chapter  1
16 Pages

Invisible technique

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.