Cinematic Techniques in Film Narrative
How do movies carry us from scene to scene? The answer is in the screenplay as well as the cinematic techniques used in the film. Scriptwriters will start their script with a series of meaningful cinematic techniques. Cinematic techniques such as the act structure, choice of shot, scene transition, and camera movement, can greatly influence the structure and meaning of a film. These techniques include the hook, establishing shot, montage, leitmotif, foreshadowing, transition, ‘MacGuffin’, ‘red herring’, ‘bus’, flashback, climax, and twist ending, and will be discussed in detail.
The first and most important technique is the hook. The hook is the core of both a film and its screenplay. It is what grabs the viewer’s attention, usually in the first 5-10 minutes. It is used to captivate and take hold of an audience, blatantly speaking, ‘hooking them in’. If a film does not have a strong ‘hook’ then audiences can lose interest in that film, so a good scriptwriter would use this technique to captivate the audience, and retain their interest throughout the entire film.
Almost every film contains a hook, but a great film will have an astonishing hook, for example, ‘Three days of the Condor’, 1975, directed by Sydney Pollack. Another example would include, ‘National Treasure’, 2004, directed by Jon Turteltaub. Knowing the importance of a good hook, many screenwriters write their hooks first. Conceivably, the life of a screenplay might evolve from hook to 1-page synopsis, to 4-page treatment, to full treatment, to scriptment, to screenplay. Another great cinematic technique is the establishing shot.
The establishing shot is a long, wide-angle or full, shot at the beginning of a scene intended to show things from a distance. It is used to inform the audience with an overview in order to help identify and orient the locale. “An establishing shot in film and television sets up, or establishes the context for a scene by showing the relationship between its important figures and objects.
It is generally a long- or extreme-long shot at the beginning of a scene indicating where, and sometimes when, the remainder of the scene takes place. ” (‘Establishing Shot’, Wikipedia, viewed 27 May 2010, <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Establishing_shot>) An example of a film with an effective establishing shot is ‘The Dark Knight’, 2008, directed by Christopher Nolan. A cinematic technique frequently used in film is the montage. Montage is a form of movie collage consisting of a series of short shots or images that are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information. It is usually used to suggest the passage of time. Montage sequences typically combine numerous short shots with special optical effects such as dissolves, cuts, fades, super-impositions, and wipes.
These effects are often used to link the images in a montage sequence. One of the best-known examples is the training sequence in the 1976 movie ‘Rocky’, which culminates in Rocky’s run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another cinematic technique is a leitmotif. A leitmotif is an intentionally-repeated, recurring element or theme associated with a particular person, idea, scene, or action. It can be a repeated sound, shot, bit of dialogue, or piece of music, that helps unify a film by reminding the viewer of its earlier appearance.
An example of a leitmotif is in the ‘Star Wars’ series, in which composer John Williams uses a large number of themes specifically associated with people and concepts, for example, a particular idea attaches to the idea of ‘the force’. Foreshadowing is another cinematic technique regularly used by filmmakers. Foreshadowing is a literary technique used to provide subtle clues for the viewer to be able to predict what might occur later on in the film. It is a literary device in which an author will drop hints about the plot and what may come in the near future.
These hints are normally in the form of symbols, images, motifs, repetition, dialogue or mood. These hints are an indication of what’s going to happen next in the story and usually suggests plot developments that will occur later in the story. A perfect example of foreshadowing is in the movie Star Wars Episode Two, Obi Wan is quoted, “Why do I get the feeling you will be the death of me? ” He is later killed by Anakin, whom he is speaking to in the quote. Transitions are very important elements to a film, if used appropriately they can add a great deal of value to a scene.
A film transition is a technique by which scenes or shots are juxtaposed. The most common transition used is a cut, however, many films will also include selective use of other transitions, usually to convey a tone or mood, suggest the passage of time, or separate parts of the story. These other transitions may include fade, dissolve, wipe, and transition focus. A transition focus is when the current scene goes out of focus and the next scene comes into focus. This type of transition can be seen in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. A very interesting cinematic technique is the ‘MacGuffin’. A MacGuffin is a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.
The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are, at least initially, willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Examples might include money, victory/glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, etc…. r something entirely unexplained. ” (‘MacGuffin’, Wikipedia, viewed 29 May 2010, < http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/MacGuffin>) A ‘Red Herring’ is a cinematic technique that is commonly used in thriller films and intended to distract the reader from a more important event in the plot, usually a twist ending. One of the best examples of the use of a red herring in contemporary film can be found in the 2004 movie ‘Saw’. During the whole film, two characters spend time imprisoned in a room in which a third character lies dead.
Throughout the film, both characters appear to be guilty of a series of murders, until is discovered at the end that the third person in the room is not actually dead. He is, in fact, the killer. A quite effective scene used more commonly lately is the flashback scene. A flashback is a transition to an earlier event or scene that interrupts the normal chronological development of the story. It is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened before the story’s primary sequence of events or to fill in crucial backstory.
The popular television series ‘Lost’ primarily uses flashback sequences to fill in backstory to all of the characters. The Climax of a film is the arguably the most important point of a film or narrative. It is the highest point of anxiety or tension in a story or film in which the central character faces, confronts, and deals with the consequences of all his/her actions. The climax of the 1997 film ‘The Titanic’ is when the ship hits the iceberg. The last cinematic technique discussed is the twist ending or surprise ending. A twist ending is when a film has an unexpected or a surprise ending that isn’t revealed until the end of the picture.
This may cause us to re-evaluate the characters and narrative. One of the most recognised twist endings in history is that of the 1999 film ‘The Sixth Sense’. The shocking twist ending is when it is revealed that Bruce Willis’s character has been dead the whole time. How do movies carry us from scene to scene? It’s usually the story’s fascinating hook, dramatic climax, and all of the cinematic elements in between. Excellent filmmakers will use a great deal, if not all, of these cinematic techniques to greatly influence the structure and meaning of a film.