“Show, don’t tell.”
As a writer, this is one of the biggest lessons you can learn. It’s not that telling is a bad thing — it can be useful if you write travel guides, or map directions. But if you’re in a creative field, and especially in the world of fiction, telling your audience that it’s cold outside does not have the same impact as showing it — saying that the wind funnelled down the street, flinging ice crystals against your protagonist’s exposed face until he tucked it deeper into the threadbare scarf knotted around his neck. You feel it. You’re there.
This seems like a no-brainer for purveyors of the written word, like yours truly. But what relevance might showing versus telling have in the world of visual art? TV and film, for instance? Isn’t the entire point to show?
It was with these questions in mind that I walked into the IFC Center on Saturday afternoon for a panel discussion with four directors behind some of the top shows in this Golden Age of Television: Lauren Wolkstein (Queen Sugar), Julie Anne Robinson (The Good Place, Masters of Sex, Orange is the New Black), Gillian Robespierre (Silicon Valley, Casual, Crashing), and Tricia Brock (Mr. Robot, The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire — fans of Twin Peaks may also remember her from the Season 2 episodes “Dispute Between Brothers” and “The Condemned Woman”). I wanted to know what these brilliant and talented women had to say about showing vs. telling in a medium that seems like it’s all showing.
Let’s just say: I learned a lot.
Moderator Matt Zoller Seitz opened with a number of questions for the panel, which led to some keen observations from each presenter about the nature of TV vs film. Robespierre grew up with film, and though she works in TV (she says she’s addicted to it) her heart belongs to cinema, something which is clear when she talks about her experience on the set of Crashing, which shoots in film and not digitally. Wolkstein credits The X Files with her awakening, saying that after being a teenaged fan of the show she started seeking out films that did what The X Files did; the lines are so blurred between the two mediums now that it may almost be a useless distinction. Brock opined that TV used to be secondary to film, something which may or may not be true any longer. Robinson, who has worked in both mediums, said she approaches both from the same place aesthetically — essentially, there is no distinction for her.
The conversation shifted to being a “hired gun” director — someone who comes into someone else’s world and directs an episode of a series that doesn’t belong to them directly. There was a sense that this is what it feels like — especially on a show with very strict parameters for what is and is not allowed (Brock mentions Mr Robot, which has a very distinct feel and look and thus can’t be messed with too much, as an example here); but there was a general agreement that it’s not a bad thing to play in someone else’s playground. Robinson, who has directed episodes of Pushing Daisies and Parks and Recreation, says that the visual language of each show she gets to work on gives her he opportunity to learn new languages, which she can then translate into new work in other places. Robespierre said that having empathy for the characters makes it easy to work within another’s show, especially if you love the show.
The freedom to be creative was another jumping off point. Interestingly, bad writing was a place Brock said gives her the most freedom — needing to step in and create something from virtually nothing sounds thrilling when she’s talking about it. And something we rarely think about as an audience — cameras and their placement — came up a lot too, specifically with regard to B cameras, or second cameras. Coming up with interesting and creative uses for your secondary camera adds to the fun of a shoot for any show, especially when potentially constrained by “look books” or production bibles.
This was all a pretext to being able to watch personally-selected clips from each director’s portfolio, and here was where we got to the bread and butter of the afternoon. Lauren Wolkstein showed a clip from Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar that hasn’t yet aired — an exciting premiere for fans in the crowd and for Wolkstein herself who hadn’t even seen the final cut yet. In it, Micah (Nicholas L Ashe) is attending his first day at public school, with the spectre of police brutality, civil disobedience, and community activism hanging over every frame. In one brief scene, Wolkstein managed to create a sense of inclusion by having the Steadicam circle the friends at the table, emphasizing their community while excluding the intrusive presence of a nearby security guard. Framing medium-closeups of Micah so that he is always within the frame with his girlfriend emphasizes his closeness to her, their relationship, as opposed to going close up on him (isolating him) or on the security guard (giving him more prominence than he might deserve). Little things like this change the way the audience reacts to the scene on a level we aren’t even aware of, and it was fascinating to hear the thought processes behind it.
Gillian Robespierre shared a clip from Crashing, in which Pete (Pete Holmes) is struggling to find his friend and fellow comedian Artie (Artie Lange) who is late for his headlining act in a benefit for a friend suffering from cancer. Racing down the streets of Greenwich Village on a rickshaw was a challenge for Robespierre — “How do you shut down a street like that at nighttime in this neighbourhood?!” I wonder, as I sit writing this in a cafe on Bleecker Street — but the effect is beautiful and evocative of the struggle as well as the inevitable heartbreak: Artie has relapsed, and is using heroin again. Here Robespierre shows the depth of Pete’s sorrow in medium closeups, again; Pete’s reactions — to Artie, to the car rental agent, to being in church — are what convey his emotion. It’s truly beautifully done.
Julie Anne Robinson shared a clip from the tragically-cancelled show Manhattan, about the Manhattan Project and the building of the first atomic bomb. Tension is mounted by silence, dry dusty desert shots of an unfortunately-aborted test explosion, and by having certain portions of the scene kept out of focus, such as when a military observer arrives on the scene; Robespierre explained that this was happenstance, as the actor who was to portray this character was unable to film that day, so last minute changes were made to hide that fact. It ended up working better in the long run. In another scene, Fritz (Michael Chernus ) is shown declining an invite to watch the detonation and refuses; Robinson told us that information she was given right before shooting — that Fritz is going to commit suicide in an upcoming episode — changed the way she filmed the scene, literally and figuratively illuminating both he scene and the subtext in a way that only makes sense on later watches.
Tricia Brock selected the scene from Halt and Catch Fire wherein Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is preparing for a date with his new girlfriend. It’s a scene with no talking; literally everything is shown, from Gordon’s point of view or very near it, as he confusingly navigates his current home, following the trail of his ex wife (Kerry Bishé) through rooms that reveal aspects of Gordon’s life going back in time to the birth of their first child. Lens flares flash across screen (a choice on Brock’s part, and a deviation from much of the rest of the series) and lend an otherworldly air to the proceedings. It’s only at the end of the scene that we realize why: Gordon has died, succumbing to degenerative brain damage caused by years of exposure to toxic chemicals from his line of work. This scene, like Robinson’s from Manhattan, resonates differently on later watches; it’s in retrospect that you realize that, as Gordon walks away from us and through the doorframe beyond — in a long unbroken shot that Brock says could have been changed but, to their credit, no one changed during editing — it’s final. He’s gone.
A truly enlightening afternoon provided me with a sense of the visual language that directors play with, and the ways in which showing in a primarily visual medium is actually far more nuanced than I ever could have imagined. Many thanks to Tricia Brock, Julie Anne Robinson, Gillian Robespierre, and Lauren Wolkstein, and moderator Matt Zoller Seitz for putting on a truly mesmerizing panel.