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Special Feature: Setting the Stage for Emotions

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is it worth to you to make the viewer react the way you want?

By Tom Inglesby

Alex Buono in his element, behind the camera.

Alex Buono in his element, behind the camera.

Visual styles and subtext. That’s how Alex Buono describes what he teaches filmmakers during his current nationwide series of workshops. Sponsored by MZ Education, Buono is on the road explaining how to set the stage for the viewer to get emotionally involved with what he or she is seeing—or going to see.

Two years ago, Buono did the workshop called “The Art of Visual Storytelling.” Subtitled “Style and Subtext,” his current tour makes participants aware of the various elements and challenges that Buono deals with in his work as DP on Saturday Night Live and Documentary Now!, a new IFC comedy series from Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, that he’s co-directing and shooting.

Buono comments, “I have friends who work on TV shows, and the big challenge of a traditional television show—or a traditional movie, for that matter—is that you’re creating a look, and then you’re basically maintaining that look over the course of the film or the course of multiple seasons of a TV show. My job is completely different. Every single week, I get a completely unique script and a different genre. One week, I’ll get a script, and it’s a pharmaceutical commercial; the next week, it will be a gritty documentary. Then the next week, it will be like an action thriller or a romantic comedy.”

Faced with the ever-changing nature of SNL, Buono has to quickly understand how to create the look of that genre. He asks, “What makes people know what you are portraying? How do you identify what are the components of the genre? How do you break it down to a visual style and quickly convey what we’re trying to capture in the script? How is shooting a horror film different from shooting a documentary, or different from shooting a pharmaceutical commercial, or different from shooting a thriller? If a certain script is supposed to feel like a suspense thriller, how is that different from if it was supposed to feel like a romantic comedy? Would you shoot it differently if it were a romantic comedy versus a suspense thriller?”

Buono explains how lighting can change the emotional reaction to a scene.

Buono explains how lighting can change the emotional reaction to a scene.

He continues, “I’m asked to answer those types of questions every week. I’ve been in so many different situations where you’ve got to create so many different looks that it became the inspiration of this tour, to show my attendees a lot of different visual styles. We’re going to shoot a car spot, a car commercial. Then we’re going to shoot a music video. Then we’re going to approach a slick title sequence. We’re going to talk about documentaries and a lot of different visual styles.

“You can create all of these different visual styles using essentially the same equipment. It’s all about varying the lens you’re using, how you’re moving the camera, the color temperature of the light, and the quality of the light. Should it be hard light or soft light? Just making these choices can completely change the visual style of what we’re shooting.”

Sounding a little like pop psychology—what color makes you think horror? What color romance? Buono thinks there are subtle cues that alert the viewers to what the script wants them to feel. “I don’t think that it’s so much a psychological thing. I don’t think, ‘It’s a horror movie, so we should make it all blue; or it’s a romantic comedy, so we should make it all warm or red.’ I don’t actually buy that at all.”

On the other hand, he says, “I think the semiotics part of it, the subtext, is important. Can we understand how visual subtext works, how we are all conditioned as audience members, as people that watch visual media, to understand certain iconography? If you want your film to feel like other horror films that you’ve seen, how do you do that? If you’re going to break the mold, you have to understand the model that you’re breaking. A big part of the class is on the relationship between style and subtext, understanding that you can create different looks using the same equipment, and how to do that.”

The second part of Buono’s class is a little more theoretical: understanding the power of using symbols to enhance the storytelling and have more powerful stories. “A big part of that is just showing the audience a lot of different examples,” he explains. “Examples from different films where great filmmakers have injected a tremendous amount of meaning behind the images, using subtext, creating symbolism within their images, creating a repeating motif visually. I feel that makes the difference between an average film and really, truly great film.

Buono on the set of The Sapranos

Buono on the set of The Sapranos

“It makes a huge difference that the great filmmakers of our time are all using visual subtext throughout their films. And it’s subtle; it’s not right on the surface; it’s not screaming at you. But as soon as you scratch the surface, you realize, ‘Oh, I see what they’re doing. I see how they created a set of rules for themselves.’ Of course, I’m not suggesting that these are the rules to shooting a scene. All I’m trying to do is help the audience understand that if you’re trying to create a look, how do you even begin to do it? If you’ve got a script and it’s like a British crime movie, you want it to feel like some other British crime movies that you’ve seen. Everyone needs a reference point. You need to start somewhere and say, ‘Well, what’s my inspiration for this? What do I want it to look like?’”

As an example, Buono notes, “One of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor); what does he use as his reference point? He might look at a Caravaggio painting and say, ‘That’s what I want to achieve, that kind of contrast.’ But where do you even begin to make it look like that? What’s the quality of light? What’s the color palette? What lens do you think he should be using? How are they moving the camera? All of those little questions create the rules, the guide for how you’re going to create that look.”

But isn’t the “rule” that rules are meant to be broken? “I’m not suggesting for a moment that these are the rules, and you can’t break these rules, or else no one will understand what you’re doing,” Buono admits. “It’s up to you to make it your own thing. You might break down a certain reference frame and determine the certain look and say, ‘Okay, there are 10 things that I think this guy is doing, but I can only afford to do three of them.’ I think if you do those three things, you’re creating a rule for yourself. Will it help you get closer to the look that you want, and also have some kind of a consistency in what you’re doing?”

In today’s digital world, post-production can throw all kinds of techniques into a scene that change what the DP has done. Is that a problem? “It’s actually quite the opposite,” claims Buono. “I shoot with post-production in mind. And I’m usually the person in post-production doing the reframing and the recoloring of the scene. I think that it’s very important, if you’re the image maker, to be involved in post-production, to understand how post-production works. When you’re shooting an image, you have to have the whole workflow in mind. You have to have the end result in mind. You’re not just turning over footage and saying, ‘Do whatever you want with it.’ I shoot an image and then I stay with it, all the way until it’s finished.”

Buono on a mobile rig with lights and camera and waiting for the action.

Buono on a mobile rig with lights and camera and waiting for the action.

Once you understand how powerful the tools are in post-production, it really helps your shooting. “I just shot a TV series where one of the episodes was supposed to feel like a 1920s Eskimo film,” recalls Buono. “It was supposed to look like Nanook of the North. The way that we achieved the look was a combination of how we photographed it and what lenses we used. Then, in post-production, we had to turn it into black and white, and achieve the actual contrast level of the film stock they would have been shooting back then. We added grain to it but we wanted the grain to feel like the grain from an old acetate film stock, not just random film noise. Knowing all of these processes that we were going to use in post-production informed how I shot it in production.”

Finding the way to convey the right emotion to the viewer through subtext and visual style is particularly important for new filmmakers. “One of the big barriers for entrance for a young filmmaker, for any new filmmaker, is you have this sense that it’s so expensive to get started. That’s really the challenge,” acknowledges Buono. “The new filmmaker thinks, ‘I have to somehow buy a lot of gear, or borrow it, because it’s all about the equipment.’ To become a filmmaker is to get beyond that, to understand it’s not really about the equipment. The equipment is really a very small part of the equation. It really is knowing that once you have the equipment, what you are going to do with it. It’s understanding how storytelling works, and how the way that you shoot something will help you tell a more powerful story.”

That’s where subtext comes in. “There are many tools at your disposal to affect people emotionally, to affect people intellectually, by the image that you capture,” Buono says. “How does the picture relate to the storytelling, and are you serving the story or are you hurting the story by shooting it that way? Understanding that is the big, almost intellectual leap that a newer filmmaker needs to make. That’s a big step in your filmmaking process, to get beyond the equipment and understand that the real challenge is the storytelling.”


September 4, 2015