Life” animation has never been Schwizgebel’s ambition or intention. His mathematical background may be felt in the rhythmic editing and the detailed visual structure, but apart from the hunter’s garden there are no geometrical objects present like in many of his other films.

A two-color scheme

To really enjoy and understand the quality of the animation and the musical structure, motion** is indispensable. One thing that can be discussed looking at stills, though, is the film’s highly restricted color palette. Apart from black and white (that looks more like blue) there are only the complimentary colors green and red (towards ochre). Only water and sometimes the sky are rendered in light blue. The dog’s eyes and collar are always yellow-green while the deer remains red.

All four seasons are limited to the same basic colors (red and green). Especially the different shades of green (mixed either with black, white or red) are important for setting the particular mood. There is always only one light source and almost always hard light, so that we get strong cast shadows (usually black). Consequently, all the objects and characters have light areas and shadow areas. I specifically like that the shadow area of white objects like snow and the dog is olive green.

Apart from the metamorphosis there is another transformation present: In the domesticated deer’s point-of-view shots we see the painted dog dissolve into a blander looking pastel dog with less menacing eyes. This visual cue pays off later when the domesticated deer doesn’t recognize the danger of wild dogs/wolves anymore, even if they are as impressionistically colored as those three.
There is much more to this animated gem, so if you haven’t already seen it, I hope you’ll be able to find it somewhere**. I don’t think it’s on youtube, though.

* all the quotes come from a book called "Georges Schwizgebel – Animated Paintings". Although parts of this trilingual publication are linguistically inadequate (at least in German and English, I’m not sure about the French text) with minor factual flaws, I’d recommend it because of its high quality pictures and because it brings up all the aspects of these films. Besides, to my knowledge it was the only book available on the cinema of Georges Schwizgebel, unfortunately out of print now.

** Schwizgebel’s films up to 2004 are available on DVD (Les peintures animées de Georges Schwizgebel)

All the images are the property of the owner.

Monday, December 8, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Switching Perspectives

"She's watching us, dad"

This post is not going to be on color but on more general aspects of film narration that I have been thinking about ever since I noticed a pair of binoculars among Roger’s stuff.

Let me start with a detour: In films like Sporn’s The Emperor’s New Clothes or Welles’ Citizen Kane a multitude of characters tell their version of a story to an investigating character. All of them (including the investigating character) act as embedded narrators within the narrative that we as spectators see. Each narrator’s story adds some information that wouldn’t be available to the others, so finally we know more than any one character knew before. Yet, unlike with the conflicting versions in Rashomon for example, we have no reason to question these narrators’ credibility. So although each scene is restricted to the knowledge of its narrator, we see an objective version of what’s going on. In principle we are witnessing a detective story where everybody tells the truth.

My point is that this same concept is at work in many “normal” films (including 101 Dalmatians) – only less obvious and without a visible investigating character. Hitchcock, for exampl
e, frequently used his camera as an active investigative character that could focus on details not visible or known to any of the characters in the scene but is still highly restrictive (see Psycho). Upon closer examination it looks like narration here is usually restricted to one character’s knowlegde throughout a whole scene (comprising several consecutive shots). I say usually, because there are occasional cut-away shots that are stretching the concept a bit. Without an investigating character, the invisible superior storyteller (which for convenience’s sake I’ll call camera* in the following) has to subtly switch between these narrating agents.

As Mark Mayerson has already pointed out, the movie starts with Pongo’s voice over. Although he is by no means the narrator of the whole movie, this clearly establishes him as the protagonist. In fact we share his point of view until the end of Sq. 04 when all the adults go for an evening stroll. Of course, none of the other character narrators “tell” their story in voice over, because we have to believe that from the moment the puppies are stolen, the events are unfolding right now before our (and the characters’) eyes. But we are limited to their momentary knowledge over the course of a scene.

Even though I can’t say that the suspense opportunities are played to maximum effect, I still think it’s safe to state that Bill Peet did an incredible job in the story department that not even a conservative director like Woolie could ruin. Many scenes are built around characters observing each other secretely before they react to a situation. This theme is also visible in the backgrounds: think of all the peep-holes and windows.

Right from the beginning there are countless allusions to characters watching each other (there are unusually many point-of-view-shots throughout the movie). In fact, their behavior of observing and reacting tells us a lot about their personalities. Let’s look at our protagonist Pongo for a moment: The first h
alf of sequence 01 is constructed entirely of alternating shots of Pongo looking at something and shots of what he sees.

