There have been a number of boy-wonders and young prodigies in the history of ﬁlm making but the most spectacular debut was when 25-year-old Orson Welles was summoned to RKO in 1939 to make his ﬁrst movie. He had no experience of ﬁlm making and Miriam Geiger, a researcher at RKO, explained camera angles to the young Welles by cutting out frame holes in pieces of paper and pasting over a selection of shot sizes taken from a reel of ﬁlm. She added a short text description to remind Welles of the building blocks of ﬁlm making. Welles remembers that in the second week of shooting ‘Citizen
Greg Toland was right. You can understand the visual grammar of ﬁlm making in an afternoon. You can, in the same time, also learn the position of every letter of the alphabet in the ‘qwerty’ layout of a word processor keyboard. Knowing where each letter of the alphabet is positioned will not make you into a writer. How words are combined to make meaningful sentences will take longer. Creating vivid and
memorable prose equal to the greatest novelists may never be achieved. If Welles was ignorant of ﬁlm technique when he began shooting ‘Citizen Kane’, he must have been a prodigious high-speed trainee because, in the opinion of French ﬁlm director Franc¸ois Truﬀaut, ‘Citizen Kane’ inspired more would-be directors than any other ﬁlm. Many newcomers to ﬁlm and TV programme making often assume
that as content and subject diﬀers widely between programmes they must employ speciﬁc individual methods in their production. Film and television programmes are seen as one-oﬀ, custom-built entities. They may be surprised to ﬁnd that there are signiﬁcant links in technique, for example, between a 1930s musical, a 1940s crime ﬁlm and a contemporary televised football match. The majority of productions (but not all – the exceptions will be discussed in the next chapter), share a common visual grammar. Like spoken language, this set of conventions was not originated by a group of academics laying down the law. The visual grammar evolved over time, through practical problem solving on a set, at a location or in an editing booth. This body of visual recipes is sometimes called invisible technique or continuity editing, and it evolved at the very beginning of ﬁlm making. It is important to understand the role composition plays in sustain-
ing ‘invisible technique’, but it is equally important to remember that this is only one type of visual language. There are alternatives to this system, although ‘invisible technique’ is the predominant code used in nearly every type of ﬁlm and television production. Its use is so widespread that many people in the industry believe that it is the only valid set of conventions. They suspect that anyone using alternative techniques is either ignorant of the standard conventions or is simply incompetent. To some extent they are correct if the production is aimed at a mass audience who usually anticipate and intuitively understand certain visual forms learnt over a lifetime of watching popular story telling on ﬁlm and television. Unfamiliar codes of ﬁlm making may confuse and ‘switch-oﬀ ’ a mass audience.