REGARDING REACTIONS: Why are Reaction Shots Important?

By now, you probably read our article on the different kinds of shots, and stumbled upon reaction shots. In this post, I will explain why reaction shots are so important to the film language.

First, a quick definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

Reaction shot is a shot which cuts away from the main scene in order to show the reaction of a character to it.”

That’s it in a nutshell.  A reaction shot is usually silent, as it shows a character reacting with facial expressions (a frown, a smile, a gasp).  Sometimes a shot starts with a silent reaction before the character vocalizes his emotions.

To illustrate: if the main conflict of a scene is a married couple arguing, a potential reaction shot could be the kids watching, visibly worried. In fact:

Reaction_Shot_MrsDoubtfire1

This is the reaction of a daughter, eavesdropping from the stairwell, as her mother tells her husband she wants a divorce. From Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

More often than not, reaction shots are a close-up or a tight medium because that proximity allows the audience to see the reaction up close, and thus connect to the character.

This is a clip from Indecent Proposal (1993) where billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) makes an unsettling offer to a couple he just met:

Count the reaction shots and try to guess what the characters are feeling.

 

The beauty of reaction shots is that they are subtle. The inattentive viewer doesn’t think, “Hey, there’s a reaction shot, now another…” More often than not, we just absorb the emotion, “Wow, Demi Moore was outraged. Was she crying? I think I saw tears.”

But when you step back to analyze the construction of the scene, you can see how it was directed and cut for impact. In fact, watch that scene again on mute, and it should become even more obvious how the mechanics works.

Now that you have seen a couple of examples, let’s examine why reaction shots are so important to the medium:

Purposes of Reaction Shots

World_War_Z_ReactionShot

Here’s Brad Pitt’s character blackmailed. His choices: go into zombie land by himself or with his family. From World War Z (2013)

1. For Story

As the name implies, a reaction shot contains someone’s reaction, which is a quick emotional beat. Above you have a reaction shot from World War Z. Without the context, you can still tell that Brad Pitt is not pleased, maybe he’s even confused. This quick reaction shot is enough to convey his feelings. If you watch it in context, that shot will make even more sense and thus be more powerful. Also, lips quivering and veins pulsating make for great reactions.

2. For Editors

Editor loves reaction shots because it gives them flexibility and choices. For example, imagine this unlikely scenario:

Suppose that the camera operator captured two takes of an actor’s speech, both of which lasted 1 minute long. Now imagine that the first half of the actor’s speech is more powerful in the first take, while the second half is stronger in the second take. Without another character’s reaction (or another cutaway), the editor only has two choices: take 1 or take 2. However, with the reaction shot of a secondary character, the editor has a third choice: he can bridge the first take and the second take by cutting away to the reaction shot during the transition from one take to the other.

3. For Performance

Imagine if there was a device that allowed you to point to a person and know what they are feeling at a specific moment. Well, in this art, such device exists, and it’s called the camera. When you point it to someone responding to something, you can get a glimpse of what they are feeling. And this puts the actor’s in a great position to showcase his performance, which also advances the story.

Note: I am listing this post under Cinematography and Editing because I really think that Reaction Shots are equal parts each. The cinematographer has to shoot right, and the editor has to cut it right.

 

 

CONFLICT: The Stuff Stories are Made of

Conflicts are the problems and headaches we strive to avoid: a flat tire, a layoff, a break-up, and of course, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (yes, that is a real movie!).  The many instances of conflict have different names: tension,  rivalry, struggle, obstacle, clash, etc.

Sadly for humans, society overflows with them.  But for filmmakers, these “situations” propel the plot in the movies and serve as inspirations! One needs only to open the newspaper to find some real-life examples. Here are some of the headlines in Los Angeles as of this writing:

  • “‘Nobody Wins,’ Prosecutor Says of Conviction of 2 Women in Death of Kim Pham”
  • “LAPD Seeks Help Solving ‘Tragic’ Death of Good Samaritan Who Came to Aid of 3-Year-Old Child”
  • “UC Irvine Police Looking for Man Who Asked Female Students if He Could Massage, Photograph Their Feet”
from KTLA News

Of course, the news tends to focus on the nastiest cases, but deaths, assaults, and any other kind of crime are only one extreme of the spectrum. Towards the other end of the continuum there are the more down-to-earth frustrations we experience on a daily basis like having to do overtime at work when you already made plans to meet with that old flame from college who stood you up many years ago to go meet with the president of the Chess Club.

That’s what screenwriters do: when designing stories,  writers have to frame conflict into relevant context, which usually means amping the problem: a flat tire on the way to work, a layoff when your kids just started college, a break-up right before the prom, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space when, well, pretty much anytime.

As Seen at the Movies: Shawshank Redemption  (1994)

220px-ShawshankRedemptionMoviePosterIn the prison drama Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

Can you grasp how powerful this conflict is?

