Show the Story (Dimension W Ep. 1)
In my One Week Friends analysis, I mentioned how there are certain things a director has to show. Most simply, the shots have to show the viewer enough so that we can follow the steps of the story. Typically that means we need to know what action is occurring, where that action is occurring, and who is performing the action. Some movies and shows play around with excluding one or two of those details (a mystery movie might hide the perpetrator of an action, for example), but usually those three details are the bare necessities. Anything more than that—such as characterization or world-building—is bonus.
A first episode benefits the most from shots that convey extra details, since the viewer needs to be introduced to the characters and world, as well as be enticed to continue watching. The writing of plot and dialogue plays a major role in accomplishing those tasks, but the directing can elevate a first episode from good to great. Let’s figure out how shots in Dimension W work to create a fantastic first episode.
One of the earliest shots in the episode reveals a lot about the main character, Mabuchi, as well as the world he lives in. His tiny, grimy repair shop is dwarfed by the massive, shining city behind it. Immediately, we can tell Mabuchi isn’t living a futuristic life of luxury. The line of trees separating the shop from the city indicates that Mabuchi lives a more primitive lifestyle. That might sound far-fetched, but given how we learn Mabuchi hates coils and continues to run his machinery off gasoline, it ends up being foreshadowing. There aren’t many trees in the technology-ridden city, after all.
A short expository infomercial of sorts explains the existence of dimension W and the containment of energy via coils. A quick info-dump like that is no big deal in meatier sci-fi, especially considering the sequence of shots that follow. We learn that the power-button-like symbol represents coils after seeing it on the boatman’s arm and a cat’s back. In addition to providing a visual cue to notice coils, these shots show just how widespread the use of coils is. A bionic arm, a cat, and (we can guess) an entire girl all run off of coils. We see for ourselves how vital coils are to this world.
Beyond that, the shots of Mira running through the city hint at the economic state of this world. The buildings at the foot of the city are all dirty and lined with trash, in contrast to the glimmering skyscrapers in the background. This is a similar effect as with Mabuchi’s shop, but this time the ‘character’ in question is the city. The high and low angles of these shots emphasize the strength of technology/New Tesla and the weakness of the poor/Mira.
We’ve seen how the environment can reveal something about a character and world, so now let’s check out what information the objects/people contained in a shot can convey. We see Four wiping her hands as a man twitches on the ground with a shattered bionic knee—an injury she’s clearly responsible for. Her theatric bow informs us she works for Mary and that breaking knees is just another part of her job. Since we saw the robot arena beforehand, we can infer that some gambling is going on and the man on the ground probably owed some debts he couldn’t pay. The shot reveals heaps of information about Four and Mary, and also tells a story about an unfortunate gambler.
What’s the impact of these extra details? As a viewer, you know that you’re always interpreting what’s on the screen. Even when you try to turn your brain off and watch a laid-back comedy, you’re noticing what’s on the screen and making meaning out of it—that’s how sight gags make you laugh. Viewers are great at figuring out what small details imply, as evidenced by that shot of Four. Show viewers the same symbol every time coils show up, and it won’t take long before they associate the symbols with coils. It’s conditioning.
The more implications the director makes visually, in the language of camera shots, the better. Viewers are best informed visually—I think we can all agree on that. Seeing a world is damn close to experiencing that world, so we can be shown most of what we need and want to know about the world. Camera shots can be a tool to take the audience on a tour of the story world. As for characters, a badass illegal coil collector like Mary is going to be involved in shady business and have some tough thugs backing her up, so it makes sense for us to see what happens if you mess with her. If the camera follows a character, we ought to learn about them via what we see.
Yes, inevitably this returns to the timeless advice of ‘show, don’t tell’. I suppose there’s a reason it’s timeless, after all.