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Consider Bordwell’s discussion of space in film. Elaborate on how space is used in Wall-E (Stanton) You should discuss the composition of screen space, story space, the dynamics of off-screen vs. on screen space, editing space vs. stage space, and mise-en-scene. As you are watching the film, ask yourself the following questions:

– Are there any consistencies in the use of screen space through the film?

-Is the action presented on screen or is it construed as coming from an off-screen space?

-How does the film’s presentation of space cue and/or constrain, or frustrate, or even mislead, the viewers attempt to reconstruct the story?

-How is the space of the action presented through the arrangement of the mise-en-scene?

-How does the film’s editing contribute to our sense of where things (characters, objects, sets) are positioned in the film?

558 1 PART 6 NARRATIVE: TELLING STORIES — – – – – . — –


The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice

F R O M Poetics of Cinema

Internationally renowned, and one of the most prolific and also most accessible film schol-
ars in America, David Bordwell (b. 1947) has made major contributions in narrative theory,
the history of film style, cognitive film theory, and the study of national cinemas. He
received his doctoral degree in Speech and Communication Arts at the University of Iowa
in 1974, and is Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus, in the Department
of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His numerous books,
among them The Classical Hollywood Cinema (with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson,
1985)~ Narration in the Fiction Film (1985)~ and more recently, The Way Hollywood Tells It:
Story andStyle in Modern Movies (2006) and Poetics of Cinema (2007), have made a consid-
erable imprint on film studies, inaugurating a neoformalist approach to the study of filmic
texts and providing an alternative to classical film theory. He and his wife, Kristin Thomp-
son, are widely respected for their authoritative film studies textbooks, and Bordwell also
maintains a prominent blog on international film and film studies.

Bordwell is often considered the founder of cognitive film theory, a theory grounded
in empirical research on perception and story comprehension to explain how we make
sense of movies. Bordwell’s “historical poetics of cinema” is a formal study of cinema that
is clearly positioned as an alternative to the theories that dominated film studies in the
1970s and 19805, which Bordwell and Noel Carroll dubbed “Grand Theoryw-somewhat
more acrimoniously known as “SLAB” (Saussurean semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis,
Althusserian Marxism, Barthesian textual analysis). Avoiding what he sees as the gener-
alizations of mainstream theory, Bordwell seeks to explain the formal principles behind
how films are constructed and how particular effects are achieved. In addition, Bordwell
explores the empirical circumstances that give rise to or change these principles.

One of his most widely anthologized articles, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film
Practice” was originally published in Film Criticism in 1979, and then as an expanded
version in Narration and the Fiction Film in 1985. Included here is the original version
with Bordwell’s 2007 afterword, as it appears in Poetics of Cinema, a book that brings
together twenty-five years of his work. Bordwell applies the principles of thematics,
narrative form, and stylistics to art cinema, discovering that its range of techniques and
effects is different from the principles of classical narration. He argues that art cinema is
a distinct branch of film practice, with historical significance and a specific set of formal
conventions and viewing modes. Unlike classical cinema where narrative form motivates
cinematic representation and a psychologically defined cause-effect structure is devel-
oped through goal-oriented characters, art cinema is based on a loosened and ambiguous
cause-effect linkage of events, where characters lack clear desires and goals and the
author is foregrounded as a formal component in the film’s structure. For Bordwell, the
art-cinema mode of narration is one of the most significant general modes of film practice

BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice 1 559
– — –

and one of the few alternatives to the historically dominant classical Hollywood narrative.
He is careful t o point out, however, that the lines between the two are not always clear,
as these two modes continuously inform and influence each other.

In the afterword, Bordwell moves beyond the formal characteristics of the art-cinema
mode of narration to address the significance of institutions that have played a key role
in cultivating, sustaining, and institutionalizing art cinema. Film schools and the festival
circuit (which i s the world’s alternative to Hollywood’s distribution system), for example,
made visible and established many national cinemas and movements (such as the Iranian
New Wave, or Chinese and Japanese cinema) that share formal concerns with European
art cinema.

One of the characteristics of art-cinema narration, according to Bordwell, is that it is
“less concerned with action than reaction.” What does he mean by this? Can you think
of examples from classical Hollywood films that use a similar technique?

According to Bordwell, art cinema “defines itself as a realisticcinema,” and he establishes
realism as one of the main features that motivates the narrative. How is this realism in art
cinema different from “verisimilitude” that motivates classical cinema narration?

While Bordwell charts a clear difference between classical and art-cinema modes of
narration, he acknowledges that the two influence and learn from each other. Given
these crossovers, especially in contemporary cinema, can we still draw clear lines
between these two modes?

Key Concepts: A r t Cinema; Ambiguity; Narration; Authorial Expressivity; Realism

The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice

a Strada (19541, 8 11’2 (19631, Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), L Persona (19661, Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Jules e t J i m (1962), Knife i n the Water
(1962), Vivresa vie (1962), Muriel (1963): Whatever else one c a n say about these films,
cultural fiat gives them a role altogether different f r o m Rio Bravo (1959) o n the one
h a n d a n d Mothlight (1963) o n the other. They are “art films,” and, ignoring the tang
o f snobbishness about the phrase, we can say that these a n d m a n y other films con-
stitute a distinct branch o f the cinematic institution. M y purpose in this essay i s t o
argue that we c a n usefully consider t h e “art cinema” as a distinct mode o f film prac-
tice, possessing a definite historical existence, a set o f formal conventions, a n d
i m p l i c i t viewing procedures. Given the compass o f this paper, I c a n only suggest
some lines o f work, but I hope to showthat constructing the category o f the a r t cinema
is b o t h feasible a n d illuminating.

It m a y seem perverse to propose that films produced in such variable cultural
contexts m i g h t share fundamentally similar features. Yet I think there are good
reasons for believing this, reasons w h i c h come f r o m the films’ place in history. In

,m BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice j 561

I ._ – –

the long run, the art cinema descends from the early film d’art and such silent
national cinema schools as German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit and French
Impre~sionism.~ (A thorough account of its sources would have to include literary
modernism, from Proust and James to Faulkner and Camus.) More specifically, the
art cinema as a distinct mode appears after Worldwar I1 when the dominance of the
Hollywood cinema was beginning to wane. In the United States, the courts’ divorce-
ment decrees created a shortage of films for exhibition. Production firms needed
overseas markets and exhibitors needed to compete with television. In Europe, the
end of the war reestablished international commerce and facilitated film export
and coproductions. Thomas Guback has shown how, after 1954, films began to be
made for international audience^.^ American firms sponsored foreign production,
and foreign films helped American exhibitors fill screen time. The later Neorealist
films may be considered the first postwar instances of the international art cinema,
and subsequent examples would include most works of the New Wave. Fellini.
Resnais, Bergman, De Sica, Kurosawa, Pasolini, et al. While the art cinema is of little
economic importance in the United States today, it evidently continues, as such
international productions as The Serpent’s Egg (1977) and Strosnek (1977) show.

Identifying a mode of production/consumption does not exhaustively charac-
terize the art cinema, since the cinema also consists of formal traits and viewing
conventions. To say this, however, is to invite the criticism that the creators of such
film are too inherently different to be lumped together. Yet I shall try to show that
whereas stylistic devices and thematic motifs may differ from director to director,
the overall functions of style and theme remain remarkably constant in the art cin-
ema as a whole. The narrative and stylistic principles of the films constitute a logi-
cally coherent mode of cinematic discourse.

Realism, Authorship, Ambiguity
The classical narrative cinema-paradigmatically, studio feature filmmaking in
Hollywood since 1920-rests upon particular assumptions about narrative struc-
ture, cinematic style, and spectatorial activity. While detailing those assumptions
is a task far from complete,l we can say that in the classical cinema, narrative form
motivates cinematic representation. Specifically, cause-effect logic and narrative
parallelism generate a narrative which projects its action through psychologically
defined, goal oriented characters. Narrative time and space are constructed to rep-
resent the cause-effect chain. To this end, cinematic representation has recourse
to fixed figures of cutting (e.g., 180 continuity, crosscutting, “montage sequences”).
mise-en-scene (e.g., three-point lighting, perspective sets), cinematography (e.g., a
particular range of camera distances and lens lengths), and sound (e.g.. modula-
tion, voice-over narration). More important than these devices themselves are their
functions in advancing the narrative. The viewer makes sense of the classical film
through criteria of verisimilitude (is x plausible?), of generic appropriateness (is x
characteristic of this sort of film?) and of compositional unity (does x advance the
story?). Given this background set, we can start to markoff some salient features of
the art cinema.

First, the art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode,
and especially against the cause-effect linkage of events. These linkages become

looser, more tenuous in the art film. In LIAvuentura (1960), Anna is lost and never
found; in A bout de souffle (aka Breathless, 1960), the reasons for Patricia’s betrayal
of Michel remain unknown; in Bicycle Thieves (1948), the future of Antonio and his
son is not revealed. It will not do, however, to characterize the art film solely by its
loosening of causal relations. We must ask what motivates that loosening, what par-
ticular modes of unity follow from these motivations, what reading strategies the
film demands, and what contradictions exist in this order of cinematic discourse.

The art cinema motivates its narratives by two principles; realism and authorial
expressivity. On the one hand, the art cinema defines itself as a realistic cinema. It
will show us real locations (Neorealism, the New Wave) and real problems (contem-
porary “alienation,” “lack of communication,” etc.). Part of this reality is sexual; the
aesthetics and commerce of the art cinema often depend upon an eroticism that
violates the production code of pre-1950 Hollywood. A Stranger Knocks (1959) and
And God Created Woman (1956) are no more typical of this than, say, Jules etJim and
Persona (whereas one can see Le Mkpris, 1963, as consciously working upon the very
problem of erotic spectacle in the art cinema). Most important, the art cinema uses
“realistic”-that is, psychologically complex-characters.

The art cinema is classical in its reliance upon psychological causation; char-
acters and their effects on one another remain central. But whereas the characters
of the classical narrative have clear-cut traits and objectives, the characters of the
art cinema lack defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent rea-
sons (Marcello in La Dolce Vita, 1960) or may question themselves about their goals
(Borg in Wild Strawberries and the Knight in The Seventh Seal). Choices are vague
or nonexistent. Hence a certain drifting episodic quality to the art film’s narrative.
Characters may wander out and never reappear; events may lead to nothing. The
Hollywood protagonist speeds directly toward the target; lacking a goal, the art-film
character slides passively from one situation to another.

The protagonist’s itinerary is not completely random; it has a rough shape: a trip
(La Strada; WildStrawberries; Thesilence, 1963), anidyll (Jules etJim; Elvira Madigan,
1967; Pierrot le fou, 1965), a search (LIAvuentura; Blow-Up, 1966; High and Low, 1963),
even the making of a film (8 112; Le Mkpris; The Clowns, 1971; Fellini Roma, 1972;
Day for Night, 1973; The Last Movie, 1971). Especially apt for the broken teleology of
the art film is the biography of the individual, in which events become pared down
toward a picaresque successivity (La Dolce Vita; Ray’s A ~ L L trilogy, 1955-1959; Alfie,
1966). If the classical protagonist struggles, the drifting protagonist traces an itiner-
ary, a n encyclopedic survey of the film’s world. Certain occupations (stockbroking
in L’Eclisse, 1962; journalism in La Dolce Vita and The Passenger, 1975; prostitution
in Viure sa vie and Nights of Cabiria, 1957) favor a survey form of narrative. Thus the
art film’s thematic of la condition humaine, its attempt to pronounce judgments on
“modern life” as a whole, proceeds from its formal needs: had the characters a goal,
life would no longer seem so meaningless.

What is essential to any such organizational scheme is that it be sufficiently
loose in its causation as to permit characters to express and explain their psycho-
logical states. Slow to act, these characters tell all. The art cinema is less concerned
with action than reaction; it is a cinema of psychological effects in search of their
causes. The dissection of feeling is often represented explicitly as therapy and
cure (e.g., Through a Glass Darkly, Persona), but even when it is not, the forward

562 ! PART6 NARRATIVE: TELLING STORIES – . ~ ~ ~ ~ -.-.—-.-p–.-……….– ~-..
flow of causation is braked and characters pause to seek the aetiology of their feel-
ings. Characters often tell one another stories: autobiographical events (especially
from childhood), fantasies, and dreams. (A recurring line: “I had a strange dream
last night.”) The hero becomes a supersensitive individual, one of those people on
whom nothing is lost. During the film’s survey of its world, the hero often shudders
on the edge of breakdown. There recurs the realization of the anguish of ordinary
living, the discovery of unrelieved misery: compare the heroines of Europa 51 (1952),
LIAvuentura, Deserto rosso (1964), and Une femme mariBe (1964), In some circum-
stances the characters must attribute their feelings to social situations (as in Ikiru
[1952], ILive in Fear [1955], and Shame). In Europa 51, a communist tells irene that
individuals are not at fault: “If you must blame something, blame our postwar
society.” Yet there is seldom analysis at the level of groups or institutions; in the art
cinema, social forces become significant insofar as they impinge upon the psycho-
logically sensitive individual.

A conception of realism also affects the film’s spatial and temporal construc-
tion, but the art cinema’s realism here encompasses a spectrum of possibilities. The
options range from documenting factuality (e.g., I1 Posto, 1961) to intense psycho-
logical subjectivity (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959). (When the two impulses meet
in the same film, the familiar “illusion-reality” dichotomy of the art cinema results.)
Thus room is left for two reading strategies. Violations of classical conceptions of
time and space are justified as the intrusion of an unpredictable and contingent
daily reality or as the subjective reality of complexcharacters. Plot manipulations of
story order (especially flashbacks) remain anchored to character subjectivity as in
8 112 and Hiroshima mon amour. Manipulations of duration are justified realistically
(e.g., the temps mortsof early New Wave films) or psychologically (the jump cuts of A
bout de soufflesignaling a jittery lifestyle). By the same token, spatial representation
will be motivated as documentary realism (e.g., location shooting, available light),
as character revelation, or in extreme cases as character subjectivity. Andre Bazin
may be considered the first major critic of the art cinema, not only because he
praised a loose, accidental narrative structure that resembled life but also because
he pin-pointed privileged stylistic devices for representing a realistic continuum of
space and time (deep-focus, deep space, the moving camera, and the long take). In
brief, a commitment to both objective and subjective verisimilitude distinguished
the art cinema from the classical narrative mode.4

Yet at the same time, the art cinema foregrounds the authoras a structure in the
film’s system. Not that the author is represented as a biographical individual
(althoughsome art films, e.g., Fellini’s, Truffaut’s, and Pasolini’s, solicit confessional
readings), but rather the author becomes a formal component, the overriding intel-
ligence organizing the film for our comprehension. Over this hovers anotion that the
art-film director has a creative freedom denied to herlhis Hollywood ~ o u n t e r p a r t . ~
Within this frame of reference, the author is the textual force “who” communicates
(what is the film saying?) and “who” expresses (what is the artist’s personal vision?).
Lacking identifiable stars and familiar genres, the art cinema uses a concept of
authorship to unify the text.

Several conventions operate here. The competent viewer watches the film
expecting not order in the narrative but stylistic signatures in the narration: technical
touches (Truffaut’s freeze frames, Antonioni’s pans) and obsessive motifs (Bu6uel’s


~ – .. . .. . . .. .. —
BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice ‘ 563

— . – –

anticlericalism, Fellini’s shows, Bergman’s character names). The film also offers
itself as a chapter in an oeuvre. This strategy becomes especially apparent in the con-


vention of the multi-film work (the Apu trilogy, Bergman’s two trilogies, Rohmer’s
“Moral Tales,” and Truffaut’s Doinel series). The initiated catch citations: references to
previous films by the director or to works by others (e.g., the New Wave homages).

A small industry is devoted to informingviewers of such authorial marks. Inter-
national film festivals, reviews and essays in the press, published scripts, film series,
career retrospectives, and film education all introduce viewers to authorial codes.
What is essential is that the art film be read as the work of a n expressive individual.
It is no accident, then, that the politique des auteurs arose in the wake of the art cin-
ema, that Cahiers du cinkma admired Bergman and Antonioni as much as Hawks
and Minnelli, that Robin Wood could esteem both Preminger and Satyajit Ray. As a
critical enterprise, auteur analysis of the 1950s and 1960s consisted of applying art-
cinema reading strategies to the classical Hollywood cinema.”

How does the author come forward in the film? Recent workin Screen has shown
how narrational marks can betray the authorial code in the classical text, chiefly
through gaps in motivation? In the art-cinema text, the authorial code manifests
itself as recurrent violations of the classical norm. Deviations from the classical
canon-an unusual angle, a stressed bit of cutting, a prohibited camera movement,
a n unrealistic shift in lighting or setting-in short, any breakdown of the motiva-
tion of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic-can be read as “authorial
commentary.” The credits for the film, as i n Persona or Blow-Up, can announce the
power of the author to control what we see. Across the entire film, we must recog-
nize and engage with the shaping narrative intelligence. For example, in what Norman
Holland calls the “puzzling film,”B the art cinema foregrounds the narrational act by
posing enigmas. In the classic detective tale, however, the puzzle is one of story: who
did it? How? Why? In the art cinema, the puzzle is one of plot: who is telling this
story? How is this story being told? Why is this story being told this way? Another
example of such marking of narration is the device of the flashforward-the plot’s
representation of a future story action. The flashforward is unthinkable in the
classical narrative cinema, which seeks to retard the ending and efface the mode of
narration. But in the art cinema, the flashforward functions perfectly to stress
authorial presence: we must notice how the narrator teases us with knowledge that
no character can have. Far from being isolated or idiosyncratic, such instances
typify the tendency of the art film to throw its weight onto plot, not story; we play a
game with the narrator.

Realism and authorial expressivity, then, will be the means whereby the art film
unifies itself. Yet these means now seem contradictory. Verisimilitude, objective or
subjective, is inconsistent with a n intrusive author. The surest signs of authorial
intelligibility-the flashforward, the doubled scene i n Persona, the color filters at the
start of Le Mbpris-are the least capable of realistic justification. Contrariwise, to
push the realism of psychological uncertainty to its limit is to invite a haphazard
text in which the author’s shaping hand would not be visible. In short, a realist aes-
thetic and an expressionist aesthetic are hard to merge.

The art cinema seeks to solve the problem in a sophisticated way: by the device
of ambiguity. The art film is nonclassical i n that it foregrounds deviations from
the classical norm-there are certain gaps and problems. But these very deviations

are placed, resituated as realism (in life things happen this way) or authorial com-
mentary (the ambiguity is symbolic). Thus the art film solicits a particular reading
procedure: whenever confronted with a problem in causation, temporality, or spati-
ality, we first seek realistic motivation. (Is a character’s mental state causing the un-
certainty? Is life just leaving loose ends?) If we’re thwarted, we next seek authorial
motivation. (What is being “said” here? What significance justifies the violation of
the norm?) Ideally, the film hesitates, suggesting character subjectivity, life’s unti-
diness, and author’s vision. Whatever is excessive i n one category must belong to
another. Uncertainties persist but are understood as such, as obuiousuncertainties,
so to speak. Put crudely, the slogan of art cinema might be “When in doubt, read for
maximum ambiguity.”

The drama of these tendencies can play across a n entire film, as Giulietta degli
spiriti and Deserto rosso illustrate. Fellini’s film shows how the foregrounding of
authorialnarratioa cancollapse before the attempt to represent character subjectivity.
In the hallucinations of Giulietta, the film surrenders to expressionism. Deserto rosso
keeps the elements in better balance. Putting aside the island fantasy, we can read any
scene’s color scheme in two registers simultaneously: as psychological verisimilitude
(Giuliana sees her life as a desert) or as authorial commentary (Antonioni-as-narrator
says that this industrial landscape is a desert).

If the organizational scheme of the art film creates the occasion for maximiz-
ing ambiguity, how to conclude the film? The solution is the open-ended narrative.
Given the film’s episodic structure and the minimization of character goals, the
story will often lack a clear-cut resolution. Not only is Anna never found, but the
ending of LIAvventurarefuses to specify the fate of the couple. At the close of Les 400
coups (1959), the freeze frame becomes the very figure of narrative irresolution, as
does the car halted before the two roads at the end of Knve in the Water. At its limit,
the art cinema creates an 8 112 or a Persona, a film which, lacking a causally ade-
quate ending, seems to conclude several distinct times. A banal remark of the 1960s,
that such films make you leave the theater thinking, is not far from the mark: the
ambiguity, the play of thematic interpretation, must not be halted at the film’s close.
Furthermore, the pensive ending acknowledges the author as a peculiarly humble
intelligence; she or he knows that life is more complex than art can ever be, and the
only way to respect this complexity is to leave causes dangling, questions unan-
swered. With the open and arbitrary ending, the art film reasserts that ambiguity is
the dominant principle of intelligibility, that we are to watch less for the tale than
the telling, that life lacks the neatness of art and this art knows it.

‘ The Art Cinema in History
The foregoing sketch of one mode of cinema needs more detailed examination, but
in conclusion it may be enough to suggest some avenues for future work.

We cannot construct the art cinema in isolation from other cinematic prac-
tices. The art cinema has neighbors on each side, adjacent modes which define it.
One such mode is the classical narrative cinema (historically, the dominant mode).
There also exists a modernist cinema-that set of formal properties and viewing
protocols that presents, above all, the radical split of narrative structure from cin-
ematic style, so that the film constantlystrains between the coherence of the fiction

BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a Mode of Film – – Practice – / 565

and the perceptual disjunctions of cinematic representation. It is worth mentioning
that the modernist cinema is not ambiguous in the sense that the art cinema is; per-
ceptual play, not thematic ambivalence, is the chief viewing strategy. The modernist
cinema seems to me manifested (under various circumstances) in films like October
(19281, La Passion deJeanne dXrc (1928), Lancelot du Lac (1974), Play Time (19671, and
An Autumn Afternoon (1963). The art cinema can then be located in relation to such
adjacent modes.

We must examine the complex historical relation of the art cinema to the clas-
sical narrative cinema. The art film requires the classical background set because
deviations from the norm must be registered as such to be placed as realism or
authorial expression. Thus the art film acknowledges the classical cinema in many
ways, ranging from Antonioni’s use of the detective story to explicit citations in New
Wave films. Conversely, the art cinema has had a n impact on the classical cinema.
Just as the Hollywood silent cinema borrowed avant-garde devices but assimilated
them to narrative ends, so recent American filmmaking has appropriated art-film
devices. Yet such devices are bent to causally motivated functions-the jump cut for
violence or comedy, the sound bridge for continuity or shock effect, the elimination
of the dissolve, and the freeze frame for finality. (Compare the narrative irresoIu-
tion of the freeze frame in Les 400 coups with its powerful closure in Butch Cassidy
and the SundanceKid, 1969.) More interestingly, we have seen an art cinema emerge
in Hollywood. The open endings of 2001 (1968) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) and the
psychological ambiguity of The Conversation (1974), Klute (1971), and Three Women
(1977) testify to the assimilation of the conventions of the art film. (Simplifying
brusquely, we might consider The Godfather I [I9721 as a classical narrative film and
The Godfather I1 [I9741 as more of a n art film.) Yet if Hollywood is adopting traits
of the art cinema, that process must be seen as not simple copying but complex
transformation. In particular, American film genres intervene to warp art-cinema
conventions in new directions (as the work of Altman and Coppola show^).^

It is also possible to see that certain classical filmmakers have had something
of the art cinema about them. Sirk, Ford, and Lang all come to mind here, but the
preeminent instance is Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock has created a textual persona
that is in every way equal to that of the art-cinema’s author; of all classical films, I
would argue, Hitchcock’s foreground the narrational process most strikingly. A film
like Psycho demonstrates how the classical text, with its psychological causality, its
protagonistlantagonist struggle, its detective story, and its continuous time and
homogenous space, can under pressure exhibit the very negation of the classical
system: psychology as inadequate explanation (the psychiatrist’s account); character
as only aposition, an empty space (the protagonist is successively three characters, the
antagonist is initially two, then two-as-one); and crucially stressed shifts in point-
of-view which raise the art-film problem of narrational attitude. It may be that the
attraction of Hitchcock’s cinema for both mass audience and English literature
professor lies in its successful merger of classical narrative and art-film narration.

Seenfrom the other side, the art cinema represents the domestication of modern-
ist filmmaking. The art cinema softened modernism’s attack on narrative causality
by creating mediating structures-“reality,” character subjectivity, authorial vision-
that allowed a fresh coherence of meaning. Works of Rossellini, Eisenstein, Renoir,
Dreyer, and Ozu have proven assimilable to art cinema in its turn, a n important point

L-. . .- ~ -~ .. … — .~~

of departure. By the 1960s, the art cinema enabled certain filmmakers to define new
possibilities. In Gertrud (1964), Dreyer created a perceptual surface so attenuated
that all ambiguity drains away, leaving a narrative vacuum.Lo In LXnnSe derni6re a
Marienbad (1961), Resnais dissolved causality altogether and used the very conven-
tions of art cinema to shatter the premise of character subjectivity. In Nicht versohnt
(1965), Straub and Huillet took the flashback structure and temps morts of the art
cinema and orchestrated empty intervals into a system irreducible to character psy-
chology or authorial commentary. Nagisha Oshima turned the fantasy-structures
and the narrational marks of the New Wave to political-analytical ends in The Cer-
emony (1971) and Death by Hanging (1968). Most apparently, Godard, one of the fig-
ureheads of the 1960s art cinema, had by 1968 begun to question it. (Deux ou trois
choses que je sais d’elle [1967] can be seen as a critique of Deserto rosso, or even of
Une femme marie’e.) Godard also reintroduced the issue of montage, a process which
enabled Tout va bien (1972) and subsequent works to use Brechtian principles to
analyze art-film assumptions about the unity of ideology. If, as some claim, a historical-
materialist order of cinema is now appearing, the art cinema must be seen as its
necessary background, and its adversary.

The preceding was published i n 1979 and reprinted here without revision. Like
many early statements in a research tradition, it has a peremptory tenor: This is this,
that is that, no fine gradations allowed. To revise it would go beyond mere updating;
I’d want to query its overconfident generalizations. Some of my claims (like the faith
i n a n emerging “historical-materialist” cinema) and terms (like “the narrator”) no
longer convince me. Many of the generalizations still seem to me on the right track,
but they would need much more nuancing and refinement, and the result would be
very different, and much longer.

Actually, some of the refinements have snuck into other things I’ve written.
Never expecting to reprint the piece, I cannibalized it twice. I used it to counter-
point a study of classical Hollywood narrative (The Classical Hollywood Cinema,
pp. 370-377), and I expanded it i n a discussion of modes of narration (Narration
in the Fiction Film, pp. 205-233). These are more informative, but several readers
have told me that they prefer the cleaner outlines of the original, and it has found
its way into anthologies and course packets, so I bring it back one last time. As you
might expect, though, I can’t refrain from making a few new remarks, if only to flag
some points that could be usefully rethought. Kristin Thompson and I have tried to
offer amore systematic and comprehensive discussion of some of these issues in our
survey text, Film History: An Introduction.ll

Since I wrote the piece, some scholars have examined the art cinema as an
institution in world film commerce. A great many fiscal mechanisms support pro-
duction, distribution, and exhibition on the European scene.lz The varied mix of
funding sources (private capital, national subsidy, and European Union programs)
has brought forth resourceful media players such as Marin Karmitz of Paris, who
started by owning theater screens and has become both a producer and distribu-
tor of major films from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Somewhat surprisingly,
American investment and distribution have also helped sustain art cinema, from

BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a M o d e o f Film Practice 1 567

small companies supporting the 1950s efforts to current interest on the part of Sony
and others in financing Asian projects.13

In any producing country, films assume many diverse shapes. There are always
genre pictures, particularly melodramas and comedies showcasing popular local
talent. (The farce featuring TV performers seems a cross-cultural constant.) Local
output also usually includes a few prestige items, often adapted from national liter-
ary classics or based on memorable historical episodes. But Europe also promoted
a conception of creativity that was rare elsewhere: the auteur film. The idea of a
director expressing his (only rarely her) vision of life on film remains crucial to the
art cinema. The head of New Danish Screen, a funding scheme from the nation’s
film institute, says, “We secure a place to develop a director’s personal style without
the pressure of commercial success criteria.”14 Yet personal style can have cultural
and financial implications. The idea of authorship can accommodate policies that
demand that local films reflect national culture (who was more French than Franqois
Truffaut, more Bavarian than Rainer Werner Fassbinder?), while also providing a
marketable identity to films made with low budgets and relatively unknown stars.
A sector of world film commerce still depends on the auteur premise. Acknowledging
a powerful creator as the source of the film’s formal and thematic complexity yields
something marketable internationally, a brand name that can carry over from proj-
ect to project, Pedro Almod6var, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Roman Polanski,
and a few others are still guarantees of saleable cinema. Individualized branding
is even more itnportant as creators become international directors, as Lone Sherfig
moves from Denmark to Scotland to make Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself(2002) or the
German Tom Tykwer allies with Miramax to make Heaven (2002). And, of course,
the concept of authorship spread outside Europe rather quickly, with Kurosawa
Akira and Satyajit Ray becoming celebrated as individual creators in the 1950s and

Two institutions that I didn’t mention have become ever more important in the
cultivation of art movies. The first, and less studied, is the film school. The USSR
founded a national film school in 1919, and European countries followed after
World War 11, Film schools have multiplied since the 1960s, either in universities or
under the auspices of national film institutes. Apart from ensuring a flow of trained
professionals into the industry, film schools carry in their curricula and course
assignments certain presumptions about what constitutes aesthetically worthwhile
cinema. Judging from my limited experience, European film academies were in the
1990s still quite oriented to the idea of individual expression-though my sense is
that students who were interested in TV production, where most of the jobs were,
were less committed to auteur premises. It would be a big project, but someone
should study the policies, the taste structures, and the craft practices of non-U.S.
film schools, and analyze the films that result.

A second sort of institution is receiving more study just now. The filmmakers
and movements that defined the postwar art cinema earned much of their fame
on the festival circuit, from Rashomon (winner at Venice in 1951) through If (win-
ner at Cannes in 1969). When my essay was published in 1979, there were at most
75 principal film festivals; today there are about 250, with hundreds more serving
local, regional, and specialist audiences. The development of low-budget indepen-
dent cinemas, the ease with which films can be submitted on video, and the huge

– – – – – – – – – — – –

variety of festival themes (e.g., animation, science fiction, gay and lesbian, and film
scores) have made the scene overwhelming. There is even a trade magazine for festi-
val planners.15 Each year hundreds of programmers are chasing the world’s top three
or four dozen films. Everyone wants red carpet events, with major stars and directors
turning up for the press. If a festival isn’t allowed by the international association to
award prizes, the organizers can still fly in three or four critics from the FCdCration
Internationale de la Presse Cinkmatographique (FIPRESCI) and establish a jury for a
FIPRESCI prize. Festivals enhance tourism and give even the smallest city a moment
in the limelight. As packaging events, they build a n accumulating excitement around
films that many attendees wouldn’t bother to see in regular theatrical runs.

At the same time, festivals are the world’s alternative to Hollywood’s theatri-
cal distribution system. A decentralized, informal network of programmers, gate-
keepers, and tastemakers brings to notice films of daring and ambition.16 Festivals
are the major clearinghouse for art cinema, with prizes validating the year’s top
achievements. To win at one of the big three-Berlin, Cannes, and Venice-or to be
purchased at Cannes, Toronto, or Sundance lifts a film above the thousands of other
titles demanding attention. The payoff goes beyond cinephilia: Taiwan and Iran
have used victories on the festival circuit to improve their cultural image.” Hong
Kong cinema would not have gained its prestige in the West without the energetic
proselytizing of festival programmers and loyal journalists.I8

Not all movies screened at festivals are art films, but festivals sustain the formal
and stylistic conventions that my essay tried to isolate. Those conventions emerged
earliest, I still believe, in Western and Eastern European cinema, but the essay did
slight other cinematic traditions. For example, filmmakers in developing countries like
Turkey and Egypt were sensitive to developing art cinema trends, but I simply didn’t
know enough about them. Nor did I know enough about South American film to do
justice to it. Italian neorealism had a strong influence there in the 1950s, and a few film-
makers, notably Leopoldo Torre Nilsson in Argentina, quickly picked up on Bergman
and Antonioni. Brazil’s Cinema NBvo and other trends criticized art cinema traditions
in ways roughly comparable to the politicized modernist cinema of Europe.

Asia may have lagged somewhat, with the exception of Japan. Although lack-
ing exact counterparts to the standard-bearers of European art movies, Japan had
an experimental tradition in mainstream production, and there were many more
convention-busting directors at work than the essay suggests (such as Suzuki Seijun
and Wakamatsu Kojiro). As the 1980s unfolded, however, the other cinemas of Asia
were drawing heavily on the models I review here. Directors of the Fifth Generation
in China, the Hong Kong New Wave, and above all the New Taiwanese Cinema were
salient examples. ChenKaige’s neorealistic YellowEarth (1984) and his more stylized
efforts like The Bigparade (1986) and King of the Children (1987); EdwardYang’s That
Day, on the Beach (1983) and The Terrorizers (1986); Ann Hui’s The Secret (1979); and
Patrick Tam’s Love Massacre (1981) and Nomad (1982)-these and many other works
attest to the emergence of a transnational Chinese art cinema. Wong Kar-wai’s Days
ofBeing Wild (1991) brought Hong Kong art cinema to maturity, and his time-bending
lyricism, from Ashes of Time (1994) to 2046 (20041, has been indebted to Western
literary and cinematic models.lg In Taiwan, the earliest New Cinema films belong to
a n autobiographical redrafting of neorealism, but several directors moved beyond
it. Edward Yang was strongly influenced by European cineastes, notably Antonioni,

BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a M o d e of Film Practice / 569

– – – – – – – -. – -. – –

and his masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) married local realism (the film is
based on a notorious murder) and self-conscious artifice. Hou Hsiao-hsien was no
cinephile, working instead in Taiwan’s local industry, but after making triumphant
contributions to New Cinema realism, he widened his ambitions. He experimented
with decentered historical narrative (City of Sadness, 1989; The Puppetmaster, 1993),
reflexive construction (Good Men, Good Women, 1995; Three Times, 2005), extreme
technical restraint (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998), and self-conscious invocations of
film history (the Ozu homage Cafb, 2004).20

The 1990s also saw the emergence of a new generation of Japanese directors,
including Kore-eda Hirokazu (Maborosi, 1995), Suwa Nobuhiro IMfOther, 1999),
Aoyama Shinji (Eureka, 2000), and Kitano Takeshi, who shifted between poetic genre
films and more abstract efforts like Dolls (2002). At the same period, South Korean
directors Hong Sang-soo (The Power of Kangwon Province, 1998), Lee Chang-dong
(Peppermint Candy, 20001, Kim Ki-duk (The Isle, 2000), and Park Chan-wook (Sympathy
for MI, Vengeance, 2002) began winning festival acclaim. Mainland China has reinsti-
tuted art cinema as an export commodity, with films such as Tian Zhuangshuang’s
Springtime in a Small Town (2002) and Jia Zhang-ke’s The World (2004).

Many of these newer traditions, it seems, replay at a n accelerated pace the
trajectory of European art cinema. An indigenous realist movement, somewhat
comparable to Italian neorealism, becomes more conscious of the conventions in-
volved in realism, and develops more abstract experiments in form. The emergence
of Iranian cinema is a remarkable instance. Budgets are bare-bones by Western
standards, and by using nonactors and locations, filmmakers have presented post-Shah
Iranian culture to a world that knew little of it. The humanistic strain of neoreal-
ism finds echoes in films like The Key (1987), The White Balloon (1995), The Apple
(19981, The Child and the Soldier (2000), and Blackboards (2000). At the same time,
and often within the same films, we find sophisticated games with cinematic tech-
nique. The Mirror (1997) starts with a little girl’s frustration with trying to cross a
busy intersection, then shifts its story action almost wholly to the soundtrack when
she barricades herself behind her household gate and refuses to meet the camera.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Moment of Innocence (1996) shows him staging a film based
on a crime he committed in his youth, and the result is a dizzying mise en abyme
reminiscent of 8 1/2. The country seems immersed in cinephilia. When a laborer
and film fan pretends to be director Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami covers his
trial and stages a meeting between him and Makhmalbaf. He calls the result Close
Up (1990). But then the impostor justifies himself by making his own film, called
Close-Up Long-Shot (19961. Kiarostami himself-superb screenwriter, director of
exemplary documentaries and fiction films, and experimenter with portable video
and Warholian recording (Ten, 2002; Five Dedicated to Ozu, 2003)-stands as an
emblem of a culture in love with cinematic artifice but also compelled to bear
witness to the lives of ordinary people. Who in the West would have predicted that
a great cinema, at once humanist and formalist, would have come from Iran?

Not that the period proved unproductive elsewhere. Russia and Eastern Europe
contributed to the tradition of philosophically weighty works with Andrei Tarkovsky’s
The Mirror (1975) and Nostalghia (1983) and Krzysztof ~ieilowski’s coproductions,
notably the Three Colors trilogy (1993-1994). Aleksandr Sokurov created mournful,
quasi-mystical works (The Second Circle, 1990; WhisperingPages, 1993) that paralleled

– – —–a- – – – –

the elegiac music pouring out of late Soviet and post-Soviet composers likeArtymov
and Kancheli. In Hungary, BCla Tarr (Satartstango, 1994) and Gyijrgy Feh6r (Passion,
1998) created harsh, palpably grimy tales of rural life. France continued to support
Philippe Garrel, Claire Denis, and others of ambitious bent, whereas Belgium sustained
the regional realism of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. Denmark
provided Europe’s newest Cinema of Quality, with well-carpentered scripts,
thoughtful themes, andversatile actors, as well as, thanks to the Dogme 95 impulse,
some films pushing against the ethos of professionalism with rawer works. A film,
said Lars von Trier, should be “like a pebble in your shoe.”21 Yet quite outside the
dominion of Dogme lay Christoffer Boe, whose Reconstruction (2003) owes a good
deal to Alain Resnais’ polished time jumping.

American filmmakers have been assimilating art-film conventions for a long
time, as my essay suggests, but the process has been given a new force by the rise
of the independent film sector. Steven Soderbergh can remake a n Andrey Tarkovsky
film (Solaris, 1972 and 2002), Paul Thomas Anderson can borrow sound devices from
Jacques Tati (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002)) and Hal Hartley can absorb ideas from Jean-
Luc Godard and Robert B r e ~ s o n . ~ ~ The burst of experimentation on display in films
like Memento (2000), Adaptation (2002), and Primer (2004) probably owes as much to
the European heritage as it does to U.S. traditions of film noir and fantasy. In many
respects, the U.S. indie cinema blends Ellropean art-cinema principles with premises
of classicalHollywood ~torytelling.~~Ahmad, the protagonist of Ramin Bahrani’s Man
Push Cart (2005), has as firm a set of purposes as any Hollywood hero, but the first
half-hour of the film conceals them from us. Instead, the scenes concentrate on his
daily grind as he sells coffee and pastries from a wheeled stall. We get to know him
by the way he lugs his propane tank, fills the coffee roaster, unpacks doughnuts and
Danishes, and hauls his massive cart through midtown traffic. Suspending our aware-
ness of the protagonist’s goals forces us to focus on minutiae of the story world.

Several books would be needed to do jostice to this worldwide activity,24 so I’ll
close by pointing out two areas that have intrigued me from the standpoint of a
poetics. First is a new stylistic trend that coalesced as I was writing my essay. As if
in rebuke to the 1960s reliance on montage and camera movement, several directors
cultivated a n approach based on the static, fairly distant long take. In Europe, this
took the shape of what I’ve called the planimetric image. The shot is framed perpen-
dicular to a backwall or ground, with figures caught in frontal or profile positions, as
in police mug shots. We can find this emerging in the 1960s, with the new reliance on
long lenses, but it became a feature of much European staging of the 1970s and 1980s,
and it was picked up in other national cinemas.25 This device presents the scene as a
more abstract configuration, perhaps distancing us from its emotional tenor, and it
can support those psychologically imbued temps morts that are crucial to the real-
istic impulse of the mode. This visual schema can also display some of the arresting
boldness of an advertisinglayout, as ih the cinkmadu looktrend of 1980s France. The
planimetric image became quite common in world cinema and constitutes one of
the art cinema’s permanent contributions to cinema’s pictorial repertoire. As a sub-
stitute for orthodox shotlreversk-shot cutting, it became a staple of deadpan humor
in both art films like Kitano Takeshi’s and cult hits like Napoleon Dynamite (2004).

BORDWELL The A r t Cinema as a Mode o f Film Practice J
– -. – —

A second aspect touched on in this essay became a concern of my book Narra-
tion in the Fiction Film. The art cinema engages us not only by asking us to construct
the fabula action but also by teasing us to make sense of the ongoing narration. So
how is this slippery narration patterned across the length of the whole film? Taking
as my example Resnais’ La Guerre estpnie (1966), I argued that many art films
create a “game of form.” The film initially trains the viewer in its distinctive story-
telling tactics, but as the film proceeds, those tactics mutate in unforeseeable
ways. In La Guerre estfinie, the key device-the hypothetical sequence, showing
several alternative actions the protagonist might take in the future-is announced
quite early. At first it seems difficult and disruptive, but through repetition it becomes
stabilized. Then, however, the narration renders the hypothetical sequences more
indeterminate, introducing uncertainty by mixing in flashbacks and abrupt tran-
sitions to new scenes. The final section of the film is the most transparent, as the
story action comes to the fore, but there are stillvariations that make the premises
of presentation somewhat unpredictable. The finale leaves open both the conse-
quences of story causality and the rules governing the narration itself.26

Such formal play constitutes one norm within art cinema narration. It’s as
apparent in the disjunctive editing and misleading camera positions as in works
from 40 years before. The study of this tradition from the standpoint of poetics con-
tinues to bring new possibilities to light.

1. More radical avant-garde movements, such as Soviet montage filmmaking, surrealism,

and cinkma pur, seem to have been relatively without effect upon the art cinema’s style. I
suspect that those experimental styles that did not fundamentally challenge narrative
coherence were the most assimilable to the postwar art cinema.

2. See Thomas Guback, The International Motion Picture Industry (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 196% passim.

3. See, for example, Philip Rosen, “Difference and Displacement in Seventh Heaven,” Screen 18,
no. 2 (Summer 1977): 89-104.

4. This point is taken up in Christian Metz, “The Modern Cinema and Narrativity,” in his
Film Language, trans. Michael Taylor (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1974), 185-227.

5. Arthur Knight compares the Hollywood film to a commodity and the foreign film to a n
artwork: “Art is not manufactured by committees. Art comes from a n individual who has
something that he must express. . . . This is the reason why we hear so often that foreign
films are ‘more artistic’ than our own. There is in them the urgency of individual expres-
sion, an independence of vision, the coherence of a single-minded statement.” Quoted in
Michael F. Mayer, Foreign Films on American Screens (New York: Arco, 19651, vii.

6. “The strategy was to talk about Hawks, Preminger, etc. as artists like Bufiuel and Resnais”
(Jim Hillier, “The Return to Movie,” Movie, no. 20 [Spring 19751: 17). I do not mean to imply
that auteur criticism did not at times distinguish between the classicalnarrative and the art
cinema. A book like V. F. Perkins’ Film as Film (Baltimore: Penguin, 1978) insists not only
upon authorial presence but also upon the causal motivation and the stylistic economy
characteristic of the classical cinema. Thus, Perkins finds the labored directorial touches of
Antonioni and Bergman insufficiently motivated by story action. Nevertheless, Perkins’


interpretation of the jeep sequence in Carmen Jones in terms of characters’ confinement
and liberation (80-82) is a good example of how Hollywood cutting and camera place-
ment can be invested with symbolic traces of the author.

7. See, for instance, Mark Nash, “Vampyrand the Fantastic,” Screen 17, no. 3 (Autumn, 1976):
29-67; and Paul Willemen, “The Fugitive Subject,” in Raoul Walsh, ed. Phil Hardy (London:
Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974), 63-89.

8. Norman Holland, “The Puzzling Movies: Three Analyses and a Guess at Their Appeal,”
Journal of Social Issues20, no. 1 (January 1964): 71-96.

9. See Steve Neal, “New Hollywood Cinema,” Screen 17, no. 2 [Summer 1976): 117-33; and
Paul Willemen, “Notes onsubjectivity: OnReading Edward Branigan’s ‘Subjectivity Under
Siege,”‘ Screen 19, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 59-64. See also Robin Wood, “Smart-Ass and Cutie
Pie: Notes Toward a n Evaluation of Altman,” Movie, no. 21 (Autumn 1975): 1-17.

10. See David Bordwell, he Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1981).

11. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: A n Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2003). On art-cinema traditions, see chs. 4-6, 8, 16-20, 23, 25-26, and 28.

12. Steve Neale made a n early contribution to this line of thinking with “Art Cinema as Insti-
tution,” Screen 22, no. 1 (1981): 11-39. For an overview of state support of the European
cinema, see Anne Jackel, European Film Industries (London: British Film Institute, 2003).

13. See Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry (Madison:
University ofWisconsinPress, 1987), chs. 7 and9; andPeter Lev, The Euro-American Cinema
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

14. VincaWiedemann, quoted in Jacob Wendt Jensen, “Northern Lights,” Screen International,
May 5,2006,16.

15. See Film Festival Todaymagazine and its website,
16. On film festivals’ role in international film culture, see Thompson andBordwel1, Film History,

716-18. A more extensive account is provided in Thomas Elsaesser, “Film Festival Net-
works: The New Topographies of Cinema inEurope,” i n his European Cinema: Face to Face
W i t h Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005),82-107.

17. The Tehran-based magazine Film International has kept track of festival entries and awards.
See for example the charts in Mohammad Atebbai, “Iranian Films and the International
Scene in 1997,” Film International, no. 19 (1998): 17-20; and Mohammad Atebbai, “Iranian
Films in the International Scene in 1998,” Film International, no. 23 (1999): 10-14.

18. See my PlanetHongKong: Popular Cinemaand theArtofEntertainment(Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2000), 87-89.

19. For a thorough account of Wong’s debts to prestigious literature and film, see StephenTeo,
Wong Kar-wai (London: British Film Institute, 2005). I discuss Wong’s experimental
impulses in my Planet Hong Kong, 266-89.

20. On Hou’s context and development, see Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell Davis, Taiwan
Film Directors: A Treasure Island (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), chs. 1, 2,
and 4. Hou’s stylistics and industrial context are considered i n chapter 5 of my Figures
Traced i n Light (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

21. Quoted in StigBjorkman, “Preface,” inLars von Trier, Breakingthe Waves (Condon: Faber and
Faber, 1996), 8. For detailed discussions of Dogme and von Trier, see Mette Hjort and Scott
Mackenzie, eds., Purity and Provocation: Dogme 95 (London: British Film Institute, 2003);
and Mette Hjort, Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2005). I discuss modern Danish film as a n accessible art cin-
emainmy “AStrong Sense of Narrative Desire:ADecade of Danish Film,” Film (Copenhagen),
no. 34 (Spring2004): 24-27,

DE L A U R E T I S 1 573

22. I discuss Hartley’s adaptation of some European staging principles in “Up Close and Im-
personal: Hal Hartley and the Persistence of Tradition” (June 2005), http://www.l6-9
.dk/2005-06lsidell-inenlish.htm, or by a link from my website http:llwww.davidbordwell
.net. Itwas first published as “Nah dran und unpersonlich: Hal Hartley und die Beharrlich-
keit der Tradition,” in Die Spur durch den Spiegel: Der Film i n der Kultur der Moderne, ed.
Malte Hagener, Johann Schmidt, and Michael Wedel (Berlin: BertzVerlag, 2004),410-21.

23. See Geoff King, American Independent Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2005). See also David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical
Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia
University Press, 19851, 372-77; and J. J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo
(New York: Continuum, 2007).

24. See Andrds BBlint KovBcs’ comprehensive study, Modern European Art Cinema From the
1950s to the 1970s, Cinema and Modernity Series (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2007). See also John Orr, Cinema and Modernity (London: Polity, 1994).

25. On the planimetric image, see my O n the History of Film Style, 261-64; my Figures Traced
i n Light, 167-68, 173-76, 232-33; and my essay “Modelle der Rauminszenierung im
zeitgenossishen europaischen Kino” in Zeit, Schnitt, Raum, ed. Andreas Rost (Munich:
Verlag der Autoren, 1997),17-42.

26. See David Bordwell, Narration i n theFictionRlm (Madison: University o f Wisconsin Press,
1985), 213-28.

. . . , e . . . m . . . * . . . . . , . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . , . . . . . , . . . . . . . . . …………………

Desire in Narrative
FROM Alice Doesn’t

Distinguished Professor Emerita of the History of Consciousness at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, Teresa de Lauretis (b. 1938) made an indelible contribution t o con-
temporary film theory with Alice Doesn’t (1984)~ the book from which this selection is
drawn, and her subsequent Technologies of Gender (1987). Born and educated in Italy, de
Lauretis came to cinema studies through literature and semiotics, and her inquiries into
avant-garde practice, narrative film, and poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory are
always informed by her feminist approach. Based for a number of years at the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaulcee, de Lauretis participated in a series o f crucial cinema conferences
there in the 1970s~ one of which resulted in the influential publication The Cinematic
Apparatus (1980), co-edited by de Lauretis and Stephen Heath. In the iggos, de Lauretis
emerged as an important figure in lesbian and queer theory, and her most recent books
are sustained engagements with psychoanalytic theory.

In her work, de Lauretis carefully distinguishes between “Woman” and “women”:
the first is the myth or representation constructed through literary, visual, and other
cultural practices; the second is the female-gendered person, the “social subject” who
may internalize the myth and struggle with it, but whose practices, habits, and desires

bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 1 17/09/15 10:57 am

bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 2 17/09/15 10:57 am

David Bordwell
University of Wisconsin—Madison
Kristin Thompson
University of Wisconsin—Madison
Jeff Smith
University of Wisconsin—Madison
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 3 17/09/15 10:57 am

David Bordwell is Jacques Ledoux Professor Emeritus of
Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He
holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in film from the
University of Iowa. His books include The Films of Carl-
Theodor Dreyer (University of California Press, 1981),
Narration in the Fiction Film (University of Wisconsin
Press, 1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton
University Press, 1988), Making Meaning: Inference
and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard
University Press, 1989), The Cinema of Eisenstein
(Harvard University Press, 1993), On the History of Film
Style (Harvard University Press, 1997), Planet Hong
Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment
(Harvard University Press, 2000), Figures Traced in
Light: On Cinematic Staging (University of California
Press, 2005), The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style
in Modern Movies (University of California Press, 2006),
Poetics of Cinema (Routledge, 2008), Pandora’s Digital
Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies (Irvington
Way Institute Press, 2012), and The Rhapsodes: How
1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (University
of Chicago Press, 2016). He has won a University
Distinguished Teaching Award and was awarded an
honorary degree by the University of Copenhagen. His
website is
Kristin Thompson is an Honorary Fellow at the University
of Wisconsin–Madison. She holds a master’s degree in
film from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in film
from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has
published Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: A Neoformalist
Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1981), Exporting
Entertainment: America in the World Film Market
1907–1934 (British Film Institute, 1985), Breaking the
Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton
University Press, 1988), Wooster Proposes, Jeeves
Disposes, or, Le Mot Juste (James H. Heineman, 1992),
Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding
Classical Narrative Technique (Harvard University Press,
1999), Storytelling in Film and Television (Harvard
University Press, 2003), Herr Lubitsch Goes To
Hollywood: German and American Film After World War I
(Amsterdam University Press, 2005), and The Frodo
Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood
(University of California Press, 2007). She blogs with
David at, and is a con-
tributor to In her spare time, she studies
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have also collabo-
rated on Film History: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill,
3d ed., 2010), Minding Movies: Observations of the Art,
Craft, and Business of Filmmaking (University of Chicago
Press, 2011), Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages
(Irvington Way Institute Press, 2013), and, with Janet
Staiger, on The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style
and Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University
Press, 1985).
Jeff Smith is a professor in the Communication Arts
Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
and the author of two books: The Sounds of Commerce:
Marketing Popular Film Music (Columbia University
Press, 1998) and Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the
Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds (University of
California Press, 2014).
To our parents,
Marjorie and Jay Bordwell
and Jean and Roger Thompson
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 5 17/09/15 10:57 am

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tailored to the needs of each institution, instructor, and student.
For nearly a generation, Film Art has helped students become informed viewers of
classic and contemporary films by explaining key vocabulary and concepts of film
forms, techniques, and history. And now, with the introduction of McGraw-Hill
Education’s SmartBook students are better equipped to understand and retain these
basic concepts.
SmartBook is an adaptive learning program proven to help students
learn faster, study smarter, and retain more knowledge for greater success.
Distinguishing what students know from what they don’t, and focusing on con-
cepts they are most likely to forget, SmartBook continuously adapts to each
student’s needs by building a personalized learning path. An intelligent, adaptive
study tool, SmartBook is proven to strengthen memory recall, keep students in
class, and boost grades.
Enhanced by McGraw-Hill Education’s SmartBook,
Film Art delivers the first and only adaptive reading
experience currently available.
∙ Make It Effective. SmartBook creates a person-
alized reading experience by highlighting the
most impactful concepts a student needs to learn
at that moment in time. This ensures that every
minute spent with SmartBook is returned to the
student as the most valuable minute possible.
∙ Make It Informed. Real-time reports quickly
identify the concepts that require more attention from individual students—
or the entire class.
Studying film isn’t just about learning the facts; it’s also about the skills of watch-
ing and listening closely. Together with the Criterion Collection, we’ve developed
Connect Film to introduce students to the world of film and challenge them to
develop the critical-analysis skills necessary to become informed viewers.
The authors have partnered with the Criterion Collection to create brief video
tutorials, available exclusively in Connect Film. The tutorials use film clips to
clarify and reinforce key concepts and model the critical skills necessary to become
informed viewers. They can be shown in class or assigned for students to view
F I L M A R T —A P E R S O N A L I Z E D L E A R N I N G
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 6 17/09/15 10:57 am

Below are several Criterion Tutorials new to the eleventh edition:
Light Sources: Ashes and Diamonds
Available Lighting: Breathless (1960)
Staging in Depth: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
Color Motifs: The Spirit of the Beehive
Tracking Shots Structure a Scene:
Ugetsu (1953)
Tracking Shot to Reveal: The 400
Blows (1959)
Style Creates Parallelism: Day
of Wrath (1943)
Staging and Camera Movement in a Long
Take: The Rules of the Game (1939)
Editing with Graphic Matches: Seven
Samurai (1954)
Shifting the Axis of Action: Shaun
of the Dead (2004)
Crossing the Axis of Action: Early
Summer (1951)
Crosscutting: M (1931)
Elliptical Editing: Vagabond (1985)
Jump Cuts: Breathless (1960)
Sound Mixing: Seven Samurai (1954)
Contrasting Rhythms of Sound and
Image: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Offscreen Sound: M (1931)
What Comes Out Must Go In: 2D
Computer Animation
Lens and Camera Movement
Film Lighting
Contrasting Style for Objective and Subjec-
tive Narration: Journey to Italy (1954)
Diegetic narration by an Unidentified
Character: I Vitelloni (1953)
Setting and Costume Play an Active Role:
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)
Two Ways of Staging for Humor: The
Gold Rush (1925)
The Long Lens and Zooming: Close-up
Playing with Unrealistic Sound:
Daisies (1966)
Staging with the Main Characters’ Backs
toward the Camera: L’Avventura (1960)
Authenticity in Documentaries: Nanook
of the North (1922)
Surrealism in Experimental Film:
Un Chien andalou (1929)
Post Production Sound
In addition, Connect Film features Film Analysis Assignments with additional
clips, film stills, and links to movie clips to help students practice analyzing aspects
of each film and prepare them for their longer written assignments. These include
clips from the following films:
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
D.O.A. (1950)
The General (1926)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
M (1931)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Meet John Doe (1941)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Nosferatu (1922)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Wackiki Wabbit (1943)
outside class, with brief optional follow-up quizzes. Below is a list of Criterion
Collection tutorial selections available in Connect Film:
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 7 17/09/15 10:57 am

Film Art provides the respected scholarship and analytic tools students need
to understand key vocabulary and concepts of film forms, techniques, and his-
tory; appreciate a wide variety of classic and contemporary films and the creative
choices made by filmmakers to shape the experience of viewers; and analyze films
critically and systematically to enrich their understanding and appreciation of any
film, in any genre.
“Creative Decision” sections provide in-depth examples to deepen students’
appreciation for how creative choices by filmmakers affect how viewers respond.
Discussions include, for example, performance and camera positioning in The
Social Network, editing in The Birds, and overlapping dialogue cuts in The Hunt for
Red October.
“Closer Look” features examine important issues in contemporary cinema
and provide detailed looks at such topics as computer-generated imagery
(CGI) in The Lord of the Rings, editing in L. A. Confidential, and motifs in
The Shining.
Authors’ blog, “Observations on Film Art.” In what Roger Ebert called
“the most knowledgeable film blog on the web,” David Bordwell and Kristin
Thompson share their ideas and experiences with instructors and students (http:// Throughout the text, “Connect to the Blog” refer-
ences point to blog entries with relevant ideas, terms, and film examples, connect-
ing ideas in Film Art to the current film scene in an accessible way.
Through McGraw-Hill Education’s Create, a new chapter on Film Adaptations,
written by Jeff Smith of the University of Wisconsin, is available for instructors to
better customize and personalize their film appreciation course. In addition, an
appendix on “Writing a Critical Analysis” is available for instructors who require
written film critiques, and DVD Recommendations provide particularly effective
resources related to key topics.
McGraw-Hill Create allows you to create a customized print book or
eBook tailored to your course and syllabus. You can search through
thousands of McGraw-Hill Education texts, rearrange chapters, combine material
from other content sources, and include your own content or teaching notes. Create
even allows you to personalize your book’s appearance by selecting the cover and
adding your name, school, and course information. To register and to get more
information, go to
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 8 17/09/15 10:57 am

Chapter-by-Chapter Changes
Chapter 1 Updated and expanded information on
digital production, distribution, and exhibition, with
examples of special effects from Pacific Rim. New
information on contemporary theater sound systems,
as exemplified by Atmos and Brave. New references
to Middle of Nowhere and Nightcrawler. Examination
of marketing campaigns for The Dark Knight, the
Transformers series, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Enhanced references to blog “Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 2 Enhanced references to blog “Observations
on Film Art.”
Chapter 3 Enhanced references to blog “Observations
on Film Art.”
Chapter 4 New references to mise-en-scene in
Watchmen, Snowpiercer, and Laura. Enhanced references
to blog “Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 5 Updated information on digital color
grading. Discussion of 3D in Life of Pi. Discussions of
Family Plot and Leviathan. Enhanced references to blog
“Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 6 New examples from Wolf of Wall Street
and Lucy. Enhanced references to blog “Observations
on Film Art.”
Chapter 7 Extensively revised sound chapter, with
new material on sound perspective in the theater space.
New analyses of sound techniques in The Magnificent
Ambersons, Blow-Out, Norma Rae, Interstellar, Breakfast
at Tiffany’s, Reservoir Dogs, The Nutty Professor,
Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Gosford Park, 12 Monkeys,
and Accident, along with an expanded consideration
of The Conversation. Enhanced references to blog
“Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 8 Extensive new section on Gravity and film
style in the digital age. Enhanced references to blog
“Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 9 New section on sports film as genre, with
new examples from My Sweet Pepper Land, The World’s
Fastest Indian, Fever Pitch, and Offside. Enhanced
references to blog “Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 10 New examples from The Act of Killing,
Searching for Sugar Man, and Rango. Enhanced
references to blog “Observations on Film Art.”
Chapter 11 New detailed analysis of Moonrise
Kingdom. Enhanced references to blog “Observations on
Film Art.”
Chapter 12 Update on contemporary Hollywood
industry and technology, including sound systems and
Video on Demand. New examples from Beetlejuice,
Ben-Hur, The Apple, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Enhanced references to blog “Observations on Film Art.”
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 9 17/09/15 10:57 am

If you’re in your late teens or early twenties, we have something in common with
you. That was the age when we became curious about—some would say, obsessed
with—film, cinema, movies.
What fueled our enthusiasm was a simple love of this medium and the great
films we saw. For us, films that are classics today, from Alphaville, 2001, and The
Godfather through Jaws and Nashville to Pulp Fiction and Chungking Express,
were new movies. Over the years, we’ve watched film history unfold, and our
excitement at new developments hasn’t flagged.
Of course, we loved particular films and admired particular filmmakers. At the
same time, we were entranced by the artistic possibilities of film as an art form.
As teachers and writers, we roamed widely, trying to understand films from very
different traditions—from silent avant-garde cinema to modern Hong Kong film,
from Los Angeles to Paris to Tokyo. We’ve written about modern Hollywood,
including The Lord of the Rings, and filmmakers working outside Hollywood—for
example, Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, and Yasujiro Ozu. In the past ten years,
we’ve extended our explorations to the Web, where we blog regularly about the
many things that interest us in film.
Studying the arts isn’t just about learning facts. That’s why in Film Art we
have always emphasized the skills of watching and listening closely. With the tenth
edition we partnered with the prestigious Criterion Collection of DVDs and Blu-
ray discs in our new Connect Film digital program (see pp. vi–vii). The Criterion
Collection is dedicated to gathering many of the greatest classic and contemporary
films from around the world. Criterion editions provide the highest technical qual-
ity and include award-winning supplements. They are a natural partner in introduc-
ing a new generation to cinema studies. We’ve created a series of clips that model
the critical viewing skills that will help you become informed viewers. For this
eleventh edition, we’ve added to our first set of clips, and we hope that these will
continue to help you become critical, informed viewers.
Filmmaking has undergone a continuous change since we launched this book in
1979. Digital technology has given many people access to filmmaking tools, and it
has changed film distribution and exhibition. You can watch movies on your laptop
or mobile phone, and films now arrive at theaters on hard drives rather than film
reels. Because we focus on concepts, and because the techniques we study remain
central to all sorts of moving-image media, much of what we studied in earlier
editions remains valid. Still, we’ve expanded our discussion to include the creative
choices opened up by digital cinema.
Studying the arts isn’t only about learning facts and concepts either, although
both are important. In addition, studying the arts broadens our tastes. In eleven
editions of Film Art, we’ve made reference to many well-known films but also to
many that you’ve probably never heard of. This is part of our plan. We want to show
that the world of cinema teems with a great many unexpected pleasures, and we
hope to get you curious.
In surveying film art through such concepts as form, style, and genre, we aren’t
trying to wrap movies in abstractions. We’re trying to show that there are principles
that can shed light on a variety of films. We’d be happy if our ideas can help you to
understand the films that you enjoy. And we hope that you’ll seek out films that will
stimulate your mind, your feelings, and your imagination in unpredictable ways.
For us, this is what education is all about.
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 10 17/09/15 10:57 am

Over the 40 years of preparing editions of Film Art: An
Introduction we have incurred many debts to hundreds
of individuals, and it’s impossible to thank them all in-
dividually. We do, however, want to thank certain peo-
ple for their long-term support. Our colleagues at the
University of Wisconsin–Madison: Tino Balio, Maria
Belodubrovskaya, Ben Brewster, No ̈l Carroll,   Kelley
Conway, Kaitlin Fyfe, Maxine Fleckner-Ducey, Erik
Gunneson, Vance Kepley, Mike King, Lea Jacobs, J. J.
Murphy, Peter Sengstock, and Ben Singer have helped us
in many ways. Archivists have also been exceptionally
cooperative, so we thank Eileen Bowser, Elaine Burrows,
Mary Corliss, the late Susan Dalton, the late Jacques
Ledoux, Jan-Christopher Horak, Patrick Loughney,
Nicola Mazzanti, Jackie Morris, Charles Silver, Paolo
Cherchi Usai, and especially Gabrielle Claes for giving us
access to films and materials in their collections. Thanks
as well to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, Dan
Talbot and Jose ́ Lopez of New Yorker Films, and James
Schamus, formerly of Focus Features. Thanks as well to
Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, Roni Lubliner
of NBC–Universal, Peter McPartlin of Indian Paintbrush,
and Matt Zoller Seitz of, who initiated
our contact with Mr. McPartlin. Finally, we appreciate the
kind cooperation of several filmmakers, including the late
Les Blank, Bruce Conner, and Norman McLaren, as well
as Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, and Frederick Wiseman. 
As the new contributor to this edition, Jeff Smith
would like to thank Eric Dienstfrey for his valuable advice
about the history of film sound technologies, Michele
Smith for her helpful recommendations of new film
examples, and Megan Lacroix, personal consultant for all
things Harry Potter.
In preparing this edition, we’re grateful to Aaron
Adair, Southeastern Oklahoma State University; Laura
Bouza, Moorpark College; Domenic Bruni, University
of Wisconsin–Oshkosh; Maria Elena de las Carreras,
California State University–Northridge; Shawn Cheatham,
University of South Florida–Tampa; John Claborn,
University of Illinois–Champaign; Megan Condis,
University of Illinois–Champaign; Steve Gilliland, West
Virginia State University; Lucinda McNamara, Cape Fear
Community College; James McWard, Johnson County
Community College; Barbara Multer-Wellin, New York
Film Academy; Deron Overpeck, Auburn University;
Lisa Peterson, University of Central Florida–Orlando;
Syd Slobodnik, University of Illinois–Champaign;
Jared Saltzman, Bergen Community College; and Susan
Tavernetti, Deanza College.
We owe special thanks to Erik Gunneson, pro-
ducer and director of our video supplements, and Petra
Dominkova, whose eagle eye scanned for slips, misprints,
and inconsistencies. Warm thanks as well go to Peter
Becker and Kim Hendrickson of the Criterion Collection
for their generosity in cooperating with us on the video
As ever, we’re grateful to the McGraw-Hill Education
publishing team, particularly Dawn Groundwater, Sarah
Remington, Sandy Wille, Shawntel Schmitt, Susan
Messer, and Carey Lange.
David Bordwell
Kristin Thompson
Jeff Smith
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 11 17/09/15 10:57 am

PA R T O N E • Film Art and Filmmaking
1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business 2
PA R T T W O • Film Form
2 The Significance of Film Form 50
3 Narrative Form 72
PA R T T H R E E • Film Style
4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene 112
5 The Shot: Cinematography 159
6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing 216
7 Sound in the Cinema 263
8 Summary: Style and Film Form 303
PA R T F O U R • Types of Films
9 Film Genres 326
10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films 350
PA R T F I V E • Critical Analysis of Films
11 Film Criticism: Sample Analyses 400
PA R T S I X • Film Art and Film History
12 Historical Changes in Film Art: Conventions and Choices,
Tradition and Trends 452
Glossary G-1
Credits C-1
Index I-1
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 12 17/09/15 10:57 am

Art vs. Entertainment? Art vs. Business? 3
Creative Decisions in Filmmaking 4
CREATIVE DECISIONS: To See into the Night
in Collateral 5
Mechanics of the Movies 9
Illusion Machines 9
Making Films with Photographic Film 10
Filmmaking with Digital Media 13
Making the Movie: Film Production 17
The Scriptwriting and Funding Phase 18
The Preparation Phase 19
The Shooting Phase 20
The Assembly Phase 24
A CLOSER LOOK: Some Terms and Roles
in Film Production 25
Artistic Implications of the Production Process 29
Modes of Production 29
Large-Scale Production 30
Exploitation, Independent Production, and DIY 30
Small-Scale Production 31
Artistic Implications of Different Modes
of Production 33
Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution
and Exhibition 35
Distribution: The Center of Power 35
Exhibition: Theatrical and Nontheatrical 40
Ancillary Markets: Taking Movies beyond
the Theater 42
Artistic Implications of Distribution and Exhibition 43
Screens and Sounds: Stylistic Opportunities
and Challenges 45
PA R T T W O • Film Form
CHAPTER 2 The Significance of Film Form 50
The Concept of Form in Film 51
Form as Pattern 51
“Form” Versus “Content” 52
Formal Expectations 54
Conventions and Experience 55
Form and Feeling 57
Form and Meaning 58
Evaluation: Good, Bad, or Indifferent? 61
Principles of Film Form 62
Function 62
Similarity and Repetition 63
A CLOSER LOOK: Creative Decisions:
Picking Out Patterns 64
Difference and Variation 66
Development 67
Unity and Disunity 70
PA R T O N E • Film Art and Filmmaking
CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business 2
CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form 72
Principles of Narrative Form 72
What Is Narrative? 73
Telling the Story 74
the Story? 74
Plot and Story 75
Cause and Effect 77
Time 79
A CLOSER LOOK: Playing Games
with Story Time 82
Space 84
Openings, Closings, and Patterns of Development 85
Narration: The Flow of Story Information 87
Range of Story Information: Restricted or Unrestricted? 87
Depth of Story Information: Objective or Subjective? 90
The Narrator 93
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 13 17/09/15 10:57 am

A CLOSER LOOK: When the Lights Go Down,
the Narration Starts 94
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Choices about Narration
in Storytelling 96
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 97
Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 99
Overall Narrative Expectations in Citizen Kane 99
Plot and Story in Citizen Kane 100
Citizen Kane’s Causality 102
Time in Citizen Kane 103
Motivation in Citizen Kane 105
Citizen Kane’s Parallelism 106
Patterns of Plot Development in Citizen Kane 107
Narration in Citizen Kane 108
PA R T T H R E E • Film Style
CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene 112
What Is Mise-en-Scene? 112
The Power of Mise-en-Scene 113
Components of Mise-en-Scene 115
Setting 115
Costume and Makeup 119
Lighting 124
Staging: Movement and Performance 131
A CLOSER LOOK: The Film Actor’s Toolkit 134
Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space
and Time 140
in a Sequence from L’Avventura 141
Space 143
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Mise-en-Scene in Two Shots
from Day of Wrath 149
Time 150
Narrative Functions of Mise-en-Scene
in Our Hospitality 154
CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography 159
The Photographic Image 159
The Range of Tonalities 159
Speed of Motion 164
A CLOSER LOOK: From Monsters
to the Mundane: Computer-Generated Imagery in
The Lord of the Rings 165
Perspective 168
Framing 177
A CLOSER LOOK: Virtual Perspective: 3D 179
Frame Dimensions and Shape 181
Framing 183
Onscreen and Offscreen Space 185
Camera Position: Angle, Level, Height,
and Distance of Framing 187
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Camera Position in a Shot
from The Social Network 191
The Mobile Frame 194
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Mobile Framing and Film
Form in Grand Illusion and Wavelength 203
Duration of the Image: The Long Take 209
Real Time Is . . . What? 210
Functions of the Long Take 210
The Long Take and the Mobile Frame 212
What Is Editing? 217
from The Birds 218
Dimensions of Film Editing 219
Graphic Relations between Shot A and Shot B 219
Rhythmic Relations between Shot A and Shot B 224
Spatial Relations between Shot A and Shot B 225
Temporal Relations between Shot A and Shot B 226
Continuity Editing 230
Spatial Continuity: The 180° System 231
Continuity Editing in The Maltese Falcon 233
Continuity Editing: Some Fine Points 237
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Are You Looking at Me?
Point-of-View Cutting in Rear Window 241
Crosscutting 244
CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing 216
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 14 17/09/15 10:57 am

A CLOSER LOOK: Intensified Continuity: Unstoppable,
L. A. Confidential, and Contemporary Editing 246
Temporal Continuity: Order, Frequency, and Duration 251
Alternatives to Continuity Editing 252
Graphic and Rhythmic Possibilities 253
Spatial and Temporal Discontinuity 254
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Discontinuity Editing
in October 259
CHAPTER 7 Sound in the Cinema 263
Sound Decisions 263
The Powers of Sound 264
Sound Shapes Our Understanding of Images 265
Guiding Our Eye and Mind 265
Fundamentals of Film Sound 267
Perceptual Properties 267
Recording, Altering, and Combining Sounds 270
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Editing Dialogue: To Overlap
or Not to Overlap? 273
Musical Motifs in Breakfast at Tiffany’s 278
A CLOSER LOOK: Orchestrating Romance
in Jules and Jim 280
Dimensions of Film Sound 281
Rhythm 281
Fidelity 284
Space 285
A CLOSER LOOK: Offscreen Sound and Optical
Point of View: The Money Exchange in Jackie
Brown 287
Sound Perspective 294
Time 296
Conversation Piece 300
CHAPTER 8 Summary: Style and Film Form 303
The Concept of Style 303
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Style and the Filmmaker 304
Decision Making: Techniques Working Together 305
Watching and Listening: Style and the Viewer 306
Analyzing Style 306
1. What Is the Film’s Overall Form? 307
2. What Are the Main Techniques Being Used? 307
3. What Patterns Are Formed by the Techniques? 307
4. What Functions Do the Techniques
and Patterns Fulfill? 309
A CLOSER LOOK: Stylistic Synthesis in Shadow
of a Doubt 310
Style in Citizen Kane 312
Mystery and the Penetration of Space 312
Style and Narration: Restriction and Objectivity 314
Style and Narration: Omniscience 316
Narrative Parallels: Settings 316
Parallels: Other Techniques 317
A Convincing Newsreel 319
Plot Time through Editing 319
A CLOSER LOOK: Gravity: Film Style
in the Digital Age 322
PA R T F O U R • Types of Films
CHAPTER 9 Film Genres 326
Understanding Genre 327
Defining a Genre 328
Analyzing a Genre 329
Genre History 331
A CLOSER LOOK: Creative Decisions in a Contemporary
Genre: The Crime Thriller as Subgenre 332
The Social Functions of Genres 335
Four Genres 337
The Western 337
The Horror Film 339
The Musical 342
The Sports Films 346
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 15 17/09/15 10:57 am

CHAPTER 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films 350
Documentary 350
What Is a Documentary? 350
The Boundaries between Documentary and Fiction 352
Genres of Documentary 353
Form in Documentary Films 354
Categorical Form: Introduction 355
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Engaging Viewers Using
Categorical Form 356
An Example of Categorical Form:
Gap-Toothed Women 357
Rhetorical Form: Introduction 362
An Example of Rhetorical Form: The River 364
Experimental Film 369
A Range of Technical Choices 370
Types of Form in Experimental Films 371
Abstract Form: Introduction 371
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Designing Form in an
Abstract Film 371
An Example of Abstract Form: Ballet Mécanique 373
Associational Form: Introduction 378
An Example of Associational Form: Koyaanisqatsi 379
The Animated Film 387
Types of Traditional Animation 387
Types of Computer Animation 389
An Example of Traditional Animation: Duck Amuck 392
An Example of Experimental Animation: Dimensions
of Dialogue 394
PA R T F I V E • Critical Analysis of Films
CHAPTER 11 Film Criticism: Sample Analyses 400
The Classical Narrative Cinema 401
His Girl Friday 401
North by Northwest 404
Do The Right Thing 408
Moonrise Kingdom 413
Narrative Alternatives to Classical Filmmaking 418
Breathless (À bout de souffle) 418
Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) 423
Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) 428
Documentary Form and Style 432
Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom) 432
The Thin Blue Line 436
Form, Style, and Ideology 441
Meet Me in St. Louis 441
Raging Bull 446
PA R T S I X • Film Art and Film History
CHAPTER 12 Historical Changes in Film Art: Conventions and Choices,
Tradition and Trends 452
CREATIVE DECISIONS: Film Form and Style across
History 453
Traditions and Movements in Film History 455
Early Cinema (1893–1903) 456
Photography and Cinema 457
Edison vs. Lumière 457
Early Form and Style 458
Méliès, Magic, and Fictional Narrative 459
The Development of the Classical Hollywood
Cinema (1908–1927) 460
Hollywood and the Studio System of Production 460
Classical Form and Style in Place 462
German Expressionism (1919–1926) 463
French Impressionism and Surrealism
(1918–1930) 466
Impressionism 467
Surrealism 468
Soviet Montage (1924–1930) 470
Artists and the State 470
NEP Cinema 471
The Priority of Editing 472
The Movement Ends 472
The Classical Hollywood Cinema after the Coming
of Sound (1926–1950) 474
Converting to Sound 474
Problems and Solutions 474
Studios, Genres, and Spectacle 475
Deep Focus and Narrative Innovations 476
Italian Neorealism (1942–1951) 477
Leaving the Studio 478
A New Model of Storytelling 478
The Movement’s End and Its Legacy 479
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The French New Wave (1959–1964) 479
Critics Become Moviemakers 480
A New Wave Style 480
Neorealism Recast 481
Into the Mainstream and Beyond 481
The New Hollywood and Independent Filmmaking,
1970s–1980s 482
Blockbusters and Indie Pictures 483
The Rise of the Movie Brats 483
Other Paths 484
The 1980s and After 485
Hollywood and Independents, To Be Continued 487
Hong Kong Cinema, 1980s–1990s 488
A Local Tradition Goes Global 488
The New Generation: Two Schools 489
Story and Style 489
Legacy Overseas 491
Glossary G-1
Credits C-1
Index I-1
bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 17 17/09/15 10:57 am

bor34952_fm_i-xviii.indd 18 17/09/15 10:57 am

P A R T 1
Film is a young medium. Painting, literature, dance, and theater have existed for thousands of
years, but cinema was invented only a little more than a century ago. Yet in its comparatively
short span, the newcomer has established itself as an energetic and powerful art.
It’s this art that we explore in this book. The chapters that follow show how creative people
have used moving pictures to give us experiences that we value. We examine the principles
and techniques that give film its power to tell stories, express emotions, and convey ideas.
But this art has some unusual features we should note from the start. More than most
arts, film depends on complex technology. Without machines, movies wouldn’t move. In addi-
tion, film art usually requires collabora-
tion among many participants, people
who follow well-proven work routines.
Films are not only created but pro-
duced. Just as important, they are
firmly tied to their social and economic
context. Films are distributed and
exhibited for audiences, and money
matters at every step.
Chapter 1 surveys all these aspects
of the filmmaking process. We examine the technology, the work practices, and the business
side of cinema. All these components shape and sustain film as an art.
Film Art and
bor34952_ch01_001-048.indd 1 16/09/15 4:17 PM

