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Cinematic Storytelling
is handout is a compilation of notes from the timeless book Cinematic Storytelling: !e 100
Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll (2005). Even
though we have probably seen these conventions used hundreds of times in Hollywood "lms,
many of us lack the awareness and vocabulary to identify the types of techniques used to create
the shots in a movie sequence. is handout is a crash course to enable you to create more
effective storyboards by revealing many of the techniques at your disposal to tell your story.

Thoughts on filmmaking
“I can pick up a screenplay and "ip through the pages. If all I see is dialog, dialog, dialog, I won’t
even read it. I don’t care how good the dialog is -- it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time...
It’s not the stage. A movie audience doesn’t have the patience to sit and learn a lesson...”
-- Robert Evans, “e Biggest Mistake Writers Make”

“In many of the #lms now being made, there is very little cinema; they are mostly what I call
‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when
it’s impossible to do otherwise... It is essential… to rely more on the visual than on the dialog.
Whichever way you choose to stage the action, your main concern is to hold the audience’s fullest
attention.” -- Alfred Hitchcock

Famous silent movies like e Great Train Robbery and Metropolis had to use non-dialog
techniques to carry character and plot. Titles cards were used when explanations were necessary,
but always as a last resort. ere are more engaging ways to tell the story than through title cards.

Camera placement, lighting, composition, motion, and editing were relied on as the primary
storytellers. Cinematic tools like the camera were not just used to record the scene. Instead, they
were responsible for advancing plot and character.

Cinematic storytelling manipulates our emotions, revealing character and plot without our
immediate knowledge. Review the "rst ten minutes of ET. e setup is completely cinematic. Not
a word of dialog. Yet any eight year-old can tell you who the bad guys are and why.

e "rst part of the director’s job is knowing what the audience should be feeling, and when. e
second part is harnessing the tools to get them there.

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Famous Directors worth studying include Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis
Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion, Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, Luc Besson, James
Cameron, and the Wachowski Brothers. For these directors, a shot isn’t considered unless it
advances plot or character. ere are no thowaways.

Movement in Space
❏ Horizontal movement (X-axis): Characters who enter from camera le are generally
perceived as the “good guy.” Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. e theory is
that the eye moves comfortably from le to right as this mimics reading (in most languages).
Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences characters who move in this direction. e
eyes are less experienced in moving the opposite direction and are therefore less comfortable. e
subtle irritant directs audiences to see the character negatively.

When these two forces are aimed at each other, we naturally anticipate some kind of collision. Ex:
Opening scene of Strangers on a Train: By using screen direction to graphically suggest a pending
collision, the "lm has set up con%ict and character, and peaked our fears -- all in under a minute.

❏ Vertical Movement (Y-axis): Moving an object down the screen appears easy as it is aided by
gravity. Moving an object up the screen will appear difficult because it is assumed it will be
resisted by gravity.

When an object runs along an axis in a straight line, and moves at a "xed speed, we automatically
assume that the “good” destination is somewhere along the trajectory. Staying on track is a deep-
felt virtue. Detouring or being sidetracked has negative connotations. Children’s fables are "lled
with mishaps that occur when characters venture away from established routes. Ex: Opening
scene of Strangers on a Train. e metaphor is also a succinct synopsis of the plot: What happens
to a good man when his path is suddenly diverted?

❏ Diagonals (XY-Axes): Move down along a diagonal seems easy, and once the motion starts, it
may even feel hard to stop. e right-to-le ascent is the most difficult of all screen directions: It
goes against the reading eye and works against gravity as well. It will feel like a tough journey.

❏ Z-Axis: Objects closer to the lens appear bigger than similar objects that are farther away from
the lens. is is particularly apparent when using a wide-angle lens. For example, when characters
move from the foreground to the background their height is diminished more quickly than
expected. When they return to the foreground they seem to leap towards the camera, becoming
larger, faster than the eye expects. e reverse is true with a telephoto lens. is optical property

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as a character moves within the frame can affect the character’s size relative to other characters
within the frame.

Grabbing Attention
e eye responds to visual stimuli like brightness, color, size, shape, motion, speed, and direction.

❏ Lighting : Objects that are brightly lit tend to attract our attention, even if they are background
elements. So make sure important characters are well-lit. What’s unimportant can be le in
darkness to minimize distractions.

❏ Imbalance and Balance: Asymmetry and contrast attract attention. If there are two apples and
one orange on the table, we’re immediately intrigued.

