With thousands of films released each and every year and so few succeeding either commercially or financially, one has to pose the question: what is it, exactly, that makes a film great? From an audience’s perspective, people watch movies to be entertained: they are looking, above all else, to hear a good story that will allow them to share experiences with the characters and with their friends; to see spectacles; to visit other worlds to which they could never otherwise travel; and to escape the boredom of their day-to-day routines. Outstanding films are able to accomplish all of this with skill and artistry. But even in spite of the battery of statistical tests put forward by leading psychologists to unearth the formula for cinematic success (Simonton, 2011), there are many who believe that the quality of a film is impossible to define, being utterly contingent upon personal interpretation. I intend to dig deeper to investigate this issue, looking in detail at the specific tools and techniques a filmmaker has at their disposal to entertain an audience.
Before we can truly address the issue of what constitutes entertainment, I would like to take a moment to consider why it is that anyone does anything. According to Anthony Robbins, ‘Everything you and I do, we do either out of our need to avoid pain or our desire to gain pleasure’ (Robbins, 1992: 53). With this in mind, why is it that tension and conflict, both of which are painful in and of themselves, are widely regarded as two of the central tenants of an engaging story? I would suggest that watching a character learning to avoid pain is a learning experience in which the viewer, too, is able to learn how to avoid pain. Comparable in many ways to the experience of working hard for a greatly desirable objective, this in itself can be a pleasurable thing to observe; we, in such a situation, are able to cherish the end result all the more thanks to our appreciation of what went into achieving it. This is precisely the kind of ‘pleasure’ provided by most films, and is known specifically as ‘delayed’ or ‘deferred gratification’ (Kim, 2006).
Generally speaking, then, audiences watch films to have an emotionally satisfying experience. So how can a film be made more emotional? Arguably the most important step we can take towards answering this question is to understand that the viewer is not simply passive when watching a film; in fact, if Elkins’ definition of ‘simply looking’ as in fact pertaining to ‘hoping, desiring, never just taking in light, never merely collecting patterns and data’ (Elkins, 1996: 22) is assumed to be correct, they will begin to manifest their own expectations about what they may see even before the movie begins. It is the therefore the responsibility of the filmmaker to show and tell the viewer the story in such a way as to meet, and exceed, these expectations.
There are as many different models that can be used to create exciting stories as there are stories themselves, but, in the simplest possible form, a story can be described as the narration of a chain of events pertaining to a character who wants something (Johnson, 1995). The aim is to organise that story into a structure that allows it to be narrated clearly and dramatically. But what is story structure? In broader terms, structure refers to the relationship between the parts of something, or can otherwise function as the support for something. Whereas the human body relies on a skeletal structure of bones to support itself, the parts of a film story are comprised first and foremost of a series of narrative questions, along with the delays and answers to those questions. The structure is simply how the questions and answers that make up that story are presented, which shots are chosen and in what order, and it is this structuring of events that can make the difference between a simple narrative and one that is unforgettable and emotionally profound.
The relationship between form and content has been studied extensively by many film writers. David Bordwell, for instance, refers to the terms used by the Russian Formalists, relying heavily upon the terms ‘fabula’ and ‘syuzhet’. The former, according to Bordwell, is ‘a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences’ (Bordwell, 1985: 49). In other words, the fabula comprises the cues and perceptions the viewer receives from the film, and is liable to change from viewer to viewer if the work is complex. The syuzhet, on the other hand, refers to ‘The actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film’ (Ibid: 50); it is the plot, or structure, of the narrative. Bob Foss instead uses the terms ‘plane of events’ and ‘plane of discourse’, or ‘The what and how of film narrative’ (Foss, 1992: 2).
