By: Jonathan Williams
There always seems to be a constant debate amongst writers, “is it ok to write camera directions, or not?” There was a time when camera angles were all the rage in screenplays now it is simply totted as the Director and Director of Photography’s job to figure these things out, which, while true, is only true to a certain extent.
When a writer knows how to effectively incorporate camera direction into their writing, it can be an incredible tool. After all, isn’t it our job to help readers see the movie? Still, seeing as how it’s a rather controversial topic, I’ve found an effective compromise is to communicate camera direction indirectly through the description of action. In other words, guide the readers attention visually through careful, narratively focused description, instead of simply stating CLOSE or WIDE ON.
By simply describing your angles without the angles, you create the image within the mind’s eye. Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? To illustrate, here’s an example of a scene from one of my favorite films, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.
Let’s look at the introduction to Miranda Priestly’s character:
EXT. ELIAS- CLARKE — DAY
The Sedan door opens. We seem more flashes of MIRANDA…
…#$2,000 crocodile Manolos, Chanel Jacket, perfect hair, fabulous Harry Winston earrings…
Hopefully you can see it. The writer gives us the visual intention without writing a single shot into the action. Yet you can see the panning up from Meryl Streep’s Manolos, all the way to her white hair and diamond earrings.
Sure, the writer could have written it like this:
EXT. ELIAS – CLARKE – DAY
The Sedan door opens.
$2,000 crocodile Manolos. As Miranda steps out of the care we PAN UP at her Chanel jacket, perfect hair, and fabulous Harry Winston earrings.
But again, here you are simply doing the jobs of the director and the cinematographer. You are building a shot list. Not establishing narrative intent on visual terms.
Describing angles without angles means pulling the attention of the reader where you want it to go. There’s no need for a CLOSE ON when an eloquent, concise, visual description would serve just as well:
The Detective slid back his hand, clutching his gun with a sense of dread.
Imagine you’re the reader. What does this description invoke in your mind’s eye? Chances are, it’s a close up of a hand clutching a gun.
Even notice how, in the original DEVIL WEARS PRADA example, the writer describes a pan up without ever mentioning the shot. They simply list what we are seeing. One could argue that this could be accomplished editorially rather than through a pan; however, it is the suggestion of a pan or a close up that is crucial.
It can be a challenge to train your mind’s eye to see and describe a scene without describing a precise angle in the script. Sometimes there is no clearer way to describe a scene than by describing the shot, but to save yourself the headache of receiving pointless notes, it is simply easier to train yourself to describe these scenes from the eye’s perspective rather than through the lens of a camera.
For the purpose of the reader you are directing the script through the mind’s eye, while also at the same time whispering your intent into the ear of whoever brings your script to life. In essence it’s like playing the devil on the director’s shoulder, hinting at the proper shot without precisely saying it. After all, as writers we are masters of subtext, and if you learn how to suggest shots through description, it’ll be as if the Director thought it were their idea.