This is the kind of situation that affects every cell in someone’s body (pardon the exaggeration but think about it.) Not only does Andy have an external conflict (going to jail) but also an internal conflict (losing someone he loved). Andy spends the rest of the film trying to convince everyone that he is innocent, but how easy is that to do from prison?

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly recommended it. It is a master piece from top to bottom.

Types of Conflict

Here’s a couple of terminology that helps us define and classify the various kinds of conflict:

External vs. Internal

An external conflict is a physical obstacle that exists in the world of the story and prevents a character from achieving a goal, such as your computer crashing minutes before the deadline to upload your final exam.

In Little Miss Sunshine (2006), one external conflict the family has to overcome is the distance. They have to travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California.  But as a screenwriter,  what do you do? You throw even more obstacles their way:

little-miss-sunshine-van

On the other hand, an internal conflict is a psychological barrier or doubt that exists inside the character’s head that also prevents him or her from comfortably achieving a goal: Should I pursue the career of my dreams as a painter or obtain a more secure occupation doing something boring but that pays better like real estate? This is a dilemma many of us face.

It is worth noting that an internal conflict is not a mental issue (though it certainly can be). Many beginning screenwriters sometimes think erroneously that the internal conflict has to be some ailment like schizophrenia or depression. No so. All you need is a character torn between two impulses.

2) Source of Conflict

Another category for conflict is based on where the conflict stems from. Does it come from nature, society, a villain, or the protagonist himself? The writer has to know this from the get-go because the answer will be the primary driving conflict of the movie. I think these are self-explanatory, but here are some movie examples to help you understand this:

  • Man against Another Man (or a Monster/Villain)
    • High Noon
    • Any James Bond film
    • The Mummy
    • Silence of the Lambs
  • Man against Society:
    • The People vs. Larry Flynt
    • The Shawshank Redemption
    • 12 Angry Men
    • Gladiator
  • Man against Nature:
    • Jaws
    • Dante’s Peak
    • The Perfect Storm
    • Titanic
    • Gravity
  • Man against Himself
    • A Beautiful Mind
    • Good Will Hunting
    • The Lost Weekend

If these categorizations are not clear to you, or if you don’t know these movies too well and want me to elaborate more, let me know in the comments below this post, and I will try to make sense for you.

Bear in mind that these categories are not exclusive. You can mix and match them in anyway you think is suitable to your story. However, more often than not, one of these types will be more predominant. For instance: although I listed Gladiator under Man Against Society, I can definitely make an argument for Man Against Another Man as well. In fact, I think Man Against Another Man is more of the case for this film since the Emperor provokes most of the misfortunes in the protagonist’s life.

Compounded Conflict

It is your job as a screenwriter to create what I call Compounded Conflict, which is a simple nickname for conflict on top of conflict on top of conflict.

Why stop at Man Against Nature when you can have Man Against Society as well? It’s these combinations that make amazingly dramatic situations.

For example, the main conflict in Jaws is killing the shark (Man Against Nature). But how does that goal come about? Sheriff Brody merely wants to protect the citizens in his town. The easy solution would be to simply close the beach, but the Mayor is worried that reports of a shark attack would ruin the summer tourist season, so the Mayor overrules the Sheriff (Man Against Society and Another Man). Brody still wants to protect the townspeople, but the solution to hunt the beast himself is not an easy decision because he’s aqua-phobic  (Man Against Himself). When his son nearly escapes a shark attack, Brody finally decides to take matters in his own hand, finally placing the Man Against Nature front and center.

Look for it, and you will see Compounded Conflict in most movies. It does wonders for your story.

Conflict According to Irwin R. Blacker

I have this little book titled the Elements of Screenwriting, which I really like for its simple, unpretentious writing. The book itself is kinda small, which makes it great for writers learning the craft or anyone who wants a quick crash course. It was written by Irwin R. Blacker, a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California, and here’s what Mr. Blacker has to say about conflict:

  • The premise is the basis of the conflict: The premise must be clear to the writer before he begins to write the script, although it will not be stated in the script
    • What is the premise in King Lear? Blind trust leads to destruction.
    • What is the premise in Macbeth? Ambition leads to its own destruction.
  • Locking conflict into a time frame heightens tension: The time lock adds suspense to the basic conflict by adding a fight against time.
    • The bomb will explode at six tonight.
    • Unless the carrier is found by two o’clock, the plague will spread.
    • Unless he is proven innocent by midnight, he will be executed.
  • Conflict need not be locked by violent action: The details of the conflict need not be stated, but the viewer must know there there’s a conflict and have some idea of its nature.
    • A boy asks if anyone knows where his father can be found and gets only shrugs and sneers.
    • A girl in worn clothes stares at a “Help Wanted” sign.
  • Domestic conflict is the most universal of conflicts: Tragic action is often not against enemy, or among neutrals, but among friends or family.
    • Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.
    • Blanche du Bois (A Streetcar Named Desire) is raped by her brother-in-law and goes mad.
  • Conflict in drama is not necessarily violent: while violence makes for good scripts, a script need not be violent, not even emotionally violent to work
    • The failure of the father and daughter to understand each other On Golden Pond.
    • The inability of Marty, an ugly, 36-year-old butcher, to get a date.

