Look, it's a MOOC


Yes, it’s been a while. I’ve been busy teaching at CCA, designing sound for Earbud Theater, and other projects. There’s a project that’s been in the works for quite a while now, though, which has finally been released.

It’s a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) at Kadenze, called Cinematic Storytelling. You can read Kadenze’s announcement here. There will be an interview with me on their blog next week. I’ll update this blog post with a link when I get one.

The course is designed for people interested in telling stories through pictures, that is cinematically. It provides an overview of the kinds of things a filmmaker has to consider in order to move an audience emotionally and tell their story clearly.

It would also be good for people who just want to be more educated movie watchers. A friend of mine is even taking the course to see if he can use the techniques to improve communications in his tech company. (It’s a very big tech company.)

Some of the other projects I’ve been working on are also making progress, so I hope to have more announcements in the not too distant future.

Visual Storytelling in a Nutshell

Yes, it's been a while. Finally settled into the new digs, and with some interesting projects going, few of which I'm at liberty to discuss.

But one of them is developing an online course in Cinematic Storytelling for Kadenze. It got me looking for examples, good and bad, of visual storytelling. And, boy, did I find a couple.

This is purported to be the "funniest scene ever" from Friends. I want you to watch it, but with the sound turned off.

Do you have any idea what the scene was about? What the goals were for any of the characters? What was at stake? Was it even remotely funny?

Now watch this — again, with the sound turned off. And ask yourself the same questions.

It's hard to think of a more clear illustration of the maxim, show, don't tell.

Recommended Movies

I'm now teaching Visual Storytelling at CCA in Oakland. As part of that course I maintain a list of recommended movies. I'm going to start keeping that here for various reasons. Expect this blog post to get updated as we go along. Maybe some day I'll even get it alphabetized.

Happy viewing.

Films that are good examples of visual storytelling


Lawrence of Arabia — one of the best ever at almost everything. Try to see it on a big screen if you can.

The Apartment — Classic comedy from Billy Wilder

Sunset Boulevard — Another Billy Wilder movie that had a disastrous test screening and went on to be a seminal work. Beautifully structured storytelling, super clear staging and cinematography.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) — Probably the best genre screenplay ever written. One of the scariest scenes is accomplished entirely via blocking and camera operation. A gem. Have a hanky handy for the climax.

Blancanieves (Snow White) — A silent film from Spain that's just beautifully crafted.

Pixar Shorts — Starting around Knickknack we got pretty good at it. Check out the student films Next DoorSomewhere in the Arctic, and Palm Springs.

Better Call Saul (TV Series) — I love the way this show (at least Season 1) was shot. The use of dark areas, slashes of light, and framing are terrific.

The Elephant Man — Possibly David Lynch's best film. It's masterfully shot and staged, and the sound design puts Lynch's touch on it.

The Last Emperor — Stunning evidence of how good an episodic film can be. The cinematography by Vitorio Storaro is masterful, and the use of color to mark where you are in the protagonist's story is wonderful. See it on a big screen if you can. Not for nothing did it win 9 Oscars.

Alice (Jan Svankmajer) — The most accurate adaptation of a book, ever. But when you strip away the Victorian veneer you see the nightmare underneath.

The Danish Poet (Animated short) — Near perfect illustration of how to use staging, rhythm, and all the Illusion of Life principles of animation. Plus it's a strong story with a delightful twist.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — The mother of all screwball comedies, it features great staging, examples of how to build a gag (such as tearing apart a gas station), and wide-screen composition.

Feast (Animated short) — A beautifully crafted Disney short. Just see it.

Unforgiven — Worth studying from the script on up. Perhaps the greatest Western ever.

Blaze Glory (Short) — The pixellated cowboy short. Must be seen to be believed. A very rare find on DVD, though.

Arrival — Near perfect filmmaking, and a great illustration of dynamic range in terms of both audio and action. We looked at the opening for how much we learn about the lead character and tone of the film in such a short time.

Sicario — From the director of Arrival, we looked at the opening exposition in terms of character and tone. A very different film, but still solidly directed. And beautifully shot by my hero, Roger Deakins.