As a reaction to his seeing Perdi and Anita go to the park he takes the story in his hands and Roger for a walk. Then there’s the small interplay of Pongo and Perdi secretely peeking at each other. So we not only learn that Pongo is an active character, we also learn what he reacts to. It’s interesting (and sad) to see that there’s never a possibility for Perdi to take the lead because she always shares scenes with Pongo whom the camera is following consistently (even when Perdi leads the puppies through the snow, Pongo is the one to change directions). What a perfect example of cinema as a genuine expression of the male gaze! Never fear, I won’t digress into feminist film theory.

Roger (introduced as Pongo’s pet) on the other hand is the most passive character. He at best watches things happen and only reacts when forced into it. Even then he stands around hopelessly stiff. He is very detached from what goes on around him. Apart from pipes, books and musical instruments, there is always a pair of binoculars in his room. Whatever he may be watching seems to be far removed from his own life. We also learn that he looks at fashion models in magazines but does not notice Anita in the park.

I’d also like to focus on two more characters whose personalities are distinguished by how and when they react to what they see: Sgt. Tibbs and the Colonel. Tibbs is introduced as an alert and active character right away when he wakes the Colonel during the twilight bark. After seeing smoke coming out of Hell Hall, they both go to the main gate. While the Colonel waits out here, Tibbs is not only peeping through a window but enters immediately and peeks through a hole in the living room wall. After making sure he remains undiscovered, he starts investigating (constantly advancing from left to right). His first encounter with Jasper ends in an assault on his life.

Later, when Cruella is revealing her intention to kill the puppies, Tibbs is observing the scene through the same hole again. In fact he is the exclusive narrator in both of these scenes although what we see are objective shots from different positions within the room. Only after Cruella’s departure is he coming out of hiding and trying to get the puppies out before the Baduns’ TV show is over. In addition to that countdown suspense situation there is the formerly planted problem that the 15 are also more attracted by what’s on TV than what’s happening around them. After Tibbs and the pups have left the room, the camera stays with the Baduns and we share their point of view looking for the puppies until the Colonel finally dares to come closer and looks through the closed window in the hall.

His position as narrator/observer is clarified by his moving
to the next window so that we can see what’s going on in the living room. This change of perspective to outside enables the camera to switch to Pongo and Perdi more smoothly (we witness the Colonel hearing them). Even after the room has turned red and Tibbs is trying to protect the puppies, the Colonel stays at the closed window that eventually breaks when Jasper throws a chair in his direction. Only at the last moment he even sticks his head through a hole in the door but immediately follows Tibbs and the puppies back to the barn. Yet the camera remains close to Hell Hall until the Baduns leave it for good.

We experience the following family reunion as Tibbs and the Colonel witness it and after the dogs have left the barn, the Colonel is finally acting himself. As Mark Mayerson put it: “It’s an important moment because it shows that Tibbs and the Captain respect the Colonel for valid reasons and they’re not simply indulging him.” I like the narrative progression of the Colonel’s behaviour: He gradually makes his way closer to the danger (still observing and reporting) but is only reacting to it after the danger has come to his home. Tibbs on the other hand doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

After that, the camera follows the Baduns until they catch up
with the Dalmatians on the bridge. Like in a relay race Pongo takes over from that point in time until the scene fades to black. This “relay” technique helps to smooth the necessary transitions from one story thread to the other that normally is achieved by cross-cutting in such chase pictures. There are exceptions to this: the first seven shots of Sq. 13, for example, or the camera traveling to distant locales all by itself following the barking sound.

As we have seen, we can also share a minor characters’ (the cows’ in the Dairy Barn) or the villains’ perspective: In the first picture we know more than the
unsuspecting Radcliffes, in the second one the dogs try to escape their observer and know that they will be exposed any minute now. Both of them lead to different degrees of suspense: In the first one we ask ourselves: why are they being watched? In the second one the question is more specific: can the dogs escape in time?

As a matter of fact, the whole Dinsford scene consists of characters observing each other. Ironically in the end, the dogs are forced into watching their fate being decided by humans who have been portrayed as generally incompetent by now (the police wasn’t able to find the puppies, the Baduns couldn’t even do their job right). Coherently, it’s this incompetence that finally puts the villains out of action.

All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated. All the pictures are the property of Disney, used here for educational purposes.

