Film Reading Group 2014

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Update 1/14/2013: Changes to the syllabus are outlined in RED

For those who have been visiting the site and learning through the commentaries but want to take it a step further with their autodidacticism as it pertains to film education here’s your chance to join a reading group that a few of us have established.

So far, we have outlined the reading material for the first three months. A strikethrough indicates a past event; book has been read and discussed.

Our aim for the next three months (we are two weeks in) is to delve deep into discussing film Style/Form/Structure. Our hopes are to reverse engineer how a film is put together. Whether it is a comedy, arthouse/Sundance indie, or film noir – we will aim to break down how style dictates the film’s form or vice versa. How are films structured? The first two books; Film Art, and The Visual Story delve deep into these concepts so we recommend you start with those books.

If you are near a university or a local library you should be able to find most of the readings outlined above. Some books you can find online through a site like in PDF form. All in all, the dedication is up to you. Anyone is truly free to get in on the discussions in the comments even without reading the given books. But we do aim in having dedicated readers participating so that we can all discuss the concepts and ideas we learn in these books.

We will read the books in chronological order of the syllabus. About two weeks: one week to read, one week to discuss will be applied to each book. Certain visual examples will be illustrated as well. A separate section has been created – Film Reading Group, much like the Commentaries section – where you will be able to track down the individual posts (and film reading progress) of the given book/week and read all the discussions anyone involved will have – along with whatever examples, illustrations that will be posted up in the main post.

So far there are three of us actively participating and since making the post there have been a handful of interested people who have approached us. The goal is to grow in our understanding and grasping of film technique, cinematic language and cinema as a whole. In doing so, we also aim to create a network of serious film individuals and filmmakers who would wish to collaborate down the line in a sort of a distanced filmmaking way, utilizing social media or simply internet to collaborate on projects.

A separate post for Film Art will be created in order for everyone to get in on the discussion.

Without further ado, below is an Abstract written up for The Visual Story by a member of the Film Reading Group, Kojève.

Written by Kojève

Visual Story


This is mostly a factual book. I’ll list out some of the facts in another post. For now I’ll remain pretty broad just for the sake of thinking about the larger meaning of the book in our project.

A film’s visuals are structured. The people responsible for the film should approach their domain the same way a Screenwriter approaches a Story Structure. Our point here is to “understand how visual structure allows you to communicate moods and emotions.” So here we understand an important part of the author’s conception of visuals: the film’s Visual Structure is a communicative act, it is the act of communicating meaning/emotion/understanding by (1) controlling the attention of the audience and (2) varying the visual intensity of their cinematic experience (via affinity/contrast) across scenes, sequences, and film. — If you really read the book it is incredible that despite how complex a visual system really is, ultimately this is all a film’s visuals are up to. [Editing in a note. This is all a film’s visuals are up to within the Visual Structure; I take it as obvious that there are all kinds of other things a film is up to aesthetically regarding things like beauty, editing around performances, etc.]

What I take to be a key point is that we should “find the critical relationship between story structure and visual structure” through pictures. But he says of pictures that they all involve Story, Visuals, and Sound to encode meaning/emotion. As we get into Sound, I like the idea of thinking of these three Story/Visual/Sonic Structures as interrelated acts which are both holistic yet comprise their own whole or Formal System. [Here I think it would be interesting to think of how a film’s visuals alone might comprise locutionary/illocutionary/perlocutionary acts but that’s off-topic.]

OK so now we think of Visual Structure as something self-enclosed and unified in Form and Style, as well as interacting dynamically with the other structures. If we consider the actor — an Actor is a performance, and a visual object on screen so it’s our job to be able to balance these two things in our mind at the same time while shooting. We may wish to focus the audience’s Point of Attention on the performance for a long swaths of uninterrupted time so as to allow the literary/theatrical quality of the film function as the creation of meaning/emotion (think Olivier’s Richard III), or we may take some effort to create a visual structure which does a lot of that work while building that performance into the structure (think Tony Scott).

How terribly obvious all this writing is. So OK, broadly: Visual Structure as System creates its own Visual Patterns by establishing meaning — patterned linking of a visual cue and a meaning. What visual components of a shot relate to meaning and interpretation? (1) Space, (2) Line, (3) Shape, (4) Tone, (5) Color, (6) Movement, (7) Rhythm. So consider the Sonic-Emotional link created through structured patterns in Jaws & Psycho. Visuals have the same function.

Visual Structure exists through visual progression. Visual progression is the creation of patterns through the abstract determination of how we are to approach varying the level of intensity (same as a story) via the concrete determination of specific points of affinity and contrast across scenes/sequences/film of these 7 visual components, by mapping this stuff out in combination with story structure. All of this applies to remembering how to work on these smaller more precise as well as larger aspects of the structure while keeping the whole complex mereology in mind. In practical production, all of this is very difficult.

The final interesting point. He makes a larger logical claim akin really to something like the Laffer curve — there exists a point between no intensity, which is all too dull, and too much intensity, so we might take this as a 0 to 100 mathematical function and make a relative visual graph that spans our entire scene/sequence/film.

In regards to commentaries – I am planning to upload more in the next few days, apologies for the delay.

19 thoughts on “Film Reading Group 2014

  1. I’ve just recommended your Film Reading Group to students of Film Direction at the Indian Film and Television Institute, Meerut, India. I’m Visiting Faculty there and read your posts regularly. Hope interesting things come out of this idea.

  2. Great book. I was thinking how Wes Anderson has used some of the visual components in very specific ways to create a distinctive style.

    -His handling of space and composition
    -Tone and color
    -Camera movement.