❏ Rack Focus: Also called Pull Focus, it allows you to redirect the audience’s attention from one
object to another. We tend to want to look at the part of the frame that is in focus. e rack focus
effect requires a shallow depth-of-"eld and is oen used to suddenly reveal an important plot
point. Ex: In e Graduate, Mrs. Robinson is revealed as the answer to Elaine’s question by
suddenly being pulled into focus. It also externalizes Elaine’s confusion by waiting for her
moment of recognition to pull her back into focus.

❏ Orientation : When the basic rules of orientation are broken, they draw attention to
themselves. Consequently when they are used, they need to mean something. Introducing a
character upside-down, for example, clearly breaks the rules. Seeing an extreme close-up, such as
an eye, is similarly disorienting. A disorienting shot should intentionally disorient. If done
carefully, it can externalize a character’s inner world. Ex: Apocalypse Now opening.

❏ Contrast: While not limited to visuals, contrasts tend to stick with the viewer: Poor vs. rich;
light vs. dark; good vs. evil; organic vs. geometric; civilized vs. untamed; passive vs. aggressive.

Editing Techniques
To Vsevold Pudovkin (1920s), the purposeful use of editing could guide the viewer’s emotional
response. e editor’s single most important job is “the psychological guidance of the spectator.”
❏ Straight Cut: Most cuts do not need a transition. However, for connected scenes, it is oen
effective to “cut on the action” to make the context of the second clip apparent to the viewer. Ex: If
you shot a baseball player from two different angles, end the "rst clip in mid-swing and continue

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the swing in the second clip. Further, it is common for audio of the following clip to be heard
before the visual cut follows (called a J-cut). Ex: If one character asks a question, edit the audio
response to start before we “turn our head” to see who is speaking.

❏ Dissolves: Soens a cut. Oen used to show passage of time. Links two ideas together by
blending one image into another. Ex: Citizen Kane opening. Implies no one shot could have
encompassed the massive estate.

❏ Montage: An assembly of quick cuts, perhaps disconnected in time or place, that combine to
form a larger idea. A montage is frequently used to convey passage of time, coming of age, or
emotional transition. Ex: Adaptation opening scene depicts protagonist’s historical and
philosophical continuum and the impossible standard against which he will evaluate the meaning
of this life.

❏ Intercutting (cross-cutting): occurs when two scenes are presented by cutting back and forth
between them. is creates a sense of two actions occurring simultaneously in two locations.

❏ Split Screen: runs two shots side-by-side within a single frame. Creates idea of simultaneous
action. Ex: Kill Bill, Vol. 1 whistle scene. Suggests the imminent physical proximity of the victim
to the assassin by having the two share the frame.

❏ Smash Cut: Jar the audience with a sudden and unexpected change in image or sound. Wide
shot to close-up. Fast moving shot to static shot. Ex: A surreal dream sequence cuts abruptly to
the sound and close-up of an alarm clock blaring.

❏ Mise-en-Scène: Originally means “putting in the scene.” Now it means action plays out in front
of a continually running camera. New compositions are created through blocking, lens zooms,
and camera movement instead of cutting. Scene is shot in real time as an uninterrupted take that
will stand on its own without editing. Ex: Psycho shower scene aermath. Technique appears to
return us to normalcy, but content sabotages any sense of relief. Ex: Touch of Evil opening.

Manipulating Time
❏ Expanding Time: Milking the scene through overlapping action. Time is slowed down to
externalize character’s emotion. Adds suspense without dialog, leaving the audience to fear what
might lie ahead. Ex: As a character counts to 3, stretch each interval with detail and reaction shots
to show what is happening simultaneously during the count.

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❏ Slo-Motion: Visually suggest two states of consciousness by contrasting it to real time. Show
how character sees the world when in the midst of a traumatic or euphoric event. When slo-mo
coupled with POV, it can greatly increase audience sympathy. Ex: Raging Bull boxing scene.

❏ Fast-Motion (Time Compression): oen used for comedy, but can be effective in drama. Ex:
Requiem for a Dream: speeded-up action underscores doctor’s inattention and inevitability of
Sara’s descent.

❏ Flashback: Fill the audience in on important backstory. e key to whether a %ashback works
is whether the %ashback moves the plot forward. If it puts the "lm arti"cially on hold or is
aesthetically hackneyed, the audience will reject it.

❏ Flashforward: typically assisted with a slow dissolve to prepare the audience for a time change.

❏ Freeze Frame: By freezing the moment like a photograph, the image takes on an iconic air and
the audience is cued to take special notice of the content. Ex: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
Rather than see their beloved characters die, they are frozen and live forever. ough we may
suspect what will happen next, we won’t ever know. It protects them from time.