C H A P T E R 1
Film as Art: Creativity,
Technology, and Business
Motion pictures are so much a part of our lives that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. We enjoy them in theaters, at home, in offices, in cars and buses, and on airplanes. We carry films with us in our laptops, tablets,
and cellphones. Press a button, and a machine conjures up movies for your pleasure.
Films communicate information and ideas, and they show us places and ways
of life we might not otherwise know. Important as these benefits are, though, some-
thing more is at stake. Films offer us ways of seeing and feeling that we find deeply
gratifying. They take us through experiences. The experiences are often driven by
stories centering on characters we come to care about, but a film might also develop
an idea or explore visual qualities or sound textures.
Such things don’t happen by accident. Films are designed to create experiences
for viewers. To gain an understanding of film as an art, we should ask why a film
is designed the way it is. When a scene frightens or excites us, when an ending
makes us laugh or cry, we can ask how the filmmakers have achieved those effects.
It helps to imagine that we’re filmmakers, too. Throughout this book, we’ll be
asking you to put yourself in the filmmaker’s shoes.
This shouldn’t be a great stretch. You’ve taken still photos with a camera or
a mobile phone. Very likely you’ve made some videos, perhaps just to record a
moment in your life—a party, a wedding, your cat creeping into a paper bag. And
central to filmmaking is the act of choice. You may not have realized it at the
moment, but every time you framed a shot, shifted your position, told people not to
blink, or tried to keep up with a dog chasing a Frisbee, you were making choices.
You might take the next step and make a more ambitious, more controlled film.
You might compile clips into a YouTube video, or document your friend’s musical
performance. Again, at every stage you make design decisions, based on how you
think this image or that sound will affect your viewers’ experience. What if you
start your music video with a black screen that gradually brightens as the music
fades in? That will have a different effect than starting it with a sudden cut to a
bright screen and a blast of music.
At each instant, the filmmaker can’t avoid making creative decisions about how
viewers will respond. Every moviemaker is also a movie viewer, and the choices are
considered from the standpoint of the end user. Filmmakers constantly ask them-
selves: If I do this, as opposed to that, how will viewers react?
The menu of filmmaking choices has developed over time. Late in the 19th
century, moving pictures emerged as a public amusement. They succeeded because
they spoke to the imaginative needs of a broad-based audience. All the traditions
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Art vs. Entertainment? Art vs. Business? 3
that emerged—telling fictional stories, recording actual events, animating objects
or drawings, experimenting with pure form—aimed to give viewers experiences
they couldn’t get from other media. Men and women discovered that they could use
cinema to shape those experiences in various ways. Suppose we center the actors so
they command the frame space? Suppose we cut up a scene into shots taken from
several angles? Suppose we move the camera to follow the actors? Learning from
one another, testing and refining new choices, filmmakers developed skills that
became the basis of the art form we have today.
Thinking like a filmmaker is all very well, you might say, if you want a career
in the business. What if you just want to enjoy movies? We think that you can
appreciate films more fully if you’re aware of how creative choices shape your
experience. You’ve probably looked at some making-of bonuses on DVD versions
of films you love, and some of those supplements have increased your enjoyment.
We enhance our appreciation of The Social Network or Inception when we know
something of the filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes discussion of character motivation
and specific line readings. We can always get more out of the films we see, and
thinking about the filmmakers’ choices helps us to understand why we respond as
we do.
This is why we start our survey of film art by looking at the process of film
production. Here we can see, in very tangible ways, the sorts of options available to
people working in this medium. In every chapter that follows, we invoke what film
artists have said about the ways they’ve chosen to solve creative problems.
Throughout this book, we focus on the two basic areas of choice and control
in the art of film: form and style. Form is the overall patterning of a film, the ways
its parts work together to create specific effects (Chapters 2 and 3). Style involves
the film’s use of cinematic techniques. Those techniques fall into four categories:
mise-en-scene, or the arrangement of people, places, and objects to be filmed
(Chapter  4); cinematography, the use of cameras and other machines to record
images and sounds (Chapter 5); editing, the piecing together of individual shots
(Chapter 6); and sound, the voices, effects, and music that blend on a film’s audio
track (Chapter 7). After examining the various techniques, Chapter 8 integrates
them in an overview of film style.
In later chapters, we discuss how form and style differ among genres and other
types of films (Chapters 9–10). We consider how we can analyze films critically
(Chapter 11) and how film form and style have changed across history, offering
filmmakers different sets of creative choices (Chapter 12). In all, we’ll see how
through choice and control, film artists create movies that entertain us, inform us,
and engage our imaginations.
Art vs. Entertainment? Art vs. Business?
The term “art” might put some readers off. If cinema originated as a mass medium,
should we even use the word? Are Hollywood directors “artists”? Some people
would say that the blockbusters playing at the multiplex are merely “entertain-
ment,” but films for a narrower public—perhaps independent films, or foreign-
language fare, or experimental works—are true art.
Usually the art/entertainment split rests on a value judgment: Art is serious
and worthy; entertainment is superficial. Yet things aren’t that simple. Many of the
artistic resources of cinema were discovered by filmmakers working for the general
public. During the 1910s and 1920s, for instance, many filmmakers who simply
aimed to be entertaining pioneered new possibilities for film editing.
As for the matter of value, it’s clear that popular traditions can foster art of
high quality. Shakespeare and Dickens wrote for broad audiences. Much of the
greatest 20th-century music, including jazz and the blues, was rooted in popular
traditions. Cinema is an art because it offers filmmakers ways to design experiences
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4 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
for viewers, and those experiences can be valuable regardless of their pedigree.
Films for audiences both small and large belong to that very inclusive art we call
film or cinema.
Sometimes, too, people consider film art to be opposed to film as a business.
This split is related to the issue of entertainment, since entertainment generally
is sold to a mass audience. In most modern societies, however, no art floats free
from economic ties. Novels good, bad, and indifferent are published because
publishers and authors expect to sell them. Painters hope that collectors and
museums will acquire their work. True, some artworks are funded through sub-
sidy or private donations, but that process, too, involves the artists in financial
Films are no different. Some movies are made in the hope that consumers
will pay to see them. Others are funded by patronage (an investor or organization
wants to see the film made) or public money. (France, for instance, generously
subsidizes film projects.) Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter offer another
alternative. You might make short videos for YouTube or Vimeo at little cost, but
if you hope to make a feature-length digital movie, you face the problem of paying
for it. If you can’t profit from your film, you may still hope that the project will
lead to a job.
The crucial point is that considerations of business don’t necessarily make the
artist less creative or the project less worthwhile. Money can corrupt any activity,
but it doesn’t have to. In Renaissance Italy, painters were commissioned by the
Catholic Church to illustrate events from the Bible. Michelangelo and Leonardo da
Vinci worked for hire, but we revere their artistry.
In this book we won’t assume that film art precludes entertainment. We won’t
take the opposite position either, claiming that only Hollywood mass-market mov-
ies are worth our attention. Similarly, we don’t think that film art rises above com-
mercial demands, but we also won’t assume that money rules everything. Any art
form offers a vast range of creative possibilities.
As an art, film offers experiences that viewers find worthwhile—diverting,
provocative, puzzling, or rapturous. But how do films do that? To answer that ques-
tion, let’s go back a step and ask: Where do movies come from?
They come from three places. They come from the imagination and hard work
of the filmmakers who create them. They come from a complex set of machines
that capture and transform images and sounds. And they come from companies or
individuals who pay for the filmmakers and the technology. This chapter examines
the artistic, technological, and business sides of how films come into being.
Creative Decisions in Filmmaking
In Day for Night, French filmmaker François Truffaut plays a director making a
movie called Meet Pamela. Crew members bring set designs, wigs, cars, and prop
pistols to him, and we hear his voice telling us his thoughts: “What is a director? A
director is someone who is asked questions about everything.”
Making a film can be seen as a long process of decision making, not just by the
director but by all the specialists who work on the production team. Screenwriters,
producers, directors, performers, and technicians are constantly solving problems
and making choices. A great many of those decisions affect what we see and hear
on the screen. There are business choices about the budget, marketing, distribution,
and payments. Connected to those choices are the artistic ones. What lighting will
enhance the atmosphere of a love scene? Given the kind of story being told, would
it be better to let the audience know what the central character is thinking or to keep
her enigmatic? When a scene opens, what is the most economical way of letting the
audience identify the time and place? We can see how decisions shape the process
by looking in more detail at a single production.
We examine an unusual problem
and a director’s unusual solution
in “Problems, problems, Wyler’s
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Creative Decisions in Filmmaking 5
To See into the Night in Collateral
Michael Mann’s Collateral, released in 2004, is a visually striking psychological
thriller set in Los Angeles in a single night. The mysterious Vincent (Tom Cruise)
hires a cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), to drive him to several appointments. When Max
learns that Vincent is a hired killer, he struggles to break their bargain and escape. But
Vincent forces him to carry on as a getaway driver. In the course of the evening, the
two men spar verbally and move toward a climactic chase and confrontation.
Mann and his crew made thousands of decisions during the making of
Collateral. Here we look at five important choices: one that influenced the film’s
form and one each for our four categories of mise-en-scene, cinematography, edit-
ing, and sound. Several of these decisions involved new technologies that became
standard production tools.
Scriptwriter Stuart Beattie originally set Collateral in New York City. In the
screenplay, Max was a loser, hiding from the world in his cab and getting little
out of life. Vincent was to goad him about his failures until Max had finally had
enough and stood up to him. Once Mann came on board as director, he altered the
plot in several ways. The setting became Los Angeles. Max became less a loser
and more a laid-back, intelligent man content to observe the world from behind
a steering wheel, endlessly delaying his plans to start his own limousine service.
This more appealing Max becomes our point-of-view figure for most of the film.
For example, we don’t see the first murder but stay with Max in the cab until the
shocking moment when a body hurtles down onto his cab roof. The story largely
consists of Max’s conflict with Vincent, so Mann’s decision to change Max’s traits
altered their confrontations as well. In the finished film, moments of reluctant
mutual respect and even hints of friendship complicate the men’s relationship. Such
decisions as these reshaped the film’s overall narrative form.
The switch to Los Angeles profoundly affected the film’s style. For Mann,
one of the attractions was that this tale of randomly crossing destinies took place
almost entirely at night, from 6:04 P.M. to 4:20 A.M. He wanted to portray the
atmospheric Los Angeles night, where haze and cloud cover reflect the city’s lights
back to the vast grid of streets. According to cinematographer Paul Cameron, “The
goal was to make the L.A. night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and
Max were.”
This was a major decision that created the film’s look. Mann was determined
not to use more artificial light than was absolutely necessary. He relied to a consid-
erable degree on street lights, neon signs, vehicle headlights, and other sources in
the locations where filming took place. To achieve an eerie radiance, his team came
up with a cutting-edge combination of tools.
Digital Cinematography Certain choices about photographing Collateral
were central to its final look and also dictated many other decisions. For example,
at that time Hollywood productions employed cameras loaded with rolls of pho-
tographic film. Night scenes were shot using large banks of specialized spot- and
floodlights. If the light was too weak, dark areas would tend to go a uniform black.
Mann and his cinematographers decided to shoot portions of Collateral on
recently developed high-definition (HD) digital cameras. Those cameras could
shoot on location with little or no light added to the scene (1.1). They could also
capture the distinctive night glow of Los Angeles. As Mann put it, “Film doesn’t
record what our eyes can see at night. That’s why I moved into shooting digital
video in high definition—to see into the night, to see everything the naked eye can
see and more. You see this moody landscape with hills and trees and strange light
patterns. I wanted that to be the world that Vincent and Max are moving through.”
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6 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Cinematographer Dion Beebe enthused, “The format’s strong point is its
incredible sensitivity to light. We were able to shoot Los Angeles at night and
actually see silhouettes of palm trees against the night sky, which was very excit-
ing” (1.2). In a particularly dark scene at the climax, the characters become visible
only as black shapes outlined by the myriad lights behind them (1.3). The suspense
is heightened as we strain to see the figures.
Custom-Made Lights Though digital cameras could pick up a great deal in
dark situations, the audience needed to see the faces of the actors clearly. Much of
the action takes place inside the taxi as Max and Vincent ride and talk. The actors’
faces had to be lit, but the filmmakers wanted to avoid the sense that there was
artificial light in the cab.
To create a soft, diffuse light, the filmmakers tried an innovative approach:
electroluminescent display (ELD) panels. The technology had been used in digital
watches and cellphones, but it had never been employed in filming. Flexible plastic
panels of various sizes were custom made, all with Velcro backings that would stick
to the seats and ceiling of the cab (1.4, 1.5). These ELD panels could then be turned
on in various combinations. Although they look bright in Figure 1.5, the effect on
the screen was a soft glow on the actors. In a shot like Figure 1.6, we might simply
take it for granted that the light coming through the windows and the glow of the
dashboard panel are all that shines on the characters. Such dim illumination on the
faces allows the lights visible through the windows to be brighter than they are,
helping to keeping the city “as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max
Here’s a case where an artistic decision led to new technology. Since Collateral
was made, a similar lighting technology, the light-emitting diode (LED) has
become common in flashlights, auto tail lights, scoreboard displays, and computer
monitors. Specially designed LED units have become central to film production.
Mann’s team solved a problem in mise-en-scene, and a new option was added to
the menu available to other filmmakers.
1.1–1.3 Digital filming for Collateral. A digital camera shoots
in a dim alley. As in many shots, the skyline of downtown Los
Angeles figures prominently (1.1). An eerily glowing cityscape,
with digital cinematography making a row of palm trees stand
out against a dark sky (1.2). Vincent stalks one of his victims in
a law library with huge windows overlooking the city (1.3). On
regular photographic film, the streets and buildings would go
uniformly dark, with only points of light visible.
1.2 1.3
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Creative Decisions in Filmmaking 7
Seamless Editing Collateral contains several dynamic action scenes, includ-
ing a spectacular car crash. The plan was for a cab going nearly 60 miles per hour
to flip, then bounce and roll several times before coming to rest upside down. If we
put ourselves in the filmmakers’ place, we can imagine their options about how to
show the crash.
Mann’s team could have put the camera in a single spot and swiveled it to fol-
low the car rolling past. That might have been a good idea if the scene showed us
the crash through the eyes of an onlooker whose head turns to watch it. But there
is no character witnessing the crash.
The filmmakers decided to generate excitement by showing several shots of the
car rolling, each taken from a different point along the trajectory of the crash. One
option would have been to use several cabs and execute numerous similar crashes,
each time filmed by a single camera that would be moved between crashes from
place to place to record the action from a new vantage point. Such a procedure
would have been very expensive, however, and no two crashes would have taken
place in exactly the same way. Splicing together shots from each crash might have
created discrepancies in the car’s position, resulting in poor “matches on action,”
as we’ll term this technique in Chapter 6.
Instead, the team settled on a technique commonly used for big action scenes.
Along the cab’s path were stationed multiple cameras, all filming at once (1.7). The
economic benefits were that only one car had to be crashed and the high expense
of keeping many crew members working on retakes was reduced. Artistically, the
resulting footage allowed the editing team to choose portions of many shots and
splice them together in precise ways (1.8, 1.9). The result is an exciting stream of
shots, each taken from farther along the taxi’s path.
Music in Movements Composers are fond of saying that their music for
a film should serve the story so well that the audience doesn’t notice it. For
Collateral, Mann wanted James Newton Howard to score the climax so as to not
1.4–1.6 Unobtrusive lighting. One of the ELD panels
specially made for illuminating the cab interior (1.4). Several ELD
panels were attached to the back of a seat to shine on Tom
Cruise as Vincent (1.5). The units created a dim glow on the
actors (1.6).
1.4 1.5
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8 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
build up excitement too quickly. According to Howard, “Michael was very clear
about the climax taking place in three movements.” “Movements” as a term is usu-
ally applied to the parts of a symphony, a concerto, or a sonata. Thus the idea was
that the score for this last part of the film should play a major role in shaping the
progression and rhythm of the action.
At the climax, Vincent is trying to kill a character who is important to Max,
while Max tries frantically to save both himself and the other character. Howard
and Mann called the first musical movement “The Race to Warn,” since Vincent
gets ahead of Max in running to the building where the potential victim is located.
Despite the fact that both men are running and the situation is suspenseful, Howard
avoids rapid rhythms. He begins with long-held string chords over a deep, rumbling
sound, then adds sustained brass chords with a strong beat accompanying them.
The music is dynamic but doesn’t reach a high pitch of excitement.
The second movement, “The Cat and Mouse,” accompanies Vincent getting
into the building, turning off the electricity, and stalking his victim in near dark-
ness (1.3). Again, the chords are slow, with ominous undertones, dissonant glides,
and, at a few points, fast, eerie high-string figures as Vincent nears his goal. During
the most suspenseful moments in the scene, when Vincent and his prey are in the
darkened room, strings and soft, clicking percussion accompany their cautious,
hesitant movements.
Finally, there is a swift chase sequence, and here Howard’s score is louder and
faster, with driving tympani in very quick rhythm as the danger grows. Once the
chase tapers off, the percussion ends, and slow, low strings accompany the final
quiet shots.
These decisions and many others affect our experience of Collateral. Thanks to
the digital imagery and innovative lighting, we have a sense of characters moving
through an eerie, unfamiliar-looking world. The editing of the crash allows the taxi
to come hurtling toward the camera several times. The music accompanying the
fast-chase/slow-stalking/fast-chase climax helps heighten the suspense and build
the excitement. Creative decision making is central to every film, and Collateral
1.8 1.9
1.7–1.9 Editing a car crash. On location after the execution of
the car crash in Collateral, director Michael Mann surveys digital
monitors displaying shots taken by multiple cameras covering
the action (1.7). The result: A seamless continuation of the cab’s
movement. A shot taken from one camera shows the car flipping
over, its hood flapping wildly (1.8) is followed by a cut to another
shot, taken from a camera placed on the ground and continuing
the same movement, now with the vehicle rolling toward the viewer
(1.9). This particular camera was placed in a very thick metal case.
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Mechanics of the Movies 9
stands out for making several unusual choices. Collateral’s innovative visual style
showed later filmmakers what digital tools could do. Director Tony Scott replicated
the HD sheen of the film in his Déjà vu. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s half-
beautiful, half-creepy images for Nightcrawler (1.10) provide a similar look into
the Los Angeles night.
Mechanics of the Movies
Filmmaking relies on technology and financing. First, filmmakers need fairly com-
plicated machines. Anyone with a pen and paper can write a novel, and a talented
kid with a guitar can become a musician. Movies demand much more. Even the
simplest home video camera is based on fiendishly complex technology. A major
film involves elaborate cameras, lighting equipment, multitrack sound-mixing stu-
dios, sophisticated laboratories, and computer-generated special effects.
Partly because of the technology, making a movie also involves businesses.
Companies manufacture the equipment, other companies provide funding for the
film, still others distribute it, and finally theaters and other venues present the result
to an audience. In the rest of this chapter, we consider how these two sides of mak-
ing movies—technology and business—shape film as an art.
Illusion Machines
Moving-image media such as film and video couldn’t exist if human vision were
perfect. Our eyes are very sensitive, but they can be tricked. As anyone who has
paused a DVD knows, a film consists of a series of frames, or still pictures. Yet we
don’t perceive the separate frames. Instead, we see continuous light and movement.
What creates this impression?
For a long time people thought that the effect results from “persistence of vision,”
the tendency of an image to linger briefly on our retina. Yet if this were the cause, we’d
see a bewildering blur of superimposed stills instead of smooth action. At present,
researchers believe that two psychological processes are involved in cinematic
motion: critical flicker fusion and apparent motion.
If you flash a light faster and faster, at a certain point (around 50 flashes per sec-
ond), you see not a pulsating light but a continuous beam. A film is usually shot and
projected at 24 still frames per second. The projector shutter breaks the light beam
once as a new image is slid into place and once while it is held in place. Thus each
1.10 The legacy of Collateral. The sleazy news photographer protagonist of Nightcrawler
pauses on the street to check some footage he has just shot. The dim light on his face comes
entirely from the glow of his laptop and street lamps reflecting off his car.
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10 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
frame is actually projected on the screen twice. This raises the number of flashes to
48, the threshold of what is called critical flicker fusion. Early silent films were shot
at a lower rate (often 16 or 20 images per second), and projectors broke the beam
only once per image. The picture had a pronounced flicker—hence an early slang
term for movies, “flickers,” which survives today when people call a film a “flick.”
Apparent motion is a second factor in creating cinema’s illusion. If a visual dis-
play is changed rapidly enough, our eye can be fooled into seeing movement. Neon
advertising signs often seem to show a thrusting arrow, but that illusion is created
simply by static lights flashing on and off at a particular rate. Certain cells in our eyes
and brain are devoted to analyzing motion, brightness, and edges. Any stimulus pre-
senting changes in those features tricks those cells into sending the wrong message.
Apparent motion and critical flicker fusion are quirks in our visual system,
and technology can exploit those quirks to produce illusions. Some moving-image
machines predate the invention of film (1.11, 1.12). Film as we know it came into
being when photographic images were first imprinted on strips of flexible celluloid.
Making Films with Photographic Film
Until the 2000s, cinema was almost entirely a photochemical medium. Most of
the movies we use as examples in this book were shot on photographic film, as
were nearly all the films that you watch on DVD or streaming. Although digital
production has become common, some directors and cinematographers still prefer
photochemical media. So we’ll look first at motion pictures shot on film.
Physically, a photographically based film is a ribbon of still images, each one
slightly different from its mates. That ribbon starts life as unexposed film stock in a
camera. Eventually the finished movie is another strip of film run through a projec-
tor. Both the camera and the projector move the film strip one frame at a time past
a light source. For a fraction of a second, the image is held in place before the next
one replaces it. In a camera, the lens gathers light from the scene photographed,
while a projector uses a light source to cast the images on the screen. In a sense,
the projector is just an inverted camera (1.13, 1.14).
In filming, the most common shooting rate is 24 frames per second (fps), and in
projection the same rate is usually maintained. In the 35mm format, the film whiz-
zes through the projector at 90 feet per minute, meaning that a two-hour feature will
consist of about two miles of film.
The film strip that emerges from the camera is usually a negative. That is, its
colors and light values are the opposite of those in the original scene. For the images
to be projected, a positive print must be made. This is done on another machine, the
printer, which duplicates or modifies the footage from the camera. Like a projector,
the printer controls the passage of light through film—in this case, a negative. Like
a camera, it focuses light to form an image—in this case, on the unexposed roll of
film. Although the filmmaker can create nonphotographic images on the film strip
by drawing, painting, or scratching, most filmmakers in the predigital era have
relied on the camera, the printer, and other photographic technology.
If you were to handle the film that runs through these machines, you’d notice
several things. One side is much shinier than the other. Motion picture film consists
of a transparent plastic base (the shiny side), which supports an emulsion, layers
of gelatin containing light-sensitive materials. On a black-and-white film strip,
the emulsion contains grains of silver halide. Color film emulsion adds layers of
chemical dyes that react with the silver halide components. In both cases, billions
of microscopic particles form clusters of light, dark, and color corresponding to the
scene photographed.
What enables film to run through a camera, a printer, and a projector? The strip
is perforated along both edges, so that small teeth (called sprockets) in the machines
can seize the perforations (sprocket holes) and pull the film at a uniform rate and
smoothness. The strip also reserves space for a sound track.
1 .1 1–1 .1 2 Early moving-image
gadgets. The Zoetrope, which dates
back to 1834, spun its images on a
strip of paper in a rotating drum (1.11).
The Mutoscope, an early-20th-century
entertainment, displayed images by
flipping a row of cards in front of a
peephole (1.12).
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Mechanics of the Movies 11
The size and placement of the perforations and the area occupied by the sound
track have been standardized around the world. So, too, has the width of the film
strip, which is called the gauge and is measured in millimeters. For most of cinema
history, commercial theaters used 35mm film, but other gauges also have been
standardized internationally: Super 8mm, 16mm, and 70mm (1.15–1.19).
Usually image quality increases with the width of the film because the greater
picture area gives the images better definition and detail. All other things being
equal, 35mm provides significantly better picture quality than 16mm, and 70mm
is superior to both. The finest photographic quality currently available for public
screenings is that offered by the Imax system (1.20).
With the rise of digital filmmaking, 16mm has declined as an amateur gauge.
If you take an introductory production course, you are more likely to shoot with a
digital camera than a 16mm one. Yet a higher-quality version of the gauge, Super
16mm, still gets used in commercial films seeking to economize or to achieve a
“documentary look.” Recent films utilizing Super 16mm include The Wrestler,
The Hurt Locker, Black Swan, and Moonrise Kingdom. The comedy The World’s
End combined 35mm and regular 16mm. Super 8 film is still occasionally used
in professional production, usually to simulate home movies or television images;
Super 8 used both Super 16 and Super 8 to present the amateur footage shot by its
young protagonists. Imax and other cameras employing 65mm film have been used
for fiction films, including some scenes in The Dark Knight, Inception, Mission
Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Gravity, and Interstellar.
The sound track runs along the side of the film strip. Magnetic tracks, consist-
ing of magnetic tape running along the film strip (1.19), have virtually vanished.
Most films today have an optical sound track, which encodes sonic information in
the form of patches of light and dark running along the frames. During production,
electrical impulses from a microphone are translated into pulsations of light, which
are photographically inscribed on the moving film strip. When the film is projected,
the optical track produces varying intensities of light that are translated back into
electrical impulses and then into sound waves. The optical sound track of 16mm
1.13–1.14 Moving the film: Camera and projector. In a light-tight chamber (1.13), a drive mechanism feeds the unexposed motion
picture film from a reel (a) past a lens (b) and aperture (c) to a take-up reel (d). The lens focuses light reflected from a scene onto each
frame of film (e). The mechanism moves the film intermittently, with a brief pause while each frame is held in the aperture. A shutter (f )
admits light through the lens only when each frame is unmoving and ready for exposure. The projector is basically an inverted camera,
with the light source inside the machine rather than in the world outside (1.14). A drive mechanism feeds the film from a reel (a) past a lens
(b) and aperture (c) to a take-up reel (d). Light is beamed through the images (e) and magnified by the lens for projection on a screen.
Again, a mechanism moves the film intermittently past the aperture, while a shutter (f ) admits light only when each frame is pausing.
1.13 1.14
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12 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
1.15 Super 8mm 1.17 35mm
1.16 16mm
1.18 35mm
1.19 70mm
1.15–1.19 Film gauges. Super 8mm (1.15) has been a popular gauge for amateurs and experimental filmmakers. Year of the Horse, a
concert film featuring Neil Young, was shot partly on Super 8. 16mm film (1.16) has been used for both amateur and professional film work.
A variable-area optical sound track (p. 13) runs down the right side. 35mm film (1.17) is the standard theatrical film gauge. In this sample a
variable-area sound track runs down the side of the strip. A 35mm strip from Jurassic Park (1.18) shows an optical (analog) stereophonic
sound track (p. 13) on the left of the images, encoded as two parallel squiggles. The Morse code–like dots between the stereophonic
track and the picture area are a timecode to sync the film with DTS files on a CD-ROM. 70mm film (1.19), another theatrical gauge, was
used for historical spectacles and epic action films into the 1990s. In this strip from The Hunt for Red October, a stereo phonic magnetic
sound track runs along both edges of the film strip and between the edges of the picture and the sprocket holes, allowing for six discrete
channels of sound.
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Mechanics of the Movies 13
film is on the right side (1.16), whereas 35mm puts an optical track
on the left (1.17, 1.18). In each, the sound is usually encoded as vari-
able area, a wavy contour of black and white along the picture strip.
A film’s sound track may be monophonic or stereophonic. The
16mm film strip (1.16) and the first 35mm film strip (1.17) have
monophonic optical tracks. Stereophonic optical sound is registered
as a pair of squiggles running down the left side (1.18). For digital
sound, a string of dots and dashes running along the film’s perfora-
tions, or between the perforations, or close to the very left edge of
the frames provides the sound-track information. The projector scans
these marks as if reading a bar code.
Filmmaking with Digital Media
Digital information technology gave filmmakers a set of new tools.
Computers first came into use in editing and in special-effects
processes, and eventually digital shooting and projection became
feasible. The term “digital film” may seem contradictory, but
almost immediately everyone understood it. Just as audio books
and e-books were still called books, digital films counted as films,
even though they never involved light hitting celluloid. Some people
prefer to speak of “digital capture” rather than “digital filming,” but
most call digital image-creators “filmmakers.” So will we.
Digital Filming To some extent a professional digital motion
picture camera functions in the same way as the 35mm camera. The
camera operator uses a viewfinder to frame a scene. There are controls
to manipulate exposure and the speed of recording. At the front, a
lens gathers and focuses light reflected from the scene. A shutterlike
mechanism breaks the input into frames, usually 24 per second. A pro-
fessional digital camera also looks very much like a traditional 35mm
camera (1.21). The design reflects manufacturers’ effort to make the
new device feel familiar to cinematographers. Some digital cameras
can accept lenses designated for 35mm machines.
Instead of a strip of film whizzing through a gate behind the lens,
the digital camera has a fixed sensor. The sensor is covered with a grid
of millions of microscopic diodes, or photosites. Each of these diodes
measures a tiny portion of the light. The diodes create pixels (short
for “picture elements”) in the final image. The sensor converts these
1.20 Imax film. The Imax image is printed on 70mm film but runs horizontally along the strip, allowing each image to be 10 times larger
than 35mm and triple the size of 70mm. The Imax film can be projected on a very large screen with no loss of detail.
1.21 Digital motion picture camera. An operator
with an Arri Alexa, one of the most widely used
professional digital cameras, mounted on a
Steadicam support. The operator watches the image
being filmed on a monitor rather than through a
viewfinder. The back of the camera and the bottom
of the Steadicam have batteries attached, and the
attachment at the middle right is a gimbal to stabilize
the camera as the operator moves.
1.21 Digital motion picture camera. An operator
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14 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
patterns of light into electrical impulses that are sent to a
recording medium and registered as files of ones and zeroes.
A similar process of sampling and digital conversion occurs
while recording sound.
A frame of photographic film holds billions of specks
carrying visual information. But pixels are much larger
than photographic molecules, so making digital imagery as
finely detailed as 35mm is a challenge. Digital image quality
depends on several factors, including the size of the sensor,
the number of pixels, and the type of compression applied to
the files. As a result, several formats of digital image record-
ing emerged. The first wave in the 1990s utilized the format
known as digital video (DV). The images were quite low
resolution (about 350,000 pixels), but lit by an experienced
cinematographer they could be attractive, as in Spike Lee’s
Bamboozled, shot by Ellen Kuras. Some filmmakers played
up the pebbly textures of DV imagery. Dancer in the Dark uses saturated DV
imagery to suggest the fantasy world of a young mother going blind, while 28 Days
Later fitted the rough-edged format to a horror film. Harmony Korine shot julien
donkey-boy with mini-DV consumer cameras, transferred the footage to film, and
reprinted it several times (1.22).
As digital photography improved in the 2000s, high-definition (HD) video
emerged as a preferred choice for digital filmmaking, amateur or professional.
Today HD video usually refers to digital formats of 720p and 1080p. The numbers
refer to the number of horizontal lines in the display, and “p” stands for progres-
sive scan, which refreshes each frame in the manner of a computer monitor; 720p
images contain about 921,000 pixels, and 1080p images have nearly 2.1 million.
Further innovations have led to images that are sharper, more detailed, and freer
of artifacts. The newer formats, often known as “digital cinema,” were standardized
at 2K (usually rated at 2,048 pixels across, or about 3.2 million pixels in all) and
4K (4,096 pixels across, or over 12.7 million pixels). The rectangles in Figure 1.23
represent the numbered pixels in each of these formats. The images as projected on
1.22 Combining digital video and film. In julien donkey-boy,
pixels and grain yield a unique texture, and the high contrast
exaggerates pure colors and shapes to create a hallucinatory
1.23 Pixel size of sensors in four standard digital formats. The lowest resolution
digital moving image system in common use, 720p, contains 1,280 (width) by 720 (height)
pixels, yielding 0.92 megapixels. (A megapixel is 1 million pixels.) 720p is used primarily for
U.S. broadcast and cable television and for Internet video. The next step up is 1080 HD, with
either progressive or interlaced scanning. HD commonly measures 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, for
a total of 2.1 megapixels. The 2K format typically supports 1,998 by 1,080 pixels, yielding 2.2
megapixels. A typical 4K image measures 4,096 by 2,160 pixels, yielding 8.8 megapixels.
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Mechanics of the Movies 15
a screen would all be the same size, but the density of visual information increases
proportionately with the number of pixels. Since the information carried on each
image increases both vertically and horizontally, each step up multiplies the reso-
lution: 4K carries not twice but four times the amount of information in 2K. Each
format can produce images in different proportions, or aspect ratios, and these
make the pixel count vary somewhat. (More on aspect ratios in Chapter 5.) Sensors
come formatted for these various image sizes.
The moving images are stored on memory cards, large versions of the sort of
card used in digital still photography. For more space and longer recording capacity,
filmmakers turn to hard drives (1.24). When the images are downloaded and backed
up, the capture medium is wiped clean for reuse. The great advantage of this system
is that digital media cost much less than raw film stock, an expensive component of a
traditional film’s budget. The downside is that such huge amounts of data require a lot
of storage space. A finished feature film may consist of 10 to 12 terabytes (TB) of data,
and the amount shot may consume 350 TB. For this reason, digital imagery is sub-
jected to many compression and decompression processes from production through to
final projection. A feature film projected at your local multiplex probably takes up no
more than 100 to 350 gigabytes (GB) on the hard drive file that is fed to the projector.
In the late 1990s, George Lucas commissioned Sony to make a high-quality
digital camera, which he utilized on Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones
(2002). It used the 1080p format. Michael Mann’s digital camera on Collateral also
delivered 2K-resolution images. More and more big-budget directors embraced
HD digital formats, particularly for their price and convenience. Lucas claimed
that apart from creating spectacular special effects, using HD for Attack of the
Clones and Revenge of the Sith saved millions of dollars. A comparable system
was employed on Sin City, which combined HD footage of the actors with graphic
landscapes created in postproduction. Basing the entire project on digital technol-
ogy allowed director Robert Rodriguez to edit, mix sound, and create special effects
in his home studio in Austin, Texas.
Shooting in the 2K format quickly became widespread. In 2009, a few films,
including District 9, Che, and Knowing, used 4K systems. Many have claimed that
1.24 Two types of hard-drive recording media. A recorder containing a high-capacity
hard drive or “RAID unit” may be attached directly to the camera. Smaller hard drives, like
the unit sitting by the camera, can be loaded into the machine. Both types may be used in
combination to increase recording time.
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16 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
4K images are the equal in visual quality to those of 35mm, and the format has
become increasingly popular. Prestigious films such as David Fincher’s Zodiac and
The Social Network showed that high-resolution capture could in many respects
rival 35mm film while harboring its own artistic possibilities. Fincher continued
to push digital filmmaking in 2014, when Gone Girl became the first commercial
feature to be shot in 6K. This larger format is 6,144 by 3,160 pixels in size, yielding
2.2 times as many pixels as 4K.
Most professional cameras have two big advantages over lower-cost models.
They employ minimal data compression, and they tend to have larger sensors, ones
about the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Both factors make for higher image
quality. But consumer and “prosumer” cameras have also found roles in profes-
sional production. Filmmakers working on low budgets have discovered that not
only dedicated video cameras but digital single-lens reflex still cameras (DSLRs)
can yield high-quality video imagery. Stop-motion films made with puppets or clay
figures often use DSLRs rather than exposing single frames with motion picture
cameras. Even some cellphone cameras have the capacity for 1080p recording.
Park Chan-wook, the Korean director of Oldboy, shot a prize- winning short film
on his iPhone. These paraprofessional tools have proved particularly valuable for
documentary filmmakers, who need to shoot hours of footage cheaply.
Digital Projection For some years, films shot on digital video were trans-
ferred to photographic film and sent to theaters as 35mm prints. After rather slow
growth, digital projection exploded in 2010–2011 and by 2013 had almost entirely
replaced 35mm projection in most commercial venues around the world.
Digital theatrical projection is usually in either the 2K or 4K format. The most
common projection hardware employs microscopic mirrors and is manufactured in
various designs by several companies. Running speeds are standardized at 24 fps
and 48 fps. The film is encoded as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP), a set of files
containing images, sound, subtitles, and other information. The DCP, delivered
on a hard drive and heavily encrypted, provides a compressed version of the film
(1.25). The DCP loads into a server that feeds one or more projectors in a theater
complex (1.26).
We survey the development of
digital projection in our series
“Pandora’s digital box.”
1.25–1.26 Digital theatrical projection. Films are shipped to theaters on hard drives (1.25). Figure 1.26 shows a Sony digital projection
system. The projector is run from a server that stores films and trailer files loaded from the Digital Cinema Package. The touch-screen
monitor on the left allows the operator to control the screening through a playlist. The dual lenses on the upper right are used for 3D
1.25 1.26
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Making the Movie: Film Production 17
The new filmmaking and projection technology was given a boost by the
resurgence of 3D films in the mid-2000s. Digital filming proved more reliable and
efficient for stereoscopic movies, which were almost always projected digitally.
(Imax retained some theaters that projected 3D on two strips of 70mm film.) James
Cameron’s colossal hit Avatar served as a showcase not just for 3D but for digital
filmmaking in general.
Whether shooting on film or on video, the filmmaker faces comparable artistic
choices. Now that we have a sense of the technical tools available, we can turn to
the ways filmmakers work with them.
Making the Movie: Film Production
Important as technology is, films are part of social institutions as well. Sometimes
the social context is intimate, as when a family records their lives to show friends and
relations. But films that aim at the public enter a wider range of institutions.
A movie typically goes through three phases: production, distribution, and
exhibition. An individual, group, or company makes the film. A distribution com-
pany rents copies to theater chains, and theaters exhibit the film. Later, DVD and
Blu-ray versions are distributed to chain stores or rental shops; and the movie is
then exhibited on TV monitors, computer screens, or portable displays. For video
on demand, streaming, and websites such as YouTube, the Internet serves as both
a distribution and an exhibition medium.
The whole system depends on having movies to circulate, so let’s start by
considering the process of production. Most films go through four distinct phases:
1. Scriptwriting and funding. The idea for the film is developed and a screen-
play is written. The filmmakers also acquire financial support for the project.
2. Preparation for filming. Once a script is more or less complete and at least
some funding is assured, the filmmakers plan the physical production.
3. Shooting. The filmmakers create the film’s images and sounds.
4. Assembly. The images and sounds are combined in their final form. This
involves cutting picture and sound, executing special effects, inserting music
or extra dialogue, and adding titles.
The phases can overlap. Filmmakers may be scrambling for funding while
shooting and assembling the film, and some assembly is usually taking place during
filming. In addition, each stage modifies what went before. The idea for the film
may be radically altered when the script is hammered out; the script’s presentation
of the action may be drastically changed in shooting; and the material that is shot
takes on new significance in the process of assembly. As the French director Robert
Bresson puts it: “A film is born in my head and I kill it on paper. It is brought back
to life by the actors and then killed in the camera. It is then resurrected into a third
and final life in the editing room where the dismembered pieces are assembled into
their finished form.”
These four phases include many particular jobs. Most theatrical releases result
from dozens of specialized tasks carried out by hundreds of experts. This fine-
grained division of labor has proved a reliable way to prepare, shoot, and assemble
large-budget movies. On smaller productions, individuals perform several roles. A
director might also edit the film, or the principal sound recordist on the set might
also oversee the sound mixing. For Tarnation, a memoir of growing up in a troubled
family, Jonathan Caouette assembled 19 years worth of photographs, audiotape,
home movies, and videotape. Some of the footage was filmed by his parents, and
some by him as a boy. Caouette shot new scenes, edited everything on iMovie,
mixed the sound, and transferred the result to digital video. In making this personal
documentary, Caouette executed virtually all the phases of film production himself.
The study of the film industry as
a business was a major research
focus at our university, the
University of Wisconsin–Madison.
We look back at the innovative
work of our colleagues in
“Industrial Strength.”
We don’t shy away from all-
digital filmmakers. We just happen
to really, really love film. With artists
who are passionate about image
making, you don’t hear, ‘I want to
make film look like digital!’ You
hear, ‘I want digital to look like film.’”
—Paul Korver, head of the Cinelicious
postproduction company, Hollywood
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18 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
The Scriptwriting and Funding Phase
Two roles are central in this phase: producer and screenwriter. The tasks of the
producer are chiefly financial and organizational. This person may be an “indepen-
dent” producer, unearthing film projects and trying to convince production compa-
nies or distributors to finance the film. Or the producer may work for a distribution
company and generate ideas for films. A studio may also hire a producer to put
together a particular package.
The producer nurses the project through the scriptwriting process, obtains
financial support, and arranges to hire the personnel who will work on the film.
During shooting and assembly, the producer usually acts as the liaison between
the writer or director and the company that is financing the film. After the film is
completed, the producer often has the task of arranging the distribution, promotion,
and marketing of the film. The producer is usually responsible as well for paying
back the money invested in the production.
A single producer may take on all these tasks, but in the contemporary
American film industry, the producer’s work is further subdivided. The executive
producer is often the person who arranges the financing for the project or obtains
the literary rights. Once the production is underway, the line producer oversees
the day-to-day activities of director, cast, and crew. The line producer is assisted
by an associate producer, who acts as a liaison with laboratories or technical
The chief task of the screenwriter is to prepare the screenplay (or script).
Sometimes the writer will compose an original screenplay and send it to an agent,
who submits it to a production company. Or an experienced screenwriter meets
with a producer in a “pitch session,” where the writer can propose ideas for scripts.
The first scene of Robert Altman’s The Player mocks pitch sessions by showing
screenwriters proposing strained ideas like “Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa.”
Alternatively, the producer may have an idea and hire a screenwriter to develop it.
This approach is common if the producer has bought the rights to a novel or play
and wants to adapt it for the screen. Since 2004, a service called “The Black List”
has featured promising scripts by both new and experienced writers. These have
been voted as favorites by industry professionals and offered for perusal by potential
financial backers. Of the 970 scripts chosen during the List’s first decade, 270 were
produced, of which nearly 200 received Oscar nominations and wins. Titles includ-
ed Little Miss Sunshine, Inglourious Basterds, and Nebraska. Thanks to the Internet,
the Black List allows talented writers to bring their work to potential producers.
The screenplay usually goes through several stages. These include a treatment,
a synopsis of the action; then one or more full-length scripts; and a final version,
the shooting script. Extensive rewriting is common, and writers often must revise
their work several times.
If the producer or director finds one writer’s screenplay unsatisfactory, other
writers may be hired to revise it. Most Hollywood screenwriters earn their living
by rewriting other writers’ scripts. As you can imagine, this often leads to conflicts
about which writer or writers deserve onscreen credit for the film. In the American
film industry, these disputes are adjudicated by the Screen Writers’ Guild.
Shooting scripts are constantly changed, too. Some directors allow actors to
modify the dialogue, and problems on location or on a set may necessitate changes
in the scene. In the assembly stage, script scenes that have been shot are often con-
densed, rearranged, or dropped entirely.
As the screenplay is being prepared, the producer is planning the film’s
finances. This person has sought out a director and stars to make the package seem
a promising investment. The producer must prepare a budget spelling out above-
the-line costs (the costs of literary property, scriptwriter, director, and major cast)
and below-the-line costs (the expenses allotted to the crew, secondary cast, the
shooting and assembly phases, insurance, and publicity). The sum of above- and
We discuss one producer who
exerted an exceptional degree of
control over his projects (Gone
with the Wind, Rebecca, Duel in
the Sun) in “A Dose of DOS: Trade
secrets from David O. Selznick.”
A screenplay bears somewhat
the same relationship to a movie
as the musical score does to a
symphonic performance. There
are people who can read a
musical score and ‘hear’ the
symphony—but no two directors
will see the same images when
they read a movie script. The
two-dimensional patterns of
colored light involved are far more
complex than the one-dimensional
thread of sound.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, co-screenwriter, 2001:
A Space Odyssey
We consider the art of the screen-
writer in two entries: “JCC” and
“Scriptography.” Other entries
consider major screenwriter-
directors: David Koepp (Jurassic
Park, Premium Rush) in “David
Koepp: Making the world
movie-sized,” and Alexander
Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) in
“Alexander Payne’s vividly shot
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Making the Movie: Film Production 19
below-the-line costs is called the negative cost (that is, the total cost of producing
the film’s master negative).
Some films don’t follow a full-blown screenplay. Documentaries, for instance,
are difficult to script fully in advance. In order to get funding, however, the projects
typically require a summary or an outline, and some documentarists prefer to have a
written plan even if they recognize that the film will evolve in the course of produc-
tion. When compiling a documentary from existing footage, the filmmakers often
write the final voice-over commentary after assembling most of the sequences.
The Preparation Phase
When funding is more or less secure and the script is solid enough to start filming,
the filmmakers can prepare for the physical production. In commercial filmmak-
ing, this stage of activity is called preproduction. The director, who may have
come on board the project at an earlier point, plays a central role in this and later
phases. The director coordinates the staff to create the film. Although the director’s
authority isn’t absolute, he or she is usually considered the person most responsible
for the final look and sound of the film.
At this point, the producer and the director hire crew and cast the roles, and
scout locations for filming. They also prepare a daily schedule for shooting. This is
done with an eye on the budget. The producer assumes that the separate shots will be
made “out of continuity”—that is, in the most convenient order for production—and
put in proper order in the editing room. Since transporting equipment and personnel
to a location is a major expense, producers usually prefer to shoot all the scenes tak-
ing place in one location at one time. For Jurassic Park, the main characters’ arrival
on the island and their departure at the end of the film were both shot at the start
of production, during the three weeks on location in Hawaii. A producer must also
plan to shoot around actors who can’t be on the set every day. Many producers try
to schedule the most difficult scenes early, before cast and crew begin to tire. The
complex prizefight sequences of Raging Bull were filmed first, with the dialogue
scenes shot later. Keeping all such contingencies in mind, the producer comes up
with a schedule that juggles cast, crew, locations, and even seasons most efficiently.
During preproduction, several things are happening at the same time under the
supervision of the director and producer. A writer may be revising the screenplay
while a casting supervisor is searching out actors. In large-scale production, the
director orchestrates the contributions of specialists in several units. He or she
works with the set unit, or production design unit, headed by a production designer.
The production designer is in charge of visualizing the film’s settings. This unit
creates drawings and plans that determine the architecture and the color schemes
of the sets. Under the production designer’s supervision, an art director oversees
the construction and painting of the sets. The set decorator, often someone with
experience in interior decoration, modifies the sets for specific filming purposes,
supervising workers who find props and a set dresser who arranges things on the
set during shooting. The costume designer is in charge of planning and executing
the wardrobe for the production.
Working with the production designer, a graphic artist may be assigned to
produce a storyboard, a series of comic strip–like sketches of the shots in each
scene, including notations about costume, lighting, and camera work (1.27). Most
directors do not demand a storyboard for every scene, but action sequences and
shots using special effects or complicated camera work tend to be storyboarded in
detail. The storyboard gives the cinematography unit and the special-effects unit
a preliminary sense of what the finished shots should look like. The storyboard
images may be filmed, cut together, and played with sound to help visualize the
scene. This is one form of animatics.
Computer graphics can take planning further. The process of previsualization,
or “previs,” reworks the storyboards into three-dimensional animation, complete
Many, many novelists
fail when they try to become
screenwriters because they really
believe writing for film is writing.
It’s not. Writing for a film is filming.”
—Jean-Claude Carrière, screenwriter
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20 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
with moving figures, dialogue, sound effects, and music. Contemporary software
can create settings and characters reasonably close to what will be filmed, and tex-
tures and shading can be added. Previsualization animatics are most often used to
plan complicated action scenes or special effects (1.28), but they can also help the
director to test options for staging scenes, moving cameras, and timing sequences.
A substantial previs, complete with a temporary sound track, was made for The
Last Airbender. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie suggests how widely it was used
from preplanning to postproduction: “It proved invaluable to the visual-effect,
special-effects, stunt, lighting, production and art departments, and made the whole
production a lot more cost efficient.”
Sometimes storyboards or short previs films are made before the preproduc-
tion begins, to find financial backing. Director Angelina Jolie created home-
made storyboards for Unbroken and successfully used them to pitch the film to
The Shooting Phase
Although the term “production” refers to the entire process of making a film,
Hollywood filmmakers also use it to refer to the shooting phase. Shooting is also
known as principal photography.
Units and Personnel During shooting, the director supervises what is called
the director’s crew, consisting of these personnel:
∙ The script supervisor, known in the classic studio era as a “script girl.”
(Today one-fifth of Hollywood script supervisors are male.) The script super-
visor is in charge of all details of continuity from shot to shot. The supervisor
checks details of performers’ appearances (in the last scene, was the charac-
ter’s coat buttoned or not), props, lighting, movement, camera position, and
the running time of each shot.
∙ The first assistant director (AD), a jack-of-all-trades who, with the direc-
tor, plans each day’s shooting schedule. The AD sets up each shot for the
director’s approval while keeping track of the actors, monitoring safety condi-
tions, and keeping the energy level high.
If you wander unbidden onto
a set, you’ll always know the AD
because he or she is the one
who’ll probably throw you off.
That’s the AD yelling, ‘Places!’
‘Quiet on the set!’ ‘Lunch—one-
half hour!’ and ‘That’s a wrap,
people!’ It’s all very ritualistic, like
reveille and taps on a military
base, at once grating and oddly
—Christine Vachon, independent
producer, on assistant directors
1.27–1.28 Planning the movie visually. A page from the storyboard for Hitchcock’s The
Birds (1.27). Simple computer-animated previsualization from Pacific Rim (1.28).
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Making the Movie: Film Production 21
∙ The second assistant director, who is the liaison among the first AD, the
camera crew, and the electricians’ crew.
∙ The third assistant director, who serves as messenger for director and staff.
∙ The dialogue coach, who feeds performers their lines and speaks the lines of
offscreen characters during shots of other performers.
∙ The second unit director, who films stunts, location footage, action scenes,
and the like at a distance from where principal shooting is taking place.
The most visible group of workers is the cast. The cast may include stars—
well-known players assigned to major roles and likely to attract audiences. The cast
also includes supporting players, or performers in secondary roles; minor players;
and extras, those anonymous persons who pass by in the street and occupy distant
desks in large office sets. One of the director’s major jobs is to elicit performances
from the cast. The first AD usually works with the extras and takes charge of
arranging crowd scenes.
On some productions, there are still more specialized roles. Stunt artists are
supervised by a stunt coordinator; professional dancers work with a choreogra-
pher. If animals join the cast, they are handled by a wrangler. There have been pig
wranglers (Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome), snake wranglers (Raiders of the Lost
Ark), and spider wranglers (Arachnophobia).
Another unit of specialized labor is the photography unit. The leader is the
cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (or DP). The cinema-
tographer is an expert on photographic processes, lighting, and camera technique.
We have already seen how important Michael Mann’s two DPs, Dion Beebe and
Paul Cameron, were in achieving the desired look for Collateral (pp. 5–6). The
cinematographer consults with the director on how each scene will be lit and filmed
(1.29). The cinematographer supervises these workers:
∙ The camera operator, who runs the machine and who may also have assis-
tants to load the camera, adjust and follow focus, push a dolly, and so on.
1.29 Shooting phase of production. On the set of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles directs from
his wheelchair on the far right, cinematographer Gregg Toland crouches below the camera,
and actress Dorothy Comingore kneels at the left. The script supervisor is seated in the left
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22 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
∙ The key grip, who supervises the grips. These workers carry and arrange
equipment, props, and elements of the setting and lighting.
∙ The gaffer, the head electrician who supervises the placement and rigging of
the lights.
Parallel to the photography unit is the sound unit. This is headed by the produc-
tion recordist (also called the sound mixer). The recordist’s principal responsibility
is to record dialogue during shooting. Typically, the recordist uses a tape or digital
recorder, several sorts of microphones, and a console to balance and combine the
inputs. The recordist also tries to capture some ambient sound when no actors are
speaking. These bits of room tone are later inserted to fill pauses in the dialogue.
The recordist’s staff includes:
∙ The boom operator, who manipulates the boom microphone and conceals
radio microphones on the actors.
∙ The third man, who places other microphones, lays sound cables and is in
charge of controlling ambient sound.
Some productions also have a sound designer, who enters the process dur-
ing the preparation phase and who plans a sonic style appropriate for the entire
A visual-effects unit, overseen by the visual-effects supervisor, is charged with
preparing and executing process shots, miniatures, matte work, computer- generated
graphics, and other technical shots (1.30). During the planning phase, the direc-
tor and the production designer have determined what effects are needed, and the
supervisor consults with the director and the cinematographer on an ongoing basis.
The visual -effects unit can number hundreds of workers, from puppet- and model-
makers to specialists in digital compositing. On effects-heavy films, work is usually
turned over to specialist firms.
A miscellaneous unit includes a makeup staff, a costume staff, hairdressers,
and drivers, who transport cast and crew. During shooting, the producer is repre-
sented by a unit called the producer’s crew. Central here is the line producer, who
manages daily organizational business, such as arranging for meals and accommo-
dations. A production accountant (or production auditor) monitors expenditures, a
production secretary coordinates telephone communications among units and with
the producer, and production assistants (or PAs) run errands. Newcomers to the
film industry often start out working as production assistants.
Scenes and Takes All this coordinated effort results
in many hours of footage and recorded sound. For each shot
called for in the script or storyboard, the director usually
does several takes, or versions. For instance, if the finished
film requires one shot of an actor saying a line, the director
may do several takes of that speech, each time asking the
actor to vary the delivery. Only one take, or even one part
of the take, becomes the shot included in the finished film.
Left-over footage can be used in coming-attractions trailers
and electronic press kits.
Because scenes seldom are filmed in plot order, the
director and the crew must have some way of labeling each
take. As soon as the camera starts, one of the cinematogra-
pher’s staff holds up a clapperboard before the lens. On the
clapperboard are written the production, scene, shot, and
take. A hinged arm at the top, the clapboard, makes a sharp
clack that allows the recordist to synchronize the sound track
1.30 Creating special effects. Sculpting a model dinosaur
for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The model was scanned into
a computer for digital manipulation.
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Making the Movie: Film Production 23
with the footage in the assembly phase (1.31). Thus every take is identified for
future reference.
In filming a scene, most directors and technicians follow an organized pro-
cedure. While crews set up the lighting and test the sound recording, the director
rehearses the actors and instructs the cinematographer. The director then usually
supervises the filming of a master shot. The master shot typically records the entire
action and dialogue of the scene. There may be several takes of the master shot.
Then portions of the scene are restaged and shot in closer views or from different
angles. These shots are called coverage, and each one may require many takes.
Today most directors shoot a great deal of coverage. The script supervisor checks
to ensure that details are consistent within all these shots.
For most of film history, scenes were shot with a single camera, which was
moved to different points for different setups. More recently, under pressure to fin-
ish principal photography as quickly as possible, the director and the camera unit
often use two or more cameras, even for routine coverage. Action scenes like the
taxi smashup in Collateral are usually shot from several angles simultaneously,
because chases, crashes, and explosions are difficult to repeat for retakes. The
battle scenes in Gladiator were filmed by 7 cameras, while 13 cameras were used
for stunts in XXX.
For dialogue scenes, a common tactic is to film with an A camera and a B
camera, an arrangement that can capture two actors in alternating shots. Still,
some directors prefer the single-camera method. The camera assistant on Quentin
Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds sums up the artistic advantages: “You get such a
hand-crafted movie. The actors know they’re going to do a lot of setups because it’s
only one camera, but they get to perfect their craft. The camera rolls for as many
takes as necessary to perfect each shot.”
When special effects are to be included, the shooting phase must carefully plan
for them. In many cases, actors will be filmed against blue or green backgrounds so
that their figures can be inserted into computer-created settings. Or the director may
film performers with the understanding that other material will be composited into
the frame (1.32). If a moving person or animal needs to be created by computer, a
specialized unit will use motion capture. Here small sensors are attached all over the
body of the subject, and as that subject moves against a blank background or a set,
1.31 Labeling takes. A clapperboard on
a set of Argo features an electronic time
readout and an erasable acrylic board
for information on the scene, camera
roll, and take. The title and the names of
the director and cinematographer have
been permanently printed on the board,
with the date applied with tape at the
1.32 Combining actors and special effects. For the climax of Jurassic Park, the actors
were shot in the set of the visitor’s center, but the velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus rex
were computer- generated images added later.
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24 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
a special camera records the movement (1.33, 1.34). Each sensor provides a point
in a wire-frame figure on a computer. That image can then be animated and built
up to a completely rendered person or animal to be inserted digitally into the film.
The Assembly Phase
Filmmakers call the assembly phase postproduction. Yet this phase doesn’t begin
after the shooting is finished. Typically, postproduction staff members work behind
the scenes throughout shooting. Since the advent of digital postproduction tools,
many filmmakers prefer to start editing, sound mixing, special effects, and other
important tasks immediately after the first footage is shot.
Picture Editing Before the shooting begins, the director or producer probably
hires an editor (also known as the supervising editor). This person catalogues and
assembles the takes produced during shooting. The editor also works with the
director to make creative decisions about how the footage can best be cut together.
1.33–1.34 Motion capture. For Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. performed in a motion-capture
suit covered with sensors (1.33). The same scene with a computer-animated suit partially
added (1.34).
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Some Terms and Roles in Film Production
The rise of packaged productions, the use of freelance
workers, and other factors have led producers to credit
everyone who worked on a film. Meanwhile, the special-
ization of large-scale filmmaking has created its own jar-
gon. We have explained some of the most colorful terms
in the text. Here are some other terms that you may see
in a film’s credits.
ACE: After the name of the editor; abbreviation for the
American Cinema Editors, a professional association.
ASC: After the name of the director of photography;
abbreviation for the American Society of Cinema-
tographers, a professional association. The British
equivalent is the BSC.
Additional photography: Crew shooting footage
apart from the principal photography, typically
supervised by the director of photography.
Best boy: Term from the classic studio years,
originally applied to the gaffer’s assistant. Today film
credits may list both a best boy electric and a best
boy grip, the assistant to the key grip.
Casting director: Member who searches for and
auditions performers for the film, and suggests
actors for leading roles (principal characters) and
character parts (fairly standardized or stereotyped
roles). She or he may also cast extras (background
or nonspeaking roles).
Clapper boy: Crew member who operates the
clapboard that identifies each take.
Concept artist: Designer who creates illustrations
of the settings and costumes that the director has in
mind for the film.
Dialogue editor: Sound editor specializing in making
sure recorded speech is audible.
Digital colorist: In postproduction, the colorist works
on a digital copy of the film, manipulating the color,
light levels, and other pictorial aspects. The colorist
creates a consistent look for all the shots in a scene,
corrects mistakes made in shooting, and makes
shots more visually appealing.
Digital imaging technician: A specialist who
advises on the choice of camera and other digital
equipment, calibrates monitors during shooting,
downloads and checks image files, and ensures that
the postproduction workflow proceeds smoothly.
Dolly grip: Crew member who pushes the dolly that
carries the camera, either from one setup to another
or during a take for moving camera shots.
Foley artist: Sound-effects specialist who creates
sounds of movement by walking or by shifting
materials across large trays of different substances
(sand, earth, glass, for example). Named for Jack
Foley, a pioneer in postproduction sound.
Greenery man: Crew member who chooses and
maintains trees, shrubs, and grass in settings.
Lead man: Member of set crew responsible for
tracking down various props and items of decor.
Loader: On a production using film, this person
inserts and unloads the camera magazines, keeps
a log of shots taken, labels the cans of film, and
sends them to the laboratory. A digital loader works
alongside the digital imaging technician, putting the
memory cards or drives in the camera, inventorying
the contents of the recording media, and backing up
the image files.
Matte artist: Member of special-effects unit who
paints backdrops that are then photographically
or digitally incorporated into a shot to indicate a
Model maker: (1) Member of production design
unit who prepares architectural models for sets
to be built. (2) Member of the special-effects unit
who fabricates scale models of locales, vehicles, or
characters to be filmed or scanned as substitutes for
full-size ones.
Property master: Member of set crew who
supervises the use of all props, or movable objects
in the film.
Publicist, unit publicist: Member of producer’s crew
who creates promotional material regarding the
production. The publicist may arrange for press and
television interviews with the director and cast and
for coverage of the production in the mass media.
Scenic artist: Member of set crew responsible for
painting surfaces of set.
Still photographer: Member of crew who takes
photographs of scenes and behind-the-scenes shots
of cast members and others. These photographs
may be used to check lighting or set design or color,
and some will be used in publicizing the film.
Video assist: A video camera attached to the
motion picture camera that allows immediate
playback of a shot. This allows the director and
cinematographer to check lighting, framing, or
Making the Movie: Film Production 25
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26 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Because each shot usually exists in several takes, because the film is shot out
of plot order, and because the master-shot/coverage approach yields so much foot-
age, the editor’s job can be a daunting one. A 100-minute feature, which amounts
to about 9,000 feet of 35mm film, may have been carved out of 500,000 feet of
raw footage. Shooting on video can also generate a huge amount of material to
be edited. Over 286 hours of footage were sent to postproduction for The Social
Network. For this reason, postproduction on major Hollywood pictures often takes
up to seven months. Sometimes several editors and assistants are brought in.
Typically, the editor receives filmed material as quickly as possible. This foot-
age is known as the dailies or the rushes. The editor inspects the dailies, leaving
it to the assistant editor to synchronize image and sound and to sort the takes by
scene. The editor meets with the director to examine the dailies, or if the produc-
tion is filming far away, the editor informs the director of how the footage looks.
Since retaking shots is costly and troublesome, constant checking of the dailies is
important for spotting any problems with focus, exposure, framing, or other visual
factors. From the dailies, the director selects the best takes, and the editor records
the choices. To save money, “digital dailies” are often shown to the producer and
director, but since video playback on small monitors can conceal defects in the
original footage, many editors prefer to check the shots on a big screen before.
As the footage accumulates, the editor assembles it into a rough cut—the shots
loosely strung in sequence, without sound effects or music. Rough cuts tend to run
long—the rough cut for Apocalypse Now ran 7½ hours. From the rough cut, the
editor, in consultation with the director, builds toward a fine cut or final cut. The
unused shots constitute the outtakes. While the final cut is being prepared, a second
unit may be shooting inserts, footage to fill in at certain places. These are typically
long shots of cities or airports or close-ups of objects. At this point, pickups are
also shot. These are retakes and additional footage not made during principal pho-
tography. Then, titles are prepared, and further laboratory work or special-effects
work may be done.
Until the mid-1980s, editors cut and spliced the work print, footage printed
from the camera negative. In trying out their options, editors were obliged to
re arrange the shots physically. Now virtually all commercial films are edited digi-
tally. Any footage shot on film is transferred to a hard drive. The editor enters notes
on each take directly into a computer database. From these, the editor can call up
any shot, join it to another shot, trim it, or junk it. Special effects and music can be
tried out as well.
As the editing team puts the footage in order, other members of the team manip-
ulate the look of the shots via computer. If the footage has been shot on film, it may
be scanned frame by frame into computer files to create a digital intermediate (DI).
The DI is manipulated in many ways, most importantly to change light levels and to
alter colors. The purpose is to make sure that shots made at different times of day
or in different locales can be cut together to create a consistent look throughout a
scene. Such tasks are handled by digital color grading, and the job is done by the
colorist. To some extent the colorist takes over tasks that a cinematographer and
traditional grader would originally have performed in the photographic laboratory,
and the two may work together on the DI. Nowadays if a problem arises on set,
the filming continues, with the crew deciding, “we’ll fix it in post.” As we’ll see in
Chapter 5, digital tools can make precise changes in portions of the image.
Ironically, the use of digital intermediates has encouraged some filmmakers
to continue working on 35mm photographic film stock. They believe that they can
best exploit the visual richness of film by digital manipulation. Jacques Audiard’s
A Prophet was shot on 35mm, but after transfer to a DI it was shown at the Cannes
Film Festival as a 2K version. Audiard was thrilled with the way it looked on the
screen: “It’s a miraculous hybrid that magnifies the beauty of 35mm.” Several
directors and cinematographers share Audiard’s enthusiasm for this “hybrid”
A couple of guys in a coffee
shop set out to write a gag; a
couple of guys with a camera set
out to film a gag; a couple of guys
in an editing room set out to make
sense of the trash that’s been
dumped on their desks.”
—David Mamet, director, The Spanish
Prisoner and Redbelt
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Making the Movie: Film Production 27
Special Effects For special effects, filmmakers turn to computer-generated
imagery (CGI). Their tasks may be as simple as deleting distracting background
elements or building a crowd out of a few spectators. George Lucas has claimed
that if an actor blinked at the wrong time, he just erased the blink digitally. CGI
can also create imagery that would be virtually impossible with photographic
film (1.35). Computers can conjure up photorealistic characters such as Gollum
in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (See pp. 165–166.) Fantasy and science
fiction have fostered the development of CGI, but all genres have benefited, from
the comic multiplication of a single actor in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
to the grisly realism of the digitally enhanced Omaha Beach assault in Saving
Private Ryan. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, CGI substituted for
makeup, allowing Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to plausibly portray their charac-
ters through youth to old age.
Sound Editing Once the shots are arranged in something approaching final
form, the sound editor takes charge of building up the sound track. The director,
the composer, the picture editor, and the sound editor view the film and agree on
where music and effects will be placed, a process known as spotting. The sound
editor may have a staff whose members specialize in mixing dialogue, music, or
sound effects.
Surprisingly little of the sound recorded during filming winds up in the fin-
ished movie. Often half or more of the dialogue is rerecorded in postproduction,
using a process known as automated dialogue replacement (ADR). ADR usually
yields better quality than location sound does. With the on-set recording serving
as a guide track, the sound editor records actors in the studio speaking their lines
(called dubbing or looping). Nonsynchronized dialogue such as the babble of a
crowd (known in Hollywood as “walla”) is added by ADR as well.
Similarly, very few of the noises we hear in a film were recorded during
filming. A sound editor adds sound effects, drawing on a library of stock sounds
or creating particular effects for the film. Sound editors routinely manufacture
footsteps, car crashes, pistol shots, and fists thudding into flesh (often produced
by whacking a watermelon with an axe). In Terminator 2, the sound of the T-1000
cyborg passing through jail cell bars is that of dog food sliding slowly out of a can.
Sound-effects technicians have sensitive hearing. One veteran noted the differences
among doors: “The bathroom door has a little air as opposed to the closet door. The
front door has to sound solid; you have to hear the latch sound. . . . Don’t just put
in any door, make sure it’s right.”
Like picture editing, modern sound editing relies on computer technology. The
editor can store recorded sounds in a database, classifying and rearranging them in
[ADR for Apocalypse Now]
was tremendously wearing on
the actors because the entire
film is looped, and of course all
of the sound for everything had
to be redone. So the actors were
locked in a room for days and
days on end shouting. Either
they’re shouting over the noise of
the helicopter, or they’re shouting
over the noise of the boat.”
—Walter Murch, sound designer
1.35 Computer-generated imagery. In the chase through the airways of Coruscant in
Attack of the Clones, the actor was shot against a blue or green screen, and the backgrounds
and moving vehicles were created through CGI.
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28 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
any way desired. A sound’s qualities can be modified digitally—clipping off high
or low frequencies and changing pitch, reverberation, equalization, or speed. The
boom and throb of underwater action in The Hunt for Red October were slowed
down and reprocessed from such mundane sources as a diver plunging into a swim-
ming pool, water bubbling from a garden hose, and the hum of Disneyland’s air-
conditioning plant. One technician on the film called digital sound editing “sound
During the spotting of the sound track, the film’s composer enters the assem-
bly phase as well. The composer compiles cue sheets that mark exactly where the
music will go and how long it should run. The composer writes the score, although
she or he will probably not orchestrate it personally. While the composer is work-
ing, the rough cut is synchronized with a temp dub—accompaniment pulled from
recorded songs or classical pieces. Musicians record the score with the aid of a click
track, a taped series of metronome beats synchronized with the final cut.
Dialogue, effects, and music are recorded on separate tracks, and each type
of sound, however minor, will occupy a separate track. During the mixing, for
each scene, the image track is run over, once for each sound, to ensure proper
synchronization. The specialist who performs the task is the rerecording mixer,
usually supervising a team of mixers. Each scene may involve dozens of tracks of
individual sounds, which are all mixed together. Equalization, filtering, and other
adjustment take place at this stage. The director typically oversees some mixing
sessions, particularly the one creating the final mix.
In the era of photochemical filmmaking, the camera negative, which was the
source of the dailies and the work print, was too precious to serve as the source
for final prints. Traditionally, from the negative footage, the laboratory drew an
interpositive, which in turn provided an internegative. The internegative was then
assembled in accordance with the final cut, and it served as the primary source of
future prints. An alternative, as we’ve seen, was to create a digital intermediate that
could be recorded back to film as an internegative.
Once the internegative was created, the master sound track was synchronized
with it. The first positive print, complete with picture and sound, was called the
answer print. After the director, producer, and cinematographer approved an
answer print, release prints were made for distribution. Using a digital intermedi-
ate made it possible to generate additional internegatives as old ones wore out, all
without any damage to the original materials.
Films that are shot digitally may proceed through postproduction without ever
being put on photochemical stock. The director and cinematographer approve a
master version that will be converted to the Digital Cinema Packages released to
theaters. Further conversions will turn out video versions for DVD and Blu-ray,
streaming, and other platforms. These transfers often demand new judgments about
color quality and sound balance. The master version of the finished film, along
with all the footage and materials used in the creation of the movie, will be stored
on files. Because digital media have a short life, most film studios arrange for the
finished film and the most valuable supplementary footage to be saved on 35mm
film as well.
Special Versions The work of production does not end when the final theat-
rical version has been assembled. In consultation with the producer and director,
the postproduction staff prepares airline and broadcast television versions. For a
successful film, a director’s cut or an extended edition may be released on disc.
Different versions may be prepared for different countries. European prints of
Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut featured more nudity than did American ones, in
which some naked couples were blocked by digital figures added to the foreground.
Many fictional films have dramatized processes of film production. Federico
Fellini’s 8½ concerns itself with the preproduction stage of a film that is abandoned
before shooting starts. François Truffaut’s Day for Night, David Mamet’s State and
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Modes of Production 29
Main, Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, and Tom DiCillo’s Living in
Oblivion all center on the shooting phase. The action of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out
occurs while a low-budget thriller is in sound editing. Singin’ in the Rain follows a
single film through the entire process, with a gigantic advertising billboard filling
the final shot.
Artistic Implications of the Production Process
Every artist works within constraints of time, money, and opportunity. Of all the
arts, filmmaking is one of the most pressurized. Budgets must be maintained, dead-
lines must be met, weather and locations are unpredictable, and the coordination
of any group of people involves unforeseeable twists and turns. Even a Hollywood
blockbuster, which might seem to offer unlimited freedom, is actually confining on
many levels. Big-budget filmmakers sometimes get tired of coordinating hundreds
of staff and wrestling with million-dollar decisions, and they start to long for more
relaxed productions. Steven Soderbergh has swung between high-profile projects
like the star-packed Ocean’s 11 franchise and smaller projects like Bubble, shot
with nonprofessional actors on 1080p HD.
We appreciate films more when we realize that in production, every film is a
compromise made within constraints. When Mark and Michael Polish conceived
their independent film Twin Falls Idaho, they had planned for the story to unfold in
several countries. But the cost of travel and location shooting forced them to rethink
the film’s plot: “We had to decide whether the film was about twins or travel.”
Similarly, the involvement of a powerful director can reshape the film at the
screenplay stage. In the original screenplay of Witness, the protagonist was Rachel,
the Amish widow with whom John Book falls in love. The romance and Rachel’s
confused feelings about Book formed the central plot line. But the director, Peter
Weir, wanted to emphasize the clash between pacifism and violence. So William
Kelley and Earl Wallace revised their screenplay to stress the mystery plot line and
to center the action on Book and the introduction of urban crime into the peaceful
Amish community. Given the new constraints, the screenwriters found a new form
for Witness.
Some filmmakers struggle against their constraints, pushing the limits of
what’s considered possible. The production of a film we’ll study in upcoming
chapters, Citi zen Kane, was highly innovative on many fronts. Yet even this project
had to accept studio routines and the limits of current technology. More commonly,
a filmmaker works with the same menu of choices available to others. In directing
Collateral, Michael Mann made creative choices about how to use digital cameras
and low lighting levels. Other filmmakers working in 2004 could have taken the
same risks, but Mann saw new ways of employing such techniques. The overall
result was a visual style that no other film had achieved, though others imitated it.
Starting our study of film art with a survey of production allows us to under-
stand some of the possibilities offered by images and sounds. It also helps put us
in the filmmaker’s shoes: We can see the decisions from the inside. We realize that
everything in the finished movie springs from choices that we too would face. Later
chapters will discuss the artistic consequences of decisions made in production—
everything from storytelling strategies to techniques of staging, shooting, editing,
and sound work. By choosing within production constraints, and sometimes push-
ing against them, filmmakers create film form and style.
Modes of Production
The scale and type of production varies from large-scale studio filmmaking involv-
ing hundreds of people to do-it-yourself productions completed by a single film-
maker. The different modes of production shape the final film.
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30 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Large-Scale Production
The fine-grained division of labor we’ve been
describing is characteristic of studio filmmaking.
A studio is a company in the business of creat-
ing films. The most famous studios flourished
in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s—
Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, and so on.
These companies owned equipment and extensive
physical plants, and they retained most of their
workers on long-term contracts. Each studio’s
central management planned all projects, then del-
egated authority to supervising producers, who in
turn assembled casts and crews from the studio’s
pool of workers.
Organized as efficient businesses, the stu-
dios created a tradition of carefully tracking
the entire process through paper records. At the
start, there were versions of the script. During
shooting, reports were written about camera
footage, sound recording, special-effects work,
and laboratory results. In the assembly phase,
there were logs of shots catalogued in editing
and a variety of cue sheets for music, mixing,
looping, and title layout. This sort of record
keeping has remained a part of large-scale
filmmaking, though now it is done mostly on
Although studio production might seem to
resemble a factory’s assembly line, it was always
more creative, collaborative, and chaotic than
turning out cars or microchips. Each film is a
unique product, not a replica of a prototype. In
studio filmmaking, skilled specialists collaborat-
ed to create such a product while still adhering
to a “blueprint” prepared by management (1.36).
The centralized production system has virtually disappeared. The giant stu-
dios of Hollywood’s golden age have become distribution companies, although
they may initiate, fund, and oversee the making of some of the films they distrib-
ute. The old studios had stars and staff under contract, so the same group of people
might work together on film after film. Now each film is planned as a distinct pack-
age, with director, actors, staff, and technicians brought together for the project.
The studio may provide its own sound stages, sets, and offices for the production,
but in most cases, the producer arranges with outside firms to supply cameras,
catering, locations, special effects, and anything else required.
In recent years, each phase of filmmaking has encompassed more and more
specialized tasks. This trend is largely due to bigger budgets and greater reliance on
digital special effects. Still, the basic production stages and division of labor remain
similar to what they were in the years of classic studio moviemaking.
Exploitation, Independent Production, and DIY
Not all films using the division of labor we have outlined are big-budget projects
financed by major companies. There are also low-budget exploitation products tailored
to a particular market—in earlier decades, fringe theaters and drive-ins; now, video
rentals and sales. Troma Films, maker of The Toxic Avenger, is probably the most
Deep down inside, everybody
in the United States has a
desperate need to believe that
some day, if the breaks fall their
way, they can quit their jobs as
claims adjusters, legal secretaries,
certified public accountants, or
mobsters, and go out and make
their own low-budget movie.
Otherwise, the future is just too
—Joe Queenan, critic and independent
1.36 Large-scale production. Studio production was characterized by
a large number of highly specialized production roles. Here several units
prepare a moving-camera shot for Wells Fargo (1937).
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Modes of Production 31
famous exploitation company, turning out horror movies and teen sex comedies for
$100,000 or less. Nonetheless, exploitation filmmakers usually divide the labor along
studio lines. There is the producer’s role, the director’s role, and so on, and the produc-
tion tasks are parceled out in ways that roughly conform to mass-production practices.
Exploitation production often forces people to double up on jobs. Robert
Rodriguez made El Mariachi as an exploitation film for the Spanish-language
video market. The 21-year-old director also functioned as producer, scriptwriter,
cinematographer, camera operator, still photographer, and sound recordist and
mixer. Rodriguez’s friend Carlos Gallardo starred, coproduced, and coscripted; he
also served as unit production manager and grip. Gallardo’s mother fed the cast and
crew. El Mariachi wound up costing only about $7,000.
Unlike El Mariachi, most exploitation films don’t enter the theatrical mar-
ket, but other low-budget productions, loosely known as independent films, may.
Independent films are made for the theatrical market but usually without major
distributor financing. Some independent filmmakers are well known, such as Spike
Lee, David Cronenberg, and Joel and Ethan Coen, who prefer to work with budgets
significantly below the industry norm. In such cases, the director usually initiates