Regardless of the terms used, virtually all film theorists are agreed on the importance of plot in relation to the creation of engaging cinema, as Seymour Chatman articulates with his suggestion that narrative structure in fact ‘communicates meaning in its own right, over and above the paraphrase-able contents of its story’ (Chatman, 1980: 23). According to Vogler (2007: 6), some Hollywood executives were concerned so much with this paradigm that they would look only at scripts which were either a ‘fish-out-of-water tale’ or about ‘an unholy alliance’, and it was not until the publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces before executives were given an additional way of analysing stories. The Hero’s Journey was originally described by mythology professor Joseph Campbell as a journey of self-discovery and self-transcendence (Campbell, 2008: 17), and seemed to encompass a variety of different types of narratives that might otherwise have been disregarded. More specifically, The Hero’s Journey acted as the paradigm for all stories. Having studied myths, fables, and folktales from all time periods all over the globe, Campbell discovered that there was a common structure that underlined the journey each and every protagonist would take.
There was a good reason for this: at its most fundamental level, the Hero’s Journey addresses the key psychological principle of what Milton Erickson refers to as ‘life junctures’; defined as moments of transition from one stage of life to another, Erickson demonstrates that most people become psychologically trapped at such moments (Erickson, 1977). The parallel with Campbell’s work becomes more evident when we consider that Erickson also suggests that the most common reason for this stasis is the inappropriate generalisation of fear from an earlier trauma to other situations; unsure of how to cope with new demands placed upon them, they keep trying to use old methods that are no longer functional at this new level. Broadly speaking, it is precisely such moments of stasis at which the majority of film characters are introduced to the viewer. In this regard, the Hero’s Journey exists as the story of human growth placed into a dramatized form, which is another way of saying that the story is externalised in visible action. It is because these heroes solve their inner conflicts that they can win the external conflicts, and the audience gets reborn along with the heroes.
But what separates the ‘visible action’ of a film from the structure of the narrative, and why is it that the audience does not consciously notice the latter? The classical Hollywood style ‘asks that form be rendered invisible; that the viewer see only the presence of actors in an unfolding story that seems to be existing on its own’ (Hill and Gibson, 1998: 16). It does not take too much in the way of imagination to see this concept in practise, such that, if you were to watch the first few minutes of a film and then walk away from it, it should be relatively easy to give a simple account of the plot and the motivations of the characters therein. But would you hear the background music? Would you notice the shot sizes and framing, or the cutting up of time and space? Most likely you would be too busy working out what was happening and what it meant to let your attention wander to such a structural level. It is not that these things are invisible, but simply that they drop below the viewer’s threshold of attention.
Any part of the structure can in fact cross that threshold; as long as the world of the film is seamless and doesn’t break the spell by calling attention to itself, however, the viewer will not be paying attention to the acting, cinematography or editing, but watching real people facing overwhelming obstacles in their struggle to achieve their dreams. It is therefore the job of the filmmaker to direct the audience’s attention towards these events through careful attention to narrative structure. The Hero’s Journey provides a means of doing just this; given its popularity to this day throughout Hollywood, however, there is a danger that the stories created using it might appear similar. When that happens, it bursts through the threshold of conscious attention and the audience is taken out of the story.
Just as there are several problems that can arise when we speak, however, the most common types of speaking problems also have a filmic equivalent: whereas verbally, for example, we talk about one thing at a time, one of the main issues when telling a story with pictures arises from the simple truth that pictures can say too much. This conflicts with the ‘theory of selective attention’, which states that the conscious mind can only pay attention to one thing at a time (Dewey, 2007).
The attention of the human mind is a precious commodity, and it is important to recognise that the viewer’s ability to concentrate on the material they are being presented with is affected by a great number of factors including fatigue, interest and general state of mind. When we multitask, for instance, we feel like we are accomplishing a great deal of work, whereas in reality the brain is juggling attention very quickly between multiple items. This is why drivers talking on a phone or talking to a passenger are statistically more likely to be involved in an accident, as their attention is split even though they think they are focused on driving (Myers, 2008: 87). Theories of Neuro-Linguistic Programming state that one of the functions of the brain is to act as a filter, continually deleting, generalising and distorting the information we receive about the world so as to protect us from information overload (Burton and Ready: 65). In other words, we don’t pay attention to a lot of information we are exposed to, but instead delete it. When the film is racing past at twenty-five frames per second, which part of the image will the audience be looking at? Suppose they see the wrong part, and thus miss the thread of the storytelling entirely?