Sequences labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dalmatians and The Nightingale

One of the newly available LIFE photographs

Walt Disney’s Birthday
(December 5th, 1901) seemed a good day to me to relaunch my series on 101 Dalmatians. Even though The Old Man himself wasn’t too pleased with this film, the people working on it greatly benefitted from his absence.

However, I finally received my copy of The Films of Michael Sporn today and thus couldn’t resist watching The Nightingale tonight. So instead of a new analysis, I’ll just recapitulate what I’ve already analysed so far:

The introduction was mainly concerned with general thoughts about color styling and art direction focusing on the concept of Disney’s familiar “pool of light” lighting scheme.
In the first post I compared the different rooms of the Radcliffes’ (and Roger’s bachelor) apartment. Although each room’s predominant color reflects the inhabitant’s character and general mood, at this time everything seems to be lit naturally. Green is the unifying color here. Although Anita is a little underdeveloped story-wise, she usually wears colors that are complimentary to the backgrounds (more than those of any other character so far). This becomes clear in the theatrically staged birth sequence.
Post 2 was about different lighting setups of the kitchen and the living room as well as about shadows and silhouettes. We saw that life and color fades after the puppies have been stolen. The warmth returns in the end with even richer saturation. In all these scenes (up to Sq. 6), established color schemes are consistent throughout whole sequences. Inside lighting doesn’t seem to affect skintones too much (hue-wise).
Only in the third post Cruella has her big entrance shoving everybody else out of the spotlight. For once a Disney villain is not associated with darkness – her henchmen certainly are, however. So much so, that they even stand in the shadow at home. Cruella introduces the elements of pink and flashes of red.

The next post will be about the
theme of observing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Indiana Jones: Anything Goes (3 of 3)

You may have noticed that Mark Mayerson is about to finish his invaluable 101 Dalmatians analysis. So I think it’s overdue to conclude my series on the use of color during the next few weeks. Besides, I’m happily surprised that I still get comments on these past entries. But before, here’s my third and final Indiana Jones post for the time being.

I’ve always liked to analyze opening sequences for what they reveal about the rest of the movie (or novel or play, for that matter). The Shanghai prologue in Temple of Doom certainly is a good example, even though contentwise it’s completely unrelated to the 96 minutes that follow. I was initially only going to write about the excessive use of colored light, but somehow I got carried away into another direction.

Excessively attractive

First I have to admit that re-evaluating it in the wake of Crystal Skull I liked Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a lot more than I used to. I simply enjoyed the experience. Sure, the character-arc-prequel-confusion, the gratuitous violence and most importantly the blatant ethnic stereotype issues cannot be rationalized away, but as an action adventure it still is the ultimate rollercoaster in my opinion; even more so compared to current summer blockbusters that seem to have gradually replaced solid action sequences with frantic cutting orgies. There aren’t too many action directors nowadays who believe in the quaint concept that everything has to be staged as clearly as possible, because the audience has to be able to follow what goes on in order to be engaged in a scene emotionally. Ford and Hitchcock did (to name but the best-known). Steven Spielberg still does, even with an average shot length of 3.5 seconds according to David Bordwell. Well, Temple of Doom is pure entertainment; uneven, about as far from being art as possible, but still above average film making (just study the staging in any shot).

The audiovisual spectacle constantly reminded me of two theoretical concepts at work here: Kristin Thompson’s “cinematic excess” as well as Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions”. Before digging a little deeper into these concepts, let’s look at the structure of the whole film and especially the first 12 minutes (time data based on PAL 25fps):

Plot structure (bold: action scenes, italics: show numbers)

1. 00:00 “Anything goes”, main title musical sequence
2. 02:45 Exposition bad guys, Willie; Indy drinks poison, waiter is shot
3. 07:45 action sequence: quest for diamond and antidote, escape from club
4. 10:15 car chase through Shanghai, boarding Lao Che's plane
5. 12:45 on the plane without a pilot, jumping off
6. 17:15 boat ride: snow, cliff, river, Indian man appears
7. 19:30 establishing deserted Indian village, people and stones
8. 24:00 night time: escaping child comes to Indy, conversation with Short Round
-------------- end of act I------------------------