the project and partners with a producer to get it realized. Financing may come
from television firms, with major U.S. distributors buying the rights if the project
seems to have good prospects. Or private investors may provide funding, as Megan
Ellison has done for Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, and American Hustle.
As we would expect, these industry-based independents organize production
in ways close to the full-fledged studio mode. Nonetheless, because these projects
require less financing, the directors can demand more control over the production
process. For Slumdog Millionaire, a relatively low-cost project, director Danny Boyle
had the freedom to shoot some of the film on 35mm and other portions on smaller 2K
digital cameras, which were easier to maneuver in the crowded streets of Mumbai.
The category of independent production is a roomy one, and it also includes more
modest projects by less well-known filmmakers. Examples are Victor Nuñez’s Ulee’s
Gold, Phil Morrison’s Junebug, and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We
Know. Even though they are far less costly than studio projects, independent produc-
tions face many obstacles. Filmmakers may have to finance the project themselves,
with the help of relatives and friendly investors; they must also find a distributor
specializing in independent and low-budget films. Festivals and networking are
important for independent filmmakers. Ava DuVernay, who had started her career as
a publicist, was inspired to become a director when working on Collateral. Her second
low-budget feature, Middle of Nowhere (1.37), was shown at the Sundance Film
Festival, and she became the first African-American woman to win its best-director
prize. When there were problems finding a director for Selma, actor David Oyelowo,
who had a leading role in Middle of Nowhere, suggested DuVernay. Her work on
Selma led to an Academy Award nomination. DuVernay also founded the African-
American Film Festival Releasing Movement to distribute independent work by black
filmmakers. If you were an independent filmmaker, you might believe the advantages
are worth the struggle. Independent production can treat subjects that large-scale stu-
dio production ignores. No film studios would probably have supported Kevin Smith’s
Clerks or Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Because the
independent film does not need as large an audience to repay its costs, it can be more
personal and controversial. And the production process, no matter how low the budget,
still relies on the basic roles and phases established by the studio tradition.
Small-Scale Production
In large-scale and independent production, many people work on the film, each
one a specialist in a particular task. Even on Boyhood, which was a relatively small
production, there were about 45 crew members on set each day. But there’s also a
tradition of a single filmmaker assuming all or many of the roles: planning the film,
Studio films and independent ones
aren’t always that far apart, as we
suggest in “Independent film: How
1.37 The heroine of Middle of
Nowhere puts her life on hold
when her husband is imprisoned.
The tedium of her long bus rides to
visit him is suggested by several shots
at intervals in the film.
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32 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
financing it, performing in it, running the camera, recording the sound, and putting
it all together. For his low-budget horror film Monsters, Gareth Edwards acted as
writer, director, cinematographer, and special-effects supervisor. He did his own
location scouting from his computer, using Google Earth to survey Mexico, Belize,
and Guatemala.
Experimental and documentary traditions have given great weight to the film
dominated by a single person’s efforts. Consider Stan Brakhage, whose films are
among the most directly personal ever made. Some, such as Window Water Baby
Moving, are lyrical studies of his home and family (1.38). Others, such as Dog Star
Man, are mythic treatments of nature; still others, such as 23rd Psalm Branch, are
quasi-documentary studies of war and death. Funded by grants and his personal
finances, Brakhage prepared, shot, and edited his films virtually unaided. While he
was working in a film laboratory, he also developed and printed his footage. With
over 150 films to his credit, Brakhage proved that the individual filmmaker can
become an artisan, executing all the basic production tasks.
The 16mm and less costly digital video formats are customary for small-scale
production of this sort. Financial backing often comes from the filmmaker, from
grants, and perhaps from obliging friends and relatives. There is very little divi-
sion of labor: The filmmaker oversees every production task and performs many of
them. Although technicians or performers may help out, the creative decisions rest
with the filmmaker. Experimentalist Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon was
shot by her husband, Alexander Hammid, but she scripted, directed, and edited it
and performed in the central role (1.39). Amos Poe made his lengthy, evocative
experimental film Empire II by placing a small digital camera in a window of his
Manhattan apartment and exposing single frames in bursts at intervals over an
entire year (1.40). Poe edited the film himself, reworked the images digitally, and
assembled the sound track from existing songs and original music.
Such small-scale production is common in documentary filmmaking as well.
Jean Rouch, a French anthropologist, made several films alone or with a small
crew in his efforts to record the lives of marginal people living in alien cultures.
Rouch wrote, directed, and photographed Les Maîtres fous (1955), his first widely
seen film. He examined the ceremonies of a Ghanaian cult whose members lived
a double life: Most of the time they worked as low-paid laborers, but in their ritu-
als, they passed into a frenzied trance and assumed the identities of their colonial
Similarly, Barbara Kopple devoted four years to making Harlan County,
U.S.A., a record of Kentucky coal miners’ struggles for union representation.
After eventually obtaining funding from several foundations, she and a small
crew spent 13 months living with miners during the workers’ strike. During
filming, Kopple acted as sound recordist, working with cameraman Hart Perry
and sometimes also a lighting person. A large crew was ruled out not only by
Kopple’s budget but also by the need to fit naturally into the community. Like
the miners, the filmmakers were constantly threatened with violence from
strikebreakers (1.41).
On rare occasions small-scale production becomes collective production.
Here, instead of a single filmmaker shaping the project, several film workers
participate equally. The group shares common goals and makes production deci-
sions democratically. Roles may also be rotated: The sound recordist on one
day may serve as cinematographer on the next. One instance is the Canadian
film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Three Inuits (Zacharias Kunuk, Paul Apak
Angilirq, and Paul Qulitalik) and one New Yorker (Norman Cohn) composed a
screenplay based on an oral tale about love, murder, and revenge. Cast and crew
spent six months shooting in the Arctic, camping in tents and eating seal meat.
“We don’t have a hierarchy,” Cohn explained. “There’s no director, second, third
or fourth assistant director. We have a team of people trying to figure out how to
1.38 Small-scale production. In The
Riddle of Lumen, Stan Brakhage turns
shadows and everyday objects into
vivid patterns.
1.39–1.40 Handmade movies.
In Meshes of the Afternoon, multiple
versions of the protagonist were
played by the filmmaker, Maya Deren
(1.39). For Empire II, Amos Poe digitally
manipulated this tantalizing glimpse of
the Manhattan skyline (1.40).
1.41 Small-scale documentary
filmmaking. In Harlan County, U.S.A.,
the driver of a passing truck fires at the
film crew. Working organically within
the community, the filmmakers were
threatened with violence similar to
that experienced by the striking coal
miners they were filming.
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Modes of Production 33
make this work.” Because of the communal nature of Inuit
life, the Igloolik team expanded the collective effort by
bringing local people into the project. An early showcase
for the strengths of digital video (1.42), Atanarjuat: The
Fast Runner won a prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
YouTube and other media-sharing sites have popularized
collective production by encouraging high school classes to
make films together.
Small-scale production allows the filmmakers to retain
tight control of the project. The rise of digital video formats
has made small-scale production more visible. The Gleaners
and I (see p. 174), The Yes Men, Searching for Sugarman,
The Cove, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Citizenfour, and other
documentaries indicate that the theatrical market and festival
circuit have room for works made by single filmmakers or
small production units.
Thanks to digital cameras and affordable software for computer postproduc-
tion, there has been an explosion of “do it yourself” (DIY) filmmaking. Individuals
or small groups of amateurs can make their own films and share them on YouTube,
Vimeo, and other websites. An early instance was Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s
Four Eyed Monsters, a filmed reenactment of the couple’s unconventional romance
that got some festival exposure before moving to a self-published DVD and
YouTube. This project was an early example of crowdfunding before such resources
as Indiegogo and Kickstarter existed.
Artistic Implications of Different Modes
of Production
Production and Film Categories We sometimes categorize films on the
basis of how they were made. We can distinguish a fiction film from a documentary
on the basis of production phases.
The fiction film is characterized by much more control over the preparation
and shooting phases. By contrast, the documentary filmmaker usually controls
only certain portions of preparation, shooting, and assembly. Some stages (script
and rehearsal) may be omitted, whereas others (setting, lighting, and performance)
are present but often uncontrolled. In interviewing an eyewitness to an event, the
filmmaker typically controls camera work and editing but does not tell the witness
what to say or how to act. For example, there was no script for the documentary
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Filmmakers Mark Achbar
and Peter Wintonick instead shot long interviews in which Chomsky explained his
Similarly, a compilation film assembles existing images and sounds that pro-
vide historical evidence on a topic. The compilation filmmaker may minimize
the shooting stage and create a story from archival footage. For The Power of
Nightmares, Adam Curtis gathered newsreel and television footage, television com-
mercials, and clips from fiction films to track the rise of fundamentalist politics and
religion after World War II.
One more kind of film is distinguished by the way it’s produced. The ani-
mated film is created frame by frame. Images may be drawn directly on the film
strip, or the camera may photograph drawings or three-dimensional models, as
in the Wallace and Gromit movies. Corpse Bride was created without using
motion picture cameras; instead, each frame was registered by a digital still
camera and transferred to film. Today most animated films, both for theater
screens and for the Internet, are created directly on computer with imaging
One of the best things
about directing is that there’s no
confusion about who’s to blame:
You are.”
—Nora Ephron, director, Julie & Julia
1.42 Collective filmmaking. The hero of Atanarjuat: The Fast
Runner pauses in his flight across the ice. “We made our film in
an Inuit way,” Norman Cohn explained, “through consensus and
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34 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Production and Authorship Production practices have another implication
for film as an art form. Who, it is often asked, is the “author,” the person respon-
sible for the film? In individual production, the author must be the solitary film-
maker—Stan Brakhage or perhaps you. Collective film production creates collec-
tive authorship: The author is the entire group. The question of authorship becomes
difficult to answer only when asked about large-scale production, particularly in the
studio mode.
Studio film production assigns tasks to so many individuals that it is often
difficult to determine who controls or decides what. Is the producer the author? In
the prime years of the Hollywood system, the producer might have had nothing to
do with shooting. The writer? The writer’s script might be completely transformed
in shooting and editing. So is this situation like collective production, with group
authorship? No, because there is a hierarchy in which a few main players make the
key decisions.
Moreover, if we consider not only control and decision making but also indi-
vidual style, it seems certain that some studio workers leave recognizable and
unique traces on the films they make. Cinematographers such as Gregg Toland, set
designers such as Hermann Warm, costumers such as Edith Head, choreographers
such as Gene Kelly—the contributions of these people stand out within the films
they made. So where does the studio-produced film leave the idea of authorship?
Most people who study cinema regard the director as the film’s primary
“author.” Although the writer prepares a screenplay, later phases of production
can modify it beyond recognition. And although the producer monitors the entire
process, he or she seldom controls moment-by-moment activity on the set. It is
the director who makes the crucial decisions about performance, staging, lighting,
framing, cutting, and sound. On the whole, the director usually has most control
over how a movie looks and sounds.
This doesn’t mean that the director is an expert at every job or dictates every
detail. The director can delegate tasks to trusted personnel, and directors often work
habitually with certain actors, cinematographers, composers, and editors. In the
days of studio filmmaking, directors learned how to blend the distinctive talents of
cast and crew into the overall movie. Humphrey Bogart’s unique talents were used
very differently by Michael Curtiz in Casablanca, John Huston in The Maltese
Falcon, and Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep. Gregg Toland’s cinematography was
pushed in different directions by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and William Wyler
(The Best Years of Our Lives).
During the 1950s, young French critics applied the word auteur (author) to
Hollywood directors who they felt had created a distinctive approach to filmmaking
while working within the Hollywood studio system. Soon American critics picked
up the “auteur theory,” which remained a central idea for film academics and stu-
dents. Now you will occasionally read reviews or see spots on television that use
the term to refer to a respected and distinctive director.
Today well-established directors can control large-scale production to a remark-
able degree. Until 2011, Steven Spielberg resisted using digital editing. The late
Robert Altman disliked ADR and used much of the casual on-set dialogue in the
finished film. In the days of Hollywood’s studio system, some directors exercised
power more indirectly. Most studios did not permit the director to supervise editing,
but John Ford often made only one take of each shot. Precutting the film “in his
head,” Ford virtually forced the editor to put the shots together as he had planned.
Around the world, the director is generally recognized as the key player. In
Europe, Asia, and South America, directors frequently initiate the film and work
closely with scriptwriters. In Hollywood, directors usually operate on a freelance
basis, and the top ones select their own projects. To a great extent, it is the director
who shapes the film’s unique form and style, and these two components are central
to cinema as an art.
The times when [our job] is
most satisfying are when you
really are in sync with the director.
It is almost like you are trying to
crawl into their brain, and it is
about fulfilling their vision, which is
what everybody’s role on a film is.”
—Ellen Lewis, casting director
Screenwriters often take issue
with the idea of directorial author-
ship, but we defend it in “Who the
devil wrote it? (Apologies to Peter
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Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution and Exhibition 35
Bringing the Film to the Audience:
Distribution and Exhibition
We’ve spent some time considering film production because that’s where film art
begins. What of the other two phases of filmmaking? As in production, money
plays a significant role in both distribution and exhibition. We’ll see as well that
these phases have effects on film art and viewers’ experiences of particular films.
Distribution: The Center of Power
Distribution companies form the core of economic power in the commercial
film industry. Filmmakers need distributors to circulate their work; exhibitors
need them to supply their screens. Europe and Asia are home to some significant
media companies, but six Hollywood firms remain the world’s major distributors.
You recognize the names: Warner Bros., Paramount, Walt Disney/Buena Vista,
Universal, Sony/Columbia, and Twentieth Century Fox.
These firms provide mainstream entertainment to theaters around the world.
The films they release account for 95 percent of ticket sales in the United States
and Canada, and about half of the overseas market. In world capitals, the majors
maintain branch offices that advertise films, schedule releases, and arrange for
prints to be made in local languages (either dubbing dialogue or adding subtitling).
With vigorous marketing units in every region, the majors can distribute non-U.S.
films as well as Hollywood titles. For example, Hayao Miyazaki’s popular animated
films (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) are distributed on video by Disney’s
Buena Vista arm, even in Miyazaki’s homeland of Japan.
The major distributors have won such power because large companies can best
endure the risks of theatrical moviemaking. Filmmaking is costly, and most films
don’t earn profits in theatrical release. Worldwide, the top 10 percent of all films
released garner 50 percent of all box office receipts. The most popular 30 percent of
films account for 80 percent of receipts. Distributors are in a position to move films
smoothly from theatrical runs to cable TV, DVD, and other platforms. Typically, a film
breaks even or shows a profit only after it has been released in these ancillary markets.
In the United States, theater owners bid for each film a distributor releases, and
in most states, they must be allowed to see the film before bidding. Elsewhere in the
world, distributors may force exhibitors to rent a film without seeing it (called blind
booking), perhaps even before it has been completed. Exhibitors may also be pres-
sured to rent a package of films in order to get a few desirable items (block booking).
Once the exhibitor has contracted to screen the film, the distributor can demand
stiff terms. The theater keeps a surprisingly small percentage of total box office
receipts (known as the gross or grosses). One standard U.S. arrangement guarantees
the distributor a minimum of 90 percent of the first week’s gross, dropping gradu-
ally to 30 percent after several weeks.
These terms aren’t favorable to the exhibitor. A failure that closes quickly will
yield almost nothing to the theater, and even a successful film will make most of
its money in the first two or three weeks of release, when the exhibitor gets less of
the revenue. Averaged out, a long-running success will likely yield no more than
50 percent of the gross to the theater.
To make up for this drawback, the distributor allows the exhibitor to deduct
from the gross the expenses of running the theater (a negotiated figure called the
house nut). In addition, the exhibitor gets all the cash from the concession stand,
which may deliver up to 70 percent of the theater’s profits. Without high-priced
snacks, movie houses couldn’t survive.
After the grosses are split with the exhibitor, the distribution company receives
its share (the rentals) and divides it further. A major U.S. distributor typically takes
35 percent of the rentals as its distribution fee. If the distributor helped finance the
Selling food is my job. I just
happen to work in a theater.”
—Theater manager in upstate New York
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36 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
film, it takes another percentage off the top. The costs of prints and advertising are
deducted as well. What remains comes back to the filmmakers. Out of the proceeds,
the producer must pay all profit participants—the directors, actors, executives, and
investors who have negotiated a share of the rental returns.
For most films, the amount returned to the production company is relatively
small. Once the salaried workers have been paid, the producer and other major
players usually must wait to receive their share from video and other ancillary mar-
kets. Because of this delay, and the suspicion that the major distributors practice
misleading accounting, powerful actors and directors may demand “first-dollar”
participation. In that case, their share will derive from the earliest money the pic-
ture returns to the distributor.
Majors and Minors The major distributors all belong to multinational cor-
porations devoted to leisure activities. For example, Paramount Pictures, which
produces and distributes films, is owned by Viacom, which controls Comedy
Central, MTV, and other cable channels. Time Warner not only owns Warner Bros.
but also has broadcast and cable services (CNN, HBO, Turner Classic Movies,
and the Cartoon Network) along with publishing houses and magazines (Time,
Sports Illustrated, People, and DC Comics). Twentieth Century Fox is a subsidiary
of News Corp, which owns many newspapers, book publishers, cable news and
sports channels, and half-interest in Australia’s National Rugby League. Columbia
Pictures is an arm of Sony, which has extensive holdings in electronics, recorded
music, and mobile communications.
Independent and overseas filmmakers usually don’t have access to direct fund-
ing from major distribution companies, so they try to presell distribution rights
to finance production. Sometimes the distribution rights are sold in advance of
production and provide some of the film’s budget. Alternatively, once a film is
finished, a producer may try to attract distributors’ attention at film festivals. In
2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and
was bought by Fox Searchlight. It went on to win a major prize at the Cannes Film
Festival and was nominated for four Academy Awards.
More specialized distributors, such as the New York firms Kino Lorber and
Milestone, acquire rights to foreign and independent films for rental to art cinemas,
colleges, and museums. As the audience for these films grew during the 1990s,
major distributors sought to enter this market. The independent firm Miramax gen-
erated enough low-budget hits to be purchased by the Disney corporation. With the
benefit of Disney’s funding and wider distribution reach, Miramax movies such as
Pulp Fiction, Scream, Shakespeare in Love, and Hero earned even bigger box office
receipts. Sony Pictures Classics funded art house fare that sometimes crossed over
to the multiplexes, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did.
By belonging to multinational conglomerates, the big film distributors gain
access to private investors, bank financing, and other sources of funding. Branch
offices in major countries can carry a film into worldwide markets. Sony’s global
reach allowed it to release 11 different soundtrack CDs for Spider-Man 2, each one
featuring artists famous in local territories. Just as important, media conglomerates
can build synergy—focusing the film, music, television, and publishing sectors
of the company on promoting a piece of “branded content.” The Disney company
followed the release of Frozen with a soundtrack album, books, a ride at Disney
theme parks, a Broadway show, and a Frozen storyline in a television series on
ABC (a network owned by Disney). Every product promotes the others, and each
wing of the parent company gets more business. One film can even advertise anoth-
er within its story (1.43). Although synergy sometimes fails, multimedia giants are
in the best position to take advantage of it.
Distributors arrange release dates, make prints, and launch advertising cam-
paigns. For big companies, distribution can be efficient because the costs can be
spread out over many units. One poster design can be used in several markets, and
Every Monday, the weekend box
office figures are news, but what
do they mean? We add some
nuance in “What won the week-
end? Or how to understand box-
office figures.”
James Schamus, then head of
Focus Features, shares thoughts
on independent distribution in “A
man and his focus.”
Our underlying philosophy is
that all media are one.”
—Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp
and Twentieth Century Fox
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Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution and Exhibition 37
a distributor who orders a thousand prints from a laboratory will pay less per print
than the filmmaker who orders one. Large companies are also in the best position to
cope with the rise of distribution costs. Today, the average Hollywood film is esti-
mated to cost over $100 million to make and an additional $50 million to distribute.
Release Patterns The risky nature of mass-market filmmaking has led the
majors to two distribution strategies: platforming and wide release. With platform-
ing, the film opens first in a few big cities. It then gradually expands to theaters
around the country, although it may never play in every community. If the strategy
is successful, anticipation for the film builds, and it remains a point of discussion
for months. The major distributors tend to use platforming for unusual films, such
as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Selma, which need time to accumulate critical sup-
port and positive word-of-mouth. Smaller distributors use platforming out of neces-
sity, since they can’t afford to make enough prints to open wide, but the gradual
accumulation of buzz can work in their favor, too.
In wide release, a film opens at the same time in many cities and towns. In the
United States, this requires that thousands of copies be shipped out, so wide release
is available only to the deep-pocketed major distributors. Wide release is the typical
strategy for mainstream films, with two or three new titles opening each weekend
on 2,000–4,000 screens. A film in wide release may be a midbudget one—a com-
edy, an action picture, a horror or science fiction film, or a children’s animated
movie. Or it may be a very big-budget item, a tentpole picture such as The Dark
Knight Rises or a Hunger Games installment.
Distributors hope that a wide opening signals a “must-see” film, the latest
big thing. Just as important, opening wide helps to recoup costs faster, since the
distributor gets a larger portion of box office receipts early in the run. Still, it’s a
gamble. If a film fails in its first weekend, it almost never recovers momentum
and can lose money very quickly. Even successful films usually lose revenues by
40 percent or more every week they run. So when two high-budget films open wide
the same weekend, the competition is harmful to all. Companies tend to plan their
tentpole release dates to avoid head-to-head conflict.
Wide releasing has extended across the world. As video piracy has spread,
distribution companies have realized the risks of opening wide in the United States
With help from some colleagues,
we defend movie franchises in
“Live with it! There’ll always be
movie sequels. Good thing, too.”
Fan events like Comic-Con have
become a new way for Hollywood
distributors to promote popular
films directly to moviegoers, as
we discuss in “Comic-Con 2008,
Part 2.”
1.43 Product placement. In Lethal Weapon, as Murtaugh and Riggs leave a hotdog stand,
they pass in front of a movie theater. The shot provides advance publicity for The Lost Boys,
another Warner Bros. film released four months after Lethal Weapon. The prominence of
Pepsi-Cola in this shot is an example of product placement—featuring well-known brands in a
film in exchange for payment or cross-promotional services.
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38 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
and then waiting weeks or months before opening overseas. By then, illegal DVDs
and Internet downloads would stifle the theatrical release. As a result, U.S. compa-
nies undertake day-and-date releasing for their biggest tentpole pictures. Matrix:
Revolutions opened simultaneously on 8,000 screens in the United States and
10,000 screens in 107 other countries. In a stroke of showmanship, the first screen-
ing was synchronized to start at the same minute across all time zones.
Selling the Film The distributor provides not only the movie but a publicity
campaign. The theater is sent a trailer, a short preview of the upcoming film. Many
executives believe that a trailer is the single most effective piece of advertising.
Shown in theaters, it gets the attention of confirmed moviegoers. Posted on web-
sites, a trailer gains mass viewership.
Publicists run press junkets, bringing entertainment reporters to interview the
stars and principal filmmakers. “Infotainment” coverage in print, broadcast media,
and online builds audience awareness. A making-of documentary, commissioned
by the studio, may be shown on cable channels. A prominent film’s premiere cre-
ates an occasion for further press coverage (1.44). For journalists, the distributor
provides electronic press kits (EPKs), complete with photos, background informa-
tion, star interviews, and clips of key scenes. Even a modestly budgeted production
such as Waiting to Exhale had heavy promotion: five separate music videos, star
visits to Oprah Winfrey, and displays in thousands of bookstores and beauty salons.
Marketing costs for summer blockbusters may run as high as $200 million.
Most of those costs will go toward TV advertisements and outdoor displays
such as billboards and bus-shelter posters. Less expensive, but for young audiences
more attractive, is marketing on the Internet. In 1999, two young directors found
their target audience by creating a website purporting to investigate sightings of the
Blair Witch. “The movie was an extension of the website,” noted a studio execu-
tive. When The Blair Witch Project earned over $130 million in the United States,
distributors woke up to the power of the Internet. Now every film has a webpage,
enticing viewers with plot information, star biographies, games, screen savers, and
links to merchandise.
Distributors have realized that young Web surfers will eagerly promote a film
if they’re allowed to participate in getting the word out. Fan sites such as Harry
Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News publicize upcoming films through steady leaks and
exclusive access. Every few days during the pro-
duction of King Kong, Peter Jackson sent brief
“Production Diaries” to a fan site; the full set of
90 “entries” were later released as an elaborate
DVD boxed set. Social networking sites such
as Facebook and services such as Twitter are
filled with Hollywood publicity. When filming
outdoor chase scenes for Transformers: Age of
Extinction, the crew permitted onlookers to use
their smartphones to shoot what they saw and
post amateur making-of clips online.
Audience participation went further in a
publicity campaign that has become a model
of cyber-marketing. For The Dark Knight, a
consulting firm created an alternate reality
game (ARG) called “Why So Serious?” The
premise was that Batman’s adversary, the Joker,
was recruiting gang members. On websites
and social media, fans found clues that sent
them racing to real street addresses. There they
found coded instructions for getting closer to
the master criminal. In the most famous phase,
1.44 Publicity builds audience awareness. A press conference held at Te
Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, as part of the December 1, 2003,
world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
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Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution and Exhibition 39
people who decoded a cryptic message were
sent to bakeries, where they found chocolate
cakes containing cellphones (with new infor-
mation) and a playing card, the joker. The trails
of clues took players to websites with trail-
ers, sequences from the film, and free tickets.
“Why So Serious?” ran over a 14-month period
and is said to have engaged 10 million people
worldwide (1.45).
Merchandising is a form of promotion that
pays back its investment directly. Manufacturing
companies license the rights to use the film’s
characters, title, or images on products. These
licensing fees defray production and distribu-
tion costs. If the merchandise catches on, it can
provide the studio with long-term income from
an audience that might never have seen the film.
Although Tron did poorly in theatrical release in
1982, the Discs of Tron video game became a
popular arcade attraction.
Today nearly all major motion pictures rely on merchandising, if only of a nov-
elization or a soundtrack CD. A successful blockbuster can reap a merchandising
bonanza. Children’s films tend to exploit the gamut of possibilities: toys, games,
clothing, lunch boxes, and schoolbags. There were Shrek ring tones, bowling balls,
and hospital scrubs. George Lucas’s entertainment empire was built on his owner-
ship of the licensing rights for Star Wars merchandise. The four Transformers films
grossed about a billion dollars each at theaters, but their toys, video games, and
apps have yielded over $7 billion.
Merchandising is not only aimed at children. Given the aging population of
Harry Potter readers and the darkening tone of the films, Warner Bros. concentrated
on high-end collectibles, such as wool scarves and silk ties based on the characters’
costumes. Reportedly, about 70 percent of Potter action figures are bought by col-
lege students.
Smaller-budget films can sometimes imitate the big promotional efforts. The
campaign for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel offered eccentric products,
such as mustache wax, on eBay auctions. Videos showing how to create pastries
like those in the film went viral. Fans began posting footage of their own creations,
and those featured in ads on television cooking shows. The script of the film was
published, as was Anderson’s curated collection of stories that inspired him. A
hefty art book consisting of interviews and essays about the film was published just
before the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony. Interestingly, Anderson has permitted
fans to make and sell their own merchandise inspired by his films. For big-studio
projects, the property is the brand, but for an independent like Anderson, the brand
is the filmmaker himself.
In addition to merchandising, there is cross-promotion, or brand partnering.
This tactic allows a film and a product line to be advertised simultaneously. A part-
ner company, in the case of children’s films often a fast-food chain or a soft-drinks
manufacturer, receives the right to use characters from a film in its advertising. In
exchange, the firm commits to spending a certain amount on ads and promotions
featuring its products and the film’s characters. Such a bargain can shift tens of
millions of dollars in publicity costs away from the studios. How to Train Your
Dragon 2 had tie-ins with candy, bubblegum, and McDonald Happy Meals. Other
cross-promotional campaigns are designed for adults. The James Bond films have
long relied on cobranding, with stars featured in ads and the products appearing in
the films. Skyfall was cross-promoted with Coke Zero, Heineken beer, Bollinger
champagne, Omega watches, Jaguar cars, Range Rover, perfumes, and nail polishes.
Internet sites don’t guarantee
success. We speculate on why in
“Snakes, no, Borat, yes. Not all
Internet publicity is the same.”
1.45 Why so serious?.For the Dark Knight alternate reality game, players
were encouraged to wear Joker makeup as they gathered on the street and
scanned the Net for clues and commands.
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40 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Exhibition: Theatrical and Nontheatrical
We’re most familiar with the exhibition phase of the business, the moment when
we pay for a movie ticket or play a DVD or stream a movie. Theatrical exhibition
involves screening to a public that pays admission, as in commercial movie houses.
Other theatrical sites are city art centers, museums, film festivals, and cinema clubs.
Nontheatrical exhibition includes all other presentations, such as home video, cable
transmissions, Internet downloads, and screenings in schools and colleges.
Public movie exhibition centers on the commercial theater. Most theaters
screen wide releases from the major distributors, while others specialize in foreign-
language or independent films. In all, the theatrical moviegoing audience is not a
colossal one. In the United States, admissions average around 30 million per week,
which sounds like a huge number until we realize that the weekly television audi-
ence numbers about 200 million. Only about 10 percent of the U.S. population
visits movie theaters once a month or more; about one-third never goes at all.
The most heavily patronized theaters belong to chains or circuits, and in
most countries, these circuits are controlled by a few companies. Until the 1980s,
most theaters housed only one screen, but exhibitors began to realize that several
screens under one roof could reduce costs. The multiplex theater, containing up
to 15 or more screens, lured far bigger crowds than a single-screen cinema could.
Centralized projection booths and concession stands also cut costs.
The boom in building multiplexes allowed exhibitors to upgrade the presen-
tation, offering stadium seating, digital sound, and in some cases Imax and 3D.
Multiplexes can also devote occasional screenings to niche markets, as when live
opera broadcasts are shown digitally. Multiplexes are now the norm in most of the
world, with snacks adjusted to local tastes—popcorn and candy nearly everywhere,
but also salty licorice (in the Netherlands) and dried squid (in Hong Kong).
The United States is the most lucrative national market, contributing 25 percent
of global box office receipts (see “Movies on Screens” chart). China comes in
second because of its immense urban population. China’s economy and its film
industry are still on the rise; in 2014 alone, 15 new screens opened every day.
Consequently, the country’s share of world revenues will grow even larger. The
most important regional market outside North America is Western Europe (includ-
ing the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries), which provides 25 percent of
the global box office. Filmmakers around the world aim for distribution in these
lucrative markets.
Overseas multiplexes have yielded great benefits for Hollywood. Some
American distributors have invested in foreign chains, thus guaranteeing an outlet
for their products. In addition, comfortable multiplexes attract more prosperous
viewers. Because multiplexes tend to charge higher prices than older theaters, the
cost of tickets has risen throughout the world. Some price hikes are also attribut-
able to 3D and Imax showings, which have proven enormously popular outside the
United States.
In 1999, four of the 3,100 theaters in which Star Wars: Episode I—The
Phantom Menace played had digital projectors. At the end of 2014, there were over
127,000 digital theater screens worldwide—90 percent of all screens. As an exhibi-
tion format, 35mm film was confined to countries with struggling economies and,
in the rich world, to archives and specialized theaters.
Although films are shown in such venues as museums, archives, and film
clubs, the most important theatrical alternative to commercial movie houses has
become the film festival. The first major annual film festival was held in Venice
in 1932, and although it had to be suspended during World War II, it was revived
afterward and endures today. Festivals were mounted in Cannes, Berlin, Karlovy
Vary, Moscow, Edinburgh, and many other cities. Today there are thousands of
festivals all over the world—some large and influential, such as the Toronto Film
Festival, and others aimed primarily at bringing unusual films to local audiences.
GUS VAN SANT: Your films
have dominated the museum
circuit in America—Minneapolis,
Columbus . . .
DEREK JARMAN: Yes, Minneapolis
in particular. That’s where the
films have actually had their life.
They’ve crept into the student
curriculum—which is a life. And
now they go on through video.
I never really feel shut out.
—Gus Van Sant, director, interviewing
Derek Jarman, independent filmmaker
Have Hollywood films declined
in popularity internationally? We
don’t think so, as we explain in
“World rejects Hollywood block-
How did theaters convert from
35mm film projection to digital
projection? The story is told in
our blog series, “Pandora’s Digital
Box” and in our e-book of the
same title.
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Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution and Exhibition 41
Some festivals promote specific genres, such as the Brussels International Festival
of Fantastic Film, or specific subject matter, such as the New York Gay and Lesbian
Film Festival.
The big festivals may show major Hollywood films. In 2013, The Great Gatsby
was the opening-night presentation at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Usually, however, the focus is on less mainstream cinema. Some festivals, like
those in Cannes and Pusan, South Korea, include markets where such films can
find distributors. The International Film Festival Rotterdam even helps to finance
films made in developing countries. Not all festivals award prizes, but the bigger
ones that do—most notably Cannes, Venice, and Berlin—can draw attention to
films that might otherwise get lost among the hundreds of movies circulating
among festivals.
Festivals offer an outlet for films that might never be picked up for release
beyond their country of origin. For example, during the mid-1980s, programmers
showcased the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and other Iranian
directors. By winning prizes and critical acclaim at festivals, Iranian films gained
commercial distribution in Europe and North America.
I’ve come to realize that my
festival run is my theatrical run.”
—Joe Swanberg, independent film
director, Hannah Takes the Stairs
Movies on Screens: A 2013 Profile of International
Theatrical Exhibition
Worldwide production of theatrical motion pictures: 6,300 features
Worldwide attendance: 6.53 billion admissions
Worldwide number of screens: 136,497
Worldwide box office receipts: $35.4 billion
U.S. box office receipts: $9.9 billion
Western Europe box office receipts: $8.2 billion
China box office receipts: $3.5 billion
Countries and Numbers of Screens
Highest: USA 39,783; China 18,109; India 11,081; Mexico 5,594; France
5,587; Germany 4,610; Russia 4,119; UK 3,897; Spain 3,675; Japan 3,318;
Italy 2,977
Lowest: Malta 37; Netherlands 36; Azerbaijan 29; Macedonia 26;
Tunisia 17
Annual Admissions
Highest: India 1.98 billion; USA 1.22 billion; China 610 million; Mexico
257 million; South Korea 213 million; France 190.9 million; Russia 177.1
million; UK 165.5 million; Japan 155.9 million; Brazil 145.9 million
Other: Australia 87 million; New Zealand 14.5 million; Iceland 1.4 million
(highest per capita film attendance, with 4.3 visits per year)
Average Ticket Prices in U.S. Dollars
Highest: Switzerland $16.80; Norway $15.80; Sweden $15.20; Denmark
$13.80; Japan $12.80
Lowest: Egypt $2.50; Philippines $2.20; Venezuela $.80; India $.60
Others: Australia $12.90; UK $10.20; France $8.60; Canada $8.34; USA
$8.00; China $5.80
Sources: IHS Media Technology Digest and Focus: World Film Market Trends 2014
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42 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Ancillary Markets: Taking Movies beyond
the Theater
When a film leaves theatrical distribution, it lives on. Home video creates a vast
array of ancillary markets “downstream,” and taken together these return more
money than the theatrical release windows and the Web.
Distributors carefully plan the timing of their video releases according to
windows of scheduling. Typically the video version appears first on hotel pay-
television systems, then on pay-per-view cable, then on DVD release, then on
pay cable outlets like HBO, and eventually on network broadcast and basic cable.
Thanks to greater Internet bandwidth, video on demand (VOD) has become an
important window. Sometimes VOD becomes available after a film’s theatrical
release, sometimes during it, and sometimes even before it.
Each window is delayed by a certain period from the initial release. For exam-
ple, DVD/Blu-ray releases become available three to six months after the film’s
theatrical opening. The windows strategy maximizes the income from consumers
with different levels of interest. Video has proved a boon to smaller distributors,
too. Foreign and independent films yield slim returns in theatrical release, but DVD
and VOD can make these items profitable.
With only 10 percent of Americans being regular moviegoers, television, in
one form or another, has kept the theatrical market going. During the 1960s, the
U.S. television networks began supporting Hollywood production by purchasing
broadcast rights to the studios’ output. Lower-budget filmmakers depended on sales
to European television and U.S. cable outlets. Videocassette versions arrived in the
1980s, and surprisingly they didn’t harm the theatrical side of the business. In 1997,
when the DVD format was introduced, consumers embraced it as a substitute for
VHS tape. In the United States, the Walmart chain became the main purveyor of
DVDs, accounting for over a third of all sales.
The major U.S. studios set up home entertainment divisions to sell DVDs.
Because the discs cost less than VHS tapes to create, the studios reaped huge
rewards. The cable and network television aftermarket remained brisk as well.
Currently a studio film earns only a quarter or less of its total income from theatri-
cal screenings. All forms of home video yield about 70 percent, with the remainder
coming from licensed merchandise and other income.
Despite the swift success of the DVD format, it caused distributors some wor-
ries as well. The discs were easy to copy and manufacture in bulk, so piracy took
off worldwide. A bootleg DVD of a Hollywood movie could sell for as little as 80
cents in China. Moreover, with tens of thousands of DVD titles available, shelf
space was at a premium, so discount chains dumped slow-moving titles into bar-
gain bins. DVD purchases stalled, and rentals became more popular with the rise
of subscription services such as Netflix. The Blu-ray disc, which offered superior
quality, was designed to replace the DVD, but sales didn’t match the success of the
earlier format.
The video market sustains most commercial filmmaking in the long run, but
movie theatres remain central to the exhibition system. A theatrical screening
focuses public interest. Critics review the film, television and the press publicize
it, and people talk about it. The theatrical run usually determines how successful a
movie will be in ancillary markets.
Even though the worldwide theatrical audience grew during the 1990s, most
of the growth was in developing countries. U.S. and European attendance showed
signs of flattening or even declining. Multiplexes were competing with home the-
aters, video games, and Internet entertainment. Exhibitors tried various ways to
keep audiences coming.
One successful strategy involved building Imax screens in multiplexes and
showing studio tentpole pictures in that immersive format. A second strategy
focused on digital 3D. The push toward 3D production encouraged exhibitors to
Films may be altered as they move
from window to window. We show
what happened to the airline ver-
sion of The Grand Budapest Hotel
in “Proof! and a minor mystery.”
Many movies are available on the
Internet, for legal or illegal down-
loading. That doesn’t mean every
movie ever made will someday
be online. We talk about why with
two restoration experts in “The
celestial multiplex.”
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Bringing the Film to the Audience: Distribution and Exhibition 43
install digital projection systems faster than they probably
would have otherwise. In turn, the major studios began tai-
loring their blockbusters to 3D. Both Imax and 3D screen-
ings charged higher ticket prices, which benefited exhibitor
and distributor alike.
The stupendous rise in Internet usage after 2000 trans-
formed distribution and exhibition. As more people acquired
high-speed connections, films of any length could be made
available online. For the major distributors, the Net offered
a chance to resell their product, but without the problems
of DVDs. Selling movies as downloads (termed “electronic
sell-through” [EST]) or renting them as streaming video
eliminated the cost of making discs. Encryption could pre-
vent consumers from copying films. Netflix, Apple’s iTunes
store, Hulu (a consortium of Hollywood studios), among
other smaller companies, launched online distribution
In 2013, U.S. digital transactions for film and television
shows yielded over $6.5 billion in total revenue. Sales and
rentals of DVDs and Blu-ray discs yielded somewhat more,
but viewers were starting to understand the advantages of “always on” media. To
make downloading more attractive, media companies let consumers store their pur-
chased films in online lockers that they could access with personal digital devices.
Consumers, especially young ones who had grown up with the Net, were shifting
away from packaged media and toward utilizing a service that made movies avail-
able to them at any moment.
The major distributors were not the only beneficiaries of Web 2.0. The Net
offers a far more level playing field than traditional distribution. Films that would
never be shown in a multiplex can gain enormous audiences online. Judson
Laipply’s “Evolution of the Dance” (over 290 million views), “JK Wedding
Entrance Dance” (nearly 88 million views), and innumerable pieces starring
household pets showed that amateur videos, once limited to family or friends,
could become Internet sensations. More carefully made films could get exposure
on an unprecedented scale (1.46). Rival high schools won millions of viewers with
elaborate single-take lipdubs. YouTube and Vimeo revived the short-film format
for a new generation, and hopeful filmmakers saw posting a film online as a way to
bypass corporate gatekeepers.
Some filmmakers still want to show their work in theaters. To meet that desire,
festivals of DIY films have arisen, including the DIY Film Festival, based in Los
Angeles and traveling to other cities. Another started in 2001, when 10 small teams
of filmmakers in Washington, D.C., accepted a challenge to make a short film in
48 hours. All the completed shorts would be screened as a program immediately
after the deadline. The result was the 48 Hour Film Project, which has become
popular in dozens of cities around the world and which regularly sends films to
international festivals.
DVDs and the Internet, videogame players and cellphones, laptops and tablet
computers—all these have revolutionized movie viewing. Today people can watch
films, short or long, amateur or professional, virtually anywhere. Digital technology
not only changed theatrical exhibition; it redefined nontheatrical distribution and
Artistic Implications of Distribution and Exhibition
Grosses, synergy, ticket prices, and movies on game consoles might seem very re-
mote from issues of film as an art. Yet film is a technological medium usually
aimed at a broad public, so the ways in which movies are circulated and shown
We talk about inventive teenage
lipdubs as a form of film art in
“2-4-6-8, whose lipdub do we
In this age of new media, have
movies lost their importance to
audiences? Some would say yes,
but we argue against that idea in
“Movies still matter.”
1.46 Distributing a film via the Web. Johan Rijpma’s graceful
Tape Generations, an abstract animation choreographing rolls
of transparent tape, was downloaded over half a million times
in 17 days.
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44 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
can affect viewers’ experiences. Home video turns viewing into a small-group or
individual activity, but seeing a film in a packed theater yields a different response.
Comedies, most people feel, seem funnier in a theater, where infectious laughter
can ripple through a crowd. Filmmakers are aware of this difference, so they pre-
view comedies many times to test audience reactions.
New Narrative Possibilities Video distribution and exhibition have created
new choices in the realm of story telling. Until the 1980s, people couldn’t rewatch
a movie whenever they wished. With videotape and then DVDs viewers can pore
over a film. Bonus materials encourage them to rerun the movie to spot things they
missed. Some filmmakers have taken advantage of this opportunity by creating
puzzle films such as Memento, Donnie Darko, and Inception, which fans scrutinize
for clues to plot enigmas (1.47, 1.48). Video versions can deviate from and compli-
cate the theatrical release version, as the extra ending of The Butterfly Effect does.
Some interactive DVD movies permit the viewers to choose how the plot develops.
The DVD of Greg Marcks’s 11:14 allows you to enter parallel storylines at various
points, in effect recasting the film’s overall form.
With the Internet as a major distribution platform, we should expect variations
in narrative form. Short-form storytelling is already in full bloom online. Events
like the festivals run by the 48 Hour Film Project also encourage the making of
short films, especially given the assumption that most of the films will later be
posted on the Internet. We’re likely to find movies designed specifically for mobile
phones; television series are already creating “mobisodes” branching off the broad-
cast storyline. The Web is the logical place for interactive films that use hyperlinks
to amplify or detour a line of action.
Have DVDs radically changed
the way movies tell their stories?
Mostly not, we argue in “New
media and old storytelling.”
The Matrix is entertainment
for the age of media convergence,
integrating multiple texts to create
a narrative so large that it cannot
be contained within a single
—Henry Jenkins, media analyst
1.47–1.48 Planting clues for DVD
rewatching. A viewer scrutinizing
Magnolia on DVD would notice that
the ex traordinar y meteorological
event at the climax is predicted by
the recurring numerals 82, referring to
chapter and verse in the biblical book
of Exodus (1.47). Elsewhere, the figure
82 appears as coils in the rooftop hose
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Screens and Sounds: Stylistic Opportunities and Challenges 45
Marketing and merchandising can extend a theatrical film’s story in intriguing
ways. The Star Wars novels and video games give the characters more adventures
and expand spectators’ engagement with the movies. The Memento website hinted at
ways to interpret the film. The Matrix video games supplied key information for the
films’ plots, while the second movie in the trilogy sneaked in hints for playing the
games. As a story world shifts from platform to platform, a multimedia saga is cre-
ated, and viewers’ experiences will shift accordingly. Matrix viewers who have never
played the games understand the story somewhat differently from those who have.
Even product placement offers some artistic opportunities. We’re usually
distracted when a Toyota truck or a box of Frosted Flakes pops up on the screen,
but Back to the Future cleverly integrates brands into its story. Marty McFly is
catapulted from 1985 to 1955. Trapped in a period when diet soda didn’t exist, he
asks for a Pepsi Free, but the counterman says he’ll have to pay for it. Later, buying
a bottle of Pepsi from a vending machine, Marty tries frantically to twist off the
cap, but his father-to-be George McFly casually pops it off at the machine’s built-
in opener. Pepsi soft drinks weave through the movie, reasserting Marty’s comic
inability to adjust to his parents’ era, and perhaps stirring some nostalgia in viewers
who remember how teenage life has changed since their youth.
Screens and Sounds: Stylistic
Opportunities and Challenges
Distribution and exhibition can affect a filmmaker’s stylistic choices as well.
Consider modern sound systems. Today almost all multiplex theaters are equipped
with some type of surround system such as Dolby Digital 5.1. In a 5.1 configura-
tion, the first digit refers to the number of channels used (5), and the second (.1)
refers to the use of a large subwoofer to reproduce low-frequency effects. Three
speakers behind the screen are aligned with the left, center, and right areas of the
image. The remaining two channels transmit sounds to the surround speakers.
These are further split into left and right halves and are grouped along the side and
back walls of the auditorium.
The center speaker emits most of the onscreen dialogue, as well as the most
important sound effects. The left and right speakers are stereophonic, adding sound
effects, music, and minor dialogue. These channels can suggest sound events within
the frame or just off screen. The surround channels carry ambient sounds, music, and
reverberation—that is, slightly delayed repetitions of sounds from other speakers.
Dolby 5.1 is currently the global standard for multichannel sound recording
and reproduction. Whether the film is a visual-
effects-heavy blockbuster, like Transformers: Age
of Extinction, or a more modest psychological
thriller, like Black Swan, most commercial the-
aters will present the film mixed in that format.
If you’re a filmmaker, Dolby 5.1 gives
you many creative opportunities. You can set
visual action directly in front of your viewers,
or you can surround them with a busy auditory
environment similar to real life. The immersive
effect is intensified by Dolby Atmos, a recently
developed system that accommodates up to 64
distinct channels, some of them in the ceiling.
Directors and supervising sound editors can now
place sounds precisely within the theater space.
Brave, the first film mixed in Atmos, exploits
this possibility in a scene where Merida receives
“princess training” from her mother (1.49).
The concept of “transmedia sto-
rytelling”—shifting a story world’s
action across media platforms–
was formulated by scholar Henry
Jenkins. We discuss his ideas in
“Now leaving from platform 1.”
Not until seeing [North by
Northwest] again on the big
screen did I realize conclusively
what a gigantic difference screen
size does make. . . . This may be
yet another reason why younger
people have a hard time with
older pictures: they’ve only
seen them on the tube, and that
reduces films’ mystery and mythic
—Peter Bogdanovich, director, The
Last Picture Show and Mask
1.49 Surround-sound precision. As Merida recites a poem, the Queen
says, “Enunciate! You must be understood from anywhere in the room, or it’s
all for naught.” When Merida says under her breath, “This is all for naught,” the
camera briefly holds on her. The off-screen Queen’s snappish reply, “I heard
that!” comes from one of the left rear speakers. Her Majesty’s demand that
Merida project her voice to the entire room seems to be a boastful display of
the power of the Atmos multichannel system.
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46 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Brave also showcases Atmos’s ability to create an overhead zone. Describing
a scene where Merida goes to retrieve an arrow, Brave’s sound designer, Gary
Rydstrom, says, “I love putting sound in the ceiling, things like scary forest birds.
For a little girl, the forest feels even taller and more imposing if you can have weird
sounds way up high.”
Filmmakers have likewise responded to changes in image displays. In the early
1950s, new aspect ratios like CinemaScope made theater screens both wider and
bigger overall. A common size was 24 feet by 64 feet. Many directors and produc-
ers believed that these screens made close-ups unnecessary, perhaps too aggressive.
The new exhibition demands pushed many filmmakers toward distant framings and
full-size figures (1.50).
By contrast, television of the same period displayed a small, rather unclear
image, in some cases only 10 inches diagonally. If you were a filmmaker obliged to
fill the fuzzy little frame, you’d probably do what TV directors did. They tended to
rely on close shots, which were more visible on the monitor (1.51).
Today both extremes exist. Modern multiplex screens can be quite large, but
most people will see a film on a video monitor or a computer screen. Accordingly,
commercial films tend to favor medium and close views, which are more readable
on small displays (1.52). Yet some contemporary filmmakers have picked the alter-
native option, designing their films for the scale of a theater screen (1.53).
Every change in technology and exhibition has forced filmmakers to make
tough choices. For example, many films contain images wider than nearly all video
We explore another peril of watch-
ing films on video—logos super-
imposed on films—in “Bugs: the
secret history.”
1.50–1.51 Shot scale adjusted for
image display. On the large screen
of a CinemaScope theater, the faces
of these characters in How to Marry
a Millionaire would have been quite
visible (1.50). Early television relied
heavily on close-ups because of the
small screen size, as in this shot from a
1953 Dragnet episode (1.51).
1.52–1.53 Close-up or long shot?
Extreme close-ups of actors’ faces
are common in modern cinema, as in
this shot from Red Eye. Filmmakers
are adjusting their style to the fact
that most viewing takes place on
video formats (1.52). In Flowers of
Shanghai, director Hou Hsiao-hsien
builds every scene out of full shots of
several characters. The result loses
information on a small display and is
best seen on a theater screen (1.53).
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Screens and Sounds: Stylistic Opportunities and Challenges 47
and computer monitors. How can these small displays respect the filmmaker’s
The best solution, seen on DVDs and many cable and streaming services, is let-
terboxing. With letterboxing, dark bands at the top and bottom of the screen allow
for the whole image to be shown. If the image isn’t letterboxed, then parts of it must
be cut off to make it fit the monitor (1.54, 1.55). This process, called pan-and-scan,
was common with consumer videotapes and can still be seen on some cable and
streaming services, as well as on airplane in-flight monitors. Often these versions
are prefaced by the comment that the film has been “adjusted to fit your screen.”
Again, an exhibition format has affected filmmakers’ creative choices. Because
home video might crop part of the image, some directors compose their shots so
that the key action is concentrated in an area that will fit smaller displays (1.56).
Other problems with consumer video displays can’t be solved by the film-
maker. Older films were designed in an approximately 4 3 3 ratio, and traditional
television monitors were in accord with that. The introduction of widescreen TV
monitors has created a new problem for film images. Monitors with a 16 3 9 ratio
can reproduce some modern films faithfully, but older material can suffer by being
stretched and distorted (1.57). Some monitors allow adjusting the ratio by creating
black bands on the sides to provide “windowboxing.” In this case, the viewer must
take the initiative and respect the intentions of the filmmakers.
1.54 1.55
1.54–1.55 Changing compositions in video distribution. In Jaws, a wide image in the original (1.54) is cropped to fit 16 3 9 TV
monitors for a cable airing (1.55).
1.56 Adjusting composition for the television frame. As with
many modern wide-screen films, the essential information on screen
left in this shot from Catch Me If You Can would fit within squarer video
displays. Still, cropping out the right half would lose a secondary piece
of information—the pile of take-out food cartons that implies that
Agent Hanratty has been at his desk for days.
1.57 Incorrect aspect ratio. Here the 4 3 3 image from
Angel Face (1952) is rendered on an incorrectly set 16 3 9
widescreen television monitor. Many viewers do not know
how to change a monitor’s ratio, and some monitors make it
difficult to correct the problem.
Jean-Luc Godard’s films present
special challenges to the projec-
tionist and DVD producer, as we
show in “Godard comes in many
shapes and sizes.”
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The art of film depends on technology, from the earli-
est experiments in apparent motion to the most recent
computer programs. It also depends on people who use
that technology, who come together to make films, dis-
tribute them, and show them. As long as a film is aimed
at an audience, however small, it enters into a social
dynamic of production, distribution, and exhibition. Out
of technology and work processes, filmmakers create an
experience for their viewers. Along the way, they inevita-
bly make choices about film form and style. What options
are available to them? How might filmmakers organize
the film? How might they draw on the techniques of
the medium? The next two parts of this book survey the
48 CHAPTER 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
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P A R T 2
Chapter 1 outlined some ways in which people, working with technology, make films. Now we
can ask more basic questions.
If you were to make a film, what would guide you in putting the whole thing together?
How would you fit the various parts to one another? How would you try to shape the viewer’s
experience of the whole film? Thinking about these questions will help us understand how we
respond to individual movies and how cinema works as an artistic medium.
The next two chapters explore questions like these. We assume that a film isn’t a random
assortment of things. If it were, viewers wouldn’t care if they missed a movie’s ending, or if
scenes were shown out of order. But viewers do care. When you describe a book as hard
to put down or a song as engaging,
you’re implying that a pattern exists
there. The pattern is pulling you along.
This overall pattern of relationships
among parts is called form.
Chapter 2 examines form in film.
This concept is one key to under-
standing cinema as an art. Filmmakers are thinking about a film’s form at each stage of the
production process, and formal matters demand creative decisions at every turn.
Although there are several ways of organizing films into formal wholes, the one that we
most commonly encounter involves telling a story. Filmmakers are well aware that narrative
form arouses our interest and impels us to follow a series of events from start to finish.
Chapter 3 examines how certain principles allow a story to arouse and fulfill our expectations.
We consider examples of nonnarrative form in Chapter 10.
Film Form
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C H A P T E R 2
The Significance
of Film Form
You are a filmmaker. How might you start your movie? With an exciting bit of action that grabs the viewer’s interest? Or with something more slowly paced that gradually builds up involvement?
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park follows option one. Park workers nervously
surround a shipping container housing an unseen, thrashing, roaring beast. Workers
train their weapons on the case as it’s opened to release the creature into the park.
The gate slides open, but the heaving cage knocks a worker to the ground. Suddenly
he’s seized and dragged into the container (2.1). The guards fire at the creature, but
the man slides into darkness.
The film doesn’t present another dinosaur attack for an hour. In the meantime,
we get background information about the park, its genetically bred inhabitants, and
the characters who have been brought there. Conflicts build and schemes emerge.
Yet before all this development of the drama, Spielberg and his screenwriters
Michael Crichton and David Koepp have given us a taste of the suspense and
physical action coming up later. Since the opening doesn’t show us the velociraptor,
we look forward to seeing the beast fully, and in action. The filmmakers’ creative
decisions have shaped our experience—teasing us with the promise of thrills but
making us wait while the plot is filled in. Primed by this opening, we’ll be vigilant
for anything that would put the characters at risk. And of course the violence of
the first scene gives the lie to the bland cuteness of the park’s publicity rolled out
in later scenes. We know, as the visiting scientists don’t, that behind the family-
friendly surface this is a dangerous place.
Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins in a far less aggressive
way. During a desert sandstorm, men in goggles and protective suits meet a French
scientist. They exchange greetings before pressing forward to check a fleet of vin-
tage airplanes, reported missing in 1945. The man serving as a translator raises a
flurry of questions: “Where’s the crew? How did they get here?” (2.2) The inves-
tigative team finds an old man nearby. Although his face is badly sunburned, he’s
smiling. “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
Instead of shocking us with violence, Close Encounters’ opening poses a
series of mysteries. Those will deepen in the scenes to come: a UFO swerves
near a commercial jet, a little boy follows unseen home invaders into the night.
The calmness of the opening, the friendly professionalism of the scientists, and
the joyous reaction of the old man to what he’s seen indicate that the film will be
gentle, slow-moving, and concerned with characters trying to understand what is
making extraordinary things happen. This will be an interplanetary mystery story,
not a horror-action-adventure like Jurassic Park.
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The Concept of Form in Film 51
Either strategy for starting a movie, abrupt or gradual, can have a strong
effect on the viewer. The choices come down to a matter of form—the way parts
work together to create an overall effect. If you are a director or screenwriter, you
face perpetual choices about form. As a viewer, you are responding to it at every
The Concept of Form in Film
Form as Pattern
The arts offer us intensely involving experiences. We say that movies draw us in
or immerse us. We can lose track of time when listening to music, and when we
enjoy a novel, we may say, “I really got into it.” All these ways of talking suggest
that artworks involve us by engaging our senses, feelings, and mind in a process.
That process sharpens our interest, focuses our attention, urges us forward. How
does this happen?
Because the artist has created a pattern. Artists design their works—they give
them form—so that we can have a structured experience. For this reason, form is
of central importance in film.
I believe in soft openings for
movies. . . . I think it’s almost
impossible to lose an audience in
the first ten minutes. . . . It’s not
television. You don’t have to grab
them. In a movie with a very fast
opening, you end up paying for
it somewhere along the way—
usually by having to explain what
happened in the fast and furious
—Robert Towne, screenwriter, Chinatown
2.1–2.2 Hard and soft openings. Grabbing the audience in Jurassic Park (2.1) versus
enticing the audience in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (2.2).
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52 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
Our minds are very good at finding patterns in things—faces in the clouds, a
rhythm in a downpour. Artworks rely on this dynamic, unifying effort of the human
mind. Novels present a pattern of events that create suspense or surprise, while
paintings expect that we’ll be sensitive to composition and color. Artworks in all
media ask us to pay attention, to anticipate upcoming events, to construct a whole
out of parts, and to feel an emotional response to the pattern that we help create.
In similar ways, a film coaxes us to connect sequences into a larger whole.
The savage attack at the start of Jurassic Park establishes the park’s raptors as a
force to be reckoned with later. We’d be disappointed if they never reappeared in the
plot. Similarly, Close Encounters promises to reveal the fates of the missing World
War II pilots and the runaway boy.
Even small details get linked in a pattern. Early in Collateral, the taxi driver
Max is shown wiping down his cab’s dashboard and steering wheel before setting
out on his night shift. He then carefully clips a snapshot to his sun visor. For a
moment, he gazes at the postcard view of a tropical island (2.3). These gestures
prompt us to see Max’s personality as neat and orderly. They also suggest that
in the city’s turmoil, he clears a quiet mental space for himself. The next scene’s
cues reinforce our judgment of Max’s character (2.4, 2.5). Small or large, local or
far-ranging, the patterns we find engage our interest, our minds, and our emotions.
These instances suggest that a film is not simply a random batch of elements.
Like all artworks, a film has form. By form, in its broadest sense, we mean the
overall set of relationships among a film’s parts.
This description of form is still very abstract, so let’s draw some examples
from one movie you’ve probably seen. In The Wizard of Oz, the viewer is expected
to follow a story—that is, a pattern of narrative elements. These are events that
involve the characters. Dorothy dreams that a tornado blows her to Oz. There she
encounters other characters, and together they have adventures. Eventually Dorothy
awakens from her dream to find herself home in Kansas. Alongside the story, we
can also notice stylistic elements: the way the camera moves, the arrangements of
color in the frame, the use of music, and other devices. Stylistic elements utilize the
various film techniques we’ll be considering in later chapters.
Because The Wizard of Oz is designed to give us a particular experience, we
actively relate the elements within each set to one another. We know that the narra-
tive elements form a pattern, a story. We see the tornado as causing Dorothy’s trip to
Oz, and her adventures there result from her desire to get home. Likewise, we identify
the characters in Oz as similar to characters in Dorothy’s Kansas life. Various stylistic
elements also form patterns. We recognize the “We’re Off to See the Wizard” tune
whenever Dorothy picks up a new companion. Our experience of the film depends
on our recognizing and anticipating how these broad patterns will develop.
Moreover, our minds tie these two sorts of patterning together. In The Wizard
of Oz, the narrative development can be linked to the stylistic patterning. Colors
identify story landmarks, such as Kansas (in black and white) and the Yellow Brick
Road. Movements of the camera call our attention to story action. And the music
serves to describe certain characters and situations. The relationships among all
these elements make up the overall form of The Wizard of Oz.
“Form” Versus “Content”
Very often people think of “form” as the opposite of something called “content.”
This implies that a poem or a musical piece or a film is like a jug. An external shape,
the jug, contains a liquid that could just as easily be held in a cup or a pail. Under this
assumption, form becomes less important than whatever it’s presumed to contain.
We don’t accept this assumption. We think that every component functions as
part of a pattern, big or small, that engages the viewer. So we’ll treat as formal ele-
ments many things that some people consider content. From our standpoint, subject
matter and abstract ideas all enter into the total form of the artwork. They may cue
Screenplays are structure.”
—William Goldman, screenwriter, Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Because of my character, I
have always been interested in
the engineering of direction. I
loved hearing about how [director]
Mark Sandrich would draw charts
of Fred Astaire’s musicals to
work out where to put the dance
numbers. What do you want the
audience to understand? How do
you make things clear? How do
you structure sequences within a
film? Afterwards—what have you
got away with?”
—Stephen Frears, director, The Grifters
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The Concept of Form in Film 53
us to frame certain expectations or imagine certain possibilities. The viewer relates
these elements to one another dynamically. Consequently, subject matter and ideas
become somewhat different from what they might be outside the artwork.
Consider extraterrestrials and UFOs. In popular thinking, aliens can be either
peaceful or hostile, but if you were going to make a film about UFOs, you’d have to
decide how to treat the subject. That would be a decision about form. In Independence
Day, presenting the aliens as an invading horde fits well with a story of Americans
of all classes uniting to conquer a threat. By contrast, Close Encounters of the Third
2.3–2.5 Patterns create character. Max is introduced as able to tune out his environment,
thanks to the island on his postcard (2.3). We’re reminded of this when in the next scene, as
the passengers quarrel, he tips down the visor and stares at the postcard, as if to shut out the
unpleasantness in his back seat (2.4, 2.5).
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54 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
Kind treats alien visitors as spiritual teachers, creatures who restore people’s sense of
wonder and promise a better life. The aliens of Mars Attacks! pretend to be peaceful
but then turn treacherous, and their cunning reveals the ineptitude of the people in
power. This treatment suits the film’s satire of modern politics and media. In each
case, the filmmakers’ choices about form have repurposed the basic subject matter
of aliens. What we might call the content is governed by the film’s formal context.
Formal Expectations
We’re now in a better position to see how film form grabs and holds us. It creates ex-
pectations and sustains them over time. Suppose that Jurassic Park never revealed
the raptors, or Close Encounters never explained its puzzles. We’d think that some-
thing important had been left out, to say the least. Once we’re caught up in following
the interrelations among elements, we want the patterns to develop and conclude.
Expectations color our everyday experiences. Psychological experiments have
shown that if people are told that a cheap wine is expensive, they rate it as tasting
better than if they’re told its true price. Creating expectations is central to advertis-
ing any product. A film’s title, its poster, its online promotion, and its trailers aim
to set up particular expectations. You would not go to a film called 12 Years a Slave
anticipating a raunchy teen comedy.
Expectation pervades our experience of artworks. In reading a mystery, we
expect that a solution will be offered at some point, usually the end. In listening
to a piece of music, we expect repetition of a melody or a motif. In looking at a
painting, we search for what we expect to be the most significant areas, then scan
the less prominent portions. From beginning to end, our involvement with a work
of art depends largely on expectations.
We can illustrate this with a little experiment. Assume that “A” is the first letter
of a series. What follows?
After seeing A, you probably thought that the next letters would run in alphabetical
order. Your expectation was confirmed. What follows AB? Most people would say
“C.” But form doesn’t always follow our initial expectation.
Here form takes us a little by surprise. If we are puzzled by a formal twist, we
readjust our expectations and try again. What follows ABA?
Here the main possibilities were either ABAB or ABAC. (Note that your expecta-
tions limit possibilities as well as select them.) If you expected ABAC, your expec-
tation was fulfilled, and you can confidently predict the next letter. If you expected
ABAB, you still should be able to make a strong guess at the next letter:
Simple as this game is, it illustrates the involving power of form. As a viewer or listener
you don’t simply let the parts parade past you. You enter into an active participation
with them, creating and readjusting expectations as the pattern develops over time.
If you’re a filmmaker, you want to arouse and shape viewers’ expectations. This is
what happens in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park and Close Encounters. Similarly,
The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy running down a road with her dog Toto (2.6).
Immediately, we form expectations. She seems to be fleeing from someone; will she
be caught? Perhaps she will meet another character or arrive at her destination. Even
such a simple action asks us to participate in the story’s development by adjusting our
expectations about what may happen. Much later in the film, we come to expect that
Dorothy will get her wish to return to Kansas. Indeed, the settings of the film give
The Wizard of Oz a large-scale ABA form: Kansas-Oz-Kansas.
Even at the very beginning of a
film, the title can give us clues to
its subjects, themes, and form—or
baffle us. We consider various
options in “Title wave.”
2.6 What does the audience expect?
Dorothy pauses while fleeing with Toto
at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz.
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The Concept of Form in Film 55
You probably noticed that the formal development of The Wizard of Oz didn’t
satisfy our expectations immediately, as our alphabet exercise did. When a filmmaker
delays fulfilling an expectation, making us wait to see if the punch comes, the audience
feels what we usually call suspense. As the term implies, suspense leaves something
suspended—not only the next element in a pattern but also our urge for completion.
Both the opening raptor attack in Jurassic Park and the mysteries in Close Encounters
leave a pattern uncompleted, and as a result they keep us in suspense.
Expectations may also be cheated, as when we expect ABC but get ABA. In
general, surprise is a result of an expectation that is revealed to be incorrect. We
don’t expect that a teenage boy troubled at home and at school will have a friend
who has built a time machine. When this happens in Back to the Future, we under-
stand that a high school comedy is turning into a science fiction movie.
One more pattern of our expectations needs tracing. Sometimes the filmmaker will
cue us to think about what might have come before a certain point. When Dorothy runs
down the road at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, we wonder not only where she is
going but where she’s been and what she’s fleeing from. In ways like these, filmmak-
ers can arouse curiosity about earlier events. As Chapter 3 will show, curiosity is an
important factor in narrative form.
Already we have several possible ways in which filmmakers’ creative decisions
about form can engage us. The filmmaker can cue us to make expectations and then
gratify them. The expectations may be gratified quickly, as when we soon learn why
Dorothy is running down the road. Or the filmmaker may wait quite a while before
fulfilling our expectations, as with the raptors’ eventual reappearance in Jurassic Park.
And the filmmaker may set up expectations and then undercut them, creating surprise.
At a limit, the filmmaker may choose to disturb our expectations. We often
associate art with pleasure, but many artworks offer us conflict, tension, and shock.
An artwork’s form may even strike us as unpleasant because of its imbalances or
contradictions. For example, experimental films may jar rather than soothe us.
Viewers frequently feel puzzled or shocked by Eat, Scorpio Rising, and other avant-
garde works (pp. 369–386). We’ll encounter similar challenges when we examine
the editing of Sergei Eisenstein’s October (Chapter 6) and the style of Jean-Luc
Godard’s Breathless (Chapter 11).
Yet even when they disturb us, filmmakers still arouse and shape formal expecta-
tions. For example, on the basis of our experience of most movie stories, we expect that
the main characters introduced in the first half of a film will be present in the second
half. Yet Wong Kar-wai punctures this expectation in Chungking Express (pp. 428–432).
When our expectations are thwarted, we may feel disoriented, but then we adjust them
to look for other, more appropriate, ways of engaging with the film’s form.
If we can adjust our expectations to a disorienting work, we may find it satisfying
in a new way. Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, for example, slowly trains the viewer
to associate a series of images with the letters of the alphabet (2.7, 2.8). Viewers
often become quite absorbed in watching the series take shape as a cinematic picture
puzzle. As Chungking Express and Zorns Lemma also suggest, a disturbing work can
reveal to us our normal expectations about form. Such films can coax us to reflect on
our taken-for-granted assumptions about how a movie must behave.
There is no limit to the number of ways in which a film can be organized. Some
filmmakers will ask us to recast our expectations in drastic ways. Still, our enjoy-
ment can increase if we welcome the unfamiliar experiences offered by formally
challenging films.
Conventions and Experience
Our ABAC example illustrates still another point. One guide to your expectations
is your prior experience. Your knowledge of the English alphabet makes ABA an
unlikely sequence. This fact suggests that artistic form is not a pure activity isolated
from other experiences.
Why is it that we feel suspense
even if we’re rewatching a film and
know the outcome? We talk about
how that happens in “This is your
brain on movies, maybe.”
Now, if you’re going to do
action films, a certain amount of
repetition, which certainly is a
kind of straitjacket, is inevitable.
You are going to have to deal with
gunfights and chases. . . .
So it becomes a kind of game.
The audience knows what the
conclusion will be, but you still
have to entertain them. So you
are always walking on the edge of
a precipice—trying to juggle the
genre expectations. . . .”
—Walter Hill, director, The Driver and
The Warriors
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56 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
Artworks are human creations, and the artist lives in history and society. As a
result, the artwork will relate, in some way, to other works and to aspects of the world.
A tradition, a dominant style, a popular form—elements like these will be common
to several different artworks. These common traits are usually called conventions.
For example, the first few scenes of a film often explain background information
about the characters and the action; this sort of exposition is a narrative convention.
Genres, as we will see in Chapter 9, depend heavily on conventions. Urban thrillers
tend to feature spectacular car crashes, so Michael Mann’s use of the device in
Collateral (pp. 7–8) accords with that genre convention. It’s a convention of the
musical film that characters sing and dance, as in The Wizard of Oz. It’s one convention
of narrative form that the conclusion solves the problems that the characters confront,
and Wizard likewise accepts this convention by letting Dorothy return to Kansas.
If the filmmaker can’t avoid connecting to both art and the larger world, neither can
the audience. When we respond to cues in the film, we call on our experiences of life
and other artworks. You were able to play the ABAC game because you had learned
the alphabet. You may have learned it in everyday life (in a classroom or from your
parents) or from an artwork (perhaps from a rhyming song or TV cartoons). Similarly,
we’re able to recognize the journey structure in The Wizard of Oz because we’ve taken
trips ourselves. We’ve also read such books as Homer’s Odyssey and Tolkien’s The
Lord of the Rings, and we’ve seen other films organized around the journey pattern.
The filmmaker assumes that we viewers will draw on our knowledge of real
life and our experience with artistic conventions. But what if the two principles
come into conflict? In ordinary life, people don’t simply start to sing and dance, as
they do in The Wizard of Oz. Very often conventions separate art from life, saying
implicitly, “In artworks of this sort, the laws of everyday reality don’t operate. By
the rules of this game, something ‘unreal’ can happen.” All stylized art, from opera,
ballet, and pantomime to slapstick comedy, depends on the audience’s willingness
to suspend the laws of ordinary experience and to accept particular conventions.
Why do characters in musicals sing to one another? Why doesn’t Buster Keaton
smile? It’s beside the point to ask such questions. Filmmakers assume that we’re
familiar with conventions and are willing to go along with the game. You probably
haven’t met a contract killer in real life, but the cues in the early scenes of Collateral
prompt you to take Vincent as a movie version of a hit man.
Further, conventions can change. Very brief flashbacks to earlier events in the
story are common in today’s films, but they would have been considered unusual in
Slumdog Millionaire uses some
conventions in novel ways, as
we show in “Slumdogged by the
To a story-teller a journey is
a marvelous device. It provides
a strong thread on which a
multitude of things that he has in
mind may be strung to make a
new thing, various, unpredictable,
and yet coherent. My chief reason
for using this form was technical.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
2.7–2.8 Zorns Lemma repeats the alphabet over and over, gradually replacing signs beginning with each letter, such as O (2.7), with
images that have no relation to the letter (2.8). By the end of the film, we have been taught a new “alphabet” of patterned imagery.
2.7 2.8
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The Concept of Form in Film 57
the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, conventions of earlier periods of film history can
seem odd to us today. Filmmakers rely on existing conventions, but they also may try
to create new ones. For example, some modern directors have deliberately made films
that lack the quick turns of events we associate with Hollywood movies. Films like
B la Tarr’s Satan’s Tango move at a solemn pace and ask us to concentrate on details
of setting and sound. In other words, we’re being asked to summon up an unusual
set of expectations. As Tarr’s sort of filmmaking attracted interest, other filmmakers
explored the approach, so that this trend created its own set of conventions.
Form and Feeling
Filmmakers devote a great deal of effort to infusing emotion into their movies. To
see how this happens, let’s distinguish between emotions represented in the art-
work and an emotional response felt by the spectator. If an actor grimaces in agony,
the emotion of pain is represented within the film. But that emotion might not be
felt by us in the audience; if the movie is a comedy, we might laugh. Both presented
emotions and emotional responses have formal implications.
Emotions represented within the film play particular roles in the film’s overall
form. The dinosaur wranglers in the opening of Jurassic Park are grim and tense;
their emotional attitude fits Spielberg’s effort to show the park as a dangerous
place. But the little boy in the opening of Close Encounters reacts to the offscreen
aliens ransacking the kitchen with a smile of delight. This prepares us to expect that
in later scenes the visitors will be shown as benevolent.
Form shapes the spectator’s emotional response, too. We have just seen how
cues in the artwork interact with our prior experience, especially our experience of
artistic conventions. At the start of Jurassic Park, we’re frightened and repelled.
That’s partly because we’re naturally afraid of threatening creatures, but also we
know that horror films include monsters that are designed to scare us.
Often, form in artworks appeals to our ready-made emotional responses. All
other things being equal, we tend to smile at a gurgling baby and recoil from acts
of torture. But form can create new responses instead of harping on old ones. An
artwork may lead us to override or suspend our everyday emotional responses.
No one wants to meet Hannibal Lecter in real life, but as a film character he may
become spellbinding. In the abstract, we might find the land of Oz a child’s para-
dise. But because the film’s developing plot leads us to sympathize with Dorothy
in her desire to go home, we feel satisfaction when she finally returns to Kansas.
The dynamic aspect of form also engages our feelings. Expectation, for instance,
spurs emotion. When the filmmaker gets us wondering about what will happen next,
we’re likely to invest some emotion in the situation. Delayed fulfillment of an expec-
tation—suspense—may produce anxiety or sympathy. (Will the detective find the
criminal? Will boy get girl? Will the melody return?) Gratified expectations may
produce a feeling of satisfaction or relief. (The detective solves the mystery; boy
does get girl; the melody returns one more time.) Cheated expectations and curios-
ity about past material may produce puzzlement or keener interest. (So he isn’t the
detective? This isn’t a romance story? Has a second melody replaced the first one?)
Note that all of these possibilities may occur. No recipe can guarantee that the
filmmaker will achieve a specific emotional response. It is all a matter of context—that
is, of each artwork’s overall form. All we can say for certain is that the emotion felt by
the spectator will emerge from formal patterns that she or he perceives in the work. This
is one reason why we should try to notice as many formal relations as possible in a film.
The richer our perception, the deeper and more complex our response may become.
The death of a child is perhaps the most sorrowful event that can occur in
people’s lives. Most films would use this event to summon up the sadness we would
also feel in life. But artistic form can alter the emotional tenor of even this unhappy
situation. In Jean Renoir’s The Crime of M. Lange, the cynical publisher Batala
rapes and abandons Estelle, a young laundress. After Batala disappears, Estelle
On slow-moving movies, see “The
sarcastic laments of Béla Tarr” and
“Tony and Theo.”
If my film makes one more
person feel miserable, I’ll feel I’ve
done my job.”
—Woody Allen, director, Hannah
and Her Sisters
Scholars have studied the ways in
which we respond emotionally to
movies. We discuss their lines of
argument in “Now you see it, now
you can’t.”
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58 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
becomes integrated into the neighborhood and returns to her former fianc . But
Estelle is pregnant by Batala and bears his child.
The scene when Estelle’s employer, Valentine, announces that the child was born
dead is one of the most emotionally complex in cinema. The first reactions expressed
by the characters are gravity and sorrow (2.9). Suddenly, Batala’s cousin remarks,
“Too bad. It was a relative.” In the film’s context, this is taken as a joke (2.10).
The shift in the emotion represented in the film catches us off guard. Since these
characters are not heartless, we must readjust our reaction to the death and respond
as they do—with relief. Estelle’s survival is far more important than the death of
Batala’s child. This is a daring, extreme example, but it dramatically illustrates how
the emotions presented onscreen and aroused in us depend on the context created
by form.
Form and Meaning
Like emotion, meaning is important to our experience of artworks. As viewers we
are constantly testing the work for larger significance, for what it says or suggests.
And filmmakers often create movies to convey their ideas and opinions. They want
us to grasp the meanings they’ve offered.
What sorts of things might filmmakers and spectators think of as meaningful?
Let’s look at four remarks we might make about the meaning of The Wizard of Oz.
1. Referential meaning. During the Depression, a tornado takes a girl from her
family’s Kansas farm to the mythical land of Oz. After a series of adventures,
she returns home.
This is very concrete, close to a bare-bones plot summary. Here the meaning de-
pends on the spectator’s ability to identify specific items: the hard times of America
in the 1930s and features of midwestern climate. A viewer unacquainted with such
information would miss some of the meanings cued by the film. We can call such
tangible meanings referential, since the film refers to things or places already in-
vested with significance in the real world.
A film’s subject matter—in The Wizard of Oz, American farm life in the
1930s—is often established through referential meaning. And, as you might expect,
referential meaning plays a role within the film’s overall form. Suppose that instead
of having Dorothy live in flat, spare, rural Kansas, the film made Dorothy a child
living in a posh section of Beverly Hills. When she got to Oz (transported there,
perhaps, by a hillside flash flood), the contrast between the crowded opulence of
Oz and her home would not have been nearly as sharp. Here the referential mean-
ings of Kansas and the Great Depression play a definite role in the overall contrast
of settings that the film’s form creates.
2. Explicit meaning. A girl dreams of leaving home to escape her troubles.
Only after she leaves does she realize how much she loves her family and
friends. Nothing she finds elsewhere can replace them.
This assertion is still fairly concrete in the meaning it attributes to the film. If
someone were to ask you the point of the film—what it seems to be trying to
get across—you might answer with something like this. Perhaps you would also
mention Dorothy’s closing line, “There’s no place like home,” as a summary of what
she has learned. Let’s call this sort of openly asserted meaning an explicit meaning.
Like referential meanings, explicit meanings function within the film’s overall
form. They are controlled by context. For instance, we might want to take “There’s
no place like home” as a statement of the meaning of the entire film. But, first, why
do we take that as a strongly meaningful line? In ordinary conversation, it’s a clich .
In context, however, the line gains great force. It’s uttered in close-up, it comes
at the end of the film (a formally privileged moment), and it refers back to all of
Dorothy’s desires and ordeals, recalling the film’s narrative movement toward her
goal. It is the form of the film that gives the homily an unfamiliar weight.
2 . 9–2 .1 0 Context reshaping
emotion. In The Crime of M. Lange, the
neighbors initially display grief at the
news of Batala and Estelle’s baby (2.9).
But in reaction to Batala’s cousin’s remark,
every one breaks out into smiles (2.10).!The
film’s formal development has rendered
appropriate a reaction that might be
perverse in ordinary life.
