Motion equals emotion. 5 ways to move your story with purpose care of Vincent Laforet's Directing Motion.

Vincent Laforet’s Directing Motion tour made its purposeful way to Portland last week, and not ones to miss an incredible filmmaker talking shop while dissecting the films that inspire him most, we didn’t hesitate to head to NE PDX and pull up a chair for 12 wonderfully intensive hours.

The story behind the tour is one worth retelling, if briefly: Vincent, on the mend after a broken arm, had little else to do for months at a time than do what he does second best (after directing films)—which is watch and dissect them.

So, he bought all of his favorite 100 films on Blu-ray—because those special features are crucial—and watched them, over and over and over, dissecting them incessantly until he had a grip on what it was about each of them that appealed to him so intrinsically as a filmmaker.

It was in that grip that Directing Motion was born.

Perhaps the most important thing any storyteller can recognize is not what stories appeal to him or her most, but why.

Filmmakers of all stripes, from the green to the weathered, from the industry stalwarts to the newbies all took in Directing Motion. Because we were all there to learn, as adeptly as possible, how to move our cameras—and was an ostensibly technically astounding workshop all centered around how the best storytellers in the world move their cameras with purpose

Yet, Directing Motion was more than that, because Vincent Laforet pushed us to take one step further, past the physical movement of our camera. He was pushing every single person there to step back and reflect upon their why.

Motion isn’t just how you move your camera, it's how you move your audience. 

This is what we’ve always meant by “purpose”: where you hope to move your audience, how you hope to do that, and what your intended result for such a journey will be.

So while we attended Directing Motion expecting some serious schooling in moving the physical vessel of capturing a story, we left with a new sense of revitalization about a director’s purpose. A purpose so much broader than the route any piece of gear follows.

From the movement of the camera on set to the movement of an audience within their emotional lives, a director’s whole duty is to steer a story’s every motion.

Care of Vincent Laforet, here are 5 ways to move your story.

1. Move your shot.

"It’s not just about moving the camera, but revealing information, and tying the two of them together."

A huge idea Vincent conveyed throughout Directing Motion is the imperative of building tension and then releasing it. One of the easiest ways a filmmaker or director can achieve this is in the variety of shots captured within a particular scene.

In this scene from Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott moves carefully from wide, to medium, to tight, building tension through an already tense scene so that the ultimate focus is the eye itself, the source of the scene's humanity—or lackthereof.

Yet, variety isn’t sought for its own sake—capturing a range of succinct wide, medium, and tight shots is about revealing details while simultaneously building tension.

By filming a diversity of wide, medium, and tights, as well as a reverse of angle for each, you have the tools to build tension and intrigue, engaging with an audience in visceral ways while you reveal the details—character, setting, context—that will forge emotional connections between them and your story.

Pro Tip:

Don’t have the time or bandwidth for all 3 shots (wide, medium, and tight)? Try to stick with wide and medium, or medium and tight, and not wide and tight, to ensure you don’t confuse your viewers with a jarring cut.

2. Move your surroundings.

"Your frame is a very powerful tool. It’s what viewers see."

One of the biggest ways to enhance your frame is to not just focus on your talent, but to focus on the world your talent’s story plays out within.

In other words, pay attention to every single detail within your frame, as well as how each detail moves. Sometimes even the seemingly least important details provide vital enrichment to the most important.

Jacques Tati is a master of art direction and set design; each of his films is a playground for moving the surroundings within a frame. In these clips from Playtime, notice how he frames action within walls, behind people moving in the foreground, and in front of other movement behind. It might help to imagine: how would this scene appear to a character in one of those apartments?

Think about this as the most obvious way for a film to come off as “budget”: when the frame looks barren or not lived in, the story follows suite.

For Vincent, this is the “eye candy”: objects in the foreground and background that allow for depth and motion blur.

Motion blur replicates the visceral experience of movement in life. It draws the audience into the frame, convinces them they are there with the characters of the story—or, when relevant to your story, it confirms that they are removed from the scene, only observers without the kind of control that could alter the motion of what they are watching.

What’s more: any frame can find character, depth, lines, and symmetry in the most seemingly ordinary of objects—because these are the objects with which people most connect. When you move the everyday objects of our lives throughout a frame, you are assembling a world of emotional familiarity.

Pro Tip:

Consider vertical lines in the foreground and the background—people, buildings, trees: once you start to see the lines you won’t be able to stop. These lines create depth. Frame things out, see what vertical lines already exist and imagine those you can place in your frame.