The Mascot — Amazing stop-mo film from 1933. It's as surreal as a fever dream, but has some stunning work in it. You have to look past some of the ideas that were the norm in 1933.

Viaje a Marte (Mission to Mars) (Animated short) — A young boy is taken to Mars in grandpa's tow truck. Charming, and based on a true story.

Leonardo (Animated short) — Jim Capobianco's love letter to renaissance Florence.

Dead Ringers — I used this to illustrate choosing "bruise colors" as a palette. Like any Cronenberg film, it can be rough to watch, but Jeremy Irons is nothing short of a miracle here.

Brazil — It's hard to know what to say about Terry Gilliam's prescient masterwork except that your life has two parts: Before seeing Brazil, and after.

The Monk and the Fish (Animated short) — Delightful example of blending music and picture.

Much Ado about Nothing (Joss Whedon) — Inventive staging and a terrific example of what people who love and know what they're doing can accomplish in almost no time at all.

The Uninvited (1944) — The first serious ghost story on film. Stunningly beautiful and still effective.

Apocalypse Now — A truly seminal film. I showed a part of the helicopter attack as choreography for machines. Shot by Vittorio Storaro, another legendary cinematographer.

Twice Upon a Time — John Korty's loopy, underrated and under-seen mostly animated masterwork. I showed Rod Rescueman's job interview.

Sleeping Beauty — See it projected as best as possible. It is eye-wateringly beautiful.

The Mystery of Rampo — I showed the walk in the shrine. While the director's respect for the line is, shall we say, flexible, some of the staging and all of the storytelling is emotionally engaging and highly original.

Borrowed Time (Animated short) — Touching Western that was a side project for a lot of Pixar folks.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Iñárritu is a master of camera movement. I'm actually not sure how he does it. Watch and be amazed.

Tony Jaa — I just showed this clip as a monumental example of affinity of continuity of action.

Commando — I showed this clip of Arnold dressing for battle to illustrate fragmented editorial rhythm.

The Right Stuff — It's hard to think of a better example of emotion trumping everything else. I show part of the Icarus-inspired intercutting which lets you see (and feel) what characters are thinking and feeling.

The Big Snit (Animated short) — You will never see Scrabble the same way again.

Bunny (Animated short) — Chris Wedge's story of an old bunny who wants to bake a cake but finds eternity instead.

The Graduate — I showed the shot of Dustin Hoffman running hard and getting nowhere. The film is a masterpiece. If you study film you will end up seeing it and reading about it a lot.

Casablanca — It was going to be a B picture, but became a classic. Notable for its use of visual systems.

Beauty and the Beast — No, not that Disney thing, but the good one from 1946. The only reason it doesn't look completely original now is that everybody has spent decades ripping it off — I mean paying homage.

The Innocents — If you find a better looking, creepier psyco-sexual drama anywhere, please let me know what it is. I showed the use of the inverse square law in making a ghost appear and vanish during a game of hide and seek.

Amadeus — It will make you laugh and cry. Nearly perfect filmmaking.

Street of Crocodiles — The Quay brothers, deeply influenced by their own hero, Jan Svankmajer, are able to actually improvise in this highly evocative stop motion film.

Paperman (Animated short) — Fantastically emotional blend of CG and hand drawn. They essentially taught software how to draw and do inbetweens.

Pan's Labyrinth — May be Guillermo del Toro's best film. I showed the Pale Man sequence. The ending made me cry like a baby.

The Wizard of Oz — There are a million reasons why this film should have been a dated train wreck, yet it's a timeless classic. Study to try to learn why.

Laputa, or Castle in the Sky — The best opening sequence ever.

Somewhere in the Arctic — Andrew Stanton's student film. Simple use of line and perspective.

Next Door — Pete Docter's senior project film. Excellent and emotional use of shape.

Palm Springs — A Pete Docter student film which explores the relationship between dinosaurs and humans.

Vincent — Tim Burton directed and Stephen Chiodo animated short film narrated by Vincent Price. A classic.

Bladerunner — The box office flop that changed how movies are made.

The Shining — I showed lots of examples from this film. For a reason. A true masterpiece and seminal work.

