The camera pans across a sepia-toned still photograph of a wagon train on a dusty road. To the side, an old farmer stands, watching as the wagons pass. The shot ends on a hand-painted sign tacked to the back of one of the last wagons: Califna or Bust. As you watch this shot on screen, which line of narration would be more useful to you?
• The wagons set out along the dusty road.
• On August 4th they set out; four men, five women, and eight children determined to find gold.
Which narration breathes life into the photograph, and which just states the obvious? Narration should add information to picture, not simply describe it. Above all, narration should advance the story.
Here's a second example, from a film that follows a group of college friends as they face their first year in the job market. In a live-action scene set in a private home, a group of young women sits down to a fancy dinner. One of them, dressed in an expensive-looking suit, sets a roasted turkey on the table. Which narration is useful?
• Donna is the most vivacious of the group, and the most fashion-conscious.
• Donna, who graduated with high honors from Harvard Law School, hopes to pursue a career in advertising.
Obviously, what you say depends on what the audience needs to learn. But we can tell from watching the scene that Donna is vivacious and well-dressed. We can't tell from looking at her that she went to Harvard Law School. That narration adds to picture.
Here is another approach that people sometimes use, believing that it will create a sense of tension:
• Donna, the organizer of this gathering, would soon learn that her life would change in ways she couldn't imagine.
What exactly does this add? Are you on the edge of your seat wondering how Donna's life will change? No. This sounds like it's intended to build tension, but it's just words. Tension comes from the story, not a narrator's hints.
Just as you should write to picture, you should never write against picture. A common mistake people make is to write in a way that sets the film up to go in one direction, when in fact the images are going somewhere else. Here's an example. We see a group of executives sitting around a table, talking. Narration: The board decided to hire a consultant, Jane Johnson. Cut to a woman talking. Wouldn't you assume it's Jane Johnson? If it's not, it's going to take a moment to readjust your thinking, to figure out, well, if it's not Johnson, who is it? By then, you'll have missed at least part of what this woman has said.
Suppose the woman that we cut to is on the board of directors, and she's explaining why they're hiring Jane Johnson. The edit makes sense. But the narration gets in the way. Try again. We see a group of executives sitting around a table, talking. Narration: The board decided that a consultant was needed. Cut to the woman from the board, who explains, "We were spinning our wheels. And so.. .." It's a minor difference but an important one.
Words and picture should work together, each adding to the buildup of your story. Words should also accurately identify the picture. This can be frustrating to filmmakers when the visual record is limited. Suppose, for example, that you are telling the story of a man and woman who met in Ohio at a USO dance, the night before he was shipped off to fight in the Second World War. But the family only has photographs that were taken five years later, after the man returned from the war and the couple, now married, had a child. No footage exists of that particular USO dance or even of the club in which it was held. Can you use footage of another USO dance, from another state and another year?
Of course you can, but your narration should avoid creating the false impression that the audience is seeing the real thing. For example, suppose the editor cuts in footage of a USO dance held two years later in a different state. The narration says, On February 2, 1942, at a USO dance in Columbus, Ohio, Tim finally met the girl of his dreams. The audience may think, "Gee, isn't that amazing, there was a film crew there to capture it." I think it stretches credibility, and if the audience assumes that this couldn't possibly be the USO dance on the night in the city, they will see your footage for what it is—wallpaper. From that point on, the archival value of the footage is diminished, and the rest of your material becomes a bit suspect, deservedly or not.
There is an alternative, using the same scene, same footage. Open the narration wider, as in this example, USO dances were held in gymnasiums and hospitals, canteens and clubs throughout the U.S., and it was at a dance like this that Tim met the girl of his dreams. You're not writing as closely to that one particular image; at the same time, you're offering a valuable reminder that your characters are just two people caught up in a time and a situation that's bigger than both of them. The footage is no longer generic wallpaper, but illustrative of an era.
Writing to picture also means that the words you choose work in tandem with the visuals. Here's an example. You are making a film about a team of cyclists competing in the Tour de France. You need to introduce Ralph Martinez, riding for the Americans. In the scene you're narrating, it's early morning and the cyclists are gathered in a village square, drinking coffee or juice, eating pastries, and psyching themselves up for a day on the Tour. The specific shot starts close on a croissant. A hand wearing a bicycling glove reaches in and picks up the pastry; the shot widens and pulls back as we follow the pastry up to a rider's mouth, and see that it is a young man (Ralph) perched on his bike, sipping coffee as he laughs and talks with teammates. Some narration options:
• Pastry and coffee start the day for Ralph Martinez and his American teammates. Too "on the nose"—we can see the pastry and coffee for ourselves.
• Ralph Martinez, getting ready for his third tour, is riding with the American team. This won't work, because the words "Ralph Martinez" will fall too soon, probably when we're still looking at a big glob of jam on a croissant. You want your narration to roughly mirror the picture and to arrive at Ralph when the visuals do.
• Riding with the Americans is Ralph Martinez, in his third Tour de France. This might work—it's hard to tell until you see and hear it against picture! Note that you don't need to say "team" because it can be assumed. Chances are that by this point in the film you also won't need to say "de France." You want to be as economical in word use as possible. Better to have a moment for natural sound than to keep yammering away at the viewers.
Writing to picture can be difficult, especially for those who resist rewriting. While a film is being edited, nearly everything is subject to change. A scene needs to be cut down to give another scene more time. An archival shot needs to be changed because the rights to it aren't available. A sequence is moved from the last half of the film to the first half and therefore needs to be set up differently. From the assembly through to script lock, narration is a moving target. You must be willing to make changes. When enough changes pile up, the editor or someone else on the production team will record a new scratch narration track and lay it against picture. As you'll discover, at least some of these revisions will need further revising. Eventually, though, the script will be locked, the picture will be locked, and the narration will be finished.
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