Somewhere, somewhen and audience service

I remember reading Steve Stockman’s How to shoot video that doesn’t suck and coming across the line “Every story needs a somewhere and a somewhen” and being thunderstruck. It gave a sense of purpose to wide shots. But the more I thought about it, “somewhere” and “somewhen” aren’t about visual grammar. They’re about audience service: How do we place our audience in the story and where do we place them? Is it October on the Great Plains in a drought? Night near the Brooklyn Bridge? Are we in a dramatic, wide open space or an intimate, cramped one?

But then I realized that we can use shots to place the audience within a story so they understand things better. Look at this clip from Tombstone and see how the camera’s wide shots aren’t just in there to break up the litany of tights and extreme tights of Val Kilmer’s lips Michael Biehl’s crazy eyes. They’re used to create a sense of where the gunfight is happening and the characters’ relative locations within the context of the grove where the gunfight is happening. It’s a small thing — but if you were to cut the scene without it, the audience would never get a sense of place within the moment.