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The Concept of Form in Film 59
This example suggests that we must examine how explicit meanings in a film
interact with other elements of the overall form. Usually, we can’t isolate a par-
ticularly significant moment and declare it to be the meaning of the whole film.
Dorothy’s “There’s no place like home” does capture one meaningful element in
The Wizard of Oz. But her remark is counterbalanced by the entire beguiling Oz
fantasy. Oz is attractive but dangerous; home is drab but safe and loving.
In trying to see the meaningful parts within a larger whole, it’s useful to set
significant moments against one another. Thus Dorothy’s final line could be jux-
taposed to the scene of the characters getting spruced up after their arrival at the
Emerald City. We can try to see the film as about not only Oz or only Kansas, but
rather the relation of the two—the delight and risk of a fantasy world versus the
comfort and stability of home. Thus the film’s total system is larger than any one
explicit meaning we can find in it. Instead of asking, “What is this film’s meaning?”
we can ask, “How do the various meanings relate to one another?”
3. Implicit meaning. An adolescent who must soon face the adult world yearns
for a return to the simplicity of childhood, but she eventually accepts the
demands of growing up.
This is more abstract than the first two remarks we’ve mentioned. This one suggests
that The Wizard of Oz is about something general, the passage from childhood to
adulthood. On this view, the film implies that, as they grow up, people may want
to return to the apparently uncomplicated world of childhood. Dorothy’s frustration
with her aunt and uncle and her urge to flee to a place “over the rainbow” become
examples of a general conception of adolescence. Unlike the “no place like home”
line, this meaning isn’t stated directly. We can call this suggestion an implicit mean-
ing. When perceivers ascribe implicit meanings to an artwork, they’re usually said
to be interpreting it.
Clearly, interpretations vary. One viewer might propose that The Wizard of
Oz is really about adolescence. Another might suggest that it is really about cour-
age and persistence, or that it is a satire on the adult world. One of the appeals of
artworks is that they ask us to interpret them in several ways at once. Again, the
filmmaker invites us to perform certain activities—here, building up implicit mean-
ings, guided by the film’s overall form.
Some filmmakers claim to avoid implicit meanings altogether. They leave them
to viewers and critics. Of There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson
said, “It’s a slippery slope when you start thinking about something other than just
a good battle between two guys. . . . Tell a nasty story and let the rest take care of
itself.” But other filmmakers try to steer viewers toward implicit meanings, some-
times called subtexts. Robert Zemeckis described his Forrest Gump as “a movie
about grieving.” Director Greg Mottola describes the friends’ separation at the
end of Superbad as having several possible subtexts: “It’s homosexual panic or it’s
bravado or it’s all these shades of what young men go through to try to appear a
certain way to women and to their peers.”
Once we identify a film’s meaning, either explicit or implicit, we’re often
tempted to split up the film into the content portion (the meaning) and the form
(the vehicle for the content). Explicit and implicit meanings suggest very broad
concepts, often called themes. A film may have as its theme courage or the power
of faithful love. Such descriptions have some value, but they are very general;
hundreds of films fit them. To summarize The Wizard of Oz as being simply about
the problems of adolescence does not do justice to the specific qualities of the film
as an experience. We suggest that the search for implicit meanings should not leave
behind the particular and concrete features of a film.
This isn’t to say that we should avoid interpreting films. But we should strive to
make our interpretations precise by seeing how each film’s thematic meanings are
suggested by the film’s form. In a narrative film, both explicit and implicit mean-
ings depend on the relations between story and style.
Critics enable us to see how
parts of an artwork serve larger
designs. Often this requires that
the critics offer interpretations or
explications of the larger aims of
the work, but these overviews
are often introduced, in large
measure, in order to explain why
the works have the parts they do.”
—Noël Carroll, philosopher of art
How far can interpretation go? The
limits are tested by fans who find a
great many implicit and referential
meanings in The Shining. See
our entry “All play and no work?
Room 237.”
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60 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
In The Wizard of Oz, the Yellow Brick Road has no meaning in and of itself.
But if we examine the functions it fulfills in relation to the narrative, the music,
the colors, and so on, we can argue that the Yellow Brick Road does suggest mean-
ings. Dorothy’s strong desire to go home makes the road represent that desire. At
the same time, because it’s made of yellow bricks—rare in our everyday world—it
partakes of some of the magical qualities of Oz. In a way, the road encapsulates
the tension between Oz and Kansas that we see throughout the movie. We want
Dorothy to be successful in getting to Oz and going back to Kansas. So the road can
suggest the themes of Oz’s attraction and the desirability of getting home.
Interpretation need not be an end in itself. It also helps in understanding the
overall form of the film. Once we’ve noticed the Yellow Brick Road as a thematic
element, we could analyze its functions in larger patterns. We could see that it gains
narrative importance because Dorothy’s indecision at a crossroads allows her to
meet the Scarecrow. We could work out a color scheme for the film, contrasting the
yellow road, the red slippers, the green Emerald City, and so forth. In such ways,
when we interpret a film we should try to harmonize the meanings we detect with
the film’s overall formal development.
4. Symptomatic meaning. In a society in which human worth is measured by
money, the home and the family may seem to be the last refuge of human
values. This belief is especially strong in times of economic crisis, such as
that in the United States in the 1930s.
Like statement 3, this is abstract and general. It situates the film within a trend of
thought that is assumed to be characteristic of American society during the 1930s.
The claim could apply equally well to many other films, as well as to many novels,
plays, poems, paintings, advertisements, radio shows, political speeches, and a host
of cultural products of the period.
But something else is worth noticing about the statement. It treats an explicit
meaning in The Wizard of Oz (“There’s no place like home”) as displaying a set
of values characteristic of a whole society. We could treat implicit meanings the
same way. If we say the film implies something about adolescence as a crucial time
of transition, we could suggest that emphasis on adolescence as a special period
of life is also a recurrent concern of American society. So, it’s possible to under-
stand a film’s explicit or implicit meanings as bearing traces of a particular set of
social values. We can call this symptomatic meaning, and the set of values that get
revealed can be considered a social ideology.
Symptomatic meanings remind us that meaning of all sorts is largely a social
phenomenon. Many meanings of films are ultimately ideological; that is, they
spring from systems of culturally specific beliefs about the world. Religious beliefs,
political opinions, conceptions of race or gender or social class, even our most
deeply seated notions of life’s values—all these constitute our ideological frame of
reference. We’re tempted to think that our beliefs are the best explanations of how
the world is. But if we compare our own ideology with that of another culture or
time we see how different many of those views are. In other times and places, home
and adolescence don’t carry the meanings they carried in 1930s America. Some
cultures don’t have the idea of adolescence at all.
Films, like other artworks, can be examined for their symptomatic meanings.
Again, however, the abstract and general quality of such meanings can lead us away
from the film’s concrete form. As in analyzing implicit meanings, we should ground
symptomatic meanings in the film’s specific aspects. A film enacts ideological mean-
ings through its form. We’ll see in Chapter 11 how the narrative and stylistic system
of Meet Me in St. Louis and Raging Bull can be analyzed for ideological implications.
To sum up: Films have meaning because we attribute meanings to them.
Sometimes the filmmaker guides us toward certain meanings; sometimes we find
meanings the filmmaker didn’t intend. If we’re engaged by a film, we’ll search for
referential, explicit, implicit, and symptomatic meanings. But a film is a film, not
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The Concept of Form in Film 61
a collection of themes. The filmmaker who wants to make a general statement or
suggest implicit meanings will still have to work out the film in concrete terms,
through particular choices about form and style. When we look closely at a film, we
should keep the same balance in mind, not letting our urge for wider significance
outweigh our focus on the film as a dynamic whole.
Evaluation: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?
In talking about an artwork, people often evaluate it. They make claims about its
goodness or badness. Reviews in print media and on the Internet exist almost solely
to tell us whether a film is worth seeing, and our friends often urge us to go to their
latest favorite. Some websites rate movies by stars or grades, suggesting that their
rankings are fairly precise. What’s going on here?
We can start by realizing that there is a difference between personal taste and
evaluative judgment. To say “I liked this film” or “I hated it” is not equal to saying,
“It’s a good film” or “It’s wretched.” Most of us want to like good movies and dis-
like bad ones, but we recognize a range of quality. Very few of us limit our enjoy-
ment to the greatest works. What critics call “guilty pleasures” are movies that are
enjoyable despite being bad, maybe even terrible, in some respects.
All this suggests that personal preference need not be the basis for judging a
film’s quality. Instead, we can try to make a relatively objective evaluation by using
specific criteria. A criterion is a standard that can be applied in the judgment of
many works. By using a criterion, we can compare films for relative quality.
There are many different criteria. Some people evaluate films on realistic
criteria. Aficionados of military history might judge a film entirely on whether
the battle scenes use historically accurate weaponry. Other people condemn films
because they don’t find the action plausible. They dismiss a scene by saying,
“Who’d really believe that X would meet Y just at the right moment?” We have
already seen, though, that artworks often violate laws of reality and operate by their
own conventions and internal rules. Coincidental encounters, usually at embar-
rassing moments, are a convention of genres like romantic comedy, as we’ll see in
Chapter 9. So realism, then, isn’t a criterion that we can apply in every case.
Viewers can also use moral criteria to evaluate films. Most narrowly, aspects
of the film can be judged outside their context in the film. Some viewers might
feel that any film with nudity or profanity or violence is bad. Other viewers might
defend these aspects as realistic, given the lifestyles of the characters in the story.
Likewise, some viewers might condemn Renoir’s slightly humorous handling of
the baby’s death in The Crime of M. Lange, regardless of the scene’s context. More
broadly, viewers and critics may employ moral criteria to evaluate a film’s overall
significance, and here the film’s complete formal system becomes pertinent. We
can judge a film good because of its overall view of life, its willingness to show
opposing points of view, or its emotional range.
Although realistic and moral criteria are well suited to particular purposes, we
should also recognize that there are criteria that assess films as artistic wholes. Such
criteria allow us to take each film’s form into account as much as possible. Coherence
is one such criterion. This quality, often referred to as unity, has traditionally been
held to be a positive feature of artworks. So, too, has intensity of effect. If an artwork
is vivid, striking, and emotionally engaging, it may be considered more valuable.
Another criterion is complexity. We can argue that, all other things being equal,
complex films are good. A complex film engages our interest on different levels,
and tends to create several patterns of feelings and meanings. Our discussion of The
Wizard of Oz, so far and going forward, may convince you that it is a more complex
film than it might seem at first.
Yet another formal criterion is originality. Originality for its own sake is point-
less, of course. Just because something is different doesn’t mean that it is good. But
if an artist takes a familiar convention and uses it in a way that gives viewers a fresh
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62 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
experience, then (all other things being equal) the resulting work may be considered
good from an aesthetic standpoint.
Note that all these criteria are matters of degree. One film may be more complex
than another. Moreover, there is often a give-and-take among the criteria. A film might
be complex but lack coherence or intensity. Ninety minutes of a black screen would
make for an original film but not a very complex one. A slasher movie may build up
great intensity in certain scenes but may be wholly unoriginal, as well as disorganized
and simplistic. In applying the criteria, we often must weigh one against another.
It’s fun to share our personal tastes with friends and sometimes vent them in
a Tweet or online comment. But a deeper, objective evaluation usually teaches us
more about how films work. A considered evaluation can call attention to neglected
artworks or make us rethink our attitudes toward accepted classics. Just as the discov-
ery of meanings is not the only purpose of formal analysis, we suggest that evaluation
is most fruitful when it is backed up by a close examination of the film. General state-
ments (“The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece”) seldom enlighten us very much. Usually,
an evaluation is helpful when it points to aspects of the film and shows us relations
and qualities we have missed. “The Wizard of Oz is more coherent than it looks at
first. Look at all the parallels! Miss Gulch’s written order to take Toto is echoed by
the Wicked Witch’s fiery skywriting addressed to the citizens of the Emerald City,
‘Surrender Dorothy.’” Like interpretation, evaluation can usefully drive us back to the
film’s particular formal strategies, helping us to understand them better.
In reading this book, you’ll find that we have generally minimized evalua-
tion. We think that most of the films and sequences we analyze are good based on
the artistic criteria we mentioned, but the purpose of this book is not to persuade
you to accept a list of masterpieces. Instead, by considering how films create our
experiences through form and style, you will have an informed basis for whatever
evaluations you want to make.
Principles of Film Form
Form doesn’t equal formula. Scientists discover powerful laws governing the physi-
cal world, but in the arts there are no laws of form that all artists must follow. Artists
create within culture, so many principles of artistic form are matters of convention.
An outer-space adventure such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris isn’t faulty because it
doesn’t follow the conventions at work in Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope. Still,
there are some broad principles that artists, filmmakers included, draw on. These are
ideas of function, similarity and repetition, difference and variation, development,
and unity and disunity. We’ll draw on The Wizard of Oz for our main examples.
If form is a pattern of elements, we would expect that those elements fulfill func-
tions. They do something in the larger whole. Of any element in a film we can ask,
What are its functions?
We say “functions” in the plural, because most elements serve several purposes.
Perhaps for some MGM executives, the song “Over the Rainbow” had the primary
purpose of letting Judy Garland launch a hit tune. Still, the song fits the film because
it fulfills certain narrative and stylistic functions. The lyrics establish Dorothy’s desire
to leave home, and the opening line’s reference to the rainbow foreshadows her trip
through the sky to colorful Oz. In fact, the “where” in the word “Somewhere” leaps
a full octave, creating a musical equivalent of a trip to a distant land. In asking about
formal function, therefore, we typically ask not, “How did this element get there?”
but rather, “What is this element doing there?” and “How does it cue us to respond?”
In The Wizard of Oz, every major character fulfills several functions. For
instance, Miss Gulch, the woman who wants to take Toto from Dorothy, frightens
Dorothy into running away from home. In Oz she reappears as the Wicked Witch
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Principles of Film Form 63
who tries to seize the ruby slippers and keep Dorothy from going to the Emerald
City and returning home.
Even an element as apparently minor as the dog Toto serves many purposes.
The dispute over Toto causes Dorothy to run away from home and to return too late
to take shelter from the tornado. Later, when Dorothy is about to leave Oz, Toto’s
pursuit of a cat makes Dorothy jump out of the ascending balloon. Toto’s gray
color, set off against the brightness of Oz, recalls the black and white of the Kansas
episodes at the film’s beginning.
The story goes that when the actress Ingrid Bergman asked Alfred Hitchcock
about her motivation in a particular scene, Hitchcock replied: “Your paycheck.” But
Hitchcock’s joke deliberately confused the actress’s reason for being in the movie
(doing her job for pay) with the character’s reason for doing what she does. Bergman’s
question can guide us in thinking about the functions of anything in a movie.
For Bergman, as for most actors, the word “motivation” applies to the purposes
of a character’s actions. But the term doesn’t apply only to performance matters.
When we speak of motivation more generally, we’re asking about what justifies
anything being in the film. If we see a man in beggar’s clothes in the middle of an
elegant society ball, we will ask why he’s dressed in this way. Is he the victim of
practical jokers who have told him that it’s a masquerade party? Is he an eccentric
millionaire? Such a scene does occur in My Man Godfrey, in which the young society
people have been assigned to bring back a homeless man as part of a scavenger hunt
(2.11). The game motivates the presence of an inappropriately dressed character.
Motivation points to functions. Throughout The Wizard of Oz, one function
Toto fulfills is to get Dorothy into scrapes. Since the plot requires that Dorothy run
away from home, the screenwriters used her love of Toto to motivate her flight.
When Toto jumps from the balloon to chase a cat, we motivate his action by appeal-
ing to notions of how dogs are likely to act when cats are around.
Motivation is so common in films that spectators take it for granted, but film-
makers must think about it often. A director may decide to let a character’s wander-
ing around a room motivate a camera movement. A cinematographer may have to
choose between motivated and unmotivated lighting. Gabriel Beristain, who shot
Ring Two, faced two options in shooting night scenes:
You could go the straight route and motivate some sort of light through windows,
which is the only logical source in play. Or you could decide not to worry about moti-
vation and create chiaroscuro lighting that simulates darkness.
When we study principles of narrative form (Chapter 3) and various types of films
(Chapters 9 and 10), we’ll look more closely at how motivation gives elements
specific functions.
Similarity and Repetition
In our example of the ABACA pattern, we saw how we were able to predict the next
steps in the series. One reason for this was a regular pattern of repeated elements.
Like beats in music, the repetition of the A’s in our pattern established and satisfied
formal expectations. Similarity and repetition, then, constitute an important prin-
ciple of film form.
If you were to make a film, you would rely on repetition constantly. You’d make
sure that your main character reappeared often enough for him or her to be seen as
central to the plot, and you’d probably have dialogue that reiterated main points about
goals, conflicts, and themes. More subtly, you’d probably utilize what are called
motifs. A motif is any significant repeated element that contributes to the overall form.
It may be an object, a color, a place, a person, a sound, or even a character
trait. Max’s tropical postcard is a motif signaled early in Collateral. In Jurassic
Park, Dr. Alan Grant’s dislike of children reappears as a motif—one that alters
in the course of the adventure. A lighting scheme or camera position can become
We discuss George Smiley’s
eyeglasses as a motif in “Tinker
Tailor: A guide for the perplexed.”
2.11 Motivation for formal elements.
The heroine of My Man Godfrey
studies her prize while the well-off
crowd urges the unemployed Godfrey
to make a speech. A scavenger hunt is
the motivation for the homeless man’s
presence at the elegant society ball.
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64 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
Creative Decisions: Picking Out Patterns
In studying film as an art, you might sometimes wonder:
Are all the patterns of form and style we notice really in
the film? Do filmmakers actually put them there, or are we
just reading them in?
Filmmakers often say that their formal and stylistic
choices aim to create specific effects. Hitchcock, a direc-
tor who had an engineering bent, planned his stories
carefully and chose techniques in full awareness of
their possibilities. His film Rope confines the action to
a single apartment and presents it in only eleven shots.
Rear Window limits the action to what the hero can see
from his apartment. In these and other films, Hitchcock
deliberately set up constraints for himself, inviting his
audience to enjoy the way he worked within them.
Filmmakers may work more intuitively than Hitchcock,
but they still must choose one story development or
another, one technique or another. The finished film can
have an overall unity because the choices tend to mesh.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers who created The Big
Lebowski, Fargo, and True Grit, don’t set out with a partic-
ular style in mind. As Ethan puts it, “At the point of making
the movie, it’s just about making individual choices.” Joel
picks up the thread:
. . . about the best way to tell the story, scene by scene.
You make specific choices that you think are appropriate
or compelling or interesting for that particular scene. Then,
at the end of the day, you put it all together and somebody
looks at it and, if there’s some consistency to it, they say,
“Well, that’s their style.”
Even if the Coens don’t map out every option in advance,
their films display distinctive patterns of form and style,
and those definitely affect our response (2.12, 2.13).
Professionals pay attention to other filmmakers’
creative decisions about form and style. While watching
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Nicole Kidman pointed out
how the composition of one shot had both an immediate
point and a long-range story purpose (2.14):
Here, in this scene, look at how there is this rack of knives
hanging in the background over the boy’s head. . . . It’s
important because it not only shows that the boy is in danger,
but one of those very knives is used later in the story when
Wendy takes it to protect herself from her husband (2.15).
Kubrick told Kidman that a director had to repeat story
information so that the audience could keep up. The
knife pattern shaped viewers’ experience, although they
may not have been aware of it.
Kubrick’s comment points up another reason we
can have some confidence when we pick out pat-
terns. A filmmaker doesn’t create a movie from scratch.
All films borrow ideas and storytelling strategies from
other movies and other art forms. As we’ve seen, a
lot that happens in films is governed by conventions.
When Kubrick shows us the knives behind Danny, he’s
following a very old storytelling convention: prepare
the audience for action that will come later. Similarly,
The Hudsucker Proxy is a satirical comedy, and the steep
perspective in 2.12 and 2.13 follows a convention of using
exaggeration to create humor.
Very often, patterns in one film resemble patterns
we’ve seen in other films. Even when filmmakers oper-
ate intuitively and don’t tell us their trade secrets, we can
notice how they treat familiar conventions of form and
You can take a movie, for example, like Angels with
Dirty Faces, where James Cagney is a child and says to
his pal Pat O’Brien, ‘What do you hear, what do you say?’—
cocky kid—and then as a young rough on the way up when
things are going great for him he says, ‘What do you hear,
what do you say?’ Then when he is about to be executed
in the electric chair and Pat O’Brien is there to hear his
confession, he says, ‘What do you hear, what do you say?’
and the simple repetition of the last line of dialogue in
three different places with the same characters brings
home the dramatically changed circumstances much more
than any extensive diatribe would.”
—Robert Towne, screenwriter, Chinatown
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Principles of Film Form 65
2.12–2.13 Creating a film’s style through compositional motifs. In the Hudsucker Proxy, the boss dangles above the street in a very steep,
centered-perspective composition (2.12). The same sort of composition is used to show the impersonal layout of desks in the Hudsucker
company (2.13).
2.12 2.13
2.14–2.15 Motifs anticipate action. In The Shining, an early scene in the Hotel Overlook kitchen displays the telepathic rapport between
Halloran and Danny, whose parents are caretaking the hotel for the winter. The knives are a natural part of the kitchen set but are aligned
above Danny (2.14). Later Danny’s mother, Wendy, goes to the same knife rack, seen from a different angle, to grab a weapon (2.15).
2.14 2.15
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66 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
a motif. (See “A Closer Look,” pp. 64–65.) Motifs often reappear at climaxes or
highly emotional moments, as happens with the famous line from Jerry Maguire,
“You complete me.”
Motifs are fairly exact repetitions, but a film can chart broader similarities
between its ingredients. To understand The Wizard of Oz, we must notice that the
three Kansas farmhands have counterparts in the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and
the Cowardly Lion. We must notice additional echoes between characters in the
frame story and in the fantasy (2.16–2.19). Such similarities are usually called
parallels. Parallels cue us to compare two or more distinct elements by highlight-
ing some similarity. For example, Dorothy says she feels that she has known the
Scarecrow and the Tin Man before. At another point, the staging of a shot reinforces
the parallels (2.20–2.21).
Motifs can help create parallels among characters and situations. The viewer
will notice, and even come to expect, that every time Dorothy meets a character
in Oz, the scene will end with the song “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” This motif
accentuates the broader similarities among Dorothy’s encounters. Our recognition
of parallelism provides part of our pleasure in watching a film, much as rhymes
contribute to the power of poetry.
Difference and Variation
A filmmaker is unlikely to rely only on repetitions. AAAAAA is rather boring.
There should also be some changes, or variations, however small. So difference, or
variation, is another fundamental principle of film form. We’ve seen this principle at
work already, when composer James Newton Howard provided three “movements”
for the music accompanying the final scene of Collateral (pp. 7–9).
2.16–2.19 Parallels between frame story and fantasy. The itinerant Kansas fortune-
teller, Professor Marvel (2.16), bears a striking resemblance to the old charlatan known as the
Wizard of Oz (2.17). Miss Gulch’s bicycle in the opening section (2.18) becomes the Witch’s
broom in Oz (2.19).
2.16 2.17
2.18 2.19
2.20–2.21 Parallel compositions.
As the Lion describes his timidity, the
characters are lined up (2.20) to form
a mirror reversal of the earlier scene in
which the others teased Zeke for being
afraid of pigs (2.21).
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Principles of Film Form 67
Differences among the elements are most apparent when characters clash. In
The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s desires are opposed, at various points, by the differing
desires of Aunt Em, Miss Gulch, the Wicked Witch, and the Wizard, so that our
experience of the film is engaged through dramatic conflict. But character conflict
isn’t the only way the formal principle of difference may appear.
If you were making a film, you’d seek out ways to contrast your characters and
their environments. Perhaps you’d situate one character in nature and another in busy
urban surroundings. You might stress contrasts of costume, or hairstyles, or color.
The Wizard of Oz presents stark color oppositions: black-and-white Kansas versus
colorful Oz; Dorothy in red, white, and blue versus the Witch in black. Settings are
opposed as well—not only Oz versus Kansas but also the various locales within
Oz (2.22–2.23). Voice quality, musical tunes, and a host of other elements play off
against one another, demonstrating that any motif may be opposed by any other motif.
Typically, filmmakers vary their motifs and parallels. In The Wizard of Oz, the
three Kansas hands aren’t identical to their counterparts in Oz. When Professor
Marvel pretends to read Dorothy’s future in a small crystal ball, we see no images
in it (2.16). Dorothy’s dream transforms the crystal into a large globe in the Witch’s
castle, where it displays frightening scenes (2.24). Similarly, Toto’s disruption of a
situation is a constant action motif, but it changes its function. In Kansas, he dis-
turbs Miss Gulch and induces Dorothy to take Toto away from home, but in Oz, his
disruption prevents Dorothy from returning home.
Not all differences come down to this-versus-that dualities. Dorothy’s three
Oz friends—the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion—are distinguished
by three things they lack (a brain, a heart, and courage). Other films may rely on
less sharp differences, suggesting a scale of gradations among the characters, as in
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. At the extreme, an abstract film may create
minimal variations among its parts, such as in the slight changes that accompany
each return of the same footage in J. J. Murphy’s Print Generation (p. 372).
Repetition and variation are two sides of the same coin. To notice one is to
be alert to the other. In thinking about films, we ought to look for similarities and
differences. Shuttling between the two, we can point out motifs and contrast the
changes they undergo, recognize parallelisms as repetition, and still spot crucial
One way to notice how similarity and difference operate in film form is to look for
principles of development from part to part. Development places similar and differ-
ent elements within a pattern of change. Our pattern ABACA is based not only on
repetition (the recurring motif of A) and difference (the insertion of B and C) but
One distinctive type of film form
comes in the anthology film,
combining short segments by
several directors. It’s a theme-
and-variations approach that we
discuss in “Can you spot all the
auteurs in this picture?”
2.22–2.23 Contrasting settings. Centered in the upper half of the frame, the Emerald City
(2.22) creates a striking contrast to the similar composition showing the castle of the Wicked
Witch of the West (2.23).
2.22 2.23
2.24 Similarity and difference.
Through her crystal ball, the Wicked
Witch mocks Dorothy. Contrast it with
the earlier scene (2.16) in which the
Kansas fortune-teller uses a smaller
crystal ball.
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68 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
also on a principle of progression that we could state as a rule: Alternate A with
successive letters in alphabetical order. Though simple, this is a principle of devel-
opment, governing the form of the whole series.
Filmmakers often treat formal development as a progression moving from
beginning through middle to end. The story of The Wizard of Oz shows development
in many ways. It is, for one thing, a journey: from Kansas through Oz to Kansas.
The good witch Glinda emphasizes this formal pattern by telling Dorothy that “It’s
always best to start at the beginning” (2.25). Filmmakers often build their plots
around journeys. The Wizard of Oz is also a search, beginning with an initial sepa-
ration from home, tracing a series of efforts to find a way home, and ending with
home being found. Within the film, there is also a pattern of mystery, which usually
has the same beginning-middle-end pattern. We begin with a question (Who is the
Wizard of Oz?), pass through attempts to answer it, and conclude with the question
answered. (The Wizard is a fraud.) Close Encounters of the Third Kind combines
the patterns of journey, search, and mystery, adding the psychological change that
occurs in protagonist Roy Neary. As these examples suggest, feature-length films
often depend on several developmental patterns.
At some point in making a film, the filmmakers usually prepare a breakdown
of its parts. This traces, in sketchy form, the film’s pattern of development. When
we want to analyze a finished film, we do the same thing. We make what’s usually
called a segmentation.
A segmentation is simply a written outline of the film that breaks it into its major
and minor parts, with the parts marked by consecutive numbers or letters. If a nar-
rative film has 40 scenes, then we can label each scene with a number running from
1 to 40. It may be useful to divide some parts further (for example, scenes 6a
and 6b).
Segmenting a film enables us not only to notice similarities and differences
among parts but also to plot the overall development. Following is a segmentation
for The Wizard of Oz using an outline format. (In segmenting films, we label the
opening credits with a “C,” the end title with an “E,” and all other segments with
The Wizard of Oz: Plot Segmentation
C. Credits
1. Kansas
a. Dorothy is at home, worried about Miss Gulch’s threat to Toto.
b. Running away, Dorothy meets Professor Marvel, who induces her to
return home.
c. A tornado lifts the house, with Dorothy and Toto, into the sky.
2. Munchkin City
a. After Dorothy’s house crashes to earth, she meets Glinda, and the
Munchkins celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the East.
b. The Wicked Witch of the West threatens Dorothy over the Ruby
c. Glinda sends Dorothy to seek the Wizard’s help.
3. The Yellow Brick Road
a. Dorothy meets the Scarecrow.
b. Dorothy meets the Tin Man.
c. Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion.
4. The Emerald City
a. The Witch creates a poppy field near the city, but Glinda rescues the
b. The group is welcomed by the city’s citizens.
c. As they wait to see the Wizard, the Lion sings of being king of
the forest.
2.25 Narrative development:
Starting a journey. Dorothy puts her
feet on the literal beginning of the
Yellow Brick Road, as it widens out
from a single point.
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Principles of Film Form 69
d. The terrifying Wizard agrees to help the group if they obtain the Wicked
Witch’s broomstick.
5. The Witch’s castle and nearby woods
a. In the woods, flying monkeys carry off Dorothy and Toto.
b. The Witch realizes that she must kill Dorothy to get the ruby slippers.
c. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion sneak into the Castle; in the ensuing
chase, Dorothy kills the Witch.
6. The Emerald City
a. Although revealed as a humbug, the Wizard grants the wishes of the
Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion.
b. Dorothy fails to leave in the Wizard’s hot-air balloon but is transported
home by the ruby slippers.
7. Kansas—Dorothy describes Oz to her family and friends
E. End credits
Preparing a segmentation may look a little fussy, but in the course of this book,
we’ll try to convince you that it can shed a lot of light on films. For now, just con-
sider this comparison.
As you walk into a building, your experience develops over time. In many
cathedrals, for example, the entryway is fairly narrow. But as you emerge into the
open area inside (the nave), space expands outward and upward, your sense of
your body seems to shrink, and your attention is directed toward the altar, centrally
located in the distance. The somewhat cramped entryway makes you feel a contrast
when you enter the broad and soaring space. Your experience has been as carefully
planned as any theme park ride. Only by thinking back on it can you realize that
the planned progression of the building’s different areas shaped your experience.
If you could study the builder’s blueprints, you’d see the whole layout at a glance.
It would be very different from your moment-by-moment experience of it, but it
would shed light on how your experience was shaped.
A film works in a similar way. As we watch the film, we’re in the thick of it.
We follow the formal development moment by moment, and we may get more and
more involved. But if we want to study the overall form, we need to stand back a
bit. Films don’t come with blueprints, but by creating a plot segmentation, we can
get a comparable sense of the film’s basic design.
In a way, we’re recovering the architecture of the movie. A segmentation lets
us see the patterning that the filmmakers laid out and that we felt intuitively while
watching the film. In Chapters 3 and 10, we consider how to segment different
types of films, and several of our sample analyses in Chapter 11 use segmentations
to show how the films work.
A quick way to size up how a film develops formally is to compare the begin-
ning with the ending. By looking at the similarities and the differences between
the beginning and the ending, we can start to understand the overall pattern of
the film. We can test this advice on The Wizard of Oz. A comparison of the
beginning and the ending reveals that Dorothy’s journey ends with her return
home. The journey, a search for an ideal place “over the rainbow,” has turned
into a search for a way back to Kansas. The final scene repeats and develops the
narrative elements of the opening. Stylistically, the beginning and ending are the
only parts that use black-and-white film stock. This repetition supports the con-
trast the narrative creates between the dreamland of Oz and the bleak landscape
of Kansas.
At the film’s end, Professor Marvel comes to visit Dorothy (2.26), reversing
the situation of her visit to him when she had tried to run away. At the beginning,
he had convinced her to return home; then, as the Wizard in the Oz section, he
had also represented her hopes of returning home. Finally, when she recognizes
Professor Marvel and the farmhands as the basis of the characters in her dream, she
remembers how much she had wanted to come home from Oz.
If beginnings are important,
then the very beginning is even
more important, as “First shots”
2.26 Comparing beginning and
ending. The visits of the final scene
in The Wizard of Oz reverse events at
the start of the film; Professor Marvel
comes to visit Dorothy at her home,
but at the start Dorothy met him after
leaving home.
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70 CHAPTER 2 “The Significance of Film Form
Earlier, we suggested that film form engages our emotions and expectations in
a dynamic way. Now we’re in a better position to see why. The filmmaker creates
a constant interplay between similarity and difference, and repetition and variation.
This process leads the viewer to an active engagement with the film’s developing
system. It is handy to visualize a movie’s development in static terms by segment-
ing it, but we ought not to forget that formal development is a process taking place
over time. Form shapes our experience of the film.
Unity and Disunity
When all the relationships we perceive within a film are clear and economically
interwoven, we say that the film has unity. We often call a unified film “tight,” be-
cause there seem to be no gaps in its overall form. We feel that every element fulfills
particular functions, that we understand the similarities and differences among ele-
ments, that the form develops logically, and that no element is superfluous. The
film’s overall unity can give our experience a sense of completeness and fulfillment.
Unity is a matter of degree. Very few films are perfectly tight. For example, at
one point in The Wizard of Oz, the Witch refers to her having attacked Dorothy and
her friends with insects, yet we have never seen them. What is the Witch referring
to? In fact, a bee attack was originally shot but then cut from the finished film. The
Witch’s line about the insect attack now lacks motivation.
More striking is a dangling element at the film’s end: We never find out what
happens to Miss Gulch. Presumably, she still has her legal order to take Toto away,
but no one refers to this in the last scene. The viewer may be inclined to overlook
this disunity because Miss Gulch’s parallel character, the Witch, has been killed off
in the Oz fantasy, and we don’t expect to see her alive again. Since perfect unity is
scarcely ever achieved, we ought to expect that even a unified film may still contain
a few stray elements or unanswered questions.
If we look at unity as a criterion for evaluation, we may judge a film containing
several unmotivated elements as a failure. But unity and disunity may be looked at
nonevaluatively as well, as the results of particular formal conventions. For example,
Pulp Fiction lacks a bit of closure in that it never reveals what is inside the briefcase
that is at the center of the gangster plot. The contents, however, give off a golden glow,
suggesting that they are of very great value (as well as evoking the “whatsit” in Kiss Me
Deadly, a classic film noir). By not specifying the goods, the film emphasizes charac-
ters’ reactions to them. For example, in the last scene in the diner, Pumpkin gazes at the
mystery object lustfully but the newly spiritual hit man Jules calmly insists that he will
deliver it to his boss. In such ways, momentary disunities can fulfill larger functions.
A filmmaker designs an experience for an audience by
shaping the film’s form, the overall pattern of parts.
Things that are normally considered content—subject
matter, or abstract ideas—take on particular functions
within the overall form.
Our experience as viewers is shaped by the
filmmaker’s formal choices. Through the creative deci-
sions they make, filmmakers nudge or thrust us in certain
directions. Picking up cues in the work, we frame specific
expectations that are aroused, guided, delayed, cheated,
satisfied, or disturbed. We feel curiosity, suspense, and
surprise. We compare the particular aspects of the art-
work with things that we know from life and with conven-
tions found in art.
The concrete context of the artwork expresses and
stimulates emotions. It enables us to construct many types
of meanings. And even when we apply general criteria
in evaluating artworks, we ought to use those criteria to
help us discriminate more, to probe more deeply into the
particular aspects of the artwork. The rest of this book is
devoted to studying these properties of artistic form in
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Principles of Film Form 71
We can summarize the principles of film form as a set
of questions that you can ask about any film:
1. For any element in the film, what are its functions in
the overall form? How is it motivated?
2. Are elements or patterns repeated throughout
the film? If so, how and at what points? Are
motifs and parallelisms asking us to compare
3. How are elements contrasted and differentiated from
one another? How are different elements opposed to
one another?
4. What principles of progression or development are
at work through the form of the film? Does a com-
parison of the beginning and ending point toward the
film’s overall form?
5. What degree of unity is present in the film’s overall
In this chapter, we examined some major ways in which films
as artworks can engage us as spectators. We also reviewed
some broad principles of film form. Armed with these gen-
eral principles, we can press on to distinguish more specific
types of form that are central to understanding film art.
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C H A P T E R 3
Narrative Form
Humans have an endless appetite for stories. As children, we devour fairy tales and myths; we like to watch the same cartoons over and over. As we get older, we become captivated by other stories—in religion and history,
in novels and comic books and video games and, of course, movies. We recount
our lives, or just what happened at work today, to anyone who’ll listen. Politicians
and journalists talk about “changing the narrative.” In the courtroom the jury hears
competing stories, and in our dreams we imagine ourselves in scenes and situations.
Narrative is a fundamental way that humans make sense of the world.
Stories grab and hold us. In Chapter 2 we considered how a sequence of items,
even letters of the alphabet, can prod us to ask what comes next. A story, filled out with
characters and their actions, intensifies that urge to the maximum. In 1841, Charles
Dickens serialized his novel The Old Curiosity Shop in magazine installments. When
ships brought the latest installment to America, crowds of readers packed the wharf
crying out, “Is Little Nell dead?” Almost two centuries later, children and their par-
ents lined up for hours outside bookstores to buy the newest Harry Potter novel. Many
of those youngsters rushed home and started reading it immediately.
They were not that different from fans binge-watching a whole season of a TV
show, or from fans eagerly waiting for the next installment of a movie franchise
and speculating online about upcoming plot twists. Whether the story is fictional or
factual, we feel driven to know how the action develops, how the characters react,
and how it all comes out in the end.
Because storytelling is so common and so powerful, we need to take a close
look at how films—both fictional and nonfictional—embody narrative form.
Principles of Narrative Form
Because stories are all around us, spectators approach a narrative film with definite
expectations. We may know a great deal about the particular story the film will
tell. Perhaps we’ve read the book that the film is based on, or this is a sequel to a
movie we’ve seen.
Even if we aren’t already acquainted with the story’s particular world, though,
we have expectations that are characteristic of narrative form itself. We assume that
there will be characters and that the actions they take will involve them with one
another. We expect a series of incidents that will be connected in some way. We
usually expect that the problems or conflicts that arise will somehow be settled—
either they will be resolved or, at least, a new light will be cast on them. A spectator
comes prepared to make sense of a narrative film.
While watching the film, the viewer picks up cues, recalls information, anticipates
what will follow, and generally participates in the creation of the film’s form. As we
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Principles of Narrative Form 73
suggested in Chapter 2 (pp. 54-55), the film shapes our expectations by summoning
up curiosity, suspense, surprise, and other emotional qualities. The ending has the task
of satisfying or cheating the expectations prompted by the film as a whole. The ending
may also activate memory by cueing the spectator to review earlier events, possibly
considering them in a new light. When The Sixth Sense was released in 1999, many
moviegoers were so intrigued by the surprise twist at the end that they returned to
see the film again and trace how their expectations had been manipulated. Something
similar happened with The Conversation (see pp. 300-302). As we examine narrative
form, we need to recognize how it engages the viewer in a dynamic activity.
It’s the filmmaker’s task to create this engagement. How does this happen? We
can start to understand the filmmaker’s creative choices and the viewer’s activity
by looking a little more closely at what narrative is and does.
What Is Narrative?
We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events linked by cause and effect and
occurring in time and space. A narrative is what we usually mean by the term
“story,” although we’ll be using that term in a slightly different way later. Typically,
a narrative begins with one situation; a series of changes occurs according to a pat-
tern of cause and effect; finally, a new situation arises that brings about the end of
the narrative. Our engagement with the story depends on our understanding of the
pattern of change and stability, cause and effect, time and space.
A random string of events is hard to understand as a story. Consider the follow-
ing actions: “A man tosses and turns, unable to sleep. A mirror breaks. A telephone
rings.” We have trouble grasping this as a narrative because we are unable to deter-
mine how the events are connected by causality or time or space.
Consider a new description of these same events: “A man has a fight with his
boss. He tosses and turns that night, unable to sleep. In the morning, he is still so
angry that he smashes the mirror while shaving. Then his telephone rings; his boss
has called to apologize.”
We now have a narrative, unexciting though it is. We can connect the events
spatially. The man is in the office, then in his bed; the mirror is in the bathroom;
the phone is somewhere else in his home. Time is important as well. The fight starts
things off, and the sleepless night, the broken mirror, and the phone call occur one
after the other. The action runs from one day to the following morning. Above all,
we can understand that the three events are part of a pattern of causes and effects.
The argument with the boss causes the sleeplessness and the broken mirror. The
phone call from the boss resolves the conflict, so the narrative ends. The narrative
develops from an initial situation of conflict between employee and boss, through
a series of events caused by the conflict, to the resolution of the conflict. Simple
and minimal as our example is, it shows how important causality, space, and time
are to narrative form.
The fact that a narrative relies on causality, time, and space doesn’t mean that
other formal principles can’t govern the film. For instance, a narrative may make
use of parallelism. As Chapter 2 points out (p. 66), parallelism points up a similarity
among story elements. Our example was the way The Wizard of Oz paralleled the
three Kansas farmhands with Dorothy’s three Oz companions.
A narrative may cue us to draw parallels among characters, settings, situations,
times of day, or any other elements. Julie & Julia parallels two women, living in dif-
ferent periods, trying to juggle their marriages and their passion for cuisine (3.1, 3.2).
Julie never meets her idol Julia Child, but there is still a cause-effect link: Julie is
inspired by the older woman’s life. Sometimes a filmmaker goes further and doesn’t
link the parallel stories causally. Veřá Chytilová’s Something Different alternates
scenes from the life of a housewife and scenes from the career of a gymnast. Since
the two women lead entirely separate lives, there are no causal connections between
them. The parallel patterning encourages us to compare the women’s life decisions.
Narrative is one of the ways
in which knowledge is organized.
I have always thought it was the
most important way to transmit
and receive knowledge. I am
less certain of that now—but the
craving for narrative has never
lessened, and the hunger for it is
as keen as it was on Mt. Sinai or
Calvary or the middle of the fens.”
—Toni Morrison, author, Beloved
When filmmakers create a prequel
to an existing film story, they need
to weave new patterns of cause
and effect that lead to the story
we already know. We discuss
how prequels manage this task in
“Originality and origin stories.”
We analyze Julie & Julia in more
depth, along with the parallel plot
in Enchantment, in “Julie, Julia &
the house that talked.”
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74 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
The documentary Hoop Dreams makes a similar use of parallels. Two high
school students from a black neighborhood in Chicago dream of becoming pro-
fessional basketball players, and the film follows each one’s pursuit of an athletic
career. The film’s form invites us to compare their personalities, the obstacles they
face, and the choices they make. In addition, the film creates parallels between their
high schools, their coaches, their parents, and older male relatives who vicariously
pursue their own dreams of athletic glory. Hoop Dreams, like Julie & Julia and
Something Different, remains a narrative film. Each of the parallel lines of action is
organized by time, space, and causality. But parallelism allows the film to become
more complex than it might have been had it concentrated on only one protagonist.
Telling the Story
We make sense of a narrative, then, by identifying its events and linking them by
cause and effect, time, and space. We also look out for parallels that can shed light
on the ongoing action. But there’s a lot more to narrative than this bare-bones
account. To dig deeper, let’s again try to think like a filmmaker.
How Would You Tell the Story?
You have a story. Let’s say it’s a romantic comedy following the development of a
love affair. Your problem is: How to tell it?
For example, should you start at the beginning of the story, when the partners
meet? You could trace the action chronologically from there, showing them falling
in love, being separated, meeting other people, remeeting, and eventually being
reunited as a couple in marriage. But you might consider another option. Suppose
you break chronology and start your film with the couple’s wedding day. Then you
might flash back to the beginning, showing how they met, and then trace the love
affair through its ups and downs.
But why stop your rearranging there? Why not start with the wedding day,
flash back to the first meeting, then return to the wedding day, then flash back to
the budding romance, then return to the wedding day, and so on? Instead of one
long flashback framed by the wedding, you have several shorter ones that keep
interrupting the wedding.
Then you might ask: Who says the love-affair flashbacks have to be presented
in chronological order? Maybe I can create more curiosity, or suspense, or sur-
prise, or emotional engagement if I show the first meeting later in the film, out of
chronological order. Perhaps just before the wedding, or just after their big bust-up?
Although one event causes another, you don’t have to respect 1-2-3 order.
3.1–3.2 Narrative parallels. Julie & Julia: Staging and composition emphasize similarities between the two women’s stories.
3.1 3.2
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Principles of Narrative Form 75
While you’re speculating about shuffling time periods, you might pause again.
Wouldn’t it be more engaging to start not with the wedding but with the couple’s
“darkest moment,” the scene in which it seems they’re never going to get together?
Then flashing back to earlier, happier days could increase the suspense. Will they
be reunited? That makes the wedding a sort of epilogue rather than the big event
framing the overall action.
Each choice brings up further choices. If your flashbacks skip around a lot, you
might worry about viewers’ losing their bearings. So to help out, you might add
superimposed titles identifying the time and place of the scene.
Time structure is only one of the storytelling choices you face. If you’re plan-
ning the romantic comedy we sketched, from whose viewpoint will the tale be told?
You could limit things to one character’s standpoint, showing only what she or he
knows about the unfolding action. (500) Days of Summer puts us firmly with the
man who has fallen in love with the mysterious Summer. Alternatively, you could
follow the more common convention of showing both members of the couple when
they’re alone or with other friends. You could mix in scenes of parents, coworkers,
and the like. This asks your viewer to see the central relationship in a wider context.
Storytelling decisions about viewpoint involve what we’ll be calling narration.
Whatever the area of choice you face, you’ll want to consider how the options affect
the viewer. As we saw, presenting the story out of order could trigger curiosity or
suspense. Confining us to what one character knows can enhance surprise, so that
we learn new information only when he or she does.
Our romantic comedy is deeply unoriginal, but the point is just to show how
filmmakers face choices in planning narrative form. Those choices involve time
structure, narration, and other possibilities we’ll examine.
Plot and Story
In our hypothetical movie, the love affair that runs from first meeting to wedding
is what we’ll be calling the story. The story is the chain of events in chronological
order. But as we’ve seen, that story may be presented in various ways. If we use
flashbacks instead of linear time, or if we decide to organize events around one char-
acter rather than another, or if we make other choices about presentation, we will be
creating a different plot. As we’ve just seen, the same story can be presented in dif-
ferent ways—rendered as different plots—and each variant is likely to have different
effects on the audience.
As viewers, we have direct access only to the plot that the filmmakers finally
decided on. Yet eventually we arrive at an understanding of the underlying story. The
filmmakers have built the plot from the story, but viewers build the story from the plot.
How do viewers do that? By making assumptions and inferences about what’s
presented. At the start of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, we know we are in
Manhattan at rush hour. The cues stand out clearly: skyscrapers, bustling pedestri-
ans, congested traffic (3.3). Then we watch Roger Thornhill as he leaves an elevator
with his secretary, Maggie, and strides through the lobby, dictating memos (3.4).
Already we can draw some conclusions. Thornhill is an executive who leads a
busy life. We assume that before we saw Thornhill and Maggie, he was also dictat-
ing to her; we have come in on the middle of a string of events in time. We also
assume that the dictating began in the office, before they got on the elevator. In
other words, we infer causes, a temporal sequence, and another locale even though
none of this information has been directly presented. We’re probably not aware of
making these inferences, but insofar as we understand what we see and hear, we are
making them. The filmmaker has steered us to make them.
3.3–3.4 Depicted and inferred
story events. Shot s of hurr ying
Manhattan pedestrians in North by
Nor thwest are followed by a shot
introducing us to Roger Thornhill and
his secretary. Viewers make inferences
about the story and characters based
on the information that is presented
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76 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
So the plot guides the viewer in building up a sense of all the relevant events,
both the ones explicitly presented and those that must be inferred. In our North by
Northwest example, the story would consist of at least two depicted events and two
inferred ones. We can list them, putting the inferred events in parentheses:
(Roger Thornhill has a busy day at his office.)
Rush hour hits Manhattan.
(While dictating to his secretary, Maggie, Roger leaves the office, and they
take the elevator.)
Still dictating, Roger gets off the elevator with Maggie and they stride
through the lobby.
The total world of the story action is sometimes called the film’s diegesis (the
Greek word for “recounted story”). In the opening of North by Northwest, the
traffic, streets, skyscrapers, and people we see, as well as the traffic, streets, sky-
scrapers, and people we assume to be offscreen, are all diegetic because they are
assumed to exist in the world that the film depicts.
From the viewer’s perspective, the plot consists of the action visibly and audi-
bly present in the film before us. The plot includes, most centrally, all the story
events that are directly depicted. In our North by Northwest example, only two story
events are explicitly presented in the plot: rush hour and Roger Thornhill’s dictating
to Maggie as they leave the elevator. The plot also includes the information that
characters may supply about earlier events in the story world, as when Roger men-
tions his many marriages.
Note, though, that the filmmaker may include material that lies outside the
story world. For example, while the opening of North by Northwest is portraying
rush hour in Manhattan, we also see the film’s credits and hear orchestral music.
Neither of these elements is diegetic, since they are brought in from outside the
story world. The characters can’t read the credits or hear the music.
Credits and a film’s score are thus nondiegetic elements. Similarly, in silent
films, many of the intertitles don’t report dialogue but rather comment on the char-
acters or describe the location. These intertitles are nondiegetic. In Chapters 6 and 7,
we consider how editing and sound can function nondiegetically.
Suppose Hitchcock had superimposed the words “New York City” over the
traffic shots at the start of North by Northwest, in the way we considered adding
dates to the scrambled scenes of our hypothetical rom-com. Such titles would be
nondiegetic as well. (They aren’t part of the story world; the characters couldn’t read
them.) Today superimposed titles are the most common sorts of nondiegetic inserts,
but we can find more unusual ones. In The Band Wagon, we see the premiere of
a hopelessly pretentious musical play. Through nondiegetic images, accompanied
by a brooding chorus, the plot signals that the production bombed (3.5–3.9). The
filmmakers have added nondiegetic material to the plot for comic effect.
From the standpoint of the filmmaker, the story is the sum total of all the events
in the narrative. As the storyteller, you could present some of these events directly
(that is, display or mention them in the plot), hint at events that are not presented, and
simply ignore other events. For instance, though we learn later in North by Northwest
that Roger’s mother is still close to him, we never learn what happened to his father.
You, the filmmaker, could also add nondiegetic material, as in the example from
The Band Wagon. This is why we can say that the filmmaker makes a story into a plot.
The spectator’s task is quite different. All we have before us is the plot—the
arrangement of material in the film as it stands. We create the story in our minds,
thanks to cues in the plot. And in telling someone about the movie we’ve just seen,
we can summarize it in two ways: We can recap the story, or recap the plot.
We’ll see that the story–plot distinction affects all three aspects of narrative:
causality, time, and space. Each offers the filmmaker a huge array of choice for
guiding the viewer’s experience of the film.
Can you make a plot out of several
stories? Yes. “Pulverizing plots:
Into the woods with Sondheim,
Shklovsky, and David O. Russell”
shows how.
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Principles of Narrative Form 77
Cause and Effect
If narrative depends on changes created by cause and effect, what kinds of things
can function as causes? Most often, characters. By triggering events and reacting to
them, characters play causal roles within the film’s narrative form.
Characters as Causes Most often, characters are persons, or at least enti-
ties like persons—Bugs Bunny or E.T. the extraterrestrial or the singing teapot in
Beauty and the Beast. For our purposes here, Michael Moore is a character in Roger
and Me no less than Roger Thornhill is in North by Northwest, even though Moore
is a real person and Thornhill is fictional. In any narrative film, either fictional or
documentary, characters create causes and register effects. Within the film’s overall
form, they make things happen and respond to events. Their actions and reactions
contribute strongly to our engagement with the film.
Unlike characters in novels, film characters typically have a visible body.
This is such a basic convention that we take it for granted, but it can be contested.
Occasionally, a character is only a voice, as in A Letter to Three Wives, a film nar-
rated by the woman who has sent a letter to three of her rivals. More disturbingly,
in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, one woman is portrayed by two
actresses, and the physical differences between them may suggest different sides of
her character. Todd Haynes takes this innovation further in I’m Not There, in which
a folksinger is portrayed by actors of different ages, genders, and races.
Along with a body, a character has traits: attitudes, skills, habits, tastes, psycho-
logical drives, and any other qualities that distinguish him or her. Some characters,
such as Mickey Mouse, may have only a few traits. When we say a character possesses
several varying traits, some at odds with others, we tend to call that character complex,
or three dimensional, or well developed. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is a mass of
traits. Some stem from his habits, such as his love of music or his addiction to cocaine,
while others reflect his basic nature: his arrogance, his penetrating intelligence, his
disdain for stupidity, his professional pride, his occasional gallantry.
3.5 3.6 3.7
3.8 3.9
3.5–3.9 Nondiegetic imagery in
The Band Wagon. A hopeful investor
in the play enters the theater (3.5),
and the camera moves in on a poster
predicting success for the musical
(3.6). But three comic nondiegetic
images reveal it to be a flop: ghostly
f igures on a boat (3.7), a skull in a
desert (3.8), and an image referring to
the slang expression that the play “laid
an egg” (3.9).
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78 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
As our love of gossip shows, we’re curious about other humans, and we bring
our people-watching skills to narratives. We’re quick to assign traits to the charac-
ters onscreen, and usually the movie helps us out. Most characters wear their traits
far more openly than people do in real life, and the plot presents situations that
swiftly reveal them to us.
The opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark throws Indiana Jones’s personal-
ity into high relief. We see immediately that he’s bold and resourceful, even a little
impetuous. He’s courageous, but he can feel fear. By unearthing ancient treasures
for museums, he shows an admirable devotion to scientific knowledge. In a few
minutes, his essential traits are presented straightforwardly, and we come to know
and sympathize with him.
All the traits that Indiana Jones displays in the opening scene are relevant to
later scenes in Raiders. In general, a character is given traits that will play causal
roles in the overall story action. The second scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man
Who Knew Too Much (1934) shows that the heroine, Jill, is an excellent shot with
a rifle. For much of the film, this trait seems irrelevant to the action, but in the
last scene, Jill is able to shoot one of the villains when a police marksman cannot
manage it. Like most qualities assigned to characters, Jill’s marksmanship serves a
particular narrative function.
Not all causes and effects in narratives originate with characters. In the so-
called disaster movies, an earthquake or tidal wave may precipitate a series of
actions on the parts of the characters. The same principle holds when the shark in
Jaws terrorizes a community. Still, once these natural occurrences set the situation
up, human desires and goals usually enter the action to develop the narrative. In
Jaws, the townspeople pursue a variety of strategies to deal with the shark, pro-
pelling the plot as they do so. The primary cause of the action in Contagion is a
lethal virus spreading across the world, but the action concentrates on individual
researchers struggling to find an antidote and on ordinary citizens trying to survive.
Hiding Causes, Hiding Effects As viewers we try to connect events by
means of cause and effect. Given an incident, we tend to imagine what might have
caused it or what it might in turn cause. That is, we look for causal motivation.
We have mentioned an instance of this in Chapter 2: In the scene from My Man
Godfrey, a scavenger hunt serves as a cause that justifies the presence of a beggar
at a society ball (see p. 63).
Causal motivation often involves the planting of information in advance
of a scene, as we saw in the kitchen scene of The Shining (2.14, 2.15). In L.A.
Confidential, the idealistic detective Exley confides in his cynical colleague
Vincennes that the murder of his father had driven him to enter law enforcement.
He had privately named the unknown killer “Rollo Tomasi,” a name that he has
turned into an emblem of all unpunished evil. This conversation may seem to offer
only an insight into Exley’s personality. Yet later, when the corrupt police chief
Smith shoots Vincennes, the latter mutters “Rollo Tomasi” with his last breath.
Later, the puzzled Smith asks Exley who Rollo Tomasi is. Exley’s earlier conver-
sation with Vincennes motivates his shocked realization that the dead Vincennes
has fingered Smith as his killer. Near the end, when Smith is about to shoot Exley,
Exley says that the chief is Rollo Tomasi. Thus an apparently minor detail returns
as a major causal and thematic motif.
Most of what we have said about causality pertains to the plot’s direct presenta-
tion of causes and effects. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jill is shown to be a
good shot, and because of this, she can save her daughter. But the plot can also lead
us to infer causes and effects, and thus build up a total story.
Consider the mystery story. A murder has been committed. That is, we know
an effect but not the causes—the killer, the motive, and perhaps also the method.
The mystery tale thus depends strongly on curiosity. We want to know about things
that happened before the events that the plot presents to us. It’s the detective’s job
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Principles of Narrative Form 79
to disclose, at the end, the missing causes—to name the
killer, explain the motive, and reveal the method. That is,
in the detective film, the climax of the plot (the action we
see) is a revelation of prior incidents in the story (events
we didn’t see).
Although this pattern is most common in detective nar-
ratives, any film’s plot can withhold causes and thus arouse
our curiosity. Horror and science fiction films often leave us
temporarily in the dark about what forces lurk behind certain
events. Not until three-quarters of the way through Alien do
we learn that the science officer Ash is a robot conspiring
to protect the creature. In Caché, a married couple receives
an anonymous videotape recording their daily lives. The
film’s plot shows them trying to discover who made it and why it was made. In general,
whenever any film creates a mystery, the plot initially suppresses certain story causes
and presents only enigmatic effects.
The plot may also present causes but withhold story effects, prompting sus-
pense and uncertainty in the viewer. After Hannibal Lecter’s attack on his guards in
the Tennessee prison in The Silence of the Lambs, the police search of the building
raises the possibility that a body lying on top of an elevator is the wounded Lecter.
After an extended suspense scene, we learn that Lecter has switched clothes with
a dead guard and escaped.
When a plot withholds crucial consequences at the ending, it can ask us to pon-
der possible outcomes. In the final moments of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows,
the boy Antoine has escaped from a reformatory and runs to the seashore. The
camera zooms in on his face, and the frame freezes (3.10). The plot does not reveal
if Antoine is captured and brought back, leaving us to speculate on what might
happen in his future. As in Rome Open City (pp. 478–479), the story of 400 Blows
is, by the conventions of mainstream cinema, incomplete.
Causes and their effects are basic to narrative, but they take place in time. Our
story–plot distinction helps us to understand how filmmakers use narrative form to
manipulate time.
As we watch a film, we construct story time on the basis of what the plot pre sents.
For instance, a plot may present story events out of chronological order. In Citizen
Kane, we see a man’s death before we see his youth, and we must build up a chrono-
logical version of his life. Even if events are shown in chronological order, most plots
don’t show every detail from beginning to end. We assume that the characters spend
uneventful time sleeping, eating, traveling, and so forth, so the periods containing such
irrelevant action can be skipped over. Another possibility is to have the plot present
the same story event more than once, as when a character recalls a traumatic incident.
In John Woo’s The Killer, an accident in the opening scene blinds a singer, and later
we see the same event again and again as the protagonist regretfully thinks back to it.
In short, filmmakers must decide how the film’s plot will treat chronological
order and temporal duration and frequency. In turn, the viewer must actively pick
up the cues about these time-based factors. Each one harbors important artistic
Temporal Order: How Are Events Sequenced? Filmmakers can choose
to present events out of story order. A flashback, like the ones we proposed for our
hypothetical romantic comedy, is simply a portion of the story that the plot presents
out of chronological sequence. In Edward Scissorhands, we first see the Winona Ryder
character as an old woman telling her granddaughter a bedtime story. Most of the film
then shows events that occurred when the old lady was in high school. Likewise,
For examples of plots that keep
causes secret from the audience,
see “Side effects, safe haven: Out
of the past” and “Gone grrrl.”
3.10 Withholding story effects. The final image of The 400
Blows leaves Antoine’s future uncertain.
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80 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
The Hangover starts at a point of crisis, when the bridegroom’s buddies report that
he’s missing. The plot then flashes back to them assembling for their bachelor party.
Flashbacks usually don’t confuse us, because we mentally rearrange the events
into chronological order: teenage years precede old age, the hangover comes after a
night of partying. If story events can be thought of as 1-2-3-4, then the plot that uses
a flashback presents something like 2-1-3-4, or 3-1-2-4. The filmmaker can also
shuffle story order by employing a flashforward. This pattern moves from present
to future, then back to the present, and could be represented as 1-2-4-3. In either
case, given the plot order we figure out story order.
Even a simple reordering of scenes can create complex effects. The plot of Quentin
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction begins with a couple deciding to rob the diner they’re sitting
in. This scene actually takes place somewhat late in the story’s chronology, but the
viewer doesn’t learn this until the final scene. At that point, the robbery interrupts a
dialogue involving other, more central, characters eating in the same diner. Just by tak-
ing a scene that occurs late in the story and placing it at the start of the plot, Tarantino
creates a surprise that maintains our interest through the film’s last moments.
Tarantino was influenced by the film noir trend of the 1940s and 1950s, which
exploited time ordering in ingenious ways. D.O.A. (1949) shows how flashbacks
can shape the viewer’s expectations across a whole film. A man strides into a police
station to report a murder. “Who was murdered?” asks the officer. The man replies:
“I was.” As he starts to explain, we move into an extended flashback. The earliest
story action in the past is rather innocuous and slowly paced. Had the plot presented
the story in chronological order, viewers might have found these scenes flat. But
knowing that the protagonist is dying makes us vigilant. Every encounter he has
puts us on the alert: Is this what will kill him? Our anticipation wouldn’t have been
aroused so keenly if the story had been told in 1-2-3 order.
Temporal Duration: How Long Do the Events Take? The plot of
North by Northwest presents four crowded days and nights in the life of Roger
Thornhill. But the story stretches back far before that, indicated by the information
about the past that is revealed in the course of the plot. The story events include
Roger’s past marriages, the U.S. Intelligence Agency’s plot to create a false agent
named George Kaplan, and the villain Van Damm’s smuggling activities.
In general, a film’s plot selects only certain stretches of story duration. As
a filmmaker you might decide to concentrate on a short, relatively cohesive time
span, as North by Northwest does. Or you might let your plot unfold across many
years, highlighting significant stretches of time in that period. Citizen Kane shows
us the protagonist in his youth, skips over some time to show him as a young man,
skips over more time to show him middle-aged, and so forth. The sum of all these
slices of story duration yields an overall plot duration.
But we need one more distinction. Watching a movie takes time—20 minutes
or two hours or seven-plus hours (as Béla Tarr’s Satan’s Tango does). So there’s a
third duration involved in a narrative film, which we can call screen duration.
The relationships among story duration, plot duration, and screen duration are
complicated, but for our purposes, we can say this. The filmmaker can manipulate
screen duration independently of the overall story duration and plot duration. For
example, North by Northwest has an overall story duration of several years (includ-
ing all relevant story events), an overall plot duration of four days and nights, and
a screen duration of about 136 minutes.
Just as plot duration selects from story duration, so screen duration selects
from overall plot duration. In North by Northwest, only portions of the plot’s four
days and nights are shown to us. An interesting counterexample is Twelve Angry
Men, the story of a jury deliberating a murder case. The 95 minutes of the movie
approximate the same stretch of time in its characters’ lives.
At a more specific level, the filmmaker can use screen duration to override
story time. For example, screen duration can expand story duration. A famous
Mark Romanek learned the
D.O.A. lesson in directing One
Hour Photo. “Creating suspense
through film form” discusses how,
after preview screenings fizzled,
Romanek rearranged his plot to
start late in the story action and to
flash back to the beginning. “Now
the audience is paying closer
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Principles of Narrative Form 81
instance is that of the raising of the bridges in Sergei Eisenstein’s October. Here an
event that takes only a few moments in the story is stretched out to several minutes
of screen time by means of the technique of film editing. As a result, this action
gains a tremendous emphasis. The plot can also use screen duration to compress
story time. A process taking hours or days is often condensed into a few swift shots.
These examples suggest that film techniques play a central role in creating screen
duration, and we’ll see how in Chapters 5 and 6.
Temporal Frequency: How Often Do We See or Hear an Event?
Most commonly, a story event is presented only once in the plot. Occasionally,
however, a single story event may appear twice or even more in the plot treat-
ment. If we see an event early in a film’s plot, and then, later in the plot, there is
a flashback to that event, we see that same event twice. Some films use multiple
narrators, each of whom describes the same event; again, we see it take place
several times. This increased frequency may allow us to see the same action in
several ways. Repetition can take place simply on the soundtrack. Sometimes only
a single line of dialogue will reappear, haunting a character who can’t escape the
memory of that moment.
Why would a filmmaker want to repeat a story event in the plot? Sometimes it’s
to remind the audience of something. Or the repetition reveals new information. This
occurs in For a Few Dollars More, in which the repeated scene gets expanded more
fully each time that characters recall it. In Amores Perros, a traffic accident is shown
three times, and each iteration reveals how a different person is affected by the crash.
The manipulations of story order, duration, and frequency in the plot illustrate
how viewers actively participate in making sense of the narrative film. The film-
maker designs the plot to prompt us about chronological sequence, the time span of
the actions, and the number of times an event occurs. It’s up to the viewer to make
assumptions and inferences and to form expectations. Fortunately, we can usually put
things together by appealing to our ordinary sense of time and cause and effect. A
flashback, for instance, is often motivated as a character’s memory. Other cues, such
as clothing, age, settings, and the like can help us sort out a film’s story time.
Still, some filmmakers have offered quite complicated time schemes. In The
Usual Suspects, a petty criminal spins an elaborate tale of his gang’s activities to
an FBI agent. His recounting unfolds in many flashbacks, some of which repeat
events we witnessed in the opening scene. Yet a final twist reveals that some of the
flashbacks must have contained lies, and we must piece together both the chronol-
ogy of events and the story’s real cause-effect chain. Christopher Nolan’s Inception
creates several stories-within-stories, all unfolding simultaneously in dream-time,
but the plot makes each one take place at a different rate. One second in one dream
might last many minutes in another, so that we have several scales of plot duration.
Through magic, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban permits action we’ve
already seen to run again, with different results (3.11).
A repeated scene is used to
convey fuller story information
at the climax of Mildred Pierce.
To accomplish this, however, the
film plays a further trick with story
time. See our “Twice told tales:
Mildred Pierce.” Repetition may
mislead us in other ways, as we try
to show in “Memories are unmade
by this.”
The multiple points of
view replaced the linear story.
Watching a repeated action or an
intersection happen again and
again . . . they hold the audience
in the story. It’s like watching a
puzzle unfold.”
—Gus van Sant, director, on Elephant
3 .1 1 Creating complex time
schemes. In Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his
friend Hermione use a magical device
to go back in time. Here they watch
themselves playing out the action from
a scene we had witnessed earlier in
the film.
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Playing Games with Story Time
For both filmmakers and viewers, reconstructing story
time on the basis of the plot might be seen as a sort
of game. Most Hollywood films make this game fairly
simple. Still, just as we enjoy learning the rules of new
games, in unusual films, we can enjoy the challenge of
unpredictable orderings of story events.
Pulp Fiction (1994) popularized “broken timelines” for a
new generation of filmmakers and moviegoers. The film’s
plot begins and ends with stages of a restaurant holdup,
seemingly a conventional frame situation in the present. Yet
in fact the final event in the story, the flight of the Bruce Willis
character and his girlfriend from Los Angeles, is not the final
scene in the plot. The reordering of events is startling and
confusing at first, but it becomes dramatically effective in
forcing us to rethink scenes we have seen earlier.
The success of Pulp Fiction encouraged American film-
makers to play more freely with story time. Go (1999) pres-
ents the events of a single night three times, each time from
a different character’s point of view. We cannot figure out
what happened until the end, since various events are with-
held from the first version and shown in the second or third.
Ten years later, audiences had become quite familiar with
such “replay” plots. Vantage Point repeats an assassination
and bombing, with each version clarifying a bit more of what
actually happened in the story.
Replay plots can tease the viewer into fitting everything
together. Out of Sight begins with an inept bank robber
who falls in love with the FBI agent who pursues him. As
their oddball romance proceeds, there is a string of flash-
backs not motivated by any character’s memory. These
seem to involve a separate story line, and their purpose
is puzzling until the film’s second half. Then the last flash-
back, perhaps a character’s recollection, loops back to
the action that had begun the film and explains the main
events. As often happens, the filmmaker uses cause-effect
cues to help the viewer straighten out the broken timeline.
If replay films work to tease us with what happened
in the past, filmmakers can use science fiction or fantasy
premises to present alternative futures. These are some-
times called “what if?” narratives. Such films typically pres-
ent a situation, then show how the story might proceed
along different cause-effect chains if one factor is changed.
Sliding Doors shows the heroine, Helen, fired from her
job and heading home to her apartment, where her boy-
friend is in bed with another woman. We see Helen enter-
ing the subway and catching her train, but then the action
runs backward and she arrives on the platform again,
this time bumping into a child on the stairs and missing
the train. The rest of the film’s plot moves between two
alternative futures for Helen. By catching the train, Helen
arrives in time to discover her boyfriend’s affair and
moves out. By missing the train, Helen arrives after the
other woman has left and stays with her faithless lover.
The plot shifts back and forth between these alternative
cause-effect chains before dovetailing them at the end.
Groundhog Day (1993) helped popularize what-if
plots. On February 1, an obnoxious weatherman, Phil
Connor, travels to Punxsutawney to cover the famous
Groundhog Day ceremonies. He then finds himself
trapped in February 2, which repeats over and over. The
variants depend on how Phil acts—some days behaving
frivolously, some days breaking laws (3.12, 3.13), and
later trying to improve himself. Only after many such days
does he become an admirable character, and the repeti-
tions mysteriously stop.
Neither Sliding Doors nor Groundhog Day provides
any explanation for the forking of its protagonist’s life into
various paths. We simply must assume that some higher
power has intervened to improve the character’s situation.
Other films motivate the alternative futures by a piece of
technology. The three Back to the Future films (1985, 1989,
3.12–3.13 “What if?” narrative—replaying the same day.
During one repetition of February 2 in Groundhog Day, Phil tests
whether he can commit crimes. He’s tossed in jail in the evening
(3.12), only to wake up, as on other Groundhog Days, back at the
bed-and-breakfast inn (3.13).
82 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
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1990) posit that Marty’s friend Doc has invented a time-
travel machine, and this gadget permits complicated criss-
crossings of cause and effect. In the first film, the machine
accidentally transports Marty back to 1955. By accidentally
thwarting his parents’ romance, Marty endangers his own
existence in 1985. Eventually, Marty induces his parents
to fall in love and returns safely to 1985, where his life has
been improved as a result of his first time trip.
But in the second Back to the Future installment, events
in Marty’s life in 2015 have effects in 1955. The villain Biff
uses the time machine to travel back and change what
happened then. In the process he wreaks harm on Doc
and Marty’s family. Marty must again travel back to 1955 to
stop Biff from changing events. At the end of Part II, Marty
becomes trapped in 1955, while Doc is accidentally sent
back to 1885. Marty joins him there in Part III for another
set of threatened changes to the future. Although the films
maintain a unified cause-effect chain, the story becomes
so convoluted that at one point Doc diagrams events for
Marty (and us) on a blackboard. Variations on Doc’s time-
machine device for creating alternative futures can be
found in Déjà vu, Source Code, and Project Almanac.
The game of what-if emerged outside the United
States as well. In Run Lola Run, the heroine’s desperate
attempts to replace a large sum
that her inept boyfriend owes to
drug dealers are shown as three
alternative stories. Each one ends
very differently because of small
changes of action on Lola’s part.
Although what-if premises
make it more difficult for us to
piece story events together, film-
makers usually give us enough
clues along the way to keep us
from frustration. Usually, the film
does not provide a huge num-
ber of alternative futures—per-
haps only two or three. Within
these futures, the cause-effect
chain remains linear, so we can
piece it together. Characters
sometimes point out the events
that have changed their lives, as
with Doc’s blackboard explana-
tion in Back to the Future II. In
Sliding Doors, Helen remarks:
“If only I had just caught that
bloody train, it’d never have hap-
pened.” The characters and set-
tings tend to remain quite con-
sistent for all the alternative story
lines—though often differences
of appearance are introduced
to help us keep track of events
(3.14, 3.15).
Moreover, the individual story lines tend to parallel
one another. In all three presentations of events in Run
Lola Run, the goal of getting money is the same, even
though the progression and outcomes are different. The
final version of events tends to give us the impression
of being the definitive one, and so what-if films usually
achieve a sense of closure.
Replay and what-if films appeal to the way we think in
ordinary life. Our minds sometimes revisit certain events,
and we speculate about how our lives would have
changed if a single moment had been different. We eas-
ily understand the sort of game that these films proffer,
and we’re willing to play it.
3.14–3.15 Cues for alternative futures in Sliding Doors. In one story line Helen gets
her hair cut short (3.14). This helps distinguish her from the Helen of the other story line,
who keeps her hair long (3.15). Before the haircut, a forehead bandage was a crucial cue.
We examine what-if narratives in “Forking tracks: Source
Code” and “What-if movies: Forking paths in the drawing
room.” Inception presents a complex plot involving dreams
within dreams. We look at its exposition, motivation, and
embedded plotlines in “Inception: Dream a little dream with-
in a dream with me” and a follow-up, “Revisiting Inception.”
Principles of Narrative Form 83
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In film narrative, space is usually an important factor. Events occur in particu-
lar locales, such as Kansas or Oz; the Flint, Michigan, of Roger and Me; or the
Manhattan of North by Northwest. We’ll consider setting in more detail when we
examine mise-en-scene in Chapter 4, but we ought briefly to note how plot and
story can manipulate space.
Normally, the locale of the story action is also that of the plot, but sometimes
the plot leads us to imagine story spaces that are never shown. In Otto Preminger’s
Exodus, one scene is devoted to Dov Landau’s interrogation by a terrorist organiza-
tion he wants to join. Dov reluctantly tells his questioners of his duties in a Nazi
concentration camp (3.16). Although the film never shows this locale through a
flashback, much of the scene’s emotional power depends on our using our imagina-
tion to fill in Dov’s sketchy description of how he survived.
Further, we can introduce an idea akin to the concept of screen duration.
Besides story space and plot space, cinema employs screen space: the visible space
within the frame. Just as screen duration selects certain plot spans for presentation,
so screen space selects portions of plot space. We’ll consider screen space and
offscreen space when we analyze framing in Chapter 5.
A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
More and more, however, puzzle films have denied
us this degree of unity and clarity. Here filmmakers
create perplexing patterns of story time or causality,
trusting that viewers will search for clues by rewatch-
ing the movie. An example is Memento, which presents
the hero’s investigation along two time tracks. Brief
black-and-white scenes show an ongoing present, with
story action moving forward chronologically. The more
extensive scenes, which are in color, move backward
through time, so the first plot event we see is the final
story event, the second plot event is the next-to-last
story event, and so on. This tactic reflects the hero’s loss
of short-term memory, but it also challenges viewers to
piece everything together. At the same time, there are
enough uncertainties about the hero’s memories to lead
viewers to speculate that some mysteries remain unre-
solved at the close.
The DVD format, which allows random access to
scenes, encouraged filmmakers along this path. So did
the Internet. Websites still buzz with speculations about
what really happened in Donnie Darko, Identity, Primer,
The Butterfly Effect, and Inception. Like other films that
twist or break up story time, puzzle movies seek to
engross us in the dynamic game of narrative form.
3.16 Imagining offscreen locales. In Exodus, Dov Landau recounts his traumatic stay in a
concentration camp. Instead of presenting this through a flashback, the narration dwells on his
face, leaving us to visualize his ordeal.
84 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
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Principles of Narrative Form 85
Openings, Closings, and Patterns of Development
Our early experiment in romantic-comedy plotting began with beginnings and end-
ings: How will you start your film? How will you conclude it? This echoed our
discussion of formal development in Chapter 2, where we suggested that it’s often
useful to compare beginnings and endings. A narrative usually presents a series of
changes from an initial situation to a final situation, and by considering how that
pattern works, we can better understand the film.
Openings A film does not just start, it begins. The opening provides a basis for
what is to come and initiates us into the narrative. It raises our expectations by set-
ting up a specific range of possible causes for what we see. Indeed, the first quarter
or so of a film’s plot is sometimes referred to as the setup.
Very often, the film begins by telling us about the characters and their situ-
ations before any major actions occur. Alternatively, the plot may seek to arouse
curiosity by bringing us into a series of actions that has already started. (This is
called opening in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.”)
The viewer speculates on possible causes of the events presented. Close Encounters
of the Third Kind begins with investigators arriving in the desert to study World War
II airplanes. An in medias res opening grabs our interest, but as Robert Towne notes
(p. 51), sooner or later the filmmaker has to explain what led up to these events.
In either case, some of the actions that took place before the plot started—often
called the backstory—will be stated or suggested so that we can understand what’s
coming later. The portion of the plot that lays out the backstory and the initial situa-
tion is called the exposition. Usually exposition takes place early in the film, but the
filmmaker may postpone chunks of exposition for the sake of suspense and more
immediate impact. James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd did this in their screenplay
for The Terminator. For nearly 40 minutes the plot provides chases, gunplay, and
glimpses of a war-torn future before the fighter Reese explains what has caused the
plight that he and Sarah Connor are in.
Development Sections As a film’s plot proceeds, the causes and effects cre-
ate patterns of development. Some patterns are quite common. Change is essential
to narrative, and a common pattern traces a change in knowledge. Very often, a
character learns something in the course of the action, with the most crucial knowl-
edge coming at the final turning point of the plot. In Witness, John Book, hiding out
on an Amish farm, learns that his partner has been killed and his boss has betrayed
him. His rage leads to a climactic shoot-out.
Another common pattern of development is the goal-oriented plot, in which
a character takes steps to achieve an object or condition. Plots based on searches
would be instances of the goal plot. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the protagonists try
to find the Ark of the Covenant; in North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill looks for
George Kaplan. The goal-oriented plot pattern often takes the shape of investiga-
tion, itself a kind of search. Here the protagonist’s goal is not an object, but infor-
mation, usually about mysterious causes.
Time may also provide plot patterns. A framing situation in the present may initi-
ate a series of flashbacks showing how events led up to the present situation, as in The
Usual Suspects’ flashbacks. Hoop Dreams is organized around the two main characters’
high school careers, with each part of the film devoted to a year of their lives. The plot
may also create a specific duration for the action—a deadline. In Back to the Future, the
hero must synchronize his time machine with a bolt of lightning at a specific moment
in order to return to 1985. This creates a goal toward which he must struggle. Space
can structure plot development, too. The filmmaker might confine the action to a single
locale, such as a home (as in the Paranormal Activity films). In Lebanon, the action is
restricted to the inside of a military tank, and the plot develops as the tank moves to
different locations. Similarly, in Locke, after a brief introduction the plot attaches us to
Sometimes a film’s opening will
signal that we are not going to
get much exposition. See “How to
watch an art movie, reel 1.”
No exposition except under
heat, and break it up at that.”
—Raymond Chandler, novelist and
screenwriter for Double Indemnity
