Free Film School #125: Visual Shorthand

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Salve, discupuli. Welcome to the latest lecture in CraveOnline's long-running Free Film School, the best Film School in at least three universes. Today we'll be looking at one of the most fundamental elements of filmmaking: Visual Shorthand.

Whether or not you're aware of it – and indeed the filmmakers themselves may not be aware of it – the directors and designers of films often employ subtle, almost subliminal visual hints to tell their stories. A self-aware filmmaker will employ these with a deliberate eye, although it takes a great filmmaker to employ these little cues without calling attention to them.

These subtle cues, or visual shorthand, are based in the oft-repeated filmmaking edict “Show, Don't Tell.” To give a brief recap of that idea: Try to convey as much information as possible using visuals, deliberately eschewing exposition.

So when a character appears on screen for the first time in your movie, how would you like them to be seen? That first shot can explain more than you think. Your character doesn't have to do or say anything. The single opening shot can say everything that needs to be explained.

Here's one good examples: In any Buster Keaton movies, Keaton himself – nicknamed “Old Stoneface” – is often seen sitting still, perhaps flicking at a piece of dust. He is fastidious. His expression is unreadable. Keaton's posture communicates to the audience how tightly-wound he is. How serious. And, because of the subtle bodily language, you find yourself laughing. Keaton is an comedian so subtly talented, he doesn't have to do anything to make you laugh.


Here's another: In X-Men, the first time we see the character Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), now featured in seven feature films, he is in an illegal fighting cage. He is surrounded by noisy sweaty men, drinking and placing bets. Wolverine, however, is not seen facing the camera. He's not even standing up straight. He's hunched over, leaning against a chainlink fence, unmoving. He seems kind of indifferent to his surroundings. We may not know this character's name, or that's he's secretly a mutant with razor claws hidden in his hands, but we do know everything about his character at that moment. He is tough, bored, and solitary. In that small moment, we see the man's cynicism and loneliness. And we haven't even seen his face yet.

Indeed, using just small things like posture and framing, a filmmaker can create a hero in a second. If your character arrives on screen, looking alert and determined, standing up straight, standing in the foreground, you have used visual shorthand to make him into a hero.

How many times has a camera started at a character's feet, and slowly panned up their bodies to eventually reveal their face? James Bond had several entrances like this, as have many sexy women. The slow pan up the body not only gives the audience a chance to openly ogle an attractive actor or actress, but that the camera is bothering to make that slow pan indicates that the filmmakers want us to find that character sexy. The slow-pan-up cue, indeed, is so common a visual cue that it has reaches cliché status, and a spoof of the shot can easily be made by putting a deliberately unattractive person in that very same scenario.