Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Atoms of Cinema

(Related article: Practical Application of the Atoms of Cinema, Part I)

We're going way beyond Screenwriting 101 this time. We're getting as basic as we can get. And we're taking the long road to get there.

There is something that exists in scientific fields of study that can be called the “basic primary unit.” The basic primary unit (let's call it BPU for short) is the smallest element that the subject of afield of study can be broken down to and still retain the qualities of that subject. These primary units are the building blocks which everything in that field is composed of.

Anyone who has taken a class in chemistry can tell you that its basic primary unit is a single atom. Everything is made up of atoms, and a single atom still retains the qualities of its chemical element. But if we try to break it down further, we get nothing but a mass of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and all of the atom's elemental qualities are lost.

In biology, the study of living things, the BPU is a single living cell. Every living creature is made up of one or more cells, and each cell carries out all the activities that are signs of life, such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and death. However, if you try to break a cell down further, you have only bits and pieces that cannot carry on the functions of life on their own.

It seems nearly every legitimate field of study seems to share the idea of the BPU. But the question that struck me one day – does cinema have this? Is it possible to break cinema down to a single crucial element that makes up its whole? Then, if it does, can we as writers use this knowledge to better understand and practice our craft?

Now I know what some people are already thinking: “We're talking about art here, not science. Ooh-la-dee-dah ART! (pauses to give the term as much mystical significance as possible) It defies the kind of structured analysis that you can apply to science.” Well then, you would be wrong. The basic primary unit can be identified just as clearly in every artistic pursuit as it is in the sciences.

For example, literature. Being a written medium, literature has a basic primary unit of a single written word. An author is able to express meaning with a single word, and through their cumulative collection, builds higher and more complex levels of meaning. However, the author cannot express meaning with any smaller unit than a single word, such as a broken syllable or a single letter. The BPU of music is, of course, a single musical note. In photography, the most basic unit is a single photon of light. It is through the creative manipulation of where and how these photons expose a frame of film where the photographer makes his or her art.

The BPU is easy to see in basic artistic mediums such as literature and photography. But what about cinema? Cinema is complex, an amalgam of nearly all arts, one of images, sounds, words- both read in type and spoken aloud, movement, time and space. Any idea that favors word over image, or image over sound, or any one element over another would be incomplete and false since it ignores the total sensory experience that is cinema. Thus, stating that the basic primary unit of cinema is a single image would be false. So would believing it is a single action, or a single line of dialogue, or a word on the script's page. An entire script/film can naturally be broken down into its individual scenes, but what of the materials that make up these scenes? Just like the cellular structure of the human body, the existence of cinema is made up of a complex structure made up itself of even smaller and equally complex structures within its superstructure.

To figure this out, we need to take a step back and get even more basic. Cinema is an art. Let's define what “art” is. Art is the creative communication of ideas (whether those ideas be concrete or abstract, intellectual or emotional) by a creator to an audience through the elements of a visual or acoustical medium. At its simplest level, all art is communication. Without some manner of communication of ideas between two parties- the artist who originates the idea and fixes it into a creative medium, and the audience who receives and comprehends the idea- a work cannot be art.

If this is a hard concept to follow, pretend I grabbed a camera and took a snapshot of the chair I am currently sitting in. Now I could show this snapshot to you, but it would not be art. Why? Because I had no intention to communicate anything with that photograph. The only thing stated by that photograph is “here is a chair.” On the other hand, if I creatively manipulated the elements within the photograph to express some secondary meaning other than the simple statement that this chair exists, then the photograph would be art.

So, we have established that art is communication. Okay, that means cinema is a form of communication. But, what is it that cinema communicates? (Let's get simpler again.) What is the only thing that is transmitted through ANY process of communication?

The answer: Information. Communication transmits information.

Let's jump forward now, back into the craft of screenwriting: “The scene should always be moving forward” is the advice I give most often when it comes to writing effective scenes. “The story should always be moving forward” is the advice I give most often when it comes to creating an effective plot. I cannot count how many times I have told a writer how no piece of dialogue should ever be in a scene without good reason. Every line should have a purpose, it should do something to move the scene towards its goad. Likewise, in the larger structure, every scene should have a purpose that accomplishes something to move the story towards its ultimate goal and resolution.

Years ago, I was engaged in an in depth analysis of Joel & Ethan Coen's Fargo. The one thing that stood out about the film was its elegant efficiency. Nothing in the Coens' scenes went to waste. Not only did every single line of dialogue have a purpose, but there was not a single action, or a single visual image that did not do something to move the story forward.

How are these two points connected? Cinema is an art that communicates information. A good script such as Fargo is effective because everything in it move the story forward. The real reason Fargo is an excellent film is because every element works to tell us, tells the audience, a piece of NEW INFORMATION. Every thing seen or heard in that film worked to communicate new information and thus move the story forward.

Thus, we have found what makes the atoms of cinema, the elemental building block, the most basic primary unit. The smallest element of cinema is the COMMUNICATION OF A SINGLE PIECE OF NEW INFORMATION. This is true whether the information is communicated visually, verbally, or acoustically. It is solely through the communication of singular pieces of information that the audience comprehends the cinematic experience. The audience member begins the film as a blank slate. From there on, the audience's movie experience is made up completely by the ongoing total accumulation of individual pieces of information. These are the building blocks by which filmmakers build effective scenes, and which the scenes, taken together in a larger super-structure create an effective and satisfying narrative experience. All the atoms on the same subject connect to become molecules of story elements, story elements become structures, and your structures make up the whole of the entire narrative. Every bit of you script, every line, every action, every image, should be a building block that, bit by bit, chunk by chunk, adds important information that moves the story forward in the viewer's mind.

With this as our starting point, we as writers can begin to understand a lot about just how out stories can manipulate the audience's minds by giving – and withholding – atoms of information. In a future post I will explore the practical application of this idea and how it can be used to create better, more effective scenes.

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