    • I think Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright provide fascinating case studies for film students. What is fascinating about both of them is that their styles are both so incredibly distinctive, but also evident from the very beginning — and since they were already making solid film/television in their style by 25, it begs the question of when and how they arrived at their stylistic decisions.

      Regarding this week’s book. We could probably analyze Wes Anderson a couple of ways. The first would be something like: how does he do what he does? Then we may look for clues in his films, and list out a bunch of facts; clearly he likes his compositions to emphasize Flat Planes, Straight Lines, stark affinities and contrasts of color, etc. The other way we might approach things is by asking ourselves the abstract question: What is the relationship in his films between Story Structure and Visual Structure? And my own intuition is that this may be more clarifying than jumping straight to a list of facts about the uses of visual elements in his films.

      • Wes Anderson is hugely inspired by the French new wave. Tati I’d say specifically but also by the entire gang. If you analyze his color schemes in his films they’re reminiscent of Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

        His sense of style is basically a rigid rule of no steadicam for camera movements, just tracking shots. So as we’ve discussed with Film Art – the importance of film Style and film Form are at the top for him. He’s one of those guys who maps out films to a T.

        Good call on Edgar Wright, a definitely distinct style – which borrows of course from grindhouse b-films and beginning with Hot Fuzz – Tony Scott which he acknowledges. But then who doesn’t get inspired by Tony Scott in terms of action???

        To answer the question of how they arrived at stylistic decisions, my take would be something of simply liking a certain film genre, style, or a filmmaker and then channeling it all through an own prism. Then there’s also watching a shitload of cinema and studying it through analysis and acute attention to details.

        Also we might slow down the reading pace by about a book every other week just as to not alienate others and give em time to find the books, read, and use the other week to just discuss full on.

      • Kojeve: “The other way we might approach things is by asking ourselves the abstract question: What is the relationship in his films between Story Structure and Visual Structure?” good point. And extend it to discuss other filmmakers with distinctive styles, so much that they have become an adjective. e.g. “Fellinesque” for Fedrico Fellini, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino.

        We should also make note of Film Noir, a genre that is primarily defined by its style.

        And how certain style of visual elements are more related, sometimes expected to be attached to certain genres. E.g. most comedies feature high key lighting (unless it’s the dark, sarcasm-filled comedy. And as always, there are exceptions to the rule.)

      • Yes, very good points. We shall do that. We’ve also decided to scrap a book a week for the next 3 months and instead will focus on reverse engineering film Style/Form/Structure before we delve deeper into sound or technicals as well as Semiotics and philosophical texts like Deleuze.

        In regards to certain style being more prone to a specific genre or story – spot on. Most arthouse tends to be either very still like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or very handheld like the Dardenne bros. Or combined.

  3. Hi! Great Idea, I would like to participate but came in late. Is there a way to go back to Week 1 Discussion on Film Art? I can’t seem to find the link.

  4. Pingback: Film Reading Group: Film Art by David Bordwell | filmschoolthrucommentaries

  5. So, basically in The Visual Story – the Visual Structure is essentialy the Film Form. Between the descriptions we get from Bordwell in Film Art – which are based off Eisensteinian concepts of Film Style and Film Form – and the descriptions in Bruce Block’s The Visual Story. The concept is essentially the same.

    Film Form = Visual Structure.

    Film Style is just how a filmmaker decides to map out a film based off the story and his point-of-view. All this gives meaning to the Visual Structure / Film Form.

    There are a plethora of examples in The Visual Story about this, specifically towards the last chapter. One in particular I’ll use here. You’re a reporter who finds out something shady about a group of people and at the end the reporter is murdered. The way you design a film around this story stems from the understanding of film style; concepts of light, color, tone, camera movement and so forth. You then associate these stylistic choices with your story. What is the first thing that comes to your mind about the look of this story? Darker tones, an urban city, night, seedy alleyways, deep space.

    So your story – whatever it is – is largely dictating your film style and form/structure which arises out of your style.

    The greater point Block makes is that you must have a grasping of the visual concepts and what they can mean and do for your film / structure / form.

  6. Quick comment: A great companion to Bruce Block’s The Visual Story is Jennifer Van Sijll’s “Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know”

  7. So I didn’t get a chance to finish either book but I wanted to chime in with some impressions. Firstly, I think Visual Story is a keeper. One point I wanted to make about these first choices is that they form a good foundation for the filmmaker I think, in the way that sketching/drawing is a foundation for one who wants to be an artist. I am already paying even more attention to these visual elements in the films I watch.
    On the subject of learning/training/practicing, I watched some videos on youtube the other day about practicing the craft of acting and there were some comments on there by athletes or musicians that are used to practicing hours everyday finding it bizarre that most actors don’t. I think the same can be said for filmmakers. No fan of basketball would think they could go toe to toe with Kobe Bryant or whoever, with a couple weeks notice. But a lot of people think they can make a feature film all they need is a camera, a computer, some friends. Not many think they have to put in 10,000 hours of focused, consistent, deliberate practice to master moviemaking. At least that’s what i think, at his moment.

    • I’m with you. I think that the naïve view of Art as simply ‘subjective’ obfuscates how technical it really is. Art involves a form of informal rule-following. What people don’t realize is that informal rule following is actually a lot more complicated than formal rule following.

      Athletes are a great example. A football player wakes up at 5:30 in the morning to study game-footage of the opposing team. Why shouldn’t an artist wake up at 5:30 to study footage from great films?

  8. Pingback: Film Reading Group 2014 | A GOONIE NEVER SAYS DIE BLOG

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