9. 27:30 next day: elephant ride, Willie in the mud
10. 30:00 campfire comic animal interlude
11. 33:45 Natives flee, forebodings
12. 36:00 establishing city, introducing governor
13. 37:30 introducing Capt. Bloomberg, disgusting meal progression
14. 44:30 bedroom screwball scene: attempted murder, Indy prefers statue to Willie
15. 51:00 Shorty and Indy in the trap, more or less rescued by Willie (hat under door)
16. 57:30 intro red cave, heartless boy sacrificed and burned
17. 62:45 Indy approaches the stones, Willie and Shorty captured
18. 67:00 Indy captured, poisoned and turned into a zombie
19. 74:00 Willie almost sacrificed, Shorty frees Indy saves Willie
-------------- end of act II-----------------------

20. 83:45 children released, Indy and Shorty fight goons and Maharaja.
21. 90:00 cart chase through the red caves, villain floods cave
22. 96:30 chased outside by water, showdown on the suspension bridge
23. 105:30 Indian village in full bloom
24. 108:30 end credits
-------------- end of act III----------------------

Very often sequels featuring the same protagonist have to be more story- than character-driven because his inner conflicts have already been resolved at the end of the first film. So in his second big screen adventure Indy has naturally become a static character (very much like James Bond used to be, just more human).

Anything goes: the common ground of musical and action adventure

But back to the opening sequence (1.-4.): The blazing red main titles (in a more modern typeface) are laid over a classic Busby Berkeley musical number: glittering revue girls choreographed on an abstract set with Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Everything is in stylish black and white (Berkeley’s musical revues were not in color) except for occasional spots or outbursts of glaring red. The only balancing element is a delicate blue neon light (and some silver and gold). This restrained color palette is maintained throughout the whole Shanghai prologue.
It doesn’t take much interpretation to associate the red pharynx with the fiery cave at the heart of the movie. And to be honest, the use of red isn’t very subtle anyway. This was the moment (about half a minute into the film) when I first thought of “cinematic excess” that sometimes is defined as stylistic devices that draw attention to themselves without advancing the story.
For comparison: Hitchcock (also a friend of primary colors) uses red caps in this still from North by Northwest (the Chicago sequence uses a similar color palette) not because it makes for a lavish picture, but to show the likeness of the porters and to single them out in the crowd.

Excess can also describe scenes that do not add to the narrative but to the experience (as many musical numbers in revue films do). Apart from the dance scene, there is a lot of excess in Temple of Doom in the action department. But all this is essential to the experience of an action movie. As can be seen in the plot overview above, most of the scenes can be enjoyed on a stand-alone basis without too much knowledge about the movie’s plot. Most of them are either chases or show pieces (just think of the shows underground or the disgusting meal presentation) that are however seemlessly connected to generate one great ride.
Like in a vaudeville or freak show we are presented with a progression of thrilling and funny visual attractions. Let’s not forget that motion pictures once were one of these attractions and people were looking in awe at Japanese dancers, later Broadway revues, then the parting of the Red Sea, car chases, eventually slashers and space cowboys. So according to Tom Gunning, a writer with profound knowledge of early cinema, the concept of a “cinema of attractions” has survived until today, parallel to - as well as absorbed into - narrative three act structure. I’d argue that Temple of Doom (while being influenced by 40s serials) is proof of that theory. In this respect it is not much different from a Bollywood extravanza (except maybe for the lack of a real love story).

Indy himself used to be more a darker character throughout Raiders but this time everything’s more clear-cut: the white man is the good guy (looking more like James Bond here, speaking several languages) while the bad guys wear black and vulgar Willie (Capshaw) is red and glittering. This way it’s also easier to keep track of the character’s in the mêlée.
Indy treats Willie more like an inconvenient object he has to take along than a love interest (Kate Capshaw’s character is less a tough 40s heroine than an annoying imbecile). His real partner is an orphan called Short Round, which also sets up the theme of Indy caring for children. From the moment they are together in the car we tend to root for the kid who virtually saves their lives more than once.

While we have seen that red was used for dangerous objects (explosives, the monkey spy, poison) in Raiders, here it is all over the place. So the poison Indy drinks is almost colorless and the antidote stands out because it is light blue. This won’t be the last time that Indy will be poisoned for a while. By the way, just look how the cinematographer made use of the blue neon lights as frames or guides.On a side note, it’s interesting how many round objects (remember, Mickey is constructed from circles to make him look gentle and likable) you can find in the setting for a rather tense scene: the table, the white lamps, the blue arc, the balloons (light) followed by the gong (heavy), the chinese lamps outside etc.

Colors beyond Shanghai

While the exterior car chase to the airport is more or less using the same black/white/red/blue palette (including the airport and the plane), change comes above ground. None of the following is very subtle, but it doesn’t have to be for a film like this. For one thing, Willie is now wearing Indy’s white suit (carrying her red dress with her) and Indy is back in his usual outfit. After leaving the plane, the colors change to the more natural and cold: blue, green, yellow (the boat) and brown.

