How to Think About Grammar
Directors and editors generally like unobtrusive cuts. The less attention the mechanics of film production take, the more attention goes to the story. The basic rules of film grammar are designed to further this goal. Following the basic rules will provide smooth transitions and a neutral flavor to the craftsmanship of your story.
This general truth has caused some people think of film grammar only as these basic rules. This leads some to doggedly obey the rules, others to want to tear them down. This sort of thinking misses the point and throws away much of the potential power of film grammar.
Sophisticated film grammar is a toolkit of qualifiers that sharpen the intention and tone of the action. Think of it this way: a business letter and an e e cummings poem each have a grammar. They are not the same grammar, but they are not arbitrary either. Both sets of conventions, though very different, help the reader understand the content and meaning of the work.
So it is with film grammar. We have some basic principles that help the viewer understand, for instance, that two characters are looking at each other, even when they are not in the same frame. We have a way to place a camera and select a lens that can give the viewer a feeling of either distance or intimacy. These principles may be used strictly or surprisingly. Either way, they impact the tone and meaning of the action, whether with elegant clarity as in To Kill a Mockingbird, complex subtext as in Dangerous Liaisons or playfully irreverence as in Trainspotting.
Good filmmakers, script supervisors included, can break the basic rules all the time, in fact, we kind of have to. The trick is to recognize the impact of film grammar and break the rules with meaning.
The work of film grammar is first, clarity of intent, so that the audience can understand the dynamics of your action and second, a presentation of that action using a unique and appropriate spirit.
Excerpt from Beyond Continuity: Script Supervision for the Modern Filmmaker by Mary Cybulski © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.