Some filmmakers develop their
plot in large blocks—more or
less self-contained episodes
or “chapters.” We discuss this
strategy in “The 1940s are over,
and Tarantino’s still playing with
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86 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
the protagonist during his long car drive; the drama arises
from several phone calls he conducts on the trip.
A filmmaker can combine any of these plot patterns.
Many films built around a journey, such as The Wizard of
Oz or North by Northwest, also involve deadlines. Jacques
Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday uses both spatial and temporal
patterns to structure its comic plot. The plot confines
itself to a beachside resort and its neighboring areas, and
it consumes one week of a summer vacation. Each day
certain routines recur: morning exercise, lunch, afternoon
outings, dinner, evening entertainment. Much of the
film’s humor relies on the way that Mr. Hulot disrupts the
routines of the guests and townspeople (3.17). Although
cause and effect still operate in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, time
and space are central to the plot’s formal patterning.
Any pattern of development will encourage the viewer
to create specific expectations. As the film trains the
viewer in its particular form, these expectations become
more and more precise. Dorothy’s trip through Oz isn’t a
casual sightseeing tour. Once we understand her desire to
go home, each step of her journey (to the Emerald City, to the Witch’s castle, to the
Emerald City again) is seen as delaying or furthering her goal.
In any film, the middle portion may delay an expected outcome. When Dorothy
at last reaches the Wizard, he sets up a new obstacle for her by demanding the Witch’s
broom. North by Northwest’s journey plot constantly postpones Roger Thornhill’s
discovery of the Kaplan hoax, and this, too, creates suspense. The pattern of devel-
opment may also create surprise, the cheating of an expectation, as when Dorothy
discovers that the Wizard is a fraud or when Thornhill sees the minion Leonard fire
point-blank at his boss Van Damm. Patterns of development encourage the spectator
to form long-term expectations that can be delayed, cheated, or gratified.
Climaxes and Closings A film doesn’t simply stop; it ends. The plot will typi-
cally resolve its causal issues by bringing the development to a high point, or climax.
In the climax, the action is presented as having a narrow range of possible out-
comes. At the climax of North by Northwest, Roger and Eve are dangling off Mount
Rushmore, and there are only two possibilities: they will fall, or they will be saved.
Because the climax focuses possible outcomes so narrowly, it typically serves to
settle the causal issues that have run through the film. In the documentary Primary, the
climax takes place on election night; both Kennedy and Humphrey await the voters’ ver-
dict and finally learn the winner. In Jaws, battles with the shark climax in the destruction
of the boat, the death of Captain Quint, the apparent death of Hooper, and Brody’s final
victory. In such films, the ending resolves, or closes off, the chains of cause and effect.
Emotionally, the climax aims to lift the viewer to a high degree of tension.
Because the viewer knows that there are relatively few ways the action can be
resolved, she or he can hope for a fairly specific outcome. When Brody slays the
shark and discovers that Hooper has survived, their relief echoes ours. In the climax
of many films, formal resolution coincides with an emotional satisfaction.
A few narratives, however, are deliberately anticlimactic. After creating expec-
tations about how the cause-effect chain will be resolved, the film scotches them
by refusing to settle things definitely. One famous example is the last shot of The
400 Blows (p. 79). In Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), the two
lovers vow to meet for a final reconciliation but aren’t shown doing so. When the
filmmaker has chosen to let the ending remain open, the plot leaves us uncertain
about the final consequences of the story events. The absence of a clear-cut climax
and resolution may encourage us to imagine what might happen next or to reflect
on other ways in which our expectations might have been fulfilled.
How do we learn to recognize
that an ending is coming? Starting
from an anecdote about a three-
year-old watching Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs, we speculate
on this subject in “Molly wanted
A film is constantly giving us story
information. How much do we
remember, scene by scene? Some
filmmakers exploit our difficulties
in remembering what happened
earlier, as we show in “Memories
are unmade by this.”
3.17 Time and space in plot patterning. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,
Hulot’s aged, noisy car has a flat tire that breaks up a funeral—
consistent with a comic pattern in which the vacationing Mr. Hulot
repeatedly disturbs townspeople and other guests.
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Narration: The Flow of Story Information 87
Narration: The Flow of Story Information
In looking at how a filmmaker tells a story, we’ve emphasized matters of plot struc-
ture: how the parts, from beginning to end, are fitted together to shape the viewer’s
experience. Filmic storytelling involves decisions about another sort of plot orga-
nization. Back when we were sketching alternatives for a romantic comedy (p. 74),
we also faced the question of whether to build the scenes around one member of the
couple, both members, or the couple and other characters around them. We could
tell the same story from different characters’ perspectives. The story of Little Red
Riding Hood will be very different depending on whether we attach ourselves to
the girl or to the wolf.
This means deciding what information to give the spectator, and when to
supply it. Thinking like a filmmaker, should you restrict the viewer just to what
the character knows? Or should you give the viewer more information than the
character has? In a stalking scene, should you show just the person being pur-
sued, watching and listening for a threat we never see? Or should you show both
the victim shrinking away and the stalker in pursuit? There is no right or wrong
answer. The choice depends on the effect you want to achieve. What is clear is
that a filmmaker can’t avoid choosing how much information to reveal and when
to reveal it.
Similarly, you might ask how objective or subjective your scene should be.
Should you show only how characters behave, without any attempt to get inside
their heads? Or should you add voice-over monologues that expose what they’re
thinking, or point-of-view shots that show what they can see? Should you try to
dramatize their dreams, fantasies, or hallucinations? Again, it’s a forced choice, and
again you can imagine presenting the same story in a plot that is deeply subjective
or one that is more objective.
These decisions involve narration, the plot’s way of distributing story informa-
tion in order to achieve specific effects. Narration is the moment-by-moment pro-
cess that guides viewers in building the story out of the plot. Many factors enter into
narration, but the most important ones for our purposes involve the factors we’ve
just sketched out: the range and the depth of story information that the plot presents.
Range of Story Information:
Restricted or Unrestricted?
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation begins by recounting how slaves were
brought to America and how people debated the need to free them. The plot then
shows two families, the northern Stoneman family and the southern Camerons. The
plot also dwells on political matters, including Lincoln’s hope of averting civil war.
From the start, then, our range of knowledge is very broad. The plot takes us across
historical periods, regions of the country, and various groups of characters. This
breadth of story information continues throughout the film. When Ben Cameron
founds the Ku Klux Klan, we know about it at the moment the idea strikes him,
long before the other characters learn of it. At the climax, we know that the Klan
is riding to rescue several characters besieged in a cabin, but the besieged people
do not know this.
On the whole, in The Birth of a Nation, the narration is unrestricted. We know
more, we see and hear more, than any of the characters can. Such extremely knowl-
edgeable narration is often called omniscient (“all-knowing”) narration.
Now consider the plot of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep. The film begins
with the detective Philip Marlowe visiting General Sternwood, who wants to hire
him. We learn about the case as Marlowe does. Throughout the rest of the film,
he is present in every scene. With hardly any exceptions, we don’t see or hear
anything that he can’t see and hear. The narration is restricted to what Marlowe
We examine the idea of restrict-
ing the narration to what one
character knows in “Alignment,
allegiance, and murder.”
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88 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
Each alternative offers certain advantages. The Birth of a Nation seeks to pres-
ent a panoramic vision of a period in American history (based on a racist ideology).
Omniscient narration is thus essential to creating the sense of many destinies
intertwined with the fate of the country. Had Griffith restricted narration the way
The Big Sleep does, we would have learned story information solely through one
character—say, Ben Cameron. We could not witness the prologue scene, or the
scenes in Lincoln’s office, or most of the battle episodes, or the scene of Lincoln’s
assassination, since Ben is present at none of these events. The plot would now
concentrate on one man’s experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Similarly, The Big Sleep benefits from its restricted narration. By limiting
us to Marlowe’s range of knowledge, the film can create curiosity and surprise.
Restricted narration is important to mystery films, since such films engage our
interest by hiding important causes. Confining the plot to an investigator’s range
of knowledge plausibly motivates concealing important story information. The
Big Sleep could have been less restricted if the screenwriter had alternated scenes
of Marlowe’s investigation with scenes that show the gambling boss, Eddie Mars,
planning his crimes. But this would have given away some of the mystery. In both
The Birth of a Nation and The Big Sleep, the narration’s range of knowledge func-
tions to elicit particular reactions from the viewer.
Range of Knowledge: A Matter of Degree Unrestricted narration and
restricted narration aren’t watertight categories but rather two ends of a continuum.
A filmmaker may choose to present a broader range of knowledge than does The
Big Sleep and still not attain the omniscience of The Birth of a Nation.
Early scenes of North by Northwest, for instance, confine us pretty much to
what Roger Thornhill sees and knows. After he flees from the United Nations
building, however, the plot takes us to Washington, where the members of the
U.S. Intelligence Agency discuss the situation. Here the viewer learns something
that Roger won’t learn for some time: the man he seeks, George Kaplan, doesn’t
exist. From then on, we have a greater range of knowledge than Roger does. And
we know a bit more than the Agency’s staff: we know exactly how the mix-up
took place. But we still don’t know many other things that the narration could have
divulged in the scene in Washington. For instance, the Agency’s staff members
don’t identify the secret agent they have working under Van Damm’s nose.
This oscillation between restricted and unrestricted narration is common in
films. Typically the plot shifts from character to character, giving us a little more
than any one character knows while still withholding some crucial items from us.
Even if the plot is focused on a single protagonist, the narration usually includes a
few scenes that the character isn’t present to witness. Tootsie’s narration remains
almost entirely attached to actor Michael Dorsey, but a few shots show his acquain-
tances shopping or watching him on television.
Lebanon, set during the June 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war, comes very close to purely
restricted narration. Apart from the beginning and ending, the entire film is set inside
a tank, where we are limited to what the four team members know. Usually films with
such strong attachments to characters cheat a little by cutting to action taking place out-
side. Here there is no violation of the setting (3.18, 3.19). Necessary information from
outside comes via radio communications. Director Samuel Maoz has said that his goal
was to make audience members experience young soldiers’ sense of the horror of war
and their oppressive confinement. “You see only what they see. You know only what
they know.” Yet there are still moments when one soldier’s reactions aren’t noticed by
the others, so we gain a slightly wider range of knowledge than any one character has.
Analyzing Range of Narration An easy way to analyze the range of narration
is to ask, “Who knows what when?” This question applies to the characters and the
spectator as well. At any given moment, we can ask if we the audience knows more
than, less than, or as much as the characters do. Sometimes we may get information
that no character possesses. We shall see this happen at the end of Citizen Kane.
In the first section [of Reservoir
Dogs], up until Mr. Orange shoots
Mr. Blonde, the characters have
far more information about what’s
going on than you have—and they
have conflicting information. Then
the Mr. Orange sequence happens
and that’s a great leveler. You start
getting caught up with exactly
what’s going on, and in the third
part, when you go back into the
warehouse for the climax you are
totally ahead of everybody—you
know far more than any one of the
—Quentin Tarantino, director
Cloverfield uses an unusually
restricted narration, confining itself
to a video recording shot by the
main characters. See our analy-
sis, “A behemoth from the Dead
Zone.” As if corresponding to
Cloverfield, the teenage superhero
movie Chronicle found ingenious
ways to expand the video record-
ing as the plot develops. We dis-
cuss this problem of motivation in
“Return to paranormalcy.”
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Narration: The Flow of Story Information 89
Filmmakers can achieve powerful effects by manipulating the range of story
information. Restricted narration tends to create greater curiosity and surprise for
the viewer. For instance, if a character is exploring a sinister house, and we see and
hear no more than the character does, a sudden revelation of a hand thrusting out
from a doorway will startle us.
In contrast, as Hitchcock pointed out, a dose of unrestricted narration helps to
build suspense. He explained it this way to François Truffaut:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb
underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden,
“Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it
has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a
suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, prob-
ably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the
bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public
can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation
becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is
Narrative tension is primarily
about withholding information.”
—Ian McEwan, novelist
3.18–3.19 Severely restricted range of knowledge. In Lebanon, we see the world
outside a tank as the characters do, through a gunner’s crosshairs (3.18) or when the hatch is
briefly opened (3.19).
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90 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such
trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment
of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of sus-
pense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.
Hitchcock put his theory into practice. In Psycho, Lila Crane explores the Bates
mansion in much the same way as our hypothetical character was doing. There are
isolated moments of surprise as she discovers odd information about Norman and
his mother. But the overall effect of the sequence is built on suspense because we
know, as Lila does not, that Mrs. Bates is in the house. (Actually, as in North by
Northwest, our knowledge isn’t completely accurate, but during Lila’s investigation,
we believe it to be.) As in Hitchcock’s anecdote, our greater range of knowledge
creates suspense because we can anticipate events that the character cannot. Once
more, the filmmaker guides the viewer’s expectations.
Depth of Story Information: Objective or Subjective?
A film’s narration manipulates not only the range of knowledge but also the depth
of our knowledge. The filmmaker must decide how far to plunge into a character’s
psychological states. As with restricted and unrestricted narration, there is a spec-
trum between objectivity and subjectivity.
A plot might confine us wholly to information about what characters say and
do. Here the narration is relatively objective. Or a film’s plot may give us access to
what characters see and hear. The filmmaker might give us shots taken from a char-
acter’s optical standpoint, the point-of-view (POV) shot. For instance, in North
by Northwest, point-of-view editing is used as we see Roger Thornhill crawl up to
Van Damm’s window (3.20–3.22). Or we might hear sounds as the character would
In a series of entries starting with
“Hitchcock, Lessing, & the bomb
under the table,” we consider
where Hitchcock may have gotten
his ideas on suspense and surprise.
3.20 3.21
3.20–3.22 Perceptual subjectivity in North by Northwest.
Roger Thornhill looks in Van Damm’s window (objective
narration; 3.20), and an optical POV shot follows (perceptual
subjectivity; 3.21). This is followed by another shot of Roger
looking (objectivity again; 3.22).
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Narration: The Flow of Story Information 91
hear them, what sound recordists call sound perspective. In short, through either
sight or sound, the filmmaker gives us what we might call perceptual subjectivity.
The filmmaker can go deeper, beyond the character’s senses and into her or
his mind. We can call this mental subjectivity. We might hear an internal voice
reporting the character’s thoughts, or we might see the character’s inner images,
representing memory, fantasy, dreams, or hallucinations. In Slumdog Millionaire,
the hero is a contestant on a quiz show, but his concentration is often interrupted
by brief shots showing his memories, particularly one image of the woman he loves
(3.23, 3.24). Here Jamal’s memory motivates flashbacks to earlier story events.
Either sort of subjectivity may be signaled through particular film techniques.
If a character is drunk, or drugged, the filmmakers may render those perceptual
states through slow motion, blurred imagery, or distorted sound. Similar techniques
may suggest a dream or hallucination.
But some imaginary actions may not be so strongly marked. Another scene in
Slumdog Millionaire shows Jamal reuniting with his gangster brother Salim atop
a skyscraper under construction. Jamal hurls himself at Salim, and we see shots of
both falling from the building (3.25, 3.26). But the next shot presents Jamal still on
the skyscraper, glaring at Salim (3.27). Now we realize that the images of the falling
3.23 3.24
3.25 3.26
3.23–3.24 Memories motivate flashbacks. Early in Slumdog Millionaire, it’s established that during the quiz show (3.23) Jamal
recalls his past—most often, his glimpse of Latika at the train station (3.24).
3.25–3.27 Suppressed cues for subjectivity in Slumdog
Millionaire. Furious with Salim, Jamal grabs him and rushes
toward the edge of the building (3.25). Several shots present
their fall (3.26), but then the narration cuts back to Jamal, glaring
at Salim (3.27). This shot reveals that he only imagined killing both
of them.
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92 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
men were purely mental, representing Jamal’s rage. Because the shots weren’t
marked as subjective, we briefly thought that their fall was really taking place.
Typically, moments of perceptual and mental subjectivity come in bursts. They
tend to be embedded in a framework of objective narration. POV shots, like those
assigned to Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, and flashbacks or fantasies are
bracketed by more objective shots. We are able to understand Jamal’s memory of
Latika and his urge to kill Salim because those images are framed by shots of actions
that are really happening in the plot. Other sorts of films, however, may avoid this
convention. Fellini’s 8½, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Peter Haneke’s Caché, and
Memento mix objectivity and subjectivity in ambiguous ways. Inception doesn’t
signal its dreams with the usual special effects, so that often we’re not sure whether
we’re in reality or a dream (or a dream nested inside another dream).
If a filmmaker restricts our knowledge to a single character, does that restriction
create greater subjective depth? Not necessarily. The Big Sleep is quite restricted in
its range of knowledge, as we’ve seen. But we very seldom see or hear things from
Marlowe’s perceptual vantage point, and we never get direct access to his mind.
The Big Sleep uses almost completely objective narration. The omniscient narra-
tion of The Birth of a Nation, however, plunges to considerable psychological depth
with optical POV shots, flashbacks, and the hero’s final fantasy vision of a world
without war. To maximize suspense, Hitchcock’s films may give us slightly greater
knowledge than his characters have. But at certain moments, he confines us to their
perceptual subjectivity (usually relying on POV shots). For the filmmaker, range
and depth of knowledge are independent variables. These examples show that for
the filmmaker, choices about the range of knowledge can be made independently
of choices about depth of knowledge.
Incidentally, this is one reason why the term “point of view” is ambiguous. It
can refer to range of knowledge (as when a critic speaks of an “omniscient point of
view”) or to depth (as when speaking of “subjective point of view”). In the rest of
this book, we’ll use “point of view” only to refer to perceptual subjectivity, as in
the phrase “optical point-of-view shot,” or POV shot.
Why would a filmmaker manipulate depth of knowledge? Plunging into mental
subjectivity can increase our sympathy for a character and can cue stable expecta-
tions about what the characters will later say or do. The memory sequences in Alain
Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and the fantasy sequences in Federico Fellini’s
8½ yield information about the protagonists’ traits and possible future actions that
would be less vivid if presented objectively. A subjectively motivated flashback can
create parallels among characters, as does the flashback shared by mother and son
in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (3.28–3.31). A plot can create curiosity
about a character’s motives and then use some degree of subjectivity—for example,
inner commentary or subjective flashback—to explain what caused the behavior.
In The Sixth Sense, the child psychologist’s odd estrangement from his wife begins
to make sense when we hear his inner recollection of something his young patient
had told him much earlier.
On the other hand, objectivity can be an effective way of withholding infor-
mation. One reason that The Big Sleep does not treat Marlowe subjectively is that
the detective genre demands that the investigator’s reasoning be concealed from
the viewer. The mystery is more mysterious if we do not know the investigator’s
hunches and conclusions before he reveals them at the end.
A film need not be in the mystery genre to exploit objective and restricted nar-
ration. Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night follows a young woman who has been
recruited as a suicide bomber. We see her accepted into the group, awaiting orders,
and eventually embarking on the mission. One scene utilizes optical point of view
extensively, while another does so briefly. There are a few moments of auditory
subjectivity, when the noises of street traffic drop out. Yet these flashes of subjec-
tive depth stand out against an overwhelmingly objective presentation. For nearly
the entire film, we have to assess the woman’s state of mind purely through her
For more on the distinction
between perceptual and mental
subjectivity in narration see
“Categorical coherence: A closer
look at character subjectivity.”
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Narration: The Flow of Story Information 93
physical behavior. Moreover, our information about the story action is very limited.
We are never told what political group has recruited her or why she has volunteered
for the task. The woman herself does not know the plan, the members of the ter-
rorist group, or the reasons she was picked. In fact, we know less than she does,
because we get only hints about her past life. The impersonal, tightly restricted nar-
ration of Day Night Day Night not only creates suspense about her mission but also
encourages curiosity about a rather large number of story events. These responses
make judging her decisions difficult, and they lead us to reflect on why someone
would volunteer for a suicide mission.
At any moment in a film, we can ask, “How deeply do I know the characters’
perceptions, feelings, and thoughts?” The answer will point directly to how the
filmmaker has chosen to present or withhold story information. We can then ask
about what effects the narration has on us, the viewers.
The Narrator
Narration, then, is the process by which the plot presents story information to the
spectator. The filmmaker may shift between restricted and unrestricted ranges of
knowledge and varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. The filmmaker
may also use a narrator, some specific agent who purports to be telling us the
The narrator may be a character in the story. We are familiar with this conven-
tion from literature, as when Huck Finn or Jane Eyre recounts a novel’s action. In
D.O.A., the dying man tells his story in flashbacks, addressing the information to
inquiring policemen. In the documentary Roger and Me, Michael Moore frankly
acknowledges his role as a character narrator. He starts the film with his reminis-
cences of growing up in Flint, Michigan, and he appears on camera in interviews
with workers and in confrontations with General Motors security staff. Even an
unseen character can serve as a narrator, as an unborn child does in Julie Dash’s
Daughters of the Dust.
3.28 3.29 3.30
3.28–3.31 Characters sharing memories. One of the early flashbacks in Sansho the
Bailiff starts with the mother, now living in exile with her children, kneeling by a stream
(3.28). Her image is replaced by a shot of her husband in the past, about to summon his
son Zushio (3.29). At the climax of the scene in the past, the father gives Zushio an image
of the goddess of mercy and admonishes him always to show kindness to others (3.30).
Normal procedure would come out of the flashback showing the mother again, empha-
sizing it as her memory. Instead, we return to the present with a shot of Zushio, bearing
the goddess’s image (3.31). It is as if he and his mother have shared the memory of the
father’s gift.
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When the Lights Go Down, the Narration Starts
When we open a novel, we don’t expect the story action
to start on the copyright page. Nor do we expect to find
the story’s last scene on the book’s back cover. But film-
makers can start giving us narrative information during
the credit sequences, and the process can continue to
the very last moments we’re in the theater.
Credit sequences are nondiegetic material, but they
can assist our understanding of the story. Long ago film-
makers realized that credits could be enlivened by draw-
ings and paintings keyed to the action (3.32). Since the
1920s, the credits’ graphic design and musical accompa-
niment have often conjured up the story’s time and place
(3.33). The breezy credits of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim
offer glimpses of scenes to come while firmly establish-
ing the two young men’s friendship in 1910s Paris.
The film can set a mood simply by the music playing
over simple titles, as in the nervous score for The Exorcist,
but the credits can take a more active role through
type fonts, color, or movement. Saul Bass, a celebrated
designer of corporate logos, gave Alfred Hitchcock’s
and Otto Preminger’s films dynamic geometrical designs
(3.34). Rainer Werner Fassbinder was famous for his imag-
inative credit sequences, some in homage to the 1950s
Hollywood melodramas he admired. In a similar vein, the
brash collages in Pedro Almodóvar’s credit sequences
lead us to expect sexy irreverence (3.35).
Plot elements can be announced quite specifically.
Illustrations can anticipate particular scenes (3.36).
Goldfinger’s credits present a key motif, the gold-skinned
woman, and anticipate several later scenes (3.37). The
3.32 Incorporating illustration. An
early example of illustrated credits
for the 1917 comedy Reaching for the
Moon. 3.35 Setting expectations of tone. A collage design suggesting
sophistication and glamorous lifestyles (Women on the Verge of a
Nervous Breakdown).
3.34 Hinting at actions and themes. Saul Bass’s elegantly
simple credits for Advise and Consent hint that the story will lift
the lid off Washington scandals.
3.33 Evoking locations.
Raw Deal, a crime film from
1 9 4 8 , begins in prison,
and the credit sequence
suggests the locale before
the action begins.
3.36 Anticipating scenes. Some of
the stick-figure credits in Bringing Up
Baby anticipate scenes that will take
place in the story action.
94 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
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plot premises of Catch Me If You Can are previewed in
the title sequence, which pays affectionate homage to
the animated credits of the film’s period (3.38). Se7en’s
scratchy glimpses of cutting, stitching, and defacement
launched a cycle of nightmarish credit sequences show-
ing violation and dismemberment. Less overtly, the
opening of The Thomas Crown Affair hints at the hero’s
scheme for stealing a painting.
Films often end their plot with an epilogue that celebrates
the stable state that the characters have achieved, and
that situation can be presented during the credits (3.39).
Sometimes key scenes will be replayed under the final
credits, or new plot action will be shown. Airplane! began a
fashion for weaving running gags into its final credits.
Occasionally, the filmmaker fools us. We think the plot
has ended, and a long list of personnel crawls upward.
But then the film tacks an image on the very end (3.40).
These “credit cookies” remind us that an enterprising
filmmaker may exploit every moment of the film’s running
time to engage our narrative expectations.
3.37 Introducing motifs. Goldfinger:
The gilded woman will reappear in the
film, while other scenes to come, including
visions of the villain, are projected on
areas of her body.
3.38 Evoking a time period and previewing a story. The
streamlined animation of Catch Me If You Can evokes 1960s
credit sequences while previewing story action and settings.
Here the Tom Hanks character starts to trail Leonardo DiCaprio,
who plays an impostor pretending to be an airline pilot.
3.39 Presenting an epilogue. In Slumdog Millionaire, the
dance epilogue in the railway station is intercut with the major
credits, which recall scenes from the film.
3.40 Credit cookies. Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine follows its
final credit sequence with desolate images of a beach, wistfully
reminding us of earlier scenes showing childish gangsters at play.
Narration: The Flow of Story Information 95
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96 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
The narrator needn’t be a character in the story. Noncharacter narrators are
common in documentaries. We never learn who belongs to the anonymous “voice
of God” we hear in The River, Primary, or Hoop Dreams. A fictional film may
employ this device as well. Amélie’s cozy commentator adds a touch of fantasy,
while the urgent voice-over we hear during The Naked City suggests that the film
has a documentary authenticity.
Either sort of narrator may give us any range or depth of knowledge. A
character narrator is not necessarily restricted and very often tells of events that
she or he didn’t witness. This happens in The Quiet Man, when the relatively
minor figure of the village priest recounts the action. Likewise, a noncharacter
narrator might not be omniscient and could confine the commentary to what a
single character knows. A character narrator might be highly subjective, telling
us details of his or her inner life, or might be objective, confining the information
strictly to externals. A noncharacter narrator might give us access to subjective
depths, as in Jules and Jim, or might stick simply to surface events, as does the
impersonal voice-over commentator in The Killing. In any case, the viewer’s
process of picking up cues, developing expectations, and constructing an ongo-
ing story out of the plot will be partially shaped by what the narrator tells or
doesn’t tell.
Choices about Narration in Storytelling
The Road Warrior (also known as Mad Max 2) offers a neat summary of how nar-
ration contributes to a film’s overall effect. At certain points in the film, director
George Miller and writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant chose to supply infor-
mation that builds expectations and help us grasp the story. At other points, they
decided to withhold information for the sake of surprise.
The plot opens with a voice-over commentary by an elderly male narrator who
recalls “the warrior Max.” After presenting exposition that tells of the worldwide
wars that led society to degenerate into gangs of scavengers, the narrator falls silent.
Who is he? We aren’t told yet.
The rest of the plot is organized around Max’s encounter with a group of peace-
ful desert settlers. They want to flee to the coast with the gasoline they have refined,
but they’re under siege by a gang of vicious marauders. Max agrees to work for
the settlers in exchange for gasoline. Later, after a brush with the gang leaves him
wounded, his dog dead, and his car demolished, Max commits himself to helping
the settlers flee their compound. He learns that only by joining them can he hope
to survive. The struggle against the encircling gang comes to its climax in Max’s
attempt to escape with a tanker truck.
Max is the protagonist; his goals and conflicts propel the developing action.
After the anonymous narrator’s prologue, most of the film is restricted to Max’s
range of knowledge. Like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Max is present in every
scene, and almost everything we learn gets funneled through him. The narration
also gives us a degree of subjectivity, again focused on Max. We get optical POV
shots as Max drives his car (3.41) or watches a skirmish through a telescope. When
he is rescued after his car crash, his delirium is rendered as perceptual subjectivity,
using the conventional cues of slow motion, superimposed imagery, and slowed-
down sound (3.42). All of these narrational choices encourage us to sympathize
with Max.
At certain points, however, the narration becomes more unrestricted. This
occurs principally during chases and battle scenes, when we witness events Max
doesn’t know about. In such scenes, unrestricted narration builds up suspense by
showing both pursuers and pursued or different aspects of the battle. At the climax,
The whole art of movies and
plays is in the control of the flow
of information to the audience . . . :
how much information, when,
how fast it comes. Certain things
maybe have to be there three
—Tom Stoppard, playwright and
screenwriter of Shakespeare in Love
Stretches of unrestricted narra-
tion allow a filmmaker to show
characters’ reactions to a situation.
We trace some examples in Road
Warrior and other films in “They’re
looking for us.”
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The Classical Hollywood Cinema 97
Max’s truck successfully draws the gang away from the
desert people, who escape to the south. But when his
truck overturns, Max—and we—learn that the truck
holds only sand. It has been a decoy. Thus our restriction
to Max’s range of knowledge creates a surprise.
There is still more to learn, however. At the very
end, the elderly narrator’s voice returns to tell us that he
was the feral child whom Max had befriended. The set-
tlers drive off, and Max is left alone in the middle of the
highway. The film’s final image—a shot of the solitary
Max receding into the distance as we pull back (3.43)—
suggests both a perceptual subjectivity (the boy’s point
of view as he rides away) and a mental subjectivity (the
memory of Max dimming for the dying narrator).
The narrative form of The Road Warrior, then, rests on decisions about
both plot and narration. The plot organizes causality, time, and space through an
extended flashback, and it gains further coherence through consistent choices about
narration. The main portion of the film channels our expectations through an attach-
ment to Max, alternating with briefer, more unrestricted portions. This main section
is in turn framed by the mysterious narrator who puts all the events into the distant
past. The narrator’s presence at the opening leads us to expect him to return at the
end, perhaps explaining who he is. The filmmakers’ creative choices have organized
narration in order to give us a unified experience.
The Classical Hollywood Cinema
Perhaps you’ve decided to try your hand at writing a screenplay and you’ve inves-
tigated books and websites that offer advice. Make sure your main character wants
something. Emphasize conflict. Take your character on an emotional journey. Be
sure that your ending resolves the initial situation. Suggestions like these can be
valuable, but we need to recognize that they reflect only one tradition. This tradi-
tion has often been called that of “classical Hollywood” filmmaking.
The tradition is called “classical” because it has been influential since about
1920 and “Hollywood” because the tradition assumed its most elaborate shape in
American studio films. The same mode, however, governs narrative films made
in other countries. For example, The Road Warrior, although an Australian film,
is constructed along classical Hollywood lines. And many documentaries, such as
David Koepp, screenwriter of
Jurassic Park and War of the
Worlds, discusses the cult of sto-
rytelling in “David Koepp: Making
the world movie-sized.” Premium
Rush, written and directed by
Koepp, is a model of a modern
film in the classical Hollywood
tradition. We discuss it in “Clocked
doing 50 in the Dead Zone.”
3.41 3.42
3.41–3.42 Narration in The Road Warrior: Optical point of view and perceptual subjectivity. The narration provides a POV shot
as Max drives up to an apparently abandoned gyrocopter (3.41). The injured Max’s dizzy view of his rescuer uses double exposure to
present his delirium as perceptual subjectivity (3.42).
3.43 Mental and perceptual subjectivity. As the camera
tracks away from Max, we hear the narrator’s voice: “And the Road
Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in
my memories.”
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98 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
Primary or Super Size Me rely on conventions derived from Hollywood’s fictional
This model of narrative form tends to present individual characters making
things happen. Large-scale events such as floods, earthquakes, and wars may
affect the action, but the story centers on personal psychological causes: decisions,
choices, and traits of character.
Typically the plot focuses on one or two central characters who want some-
thing. Characters’ desires set up a goal, and the course of the narrative’s develop-
ment will most likely involve the process of achieving that goal. In The Wizard
of Oz, Dorothy has a series of goals; at first she wants to save Toto from Miss
Gulch, and later she seeks to get home from Oz. Her desire to get home creates
short-term goals along the way, such as getting to the Emerald City and then
killing the Witch.
If this desire to reach a goal were the only element present, there would be
nothing to stop the character from moving quickly to achieve it. But in the classical
narrative there’s a blocking element: an opposition that creates conflict. Typically,
the protagonist comes up against a character with opposing traits and goals. As a
result, the protagonist must overcome the opposition. Dorothy’s desire to return to
Kansas is opposed by the Wicked Witch, whose goal is to obtain the Ruby Slippers.
Dorothy must eventually eliminate the Witch before she is able to use the slippers
to go home. We shall see in His Girl Friday how the two main characters’ goals
conflict until the final resolution (pp. 401– 404).
The classical plot traces a process of change. Often characters achieve their
goals by changing their situation—perhaps they gain fame or money or just
survival—but they also change their attitudes or values. In The Road Warrior, Max
comes to appreciate loyalty to a community. At the end of Jerry Ma guire, the hero
has found professional success but also has learned the value of friendship and a
loving family.
But don’t all narratives tell stories of this sort? Actually, no. In 1920s Soviet
films, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin, October, and Strike, no individual
serves as protagonist. In films by Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu, many events are
seen as caused not by characters but by larger forces (social dynamics in the former,
an overarching rhythm of life in the latter). In narrative films such as Michelangelo
Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the protagonists are not active but rather passive. So a
filmmaker need not put the striving, goal-oriented protagonist at the center of a
film’s story.
Classical Hollywood filmmakers tend to let psychological causes motivate
most events. Throughout, motivation in the classical narrative film strives to
be as clear and complete as possible—even in the fanciful genre of the musi-
cal, in which song-and-dance numbers express the characters’ emotions or
display stage shows featuring the characters. When there are discontinuities
of character traits, those need explaining. In one scene of Hannah and Her
Sisters, Mickey (played by Woody Allen) is in a suicidal depression. When
we next see him several scenes later, he is bubbly and cheerful. What caused
the abrupt change? Mickey explains via a flashback that he achieved a serene
attitude toward life while watching a Marx Brothers film. Now the cause-effect
pattern is clear.
In creating a classical film, the filmmakers adjust time to fit the cause-effect
progress of the story. Every instant shows something that contributes to the flow
of the story, and stretches of time that don’t contribute are skipped over. The hours
Dorothy and her entourage spend walking on the Yellow Brick Road are omit-
ted, but the plot dwells on the moments during which she meets a new character.
Specific devices such as appointments and deadlines make plot time depend on
the story’s cause-effect chain as well. When characters agree to meet and then we
see them meeting, the stretch of time between the plan and the meeting becomes
Movies to me are about
wanting something, a character
wanting something that you as the
audience desperately want him to
have. You, the writer, keep him from
getting it for as long as possible,
and then, through whatever effort
he makes, he gets it.”
—Bruce Joel Rubin, screenwriter, Ghost
For a discussion of how charac-
ters’ goals can be crucial to major
transitions in the plot, see “Times
go by turns.”
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 99
insignificant. Similarly, a deadline forces the action to reach a certain stage at a
specific time.
Filmmakers working in the classical tradition have a range of choices about
narration, but most tend to present the action objectively, in the way discussed on
pages 90 –92. The film will usually present an objective story reality, against which
various degrees of perceptual or mental subjectivity can be measured. Classical
filmmakers also tend toward fairly unrestricted narration. Even if we follow a single
character, there are portions of the film giving us access to things the character
does not see, hear, or know. North by Northwest and The Road Warrior remain
good examples of this tendency. This weighting is overridden only in genres that
depend heavily on mystery, such as the detective film, with its reliance on the sort
of restrictiveness we saw at work in The Big Sleep.
Finally, most classical filmmakers prefer a strong degree of closure at the end.
Leaving few loose ends unresolved, the films seek to wrap things clearly. We usu-
ally learn the fate of each character, the answer to each mystery, and the outcome
of each conflict.
Again, none of these features is a law of narrative form in general. There
is nothing to prevent a filmmaker from presenting the dead time, or narratively
unmotivated intervals between more significant events. Jean-Luc Godard, Carl
Dreyer, and Andy Warhol do this frequently, in different ways. The filmmaker’s
plot can also reorder story chronology to make the causal chain more perplexing.
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator uses flashforwards
interspersed with the main plot action; only gradually do we come to understand the
causal relations of these flashforwards to the present-time events. More recently,
puzzle films (p. 84) tease the audience to find clues to enigmatic presentation of
story events.
The filmmaker can also include material that is unmotivated by narrative
cause and effect, such as the chance meetings in Truffaut’s films, the political
monologues and interviews in Godard’s films, the intellectual montage sequences
in Eisenstein’s films, and the transitional shots in Ozu’s work. Narration may be
unexpectedly subjective, as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or it may hover ambig-
uously between objectivity and subjectivity, as in Last Year at Marienbad. Finally,
the filmmaker need not resolve all of the action at the end; films made outside
the classical tradition sometimes have open endings like that of The 400 Blows
(p. 79).
Great films have been made within the classical tradition. Yet it remains
only one way of using narrative form. If we want to gain a wider appreciation of
all types of cinema, we can’t demand that every movie conform to Hollywood
Narrative Form in Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane is one of the most original films to come out of Hollywood. It has won
praise on many counts, not least its subtle approach to storytelling. Director Orson
Welles and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz made creative choices that continue
to influence how films are made today. Kane is an ideal occasion to test how prin-
ciples of film narrative can work in both familiar and fresh ways.
Overall Narrative Expectations in Citizen Kane
We saw in Chapter 2 that our experience of a film depends heavily on the expecta-
tions we bring to it. Before you saw Citizen Kane, you may have known only that
it is regarded as a film classic. A 1941 audience would have had a keener sense
of anticipation. For one thing, the film was rumored to be a disguised version of
the life of the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, a businessman as
Coincidences supposedly have no
place in tight storytelling, but they
are more common than you might
think. We talk about how filmmak-
ers get away with them in “No
coincidence, no story.”
The classical approach to narra-
tive is still very much alive, as we
show in “Your trash, my treasure,”
devoted to National Treasure, and
“Understanding film narrative: The
trailer,” on The Wolf of Wall Street.
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100 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
famous as Steve Jobs became. Spectators would thus be looking for events keyed
to Hearst’s life.
Several minutes into the film, the viewer can form more specific expectations
about the relevant genre conventions. The early “News on the March” sequence
suggests that this film may be a fictional biography, and this hint is confirmed once
the reporter, Thompson, begins his inquiry into Kane’s life. In this genre, the plot
typically traces an individual’s life and dramatizes certain episodes. The most prom-
inent fictional biographies released before Kane would include Anthony Adverse
(1936) and The Power and the Glory (1933), about a somewhat Kane-like tycoon.
The viewer can also spot the conventions of the newspaper reporter genre.
Thompson’s colleagues resemble the wisecracking reporters in Five Star Final (1931),
Picture Snatcher (1933), and His Girl Friday (1940). In this genre, the action usually
depends on a reporter’s dogged pursuit of a story against great odds. We therefore
expect not only Thompson’s investigation but also his triumphant exposure of the truth.
In the scenes devoted to Susan, there are also some conventions typical of the
musical film: frantic rehearsals, backstage preparations, and, most specifically, the
montage of her opera career, which parodies the conventional montage of singing
success in such films as Maytime (1937; p. 253). More broadly, the film evidently
owes something to the detective genre, since Thompson is aiming to solve a mys-
tery (Who or what is Rosebud?), and his interviews resemble those of a detective
questioning suspects.
Note, however, that Kane’s use of genre conventions is somewhat equivocal.
Unlike many biographical films, Kane is more concerned with psychological states
and relationships than with the hero’s public deeds or adventures. As a newspaper
film, Kane is unusual in that the reporter fails to get his story. And Kane is not
exactly a standard mystery, because it answers some questions but leaves others
unanswered. Citizen Kane is a good example of a film that relies on genre conven-
tions but often thwarts the expectations they arouse.
The same sort of equivocal qualities can be found in Kane’s relation to the clas-
sical Hollywood storytelling tradition. Even without specific prior knowledge about
this film, we expect that, as an American studio product of 1941, it will follow that
tradition. In most ways, it does. We’ll see that characters’ desires propel the nar-
rative, causality is defined around traits and goals, conflicts lead to consequences,
time is motivated by plot necessity, and narration is mostly objective and mixes
restricted and unrestricted passages. We’ll also see some ways in which Citizen
Kane is more ambiguous than most films in the classical tradition. Desires, traits,
and goals are not always spelled out; the conflicts sometimes have an uncertain
outcome; at the end, the narration’s omniscience is emphasized to a rare degree.
The ending in particular doesn’t provide the degree of closure we would expect in
a classical film. Citizen Kane draws on Hollywood narrative conventions but also
violates some of the expectations that we bring to a Hollywood film.
Plot and Story in Citizen Kane
After Welles and Mankiewicz decided to tell the life story of a fictional newspaper
magnate, Charles Foster Kane, they faced a choice that’s familiar to you by now.
They could have presented Kane’s life story chronologically, letting their plot present
incidents in story order as most fictional biographies do. They chose another option.
They decided to trace Kane’s life through flashbacks, recalled by people who knew
him. But Welles and Mankiewicz needed something to motivate the characters’
flashbacks. They hit upon the idea of having a media reporter seek the meaning of
Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.” This generates a second line of action, the reporter
Thompson’s investigation of Kane’s life. The result is a film that creates an unusual
relation of plot to story.
We can start to understand this by outlining a segmentation like the one we
made for The Wizard of Oz. The basic segments are typically scenes, and they
How much variation can classical
Hollywood storytelling permit,
especially in regard to the plot’s
ordering of story events? We try
for answers in “Innovation by acci-
dent” and “What-if movies: Forking
paths in the drawing room.”
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 101
form part of a larger section of the film. In the following outline, numerals refer
to major parts, some of which are only one scene long. In most cases, however, the
major parts consist of several scenes, and each of these is identified by a lowercase
Citizen Kane: Plot Segmentation
C. Credit title.
1. Xanadu: Kane dies.
2. Projection room:
a. “News on the March.”
b. Reporters discuss “Rosebud.”
3. El Rancho nightclub: Thompson tries to interview Susan.
4. Thatcher library:
a. Thompson enters and reads Thatcher’s manuscript.
b. Kane’s mother sends the boy off with Thatcher.
c. Kane grows up and buys the Inquirer.
d. Kane launches the Inquirer’s attack on big business.
e. The Depression: Kane sells Thatcher his newspaper
f. Thompson leaves the library.
5. Bernstein’s office:
a. Thompson visits Bernstein.
b. Kane takes over the Inquirer.
c. Montage: the Inquirer’s growth.
d. Party: the Inquirer celebrates getting the Chronicle staff.
e. Leland and Bernstein discuss Kane’s trip abroad.
f. Kane returns with his fiancée Emily.
g. Bernstein concludes his reminiscence.
6. Nursing home:
a. Thompson talks with Leland.
b. Breakfast table montage: Kane’s marriage deteriorates.
c. Leland continues his recollections.
d. Kane meets Susan and goes to her room.
e. Kane’s political campaign culminates in his speech.
f. Kane confronts Gettys, Emily, and Susan.
g. Kane loses the election, and Leland asks to be
h. Kane marries Susan.
i. Susan has her opera premiere.
j. Because Leland is drunk, Kane finishes Leland’s review.
k. Leland concludes his reminiscence.
7. El Rancho nightclub:
a. Thompson talks with Susan.
b. Susan rehearses her singing.
c. Susan has her opera premiere.
d. Kane insists that Susan go on singing.
e. Montage: Susan’s opera career.
f. Susan attempts suicide, and Kane promises she can quit
g. Xanadu: Susan is bored.
h. Montage: Susan plays with jigsaw puzzles.
i. Xanadu: Kane proposes a picnic.
j. Picnic: Kane slaps Susan.
k. Xanadu: Susan leaves Kane.
l. Susan concludes her reminiscence.
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102 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
8. Xanadu:
a. Thompson talks with Raymond.
b. Kane destroys Susan’s room and picks up a
paperweight, murmuring “Rosebud.”
c. Raymond concludes his reminiscence; Thompson talks
with the other reporters; all leave.
d. Survey of Kane’s possessions leads to a revelation of
Rosebud; exterior of gate and of castle; the end.
E. End credits.
This sort of outline lets us recover the film’s overall architecture. Our segmentation
lets us see at a glance the major divisions of the plot and how scenes are organized
within them. It also helps us notice how the plot organizes story causality and
story time.
Citizen Kane’s Causality
Citizen Kane’s plot has two main lines of action, but the chain of causality in each
one is somewhat unusual. Welles and Mankiewicz give us an investigation—one not
conducted by detectives but by reporters. A media company has made a newsreel
about tycoon Charles Foster Kane, and that newsreel is already completed when the
plot introduces the reporters. But the newsreel fails to satisfy the boss, Rawlston,
and his desire to revise the newsreel gets the search for Rosebud underway. He
assigns the reporter Thompson a goal, which sets him digging into Kane’s past.
Another line of action, Kane’s life, has already taken place when the plot
begins. Many years before, a poverty-stricken boarder at Kane’s mother’s boarding-
house has paid her with a deed to a gold mine. Thanks to these newfound riches,
Mrs. Kane appoints Thatcher as young Charles’s guardian. Thatcher’s guardianship
results in Kane’s growing up into a spoiled, rebellious young man.
Usually an investigator searches for an object or a concealed set of facts. In this
respect, Thompson’s mission is straightforward: Who or what was Rosebud? But
Thompson is also looking for a set of character traits. Rawlston’s order is clear: “It
isn’t enough to tell us what a man did, you’ve got to tell us who he was.” So finding
the meaning of Rosebud promises to reveal something about Kane’s personality.
Kane, a rather complex character, has many traits that influence other characters’
actions. But, as we’ll see, Citizen Kane’s narrative leaves some of Kane’s character
traits uncertain.
Thompson has a goal, then. So does Kane, although his is less well-defined.
At various times of his life he seems to be searching for fame, friendship, social
justice, or a woman’s love. But part of the point of the film is that his real goals are
uncertain. At several points, characters speculate that Rosebud was something that
Kane lost or was never able to get. Such vagueness about a major character’s goal
makes this an unusual narrative for the Hollywood tradition.
Thompson and Kane are the prime movers of the action in their plot lines.
In Kane’s life, other characters come into conflict with him, and he changes their
lives. In Thompson’s plot line, however, these characters serve to provide informa-
tion about Kane. Thatcher knew him as a child. Bernstein, his manager, knew his
business dealings. His best friend, Leland, had access to his personal life, his first
marriage in particular. Susan Alexander, his second wife, knew him in middle age.
The butler, Raymond, managed Kane’s affairs during his last years. Without these
witnesses, Thompson couldn’t pursue Rosebud. These secondary characters help
us, too, as we reconstruct the progression of story events.
The use of testimony spanning Kane’s life solves a major storytelling problem
Welles and Mankiewicz faced. But as we’ve seen, one creative choice often demands
others. The film’s story includes Kane’s wife Emily and his son, so shouldn’t they
be given a chance to share their impressions of the great man? The problem is that
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 103
their recollections would largely duplicate what we learn from Leland. Welles and
Mankiewicz solve this problem in a simple way. They kill Emily and her son off in
an auto accident, which occurs well before Thompson’s investigation starts.
Time in Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane reshapes time in complex ways, and this gives the film much of its
originality, particularly in the Hollywood of 1941.
Duration and Frequency The most conventional aspect of narrative time in
the film involves duration. We know that Kane is 75 years old at his death in 1941,
and the earliest scene shows him at around age 10. Thus the plot covers roughly
65 years of his life, plus the week of Thompson’s investigation. The only earlier
story event is Mrs. Kane’s acquisition of the mine deed in 1868, which probably
took place shortly before she turned her son over to Thatcher. So the story runs a
bit longer than the plot—roughly 73 years. This time span is presented in a screen
duration of almost 120 minutes.
Like most films, Citizen Kane uses ellipses. The plot skips over years of story
time, as well as many hours of Thompson’s week of investigations. But plot dura-
tion also compresses time through montage sequences, such as those showing the
Inquirer’s campaign against big business (4d), the growth of the paper’s circula-
tion (5c), Susan’s opera career (7e), and Susan’s bored playing with jigsaw puzzles
(7h). Montage sequences became conventions of classical Hollywood cinema in
the 1920s, and here they have their traditional function of condensing story dura-
tion in a comprehensible way. We’ll discuss montage sequences in more detail in
Chapter 6 (see pp. 252–253).
Kane is a little more unusual in its treatment of temporal frequency. One spe-
cific story event appears twice in the plot. In their flashbacks, both Leland and
Susan describe her debut in the Chicago premiere of Salammbo. Watching Leland’s
account (6i), we see the performance from the front; we witness the audience
reacting with distaste. Susan’s version (7c) shows us the performance from behind
and on the stage, emphasizing her humiliation. The plot’s repeated presentation of
Susan’s debut doesn’t confuse us, for we understand the two scenes as depicting the
same story event. (“News on the March” has also referred to Susan’s opera career,
in parts G and H.) By repeating scenes of her embarrassment, the plot makes vivid
the pain that Kane forces her to undergo.
Chronology and Flashbacks Kane presents an unusual ordering of story
events. The central structural decision, that of using Thompson’s investigation to
motivate a series of flashbacks, asks us to put things in chronological order. For
example, the earliest story event is Mrs. Kane’s acquisition of a deed to a valuable
mine. We get this information during the newsreel, in the second sequence. But the
first event we encounter in the plot is Kane’s death.
To illustrate the maneuvers that Welles and Mankiewicz ask us to execute,
in building up the film’s story, let’s assume that Kane’s life consists of these
Youthful newspaper editing
Life as a newlywed
Middle age
Old age
At first the plot doesn’t present these story phases in chronological order. The
early portions of the film boldly jump back and forth over many phases of Kane’s
life. The “News on the March” sequence (2a) gives us glimpses of all periods, and
Flashbacks were part of film-
making tradition before Citizen
Kane. For analysis of flashbacks
in Hollywood films during the
1930s, and especially The Power
and the Glory, which influenced
Orson Welles, see “Grandmaster
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104 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
Thatcher’s manuscript (4) shows us Kane in boyhood, youth, and middle age. In
the first flashback, Thatcher’s diary tells of a scene in which Kane loses control of
his newspapers during the Depression (4e). By this time, Kane is a middle-aged
man. Yet in the second flashback, Bernstein describes young Kane’s arrival at the
Inquirer office and his engagement to Emily (5b, 5f). The plot demands that we sort
these events into chronological story order.
The film becomes less demanding as it goes along, however. Later portions of
the plot tend to concentrate on particular periods, and the flashbacks respect chrono-
logical order. Bernstein’s recollections (5) concentrate on episodes showing Kane
as newspaper editor and fiancé of Emily. Leland’s flashbacks (6) run from newly-
wed life to middle age. Susan (7) tells of Kane as a middle-aged and an old man.
Raymond’s brief but significant anecdote (8b) concentrates on Kane in old age.
By getting more linear, the plot helps us grasp the story. If every character’s
flashback skipped around Kane’s life as much as the newsreel and Thatcher’s
account do, the story would be much harder to reconstruct. As it is, the early por-
tions of the plot show us the results of events we have not seen, while the later
portions confirm or modify the expectations that we formed in the more nonlinear
scenes. For instance, we know that Kane will lose his newspapers to Thatcher, and
that knowledge lends a certain poignancy to Kane’s “Declaration of Principles” in
which he pledges to fight for the common man.
By arranging story events out of order, the plot cues us to form specific antici-
pations. In the beginning, with Kane’s death and the newsreel version of his life,
the plot creates strong curiosity about two issues. What does “Rosebud” mean? And
what could have happened to make so powerful a man die alone and, apparently,
There is also a degree of suspense. When the plot goes back to the past, we
already have quite firm knowledge. We know that neither of Kane’s marriages
will last and that his friends will drift away. The plot encourages us to focus our
interest on how and when a particular thing will happen. What will break Leland’s
friendship with Kane? What will trigger Susan’s decision to walk out on him? As
Hitchcock pointed out (p. 89), giving us more knowledge than the characters have
can promote suspense.
“News on the March” as a Map of the Plot In 1941, one of the
most original sequences of the film was the “News on the March” newsreel. By
looking over our segmentation, we can see that the newsreel is not only daring
but very helpful. The very first sequence in Xanadu disorients us, for it shows
the death of a character about whom we so far know almost nothing. But the
newsreel quickly supplies a great deal of information about this mysterious fig-
ure. Moreover, by reviewing Kane’s life, the newsreel makes it much easier to
rearrange the plot events we’ll see into linear story order. Here is an outline of
“News on the March.”
A. Shots of Xanadu.
B. Funeral; headlines announcing Kane’s death.
C. Growth of financial empire.
D. Gold mine and Mrs. Kane’s boardinghouse.
E. Thatcher testimony at congressional committee.
F. Political career.
G. Private life; weddings, divorces.
H. Opera house and Xanadu.
I. Political campaign.
J. The Depression.
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 105
K. 1935: Kane’s old age.
L. Isolation of Xanadu.
M. Death announced.
Now we can see that the newsreel offers us a capsule preview of the film’s
overall plot. “News on the March” begins by emphasizing Kane as “Xanadu’s
Landlord”; a short segment (A) presents shots of the house and the compound.
This is a variation on the opening of the whole film (1), which consisted of a series
of shots of the grounds, moving progressively closer to the house. That opening
sequence had ended with Kane’s death; now the newsreel follows the shots of
the house with Kane’s funeral (B). Next comes a series of newspaper headlines
announcing Kane’s death. If we compare this portion with the segmentation of
the entire film’s plot, we see that these headlines occupy the approximate formal
position of the whole newsreel itself (2a). Even the title card that follows the head-
lines (“To forty-four million U.S. news buyers, more newsworthy than the names
in his own headlines was Kane himself. . . .”) is a brief parallel to the scene in the
projection room, in which the reporters decide that Thompson should continue to
investigate Kane’s “newsworthy” life.
The order of the newsreel’s presentation of Kane’s life roughly parallels the
order of scenes in the flashbacks told to Thompson. “News on the March” moves
from Kane’s death to a summary of the building of Kane’s newspaper empire
(C), with a description of the boarding-house deed and the mine (including an old
photograph of Charles with his mother, as well as the first mention of the boy’s
sled). This bit parallels the first flashback (4), which tells how Thatcher took over
the young Kane’s guardianship from his mother and how Kane first attempted
to run the Inquirer. The rough parallels continue: The newsreel tells of Kane’s
political ambitions (F), his marriages (G), his building of the opera house (H), his
political campaign (I), and so on. In the main plot, Thatcher’s flashback describes
his own clashes with Kane on political matters. Leland’s flashbacks (6) cover the
first marriage, the affair with Susan, the political campaign, and the premiere of
the opera Salammbo.
We haven’t charted all of the similarities between the newsreel and the overall
film. You can tease out many more by comparing the two closely. The crucial point
is that the newsreel provides us with a map for the investigation of Kane’s life. As
we watch scenes in the flashbacks, we already expect certain events and have a
rough chronological basis for fitting them into our story reconstruction.
Motivation in Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane follows classical Hollywood tradition in motivating the causes and
effects that push the story forward. Even small details are justified causally. Why
did Welles and Mankiewicz decide to make Thatcher a prosperous businessman?
Their script could have had Mrs. Kane turn her son over to a kindly but poor family,
one that wouldn’t treat him as cruelly as apparently his father has. But Thatcher’s
social position motivates important events. By giving her son to Thatcher, Charles’
mother catapults him into a wealthy circle, where he will wield the power we wit-
ness across the film. Thatcher’s elite standing also makes it easy for Thompson to
pursue his initial research on Kane’s life. Thatcher is influential enough to testify at
a congressional hearing, so he can appear in the newsreel (the first time we encoun-
ter him). As a self-important tycoon, he has chronicled his life in a journal, which
Thompson can scan for information about Kane’s childhood.
A striking instance of motivation involves Thompson’s visit to Susan, Kane’s
second wife at the El Rancho nightclub (3). It’s plausible that Thompson would
start his search with Kane’s ex-wife, presumably the surviving person closest to
him. But let’s think like a screenwriter. In the story, the young Kane is an audacious
editor, thumbing his nose at the stuffed-shirt Thatcher and taking up the cause of
Citizen Kane helped popularize
flashback-based narratives in
the 1940s. We look at some less
familiar but equally interesting
examples in “Chinese boxes,
Russian dolls, and Hollywood
movies.” For more on flashbacks
in movies old and new, see
“Puppetry and ventriloquism.”
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106 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
the poor. But Susan didn’t know Kane then. If she had been given the first flash-
back, it would have dwelt on Kane’s old age, a period in which he was pompous
and self-centered. If Susan had told her story first, showing the elderly Kane, we
would not sense his character change gradually. By delaying her flashback, the plot
lets Thatcher, Bernstein, and Leland fill in Kane’s early, rambunctious years. By
then we’re prepared to appreciate, from Susan’s testimony, how he has decayed into
a selfish, aggressive old man.
So the creative problem was, find a way to prevent Susan from telling her story.
The solution that Mankiewicz and Welles chose was to make Susan drunk and angry
during Thompson’s visit. Her refusal to speak to him motivates postponing her flash-
back. It also enhances the mystery around Kane—why won’t she go on the record?—
while her alcoholic haze suggests that he has damaged the people closest to him.
Some critics have argued that the search for Rosebud is a flaw in Citizen Kane,
because the revelation of the boy’s sled is an oversimplification. Does all this come
down to the fact that Kane just longs for his lost childhood and his mother’s love?
If we assume that the point of the plot is simply to identify Rosebud, this charge
might be valid. But in fact, Rosebud serves a very important motivating function.
It creates Thompson’s goal and thus focuses our attention on his digging into the
lives of Kane and his associates. Citizen Kane becomes a mystery story; but instead
of investigating a crime, the reporter investigates a character.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that the plot lets us conclude that Rosebud is the final
answer to the quest. In the final scene, Thompson gives up the search. He doubts
that “any word can explain a man’s life.” Moreover, in the scene in the newsreel
projection room, Rawlston suggests that “maybe he told us all about himself on his
deathbed.” Immediately, one of the reporters says, “Yeah, and maybe he didn’t.”
Already the suggestion is planted that Rosebud may not provide any adequate
answers about Kane. Later Leland scornfully dismisses the Rosebud issue and goes
on to talk of other things. Characters’ skepticism about the Rosebud clue helps
justify Thompson’s pessimistic attitude in the final sequence.
Linked to the uncertainties around Rosebud is a degree of ambiguity about
psychological motivations. These relate primarily to Kane’s character. The charac-
ters’ varying portraits of Kane don’t neatly tally. Bernstein still looks on Kane with
sympathy and affection, whereas Leland is cynical about his own relationship with
Kane. Likewise, the reasons for some of Kane’s actions remain unclear. Does he
send Leland the $25,000 check in firing him because of a lingering sentiment over
their old friendship or from a proud desire to prove himself more generous than
Leland? Why does he insist on stuffing Xanadu with hundreds of artworks that he
never even unpacks? By leaving these questions open, the film invites us to specu-
late on various facets of Kane’s personality. The ambiguities around Rosebud and
Kane’s character are unusual for the classical Hollywood tradition, which usually
prefers more clear-cut explanations of character psychology.
Citizen Kane’s Parallelism
Parallelism doesn’t provide a major principle of development in Citizen Kane’s
narrative form, but it crops up more locally. We’ve already seen important formal
parallels between the newsreel and the film’s plot as a whole. There is as well a
parallel between the two major lines of action: Kane’s life and Thompson’s search.
Both men are searching for Rosebud. Rosebud serves as a summary of the things
Kane strives for through his adult life. We see him repeatedly fail to find love and
friendship, living alone at Xanadu in the end. His inability to find happiness paral-
lels Thompson’s failure to locate the significance of the word “Rosebud.”
Another narrative parallel juxtaposes Kane’s campaign for the governorship
with his attempt to build up Susan’s career as an opera star. In each case, he seeks
to inflate his reputation by influencing public opinion. In trying to achieve success
for Susan, Kane forces his newspaper employees to write favorable reviews of her
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 107
performances. This parallels the moment when he loses the election and the Inquirer
automatically proclaims a fraud at the polls. In both cases, Kane fails to realize that
his power over the public is not great enough to hide the flaws in his projects: first
his affair with Susan, which ruins his campaign; then her lack of singing ability,
which Kane refuses to admit. The parallels show that Kane continues to make the
same kinds of mistakes throughout his life.
Patterns of Plot Development in Citizen Kane
The order of Thompson’s visits to Kane’s acquaintances allows the series of
flashbacks to have a clear progression. Thanks to the delay in presenting Susan’s
flashback, Thompson moves from people who knew Kane early in his life to those
who knew him as an old man. Moreover, each flashback contains a distinct type
of information about Kane. Bernstein gives an account of the newspaper’s growth,
and then Leland traces Kane’s changing political views. Both men provide the
background to Kane’s early success and lead into stories of Kane’s personal life.
Here we get the first real indications of Kane’s failure. Susan continues to trace his
decline by explaining how he ruled her life. Finally, in Raymond’s flashback, Kane
becomes a pitiable old man. Thompson’s present-day inquiry has its own pattern of
development, that of a search. By the ending, this search has failed, as Kane’s own
search for happiness or personal success had failed.
Because of Thompson’s failure, the ending of Citizen Kane remains somewhat
more open than was the rule in Hollywood in 1941. True, Thompson does resolve
the question of Rosebud for himself by saying that it would not have explained
Kane’s life. To this extent, we have the common pattern showing the protagonist
gaining greater knowledge. Still, in most classical narrative films, the main charac-
ter reaches his or her initial goal, and Thompson, the main character of this line of
action, fails to achieve his aim.
The line of action involving Kane himself has even less closure. Not only
does Kane apparently not reach his goal, but the film never specifies what that
goal is to start with. Most classical narratives create a situation of conflict. The
character must struggle with a problem and solve it by the ending. Kane begins
his adult life in a highly successful position, happily running the Inquirer, and
then gradually falls into a barren solitude. His chief conflicts are with his wives
and friends; his clash with a political boss rates only one scene. We are invited to
speculate about exactly what, if anything, would have made Kane happy. Citizen
Kane’s lack of closure in this biographical line of action made it a very unusual
narrative for its day.
Still, the search for Rosebud does lead to a certain resolution. We the audience
discover what Rosebud was. The ending of the film, which follows this discovery,
strongly echoes the beginning. The beginning moved past fences toward the man-
sion. Now a series of shots takes us away from the house and back outside the
fences, with the “No Trespassing” sign and large K insignia.
But even at this point, when we learn the answer to Thompson’s question, a
degree of uncertainty remains. Just because we have learned what Kane’s dying
word referred to, do we now have the key to his entire character? Or is Thompson’s
final statement correct—that no one word can explain a person’s life? Perhaps the
final shot of the “No Trespassing” sign hints that neither Thompson nor we should
have expected to know Kane’s mind fully. It is tempting to declare that all of Kane’s
problems arose from the loss of his sled and his childhood home life, but the film
also suggests that this is too easy a solution. It is the kind of solution that the slick
editor Rawlston would pounce on as an angle for his newsreel.
For years critics have debated whether the Rosebud solution does give us a
key that resolves the entire narrative. This debate itself suggests the ambiguity at
work in Citizen Kane. The film provides much evidence for both views and hence
avoids complete closure. We can contrast this somewhat open ending with those of
Kane, we are told, loved only
his mother—only his newspaper—
only his second wife—only himself.
Maybe he loved all of these,
or none. It is for the audience
to judge. Kane was selfish and
selfless, an idealist, a scoundrel, a
very big man and a very little one.
It depends on who’s talking about
him. He is never judged with the
objectivity of an author, and the
point of the picture is not so much
the solution of the problem as its
—Orson Welles, director
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108 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
His Girl Friday and North by Northwest, as well as with another open-ended film,
Do The Right Thing. All are discussed in Chapter 11.
Narration in Citizen Kane
In analyzing how Kane’s plot manipulates the moment-by-moment flow of story
information, it’s useful to consider a remarkable fact. The only time we see Kane
directly and in the present is when he dies. On all other occasions, he is presented
at one remove—in the newsreel or in various characters’ memories. This unusual
treatment makes the film something of a portrait, a study of a man seen from dif-
ferent perspectives.
The film employs five character narrators, the people whom Thompson tracks
down: Thatcher (whose account is in writing), Bernstein, Leland, Susan, and the
butler, Raymond. The plot motivates a series of views of Kane that are more or
less restricted in their range of knowledge. In Thatcher’s account (4b–4e), we see
only scenes at which he is present. Even Kane’s newspaper crusade is rendered
as Thatcher learns of it, through buying copies of the Inquirer. In Bernstein’s
flashback (5b–5f), there is some deviation from what Bernstein witnesses, but in
general his range of knowledge is respected. For example, we never see Kane in
Europe; we merely hear the contents of Kane’s telegram, which Bernstein delivers
to Leland.
Leland’s flashbacks (6b, 6d–6j) deviate most markedly from the narrator’s
allotted range of knowledge. Here we see Kane and Emily at a series of morning
breakfasts, Kane’s meeting with Susan, and the confrontation of Kane with Boss
Gettys at Susan’s apartment. In scene 6j, Leland is present but in a drunken
stupor most of the time. (The plot motivates Leland’s knowledge of Kane’s
affair by having Leland suggest that Kane told him about it, but the scenes pres-
ent detailed knowledge that Leland probably didn’t possess.) By the time we get
to Susan’s flashback (7b–7k), however, the range of knowledge again fits the
character more snugly. (In one scene, 7f, Susan is unconscious for part of the
action.) The last flashback (8b) is recounted by Raymond and plausibly accords
with his range of knowledge; he is standing in the hallway as Kane wrecks
Susan’s room.
Using different narrators to transmit story information fulfills several func-
tions. It offers a plausible depiction of the process of investigation, since we expect
any reporter to assemble information through interviews. More deeply, the plot’s
portrayal of Kane himself becomes more complex by showing somewhat different
sides of him, depending on who’s talking about him. Moreover, the multiple nar-
rators make the film resemble one of Susan’s jigsaw puzzles. We must put things
together piece by piece. The pattern of gradual revelation enhances curiosity—what
is it in Kane’s past that he associates with Rosebud?—and suspense—how will he
lose his friends and his wives?
This strategy has important implications for film form. While Thompson uses
the various witnesses to gather data, the plot uses the narrators both to furnish story
information and to conceal information. The narration can motivate gaps in knowl-
edge about Kane by appealing to the fact that nobody can know everything about
anyone else. If we were able to enter Kane’s consciousness, we might discover the
meaning of Rosebud much sooner. But Kane is dead. The multiple-narrator format
motivates the withholding of key pieces of information, and this in turn arouses
curiosity and suspense.
Although each narrator’s account is mostly restricted to his or her range of
knowledge, the plot doesn’t treat each flashback in much subjective depth. Most of
the flashbacks are rendered objectively. Some transitions from the framing episodes
use a voice-over commentary to lead us into the flashbacks, but these don’t represent
the narrators’ subjective states. Only in Susan’s flashbacks are there some attempts
to render subjectivity. In scene 7c, we see Leland as if from her optical point
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Narrative Form in Citizen Kane 109
of view on stage, and the phantasmagoric montage of her career (7e) reveals her
fatigue and frustration. These scenes help make her the most sympathetic narrator,
reinforcing our sense that Kane has cruelly forced her to pursue a singing career.
Against the five character narrators, the film’s plot sets another source of
knowledge, the “News on the March” short. We’ve already seen the crucial function
of the newsreel in introducing us to Kane’s plot construction, with the newsreel’s
sections previewing the parts of the film as a whole. The newsreel also gives us a
broad sketch of Kane’s life and death that will be filled in by the more restricted
behind-the-scenes accounts offered by the narrators. The newsreel is also highly
objective, even more so than the rest of the film; it reveals nothing about Kane’s
inner life. Rawl ston’s assigns Thompson to add depth to the newsreel’s superficial
version of Kane.
Yet we still aren’t through with the narrational manipulations in this complex
and daring film. For one thing, all the localized sources of knowledge—“News on
the March” and the five narrators—are linked together by the shadowy reporter
Thompson. To some extent, he is our surrogate in the film, gathering and assem-
bling the puzzle pieces.
It’s very striking, especially for a film made over 70 years ago, that Thompson
is barely characterized. We can’t even identify his face (3.44). This, as usual, has
a function. If we saw him clearly, if the plot gave him more traits or a background
or a past, he would become the central protagonist, as reporters tend to be in the
journalism genre. But Citizen Kane is less about Thompson the man than about
his search. The plot’s handling of Thompson makes him a neutral channel for the
story information that he gathers, even though his conclusion at the end—“I don’t
think any word can explain a man’s life”—suggests that he has been changed by
his investigation.
Thompson is not, however, a perfect surrogate for us. That’s because the film’s
narration inserts the newsreel, the narrators, and Thompson within a still broader
range of knowledge. The flashback portions are predominantly restricted, but there
are other passages that reveal an overall narrational omniscience.
From the very start, we are given a god’s-eye view of the action. We move
into a mysterious setting that we later learn is Kane’s estate, Xanadu. We might
have learned about this locale through a character’s journey, the way we acquaint
ourselves with Oz by means of Dorothy’s trip. Here, however, an omniscient nar-
ration conducts the tour. Eventually, we enter a darkened bedroom. A hand holds a
paperweight, and over this is superimposed a flurry of snow (3.45).
The image teases us. Is the narration making a lyrical comment on the action?
Or is the image subjective, a glimpse into the dying man’s mind or vision? In either
case, the narration reveals its ability to command a great deal of story information.
Our sense of omniscience is enhanced when, after the man dies, a nurse bustles into
the room. Apparently, no character knows what we know.
At other points in the film, the omniscient narration calls attention to itself.
During Susan’s opera debut in Leland’s flashback (6i), we see stagehands high
above reacting to her performance. Most vivid is the omniscient narration at the
end of the film. Thompson and the other reporters leave, never having learned the
meaning of Rosebud. But we linger in the vast storeroom of Xanadu. And, thanks
to the narration, we learn that Rosebud is the name of Kane’s childhood sled. We
can now associate the opening’s emphasis on the snowy cottage with the closing
scene’s revelation of the sled.
This framing narration is truly omniscient. It withholds a key piece of story
information at the outset, teases us with hints (the snow, the tiny cottage in the
paperweight), and finally reveals at least part of the answer to the initial question.
A return to the “No Trespassing” sign reminds us of our point of entry into the film.
The film derives its unity not only from systematic choices about causality and time
but also from a patterned narration that arouses curiosity and suspense and yields
a surprise at the very end.
3.45 Narrational omniscience in
Citizen Kane. The elusive image of
the paper weight in Citizen Kane—
seen by film viewers but not by any
characters in the film.
3.44 Deemphasizing Thompson.
Camera angle and selective lighting
make the reporter less important than
the witnesses he interviews.
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Not every analysis of a narrative film runs through all
the categories we have covered here. Our purpose was
as much to illustrate these concepts as to analyze Citizen
Kane. With practice, you can become more familiar with
these analytical tools and can use them flexibly, suiting
your approach to the specific film at hand and the things
that intrigue you about it. Should you become a film-
maker, all these matters, from cause-effect patterns to
narrational organization, will confront you with a cascade
of decisions. You may make your choices intuitively or
through lots of thought and soul searching, but these
remain essential dimensions of storytelling.
In looking at any narrative film, then, asking these
questions will help you understand it better:
1. Which story events are directly presented to us in the
plot, and which must we assume or infer? Is there
any nondiegetic material given in the plot?
2. What is the earliest story event of which we learn?
How does it relate to later events through a series of
causes and effects?
3. How are story events connected in time? Have the
filmmakers manipulated order, frequency, and dura-
tion in the plot so as to affect our understanding of
4. Does the closing reflect a clear-cut pattern of
development that relates it to the opening? Do all
narrative lines achieve closure, or are some left
5. How does the narration present story information to
us? Is it restricted to one or a few characters’ knowl-
edge, or does it range freely among the characters in
different spaces? Does it give us considerable depth
of story information by exploring the characters’
mental states?
6. How closely does the film follow the conventions
of the classical Hollywood cinema? If it departs
significantly from those conventions, what formal
principles does it use instead?
Most films that we see employ narrative form, and the
great majority of theatrical movies stick to the premises of
Hollywood storytelling. Still, there are other formal possibili-
ties. We consider aspects of nonnarrative form in Chapter 10.
In the meantime, other matters will occupy us. In dis-
cussing form, we’ve been examining how we as viewers
engage with the film’s overall patterning. A film, how-
ever, also presents a complex blend of images and sounds.
Like the overall architecture of film form, the finer grain
of cinematic techniques involves the filmmaker in creative
problem solving and decision making. Our experience of
the film is shaped by the filmmaker’s choice and control
and patterning of those techniques. Part Three shows how
this all happens.
110 CHAPTER 3 Narrative Form
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P A R T 3
We are still trying to understand how a movie creates an absorbing experience for the viewer.
Chapter 2 showed that the concept of form offers a way to grasp the film as a whole. Chapter 3
examined how narrative form can shape a film and our response to it. Later we’ll see that
filmmakers have employed other types of form in documentaries and experimental films.
When we see a film, though, we don’t engage only with its overall form. We experience
a film—not a painting or a novel. A painter knows how to manipulate color, shape, and com-
position. A novelist lives intimately with language. Likewise, filmmakers work with a distinct
You’re already somewhat aware
of the creative choices available in the
film medium. As a viewer you prob-
ably notice performance and color
design. If you’ve made videos, you’ve
become more aware of framing and
composition, editing and sound. If you’ve tried your hand at making a fictional piece, you’ve
already faced problems of staging and acting.
Part Three of this book gives you a chance to learn about film techniques in a systematic
way. We look at two techniques governing the shot, mise-en-scene and cinematography.
Then we consider the technique that relates shot to shot, editing. Then we consider the role
that sound plays in relation to film images. A wrapup chapter returns to Citizen Kane and
examines how it coordinates all these techniques with its narrative form.
Each chapter introduces a single technique, surveying the choices it offers to the
filmmaker. We explore how various filmmakers have used the techniques. Several key
questions will guide us: How can a technique shape the viewer’s expectations? How may it
furnish motifs for the film? How may a technique support the film’s overall form—its story/plot
relations or its narrational patterning? How may it direct our attention, clarify or emphasize
meanings, and shape our emotional response?
The chapters that follow also explore how a film can organize its chosen techniques in
consistent ways. This pattern of technical choices we call style. Style is what creates a movie’s
“look and feel.” Late in each chapter, we focus on one or two particular films to show how the
technique we’re studying helps establish a distinctive style.
Film Style
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C H A P T E R 4
The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Of all film techniques, mise-en-scene is the one that viewers notice most. After seeing a film, we may not recall the cutting or the cam-era movements, the dissolves or the offscreen sound. But we do
remember the costumes in Gone with the Wind and the bleak, chilly lighting in
Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. We retain vivid impressions of the misty streets
in The Big Sleep and the labyrinthine, fluorescent-lit lair of Buffalo Bill in The
Silence of the Lambs. We recall Harpo Marx clambering over Edgar Kennedy’s
lemonade stand (Duck Soup) and Michael J. Fox escaping high-school bullies on
an improvised skateboard (Back to the Future). Many of our most vivid memories
of movies stem from mise-en-scene.
What Is Mise-en-Scene?
Consider this image from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (4.1). Aldo
Raine, a U.S. soldier on a mission to assassinate Hitler, has been captured by
SS Colonel Hans Landa. The shot seems a simple one, but if you’re starting to think
like a filmmaker, you’ll notice how Tarantino has shaped the image to accentuate
the action and engage our attention.
The shot presents the two men facing each other behind a movie theater. The
alley is rendered minimally, in dark colors and subdued lighting. By playing down
the setting, Tarantino obliges us to concentrate on the confrontation.
Although both men are positioned in profile, the image doesn’t give equal
weight to each one. The cowl masks Aldo’s face. This costume choice encourages
us to concentrate on the face that we can see. The lighting is important as well. A
4.1 What attracts your eye?
Elements of mise-en-scene accentuate
action and engage attention in this
scene from Inglourious Basterds, in
which Aldo Raine is captured by
Colonel Landa.
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The Power of Mise-en-Scene 113
thread of illumination picks out the edge of Raine’s cowl;
without it, it would merge into the background. Again,
however, it is Landa’s face that gets greater emphasis.
Strong lighting from above and left sharply outlines his
profile, and a less powerful light (what filmmakers call
fill) reveals his features.
Landa is emphasized in another way, through the
actor’s dialogue and facial expression. As Landa speaks, he
shows delight in the capture of his quarry. His satisfaction
bursts out when he chortles: “Alas, you’re now in the hands
of the SS—my hands, to be exact!” Letting the actor’s
hands fly up into the center of the frame and emphasizing
them by the dialogue, Tarantino reminds us of the officer’s
florid self-assurance. This hand gesture will be developed
when Landa playfully taps Raine’s head with a forefinger:
“I’ve been waiting a long time to touch you.”
Although Tarantino has made many creative choices in
this shot (notably the decision to film in a relatively close
framing), certain techniques stand out. Setting, costume,
lighting, and performance have all been coordinated to high-
light Landa’s gloating and remind us that he enjoys his cat-and-mouse interrogation
tactics. Tarantino has shaped our experience of this story action by his decisions about
In the original French, mise en scène (pronounced meez-ahn-sen) means “put-
ting into the scene,” and it was first applied to the practice of directing plays. Film
scholars, extending the term to film direction, use the term to signify the director’s
control over what appears in the film frame. As you would expect, mise-en-scene
includes those aspects of film that overlap with the art of the theater: setting, light-
ing, costume and makeup, and staging and performance.
As the Inglourious Basterds shot suggests, mise-en-scene usually involves plan-
ning in advance. But the filmmaker may seize on unplanned events as well. An actor
may add a line on the set, or an unexpected change in lighting may enhance a dramatic
effect. While filming a cavalry procession through Monument Valley for She Wore
a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford took advantage of an approaching lightning storm to
create a dramatic backdrop for the action (4.2). The storm remains part of the film’s
mise-en-scene even though Ford neither planned it nor controlled it; it was a lucky
accident that helped create one of the film’s most affecting passages. Jean Renoir,
Robert Altman, and other directors have allowed their actors to improvise their per-
formances, making the films’ mise-en-scene more spontaneous and unpredictable.
The Power of Mise-en-Scene
Filmmakers can use mise-en-scene to achieve realism, giving settings an authentic
look or letting actors perform as naturally as possible. Throughout film history,
however, audiences have also been attracted to fantasy, and mise-en-scene has
often been used for this purpose. This attraction is evident in the work of cinema’s
first master of the technique, Georges Méliès. Méliès used highly original mise-
en-scene to create an imaginary world on film.
A caricaturist and stage magician, Méliès became fascinated by the Lumière
brothers’ demonstration of their short films in 1895. (For more on the Lumières,
see p. 177.) After building a camera based on an English projector, Méliès began
filming unstaged street scenes and moments of passing daily life. One day, the story
goes, he was filming at the Place de l’Opéra, but his camera jammed as a bus was
passing. By the time he could resume filming, the bus had gone and a hearse was
in front of his lens. When Méliès screened the film, he discovered something
For more on Méliès and his last
years, visit our entry “Hugo:
Scorsese’s birthday present to
Georges Méliès.”
4.2 Unplanned events and mise-en-scene. While filming She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford took advantage of a thunderstorm
in Monument Valley.
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114 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
unexpected: a moving bus seemed to transform instantly into a hearse. Whether or
not the anecdote is true, it at least illustrates Méliès’s recognition of the magical pow-
ers of mise-en-scene. He would devote most of his efforts to cinematic conjuring.
To do so would require preparation, since Méliès could not count on lucky acci-
dents like the bus–hearse transformation. He would have to plan and stage action for
the camera. Drawing on his theatrical experience, Méliès built one of the first film
studios—a small, crammed affair bristling with balconies, trapdoors, and sliding
backdrops. Total control was necessary to create the fantasy world he envisioned
(4.3–4.6). He drew shots beforehand, designed sets and costumes, and devised elabo-
rate special effects. As if this were not enough, Méliès starred in his own films (4.6).
Méliès’s “Star-Film” studio made hundreds of short fantasy and trick films
based on a strict control over every element in the frame, and the first master of mise-
en-scene demonstrated the resources of the technique. The legacy of Méliès’s magic
is a delightfully unreal world wholly obedient to the whims of the imagination.
When Buñuel was preparing
The Discreet Charm of the
Bourgeoisie, he chose a tree-
lined avenue for the recurring
shot of his characters traipsing
endlessly down it. The avenue
was strangely stranded in open
country and it perfectly suggested
the idea of these people coming
from nowhere and going nowhere.
Buñuel’s assistant said, ‘You can’t
use that road. It’s been used in at
least ten other movies.’ ‘Ten other
movies?’ said Buñuel, impressed.
‘Then it must be good.’””
