Visual Language and Fulcrum Moments

Have I mentioned that I’m taking a directing class?  Maybe not, because I spent the first three weeks thinking I might drop out before I officially added it.  I’m a little fearful that I won’t make some of my deadlines lately, and one might think that adding this new weekly activity, that meets at a community college in Hollywood–two trains from my workplace–might not be helping my cause.

But I do want to go through the process of directing a short, and this class, in the midst of the other deadlines, reminds me of that on a weekly basis, and pushes me toward my intention when I might otherwise be too tired to push myself.  It also breaks what is an intimidating amount of knowledge to acquire and organize into manageable chunks.

Sometimes directing class functions as a refresher–usually when it’s about directing actors. I think “I remember this” from undergrad stage directing.  Sometimes the concepts are familiar because they echo concepts from screenwriting.  But sometimes the information is almost entirely new, usually when it has to do with the camera and how it functions as part of the whole storytelling apparatus.

The class is not fancy.  The guy who teaches it has been teaching it for probably thirty years, and probably from the same notes for most of that time.  Beyond one dated video about “breaking in,” he doesn’t use film clips, visual aids or even a white board. But he’s knowledgeable and an agreeable guy, and each week he tells us some stuff that we will need to know and do in order to direct a scene, and how it might be good to think about it.

Here are a couple of things he’s talked about that have popped out to me so far:

1) “Shots are a visual language–you pick them the way you would choose a word.”

As someone who really likes words, and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find the right words and put them in the right order, this  resonated for me. It might be the reason I stayed in the class.

2) Talking about scenes, he talked about how scenes (and acts and movies) have a “fulcrum moment.”  A fulcrum is the resting point of a lever.  A simple example is the middle of a teeter-totter. So a narrative fulcrum is a point in the scene where things can go up or down, one direction or the other.

As a writer I tend to think much about points of decision on the part of a character, but as I write this, I’m thinking about how fulcrum points can also encompass the external. Is the character going to make it across the bridge before it crumbles?  He gives that last burst of speed–“effort” and it’s enough to overcome the “force” against his intention (the bridge crumbling) and he makes it! But that moment of “will he, won’t he” is the “fulcrum moment.”

Cool, huh? Since then, I’ve been thinking how fulcrum moments are a big part of what keeps us watching. Both on the screen and on the page I’m guessing that these moments are the ones that get “stretched” so that the reader/audience can experience them fully.  So it makes sense to ask, both when writing, and when shooting, “Can I pinpoint fulcrum moment of this scene and how can I get the most out of it?”


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