Sound Effects
Outside of a musical score, movies rely on three kinds of sound to tell their stories: dialog,
narrator voiceover, sound effects. Sound effects add layers of meaning to a "lm that are hard to
achieve in other ways. ey can intentionally draw attention to themselves, or be manipulated
with stealth. ey can also be tagged to speci"c events or characters.

❏ Realistic Sound (Diegetic): Sound that is organic to a scene is called diegetic sound. Ex: ET:
Sound of keys is coded as the sound of the approaching antagonists. By including a sound tag,
audience can judge how close antagonist is to victim, regardless of whether they appear on screen.
Forces audience to participate, mimicking action of the victim, listening for sound clues.

❏ Expressive Sound (Diegetic; outer world): Organic to scene but altered for dramatic effect.
Hum of a mosquito. A phone’s ring that gets louder and louder. Can have the effect of making us
fear for the protagonist for what awaits.

❏ Surreal Sound (Meta-Diegetic; inner world): internal thoughts, nightmares, dreams. Ex:
Postcard accompanied by sounds of ocean. Laughter of children from a %ashback of school.

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❏ External Sound (Non-Diegetic): can give additional meaning to a scene. Ex: Church bell as
inmate walks down death row, even though there is not a church for miles.

* Sound effects can be used as a prop or plot point.
* Don’t have to match with picture.
* Can be a character’s signature, or remind us of event.
* Two sound effects can be placed side by side and generate a new idea.

❏ Lyrics as Narrator: can act as inner thoughts of character. Can establish theme, con%ict, and
mood. Audience expects lyrics to be signi"cant. Especially when they are placed at beginning of
"lm, “the most expensive real-estate” in a movie. For CS2C, do not use copyrighted music.

❏ Symbolic Use of Music: e idea of the music itself. Ex: Shawshank Redemption: hearing the
music fuels Red’s most signi"cant turning point. He knows something inside him has crossed
over, and he can’t go back. e music acts as a catalyst for change.

Scene Transitions
Movement between end of one scene and the beginning of another. Each transition presents
opportunity to convey story information by virtue of how the scenes are cut together. Scenes can
be cut with no intentional reference or constructed to add a story element. A matching transition
is one way to exploit this opportunity. Essentially, a matching transition “matches” the outgoing
shot with the incoming shot. is can also be done with sound.

❏ Visual Match-Cut (Graphic Similarity): can be based on similarity of content, graphics, shape,
motion, size, graphics, color. Move story along based on juxtaposition of two images. Dissolves
between images can also be used. Externalize ideas about theme, motivation, passage of time. Ex:
2001: A Space Odyssey spinning bone is matched to space ship, and we travel from prehistoric
man to space era, a huge %ashforward. Ex: All at Jazz: One dancer’s movement is continued by
another. Suggests passage of time and interchangeability of dancers.

❏ Visual Match-Cut (Idea): Cut or visual metaphor answers a question. Ex: Harold and Maude
psychiatrist session. Giant wrecking ball answers questions about feelings for mom. Ex: Requiem
for a Dream jail bars: Sara and Tyrone united by drugs, each in own prison.

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❏ Matching Audio Segue: An audio dissolve, sometimes used to mask an important event. Ex:
Fatal Attraction: Tea kettle masks sound of screams, and is silenced just in time. Sorry, Wrong
Number: screeching train masks screams.

❏ Audio Bridge: an outgoing sound from one scene continues over a new shot; used to connect
the two scenes aurally. Ex: Apocalypse Now opening: sound of helicopter blades is laid over image
of spinning ceiling fan, taking us inside Captain Willard’s mind. Ex: Citizen Kane Christmas
scene: Compression of time by connecting two periods with a greeting. Twenty years pass.

Camera Lenses
❏ Wide-Angle lens (or zoomed out): delivers great depth-of-"eld to an image. Each character
can inhabit own horizontal plane. Ex: Citizen Kane %ashback: three planes: mother signing, father
looking angry, Kane playing and literally placed outside the decision making. Movements toward
or away from camera seem exaggerated.

❏ Wide-Angle (Vistas and Establishing Shots): naturally suited for exterior shots. Able to place
huge distance between objects to mirror state of relationship.

❏ Telephoto (or zoomed in): Compresses space, making objects appear in same plane. Shallow
depth-of-"eld throws objects out of focus. Ex: e Graduate race against clock. Running doesn’t
seem to gain him distance, creating suspense.

Fisheye: e shorter the focal length, the more linear distortion. Prop Lenses within the Scene
(Fisheye, re%ection): Ex: Citizen Kane: See re%ection in ornament.

Objects: Shooting through stained glass or water alters photographic properties. Ex: Dances with
Wolves: Distorted view through glass adds historical authority and creates sense of distorted POV.

