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Developing Visual Literacy and Composition

Unless you’re one of Will Smith’s kids, you would never try to write a novel without reading at least a few good books. Visual style may seem like a natural talent, but the most visionary filmmakers relentlessly study other films, shows, photographs and paintings. So before you arrive on set with your brand new RED Dragon – okay, maybe second – or third-hand unless it “fell off a truck” – you want to have a distinct visual look in mind for your project. Not only will this save you time on set and make you appear more professional, it will also improve the quality of your work.


Visual Literacy and Studying Your Inspirations

If you liked that, then you might enjoy reading Scorsese’s essay on the importance of not only viewing, but preserving classic films.

Hopefully you’ve read some decent books in your day, but if you’re here, you’ve definitely seen some films, TV shows or even web series that inspired you. Do some of these also have a style you might want to draw on for your project? Watch them. If you think a certain scene or shot looks cool, try to understand what it is you actually like about it. Is it the lighting, the placement of objects or the way the camera forces you to focus on a certain detail? Then watch the works that influenced the visual look of your inspirations. Because time only moves in one direction, chances are these will be older films. And that actually might be better for your project. Back in the day, filmmakers relied on a lot fewer technical resources, so they had to consider each cut and shot composition very carefully. Think about how their shots tell stories visually in ways we overlook today.

Play games like “where is this light coming from?” “what lens is being used?” “what’s the movement in this shot?” – and always follow up with “why?” and “what’s this doing for the story?” and “what’s this doing to the audience?” You’ll find that if you dig deep enough, you’ll trace a lot of masterfully crafted compositions in film to masters in paint.

If you liked that, then you might also enjoy this one on Caravaggio – and if you really like this exercise you should go stare at a couple of Rembrandt paintings, then watch something like “Barry Lyndon” which is basically a moving painting.

Analyze [good] scenes for their focus – once you find it, ask yourself how this is being pointed to visually. Understand that cuts are movement, just as much as a dolly move or a zoom. In a world where every tool is at our disposal to create movement, ask yourself why one would choose to stay still.


So you’ve discovered your visual style as well as a deeper appreciation for the cinematic arts. Great! But remember that you’ve got a limited time with your equipment on set. In the same way that you and your writer might have used an outline, a series of still images can give you an idea for the basic look of each scene. Even if your drawing skills haven’t developed much since age 5, simple stick figures in a box for each scene will do the trick for a storyboard. While artists like Vermeer or Caravaggio might be worth studying for their compositions, your storyboard scenes don’t have to end up among the works of the great masters. However, if you’re still overly sensitive about your abilities and there’s a talented artist or two on your team, you can always beg them for help.

Here’s a visual breakdown by Film-Drunk Love on how David Fincher created tension in a phone call with simple framing:

Further Reading:

Shot Listing

If you really want your set to move with the efficiency of an IKEA store, you can put together a shot list. This is basically a written storyboard, but if you’ve ever purchased anything from IKEA, you know that it can be really useful to have some words to go along with those pictures. In fact, the shot list will serve as the instruction manual for the production. While it may seem like a shot list takes the freewheelin’ fun out of the process, no one has ever complained about a vision being too clearly defined. It’s also not a bad idea to have a shot list along with a storyboard to help your editors in post-production. After all, if your director envisions every take as the making of the next “Chinatown” but your editor views the footage as more in the vein of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”…yeah, that can be a problem.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty on shot listing by Film Riot:

For More on Establishing Vision in Pre-Production:

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