In order to prevent this, a filmmaker must have the ability to control their images to ensure that they are able to communicate the desired message to their audience; this is where design, composition, perspective and lighting each come into play. Without these, the viewer would not be able to see exactly what was happening onscreen and would be unable to follow the story. Filmmakers have developed a great variety of specific techniques to solve these types of problems; instead of showing two things at a time, for instance, the camera can pan from one to the other, a cut can be made between two shots, or focus can be ‘racked’, or shifted, between the objects in the frame. Though all of these solutions have become commonplace in mainstream cinema, they all serve to simplify what to look at for the viewer’s sake by presenting only one thing at a time.
Arguably even stronger than this, however, is the human mind’s reliance on stereotypes and clichés, often demonstrating a strong tendency to distort those things that do not fit into our worldview as a way of dealing with the overwhelming amount of information it receives. Specifically, the brain constantly seeks to organise this data into patterns; though the most obvious patterns exist as visual designs, patterns exist everywhere: in music, in the way people speak, and even in traffic and weather. As we have already explored, narrating a story is little more than organising information into a pattern, or structure. But how does this work on the micro level of filmmaking? How, for instance, are we able to make the protagonist stand out in the middle of a crowded scene? Grouping, by definition, applies to things that are alike in some way, which could include proximity; by this logic, we could dress the main characters differently, or have them stand some way apart from the rest of the crowd. With all other characters wearing muted colours and the hero dressed in black and white, the mind will perceive the crowd as a group and the protagonist will automatically stand out.
This is an example of one of the ways in which ‘gestalt’ principles can be a useful tool for applying the speaking metaphor of telling the viewer only one thing at a time; a German word meaning ‘shape or form’, gestalt refers to an organised whole that is more than just the sum of its parts, and functions as a reasonably accurate description of the way in which the human mind organises our experiences of life. In this example, objects that are either similar or close together are grouped, leaving the mind to pick out individual things on which to focus while the rest fades into the background. This is why, when reading, we perceive each word, or clusters of words, as opposed to individual letters, and do not notice that the remainder of the page simply recedes from our conscious awareness. Far from mere abstraction, gestalt principles have been proven to work at almost every level of the viewing experience, including perception of images, understanding and comprehension of narrative, theme, and even sound.
Another key concept of gestalt perception lies in the mind’s tendency to fill in the blanks, or seek closure: if we listen to a familiar musical theme where the final part is omitted, the mind will fill in that missing section itself. Similarly, on a visual level, a tension will be created in the viewer’s head that wants to close the shape if parts of a figure are cut out. This refers to the gestalt principle of ‘good continuity’, which states that we will assume things to be continuing; pictorially, lines are perceived to carry on even if another object obscures part of them from view. The implications of this are profound even on the most basic levels of filmmaking theory. Firstly, when the audience sees a close-up of a character’s head, it is assumed to be connected to a body. Filmic cuts also work based entirely on the principle that, if the viewer witnesses one action and the action is seen to be continuing from a different angle, it is assuming to exist as part of the same action.
The most important realisation, however, is that closure works not just on the perceptual level, but also on the level of story. In any story, the hypothesis ‘What ifâ€¦?’ is presented to be true. The writer is, for all intents and purposes, a masterful liar, offering a wealth of supporting details with which to flesh out a world in which the action unfolds that is believable and seamless enough to remain below the audience’s conscious threshold of attention. When a narrative question is introduced, the brain begins searching in an attempt to make sense of the question, and the cortex generates answers that imbue that question with meaning from what is known of the story thus far. The crucial point is that the viewer demands that these questions be answered, so much so that the cortex will continue to generate answers even when the questions do not make logical sense: if we were to ask ourselves why the moon is made of cheese, for instance, our brains will attempt to present us with a logical solution.