Camera Position
❏ Close-Up (CU): includes head and shoulders of subject. “Close shot” may refer to person or
object. “Close-up” usually refers to a person. e closer we get to a character, the more sympathy
we are likely to feel. e close-up can also be used to evoke fear or revulsion when the audience is
forced to be in close proximity to a character already established as a hated antagonist.

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❏ Extreme Close-Up (ECU): Draws attention to an object by making it larger-than-life, such as
an eye, bullet, or other detail.

❏ Over-the-Shoulder (OTS): Camera is placed behind the shoulder of a character, and their
head and shoulders are seen in the foreground and used as a framing device. Most oen a second
character is the subject of interest. OTS can suggest relationship: tension, intimacy, desire, hatred,
imprisonment, conspiracy. Ex: e Piano: object of her attention is piano le behind on the
beach. What is exaggerated is the physical distance between them.

❏ Point-of-View (POV): Placed at eye level of character so audience sees what the character sees.
Gives exaggerated sense of intimacy with the character. Translates to sympathy of fear, depending
on whose POV we are experiencing. It should not be randomly used. Ex: Halloween: By coding
the character with a unique camera shot, John Carpenter was able to %ashforward "een years
and immediately re-establish the character’s identity without dialog or any other visual assistance.

❏ High-Angle: camera is placed above a subject with lens pointing down. Makes the subject
appear small and vulnerable.

❏ Low-Angle: camera is placed below the subject and lens is pointing up. Subject appears larger-
than-life. Transfers power to the subject, making it appear to dominate. Ex: ET: view of tall
redwoods and trucks contributes to our sense of ET’s vulnerability.

❏ Hi-Lo Combined: Ex: Psycho motel: Intercut to show POV of hunter and hunted.

Camera Motion
❏ Static shot: locked down on tripod. Stillness makes it easy to compare similar shots.

❏ Handheld: the bumpier the shot, the more instability can be suggested. Oen exaggerated by
juxtaposing with smooth or locked down shot.

❏ Pan: Camera pivots along horizontal plane. Ex: Dances with Wolves opening. Seeing the
primitive instruments through Dunbar’s POV, we understand his decision not to have the

❏ Tilt-Up / Tilt-Down : Used as a reveal or moving close-up. Directs attention to details that
audience may not otherwise notice. Ex: Revealing a new heroic or sexy character.

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❏ Rotation: Disorienting effect. Works as a metaphor characterizing tone of the sequence.
Rotation indicates changeover from normal to surreal. Ex: Apocalypse Now opening.

❏ Tracking: camera is mounted on dolly and glides along tracks, which can form a linear or
curved pattern. Ex: American Beauty opening tracking shot of jury as a reveal. Fatal Attraction:
reveals two faces of Dan’s character. Camera movement parallels outer and inner self. Ex:
Reservoir Dogs: despite giving us feeling of having insider knowledge through circular tracking,
we actually have completely misread the scene.

❏ Push-In, Pull-Out: Causing view to narrow (also called Track-In) or widen (also called Push-
Out, Pull-Back, Widen-Out). Oen used in combination to get in and out of locations or for
dramatic comparison. Ex: Zoom in to TV in one home, zoom out of TV in another home.

❏ Crane: High-angle can create omniscient quality. Effortless ability to reveal “secrets” and
pertinent events. Ex: Touch of Evil opening.

❏ Steadicam: Dream like %oating quality. Ex: Goodfellas; Rocky stairs scene; e Shining.

❏ Rembrandt Lighting: intentionally contrasts light and dark. High contrast lighting
(chiaroscuro) is oen reserved for #lm noir or pivotal scenes expressing key philosophical
questions of good and evil, life and death.

❏ TV Lighting : or Sitcom lighting, is conventionally bright, %at, and shadowless. Ex: Natural
Born Killers %ashback: takes a known medium and turns it upside down.

❏ Candlelight: %atters the face, smoothes the skins, adds a warm tone. Suggests romance,
festivities, harmony, pre-twentieth century. Ex: American Beauty dinner scene: exploits properties
associated with candlelight to show how far from idealized life the family has traveled.

❏ Motivated Lighting: refers to any light that would naturally exist in the world depicted in the
frame. e source of light can be the desk lamp, or a lamp post that shines light from above a
character, but is not itself depicted in the scene.

❏ Unmotivated Light: e source of light cannot be logically explained, but can put a spotlight
on an important element, or give the scene a religious quality. Ex: e Professional peephole scene:
Charactering a professional assassin as a positive moral force is a difficult job.

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