-Irwin R. Blacker

These are just short citations from Mr. Blacker’s book. If you are interested in screenwriting, I highly recommend the Elements of Screenwriting. Obviously, Conflict is just one of the many elements featured in the book. To be honest with everyone, I think the retail price of $16 is a little too much. Unless you are buying it as a gift for a friend, I’d just buy an used copy from Amazon (costs 1 cent plus shipping and handling).

And don’t forget, conflict is the root of all comedy:

THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.

 

CHARACTER ARC: Because the Only Constant is Change

Definitely one of the most basic principles in screenwriting is character arc – the notion that characters must evolve, grow, learn, or change as the plot unfolds. The audience in general expects a character to finish the movie in a better position than that in which he started because that is what everyone strives for. Life sometimes allows that, but not always.

The arc doesn’t imply that characters will always be richer, smarter, or get the girl at the end. Perhaps a greedy person would end up in jail for embezzlement or an impulsive lover would end up murdered at the hands of an angry husband. Who knows. Shit happens in life and the movies.

Spoiler Alert: The following paragraphs contain spoilers.

Positive and Negative Arcs

Here’s a positive change or arc: in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) starts out as a student in the FBI who’s assigned a special mission. At the movie’s resolution, Clarice has improved her investigation skills and gun technique, both of which allow her to complete her mission and graduate from the FBI Academy.

An elaborate arc will present growth in many aspects of a character’s life. In The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) starts as an awkward, introverted, 20-year-old young man who lives by his parent’s rules and wishes. As the story unfolds, Benjamin begins making his own choices, often against his parents’. Furthermore, through an early exposition, it is implied that Benjamin is a virgin, which changes after his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And by the movie’s end, he also gets the girl he wanted, already wearing a wedding gown.

This is not the norm, but one powerful version of the character arc is when the arc goes “down the hill.” In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) never accepts Rhett’s (Clark Gabble) unrelenting courtship. Rhett, in the other hand, arcs as he realizes Scarlet will never want him, so he leaves her, saying the famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” In her despair, Scarlet denies her fate and utters: “Tara. Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

A character arc can also be dark or somber. In the highly acclaimed Billy Wilder picture Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the two main characters die, and the other one is arrested.

What Drives Change?

Take a second to think about the question above: what makes people change? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Think of the last time you or a friend or a relative experienced a big change. What was responsible for such change?

Although everyone wants to better themselves and improve their lives, change is not necessarily easy. Usually, people will take small steps towards a major goal, but big changes usually require a catalyst.

What do you think would make a sports-averse 40-year-old man start running daily after decades of a sedentary lifestyle? How about a heart attack? That sure would take most people off their butts and the cheesecake diet if it meant more health.

In storytelling lingo, we would call the heart attack conflict because that’s what it is. Like in life, conflict is really good at making people change and change quickly.

Movies are no different. Sometimes a character wakes up one day and decides to pursue their dreams. But often they need life to club them in the heads and say “You’ve been doing this all wrong. Try this other alternative instead.”

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom was writing greeting cards while his dream really was architecture. The catalyst in this plot was Summer. Tom was too comfortable in his day job to chase anything else until the girl of his dreams encouraged him to do it. And if you saw the movie, you know how hard this was for Tom.

To mention The Silence of the Lambs again: do you think Clarice was excited when, as a young FBI student, she was an invited for a special mission? You bet! But that special mission really involved a lot of  life-threatening moments (AKA conflict).

As Seen at the Movies…

Positive arcs

In Matrix (1999), after learning that he’s the One, Neo uses his recent-acquired skills to vanquish Agent Smith. Neo’s arc is both internal (as he believes in himself and accepts his responsibility) and external (as he develops his fighting skills and uses them to combat the enemy).

In Rocky (1976), small-time boxer Rocky Balboa trains hard and “goes the distance” with heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror #8 convinces his fellow  members or the jury that the case they are debating has room for “reasonable doubt.”

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne escapes from the Shawshank Prison and unveils the corrupt warden’s money laundry operation to the authorities.

Negative or “Down-the-hill” arcs

In Shattered Glass (2003), journalist Stephen Glass’s lies are uncovered and he gets fired from the newspaper.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch and Sundance are cornered by the Bolivian army and ultimately shot down.

It’s important to note that characters (like humans) are complex creatures and their transitions are never clean or black-and-white. Sometimes only one aspect of the character evolves, while others remain the same. With that in mind, don’t always (if ever) write characters who change from wholly evil to wholly good or vice versa because that rarely happens. A subtle transition is sometimes more identifiable for the audience.

Character arc alone will not save a terrible screenplay, but it will make a bad story better. Keep in mind that the audience expects this in all narrative films. There’s no magic formula to it. A fantastic a plot built in a solid structure with enough conflict will bring about the character arc.

What about you? What are some of your favorite arcs in film history?