Lorenzo (Animated short) — With nothing but a tango as the soundtrack, a visual tour de force.

Manhattan — If you want to see how well and how effortlessly the stage line can be managed, study this film. I showed the couple breaking up in the outdoor restaurant while framed on the "wrong" sides of the frame.

2001: A Space Odyssey — I showed a lot of examples from this, including the greatest match cut/time cut in cinema history. This is the film that got me interested in how movies are made. It didn't just change movie making forever, it changed everything.

The Age of Innocence — I showed the sequence where a man is metaphorically gutted in the course of quiet conversation, as an example of perspective choices. The whole film is crafted beautifully like that. Scorcese called it his "most violent film ever", yet there's nary a drop of blood.

Richard III (Richard Loncraine) — I showed a long shot that went from a group, to a small group, to a 4, 3, 2 and then 1 shot. Effortlessly. The whole film is audacious and lovingly crafted. Highly recommended.

Anna Karenina — Amazing staging. This film is eye candy from start to finish. Notice how effortless and dance-like the blocking is. That's on purpose.

My Neighbors the Yamadas — I haven't shown this in class (yet). It's not really a feature film but a collection of vignettes and blackouts. Really it's visual haiku, worth enjoying and studying to see how much you can do with so little.

Tim's Vermeer — A terrific documentary about how one of the great visual artists probably worked his magic.

The Best Years of our Lives — Daring, heartbreaking film about WWII soldiers trying to adapt to civilian life. The visual storytelling is top notch. Don't let "it's old" put you off. Have a hanky.

A Ghost Story — The way this film uses time, both editorially and in story terms, is stunning. There is very little dialogue, making it a terrific example of visual storytelling.

Saving Private Ryan — Pretty much a master class in How to Movie, it is not only an example of fine visual storytelling, but of the incredible power a sound track can have. Gary Rydstrom's work needs to be heard at theatrical levels and on a good system for you to get the full emotional impact of the filim.

Animal Kingdom — Australian film about a boy who really loses the family lottery. It’s very well shot and staged, with inventive and appropriate use of camera movement.

Laura — Classic film noir that influenced later films and launched a famous song. Revel in the cinematography, and reflect on how effectively a clock can be used.

A Star Is Born — Writer/Star/Director Bradley Cooper delivers a confident, restrained, and highly visual remake of a Hollywood classic. Highly recommended.

Almost any Pixar film. — Analyze them for staging and eye hookups. You'll find the editing is very smooth.

Films that are bad examples of visual storytelling


Lost in Space (1998 feature). There isn't a single line the movie doesn't cross in confusing ways at least a few times. Inexcusably bad staging. Highly educational.

Crimson Peak — What a gorgeous mess this film is.

Chef — A solid script and good performances make it worth seeing. But see if you can identify why so many of my students choose something from it for the exercise where we try to improve on the staging in a film.

John Adams (Miniseries) — Everything about this production is awesome: The script, the cast, the production design, the sense of history, the emotional engagement — except the camera work, which has a completely unhinged use of Dutched angles and horror-movie wide angle shots. It's both worth seeing and worth learning from.

The Room — Infamous as one of the worst films ever made, and deservedly so. It succeeds as a parable about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You'll see examples of how not to write, direct, shoot, or edit a movie. And I guarantee you'll laugh.

Pitch Black — An example of breaking the One Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Besides learning how not to write convincing characters, you could learn a lot about how not to shoot and edit action. A real mess.

Maleficent — Here’s a beautifully photographed movie that not only has a mess of a script, but forgets to actually show us important events. Early in the film Maleficent loses her wings. Late in the movie she gets them back. Neither event happens on screen.


Other Sources

You should subscribe to Every Frame a Painting on YouTube. Watch it all. They stopped making episodes, but they're all golden.

I also showed my short film, Violet, but I don't know that you can find it on line anywhere.

I now write briefly about movies as I watch them. You can find those mini reviews on Letterboxd.

And you really, really should follow @AkiyoshiKitaoka on Twitter. He posts the most amazing optical illusions. It's a great way to stay reminded of how weird our visual system really is.