4.3–4.6 Méliès and mise-en-scene. Méliès made detailed plans for his shots, as seen in the drawing and final version of the rocket-
launching scene in A Trip to the Moon (4.3–4.4). For The Mermaid (4.5) he summoned up an undersea world by placing a fish tank
between the camera and an actress, some backdrops, and “carts for monsters.” In La Lune à une mètre (4.6) Méliès plays an astronomer.
His study and its furnishings, including telescope, globe, and blackboard, are all painted cut-outs.
4.3 4.4
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 115
Components of Mise-en-Scene
Mise-en-scene offers the filmmaker four general areas of
choice and control: setting, costumes and makeup, lighting,
and staging (which includes acting and movement in the shot).
Since the earliest days of cinema, critics and audiences have
understood that setting plays a more active role in cinema
than it usually does in the theater. André Bazin writes:
The human being is all-important in the theatre. The
drama on the screen can exist without actors. A banging
door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can
heighten the dramatic effect. Some film masterpieces use
man only as an accessory, like an extra, or in counterpoint
to nature, which is the true leading character.
In a film, the setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container
for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action. Kelly Reichardt’s
Wendy and Lucy begins with shots of a railroad yard as trains pass through (4.7). But
we don’t see any people. Wendy, who is making her way across the United States
by car, is later seen walking her dog Lucy in a park. The opening shots of the rail
yard suggest the sort of neighborhoods where she must stay. At later points in the
film, the roar and whistle of rail traffic will increase suspense, but not until the end-
ing will we come to understand why the opening emphasized the trains.
The filmmaker may select an existing locale for the action. The very early short
comedy L’Arroseur arrosé (“The Waterer Sprayed,” 4.8) was filmed in a garden.
At the close of World War II, Roberto Rossellini shot Germany Year Zero in the
rubble of Berlin (4.9). Alternatively, the filmmaker may construct the setting.
Méliès understood that shooting in a studio increased his control, and many film-
makers followed his lead. In France, Germany, and especially the United States,
commercial filmmaking became centered on studio facilities in which every aspect
of mise-en-scene could be manipulated.
Some directors have emphasized authenticity even in purpose-built settings.
For example, Erich von Stroheim prided himself on meticulous research into details
of locale for the sets of Greed (4.10). All the President’s Men (1976) took a similar
tack, seeking to duplicate the Washington Post office on a sound stage (4.11). Other
films have been less committed to accuracy. Though D. W. Griffith studied the vari-
ous historical periods presented in Intolerance, his Babylon constitutes a personal
image of that city (4.12). Similarly, in Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein freely
stylized the decor of the czar’s palace to harmonize with the lighting, costume, and
figure movement, so that characters crawl through doorways that resemble mouse-
holes and stand frozen before symbolic murals (4.13).
Setting can overwhelm the actors, as in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (4.14),
or it can be reduced to almost nothing, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s
Dracula (4.15). The overall design of a setting can shape how we understand story
action. In Louis Feuillade’s silent crime serial The Vampires, a criminal gang has
killed a courier on his way to a bank. The gang’s confederate, Irma Vep, is also a
bank employee, and just as she tells her superior that the courier has vanished, an
imposter, in beard and bowler hat, strolls in behind them (4.16). They turn away
from us in surprise as he comes forward (4.17). Working in a period when cutting
to closer shots was rare in a French film, Feuillade draws our attention to the man
by centering him in the doorway.
But suppose a filmmaker is using a more crowded locale. How can a compact
setting yield smooth drama? The heroine of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a widow who
4.7 Setting creates narrative expectations. The railway yard
at the opening of Wendy and Lucy is a setting that will take on
significance later in the film.
4.8–4.9 Actual locations used as
setting. Although Louis Lumière’s
camera men were famous for docu-
mentar y f ilming, they also made
fictional narratives such as the 1895
L’Arroseur arrosé (4. 8 ). Rober to
Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (4.9)
maintained the tradition of staging
fictional stories in actual locations.
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116 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
4.10–4.11 Authenticity in constructed settings. Details such as posters and hanging flypaper create a tavern scene in Greed (4.10).
To replicate an actual newsroom in All the President’s Men (4.11), even wastepaper from the actual office was scattered around the set.
4.10 4.11
4.12–4.13 Stylized settings. The Babylonian sequences of Intolerance (4.12) combined inf luences from Assyrian histor y,
19th-century biblical illustration, and modern dance. In Ivan the Terrible, Part 2, the décor (4.13) dominates the characters.
4.12 4.13
4.14–4.15 The interplay of setting and actors. In Wings of Desire, busy, colorful graffiti draw attention away from the man lying
on the ground (4.14). In contrast, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, apart from the candles, the setting of this scene has been obliterated by
darkness (4.15).
4.14 4.15
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 117
is trying to improve the food she serves in her restaurant. In one scene, a cowboy-
hatted truck driver takes her to another noodle shop to watch professionals do busi-
ness. Itami has staged the scene so that the kitchen and the counter serve as two
arenas for the action. At first, the widow watches the noodle-man take orders, sit-
ting by her mentor on the edge of the kitchen (4.18). Quickly, the counter fills with
customers calling out orders. The truck driver challenges her to match the orders
with the customers, and she steps closer to the center of the kitchen (4.19). After
she calls out the orders correctly, she turns her back to us, and our interest shifts to
the customers, who applaud her (4.20).
As the Tampopo example shows, color can be an important component of set-
tings. The dark colors of the kitchen surfaces make the widow’s red dress stand out.
Robert Bresson’s L’Argent parallels its settings by drab green backgrounds and cold
blue props and costumes (4.21–4.23). In contrast, Jacques Tati’s Play Time displays
sharply changing color schemes. In the first portion of Play Time, the settings and
costumes are mostly gray, brown, and black—cold, steely colors. Later in the film,
however, beginning in the restaurant scene, the settings start to sport cheery reds,
pinks, and greens. This change in the settings’ colors supports a narrative development
that shows an inhuman city landscape that is transformed by vitality and spontaneity.
A full-size setting need not always be built. Through much of the history of
the cinema, filmmakers have used miniature buildings to create fantasy scenes or
simply to economize. Parts of settings could also be rendered as paintings and com-
bined photographically with full-sized sections of the space. Now, digital special
effects can conjure up settings in comparable ways. When the makers of Angels &
Demons were refused permission to shoot in Vatican City, they built partial sets of
St. Peter’s Square and the Pantheon, then filled in the missing stretches (4.24, 4.25).
In manipulating a shot’s setting, the filmmaker may use a prop, short for
property. This is another term borrowed from theatrical mise-en-scene. When
4.16–4.17 Setting guides “attention.
In The Vampires, a background frame
created by a large doorway emphasizes
the importance of an entering character.
4.18–4.20 Activating areas of a setting. In Tampopo, at
the start of the scene (4.18), the noodle counter, with only two
customers, occupies the center of the action. The widow and
her truck driver mentor stand inconspicuously at the left. After
the counter is full (4.19), the dramatic emphasis shifts to the
kitchen when the widow rises and takes the challenge to name
the customers’ orders. Her red dress helps draw attention to her.
When she has triumphantly matched the orders, she gets a round
of applause (4.20). By turning her away from us, Itami once more
emphasizes the rear counter.
4.18 4.19
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118 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
an object in the setting has a function within the ongoing action, we can call it
a prop. Films teem with examples: the snowstorm paperweight that shatters at
the beginning of Citizen Kane, the little girl’s balloon in M, the cactus rose in
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sarah Connor’s hospital bed turned exercise
machine in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Comedies often use props to create
gags (4.26).
Over the course of a narrative, a prop may become a motif. In Alexander Payne’s
Election, the fussy, frustrated high school teacher is shown cleaning out spoiled food
4.21–4.23 Color creates parallels among settings. Color
links the affluent home in L’Argent (4.21) to the prison (4.22) and
later to the old woman’s home (4.23).
4.21 4.22
4.24–4.25 Digital set replacement. Only a portion of the buildings lining St. Peter’s Square were built for Angels & Demons. The
remainder of the set was covered with greenscreens during filming. Digital matte paintings were added to create major elements like the
colonnades at the sides and the tops of the background buildings.
4.24 4.25
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 119
and hallway litter, and these actions prepare for the climactic
moment when he crumples a ballot and secretly disposes of
it (4.27–4.29). Payne calls this the motif of trash, “of throw-
ing things away, since that’s in fact the climax of the film. . . .
So we establish it early on.” Color may help props become
motifs. In some scenes of Finye (The Wind), the recurrent
use of orange creates a cluster of nature motifs (4.30–4.32).
When we look at Our Hospitality later in the chapter, we’ll
examine how elements of setting, particularly props, can
weave through a film to create motifs.
Costume and Makeup
If you were planning a film, you’d probably give as much
attention to what your actors wear as you pay to their sur-
roundings. Like setting, costume can have a great variety
of specific functions in the film’s overall form.
Costumes can play causal roles in film plots. In the runaway bus section of
Speed, Annie’s outfit provides the clue that allows Jack to outwit the bomber
Howard. During a phone conversation Howard refers to Annie as a “Wildcat.”
Noticing Annie’s University of Arizona sweater, Jack realizes that Howard must
have hidden a video camera on the bus. Less obviously, costumes can become
motifs, enhancing characterization and tracing changes in attitude (4.33–4.36).
In other films, costumes can be used for their purely graphic qualities.
Throughout Ivan the Terrible, robes and capes are orchestrated with one another in
their colors, their textures, and even the way they flow (4.37). Freak Orlando boldly
uses costumes to display primary colors with maximum intensity (4.38).
In these last examples, as well as in Tampopo (4.18–4.20) and L’Argent
(4.21–4.23), costume is coordinated with setting. Since the filmmaker usually wants
to emphasize the human figures, setting may provide a more or less neutral back-
ground, while costume helps pick out the characters. Color design is particularly
The best sets are the simplest,
most ‘decent’ ones; everything
should contribute to the feeling of
the story and anything that does
not do this has no place. Reality
is usually too complicated. Real
locations contain too much that
is extreme or contradictory and
always require some simplifying:
taking things away, unifying
colors, etc. This strength through
simplicity is much easier to
achieve on a built set than in an
existing location.”
—Stuart Craig, art director, Notting Hill
4.26 Comic use of props. The irresponsible protagonist of
Groundhog Day eats an enormous breakfast; all the dishes serve
as props in the diner setting.
4.27–4.29 Props as motifs in Election. As he discards
spoiled leftovers, the teacher is suspiciously watched by the
custodian—who will play an important role in his downfall (4.27).
He tosses a scrap of paper into the corridor trash bin (4.28). The
motif culminates in a close-up of the teacher’s hand discarding
the crucial vote for student council president (4.29).
4.27 4.28
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120 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
important here. The Freak Orlando costumes (4.38) stand out boldly against the
neutral gray background of an artificial lake. In The Night of the Shooting Stars,
luminous wheat fields set off the hard black-and-blue costumes of the fascists and
the peasants (4.39). The director may instead choose to match the color values
of setting and costume more closely (4.40). This “bleeding” of the costume into
the setting is carried to a kind of limit in the prison scene of THX 1138, in which
George Lucas strips both locale and clothing to stark white on white (4.41).
The costume is a very
important thing. It speaks before
you do. You know what you’re
looking at. You get a reference
and it gives context about
the other characters and their
—Harrison Ford, actor
4.30–4.32 Color as a motif. Souleymane Cissé’s Finye begins
with a woman carrying an orange calabash as the wind rustles
through foliage (4.30). Later, the vengeful grandfather prepares to
stalk his grandson’s persecutor by dressing in orange and making
magic before a fire (4.31). At the end, the little boy passes his bowl
to someone offscreen (4.32)—possibly a couple seen earlier in
the film.
4.30 4.31
4.33–4.34 Costume and character. In a poignant moment in Griffith’s The Birth of a
Nation, the Little Sister decorates her shabby dress with “ermine” made of cotton dotted with
spots of soot (4.33). The image suggests both her effort to be elegant and her realization of
her poverty. In Fellini’s 8½, the film director Guido persistently uses his dark glasses (4.34) to
shield himself from the world.
4.33 4.34
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 121
Women in Love affords a clear example of how costume and setting can con-
tribute to a film’s narrative progression. The opening scenes portray the characters’
shallow middle-class life by means of saturated primary and complementary col-
ors in costume and setting (4.42). In the middle portions
of the film, as the characters discover love on a country
estate, pale pastels predominate (4.43). The last section of
Women in Love takes place around the Matterhorn, and the
characters’ ardor has cooled. Now the colors have almost
disappeared, and scenes are dominated by pure black and
white (4.44). By combining with setting, costumes may
reinforce narrative and thematic patterns.
Computer technology can graft virtual costumes onto
fully computer- generated characters, like Gollum in The
Lord of the Rings or the many extras in the backgrounds
of big crowd scenes. Entirely digital costumes for human
actors are less common, but fantasy and science fiction
films use them (4.45).
Many of these points about costume apply equally to a
closely related area of mise-en-scene, the actors’ makeup.
In the early days of cinema, makeup was necessary because
4.35–4.36 Costume and character change. When Hildy Johnson, in His Girl Friday,
switches from her role of aspiring housewife to that of reporter, her hats change as well—from
a stylish number with a low-dipping brim (4.35) to a more “masculine” hat with its brim pushed
up, journalist-style (4.36).
4.35 4.36
4.37–4.38 Graphic qualities of costumes. In Ivan the Terrible, the sweeping folds of a priest’s lightweight black robe
contrast with the heavy cloak and train of the czar’s furs (4.37). In Freak Orlando, stylized costumes with intense, primary
colors are featured (4.38). The director, Ulrike Ottinger, is a professional costume designer.
4.37 4.38
4.39 Color contrast of costume and setting. In the climactic
skirmish of The Night of the Shooting Stars, the dark costumes
stand out starkly against the more neutral background.
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122 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
actors’ faces would not register
well on film stocks. Over the
course of film history, a wide
range of possibilities emerged.
Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne
d’Arc was famous for its complete
avoidance of makeup (4.46).
For Ivan the Terrible, however,
Nikolai Cherkasov plays the
czar wearing a wig and a false
beard, nose, and eyebrows (4.47).
Changing actors to look like his-
torical personages has been one
common function of makeup.
Makeup is most noticeable
in horror and science fiction
films, and the popularity of those genres contributed new technology to the craft.
Rubber and plasticine compounds can create bumps, bulges, extra organs, and lay-
ers of artificial skin. Now other genres are utilizing those resources (4.48–4.50).
Today the hope is for makeup generally to pass unnoticed, and quietly accentu-
ate expressive qualities of the actor’s face. Because the camera may record cruel
details that we wouldn’t notice in ordinary life, unsuitable blemishes, wrinkles, and
sagging skin will have to be hidden. The makeup artist can sculpt the face, making
it seem narrower or broader by applying blush and shadow. Viewers expect that
female performers will wear lipstick and other cosmetics, but the male actors are
usually wearing makeup as well.
4.40–4.41 Color coordinates costume and setting. Fellini’s Casanova creates a color gradation that runs from bright red costumes
to paler red walls (4.40), the whole composition capped by a small white accent in the distance. In THX 1138, heads seem to float in space
as white costumes blend into white settings (4.41).
4.40 4.41
4.42–4.44 Costume, setting, and narrative. Bright colors in an early scene of Women in Love (4.42) give way to the softer hues of
trees and fields (4.43) and finally to a predominantly white-and-black scheme (4.44), contributing to the progression of the story.
4.42 4.43 4.44
4.45 Virtual costume. Watchmen’s superhero Rorschach wears a hood with moving
black patterns. In postproduction, a digital simulation of ink flowing through the fibers was
superimposed on the actor’s face.
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 123
4 . 4 8–4 . 5 0 C r e a t i v e c h o i c e s i n
makeup. Tilda Swinton (4.48) is an actor
who enjoys experimenting with makeup. In
the futuristic fantasy Snowpiercer, she and
her makeup designer used an artificial nose,
protruding teeth, and vibrant lipstick to
create a grotesque, tyrannical administrator
(4.49). For The Grand Budapest Hotel,
director Wes Anderson exploited the new
makeup technology for grotesque comedy.
To portray an elderly woman, Swinton wore
11 pieces of prosthetic makeup on her neck,
chin, earlobes, forehead, and nose—along
with five wig pieces (4.50).
4.46 Plain faces. Pale backgrounds focus
attention on the actors’ faces in many shots of
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. The actors wore
no makeup, and the director, Carl Dreyer,
relied on close-ups and tiny facial changes to
create an intense religious drama.
4.47 Makeup interprets a historical
figure. In Ivan the Terrible, Part 1, makeup
shapes the eyebrows and hollows the eye
sockets to emphasize Ivan’s piercing gaze, a
central feature in director Sergei Eisenstein’s
conception of the all-knowing czar.
4.51–4.52 Makeup: Man and woman. In Speed, Sandra Bullock’s eyeliner, shadow, and arched brows make her eyes vivid and give
her an alert expression (4.51). For the same scene, the eyeliner on Keanu Reeves makes the upper edges of his eyes stand out (4.52).
Note the somewhat fierce slope of the eyebrows, accentuating his slight frown.
4.48 4.49
4.51 4.52
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124 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Film actors rely on their eyes to a great extent (see A Closer Look, p. 134), and
makeup artists can often enhance facial performance. Eyeliner and mascara can
emphasize the direction of a glance. Nearly every actor will also have expressively
shaped eyebrows—lengthened eyebrows can enlarge the face; shorter brows make
the face seem more compact. Eyebrows plucked in a slightly rising curve add gaiety
to the face, but slightly sloping ones hint at sadness. Thick, straight brows com-
monly applied to men reinforce the impression of a hard, serious gaze (4.51, 4.52).
Although most makeup continues to be physically applied to actors’ faces,
digital technology can be used as well. Minor cleanups remove flaws or shadows
from faces. More drastically, a villain can lose a nose or, via head replacement, an
actor can play two roles in the same shot (4.53, 4.54). Computer-generated imag-
ery (CGI) has extended the importance of makeup, because now the filmmaker
can sculpt entire bodies. Gary Sinise’s legs were removed so that he could play an
amputee in Forrest Gump, and a muscular actor was made to look thin and weak
before becoming a superhero in Captain America: The First Avenger.
If you’ve shot videos with your cellphone or camera, you may not have thought
much about manipulating lighting. Modern digital capture can produce a legible
4.53–4.54 Digital makeup. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Ralph Fiennes’s nose
was removed and replaced with nostrils appropriate to the snake-like Lord Voldemort (4.53).
When two clones of the same man get into a fight in Moon, a stunt man wearing a green hood
with motion-capture dots played one of the clones (4.54). Actor Sam Rockwell’s head was shot
separately and then inserted into the scene.
Light is everything. It
expresses ideology, emotion,
colour, depth, style. It can efface,
narrate, describe. With the right
lighting, the ugliest face, the most
idiotic expression can radiate with
beauty or intelligence.”
—Federico Fellini, director
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 125
image in bright or dark situations, and for many purposes, all that matters is that
the subject be visible. But the practiced filmmaker wants more than legibility. The
image should have pictorial impact, and for that it’s vital to control the lighting. Not
many actual situations would yield the delicate edge lighting or facial fill light we
saw in our shot from Inglourious Basterds (4.1).
In artistic filmmaking, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us
to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall
composition of each shot and guide our attention to certain objects and actions. A
brightly illuminated patch may draw our eye to a key gesture, while a shadow may
conceal a detail or build up suspense about what may be present. Lighting can also
articulate textures: the curve of a face, the grain of a piece of wood, the tracery of
a spider’s web, the sparkle of a gem.
Highlights and Shadows Lighting shapes objects by creating highlights and
shadows. A highlight is a patch of relative brightness on a surface. The man’s face
in 4.55 and the edge of the fingers in 4.56 display highlights. Highlights provide
important cues to the texture of the surface. If the surface is smooth, like glass or
chrome, the highlights tend to gleam or sparkle; a rougher surface, like a coarse
stone facing, yields more diffuse highlights. Shadows likewise do the same, allow-
ing objects to have portions of darkness (called shading) or to cast their shadows
onto something else. Thus the fingers in 4.56 are visible partly because they are
shaded, while the stark vertical shadows of 4.55 imply prison bars offscreen.
Lighting creates not only textures but also overall shape. If a ball is lit straight
on from the front, it appears round. If the same ball is lit from the side, we see it as
a half-circle. Hollis Frampton’s short film Lemon consists primarily of light moving
around a lemon, and the shifting shadows and shading create dramatically changing
patterns of yellow and black. This film almost seems designed to prove the truth of
a remark made by Josef von Sternberg: “The proper use of light can embellish and
dramatize every object.”
Lighting joins with setting in controlling our sense of a scene’s space. In 4.55,
a few shadows imply an entire prison cell. Lighting also shapes a shot’s overall
composition. One image from John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle welds the gang mem-
bers into a unit by the pool of light cast by a hanging lamp. At the same time, the
lighting sets up a scale of importance, emphasizing the protagonist by making him
the most frontal and clearly lit figure (4.57).
Quality For our purposes, we can say that filmmakers exploit and explore four
major aspects of lighting: its quality, direction, source, and color. Lighting quality
refers to the relative intensity of the illumination. Hard lighting creates clearly
defined shadows, crisp textures, and sharp edges, whereas soft lighting creates a dif-
fused illumination. In nature, the noonday sun creates hard light, whereas an overcast
Every light has a point where
it is brightest and a point toward
which it wanders to lose itself
completely. . . . The journey of
rays from that central core to
the outposts of blackness is the
adventure and drama of light.”
—Josef von Sternberg
4.55 4.56 4.57
4.55–4.57 Highlights and shadows. In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, the man’s face and body display highlights (4.55), while the cast
shadows suggest the unseen bars of a jail cell. In Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, the edge of the fingers display highlights (4.56), while the
hand is subtly modeled by shading. Shadows on faces create a dramatic composition in John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (4.57).
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126 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
sky creates soft light. The terms are relative, and many lighting situations will fall
between the extremes, but we can usually recognize the differences (4.58–4.61).
Direction The direction of lighting in a shot refers to the path of light from its
source or sources to the object lit. For convenience we can distinguish among fron-
tal lighting, sidelighting, backlighting, underlighting, and top lighting.
Frontal lighting can be recognized by its tendency to eliminate shadows. In
4.62, from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, the result of such frontal lighting is a
fairly flat-looking image. Contrast 4.63, in which a hard sidelight (also called a
crosslight) sculpts the character’s features.
Backlighting, as the name suggests, comes from behind the subject. The light
can be positioned at many angles: high above the figure, at various angles off to
the side, pointing straight at the camera, or from below. Used with no other sources
of light, backlighting tends to create silhouettes, as in 4.64. Combined with more
frontal sources of light, the technique can create a subtle contour, as we saw with
4.58 4.59
4.58–4.59 Hard versus soft
lighting. In Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito,
Apu’s mother and the globe she
holds are emphasized by hard lighting
(4.58). In another shot from the
same film (4.59), softer lighting blurs
contours and textures and makes for
more diffusion and gentler contrasts
between light and shade.
4.60 4.61
4.60–4.61 Hard and soft lighting in color. The spy thriller Skyfall shows James Bond returning from near death to international
intrigue. Hard lighting in early scenes gives his face a haggard, worn look aided by makeup (including pink-rimmed eyes). Once he’s back
in action in a Macau casino, Bond’s face is sculpted by gentler shading and softer illumination. The difference is enhanced by the neutral,
colorless lighting in 4.60 and the warmer glow in 4.61.
4.63 Side lighting. In Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles,
light from the left creates sharp shading of the character’s nose,
cheek, and lips.
4.62 Frontal lighting. In Jean-Luc Godard’s La
Chinoise, frontal lighting eliminates most surface
shading and makes the actress’s shadow fall directly
behind her, where we cannot see it.
4.64 Backlighting. In Godard’s
Passion, the lamp and window provide
backlighting that presents the woman
almost entirely in silhouette.
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 127
Raine’s black cowl in Inglourious Basterds (4.1). This use of backlighting is called
edge lighting or rim lighting (4.65).
As its name implies, underlighting suggests that the light comes from below
the subject. Since underlighting tends to distort features, it is often used to create
dramatic horror effects, but it may also simply indicate a realistic light source, such
as a fireplace, or, as in 4.66, a flashlight. As usual, a particular technique can func-
tion differently according to context.
Top lighting is exemplified by 4.67, where the spotlight shines down from
almost directly above Marlene Dietrich’s face. Here top lighting creates a glamor-
ous image. In our earlier example from Asphalt Jungle (4.57), the light from above
is harder, in keeping with the conventional harshness of crime films. Director
Jacques Audiard chose to use top lighting with very little fill in his prison drama
A Prophet: “It’s a matter of realism—everything is not visible all the time” (4.68).
Source Lighting has a quality, and it has direction. It can also be characterized
by its source. In making a documentary, the filmmaker may be obliged to shoot
with whatever light is available. Most fictional films, however, use extra light
sources to obtain greater control of the image’s look. Typically the table lamps
and streetlights you see in a set aren’t strong or varied enough to create a powerful
image. Still, the filmmaker will usually create a lighting design that seems consis-
tent with the sources in the setting. The pattern of illumination is motivated by the
visible sources. (See p. 63.)
Look back at Figure 4.1, the confrontation in Inglourious Basterds. The pattern
of light we see is roughly consistent with the source in the shot, the street lamp in
the alley. But that lamp at that distance could not produce the hard light on Landa’s
head or the fill light that reveals his features. In 4.69, from The Miracle Worker, the
window in the rear and the lantern in the right foreground appear to be the sources
of illumination, but many studio lights supplemented them.
Directors and cinematographers manipulating the lighting of the scene typi-
cally decide on two primary sources: a key light and a fill light. The key light is
the primary source, providing the brightest illumination and casting the strongest
shadows. The key light is the most directional light, and it is usually suggested by a
light source in the setting. A fill is a less intense illumination that “fills in,” soften-
ing or eliminating shadows cast by the key light. By combining key and fill, and by
adding other sources, lighting can be controlled quite exactly.
The key lighting source may be aimed at the subject from any angle, as we’ve
seen. In our shot from The Sixth Sense (4.66), underlighting may be the key source,
while a softer and dimmer fill falls on the setting in the background. Lights from
various directions are often combined.
4.65 Edge, or rim, lighting. Edge
lighting makes the outline of each actor’s
body stand out from the background.
This shot from Wings shows edge
lighting on many parts of the frame,
especially along the actors’ faces and
hair and on the edge of the porch.
4.65 Edge, or rim, lighting.
4.66 Underlighting. In The Sixth
Sense, a flashlight lights the boy’s face
from below, enhancing our empathy
with his fright as he feels the presence
of a ghost.
4.66 Underlighting.
4.67 Top lighting for glamour.
D i r e c t o r J o s e f Vo n S t e r n b e r g
frequently used a high frontal light to
bring out the cheekbones of his star,
as shown here in Shanghai Express.
4.68 Top lighting for realism. Since actors’ eyes
are crucial to their performances, most filmmakers
light scenes to make the eyes visible. But in the
prison cells of A Prophet, harsh single-source
lighting from above often renders the eyes as dark
patches, making the characters more sinister and
4.69 Motivating light sources. In
this shot from The Miracle Worker,
motivated light from the window and
lantern is enhanced by offscreen
studio lights. If you look closely, you
can see the extra sources reflected
in the lantern.
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128 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
4.71–4.72 Three-point lighting on the screen. In 4.71, light from different directions makes Laura stand out from the dim background,
while enhancing the volume of her face. In 4.72, each character gets the three-point treatment. Shots like this remind us that there were
many lighting units hanging from the ceiling of the Hollywood studio, each one helping to sculpt the actors’ images.
Classical Hollywood filmmaking developed the cus-
tom of using at least three light sources per shot: key light,
fill light, and backlight. The most basic arrangement of
three-point lighting on a single figure is shown in 4.70.
The backlight typically comes from behind and above the
figure, the key light comes diagonally from the front, and
a fill light comes from a position near the camera. The key
will usually be closer to the figure or brighter than the fill.
In 4.71, the title character of Laura is given glamor-
ous three-point lighting. As in 4.70, the key light is off
right, brightening that side of her face. A fill light from
the left shades her cheek and chin while softening the
shadow of her nose. This balancing of key and fill models
her face to a greater degree than straight-on frontal light-
ing would. (Compare 4.62.)
A bright backlight from the upper rear illuminates her
hat and gives a sharp edge to her shoulders. Even the left
side of her hat brim is given volume and texture, thanks
to shading and edge lighting. Other fill lights, called
background or set lighting, fall on the setting behind her.
As if this weren’t enough, small lights close to the camera
give her eyes a sparkle. Such eye lights were often used
in close views.
Typically, each major character in a scene will have his
or her own key light, fill light, and backlight. When charac-
ters face one another, as with the dotted figure in 4.70, the
key light for one can serve as backlight for the other, and the fill light can serve as the
second character’s key.
A more complex arrangement is shown in 4.72, also from Laura. Here the wall
chandelier behind Waldo and Laura motivates two lighting patterns. On her, the key
now comes from the left, the fill from the right, and backlighting from above. On
Waldo, the key strikes his forehead and nose from the upper right, with the fill com-
ing from off left, rather close to the camera, as in 4.70. Top light creates a highlight
We discuss a lecture on lighting by
master cinematographer Steven
Poster (Donnie Darko) in “Light is
a law.”
4.70 Three-point lighting, one of the basic techniques of
Hollywood cinema.
4.71 4.72
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 129
on his hair, while backlighting creates a thin line of bright-
ness along his head, ear, neck, and collar.
Three-point lighting emerged during the studio era of
Hollywood filmmaking, and it is still widely used, as in 4.73.
We’ve referred to key, fill, and backlight as sepa-
rate sources, but in production there will often be many
lighting units providing each of those. Several lamps,
for instance, might be recruited to provide a strong key
light. Moreover, you’ve probably already realized that
this three-point lighting system demands that the lamps
be rearranged virtually every time the camera shifts to
a new framing. In spite of the great cost involved, most
commercial filmmakers choose to adjust lighting for each
camera position. Changing light sources this way isn’t very realistic, but it does
enable filmmakers to make each shot a clear and vivid composition.
Three-point lighting was particularly well suited for the high-key lighting used
in classical Hollywood cinema and other filmmaking traditions. High-key lighting
refers to an overall lighting design that uses fill light and backlight to create rela-
tively low contrast between brighter and darker areas. Usually, the light quality is
soft, making shadow areas fairly transparent. The frames from Laura (4.71, 4.72)
and Amélie (4.73) exemplify high-key lighting. Hollywood directors and cinema-
tographers have chosen this pattern for comedies and most dramas.
High-key lighting is not used simply to render a brightly lit situation, such as
a dazzling ballroom or a sunny afternoon. High-key lighting is an overall approach
to illumination that can suggest different lighting conditions or times of day.
Consider, for example, two frames from Back to the Future. The first shot (4.74)
uses high-key illumination matched to daylight and a brightly lit malt shop. The
second frame (4.75) is from a scene set in a room at night, but it still uses the high-
key approach, as can be seen from the lighting’s softness, its low contrast, and its
detail in shadow areas.
Low-key lighting creates stronger contrasts and sharper, darker shadows.
Often the lighting is hard, and fill light is lessened or eliminated altogether. The
effect is of chiaroscuro, or extremely dark and light regions within the image.
An example is 4.76, from Kanal. Here the fill light and background light are less
intense than in high-key technique. As a result, shadow areas on the left third of the
screen remain hard and fairly opaque. In 4.77, a low-key shot from Leos Carax’s
Mauvais sang, the key light is hard and comes from the left side. Carax eliminates
both fill and background illumination, creating very sharp shadows and a dark void
around the characters.
When taking close-ups in
a colour picture, there is too
much visual information in the
background, which tends to draw
attention away from the face. That
is why the faces of the actresses
in the old black and white pictures
are so vividly remembered. Even
now, movie fans nostalgically
recall Dietrich . . . Garbo . . .
Lamarr . . . Why? Filmed in black
and white, those figures looked as
if they were lit from within. When a
face appeared on the screen over-
exposed—the high-key technique,
which also erased imperfections—
it was as if a bright object was
emerging from the screen.”
—Nestor Almendros, cinematographer
4.73 Three-point lighting in high key. In Amélie, the light-
hearted romantic tone is enhanced by high-key, three-point
lighting. Its layout of sources is similar to that shown in 4.70.
4.74–4.75 High-key lighting for different times and settings. Back to the Future: A brightly lit malt shop in daytime (4.74) and Doc’s
laboratory at night (4.75) both get the high-key treatment.
4.74 4.75
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130 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
As our examples indicate, low-key lighting is often applied to somber, threat-
ening, or mysterious scenes. It was common in horror films of the 1930s and films
noirs (dark films) of the 1940s and 1950s. The low-key approach was revived in the
1980s in such films as Blade Runner and Rumble Fish and continued in the 1990s
in film noirs like Se7en and The Usual Suspects.
When the actors change position, the director faces another forced choice: to
alter the lighting or not. Surprisingly often, directors decide to maintain a con-
stant lighting on the actors as they walk, even though that’s quite unrealistic. By
overlapping several different key-lighting units, the filmmaker can maintain a con-
stant intensity on moving actors. As a result, distracting shadows and highlights do
not flit across them (4.78, 4.79). Alternatively, the filmmaker may prefer to have
the players move through shifting patches of light and shade (4.80).
In today’s big-budget films, there are often three or more cameras covering
scenes in large settings. To avoid rearranging dozens of lamps, the cinematographer
will often opt for a soft, bright, top light covering the entire scene. Wherever the
cameras are placed, the lighting units will not be visible on camera. In The Wolfman
(2010), a nighttime forest scene had many lights nested in big translucent boxes
hung on cranes above the location.
Digital tools permit lighting to be adjusted in postproduction. The cinema-
tographer and the colorist can brighten a dark shot, add highlights or shadow,
and enhance faces. The filmmakers’ changes will tend to respect the three-point
approach and motivate light sources and intensity in the traditional way.
When I started watching films
in the 1940s and 1950s, Indian
cinematography was completely
under the influence of Hollywood
aesthetics, which mostly insisted
on the ‘ideal light’ for the face,
using heavy diffusion and strong
backlight. I came to resent the
complete disregard of the actual
source of light and the clichéd use
of backlight. Using backlight all
the time is like using chili powder
in whatever you cook.”
—Subrata Mitra, cinematographer
4.76 4.77
4.79 4.804.78
4.76–4.77 Low-key lighting. In Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, low-key lighting creates a harsh
highlight on one side of the woman’s face, a shadow on the other (4.76). The shadow on the
man’s face is even darker and sharper. In Mauvais sang, a single key light without any fill on
the actress’s face leaves her expression nearly invisible (4.77).
4.78–4.80 Light, constant or changing?.At the end of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, the heroine moves diagonally toward us,
accompanied by a band of young street musicians (4.78). As she walks, the lighting on her face does not vary, enabling us to notice slight
changes in her expression (4.79). By contrast, the sword fight in Rashomon is intensified by the contrast between the ferocious combat
and the cheerfully dappled lighting pouring into the glade (4.80).
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 131
Color We tend to think of film lighting as limited to
two colors, the white of sunlight or the soft yellow of
incandescent room lamps. In practice, filmmakers who
choose to control lighting typically work with as purely
white a light as they can. With filters placed in front of
the light source, the filmmaker can color the onscreen
illumination in any fashion.
There may be a realistic source in the scene to moti-
vate colored light (4.81). Alternatively, colored light can
also be unrealistic. In Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part 2,
a blue light suddenly bursts upon the actor without any
diegetic source. In the context of the scene, the abrupt
lighting change expresses the character’s terror and uncer-
tainty (4.82, 4.83). Using lighting instead of acting to con-
vey an emotion makes the scene more vivid and surprising.
Most film lighting is arranged as part of prepara-
tion for live-action filmmaking. But what if the settings
and figures are created with a computer? Scanning a model or motion-capturing
a figure does not record the light falling on it, and the resulting image is a neutral
gray. Animators add simulated light to a scene using dedicated programs. Watch
the credits for any special-effects-heavy film, and you will see long lists of names
of people dealing with light and shade.
In The Golden Compass, the vicious combat between two armored polar bears
was created entirely digitally. The fight takes place with a bright sun low in the sky,
coming from off right. The icy clearing contains shadows of the surrounding crags
(4.84). Simulated light is also used in digital animation. Pixar’s Cars experimented
with rendering the look of colored lights reflected on metal and glass (4.85).
We’re used to ignoring the illumination of our surroundings, so film lighting is
easy to take for granted. Yet the power of a shot is centrally controlled by light quality,
direction, source, and color. The filmmaker can manipulate and combine these factors
to shape the viewer’s experience in a great many ways. No component of mise-en-scene
is more important than what Sternberg called “the drama and adventure of light.”
Staging: Movement and Performance
When we think of a film director, we usually think of someone directing performers.
The director is the person who says, “Stand over there,” “Walk toward the camera,”
or “Show that you’re holding back tears.” In such ways, the director controls a major
component of mise-en-scene: the figures we see onscreen. Typically the figure is
a person, but it could be an animal (Lassie the collie, Balthasar the donkey),
a robot, an object (4.86), or even a pure shape (4.87). Mise-en-scene allows all these
entities to express feelings and thoughts; it can also dynamize them to create kinetic
patterns (4.88, 4.89).
Cinema gains great freedom from the fact that here expression and movement
aren’t restricted to human figures. The filmmaker can breathe life into two-
dimensional characters, such as Shrek or Daffy Duck. Puppets may be manipulated
frame by frame through the technique of stop-action or stop-motion (4.90). In
science fiction and fantasy movies, robots and fabulous monsters created as models
can be scanned and movement added via computer manipulation (1.30). Even if the
figures are fantastical, however, the filmmaker is obliged to stage their actions and
construct their performances.
Acting and Actuality Although abstract shapes and animated figures can
become important in the mise-en-scene, the most familiar cases of figure expres-
sion and movement involve actors performing roles. An actor’s performance
consists of visual elements (appearance, gestures, facial expressions) and sound
Our entry on “The Cross” talks
about a kind of staging largely
forgotten in this era of rapid cut-
ting and close framing. We discuss
how scenic details can be inte-
grated into staging in “You are my
4.81 Filtered lighting. An orange filter suggests that all the light
in this scene from The Green Room comes from candles.
4.82–4.83 Lighting without a
motivated source. In Ivan the Terrible,
a character’s fear registers on his face
(4.82), and this is underscored by a
blue light that bursts onto him (4.83).
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132 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
4.84–4.85 Digitally simulated lighting. In The Golden Compass, stark arctic sunshine
from offscreen right falls as sidelight on the snow and the fighting bears (4.84). Simulated
fill light was added to the onlookers and in areas of shading on the foreground bears. Cars
puts on a virtuoso display of computer-simulated lighting, with neon signs reflecting in shiny
surfaces as the cars cruise through their small-town street (4.85).
4.86–4.87 Controlling figure movement. In The Hudsucker Proxy, when the mailboy Norville proposes his new toy idea, the clicking
balls on his boss’s desktop inexplicably stop (4.86). The abstract film Parabola uses lighting and a pure background to emphasize
shifting sculptural forms (4.87).
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 133
(voice, effects). At times, of course, an actor may contribute only visual aspects, as
in silent movies. In rare cases, an actor’s performance may exist only on the sound
track. In A Letter to Three Wives, Celeste Holm’s character, Addie Ross, speaks a
narration over the images but never appears on the screen.
Acting is often approached as a question of realism. But concepts of realistic act-
ing have changed over film history. Today we may think that Hilary Swank in Boys
Don’t Cry and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain give perfor-
mances that are close to natural behavior. Yet in the early 1950s, the New York Actors
Studio style, as exemplified by Marlon Brando’s performances in On the Waterfront
and A Streetcar Named Desire, was also thought to be extremely realistic. Fine though
we may still find Brando’s work, today his portrayals seem deliberate, heightened, and
fairly unrealistic. Going back farther, post–World War II Italian Neorealist films were
hailed as almost documentary depictions of Italian life (p. 478). But many of their
performances now look as polished as those in Hollywood films. Major naturalistic
performances of the 1970s, such as Robert De Niro’s protagonist in Taxi Driver, seem
quite stylized. Who can say what the acting in Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain,
Frozen River, Boyhood, and other films will look like in a few decades?
There’s another reason to be cautious in appealing to realism. Not all films try
to achieve it. Since the performance an actor creates is part of the overall mise-
en-scene, films contain a wide variety of acting styles. Instead of assuming that act-
ing must be realistic, we should try to understand what kind of acting style the film
is aiming at. If the film is best served by a nonrealistic performance, the skillful
actor will strive to deliver that.
For example, comedy seldom strives for surface realism. In All of Me Steve
Martin portrays a man whose body is suddenly inhabited on the right side by the soul
of a woman who has just died. Martin used sudden changes of voice, along with acro-
batic pantomime, to suggest a split body, half-male and half-female. The performance
doesn’t conform to realism, since the plot situation couldn’t exist in the real world. In
a comedy, however, Martin’s performance was completely appropriate, and hilarious.
It isn’t only comedies that encourage stylized performance. Fantasy films
do, too, as we see in certain parts of The Wizard of Oz. (How would a real
Wicked Witch behave?) In melodramas and action films from Hollywood, India,
Hong Kong, and other traditions, exaggerated performances are a crucial source
of the audience’s pleasure. Viewers do not expect narrowly realistic acting from
martial-arts stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Finally, when we watch any fictional film, we are to some degree aware that the
performances are the result of the actors’ skills and decisions. (See “A Closer Look.”)
When we use the phrase “larger than life” to describe an effective performance, we
How can we analyze film act-
ing? We make some suggestions,
especially about silent-film perfor-
mance, in “Acting up.” The entry
“Faces behind Facebook” consid-
ers actors’ performances in
The Social Network.
I get impatient with many
Hollywood films because there’s
this assumption that meaning or
emotion is contained in those few
square inches of an actor’s face
and I just don’t see it that way
at all. I think there’s a power in
withholding information, revealing
things gradually. Letting the
audience discover things within
the frame in time, in the way they
—Alison Maclean, director, Crush
4 . 9 0 Stop-motion animation.
Ladislav Starevich’s puppet film The
Mascot includes a conver sat ion
between a devil and a thief, with
subtle facial expressions and gestures
created through animation.
4.88–4.89 Stasis and violence in figure movement. In Seven Samurai, the
samurai have won the battle with the bandits (4.88). Virtually the only movement
in the frame is the driving rain, but the slouching postures of the men leaning on
their spears express their tense weariness. By contrast, in White Heat, explosive
movements and ferocious facial expressions present an image of psychotic rage as
Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) learns of his mother’s death (4.89).
4.88 4.89
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134 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
The Film Actor’s Toolkit
We might think that the most important task facing an
actor is speaking dialogue in a convincing and stirring
way. Certainly, voice and delivery are very important in
cinema, but considered in terms of mise-en-scene, the
actor is always part of the overall visual design. Many film
scenes contain little or no dialogue, but at every moment
onscreen, the actor must be in character. The actor and
director shape the performance pictorially.
Most of the time, film actors use their faces. This was
most evident before movies had sound, and theorists
of the silent film were full of praise for the subtle facial
acting of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Lillian Gish.
Since some happiness, fear, anger, and other facial
expressions are understood easily across cultures, silent
films could become popular around the world. Today,
with mainstream films using many close-ups (see p. 46),
actors’ faces are hugely enlarged, and the performers
must control their expressions minutely.
The most expressive parts of the face are the mouth,
eyebrows, and eyes. All work together to signal how the
character is responding to the dramatic situation. In Jerry
Maguire, the accountant Dorothy Boyd accidentally meets
Jerry at an airport baggage conveyor. She has a crush on
him, partly because she admires the courageous mission
statement he has issued to the sports agency that they
work for. As he starts to back off from the statement, she
eagerly quotes it from memory; Renée Zellwegger’s ear-
nest smile and admiring gaze suggest that she takes the
issues more seriously than Jerry does (4.91). This impres-
sion is confirmed when Jerry says, “Uh-huh” and studies
her skeptically, his fixed smile signaling social politeness
rather than genuine pride (4.92). This encounter sets up
one premise of the film—that Jerry’s idealistic impulses
will need constant shoring up, for he might at any moment
slip back into being “a shark in a suit.”
The eyes hold a special place in film. In any scene,
crucial story information is conveyed by the direction of a
character’s glance, the use of the eyelids, and the shape
134 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
4.91 4.92
4.91–4.92 Facial expressiveness in close-ups. Perky and sincere, Dorothy
pledges allegiance to Jerry Maguire’s idealistic memo (4.91). Jerry smiles politely,
but his sideways glance and raised brows suggest that he is a bit put off by her
earnestness (4.92).
of the eyebrows. One of Chaplin’s most heart-rending
moments comes in City Lights, when the blind flower girl,
now sighted, suddenly realizes that he’s her benefactor
and we must find signs of hope in his eyes (4.93).
Normally, we don’t stare intently at the people we talk
with. We glance away about half the time to gather our
thoughts, and we blink 10–12 times a minute. But actors
must learn to look directly at each other, locking eyes and
seldom blinking. If an actor glances away from the partner
in the conversation, it suggests distraction or evasion. If
an actor blinks, it suggests a reaction to what is hap-
pening in the scene (surprise, or anxiety). Actors playing
forceful characters often stare fixedly. Anthony Hopkins
said this of playing Hannibal Lecter: “If you don’t blink
you can keep the audience mesmerized.” (See 8.7, 8.9.)
In our Jerry Maguire scene, the protagonists watch each
other fixedly. When Jerry closes his eyes in response
to Dorothy’s praise, it indicates his nervousness about
confronting the issues that his mission statement raised.
Thanks to facial expressions—eyes plus eyebrows plus
mouth—actors can develop their characterizations across
the film. The Social Network centers on two college friends,
Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Savarin, who collaborate to
create Facebook. Throughout the film Jesse Eisenberg
plays Mark with knitted brows, squinting eyes, and a grimly
set mouth, all suggesting his fierce concentration and com-
petitiveness (4.94). By contrast Andrew Garfield portrays
the more trusting Eduardo with wide eyes, raised brows,
and slightly bowed head (4.95). In their climactic confron-
tation, during a deposition for the suit that Eduardo has
filed against Mark, Eduardo’s facial behavior has changed
to a direct, frowning challenge (4.96). This causes Mark
to lower his head in embarrassment, an unusual reaction
for the aggressive entrepreneur we’ve seen so far (4.97).
Actors act with their bodies as well as their faces. How
a character walks,
stands, or sits con-
veys a great deal
4.93 Acting with the eyes. In the
climax of City Lights, Chaplin nervously
twirls a flower, so we can’t see the shape
of his mouth. We must read yearning in
his brows and rapt, dark gaze.
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 135Components of Mise-en-Scene 135
about personality and attitude. In fact, during the 18th and
19th centuries, attitude was used to refer to the way a
person stood. Stage acting gave early film a repertoire of
postures that could express a character’s state of mind.
In the 1916 Italian film Tigre Reale (The Royal Tigress),
the diva Pina Menichelli plays a countess with a shady
past. At one point, she confesses this in a florid attitude
that expresses noble suffering (4.98). While few actors
today would resort to this stylized posture, early film
audiences would have accepted it as vividly expressive,
like a movement in dance. Menichelli plays the rest of
the scene more quietly, but she still employs expressive
attitudes (4.99, 4.100).
Actors who use their bodies in more naturalistic ways
will still exercise firm control. Margin Call centers on a
financial crisis in an investment firm. During a break in
the negotiations, three employees take a break by going
onto the building’s roof. Contrasting body behavior dis-
tinguishes the cautious Peter from the more imprudent
Seth, both of whom differ from their heedless, almost
suicidal boss Will (4.101, 4.102).
The gestures of Chaplin, Menichelli, and Quinto show
that hands are important tools of the film actor. Hands are
to the body what eyes are to the face: They focus our
attention and evoke the character’s thoughts and feel-
ings. Actress Maureen O’Hara said of Henry Fonda, “All
he had to do was wag his little finger and he could steal a
scene from anybody.” A good example can be seen in the
doomsday thriller Fail-Safe. Henry Fonda plays the U.S.
president, who has learned that an American warplane
has been accidentally sent to bomb the Soviet Union.
Fonda stands erect at the phone as he hears distressing
4.94 4.95
4.96 4.97
4.98 4.99 4.100
4.94–4.97 Character domination through actors’ expressions. Early in The Social Network, Mark insists that Eduardo invest more
in Facebook. The actors’ expressions establish Mark as a tough, demanding leader and Eduardo as more submissive (4.94–4.95). During
the climactic deposition, Eduardo fights back facially, and Mark submits (4.96–4.97).
4.98–4.100 Extroverted acting for extravagant suffering. In Tigre Reale, Menichelli’s right hand seizes her hair, as if pulling her
head back in agony; but her body still expresses defiance, thrust forward and standing firm as the left hand grips her waist (4.98). As
Menichelli begins to feel shame, she retreats toward the fireplace, turning from us and slumping in a way that suggests regret (4.99). She
keeps her back to the camera as she withdraws, now a pathetic figure (4.100).
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136 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
seem to be acknowledging the actor’s craft. In analyzing a particular film, we usu-
ally must go beyond assumptions about realism and consider the purposes that the
actor’s craft serves. How appropriate, we can ask, is the performance to the context
established by the genre, the film’s narrative, and the overall mise-en-scene? A
performance, realistic or not, should be examined according to its function in the
film’s overall formal design.
Acting: Functions and Motivation We can consider performance along
two dimensions. A performance will be more or less individualized, and it will be
A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
news about the plane’s progress, and he hangs up with his
left hand (4.103–4.106). By keeping most of the shot still
and bare, director Sidney Lumet has given Fonda’s fingers
the main role, letting them express the president’s mea-
sured prudence but also suggesting the strain of the crisis.
136 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
4.101-4.102 Character contrast through body language. Peter, the analyst who has discovered the firm’s overinvestment, follows
Will to the edge of the rooftop but, looking down, is startled by the height. As Zachary Quinto plays the moment, Peter shies back
and throws out one arm (4.101). Peter’s colleague Seth (Penn Badgley) follows, and comes forward to peer over the roof edge (4.102).
Throughout the plot, Seth is drawn to risk. Their superior, Will (Paul Bettany), is indifferent to danger, as he will show shortly when he
climbs onto the railing far above the city.
4.101 4.102
4.103–4.106 Acting as finger exercise. In Fail-Safe, the president stands erect at the
phone as he hears distressing news about the plane’s progress, and he hangs up with his left
hand (4.103). The president pauses and rubs his fingers together thoughtfully (4.104), then he
taps into the intercom with his right hand (4.105). As he waits, for a brief moment his left fingers
waggle anxiously, betraying his nervous concern (4.106).
4.103 4.104 4.105
Sometimes critics concentrate on
acting to the exclusion of a film’s
other qualities, as we complain in
“Good actors spell good acting.”
On the conventions governing
award-winning performances, see
“Good actors spell good acting, 2:
Oscar bait.”
For more on how actors use their hands, see “Hand jive.”
For more on eyes, see “Bette Davis eyelids.”
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 137
more or less stylized. Often we have both in mind when we think of a realistic per-
formance: It creates a unique character, and it does not seem too exaggerated or too
underplayed. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather is
quite individualized. Brando gives the Godfather a complex psychology, a distinc-
tive appearance and voice, and a string of facial expressions and gestures that make
him significantly different from the standard image of a gang boss. As for styliza-
tion, Brando keeps Don Vito in the middle range. His performance is neither flat
nor flamboyant. He isn’t impassive, but he doesn’t chew the scenery either.
Yet this middle range, which we often identify with realistic performance,
isn’t the only option. On the individuality scale, films may create broader, more
anonymous types. Classical Hollywood narrative was built on ideologically stereo-
typed roles: the Irish cop on the beat, the black servant, the Jewish pawnbroker, the
wisecracking waitress or showgirl. Through typecasting, actors were selected and
directed to conform to what audiences expected. Often, however, skillful perform-
ers gave these conventions a freshness and vividness. The 1920s Soviet filmmakers
adapted this principle, which they called typage. Here the actor was expected to por-
tray a typical representative of a social class or historical movement (4.107, 4.108).
Whether more or less typed, the performance can also be located on a con-
tinuum of stylization. A long tradition of film acting strives for an expressive
naturalness, with actors speaking their lines with slightly more clarity and emotion
than we usually find in everyday life. The director and the performer may choose to
enhance this streamlined naturalness by adding specific physical actions. Frequent
gestures and movements by the actors add plausibility to the humor of Woody
Allen’s films (4.109).
The actor is usually obliged to express emotion, but emotions come in many
colors. Some are intense and burst out violently (4.110). Other emotions are
masked, as when jealousy and suspicion are covered by excessive politeness
(4.111). Sometimes emotional expression is broad and sweeping, almost operatic
(4.112). And the same film may combine different degrees of emotional stylization.
Amadeus contrasts a grotesque, giggling performance by Tom Hulce as Mozart
with Murray Abraham’s suave Salieri. The two acting styles sharpen the contrast
between the older composer’s decorous but dull music and the young man’s offen-
sive genius. In every film, the actor needs to blend the performance with the genre,
the narrative, and the overall formal patterning.
Films like Ivan the Terrible and Amadeus create stylized performances through
extroversion and exaggeration. The director can also explore the possibilities of
very muted performances. Compared to normal practice,
highly restrained acting can seem quite stylized. Robert
Bresson is noted for such restrained performances. Using
nonprofessional actors and drilling them in the details of
the characters’ physical actions, Bresson makes his actors
nearly flat by conventional standards (4.113, 4.114).
Although these performances may upset our expectations,
we soon realize that such restraint focuses our attention on
details of action we never notice in most movies.
Motion and Performance Capture Since the
creation of digitally generated characters Jar Jar Binks
in Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace in 1999
and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
(2002), actors have had to learn new skills. In these
early films, performers in special suits covered with dots
were filmed digitally to form the basis for characters’
movements. Soon CGI (computer- generated imagery)
programs allowed more dense arrays of dots to capture
smaller details of facial movement (4.112). The addition
4.107–4.108 A range of acting
styles in the same film. The opening
of Eisenstein’s Strike presents the
cartoonish cliché of the top-hatted
capitalist (4.107), while in contrast the
workers are presented as earnest and
resolute (4.108).
4.109 Expressive naturalness in acting style. In Hannah and
Her Sisters, Mia Farrow as Hannah, Diane Wiest as her sister Holly,
and Carrie Fisher as their friend April set a table, chatting about the
other guests as they do so.
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138 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
of tiny cameras attached to the actors’ heads permitted even subtler capture of
Now a distinction is made between motion capture, where the whole body is
filmed, and performance capture, which concentrates on the face (4.115, 4.116).
Motion capture can also be used on animals. Thanks to capture dots, ordinary
horses can be transformed into fantastical creatures, as with Avatar’s six-legged
Direhorses. Animated films like The Polar Express, The Adventures of Tintin, and
How to Train Your Dragon 2 use performance capture for their human characters.
In predigital days, actors would play fantasy characters with heavy prosthetics
and ample makeup. Motion capture and performance capture make it easier for the
actor to concentrate on the performance. As James Cameron explained:
Actors have said to me, half jokingly but a little nervously, “Are you trying to replace
actors?” And of course, the answer is no, we love actors. This whole thing is about
acting. It’s about creating these fantasy characters through the process of acting. What
we’re replacing is five hours in the makeup chair, having rubber glued all over your face.
Acting in the Context of Other Techniques By examining how an
actor’s performance functions within the overall film, we can also notice how
acting blends with other film techniques. For instance, the actor is always a
graphic element in the film, but some films underline this fact. In The Cabinet of
4.110–4.112 Stylized acting and emotion. In Winchester 73, James Stewart’s mild manner occasionally erupts into vengeful anger,
revealing him as on the brink of psychosis (4.110). The exaggerated smiles and gestures in Trouble in Paradise are amusing because we
know that the women, competing for the same man, are only pretending to be friends (4.111). Nikolai Cherkasov’s dramatically raised arm
and thrown-back head are appropriate to Ivan the Terrible, which creates a larger-than-life portrait of its hero (4.112).
4.111 4.112
4.113 4.114
4.113–4.114 Restrained acting. Playing the heroine of Au Hasard Balthasar, Anna Wiazemsky looks without expression at her
would-be seducer, who wants her to get in his car (4.113). She glances downward, still without registering her thoughts, before sliding
in (4.114).
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Components of Mise-en-Scene 139
Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt’s dancelike portrayal of the somnambulist Cesare makes
him blend in with the graphic elements of the setting (4.117). The graphic design
of this scene in Caligari typifies the systematic distortion characteristic of German
Expressionism (pp. 463– 466).
In Breathless, director Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes Jean Seberg’s face with a
print of a Renoir painting (4.118). We might think that Seberg is giving a bland
performance here, for she simply poses in the frame and turns her head. Indeed, her
acting in the entire film may seem fairly flat. Yet her face and demeanor are appro-
priate for her role, a capricious American woman unfathomable to her Parisian
A performance may be shaped by editing as well. Because a film is shot over
a period of time, actors perform in bits, with separate shots recording different
portions of a scene. This process can work to the filmmaker’s advantage. If there
are alternate takes of each shot, the editor can select the best gestures and expres-
sions and create a composite performance better than any sustained performance
is likely to be. By adding sound and other shots, the filmmaker can build up the
performance still further. Sometimes a performance will be created almost wholly
in postproduction. The director may simply tell an actor to stare offscreen, wide-
eyed. If the next shot shows a hand with a gun, we are likely to think the actor is
depicting fear effectively.
When digital technology is
involved, where does the actor’s
performance leave off and the
special effects begin? We consider
the question in “Motion-capturing
an Oscar.”
4.115 4.116
4.115–4.116 Motion and performance capture. In the high-tech studio used for Avatar, actors wear full-body motion-capture suits
(4.115). For performance capture of Sam Worthington, green dots cover the most expressive areas of the face (4.116). A miniature camera,
with rows of small LED bulbs trained on his face, adds extra light as it records his shifting expressions.
4.117 4.118
4.117–4.118 The actor as graphic element. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Cesare’s
body echoes the tilted tree trunks (4.117), his arms and hands their branches and leaves.
In Breathless, Jean Seberg’s face is linked to a Renoir painting (4.118). Does she give an
inexpressive performance or an enigmatic one?
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140 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Camera techniques also create a controlling context for acting. Film acting, as
you know, differs from theatrical acting. In a theater, we are usually at a consider-
able distance from the actor on the stage. We certainly can never get as close to the
theater actor as the camera can put us in a film. For that reason, we’re inclined to
think that the film actor must always underplay—that is, act in a more restrained
fashion than stage acting would require. But recall that the camera can be at any
distance from the figure. Filmed from very far away, the actor is a dot on the
screen—much smaller than an actor on stage seen from the back of the balcony.
Filmed from very close, the actor’s tiniest eye movement may be revealed.
Thus the film actor must behave differently than the stage actor does, but not
always by being more restrained. Rather, she or he must be able to adjust to each
type of camera distance. If the actor is far from the camera, he or she may have
to gesture broadly or move around to be seen as acting at all. But if the camera
and actor are inches apart, a twitch of a mouth muscle will come across clearly.
Between these extremes, there is a whole range of adjustments to be made.
Often a shot will concentrate on either the actor’s facial expression or on bodily
movement. In most close shots, the face will be emphasized, and so the actor will
have to control eyes, brows, and mouth quite precisely. But if the camera is farther
back, or the actor is turned away from us, gestures and body language become the
center of attention. In all, both the staging of the action and the camera’s distance
from the action control how we understand the performances (4.119, 4.120).
Matters of context are particularly important when the performers are not
actors, or even human beings. Framing, editing, and other film techniques can make
trained animals give appropriate performances. Jonesy, the cat in Aliens, seems
threatening because his hissing movement has been emphasized by lighting, fram-
ing, editing, and the sound track (4.121).
As with every element of a film, acting offers an unlimited range of creative
choices. It cannot be judged on a universal scale outside the context of the entire
film’s form.
Putting It All Together:
Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time
Back in Chapter 2, we argued that viewers try to blend what they see and hear into
a larger pattern (p. 54). This process starts at the level of the shot, when we have to
assemble information into a coherent space and time. And creating that coherence
requires that the filmmaker guide us to certain areas of the frame.
How do we know that viewers scan the frame for important information? The
psychologist Tim Smith asked viewers to wear lightweight glasses that could track
their eye movements and then showed them a scene from There Will Be Blood. The
eye movements were recorded by computers and mapped onto the film sequence,
so Smith could study how the viewers’ attention shifted within the scene. There
was remarkable agreement among the subjects about where to look at any moment.
The primary points of attention were, as we might expect, items crucial to build-
ing up a story: faces and hand gestures (4.122, 4.123). The characters’ dialogue
was important, too; the scan-paths revealed that people tend to look at the person
speaking in the shot.
Before viewers can follow the story, recognize the emotional tenor of the scene,
respond with their own emotions, and reflect on possible meanings, they must
notice certain things in the frame. In setting up a shot, the filmmaker makes some
things more salient than others. We noticed this happening when we examined
how Tarantino nudged us to watch Colonel Landa in the scene from Inglourious
Basterds. Thinking like a filmmaker means, to a large extent, finding ways to guide
the viewer’s eye. In other words, directors direct attention.
For more on how shot scale can
affect performance, see, “Where
did the two-shot go? Here.”
4.119–4.120 Performance in long
shot and close-up. The Spider’s
Stratagem: In long shot, the actors’
manner of walking helps characterize
them (4.119). The stiff, upright way in
which the heroine holds her parasol is
one of the main facets of Alida Valli’s
performance. In a closer framing, her
performance displays detailed eye
and lip movements (4.120).
4.121 Editing to create a performance.
In Aliens, editing makes it seem that
Jonesy is reacting angrily to something in
the scene.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 141
Mise-en-Scene in a Sequence from L’Avventura
To get a sense of the filmmaker’s creative options in guiding our eye, let’s look at
another sequence. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sandro and Claudia
are searching for Anna, who has mysteriously vanished. Anna is Claudia’s friend
and Sandro’s lover, but during their search, they’ve begun to drift from their goal
of finding her. They’ve also begun a love affair. In the town of Noto, they stand on
a church rooftop near the bells, and Sandro says he regrets giving up architectural
design. Claudia is encouraging him to return to his profession when he suddenly
asks her to marry him.
She’s startled and confused, and Sandro comes toward her. She is turned away
from us. At first, only Sandro’s expression is visible as he reacts grimly to her plea,
“Why can’t things be simpler?” (4.124). Claudia twists her arms around the bell
rope, then turns away from him, toward us, grasping the rope and fluttering her
hand. Now we can see that she’s quite distraught. Sandro, a bit uneasy, turns away
as she says anxiously, “I’d like to see things clearly” (4.125).
Brief though it is, this exchange shows how the tools of mise-en-scene—set-
ting, costume, lighting, performance, and staging—can work together smoothly.
We’ve considered them separately in order to examine the contribution each one
makes, but in any shot, they mesh. They unfold on the screen in space and time,
fulfilling several functions.
Most basically, the filmmaker has to guide the audience’s attention to the
important areas of the image. The filmmaker also wants to build up our interest by
For more on Tim Smith’s eye-
tracking experiments, see
“Watching you watch There Will
Be Blood.”
The audience is only going to
look at the most overriding thing
in the frame. You must take charge
of and direct their attention. It’s
also the principle of magic: what is
the single important thing? Make it
easy for them to see it, and you’re
doing your job.”
—David Mamet, director
4.122–4.123 Scanning the shot.
Tim Smith and his colleagues tracked
several subjec ts’ eye movement s
during a single shot of There Will Be
Blood. Here is one frame from the
sequence, as the characters examine
a map (4.122). Smith’s “peekthrough
heatmap” graphically indicates the
areas of interest for the eight viewers
watching at that moment (4.123). The
black surround represents areas not
watched by anyone. Areas of attention
are lit up, and the hotter the color,
the more viewers are looking at that
spot. At this instant, most viewers
were concentrating on Sunday’s face
and hand, with two viewers looking at
the man facing front behind him. As
filmmakers might expect, faces, hands,
and dialogue have commanded
viewers’ attention.
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142 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
arousing curiosity and suspense. And the filmmaker tries
to add expressive qualities, giving the shot an emotional
coloration. Mise-en-scene helps the filmmaker achieve all
these purposes.
How did Antonioni guide our attention in the
Claudia–Sandro exchange? First, we’re watching the
figures, not the railing behind them. Based on the story
so far, we expect Sandro and Claudia to be the objects
of interest. At other points in the film, Antonioni makes
them tiny figures in massive urban or seaside landscapes.
Here, however, his mise-en-scene keeps their intimate
interchange foremost in our minds.
Consider the first image merely as a two-dimensional
picture. Both Sandro and Claudia stand out against the
pale sky and the darker railing. They’re also mostly curved
shapes—heads and shoulders—and so they contrast with
the geometrical regularity of the balcony. In the first
frame, light strikes Sandro’s face and suit from the right,
picking him out against the rails. His dark hair is well posi-
tioned to make his head stand out against the sky. Claudia,
a blonde, stands out against the railing and sky less vividly,
but her polka-dot blouse creates a distinctive pattern. And
considered only as a picture, the shot roughly balances the
two figures, Sandro in the left half and Claudia in the right.
It’s hard to think of the shot as simply two-dimen-
sional, though. We instinctively see it as portraying a
space that we could move around in. Claudia seems closer
to us because her body masks things farther away, a spa-
tial cue called overlap. She’s also somewhat larger in the
frame than Sandro, which reinforces our sense that she’s
closer. The rope slices across the bottom third of the frame, separating the couple
(overlap again). Sandro himself overlaps the railing, which in turn overlaps the sky
and the town beyond. We get a sense of distinct planes of space, layers lying closer
to or farther from us. Costume, lighting, setting, and figure placement create this
sense of a three-dimensional arena for the action.
Antonioni has used mise-en-scene to emphasize his characters and their inter-
action. But that interaction unfolds in time, and it gives him an opportunity to guide
our attention while building up suspense and expressing emotion. Claudia is turned
away from us when Sandro presses her to marry him, and the rope is taut between
them (4.124). How will she respond?
Antonioni starts by giving Claudia a bit of business. She twists the rope around
her arms and slips it over her back. This could be a hint that she’s drawn to Sandro’s
proposal. At the same time, she hesitates. For as soon as he presses her, she turns
away from him (4.125).
We know that faces give us access to characters’ thoughts and emotions. Another
filmmaker might have had Claudia already facing us when Sandro asked, so we’d see
her response immediately. Antonioni instead makes things uncertain for a moment.
He conceals Claudia’s reaction and then lets her turn toward us. To make sure that we
watch her and not Sandro at this moment, Antonioni has him turn away when she ges-
tures and speaks (“I’d like to see things clearly”). Our attention is riveted on Claudia.
Soon enough, Sandro turns back toward the camera, so we can see his reaction,
but already Claudia’s anxiety has flashed out at us. Her mixed response to Sandro’s
proposal—attraction (sliding under the bell rope) and uncertainty (turning away
tensely)—has been presented to us concretely.
This is only one moment in a complex scene, but it shows how various ele-
ments of mise-en-scene can cooperate to create a specific effect: the delayed
4.124–4.125 Frontality gets attention. In L’Avventura, first
Claudia has her back to the camera (4.124), and then Sandro does
(4.125). Each shift is timed to show us a crucial facial reaction.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 143
revelation of a character’s emotion. That revelation depended on the director’s
choices about what to show us at particular points. Once we’ve been guided to
notice certain things, we can build up larger meanings and particular feelings. Let’s
now look at some specific options for using mise-en-scene to shape our sense of a
film’s space and time.
Screen Space In many respects, a film shot resembles a painting. It presents
a flat array of colors and shapes. Before we even start to understand the image as a
three-dimensional space, mise-en-scene offers many cues for guiding our attention
and emphasizing elements in the frame.
Take something as simple as balancing the shot. Filmmakers often try to dis-
tribute various points of interest evenly around the frame. They assume that viewers
will concentrate more on the upper half of the frame, probably because that’s where
we tend to find characters’ faces. Since the film frame is a horizontal rectangle, the
director usually tries to balance the right and left halves. The extreme type of such
balancing is bilateral symmetry. In the battle scene in Life on a String, Chen Kaige
stages one shot symmetrically (4.126).
More common than such near-perfect symmetry is a loose balancing of the
shot’s left and right regions. The simplest way to achieve compositional balance is
to center the frame on the human body. Filmmakers often place a single figure at
the center of the frame and minimize distracting elements at the sides, as in 4.127.
Many of our earlier illustrations display this flexible balance. Other shots may
counterweight two or more elements, encouraging our eye
to move back and forth, as in 4.128 and our L’Avventura
dialogue (4.124, 4.125).
Balanced composition is the norm, but unbalanced
shots can also create strong effects. In Bicycle Thieves,
the composition emphasizes the father’s new job by
massing most of the figures on the right (4.129). A more
drastic example occurs in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il
Grido (4.130), where two strong elements, the hero and a
tree trunk, are grouped on the right side of the shot. The
shot creates a powerful urge for the audience to see the
woman’s hidden face.
Sometimes the filmmaker will leave the shots a little
unbalanced, in order to prime our expectation that some-
thing will change position in the frame. The cinema of
4.126 Symmetrical framing. A limited palette emphasizes this
symmetrical composition in Life on a String.
4.127 4.128
4.127–4.128 Balancing the frame. Mars Attacks!: centering a single character (4.127) and balancing two (4.128).
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144 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
the 1910s offers intriguing examples. Very often a doorway in the back of the set
allowed the director to show that new characters were entering the scene, but then
figures closer to the camera had to be rearranged to permit a clear entrance. The
result was a subtle unbalancing and rebalancing of the composition (4.131–4.134).
In Chapter 6, we’ll see how cutting can balance two shots containing relatively
unbalanced compositions.
The filmmaker can guide our attention by use of another time-tested strategy,
the principle of contrast. Our eyes are biased toward registering differences and
changes. In most black-and-white films, light costumes or brightly lit faces stand
out while darker areas tend to recede (4.135). If there are several light shapes in
the frame, we’ll tend to look from one to the other. But if the background is light,
black elements will become prominent, as Sandro’s hair does in our L’Avventura
scene (4.124). The same principles work for color. A bright costume or bit of set-
ting shown against a more subdued setting is likely to draw the eye (4.136). Another
pertinent principle is that when lightness values are equal, warm colors in the
red-orange-yellow range tend to attract attention, while cool colors like purple and
green are less prominent (4.137).
4.129 4.130
4.131 4.132 4.133
4 . 1 2 9 – 4 . 1 3 0 D e l i b e r a t e l y
unbalanced composition. In Bicycle
Thieves, the men on the right don’t
balance the son (4.129), but he seems
even more vulnerable by being such
an ineffective visual counterweight.
In Il Grido, instead of balancing the
couple, the composition centers the
man (4.130). If there were no tree
in the frame, the shot would still be
somewhat weighted to the right, but
the unexpected vertical of the trunk
makes that side even heavier.
4.131–4.134 Balancing and rebalancing. From quite early in cinema history,
filmmakers used unbalanced compositions to prepare the viewer for new narrative
developments. In Yevgenii Bauer’s The Dying Swan (1916), the young ballerina receives
a tiara from an admirer (4.131). She studies herself in a mirror, in a composition that
makes the doorway more visible (4.132). As the ballerina lowers her arm, the door
opens and her father appears (4.133). He comes to the front area and balances the
composition (4.134).
4.135 Contrast guides attention. In
V. I. Pudovkin’s Mother, the spectator
concentrates on the man’s face rather
than on the darkness surrounding it.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 145
Color contrasts don’t have to be huge, because we’re sensitive to small dif-
ferences. What painters call a limited palette involves a few colors in the same
range, as in our earlier example from Fellini’s Casanova (4.40). Peter Greenaway’s
The Draughtsman’s Contract employs a limited palette from the cooler end of the
spectrum (4.138). An extreme case of the principle is sometimes called monochro-
matic color design. Here the filmmaker emphasizes a single color, varying it only
in purity or lightness. We’ve already seen an example of monochromatic mise-en-
scene in the white décor and costumes of THX 1138 (4.41). In a monochromatic
design, even a fleck of a contrasting color will catch the viewer’s attention (4.139).
Film has one resource that painting lacks. Our tendency to notice visual differ-
ences is strongly aroused when the image includes movement. In the L’Avventura
scene, the turning of Claudia’s head became a major event, but we are sensitive to
far smaller motions in the frame. Normally, for instance, we ignore the movement
of scratches and dust on a film. But in David Rimmer’s Watching for the Queen, in
which the first image is an absolutely static photograph (4.140), the jumping bits
of dust on the film draw our attention. In 4.141, from Yasujiro Ozu’s Record of a
4.136 4.137
4.136–4.137 Bright and warm colors get attention. In Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String, a propaganda display about happy workers
stands out against the earthy grays and blacks of the junkyard (4.136). In Yilmaz Güney’s Yol, the setting and the characters’ outfits are
warm in hue, but the hot pink vest of the man in the central middle ground helps make him the primary object of attention (4.137).
4.138 4.139
4.138–4.139 Limited color palettes. The Draughtsman’s Contract uses a limited palette of green, black, and white (4.138). The color
design of Aliens is dominated by gray and blue metallic tones, so even a dingy yellow can mark the stiltlike loader as an important prop
in the narrative (4.139).
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146 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Tenement Gentleman, many items compete for our attention. But the moment that
a scrap of newspaper flaps in the wind, it immediately attracts the eye because it is
the only motion in the frame.
When several moving elements appear on the screen, we are likely to shift our
attention among them, according to other cues or depending on our expectations
about which one is most important for the narrative. In 4.142, from John Ford’s
Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is moving much less than the dancers we see in front of
him. Yet as the film’s major character he is framed centrally, and the dancers pass
rapidly through the frame. As a result, we are likely to concentrate on his gestures
and facial expressions, however slight they might be compared to the energetic
action in the foreground.
Scene Space Looking at a film image as a two-dimensional picture helps us
appreciate the artistry of filmmakers, but it requires some effort. We find it easier
to immediately see the shapes on the screen as presenting a three-dimensional area,
like the spaces we live in. The elements of the image that create this impression are
called depth cues.
Depth cues are what enabled us to understand the encounter of Sandro and
Claudia as taking place in a realistic space, with layers and volumes. We develop
our understanding of depth cues from our experience of real locales and from our
earlier experience with pictorial media. In cinema, depth cues are provided by light-
ing, setting, costumes, and staging—that is, by all the aspects of mise-en-scene.
Depth cues suggest that a space has both volume and several distinct planes.
When we speak of an object as having volume, we mean that it is solid and occu-
pies a three-dimensional area. A film suggests volume by shape, shading, and
movement. In 4.118 and 4.143, we don’t see the actors as flat cutouts, like paper
dolls. The shapes of those heads and shoulders suggest solid people. The attached
shadows on the faces suggest the curves and recesses of the actors’ features and
give a modeling effect. We assume that if Jean Seberg in 4.118 turned her head, we
would see a profile. Thus we use our knowledge of objects in the world to discern
volume in filmic space.
An abstract film, because it can use shapes that are not familiar objects, can
create compositions without a sense of volume. The shapes in 4.144 give us no
depth cues for volume—they are unshaded, do not have a recognizable shape, and
do not move in such a way as to reveal new views that suggest roundness.
Depth cues also pick out planes within the image. Planes are the layers of space
occupied by persons or objects. Planes are described according to how close to or
far away from the camera they are: foreground, middle ground, background.
Only a completely blank screen has a single plane. Whenever a shape, even
an abstract one, appears, we will perceive it as being in front of a background. In
4.144, the four red S shapes are actually painted right on the frame surface, as is the
Whether you see Coraline in a
3D or a 2D version, it has some
fascinating use of depth cues to
differentiate the heroine’s real life
and the alternative life she finds
behind a door in her room. We
take a look at these in “Coraline,
4 .1 4 0–4 .1 4 1 Minimal motion.
Watching for the Queen emphasizes
scratches and dust (4.140), while
flapping paper catches our attention
in Record of a Tenement Gentleman
4.142 Centered framing. Central
position emphasizes a background
figure in Young Mr. Lincoln.
4.143 Volume in scene space.
Shading and shape suggest volume in
Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
4.144 Flattened space. Norman
McLaren’s Begone, Dull Care, provides
no depth cues for volume.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 147
lighter, textured area. Yet the textured area seems to lie behind the four shapes. The
space here has only two planes, as in decorated wallpaper. This example, like our
L’Avventura scene, suggests that one of the most basic depth cues is overlap. The
curling S shapes have edges that overlap the background plane, block our vision of
it, and thus seem to be closer to us.
Through overlap, a great many planes can be defined. In 4.62, from Jean-Luc
Godard’s La Chinoise, three distinct planes are displayed: the background of fash-
ion cutouts, the woman’s face that overlaps that background, and her hand, which
overlaps her lower face. In the three-point lighting approach, edge lighting accentu-
ates the overlap of planes by emphasizing the contour of the object, thus sharply
distinguishing it from the background. (See again 4.65, 4.71, and 4.72.)
Color differences also create overlapping planes. Because cool or pale colors
tend to recede, filmmakers commonly use them for background planes such as
setting. Similarly, because warm or saturated colors tend to come forward, such
hues are often employed for costumes or other foreground elements (4.145). (See
also 4.30 and 4.38.) In One Froggy Evening (4.146), the luminous yellow of the
umbrella and the frog’s brilliant green skin make him stand out against the darker
red curtain and the earth tones of the stage floor.
Because of the eye’s sensitivity to differences, even quite muted color con-
trasts can suggest three-dimensional space. In L’Argent (4.21–4.23), Robert
Bresson uses a limited, cool palette and relatively flat lighting. Yet the composi-
tions pick out several planes by means of overlapping slightly different masses of
black, tan, and light blue. Our shot from Casanova (4.40) articulates planes by
means of slightly differing shades of red. By contrast, a filmmaker may want to
minimize color differences and depth cues in order to create a flatter, more abstract
composition (4.147).
In cinema, movement is one of the most important depth cues, since it strongly
suggests both planes and volumes (4.142). Aerial perspective, or the hazing of
more distant planes, is yet another depth cue. Typically, our eyes and brain assume
that sharper outlines, clearer textures, and purer colors belong to foreground
elements. In landscape shots, the blurring and graying of distant planes can be
caused by natural atmospheric haze (4.148). Even when such haze is a minor fac-
tor, our vision typically assigns strong color contrasts to the foreground, as in the
Sambizanga shot (4.145). In addition, very often lighting is manipulated in con-
junction with lens focus to blur the background planes (4.149).
In 4.150, the mise-en-scene provides several depth cues: overlap of edges, cast
shadows, and size diminution. That is, figures and objects farther away from us are
seen to get proportionally smaller. This reinforces our sense of seeing a deep space
with considerable distances between the planes.
The same illustration dramatically displays linear
perspective. We will consider perspective relations in
more detail in the next chapter, since they derive as
much from properties of the camera lens as they do from
mise-en-scene. For now, we can simply note that a strong
impression of depth emerges when parallel lines con-
verge at a distant vanishing point. Central perspective is
exemplified in 4.138 from The Draughtsman’s Contract.
Off-center linear perspective is illustrated in 4.150, in
which the vanishing point is not the geometrical center
of the frame.
All of these depth cues are monocular, which means
that the illusion of depth requires input from only one
eye. Stereopsis is a binocular depth cue. It results from
the fact that our two eyes see the world from slightly dif-
ferent angles. In two- dimensional films, there is a single
lens and thus no stereoptic effect. Three- dimensional
4.145–4.146 Warm color for the
foreground. In Sarah Maldoror’s
Sambizanga, the heroine’s dress has
very warm and fairly saturated colors,
making it stand out distinctly against
the pale background (4.145). Brilliant
colors emphasize extreme depth in
Chuck Jones’s One Froggy Evening
4.147 Flattening space for expressive effect. Marjane
Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated film Persepolis doesn’t
differentiate the schoolgirls’ costumes by edge lighting or color
differences. The result is a mass of black. Combined with the
students’ repetitive gestures, the image suggests that the school
system demands conformity.
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148 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
cinema uses two lenses, imitating the separation of our eyes. The glasses used for
viewing 3D films direct different visual information to each eye, creating a stronger
illusion of depth than monocular depth cues can render. Stereopsis is a depth cue
rendered by cinematography rather than mise-en-scene, so we’ll talk about it more
in the next chapter.
In many of the examples already given, you may have noticed that mise-en-
scene serves not simply to direct our attention to foreground elements but rather
to create a dynamic relation between foreground and background. In 4.62, for
instance, Godard keeps our attention on the whole composition by using prominent
backgrounds. Here the pictures behind the actress’s head lead us to scan the various
small shapes quickly.
The La Chinoise shot is a shallow-space composition. In such shots, the
mise-en-scene suggests comparatively little depth, and the closest and most distant
planes seem only slightly separated. The opposite tendency is deep-space compo-
sition, in which a significant distance seems to separate planes. Our example from
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (4.150) exemplifies deep-space mise-en-
scene. Often a director creates a deep-space composition by making the foreground
plane quite large and the background plane quite distant (4.151).
Shallow and deep mise-en-scene are relative concepts. Most compositions pre-
sent a moderately deep space, falling between the extremes we’ve just considered.
Sometimes a filmmaker manipulates depth cues to make a space appear deeper or
shallower than it really is—creating an optical illusion (4.152).
4.148 Aerial perspective through atmospheric effects. Fog
emphasizes the distance between the foreground and background
trees in Güney’s The Wall.
4.150 Size diminution. Steep size
diminution emphasizes depth in Straub
and Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna
Magdalena Bach.
4.149 Aerial perspective through
lighting. In The Charge of the
Light Brigade, aerial perspective is
artificially created by diffused lighting
of the background and a lack of
clear focus behind the officer in the
4.151 Deep-space composition. Several scenes of Wajda’s
Ashes and Diamonds create large foregrounds and distant
background planes.