Even later, when they arrive at the deserted Indian village (lots of browns that match Indy’s and Shorty’s clothes) Willie still stands out with her black and white suit as she is clearly the least adaptive of the three.

Obviously the mirroring scene in the end shows us a village in full bloom and colorful clothes as “life has returned to the village when the stone got saved”.
In the ancient city, among natural beiges and greys there are a lot of red clothed people, whereas Capt. Bloomberg, the English inspector without a clue about anything sports a glaring red uniform.
Before they finally enter the Temple of Doom, we can distinguish the two bedrooms during the parallel cutting by their respective colors (cyan vs magenta).

Down in the cave, most of the light is in primary colors: red (heaps of it), blue and yellow. While the jinxed people (including Indy) have red faces (the red lights disappear as soon as Indy is released), the stones project yellow light and down in the mine there are red, yellow and blue caves.
The carts are marked by blue (front) vs red (tail) light, while above ground once again the bad Indians are red and the good ones (under English supervision…) are blue like the antidote in the beginning.

So although there is excessive use of red here and there, the overall color scheme comes off as quite rigorously restricted but sometimes used more for effect than for narrative needs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The last four weeks were so busy that I didn’t even find time for Halloween and Election Day posts. Yesterday I had to deliver 13 loosely connected illustrations for a local precision tool company. Since they are domiciled in the countryside they also own four donkeys and a couple of goats.

So even though the basic story premise was rather quirky (a fantastic retelling of why the donkey is vital to their business) at least I had something to work with apart from the unphotogenic clamping modules that had to be included.

It also gave me the opportunity to revel in candy colors and kitsch settings. When I started out, I looked at Norman Rockwell (which I like a lot more than I thought) and Edward Hopper for inspiration. But way into the process I found out that some of the pictures turned out to be (unconsciously) more influenced by John Hench and Claude Coats.

it's always a challenge to make pastel...

... or primary colors look remotely good

As there was relatively little time overall, some of the character designs evolved during production. The goats, for example, became more cartoony along the way.

[all "paintings" digital over pencil sketches]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Comprehensive Terminology for Visual Storytelling

I finally found time to read The Visual Story – Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media by Bruce Block. The main point of this highly normative book is to remind aspiring film makers of the importance of controlling every visual aspect of their movies.

Without getting bogged down in technical details Block offers a comprehensive overview of all the aspects that can and should be controlled in the creation of visual media content. In less than 300 pages he introduces a basic set of visual components and their respective categories that can be used to create contrast or affinity within shots, between shots or between whole sequences.

Thanks to the many pictures and diagrams (in full color for the first time) the text is reduced to a minimum that nevertheless is completely sufficient to get the concepts across clearly. At the end of each chapter Block suggests a couple of films to study.

“The wonderful aspect of studying pictures is that there are no secrets. The ingredients in food, for example, can be hidden. You eat a delicious meal but can’t guess the secret recipe. A picture’s visual structure can’t hide because everything is visible on the screen. The more times you watch a film, the more the visual ingredients will reveal themselves.” (page 83)

Although targeted primarily at film makers this book comes in handy for film scholars as well. After the tools are laid out, it is made clear that (in narrative media) the story structure should be the basis for every visual decision a director makes. In the end Block offers some case studies to show how successful movies make use of all these aspects to communicate their story visually.

The one thing that annoyed me a little was the lack of captions for frame enlargements. I found myself constantly browsing the index for precise information about the example pictures. Also there are some minor printing issues regarding the gray scale.

Granted, there are more academic and elaborate books on film analysis and many a thing about visual composition is illustrated more beautifully in the Famous Artists Course series, but I haven’t yet seen another book that unites all the aspects of visual storytelling in one coherent concept. Moreover, Block does not need to explain the technical processes or conventions of editing, cinematography and so forth to make his point.

My favorite chapter was – no, not the one about color (which is great, of course) – the one about movement which, in my opinion, is one of the most cinematic of all aspects and one that has often been neglected in film studies because the additional dimension of time can hardly be analyzed by looking at just one frame of a shot.

Of course, you could discover most of these concepts by analyzing a lot of movies on your own (which I, for my part, find very important and rewarding), however this book not only saves you a lot of time but also offers a useful terminology to describe what you’re looking for.