According to Muir, Hooper is “quite expert at using the background and foregrounds of shots to convey important, frightening information” (109). In support of his contention, Muir offers a couple of especially instructive examples, worth quoting in their entirety:
Tobe Hooper’s use of film language in Invaders From Mars is the most impressive it’s been since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His always-on-the-prowl camera not only records David’s nightmare of alien invasion, [but] it [also] successfully expresses his situation, his mood, and his feelings of isolation. The opening shot of the movie, that of David and his Dad [sic] lying flat on their backs in the grass, stargazing, should be a peaceful, idyllic one. Instead, forecasting the horror to come, the high[-]angle perspective (always the harbinger of doom in the cinematic lexicon) grows increasingly disturbed. As the camera nears its objects, it commences a fast spin, rolling over and over as it nears David and his Dad [sic]. This spin reveals that David Gardner’s world is about to be turned upside down, and that below the surface of perfect suburbia, trouble exists.
Throughout the film, Hooper’s well-placed camera continues to express the plight of the film’s dreaming protagonist. On the school playground, David is farmed inside a metal jungle jim [sic], a surrogate jail cell of sorts, and the message is clear: he’s trapped like a caged animal. Of all the children on the playground, only Davis is “trapped” in this fashion, simultaneously indicating his special status (as the star of his own dream) as well as his knowledge of his isolation. Later, David is literally surrounded by cages, by stuffed, mounted animals in miniature cages in his teacher’s van, and the blocking is very much the same, expressing the identical point: this is a nightmare David cannot escape from. Instead of relying on art design, [William Cameron] Menzies [the director of the original film of which Hooper’s version is a remake] staged many shots, nay entire sequences, in minimalist oversized sets to achieve similar results: feelings of entrapment and isolation. Instead of relying on art design, Hooper falls back on his thorough understanding of film grammar, mise en scene and cutting (108-109).
Writers of short stories and novels, it may be argued, do not have the resources at hand that filmmakers do, and, even if they had, their medium is pen, ink, and paper (or, more likely, a computerized word processor and printer). What good, therefore, does it do the short story writer or the novelist to examine the narrative techniques of movie directors and cameramen? The short answer is that it’s not only possible, but desirable, to learn artistic techniques from as many artists as possible, without undue concern as to their form or genre, always with an eye as to how to adapt their methods to one’s own work. After all, filmmakers have certainly helped themselves generously to quite a few literary techniques as well as to the methods of other artists, visual, plastic, musical, and otherwise.
Instead of a camera, the writer has description. Description, it may be truly be said, is the writer’s camera. Using its powers, he or she can create symbolic images, just as Hooper does, with his spinning camera and high-angle camera perspective, and images of the Jungle Jim and the caged animals. (A literary master of such technique is Stephen Crane; consider his use of symbolic imagery in The Red Badge of Courage, for example, in which he describes the clearing in a forest near a battlefield in terms of a cathedral.) What a writer can learn, more specifically than merely the use of symbolic imagery, created through description, to express theme, convey a character’s emotion, suggest the narrative‘s tone, or to effect foreshadowing, perhaps, is what Muir points out concerning Hooper’s employment of mise en scene’s blocking out of the critical elements of a scene so as to exploit the background and the foreground of each separate shot. Before writing a scene, an author should write out, in a few sentences, as specifically as possible, the answers to such questions as:
- What is the purpose of this scene?
- Can a special perspective (camera angle, as it were) be used to heighten the reader’s interest and to emphasize key information (or maybe to shift the reader’s focus away from a bit of information--a clue, for example, in a murder mystery) in the scene?
- What should the scene’s lighting be? Should it be direct, indirect, partial, full, from above, below, from one side or the other, from behind? (Anyone who has ever held a flashlight below his or her chin in an otherwise dark room knows what valuable tricks light can play in creating horror, fear, or suspense.)
- What properties (“props”) should the scene include, and why? To what use should they be put?
- What link is there between this scene and its predecessor, and what link is there between it and the next scene?
- What colors will be used to describe the characters’ hair, eyes, clothes, the “props,” and other items contained in the scene?
In other words, start to think off scenes not as so many words on a page, sandwiched between other segments of words on other pages, but as an image (or a series of connected images) within the continuous flow of many other, related images which, together, tell a unified, coherent, and meaningful story. At the same time, though, consider how the scene can best perform its function, or purpose, within the whole of which it is a part, using symbolism, irony, composition, and other elements, both narrative and visual.
The result will be a more artistically told story, and a story that is apt to be taken more seriously. At times, it is enough, perhaps, to tell a story, but it is always better to tell a story well.