4.152 Playing with depth cues. Leos Carax creates an optical
illusion in Boy Meets Girl by making the painted advertisement
seem to thrust out into the space inhabited by the boy.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 149
At this point, you might want to return to shots illustrated earlier in this chapter.
You’ll notice that these images use depth cues of overlap, movement, cast shadows,
aerial perspective, size diminution, and linear perspective to create distinctive
foreground/background relations.
Mise-en-Scene in Two Shots from Day of Wrath
The fact that our vision is sensitive to differences allows filmmakers to guide our
understanding of the mise-en-scene. All the cues to story space interact with one
another, working to emphasize narrative elements, direct our attention, and set up
dynamic relations among areas of screen space. We can see this interaction clearly
in two shots from Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath.
In the first shot, the heroine, Anne, is standing before a grillwork panel
(4.153). She isn’t speaking, but since she is a major character in the film, the nar-
rative already directs us to her. Setting, lighting, costume, and figure expression
create pictorial cues that confirm our expectations. The setting yields a pattern of
horizontal and vertical lines that intersect in the delicate curves of Anne’s face and
shoulders. The lighting yields a patch of brightness on the right half of the frame
and a patch of darkness on the left, creating pictorial balance. Anne is the meeting
point of these two areas. Her face is modeled by the relatively strong key lighting
from the right, a little top lighting on her hair, and relatively little fill light. Anne’s
black dress punctuated by a white collar and her black cap edged with white further
emphasize her face.
The shot is comparatively shallow, displaying two major planes with little dis-
tance between them. The background sets off the most important element, Anne.
The rigid geometrical grid in the rear makes Anne’s slightly sad face the most
expressive element in the frame, thus encouraging our eye to pause there. In addi-
tion, the composition divides the screen space horizontally, with the grid pattern
running across the top half and the dark, severe vertical of Anne’s dress dominating
the lower half. As is common, the upper zone is the stronger because the character’s
head and shoulders occupy it. Anne’s figure is positioned slightly off center, but
with her face turned to compensate for the vacant area on the right. (Imagine how
unbalanced the shot would look if she were turned to face us squarely and the same
amount of space were left empty on the right.) Thus compositional balance rein-
forces the shot’s emphasis on Anne’s expression. Without using movement, Dreyer
has channeled our attention by means of lines and shapes, lights and darks, and the
foreground and background relations in the mise-en-scene.
In the second example, also from Day of Wrath, Dreyer coaxes our attention
into a to-and-fro movement (4.154). Again, the plot guides us, since the characters
and the cart are crucial narrative elements. Sound helps, too, since Martin is at the
moment explaining to Anne that the wood in the cart will fuel the witch-burning.
But mise-en-scene also plays a role. Size diminution and cast shadows establish
basic foreground/background relations, with Anne and Martin on the front plane
and the cart of wood in the background. The space is comparatively deep (though
the foreground is not as exaggeratedly close as that in Ashes and Diamonds, 4.151).
The prominence of the couple and the cart is reinforced by line, shape, and lighting
contrasts. The figures are defined by hard edges and by dark costumes within the
predominantly bright setting. Unlike most shots, this puts the human figures in the
lower half of the frame, which gives that zone an unusual importance. The com-
position thus creates a vertical balance, counterweighting the cart with the couple.
Were Tim Smith to test his viewers’ scanning on this shot, we’d expect eye move-
ments glancing up and down between the two objects of our attention.
For our thoughts on some digital
3D films, see “A turning point
in digital projection?”; “Bwana
Beowulf”; “Do not forget to return
your 3D glasses”; and “Adieu au
language: 2 1 2 3 3D.”
For a variety of staging options,
in both shallow space and depth,
see “Gradations of emphasis,
starring Glenn Ford” and “How to
watch Fantômas, and why.” “Dial
M for Murder: Hitchcock frets not
his narrow room” analyzes how
Hitchcock uses 3D to stage nearly
all of a film in one apartment.
4.153–4.154 Concentrating our
attention. Day of Wrath: Highlighting
a single f igure (4.153) and dividing
attention between foreground and
background (4.154).
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150 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Similar processes are at work in color films. In one shot of Yasujiro Ozu’s An
Autumn Afternoon (4.155), our attention is concentrated on the bride in the center
foreground. Many depth cues are at work. Overlap locates the two figures in two
foreground planes, setting them against a series of more distant planes. Aerial
perspective makes the foliage outside somewhat out of focus. Movement creates
depth when the bride lowers her head. Perspective diminution makes the more
distant objects smaller. The woman’s face and the bright silver, red, and gold bridal
costume stand out strikingly against the muted colors of the background planes.
Moreover, the colors lead us to recall a red-and-silver motif that appeared in the
first shot of the film (4.156).
In looking at a shot, we’re more aware of what we see than how we see it. To
think like a filmmaker, though, we need to reflect on that how. The filmmaker
arranges shapes and colors on the two-dimensional screen. He or she also controls
depth cues that suggest three dimensions. The filmmaker uses those patterns to
activate what is most important at each moment. Mise-en-scene structures space in
ways that guide, and sometimes dazzle, our eyes.
Cinema is an art of time as well as space. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that
many of our examples of two- dimensional composition and three-dimensional sce-
nic space have unfolded over time. The director’s control over mise-en-scene gov-
erns not only what we see but when we see it and for how long. In our L’Avventura
scene between Sandro and Claudia on the rooftop (4.124, 4.125), the timing of the
characters’ movements—Sandro turning away just as Claudia turns toward us—
contributes to the effect of a sudden, sharp revelation of her anxiety.
The director shapes the speed and direction of movement within the shot. Since
our eyes are attuned to noticing changes, we can pick up the slightest cues. In 4.157,
from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,
the protagonist simply peels potatoes. This feminist film traces, in painstaking
detail, the everyday routines of a Belgian housewife. The composition of this shot
strongly centers Jeanne, and no competing movements distract us from her steady
and efficient preparation of a meal. The same rhythm is carried throughout the film,
so that when she does start to vary her habits, we are prepared to notice even the
slight errors she makes under emotional pressure.
A far busier shot is 4.158, from Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street. This overhead
view presents strongly opposed movements. The central and outer rings of dancers
circle in one direction, while the second ring turns in a contrary direction. The danc-
ers also swing strips of shiny cloth back and forth. The result is a partially abstract
composition, but it’s easy to grasp because the movement
of the wheels within wheels has a geometrical clarity.
The dancers in 42nd Street are synchronized to a
considerable degree, but 4.159, from Jacques Tati’s Play
Time, contains movements of differing speeds, with dif-
ferent visual accents. Moreover, they occur on different
planes and follow contrasting trajectories. These diverse
movements accord with Tati’s tendency to cram his com-
positions with gags that compete for our attention.
As we have already seen, we scan any film frame for
information. This scanning brings time sharply into play.
Only a very short shot forces us to try to take in the image
all at once. In most shots, we get an initial overall impres-
sion that creates formal expectations. These expectations
are quickly modified as our eye roams around the frame.
As we’d expect, our scanning of the shot is
strongly affected by the presence of movement. A static
4.155–4.156 Color and composition.
An apparently simple shot from An
Autumn Afternoon employs several
depth cues (4.155) and harks back to
the striped smokestacks seen at the
beginning (4.156).
4.157 Movement cues. Slow, quiet movements of the actor in
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles enable the
audience to detect even slight changes.
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 151
composition may keep pulling our attention back to a single element, as our first
shot from Day of Wrath does with Anne’s face (4.153). In contrast, a composi-
tion emphasizing movement may use the movement’s speed or direction to guide
our glance. In the second image from Day of Wrath (4.154), Anne and Martin are
turned from us and are standing still. Thus the single moving thing in the frame—
the cart—catches our attention. But when Martin speaks and turns, we look back at
the couple, then back at the cart, and so on, in a shuttling, dynamic shift of attention.
Our time-bound process of scanning involves not only looking to and fro across
the screen but also, in a sense, looking into its depths. A deep-space composition
will often use background events to create expectations about what is about to hap-
pen in the foreground. “Composing in depth isn’t simply a matter of pictorial rich-
ness,” British director Alexander Mackendrick has remarked. “It has value in the
narrative of the action, the pacing of the scene. Within the same frame, the director
can organize the action so that preparation for what will happen next is seen in the
background of what is happening now.”
Our example from The Dying Swan (4.131–4.134) illustrates Mackendrick’s
point. The same principle is used in 4.160–4.162, from Three Kings. Here the
4.158 Strong, synchronized movements. In
42nd Street, the shot is busy but the movements
are synchronized.
4.159 Vivid, competing movements. The competing rhythms
of movement in a busy shot from Play Time divide the audience’s
attention around the frame.
4.160–4.162 Movements arouse narrative expectations. In
this shot from Three Kings, Chief Elgin comes in to tell the partying
GIs that their superior is coming. Normally, when a character is
looking offscreen, he or she is placed a little off center, leaving
an empty space to imply the area that the person is looking at.
(See the shot of Anne, 4.153.) But Elgin is decentered in a different
way; here the space on the right side sits empty (4.160). That
makes the tent flap behind him prominent. Without being aware
of it, we’re prepared for some action to develop there. Abruptly,
the superior officer bursts into the background (4.161). He strides
forward, which is always a powerful way to command the viewer’s
attention (4.162). As he comes into close-up, he ramps up the
conflict, demanding to know where the men got alcohol.
4.160 4.161
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152 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
frame starts off unbalanced, and the fact that it includes a background doorway
prepares us for the scene’s dramatic development. In addition, any movement from
background to foreground is a strong attention-getter. At moments like these, the
mise-en-scene is quietly setting up what will happen. By arousing our expectations,
the director has engaged us with the unfolding action.
The Dying Swan and Three Kings examples also illustrate the force of fron-
tality. In explaining one five-minute shot in his film Adam’s Rib, George Cukor
acknowledged this power. He remarked how the defense attorney was positioned to
focus our attention on her client, who’s reciting the reasons she shot her husband
(4.163). Katharine Hepburn “had her back to the camera almost the whole time,
but that had a meaning: she indicated to the audience that they should look at Judy
All other things being equal, the viewer expects that more story information
will come from a character’s face than from a character’s back. The viewer’s atten-
tion will thus usually pass over figures that are turned away and fasten on figures
that are positioned frontally. A more distant view can exploit frontality, too. In Hou
Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness, depth staging centers the Japanese woman coming
to visit the hospital, and a burst of bright fabric also draws attention to her (4.164).
Just as important, the other characters are turned away from us. It’s characteristic
of Hou’s style to employ long shots with small changes in figure movement. The
subdued, delicate effect of his scenes depends on our seeing characters’ faces in
relation to others’ bodies and the overall setting.
Frontality can change over time to guide our attention to various parts of the
shot. We’ve already seen alternating frontality at work in our L’Avventura scene,
when Sandro and Claudia turn to and away from us (4.124, 4.125). When actors are
in dialogue, a director may allow frontality to highlight one moment of one actor’s
performance and then give another performer more prominence (4.165, 4.166).
This device reminds us that mise-en-scene can borrow devices from theatrical
4.164 Frontality. Although she is farther from the camera than other characters, the woman
visiting the hospital in City of Sadness draws our eye partly because she is the only one facing
front. (Compare the unimportance of the front-facing nurse in 4.163.)
4.163 Movements coordinated
with other cues for attention. In
Adam’s Rib, the wife who has shot her
husband is given the greatest emphasis
by three-point lighting, her animated
gestures, and her three-quarter frontal
positioning. Daringly, the most frontal
and centered character is the nurse
in the background, but Cukor keeps
her out of focus and unmoving so that
she won’t distract from Judy Holliday’s
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Putting It All Together: Mise-en-Scene in Space and Time 153
A flash of frontality can be very powerful if it’s integrated into the scene’s
unfolding drama. In the opening of Rebel without a Cause, three teenagers are
being held at the police station (4.167). They don’t know one another yet. When
Jim sees that Plato is shivering, he drunkenly comes forward to offer the younger
boy his sport coat (4.168, 4.169). Jim’s frontality, forward movement, bright white
shirt, and central placement emphasize his gesture. The moment foreshadows the
ways in which Jim will become something of a father to Plato. Just as Plato takes
the coat, Judy turns and notices Jim for the first time (4.170). Like Claudia’s turn
to the camera in our L’Avventura example, this sudden revelation spikes our inter-
est. It prepares us for the tense romance that will develop between Judy and Jim
in later scenes. Director Nicholas Ray has blended the scene’s setting, lighting,
costume, and staging in order to establish the core relationships among the three
central characters.
4.165 4.166
4.165–4.166 Fluctuating frontality. In a conversation in The Bad and the Beautiful, our
attention fastens on the studio executive on the right because the other two characters are
turned away from us (4.165). But when the producer turns to the camera, his centered position
and frontal posture emphasize him (4.166).
4.167 4.168
4.169 4.170
4.167–4.170 Developing a scene over time. A long shot lays out the major characters in Rebel without a Cause (4.167). Jim comes
forward, drawing our attention and arousing expectations of a dramatic exchange (4.168). Jim offers Plato his jacket, his action centered and
his brightly lit white shirt making him the dominant player. Judy remains a secondary center of interest, segregated by the office window
but highlighted by her bright red coat (4.169). Judy turns abruptly, and her face’s frontal position lets us see her interest in Jim (4.170).
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154 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
The director can also achieve a strong effect by denying frontality, keeping us
in suspense about what a character’s face reveals. At a climactic moment in Kenji
Mizoguchi’s Naniwa Elegy, some of the usual cues for emphasis are reversed
(4.171, 4.172). We get a long shot rather than a closer view, and the character is
turned from us and moving away from the camera, through patches of darkness.
Ayako is confessing to her suitor that she’s been another man’s mistress. Her with-
drawal conveys a powerful sense of shame, and we, like her friend, have to judge
her sincerity based on her posture and voice. In this and our other examples, several
techniques of mise-en-scene dovetail from moment to moment in order to engage
us more vividly with the action.
Narrative Functions of Mise-en-Scene
in Our Hospitality
Throughout this chapter, most of our examples have looked at mise-en-scene tech-
niques in isolation, studying single shots or scenes. Now we’re ready to see how
these techniques work together to shape a film’s overall form and, consequently,
our experience of it.
Like most of Buster Keaton’s films, Our Hospitality shows that directorial
choices about mise-en-scene can economically advance the narrative and create a
pattern of motifs. Since the film is a comedy, the mise-en-scene also creates gags.
Our Hospitality, then, exemplifies what we will find in our study of every film
technique: An individual element almost always has several functions, not just one.
Consider, for example, how the settings function in the plot of Our
Hospitality. For one thing, they help divide the film into contrasting sections.
The film begins with a prologue showing how the feud between the McKays and
the Canfields kills off the young Canfield and the husband of the McKay family.
We are left in suspense about the fate of the baby, Willie. Willie’s mother flees
with her son from their southern home to the North (action narrated to us mainly
by an intertitle).
The plot jumps ahead many years to begin the main action, with the grown-up
Willie living in New York. There are a number of gags concerning early-19th-
century life in the metropolis, contrasting sharply with the prologue scene. Soon
Willie receives word that he has inherited his parents’ home in the South. A series
of amusing short scenes follows as he takes a primitive train back to his birthplace.
During these scenes, Keaton uses real locales, but by laying out the railroad tracks
in different ways, he exploits the landscapes for surprising comic effects, which
we’ll examine shortly.
The rest of the film deals with Willie’s stay in the southern town. On the day
of his arrival, he wanders around and gets into a number of comic situations. That
For more on Mizoguchi’s staging
style, see “Mizoguchi: Secrets of
the exquisite image.”
The most striking aspect
of the Keaton pictures was the
enormous amount of trouble
lavished over every gag.
Production value on such a scale
requires more than a simple desire
to make people laugh. It is not
surprising that Keaton’s childhood
aim was to be a civil engineer.”
—Kevin Brownlow, film historian
4.171 4.172
4.171–4.172 Frontality denied.
At the height of the drama in Naniwa
Elegy, Kenji Mizoguchi has the heroine
move away from us, into depth (4.171).
As she passes through patches of
distant darkness, our curiosity about
her emotional state intensifies (4.172).
Compare the forward movement in
4.160–4.162 and 4.167–4.170.
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Narrative Functions of Mise-en-Scene in Our Hospitality 155
night he stays in the Canfield house itself. An extended chase occurs the next day,
moving through the countryside and back to the Canfield house for the settling of the
feud. Thus the action depends heavily on shifts of setting that establish Willie’s two
journeys, as baby and as man, and later his wanderings to escape his enemies’ pursuit.
Along with the shifts of setting, the narration is relatively unrestricted after
Willie reaches the South. It switches between him and members of the Canfield
family. We usually know more about what they’re doing than Willie does, and the
narrative generates suspense by showing them coming toward the places where
Willie is hiding.
Specific settings fulfill distinct narrative functions. The McKay estate, which
Willie envisions as a mansion, turns out to be a tumbledown shack. The McKay
house is contrasted with the Canfield’s palatial plantation home. In narrative terms,
the Canfield home gains even more functional importance when the Canfield father
forbids his sons to kill Willie on the premises: “Our code of honor forbids us to
shoot him while he is a guest in our house.” Once Willie overhears this, he deter-
mines never to leave.
Ironically, the home of Willie’s enemies becomes the only safe spot in town,
and many scenes are organized around the Canfield brothers’ attempts to lure
Willie outside. At the end of the film, another setting takes on significance: the
landscape of meadows, mountains, riverbanks, rapids, and waterfalls across which
the Canfields pursue Willie. The feud ends back in the Canfield house itself, with
Willie now welcomed as the daughter’s husband.
The pattern of development is clear: from the opening shootout at the McKay
house that breaks up Willie’s family to the final scene in the Canfield house with
Willie becoming part of a new family. In such ways, every setting becomes highly
motivated by the narrative’s system of causes and effects, parallels and contrasts,
and overall development.
The same narrative motivation marks the film’s use of costume. Willie is char-
acterized as a city boy through his dandified suit, but the southern gentility of the
elder Canfield is represented by his white planter’s suit. Props become important
here. Willie’s suitcase and umbrella succinctly summarize his role as visitor and
wanderer, and the Canfields’ ever-present pistols remind us of their goal of con-
tinuing the feud. In addition, a change of costume (Willie’s disguising himself as a
woman) enables him to escape from the Canfield household. At the end, when the
characters put aside their guns, the feud is over.
Like setting, lighting in Our Hospitality has both general and specific func-
tions. The film alternates scenes in darkness with scenes in daylight. The feuding
in the prologue takes place at night; Willie’s trip South and wanderings through the
town occur in daylight; that night Willie comes to dinner at the Canfield’s and stays
as a guest; the next day, the Canfields pursue him; and the film ends that night with
the marriage of Willie and the Canfield daughter.
More specifically, the bulk of the film is evenly lit in the three-point method.
Yet the somber action of the prologue takes place in hard sidelighting (4.173,
4.174). Later, the murder scene is played out in flashes of light—lightning, gun-
fire—that fitfully punctuate the overall darkness. Because this sporadic lighting
hides part of the action from us, it helps build suspense. The gunshots themselves
are seen only as flashes in the darkness, and we learn that both men have died only
during a burst of lightning.
Most economically of all, virtually every bit of the acting functions to support
and advance the cause-effect chain of the narrative. The way Canfield sips and
savors his mint julep establishes his southern ways; his southern hospitality in turn
will not allow him to shoot a guest in his house. Similarly, Willie’s every move
expresses his diffidence or resourcefulness.
Even more concise is the way the film uses staging in depth to present two
narrative events simultaneously, obliging us to scan back and forth between them.
While the engineer drives the locomotive, the other cars pass him on a parallel
4.173–4.174 Dramatic lighting
changes in Our Hospitality. When
the elder McKay f lings of f his hat
to douse the lamp, the illumination
changes from a soft blend of key, fill,
and backlight (4.173) to a stark key light
from the fireplace (4.174).
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156 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
track (4.175). In other shots, Willie’s awareness or ignorance of a situation is
displayed through planes of depth (4.176, 4.177). Thanks to such spatial arrange-
ments, Keaton is able to pack together two story events, resulting in a tight narra-
tive construction and in a relatively unrestricted narration. In 4.176, we know what
Willie knows, and we expect that he will probably flee now that he understands the
sons’ plans. But in 4.177, we’re aware, as Willie is not, that danger lurks around
the corner, so there’s suspense as we wonder whether the Canfield boys’ ambush
will succeed.
Keaton has unified his film further by using mise-en-scene to create specific
motifs. For one thing, there is the repeated squabble between the anonymous hus-
band and wife. On his way to his estate, Willie passes a husband throttling his
wife. Willie intervenes to protect her; the wife proceeds to thrash Willie for butting
in. On Willie’s way back, he passes the same couple, still fighting, but studiously
avoids them. Nevertheless, the wife aims a kick at him as he passes. The repetition
strengthens the film’s narrative unity, but the motif functions thematically, too, as
another joke on the contradictions surrounding the idea of hospitality.
Other motifs recur. Willie’s first hat is too tall to wear in a jouncing railway
coach. (When it gets crushed, he swaps it for the trademark flat Keaton hat.)
Willie’s second hat serves to distract the Canfields when Willie coaxes his dog to
fetch it. There is also a pronounced water motif in the film. Rain conceals from us
the murders in the prologue and later saves Willie from leaving the Canfield home
after dinner. (“It would be the death of anyone to go out on a night like this!”) A
river functions significantly in the final chase. And a waterfall appears soon after
Willie’s arrival in the South (4.178). This waterfall initially protects Willie by hid-
ing him (4.179, 4.180) but later threatens both him and the Canfield daughter as
they are nearly swept over it (4.186).
4.175 4.176 4.177
4.175–4.177 Deep staging and narration: How to give the audience superior knowledge. During the train journey, within the same
frame (4.175) we see both cause—the engineer’s cheerful ignorance—and effect—the runaway cars. Later the Canfield boys make plans
to shoot Willie, who overhears them in the background (4.176). While Willie ambles along unsuspectingly toward the camera, one Canfield
waits in the foreground to ambush him (4.177).
4.178 4.179 4.180
4.178–4.180 The water motif. After an explosion demolishes a dam, the water spills over a cliff and creates a waterfall (4.178). The
new waterfall starts to hide Willie as he sits fishing (4.179). By the time the Canfields rush into the foreground, he is invisible (4.180).
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Narrative Functions of Mise-en-Scene in Our Hospitality 157
Two specific motifs of setting help tighten the narrative. First there is the
recurrence of an embroidered sampler hanging on the Canfield wall: “Love Thy
Neighbor.” It first appears in the prologue of the film, when seeing it motivates
Canfield’s attempt to stop the feud. The sampler reappears at the end when
Canfield, enraged that Willie has married his daughter, glances at the wall, reads
the inscription, and resolves to halt the years of feuding. His change in attitude is
motivated by an item of setting.
The film also uses gun racks as a motif. In the prologue, each feuder goes to
his mantelpiece to get his pistol. Later, when Willie arrives in town, the Canfields
hurry to their gun rack and begin to load their pistols. Near the end of the film,
when the Canfields return home after failing to find Willie, one of the sons notices
that the gun rack is now empty. And, in the final shot, when the Canfields accept
the marriage and lay down their arms, Willie produces from all over his person a
staggering assortment of pistols swiped from the Canfields’ own supply.
Yet Our Hospitality is more than a film whose narrative system relates economi-
cally to patterns of mise-en-scene. It’s a comedy, and one of the funniest. We shouldn’t
be surprised to find that Keaton uses mise-en-scene for gags. Indeed, so unified is the
film that most of the elements that create narrative economy yield comic effects too.
The mise-en-scene bristles with many comic elements. Settings are exploited for
amusement—the ramshackle McKay estate, the Broadway of 1830, the specially cut
train tunnel that just fits the old-fashioned train and its smokestack (4.181). Costume
gags also stand out. Willie’s disguise as a woman is exposed by a gap in the rear of
his skirt; later, Willie puts the same costume on a horse to distract the Canfields.
Most strongly, comedy arises from the staging and performances. The railroad
engineer’s high kick unexpectedly swipes off his conductor’s hat (4.182). The elder
Canfield sharpens his carving knife with ferocious energy, just inches from Willie’s
head. When Willie lands at the bottom of the river, he stands there looking left and
right, his hand shading his eyes, before he realizes where he is. Later, Willie scuds
down the river, leaping out of the water like a fish and slithering across the rocks.
Perhaps the only aspect of mise-en-scene that competes with the comic inven-
tiveness of the performances is the film’s use of deep space for gags. Many of the
shots we’ve already examined function to create comedy as well: The engineer
stands firmly oblivious to the separation of train cars from the engine (see 4.175)
just as Willie is unaware that the Canfield boy is lurking murderously in the fore-
ground (4.177).
Even more striking, though, is the deep-space gag that follows the demolition
of the dam. The Canfield boys have been searching the town for Willie. In the mean-
time, Willie sits on a ledge, fishing. As the water bursts from the dam and sweeps
over the cliff, it completely engulfs Willie (4.179). At that very instant, the Canfield
brothers step into the foreground from either side of the frame, still looking for their
victim (4.180). The water’s concealment of Willie reduces him to a neutral back-
ground for the movement of the Canfields. This sudden eruption of new action into
the scene surprises us, rather than generating suspense, since we were not aware that
the Canfield sons were so close by. Here surprise is crucial to the comedy.
However appealing the individual gags are, Our Hospitality organizes its
comic aspects as strictly as it does its other motifs. The film’s journey pattern often
arranges a series of gags according to a formal principle of theme and variations.
For instance, during the train trip South, a string of gags is based on the idea of peo-
ple encountering the train. Several people turn out to watch it pass, a tramp rides the
rods, and an old man chucks rocks at the engine. Another swift series of gags takes
the train tracks themselves as its theme. The variations include a humped track, a
donkey blocking the tracks, curled and rippled tracks, and finally no tracks at all.
But the most complex theme-and-variations series can be seen in the motif of
“the fish on the line.” Soon after Willie arrives in town, he is angling and hauls up
a minuscule fish. Shortly afterward, a huge fish yanks him into the water (4.183).
Later in the film, through a series of mishaps, Willie becomes tied by a rope to one
4.181 Setting used for comic
effect. The tunnel is cut to fit the old-
fashioned train.
4.182 Performance as comic
surprise. As the engineer, Keaton’s
father, Joe, uses his famous high-kick
vaudeville stunt for this gag.
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158 CHAPTER 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
of the Canfield sons. Many gags arise from this umbilical-cord linkage, including
one that results in Canfield’s being pulled into the water as Willie was earlier.
Perhaps the single funniest shot in the film occurs when Willie realizes that
since the Canfield boy has fallen off the rocks (4.184), so must he (4.185). But even
after Willie gets free of Canfield, the rope remains tied around his waist. So in the
film’s climax, Willie is dangling from a log over the waterfall (4.186). Here again,
one element fulfills multiple functions. The fish-on-the-line device advances the
narrative, becomes a motif unifying the film, and takes its place in a pattern of par-
allel gags involving variations of Willie on the rope. In such ways, Our Hospitality
becomes an outstanding example of how a filmmaker can integrate cinematic mise-
en-scene with narrative form and create comedy in the process.
4.183 4.184
4.185 4.186
4.183–4.186 Men as fish. The fish-
on-the-line motif begins as Willie is
jerked into the water (4.183). Later, tied
to Willie, the Canfield boy falls off the
cliff (4.184), and Willie braces himself to
be yanked after him (4.185). Still later,
Willie dangles like a fish on the end of
a pole (4.186).
If we want to think like a filmmaker, we should notice
mise-en-scene systematically. In any film, we can watch,
first of all, for how setting, costume, lighting, and staging
and performance are presented. Try tracing only one sort
of element—say, setting or lighting—through a scene.
How does it change, and what purposes does it fulfill?
We should also reflect on how mise-en-scene factors
work together. Try pausing on a single image and scruti-
nizing it, as we’ve done throughout this chapter. How are
the aspects of mise-en-scene arranged to attract our atten-
tion? Do they guide us toward key narrative elements—a
face, a gesture, an object? Once we notice those elements,
how are we cued to react?
Mise-en-scene can operate as part of narration, the
unfolding of story information. How does it achieve
this? Do the settings, lighting, costume, and staging and
performance create curiosity, or suspense, or surprise?
Do they become motifs that weave their ways through the
entire film?
As we look more closely, we’ll become aware of the
vast range of possibilities offered by this area of technique.
The simplest choice—where to put a light, what gesture
an actor should employ—can have a powerful impact.
Whether by intuition or by calculation, filmmakers have
shown that mise-en-scene can engage and move viewers
in an almost endless variety of ways.
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C H A P T E R 5
The Shot: Cinematography
In controlling mise-en-scene, the filmmaker stages an event to be filmed. But what happens in front of the camera isn’t the whole story. That event has to be captured, on a strip of film or in a digital format. The recording process opens
up a new area of choice and control: cinematography.
Even if you’re casually shooting a bit of video, you’re making decisions about
cinematography. (You might be letting the camera’s automatic settings make some
of them for you, but that’s a decision too.) You’re choosing the photographic quali-
ties of the shot, such as exposure and frame rate. You’re also choosing how to frame
the shot, and whether to move the camera. And you’re deciding how long the shot
should run. These areas of choice are the same ones that filmmakers consider care-
fully. Just as nothing could be left to chance in lighting a shot like the one from
Inglourious Basterds (4.1), so all the filmmaker’s decisions about camerawork are
shaped by a single concern: How will this creative choice affect the viewer?
The Photographic Image
Cinematography (literally, “writing in movement”) depends to a large extent on
photography (“writing in light”). Some filmmakers, working with 16mm or 35mm
stock, have abandoned the camera to work directly on the material itself. But even
the filmmaker who draws, paints, or scratches on film is creating patterns of light
on celluloid. Most often, the filmmaker uses a camera to regulate how light from
some object will be registered on the medium—sensitized photographic film or a
video camera’s computer chip. In either case, the filmmaker can select the range of
tonalities, manipulate the speed of motion, and transform perspective.
The Range of Tonalities
You’ve probably noticed that it’s rather hard to take a picture of a person lit by a
sunny window. If Aunt Grace is well exposed, her garden outside the window is
too bright. (The technical jargon is “blown-out.”) If you expose for the garden,
Aunt Grace falls into shadow. This disparity is only one example of a broader area
of choice in cinematography: the control of the image’s range of tones and shades.
Tonality is a matter of considering how the light registers on the film. Lighting, as
we’ve seen, is a factor in mise-en-scene, but it’s intimately connected with cinema-
tography too. In production the cinematographer is almost always the person who
arranges the lighting, so he or she is in the best position to control a shot’s tonality.
Contrast Let’s start with one area of tonal control, the degree of contrast.
Contrast refers to the comparative difference between the darkest and lightest
Both [cinematographer] Floyd
[Crosby] and I wanted [High Noon]
to look like a documentary, or a
newsreel from the period of the
1880s, if film had existed at that
time—which, of course, it did not.
I believe that we came close to
our goal by using flat lighting, a
grainy texture in the printing and
an unfiltered white sky.”
—Fred Zinnemann, director
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160 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
areas of the frame. As we saw in Chapter 4, our eyes are highly sensitive to dif-
ferences of color, shape, texture, and other aspects of a picture. Contrasts in the
image help filmmakers to guide the viewer’s eye to important parts of the frame
and to give the shot an emotionally expressive quality—somber, cheerful, or
Most professional cinematography strives for a middle range of contrast: pure
blacks, pure whites, and a large range in between, either grays (in black-and-white
filming) or hues (in color filming). A higher-contrast image displays bright white high-
lights, stark black areas, and a narrow range of shades in between. A low-contrast image
displays many intermediate grays or color shades with no true white or black areas
(5.1–5.6). High-contrast images can seem stark and dramatic, whereas low-contrast
ones suggest more muted emotional states.
5.1–5.6 Tonal contrast in black-and-white and color. Most black-and-white films employ a balance of grays, blacks, and whites, as
in this shot from Casablanca (5.1). The dream sequence early in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries relies on high-contrast imagery,
with almost no grays (5.2). Many shots in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert have unusually low contrast, enhanced by the flat lighting
and limited palette in the color design (5.3). Some contemporary films emphasize deep, rich blacks and push toward a high-contrast
look, as in Domino (5.4). You can see the different degrees of contrast more clearly if we drain the color out of the original shots (5.5, 5.6).
5.1 5.2
5.3 5.4
5.5 5.6
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The Photographic Image 161
Many factors are used to control contrast, including lighting, filters, choice
of film stock, laboratory processing, and postproduction work. Historically, pho-
tochemical filmmaking relied on photographic stocks with various degrees of
sensitivity to light. Some black-and-white films gathered more light than others,
and so were suited for filming news events in actual conditions. Others gave a
richer, wider contrast range, and these were used for most of the studio films of the
1920s through the 1960s, where lighting could be controlled exactly. Similarly, by
picking different color film stocks, cinematographers could vary the image’s color
contrast (5.7–5.9).
Exposure A crucial way to alter the tonalities in the image is through exposure.
Exposure regulates how much light passes through the camera lens. Often we notice
exposure only when an image seems too dark (underexposed) or too bright (over-
exposed). We expect that filmmakers will try for a balanced exposure. Sometimes,
though, that’s difficult to achieve and trade-offs must be made. Filmmakers con-
stantly face the choice between the blown-out window and the silhouetted Aunt
Grace in our amateur snapshot (5.10, 5.11).
Sometimes a filmmaker wants unbalanced exposure. American film noir cin-
ematography of the 1940s underexposed shadowy regions of the image in keeping
Why is Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? in black and white? “The
words. The dialogue would have
played differently in color.”
—Ernest Lehman, screenwriter
5.7–5.9 Color film and tonal range. Technicolor became famous for its sharp, saturated hues, as seen in the trolley scene of Meet
Me in St. Louis (5.7). Soviet filmmakers used a domestically made stock that tended to lower contrast and give the image a murky
greenish-blue cast. Andrei Tarkovsky stressed these qualities in the monochromatic color design of his shadowy Stalker (5.8). Len Lye’s
abstract Rainbow Dance exploited the English stock Gasparcolor to create pure, saturated silhouettes that split and recombine (5.9).
5.7 5.8 5.9
5.10–5.11 Exposure levels. For Kasba, Indian director Kumar Shahani decided to expose for the shop interior in one scene and let
the countryside behind blow out (5.10). In another scene he exposed for the background and created silhouetted window frames (5.11).
The first shot displays the vibrant colors of the shop’s wares, while the second emphasizes the difference between the market activities
outside and the mysterious interior.
5.10 5.11
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162 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
with low-key lighting techniques. Likewise, overexposure can create expressive
effects (5.12). In addition, images shot with correct exposure can be overexposed
or underexposed in developing, printing, or digital postproduction (5.13).
Exposure can be affected by filters—slices of glass or gelatin put in front
of the lens of the camera or printer to reduce certain frequencies of light reach-
ing the film. Filters can alter the range of tonalities in radical ways. Hollywood
cinematographers since the 1920s have sought to add glamour to close-ups, espe-
cially of women, by means of diffusion filters, along with gels or silks placed
over light sources (5.14). Before modern improvements in film stocks and light-
ing made it practical to shoot most outdoor night scenes at night, filmmakers
routinely made such scenes by using blue filters in sunlight—a technique called
day for night (5.15).
Changing Tonality after Filming Filmmakers have often manipulated the
image’s tonalities after filming. For instance, films could be printed on stocks that
yielded different tonal values. Avant-garde directors have explored unusual ways of
altering images after they came from the camera (5.16, 5.17).
“[In digital cinematography]
you start seeing lines on people’s
faces that aren’t really there. I find
myself using diffusion filters that
I haven’t used in 20 years just
to be kinder to the faces of the
people I’m photographing.”
—Stuart Dryburgh, cinematographer
5.12–5.13 Overexposure. In Vidas Secas, Nelson Pereira dos Santos overexposes the windows of the prison cell to sharpen the
contrast between the prisoner’s confinement and the world of freedom outside (5.12). The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
used digital grading to simulate photographic overexposure in the Moria sequence. In 5.13 the overexposure of the wizard’s staff makes
the Fellowship a bright island threatened by countless orcs in the darkness.
5.12 5.13
5.14 5.15
5.14–5.15 Filters alter tonality. Studio films like A Farewell to Arms often employed diffusion filters, along with soft and high-key
lighting, to create romantic images of women (5.14). For The Searchers, this scene of the protagonists spying on an Indian camp at night
was shot in sunlight using day-for-night filters (5.15).
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The Photographic Image 163
One of the most common adjustments in the silent-film era involved adding
color to black-and-white images through tinting and toning. Tinting is accomplished
by dipping the already developed film into a bath of dye. The dark areas remain
black and gray, while the lighter areas pick up the color (5.18). Toning worked in
an opposite fashion. The dye was added during the developing of the positive print.
As a result, darker areas are colored, while the lighter portions of the frame remain
white or only faintly colored (5.19). More ambitious and rare was hand-coloring,
which filled certain parts of the shot with an appropriate color (5.20). Later film-
makers occasionally revived silent-film processes (5.21).
Many more adjustments of the image’s tonality can be made in postproduction.
For photochemically based filmmaking, the role of grader or timer was created to
alter the color range of a print. The rise of digital filmmaking supplied even more
tools to the expert now called the colorist. Once the film exists as a set of files,
the adjustments can be very precise. For example, with analog color grading, any
5.16–5.17 Experimental manipu-
lation after filming. Throughout
Power and Water, Pat O’Neill creates
spectacular imagery by use of optical
printing, matte work, and other special
ef fec t s (5.16). B y scratching the
emulsion, Stan Brakhage emphasizes
the eye motif that runs through
Reflections on Black (5.17).
5.19 5.20 5.21
5.18–5.21 Adding color to black and white. Tinting creates a brownish color across the entire frame in the 1914 film The Wrath of
the Gods (5.18). The color suggests the heat of an erupting volcano. In Cenere (“Ashes,” 1916) the deep blue of the dark areas and the
nearly white patches are characteristic of toning (5.19). Night scenes like this were often colored blue. Firelight was frequently red, while
interiors were commonly amber. Hand-colorists used stencils laid over each frame to create vibrant imagery, as in Albert Capellani’s
1906 Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp (5.20). For her experimental film Daisies, Vera Chytilová employs a crimson toning (5.21).
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164 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
change made to a shot affected the entire frame
area. But digital programs allow the colorist
to target specific parts of the frame (5.22) and
maintain that adjustment even if the parts shift
during the shot. Today, some cinematographers
bring a colorist to the set to make decisions
during shooting.
Likewise, to get a day-for-night effect,
the scene will be darkened in postproduction.
For the climactic night sequence in Winter’s
Bone, two women take the heroine to a pond.
Some shots were taken in bright daylight, oth-
ers were taken at dusk, and the close views of
the women in the boat were shot at night, with
lamps providing dim illumination. Through
digital grading, all the shots were blended into
a uniformly dark sequence. Julie & Julia, a
romantic comedy, used the opposite technique,
adding sunlight to scenes that had been shot on
overcast days.
Digital postproduction has reshaped every area of technique, from mise-
en-scene and cinematography to editing and sound. (See “A Closer Look,” pp.
165–166.) With more opportunities, however, come more forced decisions. One
editor wonders whether digital postproduction offers too many alternatives: “I still
generally feel, if you don’t have it [in shooting], it wasn’t meant to be. You can’t
manipulate everything like that or we might as well all be in animation.”
Speed of Motion
A gymnast’s performance seen in slow motion, ordinary action accelerated to
comic speed, a tennis serve stopped in a freeze-frame—our films and videos are
full of such effects. We don’t often reflect on the fact that they depend on a pho-
tographic power unique to cinema: control over the speed of movement seen on
the screen.
The speed of the motion presented onscreen depends on two factors: the rate
at which the film was shot and the rate of projection. Both rates are calculated in
frames per second. The standard rate for film-based shooting, established when
synchronized-sound movies came in at the end of the 1920s, was 24 frames per
second (fps). Today’s 35mm cameras commonly offer the filmmaker a choice of
anything between 8 and 64 fps, with specialized cameras offering a wider range
of choice. Professional HD cameras, typically standardized at around 24, 25, and
30 fps, offer a comparable menu of frame rates.
If the movement is to look accurate on the screen, the rate of shooting should
correspond to the rate of projection. This is what normally happens with modern
films. The main problem comes with silent films, which are sometimes shown
speeded up from their original frame rates. Before the filming rate was standardized
at 24 fps, films were taken at anywhere from 16 to 22 fps, and so they look jerky
when screened at 24 fps. Projected at the correct speed, silent films look as smooth
as movies made today.
As the silent films show, if a film is exposed at fewer frames per second than
the projection rate (say, 16 or 18 frames), the screen action will look speeded up.
This is the fast-motion effect sometimes seen in comedies. But fast motion has
long been used for other purposes. In F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the vampire’s
coach rushes skittishly across the landscape, suggesting his supernatural power. In
I have a hard enough time
making up my mind about things
without going into a DI suite; I
don’t think I’d ever get out of
there. The process creates too
many options.”
—Paul Thomas Anderson, director,
There Will Be Blood
5.22 Selective digital grading. In this close-up from The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring, the oval on the actor’s face indicates the area
within which the colorist wants to change the lighting or the color.
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The films adapted from J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The
Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two
Towers, and The Return of the King) show how computer-
generated imagery (CGI) can be used for huge battle
scenes, plausible monsters, and magical events. The
films also illustrate how CGI shapes less spectacular,
more mundane areas of production.
CGI was used at every stage of production. In pre-
production, a sort of animated storyboard (a previs, for
“previsualization”) was made, consisting of animatics, or
rough, computer-generated versions of the scenes. Each
installment’s previs was about as long as the finished film
and coordinated the work of the huge staff involved in
both digital and physical tasks.
During production of the three films, CGI helped
create the mise-en-scene. Many shots digitally stitched
together disparate elements, blending full-size settings,
miniature sets, and matte paintings (see 5.60). A total of
68 miniature sets were built, and computer manipulation
was required in each case to make them appear real or
to allow camera movements through them. Computer
paint programs could generate matte paintings for the
sky, clouds, distant cliffs, and forests that appeared
behind the miniatures.
Rings also drew on the rapidly developing capacity of
CGI to create characters. The war scenes were staged
with a small number of actual actors in costumes, but
CGI added vast crowds of soldiers alongside them. As
happens often nowadays, the Rings project demanded
new software programs. A crucial program was Massive
(for “Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual
Environment”). Using motion-capture on a few agents
(costumed actors), the team could build a number of
different military maneuvers, assigning all of them to the
thousands of crude, digitally generated figures. By giv-
ing each figure a rudimentary artificial intelligence—such
as the ability to see an approaching soldier and identify
it as friend or foe—Massive could generate a scene in
which figures scattered or gathered in unpredictable
ways (5.23).
The monsters encountered by the characters dur-
ing their quest were more elaborately designed than
the troops. A detailed three-dimensional model of each
creature was captured with a scanning wand that could
read into recesses and folds. A new software system,
Character Mapper, captured motion from an actor and
then adjusted body mass and muscles to imaginary
skeletons. In the cave-troll sequence, the large, squat
creature swings its limbs and flexes its muscles in a
believable fashion.
The skeletal Gollum was created with a combina-
tion of motion-capture and CGI, but human actors didn’t
escape the CGI process. The main characters were given
digital look-alikes who replaced stunt doubles, executing
dangerous or difficult movements. The story demanded
that full-size actors play three-feet-tall hobbits who inter-
act with characters considerably taller than them. The
size difference was often created during filming by using
small doubles or by placing the hobbits farther from the
camera in false-perspective sets.
Cinematography also depended on CGI. For the
cave-troll scene, director Peter Jackson donned a
virtual-reality helmet and planned camera positions by
moving around a virtual set and facing a virtual troll.
The camera positions were motion-captured and repro-
duced in the actual filming of the sequence—which has
a rough, handheld style quite different from the rest of
the scenes.
In postproduction, animators erased telephone poles
in location shots and helicopter blades dipping into the
aerial shots of the Fellowship’s voyage across moun-
tains. Specialized programs added details, such as the
ripples in the water in the Mirror of Galadriel.
Perhaps most important, digital grading altered the
color of shots, giving each major location a distinc-
tive look. Rivendell’s scenes are in autumnal tones,
while the early scenes in the Shire were given a yellow
glow that enhanced the sunshine and green fields. The
grading also utilized an innovative program that permit-
ted adjusting the color values of individual elements
within a shot. When Galadriel shows Frodo her mirror,
she glows bright white, contrasting with the deep blue
tones of Frodo’s figure and setting (5.24). Thanks to
digital grading, CGI techniques can do more than create
crowds and creatures: They can shape the visual style
of an entire film.
Computer-Generated Imagery in The Lord of the Rings
The Photographic Image 165
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5.23–5.24 Mise-en-scene and cinematography controlled by digital postproduction. Vast crowds of soldiers with individualized
movements were generated by the Massive software program for The Two Towers (5.23). In The Fellowship of the Ring, selective digital
color grading makes one figure bright white while the rest of the scene has a muted tone (5.24).
166 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, delirious fast motion renders the hectic rhythms
of urban life (5.25). More recent films have used fast motion to grab our attention
and accelerate the pace, whisking us through a setting to the heart of the action.
The more frames per second shot (say, 48 or 64), the slower the screen action
will appear. The resulting slow-motion effect is used notably in Dziga Vertov’s Man
with a Movie Camera to render sports events in detail, a function that continues to be
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The Photographic Image 167
important today. The technique can also be used for expres-
sive purposes. In Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight,
the members of a hunt decide to ride quietly home to avoid
waking the sleeping deer; their ride is filmed in slow motion
to create a comic depiction of noiseless movement.
Today slow-motion footage often functions to suggest
that the action takes place in a dream or fantasy. It can also
be used to convey enormous power, as in a martial-arts
or superhero film. Slow motion is also used for emphasis,
becoming a way of dwelling on a moment of spectacle or
high drama. Slow-motion scenes of a couple walking add
a lyrical rhythm to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love,
suggesting that they are unwittingly dancing with each other.
To enhance expressive effects, filmmakers can change
the speed of motion during a shot. Often the change of speed helps create special
effects. In Die Hard a fireball bursts up an elevator shaft toward the camera. During
the filming, the fire at the bottom of the shaft was filmed at 100 fps, slowing down
its progress, and then shot at faster speeds as it erupted upward, giving the impres-
sion of an accelerating explosion.
The Die Hard sequence creates a realistic-looking explosion, but sometimes
filmmakers choose to call our attention to changes in the speed of capturing the
action. Varying the frame rate during shooting is called ramping. Since ramping
alters exposure, lighting levels on the set have to be coordinated with the frame rate.
For the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes, the Phantom, a specialized digital camera
used to create slow motion, was ramped from 24 fps to 800 fps and then back to 24
fps. During the passage of slow motion, a burst of light kept the exposure constant.
Ramping is sometimes used as a one-off effect to emphasize a bit of action, as in
the Die Hard and Sherlock Holmes scenes. But it can also function as a motif and create
parallels. In an early scene of Michael Mann’s The Insider, researcher Jeffrey Wigand
leaves the tobacco company that has just fired him. As he crosses the lobby toward a
revolving door, his brisk walk suddenly slows to a dreamlike drifting. The point of this
striking stylistic choice becomes apparent only in the film’s last shot. Lowell Bergman,
the TV producer who has helped Wigand reveal that addictive substances are added
to cigarettes, has been dismissed from CBS. Bergman strides across the lobby, and as
he passes through the revolving door, his movement glides into extreme slow motion.
The repetition of the technique compares two men who have lost their livelihoods as a
result of telling the truth: two insiders who have become outsiders.
There are more extreme forms of fast and slow motion. Time-lapse cinematog-
raphy permits us to see the sun set in seconds or a flower sprout, bud, and bloom
in a minute. For this, a very low shooting speed is required—perhaps one frame
per minute, hour, or even day. For high-speed cinematography, such as recording
a bullet shattering glass, the camera may expose hundreds or thousands of frames
per second. Most cameras can be used for time-lapse shooting, but high-speed cin-
ematography requires specially designed cameras.
After filming, the filmmaker can still control the speed of movement on the
screen. Until the early 1990s, the most common tool for this was the optical printer.
This device rephotographs a film, copying all or part of each original frame onto
another reel of film. The optical printer can reverse the action, accelerate it by skip-
ping frames, slow the action by reprinting frames (stretch printing), or freeze the
action by printing the same frame over and over. Today digital postproduction permits
the same manipulations that were pioneered on the optical printer.
Many experimental films have played with the possibilities of altering the
speed of original footage. With the help of an optical printer, Ken Jacobs’s Tom Tom
the Piper’s Son (12.11) explores the images of an early silent film by pausing the
shots and enlarging portions of them. More mainstream films have also exploited
the freeze-frame effect. It can underscore a piece of action or a line of dialogue,
5.25 Fast motion. Cars become blurs of light in Koyaanisqatsi.
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168 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
or suggest a character’s memory. At the end of the film
a freeze-frame can linger on a situation, imprinting it on
the viewer’s mind. It can also suggest that the story action
hasn’t quite resolved (5.26).
You are standing on railroad tracks, looking toward the
horizon. The tracks seem to meet in the distance, and the
track ties get steadily smaller as they recede. Yet you know
that the tracks are really parallel, and the ties are of uniform
size. What is happening?
Your eye gathers light reflected from the scene and
creates an image of space and the things in it. The objects
in the scene have some regular relation to one another. The
tracks converge and the ties get smaller. Your vision, in other
words, shows a perspective view of the scene: a set of spatial
relations organized around a viewing point.
The lens of a photographic camera does roughly what your eye does. Located at
a specific point, it gathers light from the scene and transmits that light onto the flat
surface of the film or video chip to form an image that represents size, depth, and
other dimensions of the scene. So a camera lens also creates a perspective image.
One difference between the eye and the camera, though, is that photographic
lenses may be changed, and each type of lens will render perspective in different
ways. If two different lenses photograph the same scene, the perspective relations
in the resulting images can be drastically different. As we’ll see, a wide-angle lens
could exaggerate the depth you see down the track or could make the foreground
trees and buildings seem to bulge. A telephoto lens could drastically reduce the
depth, making the trees seem very close together and nearly the same size.
The Lens: Focal Length Filmmakers think carefully about the perspective of
an image. The main area of choice involves the focal length of the lens. In technical
terms, the focal length is the distance from the center of the lens to the point where
light rays converge to a point of focus on the film. The focal length alters the size and
proportions of the things we see, as well as how much depth we perceive in the image.
We can distinguish three general sorts of lenses, based on their focal lengths
and the ways they present perspective. We’ll use 35mm film as our reference point,
although the three types of lenses hold good for digital formats as well.
1. The short-focal-length (wide-angle) lens
In 35mm-gauge cinematography, a lens of less than 35mm in focal length is con-
sidered a wide-angle lens. It’s called that because it takes in a relatively wide field
of view. But in capturing the wider field, these lenses tend to distort straight lines
lying near the edges of the frame, bulging them outward (5.27–5.29). Less obvi-
ously, a short focal-length lens exaggerates depth, making figures in the foreground
seem bigger and those in the distance seem farther away (5.30). As a result, when
figures move toward or away from the camera, a wide-angle lens makes them seem
to cover ground more rapidly.
2. The middle-focal-length (normal) lens
A common length for a medium, or normal lens, in 35mm and high-end digital cin-
ematography, is 50mm (5.31). This lens seeks to avoid noticeable perspective dis-
tortion. With a medium lens, horizontal and vertical lines are rendered as straight
and perpendicular. (Compare the bulging effect of the wide-angle lens.) Parallel
lines should recede to distant vanishing points, as in our railroad tracks example.
Foreground and background should seem neither stretched apart (as with the wide-
angle lens) nor squashed together (as with the telephoto lens).
I’m standing around waiting
to see where the 50mm is going
to be, or what size lens they’re
putting on, and in that unwritten
book in my brain, I said, ‘Don’t
ever let them shoot you full face,
on a wide-angle lens, you’ll end
up looking like Dumbo.’”
—Tony Curtis, actor
5.26 Freeze-frame for a closing shot. In A Moment of
Innocence, the f inal freeze-frame lets us contemplate what
the gestures imply about the young men’s attitudes toward
the woman. Another example of an irresolute final freeze-frame
is 3.10.
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The Photographic Image 169
3. The long-focal-length (telephoto) lens
Wide-angle lenses stretch space along the frame edges, but longer lenses flatten
the space along the camera axis. Cues for depth and volume are reduced. The
planes seem squashed together, much as when you look through a telescope or
binoculars (5.32). (For this reason, long lenses are also called telephoto lenses.)
Long lenses take in a narrower angle of vision than wide-angle or normal lenses
do. As you’d expect, the effect of movement with a long lens is the opposite of
what happens with the wide angle. A person moving toward the camera takes more
time to cover what seems to be a small distance.
Today long lenses are typically 100mm or greater in length. You’ll often see them
at work in televised sports events, since they magnify action at a distance. In a base-
ball game, there will invariably be shots taken from almost directly behind the pitcher,
using a camera located beyond the centerfield wall. You’ve probably noticed that
such shots make the umpire, catcher, batter, and pitcher look unnaturally close to one
another. In other contexts, the effect of a very long lens can be otherworldly (5.33).
5.27 5.28
5.29 5.30
5 . 2 7–5 . 3 0 Wide angle and
perspective. In Don’t Look Now, as
the camera swivels to follow John
Baxter, the wide-angle lens makes a
street lamp he passes appear to lean
to the right (5.27), and then to the left
(5.28). Wide-angle close shots risk
distortion, as with the young woman’s
hand in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes
Are Flying (5.29). In The Little Foxes,
the lens makes the characters seem
relatively far from one another, even
though they’re within a small area of
the parlor (5.30).
5.32–5.33 Long lenses and perspective. In 5.32, from Chen Kaige’s Life on a String, the long lens squashes the crowd members
almost to a single plane. It also makes the rapids behind the men virtually a two-dimensional backdrop. In Koyaanisqatsi, an airport is
filmed from a great distance, and an exceptionally long focal length makes the plane seem to land on a highway (5.33).
5.32 5.33
5.31 The medium focal-length
lens. A shot made with a medium
lens in His Girl Friday. Contrast the
sense of distance among the actors
seen in 5.30.
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170 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Lens length can distinctly affect the spectator’s experience. For example,
expressive qualities can be suggested by lenses that distort objects or characters.
A decision about lens length can make a character or object blend into the setting
(5.34–5.36) or stand out in sharp relief (5.37). Filmmakers may exploit the flat-
tening effects of the long focal-length lens to create solid masses of space as in
an abstract painting (5.38). A director can use the distortions of lens lengths for
surprise effects as well (5.39, 5.40).
In taking snapshots you’ve probably used a zoom lens to enlarge some part of
a shot. The lens changes framing, but it also changes focal length. So the zoom not
only resizes what’s shown; it also changes the image’s perspective. With its variable
focal length, the zoom combines the wide-angle, medium, and telephoto options
we’ve already looked at.
Fixed focal-length lenses can’t change perspective relations while the camera
is running, but the zoom can. Zoom lenses were originally used for documentary
shooting. Most filmmakers didn’t try to zoom during filming, because they worried
that the rapid warping or flattening of the image would be distracting. But in the
late 1950s, filmmakers began zooming while shooting.
Since then, the zoom has sometimes been used to substitute for moving the
camera forward or backward. During a zoom, the camera remains stationary, while
the zoom shot magnifies or demagnifies the objects filmed (5.41–5.43). It can also
create intriguing deformations of depth and scale, as we’ll see when we examine
If you’re not yet convinced that the choice of focal length matters, consider
Ernie Gehr’s abstract experimental film Serene Velocity. The scene is an empty
corridor. Gehr shot the setting with a zoom lens, but in a very unusual way.
[I] divided the mm range of the zoom lens in half and starting from the middle I
recorded changes in mm positions. . . . The camera was not moved at all. The zoom
lens was not moved during recording either. Each frame was recorded individu-
ally as a still. Four frames to each position. To give an example: I shot the first
four frames at 50mm. The next four frames I shot at 55mm. And then, for a certain
In New York, New York, we
shot only with a 32mm lens, the
whole movie. We tried to equate
the old style of framing, the old
style meaning 1946–53.”
—Martin Scorsese, director
I tend to rely on only two
kinds of lenses to compose my
frames: very wide angle and
extreme telephoto. I use the wide
angle because when I want to
see something, I want to see it
completely, with the most detail
possible. As for the telephoto, I
use it for close-ups because I find
it creates a real ‘encounter’ with
the actor. If you shoot someone’s
face with a 200-millimeter lens,
the audience will feel like the
actor is really standing in front
of them. It gives presence to the
shot. So I like extremes. Anything
in between is of no interest to me.”
—John Woo, director, A Better
Tomorrow and Hard Boiled
5.34–5.36 Long lenses and movement. In Tootsie, Dorothy
becomes visible among the crowd at a considerable distance
from the camera (5.34). After taking 20 steps, “she” seems only
slightly closer (5.35). Finally, after taking 36 steps, Dorothy seems
somewhat closer (5.36). The shot is held long enough for us to
absorb Michael’s makeover and to recognize that the masquerade
is successful: He can merge into the crowd.
5.34 5.35
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The Photographic Image 171
5.37–5.38 Lens length for expressive effect. In Ilya Trauberg’s China Express, wide-angle distortion makes the
man’s hand more threatening (5.37). In Eternity and a Day, a long lens turns the beach and sea into two vertical strips
behind the character (5.38).
5.37 5.38
5.39–5.40 Focal length for surprise and suspense. In Kurosawa’s Red Beard, when the
mad patient comes into the intern’s room, a long focal-length lens makes her seem close and
threatening (5.39). But a cut to a more perpendicular angle shows that they’re actually several
feet apart and that he is not yet in danger (5.40).
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172 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
duration, approximately 60 feet, I went back and forth, four frames at 50mm, four
frames at 55mm; four frames at 50mm, four frames at 55mm; etc. . . . for about 60
feet. Then I went to 45–60 [mm] and did the same for about 60 feet. Then to 40–65,
and so on.
Onscreen, we see an image whose perspective relations pop in and out at us
rhythmically—first with little difference, but gradually with greater tension
between a telephoto image and a wide-angle image (5.44). In Serene Velocity Gehr
engages us sheerly through formal patterning of focal lengths.
The Lens: Depth of Field and Focus You’re well aware that a photograph
or a movie scene can show some things in focus and let other things get fuzzy. That
effect is, once more, due to the lens’s focal length.
Every lens has a specific depth of field: a range of distances within which
objects can be photographed in sharp focus, given a certain exposure setting. For
example, suppose you are shooting with a 50mm lens and your subject is 10 feet
away. At one common exposure level, focusing the lens at 10 feet will render every-
thing between 8½ and 12 feet away in acceptable focus. Outside that zone, either
closer to the lens or farther way, objects will blur.
All other things being equal, a wide-angle lens has a relatively greater depth
of field than a telephoto lens. A 32mm lens focused at 10 feet yields an acceptable
focal range of about 6 to 25 feet. The opening shot of Simple Men shows depth of
field at work (5.45).
Depth of field isn’t the same as deep space, discussed in Chapter 4. Deep
space is a term for the way the filmmaker has staged the action on several dif-
ferent planes, regardless of whether all of these planes are in focus. In the case
5.41–5.43 The zoom at work. The opening of The
Conversation presents one of the most famous zoom shots in
cinema. A long, slow zoom-in arouses considerable uncertainty
about its target (5.41, 5.42), until it finally centers on a mime and
our protagonist, surveillance technician Harry Caul (5.43). You can
see how the varied focal lengths change perspective: In 5.41, the
street tapers into the distance, but at longer lengths (5.42, 5.43),
the pavement’s grid doesn’t recede.
5.41 5.42
5.44 Formal experiment with lens
length. In Serene Velocity, telephoto
shots of a hallway are juxtaposed to
wide-angle shots taken from the same
spot, creating a pulsating rhythm and
an abstract play of rectangular shapes.
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The Photographic Image 173
of Our Hospitality, those planes usually are in sharp focus, but in other films,
not every plane of deep space is in focus. In the Simple Men shot (5.45), we can
see three planes of depth, but they aren’t all in focus. Deep space is a matter of
mise-en-scene, involving how the scene is arranged. Depth of field depends on
the camera, with the lens determining what layers of a deep-space staging are
in focus.
If depth of field controls perspective relations by determining which planes
will be in focus, what choices are open to the filmmaker? He or she may opt for
what is usually called selective focus—choosing to focus on only one plane and
letting the other planes blur. As the Simple Men example suggests, selective focus
guides the viewer’s eye: We tend to pay attention to what is most clearly visible.
Often this involves focusing on the main character and throwing the surroundings
out of focus (5.46). Alternatively the director may choose to put an unexpected
plane in focus and let the rest blur (5.47).
In Hollywood during the 1940s, partly because of the influence of Citizen
Kane, filmmakers began using lenses of shorter focal length, along with more
sensitive film stock and higher light levels, to yield a greater depth of field (5.48).
This practice came to be called deep focus. Combined with deep-space staging, it
became a major stylistic option in the 1940s and 1950s (5.49). The technique was
5.45 Focal length in action. The opening shot of Simple Men focuses on the robber and
the security guard in the middle ground. The yellow railing in the foreground is out of focus. In
the distant background stands the female robber’s partner, who is out of focus too. The lens’s
depth of field picked out certain zones of space in front of the camera.
5.46–5.47 Depth of field yields
selective focus. As often happens
with selective focus, the main point
of interest in this shot from Agnès
Varda’s Vagabond (Sans toi ni loi) is
kept in focus, while the background
is out of focus (5.46). More unusual is
Léos Carax’s decision in Boy Meets
Girl to show his protagonist in the
background, fascinated by the neck of
the woman in the foreground (5.47).
5.48–5.49 The golden age of
deep-focus cinematography. In
the famous contract-signing scene
from Citizen Kane, the entire depth
composition is in sharp focus from one
plane near the lens (Bernstein’s head),
through several planes in the middle
ground, to the wall far in the distance
(5.48). A similar example of deep-
space staging combined with deep-
focus cinematography is Anthony
Mann’s The Tall Target (5.49).5.48 5.49
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174 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
even imitated in cartoons. (See 4.146.) During the 1970s and 1980s, younger direc-
tors like Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma revived deep-focus cinematography
(5.50). Early HD cameras had small sensors, which kept all planes in focus (5.51).
As larger sensors were developed, cinematographers could more easily create selec-
tive, shallow-focus images.
Selective focus automatically steers our attention to a single important part
of the shot. But deep focus tends to make several areas equally visible. So the
filmmaker’s choice of deep focus creates another set of options for guiding our
eye. Those options include sound (we tend to watch who’s speaking), elements of
mise-en-scene, such as lighting and staging (p. 144), and aspects of framing and
Just as a zoom lens lets the filmmaker change focal length while filming, focus
can be altered within a shot by racking focus, or pulling focus. This is commonly
used to switch our attention between foreground and background (5.52–5.53), mak-
ing one plane blurred and another sharp.
Special Effects The image’s perspective relations can be shaped by special
effects. The most unrealistic sort is superimposition. Here images are laid over
one another, creating multiple perspectives within the frame. Superimpositions
were originally created by double exposure either in the camera or in laboratory
printing. For decades filmmakers presented dreams, visions, or memories superim-
posed over a character’s face (5.54). Today, as you’d expect, superimpositions are
created in digital postproduction.
Filmmakers working for American and European studios in the 1920s and
1930s devised other ways of manipulating perspective relations. Suppose you want
to shoot a piece of action in the studio but persuade the viewer that it’s taking place
on location. The trick was to create a composite, in which separately photographed
images are blended in a single composition.
One solution was to simply project footage of a setting onto a screen, then
film actors in front of it. The whole ensemble could then be filmed from the front
(5.55). This was called, logically enough, rear projection (or process work), and
it was widely used. You’ll see it in many classic Hollywood films. When people
are shown inside moving vehicles, the scenery whizzes by in rear projection. To
modern eyes, older forms of rear projection don’t create very convincing depth
cues (5.56).
If I made big-budget films,
I would do what the filmmakers of
twenty years ago did: use 35, 40,
and 50mm [lenses] with lots of
light so I could have that depth
of field, because it plays upon
the effect of surprise. It can give
you a whole series of little tricks,
little hiding places, little hooks in
the image where you can hang
surprises, places where they can
suddenly appear, just like that,
within the frame itself.”
—Benoît Jacquot, director, A Single Girl
On the problems of shooting in
cars: “There are no new angles.
They’ve all been done a thousand
times, plus the mechanics of doing
it are hideous. The camera car,
the walkie-talkie, trying to keep
it realistic-looking, the police
motorcade that must accompany
you—all of those things conspire
to mar the intimacy of what you’re
shooting. I think they had it right in
old Hollywood where they would
do it in the studio with rear-screen
–Alexander Payne, director of The
Descendants and Nebraska
5.50–5.51 Deep focus in film and video. In The Untouchables, a conversation scene is played in the foreground while setting and
distant figures are also kept in focus (5.50). This shot uses a special split-focus lens that can render extreme depth, but a comparable
effect is more easily achieved in digital video, where a small chip can yield extreme depth of field. If this shot, from Agnès Varda’s The
Gleaners and I, had been made on film, either Varda’s hand or the truck would have been far more out of focus (5.51).
5.50 5.51
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The Photographic Image 175
A more complicated approach to composite filming, also developed in the
classical studio system, was matte work. A matte is a portion of the setting
photographed on a strip of film, usually with a part of the frame empty. Through
laboratory printing, the matte is joined with another strip of film containing the
actors. It was common to have expert artists paint an image of the setting, and
the painting was then filmed, leaving a blank space in the frame. The footage was
combined with footage of action, filmed to fit the blank area. Several long shots in
The Wizard of Oz exemplify classic matte painting (2.22).
With a matte painting, the actor can’t move into the painted portions of the
frame without seeming to disappear. To solve this problem, filmmakers used a
traveling matte. Here the actor was photographed against a blank, usually blue,
background. In laboratory printing, a background was prepared and a moving out-
line of the actor was cut out of it. Then the shot of the actor was jigsawed into the
moving gap in the background footage. Traveling mattes could present persuasive
images of space adventure or show cartoon characters interacting with humans
(5.57, 5.58). Like any technique, however, traveling mattes can also generate a styl-
ized, deliberately unrealistic image (5.59).
Now that filmmakers have software to do compositing, it might seem that rear
projection and matte work are hopelessly outdated. But today’s digital techniques
5.52–5.53 Racking focus. In this shot from Last Tango in Paris, Jeanne, the bench, and the wall in the distance are in focus, while
Tom in the foreground is not (5.52). After the camera racks focus, Tom becomes sharp and the background is blurred (5.53).
5.52 5.53
5.54 Superimposition. In the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the Bride sees
the first victim of her revenge, and her memory of a violent struggle is superimposed over a
tight framing of her eyes.
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176 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
mimic the special effects created by analog cinematography and lab work. Rear
projection is still used, although usually with digitally shot footage. Digital special
effects still require that the action be shot in front of a screen, but now it’s either
blue or green. The backgrounds, often digital matte paintings, are added later, as in
traditional compositing. Likewise, today’s merging of several digital effects within
a frame (5.60) resembles pre-digital practice. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade
5.55–5.56 Movies inside movies. Behind the
scenes (5.55): Rear projection for Boom Town (1940).
In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the seascape in the rear plane
was shot separately and used as a back-projected
setting for an embrace filmed under studio lighting
(5.56). From the 1920s through the 1950s, rear
projection was easier than taking cast and crew on
5.57–5.59 Traveling mattes. In Star Wars: Episode IV—A
New Hope, the take-off of the Millennium Falcon was filmed
as a model against a blue screen and matted into a shot of
a building with imperial troopers firing upward (5.57). The
animated figures in Who Framed Roger Rabbit were matted
into live-action footage shot separately (5.58). For Rumble Fish,
a black-and-white film, Francis Ford Coppola uses traveling
mattes to color the fish in an aquarium—recalling early film’s
experiments with hand-coloring (5.59).
5.58 5.59
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Framing 177
Runner, and other classic science fiction films, a single shot might include animated
miniatures or models, traveling mattes to render their movements, and ray bursts
added in superimposition—all against a matte-painted background.
Most filmmakers choose to present tonality, speed of motion, and perspective
in realistic ways. Like other film techniques, though, photographic manipulations
of the shot needn’t be used for realism. For instance, most movie shots don’t want to
confuse you about the positions or sizes of the characters. But Chytilová’s Daisies
presents a comic optical illusion (5.61). Similarly, most CGI shots aim at a seam-
less integration that persuades us that we’re seeing a realistic space. But in The
Mill & the Cross, digital images of Brueghel’s painting “The Way to Calvary” are
stitched together with foreground scenes shot with actors (5.62). The result tricks
our eye by combining painterly and filmic perspectives. Like mise-en-scene, visual
perspective can be stylized, imaginative, and blatantly unrealistic if the filmmaker
chooses that path. It all depends on how the stylistic choices function in the pattern
of the overall film.
You’re very aware of framing when you take a photo or shoot a video. You don’t
usually want to cut off people’s heads. Like tonality, speed of motion, and perspec-
tive, framing is carefully considered by filmmakers of all sorts. It’s one of the most
powerful cinematographic techniques.
Framing was crucial for the first major filmmaker in history, Louis Lumière.
An inventor and businessman, Lumière and his brother Auguste devised one of
the first practical cinema cameras (5.63). The Lumière camera, the most flexible
of its day, weighed only 12 pounds. This was the camera that Melies used for his
cinematic trickery (p. 114), but Louis Lumière’s earliest films presented simple
events—workers leaving his father’s factory, a game of cards, a family meal. But
even at so early a stage of film history, Lumière was able to use framing to trans-
form everyday reality into a cinematic event.
Consider one of the most famous Lumière films, The Arrival of a Train at La
Ciotat Station (1897). Lumière might have framed the shot by setting the camera
CGI can create spectacle, and
some critics claim that the special
effects make the story unimport-
ant. We argue the opposite and
talk about a film historian who
agrees in “Classical cinema lives!
New evidence for old norms.”
5.60 Merging special effects. The digital composite from The Fellowship of the Ring integrates a partial but full-size set with an actor
at the left, a miniature set in the middle ground, a matte painting of the background elements, and computer-animated waterfalls and
falling leaves.
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178 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
perpendicular to the platform, letting the train enter the frame from the right.
Instead, Lumière stationed the camera at an oblique angle. The result is a dynamic
composition, with the train arriving from the distance on a diagonal (5.64). If the
scene had been shot perpendicularly, we would have seen only a string of passen-
gers’ backs climbing aboard. Lumière’s oblique angle lets us see people’s expres-
sions and watch the ways they walk. There is also deep space: Some figures move
into the foreground and others can be glimpsed in the distance.
Simple as it is, this single-shot film, less than a minute long, shows that cam-
era position shapes the way we perceive the filmed event. The same thing happens
on a more intimate scale with another Lumière short, Baby’s Meal (1895). A long
shot would have situated the family in its garden, perhaps showing off their wealth.
Instead, Lumière framed the figures at a medium distance, which emphasizes the
family’s gestures and facial expressions (5.65). The frame’s sizing of the event has
guided our understanding of the event itself.
5.61–5.62 Playing with perspective.
In Daisies, Vera Chytilová uses setting,
charac ter position, and deep focus
to make a comic point about the two
women’s amused deflation of men (5.61).
Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross
combines the flat canvas with the real
locations and figures in the foreground,
inviting us into a world that is half-painting,
half three-dimensional landscape (5.62).
5.63–5.65 Louis Lumière, early master of framing. In an era in which a camera might be the size of an office desk, the Lumière
camera was portable and could be set up on a tripod quickly (5.63). For The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Lumière’s diagonal
framing supplied a dynamic composition and considerable depth (5.64). For Baby’s Meal (5.65), the framing is more frontal and intimate,
excluding the garden in order to concentrate on the family.
5.63 5.64 5.65
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Virtual Perspective: 3D
Hold your index finger in front of your face. Close one
eye, then open it and close the other. The finger shifts
noticeably. That difference between each eye’s per-
spective, aided by some brain work, helps you detect
depth and volume in the world. But the ordinary camera
lens presents a monocular—single-eyed—perspective
on things. The result is a flat image, having only the
dimensions of width and height. Since the beginning of
cinema, some filmmakers have thought that if you could
shoot scenes in ways that imitated the gap between our
eyes, you could fool the viewer’s brain into seeing con-
vincing depth.
Filmmakers have created 3D imagery by shooting
with two cameras, or with a single camera that has two
lenses, or with a single lens that uses a beam-splitter to
send the images to different cameras (5.66). In any case,
what gets projected, as you know if you’ve ever peeped
over your 3D glasses in the theater, is an image with
two superimposed pictures. When you look through the
glasses again, the two images merge.
For reasons still not fully understood, current 3D
imagery typically lacks the volume and solidity of the
real world. Nonetheless, we can still respond strongly to
3D moving pictures. When something thrusts out of the
frame toward us, or when something glides into depth,
the kinetic impact can be irresistible (5.67). Even move-
ment into depth can be startling (5.68).
Stereoscopic filmmaking goes back to the beginnings
of cinema, and it has never completely gone away. The
first wave of theatrically successful 3D films came in the
early 1950s, using two projectors and glasses with filters
(red and green, or polarizing). Some people had trouble
seeing the 3D effect and got headaches. The trend soon
faded. Occasional 3D films, mostly in the exploitation
realm, were made in the years that followed. The intro-
duction of Imax in 1985 revived the format for upscale
audiences. The system used a high-resolution 70mm
format, and the detail in the image helped minimize
visual problems suffered by viewers. Most of the 3D Imax
films were short documentaries, however, and projection
utilized a complex dual-film system that commercial the-
aters could not afford to adopt.
The broadest resurgence of the format began in
2005, when the first digital 3D systems were installed
and Disney released Chicken Little. Although the Imax
dual-projection system could be employed for block-
buster releases like The Dark Knight, most theaters
would need digital projection for 3D. The stereoscopic
5.66 A 3D camera rig. James Cameron looks into a video
viewfinder as he operates the camera system he helped invent
for Avatar.
5.67–5.68 In your face and under the screen. The
streaming wakes of the lightcycles float out into the auditorium
in Tron: Legacy (5.67). At the climax of House of Wax (1953) the
mad scientist’s assistant pops up from the foreground (5.68).
In 3D projection, he seems to rise up from the front row of the
Framing 179
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A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
format helped studios convince theater chains to go
digital. The fact that 3D screenings commanded higher
ticket prices was also a persuasive factor.
Pushed by enthusiasts of the technology, notably
James Cameron and DreamWorks Animation producer
Jeffrey Katzenberg, thousands of 3D-capable theaters
were equipped. Hollywood increased production of
3D films, usually animation and entries in the action,
science fiction, and fantasy genres. More sophisti-
cated glasses using various kinds of optical technology
emerged, although exhibitors did not embrace a single
The reemergence of 3D, although motivated by
business concerns, created more artistic decisions
for filmmakers. One option, popular at the outset, was
to maximize deep focus. If all planes were clear and
sharp, the 3D effect would be stronger. Maintaining
such extreme depth of field was much easier in anima-
tion than in live-action filming. But uniformity of focus
wasn’t really necessary, and soon filmmakers returned
to using shallower depth of field to guide the spectator’s
eye. Coraline experimented with soft foregrounds and
shallow focus. Soon shallow focus became common in
3D films (5.69).
Filmmakers faced another choice. How should the
depth be organized? Should 3D visuals burst out into the
auditorium? Or should the frame be more like a window,
inviting us into the realm beyond? Technically, the decision
depends on setting the lenses’ convergence point.
Again, if you hold your finger close to your face,
your eyeballs pivot slightly inward to focus on it.
Similarly, a 3D camera’s lenses usually don’t point
directly forward along parallel lines. They are turned
slightly inward, so their lines of sight converge, and
like our eyes they can pivot at various angles. At the
point where the lenses’ fields of view converge, the
180 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
5.69 Out-of-focus 3D backgrounds. In The Life of Pi, the
hero is in the foreground, in sharp focus. Behind him, a crowd of
meerkats watches curiously. Compare 5.46 and 5.47.
two images will be perfectly aligned, with no ghostly
doubling. If you take off your 3D glasses during a film,
you will see objects onscreen that aren’t doubled.
These mark the convergence point, which defines the
screen plane—essentially the “window” through which
we look into the depth of the shot.
If the convergence point is set a short distance in
front of the camera, say 5 feet, any action taking place
beyond that distance will appear to recede into depth
behind the screen. But if the cameras’ lenses are set at
a more distant convergence point, well into the depth of
the space being filmed, that defines the screen plane as
farther back. As a result, anything in front of the conver-
gence point will seem to push out toward the viewer. The
effect is sometimes called a “pop-out.”
The 1950s 3D movies exploited the pop-out option.
Viewers were attacked by spears, arrows, lions, and
even paddle balls. This effect was perceived as tacky
and clichéd, and it helped hasten the end of the cycle.
Aggressive 3D was revived to camp effect in the Paul
Morrissey/Andy Warhol film Flesh for Frankenstein (1974),
in which a spear jabs Dr. Frankenstein’s inner organs
toward the viewer’s face.
The window-view alternative proved more popular in
the digital era. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who
shot Tron: Legacy in 3D, describes how this approach
“makes the screen appear like a box you’re looking
into, and keeps things from leaping out unnaturally.
Additionally, we went against the ‘rule’ of deep-focus
depth-of-field for 3D and let our backgrounds go really
soft, which helps guide the eye along with depth cues.”
The filmmaker could accentuate the depth in the screen
world by pulling back through space, letting new ele-
ments glide into the foreground.
Some films released in 3D have been shot in 2D
(35mm or digital) and then converted with postproduc-
tion software. Although some viewers complained that
the conversions weren’t vivid enough, many directors
and cinematographers felt that originating a film in 3D
limited their choices. The production is time consuming,
and the cameras are bulky.
Lighting raises particular problems. Sometimes the
highlights on a face or object will be different for each
eye. In addition, the audience sees the image as darker
than it really is. “You are watching the movie through
sunglasses, essentially,” says one cinematographer. As
a result, putting filters on the camera lens reduces the
illumination even more.
3D, like other areas of cinematography, opens up
opportunities, but it also forces new decisions. The film-
maker must still choose according to larger purposes,
and every choice may affect the form and style of the
finished film.
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Framing 181
Lumière’s simple craftsmanship reminds us that the act of framing has many
implications. The size and shape of the frame matter. For another, the frame defines
onscreen and offscreen space. Framing also creates a vantage point, and that has a
certain distance, angle, and height. And, in cinema, framing can move in relation to
what it films. We’ll look more closely at all these creative possibilities.
Frame Dimensions and Shape
Painters and still photographers can display images of any shape—ovals, triangles,
diamond-shaped panels. Filmmakers are limited to a rectangle. But filmmakers can
decide the width of that rectangle, and in some cases they can change the shape of
the image inside it.
Aspect Ratios The ratio of frame width to frame height is called the aspect
ratio. For example, an image that is twice as wide as it is high is said to be in a 2:1
ratio. Thomas Edison, Lumière, and other early film inventors set the proportions
at approximately four by three, yielding an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. In the silent era,
there wasn’t complete uniformity about this, and some filmmakers chose to experi-
ment with ratios. Experiments with widescreen formats began quite early. Abel
Gance shot and projected sequences of Napoleon (1927) in what he called triptychs
(5.70). In contrast, the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein argued for a square frame,
which would make compositions along horizontal, vertical, and diagonal directions
equally feasible. A 2014 feature, Mommy, put Eisenstein’s idea into practice.
Synchronized sound technology in the late 1920s demanded more standardized
aspect ratios. Adding the sound track to the film strip required adjusting the shape of
the image. At first, some films were printed in an almost square format, usually about
1.17:1 (5.71). But in the early 1930s, the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences established the so-called Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This modified the
classic 1.33:1 format to allow room for a soundtrack (5.72). The Academy ratio of
1.37:1 was widely employed throughout the world until the mid-1950s, when a 1.85:1
ratio became one norm. Since then, a great many widescreen ratios have appeared
in 35mm and digital filmmaking; the most common ones are reviewed in 5.73–5.77.
The simplest way to create a widescreen image is by masking it at some stage
in production or exhibition (5.78). This masking is usually called a hard matte.
Alternatively, many contemporary films are shot full-frame (that is, between 1.37:1
and 1.17:1) in the expectation that they will be masked when the film is shown in
theaters or transferred to video. Sometimes the full-frame option results in lights
or sound equipment being visible on the film strip (5.79). Another way to create a
widescreen image is by using an anamorphic process. Here a special lens squeezes
the image horizontally, either during filming or in printing. The projectionist uses a
comparable lens to unsqueeze the image during projection (5.80, 5.81).
Can framings create humor? We
show how they can in “Funny
framings.” “You are my density”
traces how directors can fill the
frame with information.
5.70 Early widescreen. A panoramic view from Napoleon joins images shot with three cameras. Gance used the effect to show a
single huge expanse or to put different images side by side.
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182 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
5.71 Aspect ratio 1.17:1—early
sound films. The frame from Public
Enemy shows the squarish ratio of
some early sound films.
5.72 Aspect ratio 1.37:1—Academy
ratio. The frame from The Rules of the
Game shows the standardized ratio
used until the mid-1950s.
5.73 Aspect ratio 1.85:1—common North American ratio.
The example here is from Me and You and Everyone We Know.

