Seventies Scribology Cinema: Our Design Principles in Film

When we look at the design principles that we call Scribology, we don’t consider them in a vacuum.  We envision them as part of creative history, tied particularly strongly to the visual arts of film, television, video, song, and more.

For this installment, let’s take a look at a trio of classic seventies cinema that indisputably reflect the power of the design principles we at TruScribe work on to please our valued clients.

Taxi Driver: The Power of the Human Form

Let’s start with Taxi Driver (1976), one of the seventies’ most famous films.  Martin Scorsese’s intense character study of a man losing himself to the confusing, unfair, and uncaring realities of New York City living supercharged Robert De Niro’s career and sparked decades of discussion about mental illness and the loneliness of urban life. In one perfect scene, Scorsese tells us all we need to know about his message and his lead character.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) has had a bad date with activist Betsy, and is trying to make amends on a payphone call.  We hear only his side of the conversation, consisting mainly of repeated apologies and numerous ideas for a second date.  Clearly, Betsy is saying no.  

After a minute of his one-sided, dead-on-arrival dialogue, the camera pans to the right, and stares down an empty hallway.  Travis says goodbye and walks away, his voiceover confirming that Betsy wanted nothing to do with him.

Design Principle: Movement

Our eyes are instinctually drawn to Travis because our eyes always seek human forms when they’re present. When the camera moves off of Travis, we feel a twinge—where did he go?  Why are we over here?  Where is the conventional human form to focus on?

The camera’s movement also radically alters the framing and image density.  We go from having a fairly intimate shot of our protagonist to… nothing.  The screen goes from a low image density, framed with immediacy and closeness, to a vacant space.  There’s nothing to focus on, the human form is gone, and we’re left with walls and air, framed in a long, dead shot.

The message?  This is what loneliness looks like: a disembodied voice, kept company only by vacant space.  Travis might as well be talking to himself.  He’s completely abandoned—so, seemingly take a cue from this truth, the camera leaves him alone too.

The French Connection: Keeping You Surprised

Now, let’s shift gears to William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller The French Connection.  The film follows Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), a rough-around-the-edges cop obsessed with catching French heroin kingpin Alain Charnier.  The entire film is a mad chase, with police and criminals desperately attempting to outmaneuver one another.

There’s one scene, however, that is pure chase—possibly the most famous chase sequence in film.  Doyle narrowly survives an assassination attempt by Charnier’s hitman Nicoli, and chases the murderer through the New York streets until finally ending the increasingly dangerous rampage on an elevated train stairway.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right?  Not quite.  The chase starts on foot, transitions into a two-tiered pursuit with Nicoli hijacking an elevated train and Doyle pursuing in a commandeered car, starts and stops as Doyle attempts to catch Nicoli at train stops and is forced to get back in his car and continue following below the train, and finally ends on foot.

Motion is a constant in Doyle’s chase, as Doyle’s car careens through crowded traffic.  It’s not smooth, comfortable motion, either—it’s jagged, punctuated, and rough, with Doyle’s morality forcing him to sacrifice speed in favor of avoiding accidents, while Nicoli has no such compunctions.  Our brains track motion aggressively, keeping viewer engagement high; director Friedkin clearly knows this and uses it to remarkable effect.

Design Principle: Surprise

Surprise causes the brain to release dopamine, which makes us become and remain curious.  In The French Connection’s chase, we are always curious—how on earth will Doyle stop this guy?  The villain is literally above him, moving unfettered, while Doyle is forced to swerve and fishtail his car through the citizens below.

Even more surprising is the shifting framing, which repeatedly shows us Doyle’s face as he drives.  We frequently receive the intimate close-up of our hero that we’re used to in a car chase, but it’s not conventionally ‘cool’ or attractive.  Doyle doesn’t look collected or in charge—he’s snarling, shouting, furious and scared.  The human expressions that draw our eyes to Doyle are shockingly… human.

We get to know Doyle, and his motivations, better here than at any point yet in the film: we know now how much he cares about his dangerous job, but that he never loses sight of his environment and the people he’s sworn to protect.  We also get to know Nicoli (wanton, soulless, dangerously intelligent), and by extension, the kind of evil that would hire him (antagonist Charnier).  

Friedkin tells these story elements with Doyle’s face, his car, the streets, Nicoli’s gun, and more; we don’t need dialogue for this masterful visual story.

The Godfather: Voice Conveys Power

For our third study of seventies Scribology in action, let’s examine an early scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s immortal 1972 film The Godfather.  It’s a short scene, functioning as a peephole into design principles that will echo throughout the film.  

In the scene, mafia boss Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is responding to a request for “justice” from an acquaintance on the “day [Don Corleone’s] daughter is to be married.”  Corleone refuses on principle, as the man, Bonasera, has never shown Corleone respect or friendship until he needed Corleone’s influence.  Significantly, he did not even call Corleone by his honorific (Godfather).  

The most significant portion of the scene, where Corleone explains the disrespect he perceives in the request, is shot from behind the standing Bonasera, focused on the seated Corleone.  The framing immediately creates a major power dynamic: we only see the body language and emotion of Corleone, as Bonasera is rendered unimportant by his scant presence in frame.  Moreover, Corleone’s relaxed position shows his calm and authority, compared to Bonasera’s nervous and formal stance.

Design Principle: Accent Color

Then, there’s the accent color—everyone is in a black suit or tuxedo, and the room is dark; the only color that pops is the red boutonniere in Corleone’s pocket.  It’s a powerful focal tool, just like Corleone’s voice.  It’s raspy and strange, but fundamentally, it’s controlled.  Brando performs his dialogue in the same quiet, urgent tone throughout the scene; even when Bonasera apologizes and Corleone agrees to help him, his voice remains identical.

Voice is a crucial element of messaging. If Brando had shouted or snarled, his character would’ve looked far less empowered and in control.  His delivery cements the idea Coppola wants the audience to receive: this man never gets worked up, because he knows just how powerful he is.  He doesn’t need to yell, even when he’s angry.

Key Takeaways

With framing, voice, accent color, message, image density, and human forms, along with other principles of Scribology, seventies classics like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and The Godfather prove that principled design choices reliably lead to memorable, classic communication of ideas and entertainment.

TruScribe visualizes words, ideas, and stories to change how people see, think, and act. If you have a project in mind or want to learn more, get in touch.

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