3. Move your talent.

“It’s not all about how the camera moves. It’s also about how your talent in the frame moves.”

Your talent! They must move strategically. They must move appropriately regarding your story. So how do you plan out all of your talents’ movement? The process is called blocking.

Again we return to tension: building it within a frame via your talents’ movements is paramount to keeping your audience engaged.

As Vincent points out, “Keep the frame going. No dead spots.” He’s not only referencing your camera, but your talent too.

Planning is essential—before you ever meet with your talent. Scout the location. Where will your talent go and—more importantly—why?

Look no further than George Roy Hill's 1973 caper classic The Sting for a primer in blocking: moving your talent deliberately to only reveal just enough detail to keep your audience pinned to their seats.

There’s plenty of software out there that can help you in drawing out your vision (including the app Vincent uses and recommends, the efficiently named Shot Planner). But so can a pencil and piece of notebook paper.

One way to practice, or at least to understand, blocking is to lock off your camera—to basically keep it stationary—and to build tension within a constrained frame using only the motion of your talent.

Keep in mind that, like a drum loop or heartbeat, tension is a matter of rhythm. And, as we mentioned above, the individual notes in that rhythm is a reveal—or even an obfuscation—of detail.

In other words, how does your talent leaving or entering frame contribute to the overall message of that shot? Moving closer to the lens? Moving away? The way in which your talent occupies a frame speaks volumes for the way in which an audience should perceive that talent’s character, and then how the audience will continue to perceive that character once more has been revealed or less has become available.

Pro Tip:

Use stand-ins to mark all of your shots before your talent arrives on set. Get everything dialed in beforehand so you have more time filming with your talent.

4. Move your audience.

This infamous Steadicam shot from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is known for its efficiency in immersing the viewer in Henry Hill's world. Yet, in indulging such camera tricks, any long take runs the risk of throwing too much attention to the camera itself—the key is to make sure there is purpose behind such a shot, that the movement is natural and not forced. 

“These days, audiences want more. Your shots must have a purpose.”

In visual storytelling, motion is about compelling one to feel something.

Motion equals emotion.

If only it were as simple as moving our camera and the objects inside our frames: auto-emotion! Bam!

Yeah...that’s not exactly how it works. It’s not enough to include movement in your frame.

In the context of a story, movement has to be motivated. It has to have purpose.

Vincent explained that as an audience we are truly sucked into a visual story when we don’t notice the movement of the camera—when everything just seems natural. The camera moves a step ahead of the story—it doesn’t just follow the story, trying to catch up. It draws the story out. 

Pro Tip:

Constantly ask yourself “why” while on set. If you don’t have an answer, or if you can’t communicate your answer to other people on your team effectively, it may be time to re-visit your decisions.

5. Move yourself.

“The director is the barometer of the entire set. They set the tone of the set.”

The Directing Motion tour is an amazing learning experience, one we’d recommend to any filmmaker.

But consider Vincent’s situation as it truly is: he wasn’t watching the 100 movies that were on any “greatest of” list; he wasn’t studying some pre-ordained college course syllabus.

He was engaging deeply with the 100 visual stories he loved most.

A storyteller’s greatest resource is the stories he or she loves. 

An incredible part of Vincent's tour is his many hands-on opportunities. If given the chance, make sure to raise your hand and participate: collaboration is essential to filmmaking.

An incredible part of Vincent's tour is his many hands-on opportunities. If given the chance, make sure to raise your hand and participate: collaboration is essential to filmmaking.

Like any famous Hollywood director, as storytellers ourselves—storytellers whose educations are never at an end—the stories with which we connect on the most fundamental of levels are those we must understand in order to get any audience to connect to our stories on the same level.

Directing Motion makes this as clear as the cinematic language one must use to communicate efficiently on set:

Education is the responsibility of the student as much as the teacher.

Like Vincent, Directing Motion's teacher, every filmmaker must understand which films move him or her most.

Pro Tip:  

Refuse to let your education end at the conclusion of the Directing Motion tour. Because collaboration is essential to filmmaking, take everything you’ve learned with you as you move into the world and join a team. Make an effort to meet some local, like-minded filmmakers. Understand what moves them—and you’ll better understand what moves you.

Maybe the next amazing story you tell will be one you tell together.

Did you attend Directing Motion? We’d love it if you shared any additional lessons you learned in the comments below. Still planning to attend? What are you looking forward to most?