Pratkanis and Aronson suggest that, ‘Given our finite ability to process information’, we attempt to simplify complex problems to the extent that we will ‘mindlessly accept a conclusion or proposition not for any good reason but because it is accompanied by a simplistic persuasion device’ (2002: 38). As long as the questions are sufficiently engaging, the viewer will, without closure in the narrative, exist in an anxious state of suspense. It is this need for closure that drives us to continue reading, listening to or watching stories of all kinds, as answers to the questions raised are found by watching the film and thus relieve the viewer’s lack of knowledge. Only by tying up all of the narrative threads can the storyteller dissipate this tension, and in this sense, the power of suggestion could easily be considered a filmmaker’s greatest ally.
It is regrettable that the vast majority of modern horror filmmaking appears to have forgotten this fact entirely. Essentially, there are two distinct approaches to creating a horror film: those that choose to show all of the gory details, and those that instead choose to suggest what might happen. Though each type of film has its place, I personally believe the latter to be infinitely more evocative, for the very reason that the filmmaker is able to use the viewers’ fears against them. Taking the filmmaker’s clues, they will automatically fill in the blanks themselves from their own experiences and associations, making the experience more meaningful for each individual. When we consider that this power is not under the viewer’s conscious control, the director of a film could, provided an awareness of the mind’s infinite capacity to create in the presence of interesting suggestions, be likened to a hypnotist.
Continuing along this train of thought, I believe that other types of entertainment artists can shed a lot of insight onto the problem of directing the audience’s attention. Magician and conjurer Nathaniel Schiffman, for instance, poses a particularly interesting question:
‘”What is magicâ€¦ really?” We know magic is fake. We know it relies on all sorts of deceptions, but why is it that some deceptions work while others do not? Why are some fakes plausible while others stand out like a sore thumb? For instance, a cartoon is fake-mere drawings on paper, that’s pretty obvious. A sculpture is a fake made of rock. But when we observe the fakeness of magic, we don’t interpret it as fake. We see it as very real. Even when we know in our hearts that a person cannot fly, that a silver sword cannot penetrate a body and come out blood-less, even when our eyes betray our common sense, we see magical illusions as real. Why is that? What is this stuff that magic is made of that is fake and yet real at the same time?’
(Schiffman, 1997: 77)
Schiffman could easily have been talking about movies: when watching a film, the viewer knows that what they are watching is not real, yet often goes along for the ride even to the point of being moved to tears and laughter by them. How is it that films can be simultaneously fake yet real? The answer lies in the unconscious mind’s inability to differentiate between real world and imagined experiences. Even though we rationally know that a film is fake, our body and our emotions physically respond just as they would in real life: we experience excitement, feel the powerful release of laughter and shed real tears from being touched. Physiologically, our heart rate increases, our palms sweat and we experience a rush of adrenaline. This is the case as long as the film engages the viewer’s conscious mind in addition to their body. In other words, a film can involve elements of extreme fantasy as long as it remains logically plausible. It is the job of the filmmaker to establish rules for the world of the film and play within those rules, otherwise the audience will feel that they have been cheated and withdraw consciously from the story.
In many regards, any film is in its entirety little more than a magic trick, consisting of a patchwork of fragments which never existed in reality. This illusion is furthered by the mind’s predisposition to link up all aspects of the experience, even though in reality no such connection may exist. Magicians also use the same kind of structuring as storytellers, narrating a story about magical properties known as ‘patter’. Patter can be considered akin to the magician’s script, with words used to introduce an illusion, enhancing the performance with a fanciful story. This is often achieved by painting a scene of childhood nostalgia, or by inducing some other emotion in the listener. Words, essentially, are used to misdirect and direct, and can often provide the additional shove that allows people’s minds to accept one imagined reality over another.