5.74 Aspect ratio 1.66:1—common European ratio. Also
found in digital video productions, this ratio is shown here in a
frame from Une chambre en ville.
5.75 Aspect ratio 1.75:1—common European ratio. This
ratio fits widescreen television monitors (16 3 9) and many
digital-video formats. Shown here is Last Tango in Paris.
5.76 Aspect ratio 2.35:1—anamorphic widescreen. This
frame from The Valiant Ones shows the ratio standardized in
the 1950s for the CinemaScope anamorphic process.
5.77 Aspect ratio 2.2:1—70mm widescreen. Ghostbusters
displays the ratio that was chiefly used for 70mm presentation.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
employs several aspect ratios.
We consider the consequences of
this for the director’s style in “Wes
Anderson takes the 4:3 challenge.”
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Framing 183
Using Widescreen Framing
The practiced filmmaker knows that widescreen cinema, either masked or anamor-
phic, creates a different visual impact than the 1.37 ratio. The screen becomes a
band or strip, emphasizing horizontal compositions. By offering more image area,
a widescreen format offers bigger challenges about guiding attention than does the
1.37 ratio. How do you compose for it? Can you achieve the tight packing you can
get in the narrower frame?
As you’d expect, filmmakers initially thought the format ideal for the sweep
and spectacle of Westerns, travelogues, musicals, and historical epics. But what
about ordinary dramatic conversations and more intimate encounters? A common
solution today is to fill the frame with a face (p. 46). This choice will in turn require
the director to cut up the scene more, as we’ll see in the next chapter. For more
distant shots, the director is likely to put the important information off center, so
that the viewer can concentrate on that (5.82, 5.83).
The wide formats challenge ambitious directors to design more screen-filling
compositions. Those can’t be as compact as the deep-focus compositions of the
1940s (5.48, 5.49), but they can achieve pictorial force. For example, the wide
We trace the artistic options avail-
able in early CinemaScope in
“Scoping things out: A new video
lecture.” For an Asian comparison,
there’s “Another Shaw production:
Anamorphic adventures in Hong
The subtleties of emphasis
that can be achieved with
anamorphic widescreen framings
are discussed in “Gradation of
emphasis, starring Glenn Ford.”
5.78–5.79 Masking before and
during projection. Agnès Varda’s
Vagabond was masked during
filming or printing (5.78). The full-
frame image from Martin Scorsese’s
Raging Bull (5.79) includes a
microphone at the top edge. This
would not be seen in the theater,
because the top and bottom of
the frame would be masked in
the projector. The colored lines in
our illustration show a projection
framing at 1.85:1.
5.78 5.79
5.80–5.81 Anamorphic widescreen. A frame from Nagisa Oshima’s anamorphic film Boy, as squeezed on the original film strip
(5.80). The same frame, unsqueezed as it would be in projection (5.81). The anamorphic aspect ratio established by CinemaScope was
2.35:1 until the 1970s; for technical reasons, it was adjusted to 2.40:1. This is the aspect ratio of Panavision, today’s most frequently used
anamorphic system.
5.80 5.81
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184 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
format may build up significant depth, even in a confined setting (5.84). Or the
director may multiply points of interest within the frame. This requires care in stag-
ing and timing the actors’ performances (5.85).
Masks and Multiple Images The rectangular frame hasn’t prevented some
filmmakers from embedding other image shapes in it. This has usually been done
by attaching masks over either the camera’s or the printer’s lens to block the
5.84–5.85 Widescreen for dense composition. Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro uses the anamorphic process of Tohoscope, a Japanese
equivalent of CinemaScope, to create a dense deep-focus composition (5.84). The busy scene from Chunhyang (5.85) fills the frame with
bustle and glances. Director Im Kwon-Taek guides our attention around the wide frame according to who is speaking, who is facing us,
and who reacts to the speaker.
5.84 5.85
5.82–5.83 Spacing out the wide frame. Souleymare Cissé’s
Yeelen frames its hero in a slightly off-center position (5.82), a
common choice in widescreen compositions. More extreme is
the confrontation in John McTiernan’s Die Hard, with the points
of interest thrust to the left half of the frame (5.83). Off-center
framings like these suggest action taking place offscreen, with the
empty areas shaping our expectations about the next shot (see
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Framing 185
passage of light. Masks were quite common in the silent cinema (5.86, 5.87). A
moving circular mask that opens to reveal or closes to conceal a scene is called an
iris. A number of directors in the sound cinema have revived the use of irises and
masks (5.88).
We also should mention experiments with multiple-frame, or split-screen,
imagery. In this process, two or more images, each with its own frame dimen-
sions and shape, appear within the larger frame. Gance’s Napoleon tried it
on an epic scale (5.70), but it was used earlier, often to
present scenes of telephone conversations. Modern film-
makers have turned to multiple-frame imagery to build
suspense; we gain a godlike omniscience as we watch
different story actions at exactly the same moment (5.89).
The technique can be used subjectively as well (5.90).
Choices about aspect ratio and embedded imagery
shape the spectator’s experience in important ways. Graphic
factors such as masses, edges, and movement gain their
impact in relation to frame width. Just as important, frame
size and shape guide the spectator’s eye. The filmmaker can
concentrate our attention through masking or composition,
or shift our attention across the frame by creating different
points of interest. The same possibilities exist with multiple-
frame imagery, which must be carefully coordinated either
to focus the viewer’s attention or to send it ricocheting from
one image to another.
Onscreen and Offscreen Space
Whatever its shape, the frame limits the image with a bound-
ary. Our eyes have a very wide field of view, somewhat over
180 degrees, but a camera lens shows a much smaller slice
of the world. Is this a disadvantage?
No. The frame shapes our experience, calling attention
to what the filmmaker wants us to see. Every act of framing,
as Lumière intuitively realized, creates relationships among
the things we see. In Figure 5.64, the train forms a diagonal,
and the people move toward us. Framing the scene differ-
ently would have created different visual patterns, different
relationships between the train and the travelers. Moreover,
5.86 5.87 5.88
5.86–5.88 Changing compositional shape. In La Roue, Gance employs a variety of circular and oval masks (5.86). In one shot
of Griffith’s Intolerance, most of the frame is boldly blocked out to leave only a thin vertical slice, emphasizing the soldier’s fall from
the rampart (5.87). Orson Welles used an iris to close a scene in The Magnificent Ambersons (5.88). The old-fashioned device adds a
nostalgic note to the sequence, the last moment of shared happiness among the characters.
5.89–5.90 Multiple-frame imagery. Split-screen shots
often present two or more events taking place at the same
time. The opening sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
shows men converging to commit a robbery (5.89). In 127 Hours,
the hero is trapped in a remote canyon, and Danny Boyle uses
multiple frames to convey his perceptions and imaginings (5.90).
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186 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
the fact that the frame carves out only a little from the overall visual field means
that filmmakers can creatively exploit the space offscreen, the areas not shown inside
the frame.
As viewers we help the filmmaker with this task, because we know that
what’s in the frame is part of a continuous world. If the camera moves away
from a person to show someone else, we assume that the first person is still
there, outside the frame. Even in an abstract film, we can’t resist the sense that
the shapes and patterns that burst into the frame come from somewhere. So the
filmmaker can imply the presence of things out of frame. You can have a char-
acter look or gesture at something offscreen. As we’ll see in Chapter 7, sound
can offer potent clues about offscreen space. And something from offscreen can
come into the frame.
We’re most aware of offscreen space when it creates suspense or surprise. A
shadow from an unknown person outside the frame may slide across the shot and
build up our expectations of a threat. Likewise, moments when a monster bursts
into the frame are conventional in horror films, as we’ve seen in the 3D House of
Wax (5.68). But any genre can employ incursions from offscreen. During a party
scene in Jezebel, the heroine is the main focus of attention until a man’s hand comes
abruptly into the frame (5.91–5.94). Director William Wyler has used the selective
powers of the frame to exclude something of great importance and then introduce
it with startling effect. More systematically, D. W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig
Alley makes use of sudden intrusions into the frame as a motif developing across
the whole film (5.95, 5.96).
These examples exploit areas lying beyond the four frame edges. There’s also
offscreen space behind parts of the setting, as when we see a mysterious door
and hear sounds from inside it. The filmmaker can activate yet another offscreen
zone, that of the camera and the area around it. In a thriller, a moving camera may
represent the optical viewpoint of a stalker who isn’t shown directly. The zone
around the camera is used more imaginatively in Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the
5.91 5.92
5.93 5.94
5 . 9 1–5 . 9 4 O f f s c r e e n s p a c e
revealed. In Jezebel, the heroine,
Julie, greets some friends in medium
shot (5.91). Suddenly a fist holding a
glass appears in the left foreground
(5.92). Julie notices and comes forward
f lir tatiously (5.93), and the camera
retreats slightly to frame her with the
man who toasted her (5.94). It’s an
at tention- get ting way to introduce
Julie’s new suitor.
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Framing 187
Olive Trees. A film crew is shooting a scene, and we watch through the lens of the
camera (5.97–5.99). As the conflicts between two young actors spoil take after
take, we watch tensely, knowing that behind the camera the crew is getting more
and more frustrated. Filmmakers are well aware that we need only a few hints to
start imagining things taking place outside the frame.
Camera Position: Angle, Level, Height,
and Distance of Framing
When Louis Lumière decided to frame the train from an oblique angle and to
pre sent his family at breakfast in a fairly close setup (5.64, 5.65), he was doing
what everyone with a camera does. He made decisions about camera position. In
an animated film, there may not be an actual camera used in production, as with
5.95–5.96 Offscreen space as
motif. The Musketeers of Pig Alley: A
gangster is trying to slip a drug into the
heroine’s drink. We’re not aware that
her friend, the Snapper Kid, is watching
until a plume of his cigarette smoke
wafts into the frame (5.95). At the film’s
end, when the Snapper Kid receives a
payoff, a mysterious hand thrusts into
the frame to offer him money (5.96).
5.95 5.96
5.97–5.99 The space behind the camera. In Through
the Olive Trees, we watch as the actors redo the scene (5.97).
Eventually, shots begin to show the director and his crew behind
the camera (5.98). After several repetitions, the director walks in
from behind the camera and tries to resolve the problem (5.99).
5.97 5.98
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188 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
drawing on film or software-based animation. Even in animation, though, the fram-
ing implies that the shot is viewed from a certain spot in space.
Angle The frame positions us at some angle on the subject. The filmmaker faces
a huge number of choices here, but we can say roughly that the framing can present
a straight-on angle, a high angle, or the low angle. You’re familiar with these from
taking photos and videos (5.100–5.102).
Level The frame can be more or less level—that is, parallel to the horizon. If the
framing is tipped to one side or the other, it’s said to be canted. Canted framing
(also called a “Dutch angle”) is relatively rare, although a few films make heavy use
of it, such as Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and Wong
Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (5.103). It can create rather disruptive effects (5.104).
5.100–5.102 Types of camera angle. A straight-on angle in The Chronicle of Anna
Magdalena Bach (5.100). In this shot from Family Plot (5.101), a high-angle framing shows an
investigator trailing a suspect as she leaves a funeral. A low-angle view places sailors and a
machine gun against the sky in They Were Expendable (5.102).
5.103–5.104 The tipped camera. A canted framing in Fallen Angels (5.103). In Christopher Maclaine’s The End, a canted framing
makes a steep street in the foreground appear level and tips the houses in the background (5.104).
5.103 5.104
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Framing 189
Height We may not think as much about camera height as we do angle and
horizontal balance, but it’s another area of choice for the filmmaker. Height is
related to camera angle, since some angles demand that you position the camera
higher or lower than the subject. But if the angle is kept straight in, crouching to
take a snapshot creates a different composition than taking it from eye level. For
instance, the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu films from a low height but uses
a straight-on angle (4.155, 6.142–6.145). This choice gives his shots a distinctive
visual style.
Distance The framing of the image stations us relatively close to the subject or
farther away. This aspect of framing is usually called camera distance. The terms
for camera distance are approximate, and they’re usually derived from the scale of
human bodies in the shot. Our examples are all from The Third Man.
In the extreme long shot, the human figure is lost or tiny (5.105). This is the
framing for landscapes, bird’s-eye views of cities, and other vistas. In the long shot,
figures are more prominent, but the background still dominates (5.106). Shots in
which the human figure is framed from about the knees up are called medium long
shots (5.107). These are common, since they permit a nice balance of figure and
The medium shot frames the human body from the waist up (5.108). Gesture
and expression now become more visible. The medium close-up frames the body
from the chest up (5.109). The close-up is traditionally the shot showing just the
head, hands, feet, or a small object. It emphasizes facial expression, the details of a
gesture, or a significant object (5.110). The extreme close-up singles out a portion
of the face or isolates and magnifies an object (5.111).
5.105 Extreme long shot
5.106 Long shot 5.107 Medium long shot 5.108 Medium shot
5.109 Medium close-up 5.110 Close-up 5.111 Extreme close-up
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190 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Note that the size of the photographed material within the frame is as important
as any real camera distance. From the same camera distance, you could film a long
shot of a person or a close-up of King Kong’s elbow. We would not call the shot
in 5.112 (from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) a close-up just because only Jeanne’s
head appears in the frame. In judging camera distance, the relative scale of the view
determines how we label the shot.
Categories of framing are obviously matters of degree. No precise cutoff point
distinguishes between a long shot and an extreme long shot. Filmmakers and film
researchers find these terms useful, and they’re usually clear enough for descriptive
Functions of Framing Sometimes we’re tempted to assign absolute mean-
ings to angles, distances, and other qualities of framing. Does filming from a
low angle automatically present a character as powerful? Does framing from a
high angle always render the character as dwarfed and defeated? Verbal analo-
gies are especially seductive. Does a canted frame mean that “the world is out
of kilter”?
Making and watching movies would be a lot simpler if framings carried such
hard-and-fast meanings. But the individual films would lose their uniqueness
and richness. In fact, framings don’t carry absolute or general meanings. In some
films, angles and distance imply the meanings mentioned above, but in other
films—probably most films—they don’t. To rely on formulas is to forget that
meaning and effect always stem from the film’s overall form and the immediate
For instance, at many points in Citizen Kane, low-angle shots of Kane do sug-
gest his looming power. Interestingly, however, the film’s lowest camera positions
occur at the point of Kane’s most humiliating defeat—his miscarried gubernato-
rial campaign (5.113). Here the low angle functions to isolate Kane and Leland.
Similarly, the world is hardly out of kilter in the shot from Eisenstein’s October
shown in 5.114. The canted frame dynamizes the effort of pushing the cannon.
If the cliché about high-angle framings were correct, 5.115, a shot from North
by Northwest, would express the powerlessness of Van Damm and Leonard. In
fact, the angle of Hitchcock’s shot wittily prophesies how they plan to carry out
a murder.
These three examples indicate that we can’t reduce the richness of cinema to a
few recipes. We must, as usual, look for the functions the technique performs in the
particular context of the total film.
Even a simple framing can subtly
shape the viewer’s response, as
we argue in “Where did the two-
shot go? Here.”
5.112 Shot scale versus camera
position. In La Passion de Jeanne
d’Arc, the framing is that of a rather
long shot even though Jeanne’s head
is all we see of her. If the framing were
simply adjusted downward, her whole
body would be visible, along with much
of the castle.
5.113–5.115 Context controls framing. In Citizen Kane, the protagonist is seen from below during his greatest defeat. By setting the
figures against the ceiling and an abandoned campaign headquarters, the low angle suggests that Kane is increasingly isolated (5.113).
A canted framing, as in Eisenstein’s October, can create a dynamic composition and suggest a powerful force moving against gravity
(5.114). In North by Northwest, as Van Damm reflects on pushing his mistress out of a plane, and the camera rises above him, he says,
“I think that this is a matter best disposed of from a great height” (5.115).
5.113 5.114 5.115
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Framing 191
Camera Position in a Shot from The Social Network
One of the most important matters a director decides is the placement of the cam-
era. “There’s only one right spot for the camera in each shot,” the adage goes, “and
it’s my job to find it.”
Consider a shot from The Social Network. Throughout the film Mark
Zuckerberg has been characterized as a driven hacker. We’ve seen that his scowl-
ing face can seem aggressive, especially in contrast to that of his friend Eduardo
(4.94–4.97). Mark’s rare smiles are somewhat twisted and self-regarding. But at the
moment when he has just auditioned new programmers for Facebook, he seems to
wear a grin of genuine joy.
Instead of supplying a close-up of this expression, though, director David
Fincher frames Mark in long shot (5.116). This is consistent with the narrational
weight of the scene, as our range of knowledge has been restricted to Eduardo’s.
But the camera position also cools down any admiration we might be feeling for
Mark. A closer view might have made him more sympathetic.
I don’t like close-ups unless
you can get a kick out of them,
unless you need them. If you
can get away with attitudes and
positions that show the feeling
of the scene, I think you’re better
off using the close-up only for
absolute punctuation—that’s the
reason you do it. And you save
it—not like TV where they do
everything in close-up.”
—Howard Hawks, director, His Girl
5.116 Camera distance and sympathy. There are plenty of close shots of Mark elsewhere in The Social Network. Yet at his moment of
triumph, the framing (from Eduardo’s optical point of view) plays down an expression that could humanize him a bit. Perhaps the somber
lighting, not shared with the background characters, even gives his smile a sinister edge.
For filmmakers working with narrative form, camera placement is central
to visual storytelling. A framing can stress a narratively important detail (5.117,
5.118). Camera distance specifies where characters are and how they respond to
each other. Orchestrated by editing, as we’ll see in the next chapter, distances and
angles form patterns that guide us in building up the story.
Framing also can put us in a character’s place. In Chapter 3, we saw that a
film’s narration may present story information with some psychological depth
(p.  90). One option is perceptual subjectivity, the attempt to render what a char-
acter sees or hears. A shot’s distance and angle may prompt us to take it as seen
through a character’s eyes, creating a point-of-view (POV) shot (5.119, 5.120).
(See also p. 90.)
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192 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Framings may serve the narrative in yet other ways. Across an entire film,
the repetitions of certain framings may associate themselves with a character
or situation. That is, framings may become motifs unifying the film (5.121).
Alternatively, certain framings in a film may stand out by virtue of their rarity. In
a film composed primarily of long shots and medium shots, an extreme close-up
will have considerable force. The early scenes of Ridley Scott’s Alien present few
shots depicting any character’s point of view. But when Kane approaches the alien
egg, we see close views of it as if through his eyes, and the creature leaps straight
out at us. The POV shot provides a sudden shock and marks a major turning point
in the plot.
Apart from their narrative significance, framings can add a visual interest
of their own. Close-ups can give hands and feet a weight they wouldn’t have if
we were just attending to dialogue and facial expression (5.122). Long shots can
permit us to explore vistas. Much of the visual delight of Westerns, of David
Lynch’s The Straight Story, and other films rendering landscapes arises from
long shots that make huge spaces manifest (5.123). By including a range of
information, the long-shot framing encourages us to search for details or discover
abstract patterns (5.124).
In both narrative and nonnarrative films, our eye also enjoys the formal play
presented by unusual angles on familiar objects (5.125, 5.126). “By reproducing
the object from an unusual and striking angle,” writes Rudolf Arnheim, “the artist
forces the spectator to take a keener interest, which goes beyond mere noticing
or acceptance. The object thus photographed sometimes gains in reality, and the
impression it makes is livelier and more arresting.”
The filmmaker may find ways to use framing for comic effect. You’ll recall
that in Our Hospitality Keaton stages many gags in depth. Now we can see that
well-chosen camera angles and distances are also vital to the gags’ success. If you
turn back to p. 156, you’ll notice that the railroad scene shown in 4.175 couldn’t
One way to add visual interest
is to shoot straight into the rear
plane of the setting, as we explain
in “Shot-consciousness” and “VIFF
2013 finale: The bold and the
beautiful, sometimes together.”
5.117–5.118 Camera distance as
emphasis. The tears of Henriette
in A Day in the Country are visible in
extreme close-up (5.117). In Day for
Night, a close framing emphasizes how
carefully the film director arranges an
actor’s hands (5.118).
5.117 5.118
5.119–5.120 Subjective framings.
In Fury, the hero in his jail cell is seen
through the bars from a slightly low
angle (5.119). The next shot, a high angle
through the window toward the street
outside, shows us what he sees, from
his point of view (5.120).
5.119 5.120
5.121 Camera angle as a motif. In
The Maltese Falcon, Kasper Gutman
is frequently photographed from a low
angle, emphasizing his obesity.
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Framing 193
be as effective if it were filmed from the side and in extreme long shot. That way,
we wouldn’t clearly see that the two parts of the train are on parallel tracks. And
we wouldn’t see the engineer’s unconcerned posture, which indicates his failure to
realize what has happened. Like Lumière at the train station, Keaton chose depth
staging and a diagonal camera position. The result creates a composition that high-
lights certain relations between things.
Similarly, offscreen space is vital to the gag shown in 4.184–4.186. Here
Keaton lays out the comedy in time rather than space. Willie tugs on the rope.
5.122–5.124 Camera distance for
intricacy and scope. The close shots
of thieves’ surreptitious gestures have
a narrative function in Robert Bresson’s
Pickpocket , bu t t hey also create a
dazzling ballet of fingers and wrists (5.122).
Helicopter shots in Lessons of Darkness
give the desolate burning oilfields of Kuwait
an eerie, horrifying grandeur (5.123). In Hou
Hsiao-hsien’s Summer at Grandpa’s, the
boy from the city visits his disgraced uncle,
and the neighborhood is presented as a
welter of rooftops sheltering a spot of bright
red (5.124).
5.125–5.126 Seeing differently.
René C lair in Ent r ’ac te f r ames
a ballerina from s traight below,
transforming the figure into a pulsating
flower (5.125). In La Passion de Jeanne
d’Arc, the upside-down framings are
not motivated as a character’s point
of view; they build up to the frenzy of
the soldiers’ massacre of the crowd
witnessing Jeanne’s death (5.126).
5.125 5.126
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194 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Then an unseen effect of that tug becomes visible as the Canfield son hurtles past
and disappears. Finally, Willie reacts and is dragged down into the abyss below the
frameline. Keaton could have framed this moment in a different way—say, from a
low angle that showed both Willie and the Canfield boy in the same frame. But that
would have sacrificed the suspense of waiting for Canfield to plummet through the
shot. Throughout Our Hospitality our reaction to Keaton’s humor depends on his
careful combination of mise-en-scene and framing.
In Tati’s Play Time, mise-en-scene and camera position cooperate to create
pictorial jokes. In 5.127, a visual pun issues from the precisely chosen camera angle
and distance, as well as from the mise-en-scene: the man’s stooping posture and
the door handles make him look like a goat. Tati maintained the approach of silent
comedy within the sound cinema. As with other filmmakers, his choice of framing
was governed by imagining how it would affect the viewer.
The Mobile Frame
Cinema isn’t the only visual medium that employs framing. Photographs, paint-
ings, and comic-book panels have aspect ratios, imply things happening outside the
frame, and pre sent an implied vantage point on the scene. But there is one resource
of framing that is specific to films, either photochemical or digital. In cinema, the
frame can move with respect to what it shows us.
In cinematography, mobile framing allows the filmmaker to change the camera
angle, level, height, or distance during the shot. Just as important, the movement of
the frame often persuades us that we’re moving too.
Types of Mobile Framing We usually refer to the ability of the frame to
be mobile as camera movement. In live-action filming, mobile framing is usually
achieved by moving the camera physically during production. There are several
kinds of camera movement, each with a specific effect onscreen.
The pan (short for panorama) movement swivels the camera on a vertical axis.
The camera as a whole does not move to a new position. Onscreen, the pan scans
space horizontally, as if the camera is “turning its head” right or left (5.128, 5.129).
The tilt movement rotates the camera on a horizontal axis. It is as if the camera’s
head were swiveling up or down. Onscreen, the tilt movement yields the impression
of unrolling a space from top to bottom or bottom to top (5.130, 5.131).
We analyze subtleties of framing
in films by two masters, William
Wyler and Kenji Mizoguchi, in
A very simple tilt can powerfully
reveal a new story element,
as we discuss in “Sometimes
a reframing . . . ”
5.127 Framing creates a visual joke. In Play Time, M. Hulot reacts with a start when he
notices that a guard locking a door seems suddenly to have sprouted horns—the door handles.
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Framing 195
In the tracking or dolly shot, the camera as a whole changes position, travel-
ing in any direction along the ground—forward, backward, diagonally, in circles,
or from side to side (5.132, 5.133). In the crane shot, the camera moves above
ground level. Typically, it rises or descends, often thanks to a mechanical arm that
lifts and lowers it. A crane shot may move vertically, like an elevator (5.134, 5.135),
or at some angle forward or back (5.136, 5.137). Variations of the crane shot are
helicopter and airplane shots as well as shots captured by drone aircraft.
Sometimes the camera movement we see is simulated—that is, no camera
actually moved in production. The main examples are seen in animation. With cel
animation, which photographs one frame at a time, the actual camera stays in one
I realized that if I could just get
to the really good scripts, I could
approach it the way I approach
literature—why the camera moves
this way because of this motif—
and then it became fascinating.”
—Jodie Foster, director, Little Man Tate
5.128 5.129
5.130 5.131
5.128–5.131 Panning and tilting the camera. During a shot in Dreyer’s Ordet, the camera
pans right to keep the figures in frame as they cross a room (5.128, 5.129). François Truffaut’s
The Bride Wore Black begins with a tilt down a church spire to the church door (5.130, 5.131).
5.132–5.133 The camera moves through space. During this lateral tracking shot in
Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, the camera moves rightward along with the two characters
(5.132, 5.133). Note how the figures remain in the same basic relationship to the frame as they
stroll along a sidewalk, while the front of the house that they hope to buy remains visible
behind them.
5.132 5.133
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196 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
position. With computer animation, there is no camera to speak of: Its vantage
point is constructed through software. Nonetheless, an animation shot can mimic a
camera movement (5.138–5.140).
Movement and Machinery For many decades, camera movements in live-action
production depended on putting the camera on a dolly, a heavy cart. The dolly can
usually move on its own wheels, but it is often mounted on rails, hence the term
tracking (5.141). Tracking shots are also made with cranes, even if the camera posi-
tion doesn’t rise or fall as in the usual crane shot. Suspended from a jib arm, the
camera can glide over rough terrain. The Thin Red Line employed a 72-foot crane
arm that let the camera slither over hills of tall grass during battle scenes. “The
whole idea of using that crane was to not make it feel like a crane,” says cinema-
tographer John Toll. “We wanted it to look like the most continuous, smooth dolly
that had ever been built.”
Body-mounted camera units are common as well. These devices allow the
camera operator to steer the camera while walking (see 1.21). Servo mechanisms
adjust for imbalances and jerkiness, so the camera seems to glide or float. The
prototype of the body-worn camera stabilizer is the Steadicam, initially used on
It’s a compulsion of mine
to move the camera, and I now
know why. It enhances three-
dimensionality. It puts you in
the space, and if you move the
camera the audience becomes
aware of the space.”
—George Miller, director, The Road
5.134 5.135
5.136 5.137
5.134–5.137 Craning down,
craning up. In Ivan the Terrible, from
a high-angle view of Anastasia’s
bier (5.134), the camera descends
to end on a straight-on framing of
Ivan slumped at its base (5.135). At
the end of Karel Reisz’s Morgan!
the camera cranes diagonally up
and back to reveal that the hero’s
apparently innocuous flower garden
proclaims his Communist sympathies
(5.136, 5.137).
5.138 5.139 5.140
5.138–5.140 Frame mobility without a moving camera. In Peter Pan cel animation imitates a pan shot.
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Framing 197
Bound for Glory, Rocky, and The Shining. Now many consumer video cameras have
comparable image-stabilization systems.
A body-worn camera can go places that a dolly can’t. The operator can
smoothly follow actors climbing stairs, riding vehicles, and walking great distances
(5.142, 5.143). Some directors have taken advantage of the Steadicam to create
lengthy shots moving through many locales, as in the opening scenes of Brian De
Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Sometimes the filmmaker does not want smooth camera movements and
prefers a bumpy image. Commonly, this sort of shot is created by the handheld
camera. Instead of anchoring the camera on some support like a dolly or a stabi-
lizer, the operator simply walks with the camera braced on the shoulder. This sort
of camera movement became common in the late 1950s, with the growth of the
cinéma vérité documentary trend (5.144, 5.145).
5.141 Tracking on rails. The camera crew must push the dolly on the tracks to capture the
shot. (Compare 1.36.) The 360° tracking shot has become a common technique in modern
cinema. The shot, being prepared for The Departed, was omitted from the final film.
5.142–5.143 Steadicam tracking
shot. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull,
the Steadicam follows the protagonist
out of his dressing room and through a
crowd up to the boxing ring.
5.144–5.145 The handheld camera and documentary. Don Pennebaker hand-holds the
camera while filming his Keep on Rockin’ (5.144). For the documentary Primary, a cameraman
lifted the camera above his head and followed John F. Kennedy through a milling crowd (5.145).
5.144 5.145
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198 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Lightweight digital cameras allow cinematographers
to create unusual camera mounts. For the race scenes of
Secretariat, a miniature camera was attached to the end of
a broomstick. GoPro cameras are usually used for sports
recording, but in the poetic documentary Leviathan they con-
vey unusual views of life on a commercial fishing boat. Some
cameras were attached to the fishermen’s helmets, while
others were thrust into nets and under the sea. The result is
an intimate view of the power and danger of nature (5.146).
The Zoom and the Mobile Frame We’ve already seen
that a zoom lens provides a continuous range of focal
lengths. When the camera operator zooms during filming,
the result is a mobile framing—even though the camera
stays in one spot (5.41–5.43). Some viewers have trouble
distinguishing a zoom-in from a forward tracking shot, or a
zoom-out from a reverse tracking shot. But filmmakers know very well that there
are major differences. The choice that the director and the cinematographer make
can subtly shape how the viewer responds.
The zoom lens reduces or blows up some portion of the image. Although a tracking
shot and a crane shot also enlarge or reduce areas of the frame, this is not all that they
do. In the genuine camera movement, static objects in different planes pass one another
at different rates. We see different sides of objects, and backgrounds gain volume and
depth (5.147, 5.148). By contrast, a zoom enlargement doesn’t alter the aspects or posi-
tions of the objects we see. Our vantage point is the same at the end of the shot as at
the beginning (5.149, 5.150). When the camera moves, we sense our own movement
through the space. In a zoom, a bit of the space gets steadily magnified or demagnified.
We’ve pinpointed these sorts of mobile framings as isolated options. But
filmmakers frequently combine them within a single shot. The camera may track
5.146 Other camera supports. In Leviathan, a light GoPro
camera, lashed to a pole, plunges into the sea and turns
upward, yielding an eerie vision of gulls coming to feed on the
netted fish.
5.146 Other camera supports.
5.147–5.150 Tracking shot versus zoom. In Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est finie, a
tracking shot gives the objects considerable volume (5.147, 5.148). The wall has lost none of
its solidity, and objects pass as if we were walking toward the sign. In Theo Angelopoulos’s
Ulysses’ Gaze, a zoom shot simply blows up one area of the shot (5.149–5.150), as if we
were adjusting a telescope. As the zoom occurs, the space looks flatter—the mark of a
long-lens, or telephoto, framing.
5.147 5.148
5.149 5.150
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Framing 199
and pan at the same time or crane up while zooming out. In Vertigo, an especially
tricky combination track-out and zoom-in plastically distorts the shot’s perspective
and conveys the protagonist’s dizziness. The device reappears in Spielberg’s Jaws,
when Sheriff Brody at the beach suddenly realizes that the shark has attacked a
child. Simultaneously tracking and zooming in opposite directions has become
common in modern Hollywood filmmaking to express a character’s sense of con-
fusion or astonishment (what director Sam Raimi calls the “warp-o cam”). The
combinations are endless.
Frame Mobility: Functions Camera movements have held an appeal for
filmmakers and audiences since the beginnings of cinema. Some of the earliest
films made by Lumière cameramen were shots from trains or Venetian gondolas,
and even today these films have a mesmeric power. Why?
For one thing, camera movements can increase information about the space of
the image. Pan and tilt shots present new areas of the setting, and tracking shots and
crane shots supply continually changing perspectives on it. As the camera shifts its
point of view, objects or figures are usually revealed, so frame mobility can create a
flow of new information for the viewer. Camera movement can as well make objects
seem sharper and more vivid than in stationary framings. Certain camera move-
ments give bodies greater solidity. This is apparently one reason modern directors
like to circle around the action (5.141), as in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs.
What’s more, we tend to see camera movement as a substitute for our move-
ment. When we see a forward tracking shot, we feel that we’re approaching some-
thing or backing away. A crane shot that pulls away from something at ground
level makes us feel a little weightless. We aren’t completely fooled, of course. We
never forget that we’re watching a film in a theater. But camera movement provides
several convincing cues for movement through space. Indeed, so powerful are
these cues that filmmakers often make camera movements subjective—motivated
narratively to represent what a moving character sees. Camera movement can be a
powerful cue for a point-of-view shot.
When we walk through the world, our eyes see a somewhat bouncy view, but
our optical system compensates for the jerkiness and creates a sense of stable motion.
This sense of smooth movement can be captured by a traveling shot made with a
dolly, a jib arm, or a Steadicam. Sometimes, however, handheld shots are used to
suggest subjective point of view (5.151). Alternatively, the handheld shot can simply
create a sense of anxious movement, as if the action were glimpsed on the fly (5.152).
5.151 5.152
5.151–5.152 Handheld impressions. In Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, a handheld POV shot heightens the impact of a fight (5.151).
As the protagonist of julien donkey-boy walks, we don’t get a POV shot, but Harmony Korine’s bouncy, mini-DV cameras follow him
shuffling through his neighborhood (5.152). The handheld camera’s jerky pace complements the explosions of color created by printing
video up to 35mm.
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200 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Frame Mobility and Space We can get a little more specific about the purposes
and effects of mobile framings if we consider some functions they have—in rela-
tion to cinematic space and time, in relation to the overall form of the film.
Camera movement creates an interplay of onscreen and offscreen space. If
you track the camera in, you exclude more space from the shot (5.147, 5.148).
If you track back, as in our example from Jezebel (5.91–5.94), you reveal some
space that was previously offscreen. The mobile frame also continually affects
the angle, level, height, or distance of the framing. A crane-up may change the
angle from a low one to a high one; a track-in may change the shot scale from
long shot to close-up.
As usual, one choice leads to others. For instance, just as filmmakers must
decide how to motivate story actions or whether to motivate lighting sources,
they must consider whether to motivate camera movement. Should you make
the frame’s changing space depend on the movement in the shot? Usually, the
answer is yes. A panning movement may keep a racing car centered, a tracking
shot may follow a character from room to room, or a crane shot may pursue a
rising balloon.
Sometimes the camera movement is quite minimal, as with reframing. If
a character moves in relation to another character, often the frame will slightly
pan or tilt to adjust to the movement (5.153–5.155). Because reframing move-
ments are usually slight and motivated by the figures’ movement, we seldom
notice them.
The framing can move independently of the figures too. Sometimes the camera
drifts away from the characters to reveal something of narrative importance; the
mobile frame is motivated not by figure movement but by the demands of the nar-
ration. In Jean Renoir’s Crime of M. Lange, the protagonist sits at his desk writing
Wild West stories, but the camera pans away to show cowboy gear cluttering his
room, establishing that Lange lives in a fantasy world. Similarly, an independent
camera movement can point out an overlooked clue, a sign that comments on the
action, or an imminent threat. The camera can thus be relatively unrestricted in
its range of knowledge, as in 5.136–5.137 when it reveals Morgan’s hammer-and-
sickle flower bed.
Filmmakers are especially fond of solo camera movements at the beginning
of a scene or the entire film. A tracking shot can establish a locale and then
smoothly let the characters enter the space (5.156–5.159). A camera movement
can even foreshadow action to come. In the opening scene of The Milk of Sorrow,
Fausta, a woman who is terrified of the world outside her home, tends her dying
mother. Cinematographer Natasha Braier describes the purpose of a tracking shot
(5.160, 5.161) early in the film: “The whole idea of this shot was to represent
I kept wondering, ‘Can people
talk this much in a feature film and
anybody care?’ And so I had to go
through every moment in those
dialogue scenes and look for the
little events I would treat as large
events. Like the ringing of a phone
or the blinds being opened. . . . I
had to treat those as fairly major
events and have the moves of the
camera be motivated by them,
so that it would be organic to the
scene yet still visually interesting.”
—John Patrick Shanley, writer and
director, Doubt
One common function of tracking
shots is to follow actors in conver-
sation, as we discuss in “Walk the
5.153–5.155 Reframing. In His Girl Friday, director Howard Hawks strives to balance his compositions through reframing. When Hildy
crosses from the left (5.153) to sit on the desk, the camera pans right to reframe her (5.154). This reframing is more noticeable than the
next one: As Walter swivels his chair to face her, the camera reframes very slightly leftward (5.155).
5.153 5.154 5.155
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Framing 201
what is going to happen in the film. At the beginning of the story, Fausta is living
with her mother in a hermetic world, and now that her mother is dead, she will
have to venture outside, and because of the way we frame her at the end of that
shot, she actually appears to be outside.”
Whether dependent on figure movement or independent of it, the mobile frame
can profoundly affect how we perceive the space of the action. Different sorts of
camera movements create different treatments of space. In Last Year at Marienbad,
Resnais often tracks down corridors and through doorways, turning a fashionable
resort hotel into a maze. For Young and Innocent, Hitchcock (a virtuoso of camera
movement) devised a shot that moves from a high-angle long shot of a ballroom
over the heads of the dancers to an extreme close-up of a drummer’s blinking
5.156–5.159 Camera movement
independent of the figures. At
the start of Otto Preminger’s Laura,
the camera glides through Waldo
Lydecker’s sitting room (5.156, 5.157),
establishing him as a man of wealth
and refinement, before revealing the
detec tive McPherson (5.158). The
framing then becomes motivated by
f igure movement, with the camera
following McPherson’s drift to a wall of
masks (5.159).
5.156 5.157
5.158 5.159
5.160–5.161 Camera movement anticipates story action. In the opening scene of The Milk of Sorrow, an initial framing shows the
protagonist in the room where she has spent so much time (5.160). A slow track forward nearly eliminates the window frame, framing her
against the outside world that she will now have to confront (5.161).
5.160 5.161
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202 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
eyes. In such films as The Red and the White, Miklós Jancsó specialized in lengthy
camera movements that roam among groups of people moving across a plain. His
shots use all of the resources of tracking, panning, craning, zooming, and racking
focus to sculpt plastic, ever-changing spatial relations.
When we see any mobile framing, we can ask: What particular trajectory does
the camera pursue? How does it function to reveal or conceal offscreen space? Does
the frame mobility depend on figure movement or is it independent, drawing our
attention to other things?
Frame Mobility and Time Mobile framing involves time as well as space, and
filmmakers have realized that our sense of duration and rhythm is affected by the
mobile frame. Since a camera movement consumes time on screen, it can create
an arc of expectation and fulfillment. If the camera pans quickly from an event, we
may be prompted to wonder what has happened. If the camera abruptly tracks back
to show us something in the foreground that we had not expected, as in our earlier
Jezebel example (5.91–5.94), we’re taken by surprise. If the camera slowly moves
in on a detail, gradually enlarging it but delaying the fulfillment of our expecta-
tions, the camera movement has contributed to suspense. In the pan shot across
M.  Lange’s study mentioned earlier, Renoir makes us wonder why the camera
strays from the main character and then answers the question by revealing Lange’s
fascination with cowboys.
The velocity of frame mobility is important too. A zoom or a camera move-
ment may be relatively slow or fast. Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and
Help! started a fad in the 1960s for very fast zoom-ins and
-outs. In comparison, one of the most impressive early
camera movements, D. W. Griffith’s monumental crane
shot in Belshazzar’s feast in Intolerance, gains majesty and
suspense through its inexorably slow descent toward the
immense Babylonian set (4.12).
Sometimes the speed of the mobile framing functions
rhythmically, as in musical films. During the “Broadway
Rhythm” number in Singin’ in the Rain, the camera cranes
quickly back from Gene Kelly several times, and the speed
of the movement is timed to accentuate the lyrics.
Frame velocity can also create expressive qualities—a
camera movement can be fluid, staccato, hesitant, and so
forth. Cloverfield is presented as an amateur video record of
a monster’s attack on Manhattan. At many points, the opera-
tor whips the camera around to capture a shocking incident,
and our anxiety is intensified by the sudden speed of the
panning movement (5.162, 5.163). By choosing the duration
and speed of camera movements, the filmmaker can pace
our understanding of the plot action.
Larger Patterns of Frame Mobility While shaping time
and space, mobile framings can become motifs across a
film. In Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, the camera circles a
shadowy chamber, surveying church officials who torture an
old woman accused of being a witch. She tells her inquisi-
tor that his death is imminent. Later in the film, her accuser
lies on his deathbed, and a similar camera movement recalls
her curse.
We see a more long-range motif in Hitchcock’s Psycho,
which begins and ends with a forward movement of the
frame. During the film’s first three shots, the camera pans
right and zooms in on a nondescript building (5.164).
One thing I hate in films is
when the camera starts circling
characters. If three people are
sitting at a table talking, you’ll
often see the camera circling
them. I can’t explain why, but
I find it totally fake.”
—Takeshi Kitano, director, Sonatine
You really need to know
why you are doing one of these
moves. . . . If you pan on a long
lens, it’s a very different look than
tracking with somebody; there’s a
very different feel to it.”
—Roger Deakins, cinematographer,
No Country for Old Men
5.162–5.163 Speed of camera movement accentuates
shock. In Cloverfield the video camera records an explosion
in the street, and a whip pan to the right blurs the action (5.162).
When the framing becomes stable again, we realize that the
blurry movement was trying to follow the head of the Statue of
Liberty rolling down the street (5.163).
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Framing 203
Camera movements carry us under a window blind and into the darkness of a
cheap hotel room (5.165–5.167). The camera’s movement inward, the penetration
of an interior, is repeated throughout the film, often motivated as a subjective point
of view when various characters move deeper and deeper into Norman Bates’s
mansion. The next-to-last shot of the film shows Norman sitting against a blank
white wall, while we hear his interior monologue (5.168). The camera again moves
forward into a close-up of his face (5.169). This shot is the climax of the forward
movement initiated at the start of the film; the film has traced a movement into
Norman’s mind. Another film that relies heavily on a pattern of forward, penetrat-
ing movements is Citizen Kane, which depicts the same drive toward the revelation
of a character’s secret.
The filmmaker can develop other sorts of patterns. In Michael Snow’s ↔ (usu-
ally called Back and Forth), the constant panning to and fro across a classroom,
Ping-Pong fashion, determines the basic formal pattern of the film. It comes as a
surprise when, near the very end, the movement suddenly becomes a repeated tilt-
ing up and down. As with lighting, color, and other techniques, cinematographic
choices can develop in the course of the movie.
Mobile Framing and Film Form in Grand Illusion and Wavelength
Two quite different films let us sum up ways in which the director can integrate
the mobile frame into an overall form. One film uses the mobile frame in order to
strengthen and support the plot’s presentation of the story. The other film explores
frame mobility in its own right and makes storytelling secondary—in fact, nearly
Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is a war film in which we almost never see the
war. Heroic charges and doomed battalions, the staple of the genre, are absent.
World War I remains obstinately offscreen. Instead, Renoir concentrates on life in a
German prisoner-of-war camp to suggest how relations between nations and social
5.164–5.169 Camera movement as a motif. The opening of Psycho: The camera pans right and zooms in on a building in a city-scape
(5.164). The camera moves toward a window to reveal the heroine and her boyfriend sharing a lunchtime tryst (5.165–5.167). The film’s
next-to-last shot begins at a distance from Norman (5.168) and moves in so that we see his expression as we hear his thoughts (5.169).
5.164 5.165 5.166
5.167 5.168 5.169
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204 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
classes are affected by war. The prisoners Maréchal and Boeldieu are both French;
Rauffenstein is a German officer. Yet the aristocrat Boeldieu has more in common
with Rauffenstein than with the mechanic Maréchal.
The film’s plot traces the death of the Boeldieu-Rauffenstein upper class and
the precarious survival of Maréchal and his pal Rosenthal. They escape the camp
and take refuge in Elsa’s farm, where they enjoy an interlude of peace. Eventually,
however, they must flee across the border, back to France and presumably back to
the war.
Within this plot, Renoir has given camera movement several functions, all
directly supportive of the narrative. As we might expect, the camera will often fol-
low the figures to keep our attention on them. The camera tracks with Maréchal
and Rosenthal walking together after their escape; it tracks back when the prisoners
are drawn to the window by the sound of marching Germans below. But the camera
movements independent of character action make the film more unusual.
When the camera moves on its own in Grand Illusion, we are conscious of it
actively interpreting the action, creating suspense or giving us information that the
characters don’t have. In one scene, a prisoner is digging in an escape tunnel and
tugs a string signaling that he needs to be pulled out (5.170). An independent cam-
era movement builds suspense by showing that the other characters have missed the
signal and do not realize that he is suffocating (5.171, 5.172). Here camera move-
ment creates a somewhat unrestricted narration.
The independent camera movements in Grand Illusion sometimes become
motifs. For example, camera movements repeatedly link characters with details of
their environment. Often a sequence begins with a close-up of some detail, and the
camera draws back to anchor this detail in its larger context (5.173, 5.174). More
complicated is the scene of the Christmas celebration at Elsa’s that begins with a
close-up of the crèche and tracks back to show, in several stages, the interplay of
reactions among the characters.
Such camera movements are not simply decoration; beginning on a scenic
detail before moving to the larger context makes story points economically. The
opening detail not only establishes a new locale but highlights a thematic point, as
with the squirrel cage. So does a track-in to a detail at the end of a scene, as when
after Boeldieu’s death, Rauffenstein cuts the geranium, the one flower in the prison
(5.175, 5.176). Other directors would have emphasized the detail by cutting to a
close-up, but Renoir keeps the film’s style consistent by using a camera movement.
Characters are tied to their environment by even more ambitious moving- camera
shots. These stress important narrative parallels. For example, tracking shots compare
actions in two officers’ bars—one French (5.177–5.179), one German (5.180–5.182).
Through his camera movements, Renoir indicates a similarity between the two war-
ring sides, blurring their national differences and stressing common desires.
5.170–5.172 Grand Illusion: Unrestricted narration.
5.170 A can used as a warning signal
is sitting on a shelf.
5.171 It’s pulled over, but it lands on a
pillow and so makes no sound.
5.172 The camera pans left to reveal
that the characters haven’t noticed it.
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Framing 205
5.173 Renoir begins the scene
by framing a close-up of a caged
5.174 Creating a narrative parallel,
the camera tracks back to reveal
Boeldieu and Maréchal discussing their
escape plans.
5.175 As Rauffenstein moves to the
geranium in the window . . .
5.176 . . . Renoir tracks in to a close
shot of the flower as he cuts it. Earlier
Boeldieu had admired the geranium.
5 .1 7 7–5 .1 8 2 Parallel camera
movements in Grand Illusion ▼
5.177 In the first scene, as Maréchal
leaves the French officers’ bar . . .
5.178 . . . Renoir pans and tracks left
from the door to reveal pin-ups ( just
coming into the frame at the right) . . .
5.179 . . . and a poster.
5.180 One scene later, in the
German officers’ bar, a similar
camera movement, this time toward
the right, leaves the characters . . .
5.181 . . . and explores on its own . . . 5.182 . . . discovering some similar
5.173–5.176 Tracking shots and
details of setting in Grand Illusion ▼
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206 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Or consider how two moments of camera movement compare the war of
the aristocrats and the war of the lower-class people. We are introduced to
Rauffenstein’s new position as commander of a POW camp through a lengthy
tracking shot (5.183–5.190). During this movement, Renoir presents, wordlessly,
the military mystique of grace on the battlefield that characterizes the aristocrat’s
war. Late in the film, however, a parallel shot criticizes this one (5.191–5.193).
Elsa’s war has none of Rauffenstein’s glory, and our sense of that is conveyed
chiefly through a parallel created by the repeated camera movement. Moreover,
these camera movements work together with mise-en-scene, as the narrative
5.183–5.190 Prison camp: Military elegance in Grand Illusion.
5.183 One of the most elaborate
camera movements in the film starts
on a crucifix.
5.184 The camera tilts down to a
military portrait on an altar, underlining
the irony of a chapel commandeered
as an officer’s quarters.
5.185 The camera tracks past whips,
spurs, and swords . . .
5.186 . . . to an orderly who is pre-
paring Rauffenstein’s gloves.
5.187 The orderly then walks away
from the camera to close a window
before returning . . .
5.188 . . . to the foreground. The
camera pans left and tracks back to
reveal . . .
5.189 . . . a tidy table . . . 5.190 . . . at which Rauffenstein is
revealed to be sitting, ready for
breakfast. For aristocratic warriors, the
comforts of home aren’t interrupted
by war.
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Framing 207
parallel is reinforced by the subtle use of objects as motifs—the crucifixes in 5.183
and 5.193, the photographs in 5.184 and 5.191, and the tables that end both shots.
Moving the camera independently also links characters with one another. Again
and again in the POW camp, the camera shifts to join one man to his comrades,
spatially indicating their shared condition. As the prisoners ransack the collection
of women’s clothes, one man decides to dress up in them. When he appears in drag,
a stillness falls over the men. Renoir tracks silently over the prisoners’ faces, each
one registering a reticent longing for a world they have left behind.
A more elaborate linking movement occurs in the scene of the prison vaude-
ville show, when the men learn that the French have recaptured a city. Renoir pre-
sents the shot as a celebration of spatial unity, with the camera moving among the
men as they begin defiantly to sing the “Marseillaise” (5.194–5.200). This complex
camera movement circulates freely among the prisoners, suggesting their patriotic
courage and unified defiance of their captors.
In Elsa’s cottage as well, camera movement links characters. After feeding a
cow, Maréchal enters the house, and a pan with him reveals Elsa scrubbing the
floor. The culmination of the linking movements comes near the film’s end, when
Renoir pans from the Germans on one side of the border (5.201) to the distant
French escapees on the other (5.202, 5.203). Even on this scale, Renoir’s camera
refuses to honor national divisions.
The French film critic André Bazin remarked: “Jean Renoir found a way to
reveal the hidden meaning of people and things without destroying the unity that is
natural to them.” Renoir’s precisely choreographed camera movements go beyond
simply enabling us to grasp the story. By providing information at a certain pace, by
placing emphasis and by making comparisons, the mobile frame in Grand Illusion
becomes as important as the mise-en-scene.
Michael Snow’s experimental film Wavelength gives the mobile frame a differ-
ent role. Instead of helping us construct a story, the camera style blocks that effort.
Instead Snow asks us to concentrate our attention on how frame mobility creates
patterns in its own right. Like Gehr’s Serene Velocity (p. 172), the film becomes an
experiment in cinematography.
The film begins with a long-shot framing of a loft apartment, facing one wall
and window (5.204). The camera zooms in abruptly a short distance and then holds
that framing. It zooms in a bit more and then holds that (5.205). And so it goes
throughout the film’s 45-minute length. By the end, a photograph of ocean waves
on the distant wall fills the frame in close-up.
Wavelength is structured primarily around a single kind of frame mobility,
the zoom-in. The film’s progression concentrates on how changing lens lengths
transforms the space of the loft. The sudden zooms create frequent abrupt shifts of
perspective. In excluding parts of the room, the zoom-in also magnifies and flattens
what we see; every change of focal length gives us a new set of spatial relations. As
the film goes on, the zoom pushes more and more space offscreen. The sound track,
for the most part, reinforces the basic formal development by emitting a single
humming tone that rises consistently in pitch as the zoom magnifies the space.
Within Wavelength’s overall form, though, there are two contrasting patterns.
The first is a series of filtered tints that play across the image as abstract fields of
color. These tints often work against the depth represented in the shot of the loft. A
second pattern suggests a sketchy narrative. At various intervals, characters enter the
loft and talk, listen to the radio, make phone calls, and perform other ordinary actions.
There’s even a mysterious death: A body is glimpsed on the floor (5.206). But these
events remain unexplained in cause-effect terms and inconclusive (although at the
film’s end we do hear a sound that resembles a police siren). Furthermore, none of
these actions swerves the mobile framing from its predetermined course. The jerkily
shifting and halting zoom continues, even when it frames out important narrative
information. Wavelength pulls in bits and pieces of narrative action, but they remain
secondary; they’re less important than the progression of the zoom.
5.191–5.193 Farmhouse: War’s
cost in Grand Illusion.
5.191 This shot, set inside Elsa’s
farmhouse, also begins on an
object, a photograph of her dead
5.192 The camera tracks left past
Elsa, who remarks, “Now the table
is too large.”
5.193 The camera continues,
revealing the kitchen table, where
her daughter sits alone. The chairs
upended on the table reinforce the
solitude of Elsa’s life in the midst of war.
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208 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
As an experimental film, Wavelength’s use of frame mobility arouses, delays,
and gratifies unusual expectations. The fragmentary plot briefly arouses curios-
ity (What are the people up to? What has led to the man’s death, if he does die?)
and surprise (the apparent murder). But in general, a story-centered suspense is
replaced by a stylistic suspense. The zoom is the only sign of development, so we’re
curious about what it will eventually reveal.
Yet the revelation is delayed by the colored tints, the bits of plot, and the spas-
modic qualities of the zoom itself. When the zoom finally reveals its target, our
stylistic anticipations find fulfillment. The film’s title stands revealed as a multiple
pun, referring not only to the steadily rising pitch of the sound track but also to the
distance that the zoom had to cross in order to reveal the photo—a “wave length.”
5.194–5.200 Grand Illusion: Camera movement as prisoner solidarity.
5.194 As the lead “female” singer
whips off his wig and requests the
“Marseillaise” from the musicians . . .
5.195 . . . the camera moves right and
the singer turns toward the audience.
5.196 The camera tracks farther right
as others onstage sing along.
5.197 A tilt down shows two worried
German guards in the foreground.
5.198 A track back to the left reveals
a row of French prisoners in the
audience on their feet, singing.
5.199 The camera tracks forward
past them to the musicians and singer
again . . .
5.200 . . . then pans quickly left
to reveal the assembled prisoners
again, this time declaring their
patriotism directly to the camera.
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Duration of the Image: The Long Take 209
This revelation is secondary to the experience of watching the halting zoom change
the space of the room, and watching a stylistic pattern curb our narrative appetite.
Grand Illusion and Wavelength illustrate, in different ways, how frame mobil-
ity can shape our perception of a film’s space and time. Renoir motivated his style
of frame mobility by narrative form, while Snow made the technique the principal
formal concern, motivating other aspects of the film.
Duration of the Image: The Long Take
Throughout this chapter, we’ve seen that the decisions that filmmakers make about
cinematography affect both space and time. The range of photographic tonalities,
the shot’s perspective relations, and the position of the camera are largely matters
of space. But other possibilities, like speed of motion and mobile framing, have
consequences for time too. The last area of choice and control we consider involves
time in an especially intriguing way.
One popular YouTube genre is the so-called lipdub, in which a group of perform-
ers, usually students, lip-sync a pop song. Usually these videos feature lengthy camera
movements within a single shot. There is a certain pride in choreographing all the
“singers” with the moving camera in the two or three minutes that the song takes.
Cutting would be easier, but there’d be less sense of virtuosity, less of a wow factor.
The lipdub phenomenon reflects one constant factor across the history of film
art: the idea that there’s something to be gained by letting a shot run long. But how
5.201–5.203 Border crossing in Grand Illusion.
5.201 The Germans realize that
Maréchal and Rosenthal have crossed
over into Switzerland.
5.202 Renoir pans to the right across
the invisible border . . .
5.203 . . . to reveal the two escapees,
tiny dots in the huge landscape.
5.204–5.206 The spasmodic space of Wavelength. Early in the film, much of the apartment is visible (5.204). Near the end, the
abrupt zoom-ins have made the distant wall visible (5.205). A fallen body can be glimpsed at the bottom of the frame, but the zoom-ins
will soon eliminate it from the frame (5.206).
5.204 5.205 5.206
We connect the video genre of the
lipdub to traditions of long-take
filming in “2-4-6-8, whose lipdub
do we appreciate?”
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210 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
long, and why? Jean-Luc Godard asks the question explicitly. “The only great problem
with cinema seems to me, more and more with each film, when and why to start a
shot and when and why to end it.” What guides a director in deciding how long to let
a shot last?
Real Time Is . . . What?
When people talk about filming something in “real time,” they often imply that the
shot is recording actual duration. Usually it is. If we film a runner taking three seconds
to clear a hurdle, our projected film will typically consume three seconds. But the film-
maker can choose to override real duration. As we’ve already seen, screen duration
can be manipulated through slow or fast motion. Less obviously, narrative films don’t
always let us equate screen duration with story duration, even within a single shot.
As Chapter 3 pointed out (p. 80), story duration usually differs from plot duration,
and both are affected by film techniques that shape screen time. You can compress story
duration within a single shot. Here’s an example from Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son.
It is well past midnight, and we have just seen a family awake and talking. The
shot shows a dim corner of the family’s apartment, but eventually the light changes.
By the end of the shot, morning has come (5.207, 5.208). This transitional shot
consumes about a minute of screen time, but that plainly isn’t the “real time” of the
story action. The story action takes at least five hours. Thanks to cues of lighting,
setting, and sound, the sustained shot has condensed a story duration of several
hours into a minute or so on the screen.
Other films use tracking movements to compress longer passages of time in a
continuous shot. This sort of condensation has become easier with digital postpro-
duction (5.209, 5.210). The final shot of Signs moves away from an autumn view
through a window and through a room, to reveal a winter landscape outside another
window. Months of story time have passed during the tracking movement.
Functions of the Long Take
We can ask Godard’s question a different way: How long should a shot last? Shot
durations have varied somewhat over history. Early cinema (1895–1905) tended to
rely on fairly lengthy shots, since each film often consisted of only one shot. With
the emergence of continuity editing in the period 1905–1916, shots became shorter.
From the late 1910s to the early 1920s, an American film would have an average shot
length of about 5 seconds. After the coming of sound, the average stretched to about
10 seconds. But in the mid-1930s, directors in several countries began to experi-
ment with very lengthy shots. The intricate camera movements in Grand Illusion,
from 1935, are good examples. Renoir and his peers showed that unusually lengthy
shots—long takes, as they’re called—represented a powerful creative resource.
A long take is not the same as a long shot, which refers to the apparent distance
between camera and object. As we saw in examining film production (pp. 22–23),
We discuss artistic aspects of the
long take in “Harry Potter treated
with gravity” and “Birdman:
Following Riggan’s orders.”
5 . 2 0 7 – 5 . 2 0 8 C o m p r e s s i n g
screen duration within a single
shot. A shot in The Only Son moves
from night (5.207) to morning (5.208).
5.209 5.210
5.209–5.210 Camera movement through the seasons. In Roger Michell’s Notting Hill, the protagonist’s walk through the
Portobello street market moves through autumn (5.209), then winter (5.210). Eventually the shot ends with spring.
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Duration of the Image: The Long Take 211
a take is one run of the camera that records a single shot. To prevent ambiguity, we
call a protracted shot a long take rather than a long shot.
In the films of Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Miklós
Jancsó, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Bèla Tarr, a shot may go on for several minutes. One
shot in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler runs for about 30 minutes and constitutes much
of the film’s second half (5.211). It would be impossible to appreciate the artistry
of these films without considering what the long take contributes to form and style.
Usually, we can regard the long take as an alternative to a series of shots. The
director may choose between presenting a scene in long takes and presenting it in sev-
eral shorter shots. When an entire scene is rendered in only one shot, the long take is
sometimes called a sequence shot, a translation of the French term plan-séquence. In
any film, most filmmakers mix edited scenes with scenes handled in long takes. This
allows the filmmaker to bring out specific values in particular scenes, or to associate
certain aspects of narrative or nonnarrative form with the different stylistic options.
A vivid instance occurs in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, based on a hunger strike
in a prison in Northern Ireland. Most of the scenes, including violent confrontations
between prisoners and guards, consist of several shots. At this point, Bobby Sands, the
main character, seems only one prisoner among many. Roughly halfway through the
film, the plot starts to focus on him and we begin to understand his motives and plans.
The key scene begins with a shot lasting nearly 18 minutes, a balanced view of Sands
and an old friend who visits him (5.212). There is no camera movement. The effect
is to rivet the viewer on the character’s dialogue during a turning point in the action.
Alternatively, the filmmaker may decide to build the entire film out of long
takes. Hitchcock’s Rope is famous for containing only 11 shots, most running
between 4 and 10 minutes. Similarly, each scene in Winterwind, Red Psalm, and
other films by Miklós Jancsó consists of a single shot. In such cases, the long take
becomes a large-scale part of a film.
In a long-take movie, editing can have great force. After a seven- or eight-
minute shot, an elliptical cut can prove quite disorienting. Gus van Sant’s Elephant
traces events around a high school shooting rampage, and it presents most scenes
in very long takes following students through the hallways. Moreover, Elephant’s
plot doesn’t present the events in chronological order. The narration flashes back to
show other school days, the boys’ lives at home, and their preparations for the kill-
ings. So when a cut interrupts a long take, the audience must reflect for a moment
to determine how the new shot fits into story chronology. The effect of the editing is
unusually harsh, because the cuts tend to break the smooth rhythm of the sustained
traveling shots (5.213–5.215).
Could a feature-length movie consist of one long take? Many directors have
dreamed of it, but the lengths of film reels were a constraint. A 35mm camera reel
typically runs for only 11 minutes, so Hitchcock sought to hide some of Rope’s
obligatory cuts. Extended 16mm reels of the type Warhol used in My Hustler
(5.211) can run up to 30 minutes. With digital video, how-
ever, it is possible to shoot for hours on a single tape or file,
and the Russian director Aleksander Sokurov seized this
opportunity in Russian Ark. The film consists of a single
shot nearly 90 minutes long, as the camera follows over
2,000 actors in period costume through St. Petersburg’s
immense Winter Palace. Russian Ark takes us through sev-
eral eras of Russian history, culminating in a stupendous
ballroom dance and a crowd drifting off into a wintry night
Thanks to digital postproduction, a long take can be
even longer. Software can blend shots undetectably, so
that Birdman; Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
could present an apparently continuous shot that lasts over
100 minutes on the screen.
Both There Will Be Blood and The
Most Beautiful contain subtle stag-
ing in two unmoving long takes.
We compare them in “Hands (and
faces) across the table.”
5.211 The long take and narrative
form. A long take in My Hustler
captures the seduc tive exchange
of t wo gay men as they groom
themselves in a bathroom.
5.212 The long take to mark a turning point. Backlighting
and a lengthy, static shot in Hunger place us at a distance from
Bobby Sands and his visitor. The director’s stylistic choice
allows us to concentrate on their words, which provide important
exposition about the planned hunger strike.
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212 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
5.213–5.215 Discontinuous editing interrupts a long take. In a shot lasting two minutes, the camera follows Michelle into the
library, where she starts reshelving books (5.123). Many of the long takes in Elephant frame the walking characters from behind. This
conceals their facial expressions from us and emphasizes the school environment. Michelle turns as we hear a rifle being cocked (5.214).
We expect a reverse shot to reveal the shooter. Instead, we get a flashback to earlier that day when the two boys showered together
before going to school on their deadly mission (5.215).
5.213 5.214 5.215
5.216–5.218 Russian Ark and the long take. In Russian
Ark, one episode takes place in the palace theater, with
Catherine the Great pronouncing the rehearsal satisfactory
(5.216). An hour or so later, still within the same shot, hundreds
of aristocrats and off icers descend a staircase toward the
impending devastation of the Russian Revolution (5.217). Crew
members moved through the Hermitage Museum, filming with
a digital camera mounted on a Steadicam (5.218). Sokurov
rehearsed Russian Ark for several months and completed the
take used in the film on the fourth try. Today, a shot like this could
be assembled out of several takes blended in postproduction,
as in Snake Eyes or Birdman.
5.216 5.217
The Long Take and the Mobile Frame
The static long take in Hunger is unusual; most long takes, like those in Elephant,
Russian Ark, and Birdman (and in DIY lipdubs), rely on camera movement. Panning,
tracking, craning, or zooming can be used to present continually changing vantage
points that are comparable in some ways to the shifts of view supplied by editing.
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Duration of the Image: The Long Take 213
Very often, frame mobility breaks the long-take shot into smaller units. In
Mizoguchi’s Sisters of Gion, one long take shows a young woman, Omocha, luring
a businessman into becoming her patron (5.219–5.224). Though there is no cutting,
the camera and figure movements demarcate important stages of the scene’s action.
As in this example, long takes tend to be framed in medium or long shots rather
than close-ups. The camera takes us through a fairly dense visual field, and the spectator
has more opportunity to scan the shot for particular points of interest. This is recognized
by Steven Spielberg, a director who has occasionally exploited lengthy takes:
I’d love to see directors start trusting the audience to be the film editor with their
eyes, the way you are sometimes with a stage play, where the audience selects who
they would choose to look at while a scene is being played. . . . There’s so much cut-
ting and so many close-ups being shot today I think directly as an influence from
As we saw in the previous chapter, the arrangement of the mise-en-scene can guide our
scanning of the frame. Accordingly, a director may choose to put editing aside and let
a gradually unfolding long take steer us from one information-packed frame to another.
This is what happens in Sisters of Gion, as the camera movement follows Omocha’s
seduction of the businessman.
The example from Sisters of Gion illustrates another important feature of
the long take. Mizoguchi’s shot reveals a complete internal logic—a beginning,
middle, and end. As part of a film, the long take can have its own formal pattern,
its own development, its own trajectory and shape. Suspense may develop; we start
to ask how the shot will continue and when it will end.
The classic example of how the long take can constitute a formal pattern in
its own right is the opening sequence of Welles’s Touch of Evil (5.225–5.236).
This opening shot makes plain some basic features of the long take. It offers an
Mizoguchi, a master of staging,
became famous for his elegant
long takes. We consider his style
in “Mizoguchi: Secrets of the
exquisite image.”
5.219–5.224 Sisters of Gion: The long take marks stages of the action.
5.219 The long take begins with
Omocha and the businessman
seated. The camera follows her as . . .
5.220 . . . she moves to the opposite
end of the room . . .
5.221 . . . and sits at a small table
facing him.
5.222 A second phase of the shot
begins as she begins to appeal to his
sympathy and he moves to the table . . .
5.223 . . . and sits down to console
5.224 Finally, the camera moves into
a tighter shot as she sits beside him
and he succumbs to her advances.
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214 CHAPTER 5 The Shot: Cinematography
5.225 The opening shot begins with
a close-up of a hand setting the timer
of a bomb.
5.226 The camera tracks immediately
right to follow first the shadow . . .
5.227 . . . and then the figure of an
unknown assassin planting the bomb
in a car.
5.228 The camera then cranes up
to a high angle as the assassin flees
and the victims arrive and set out in
the car.
5.229 As the camera rounds the
corner, it rejoins the car. A reverse
tracking shot keeps it in frame.
5.230 The car passes Vargas and
his wife, Susan, and the camera starts
to follow them, losing the car and
tracking diagonally backward with the
couple through the crowd.
5.231 The camera tracks backward
until both the occupants of the car and
Susan and Vargas meet again.
5.232 The camera remains in one
place to let the brief scene with the
border guard play out.
5.233 After tracking left with the
car, the camera catches up with Susan
and Vargas and tracks forward toward
them . . .
5.225–5.236 Touch of Evil: The virtuoso moving long take.
5.234 . . . bringing them into medium
shot as they begin to kiss.
5.235 Their embrace is interrupted by
the offscreen sound of an explosion,
and they turn to look leftward.
5.236 The next shot zooms in to
show the car in flames.
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Duration of the Image: The Long Take 215
The film shot is a complex unit. By controlling mise-
en-scene, the filmmaker fills the image with material,
arranging setting, lighting, costume, and staging within the
formal context of the total film. Similarly, the shot is shaped
by the cinematographic options we’ve been examining.
Those options bear on photographic qualities: tonality,
speed of motion, and the varieties of perspective created by
lens lengths, depth of field, and special effects. The film-
maker can also reckon in the aspect ratio and decide how
the image is framed. Other creative choices involve varying
camera placement—the angle, level, height, and distance
at which we see the subject. The filmmaker can decide to
move the frame in a host of ways, and can choose to exploit
the long take with or without camera movement.
The array of choices is dazzling, and as with mise-
en-scene, decision making is at the center of film artistry.
Forced to choose one way or another, the filmmaker pursues
options that will give the viewer a specific experience—and
perhaps also challenge the filmmaker’s skills. In turn, the
choices that are made can coalesce into a pattern, the style
of that particular film.
You can sensitize yourself to cinematographic options
in much the same way that you worked on mise-en-scene.
Trace the progress of a single technique, such as camera
distance, through an entire scene. Notice when a shot
begins and ends, observing how a long take may function
to shape the film’s form. Watch for camera movements,
especially those that follow the action (since those are
usually the hardest to notice). Once you notice cinemato-
graphic qualities, you can move to an understanding of
their various functions within the sequence and the film
as a whole.
Film art offers still other possibilities for choice and
control. Chapter 4 and this chapter focused on the shot.
The filmmaker may also juxtapose one shot with another
through editing, and that’s the subject of Chapter 6.
alternative to building the sequence out of many shots, and it stresses the cut that
finally comes (occurring at the sound of the explosion of the car).
The shot has its own internal pattern of development. We expect that the bomb
shown at the beginning will explode at some point, and we wait for that explosion
through the long take. The shot establishes the geography of the scene, the border
between Mexico and the United States. The camera movement, alternately picking
up the car and the walking couple, weaves together two lines of narrative cause
and effect that intersect at the border station. Vargas and Susan are thus drawn into
the action involving the bombing. Our expectation is fulfilled when the end of the
shot coincides with the explosion (offscreen) of the bomb. The shot has guided our
response by taking us through a suspenseful development.
The long take can present, in a single chunk of time, a complex pattern of
events moving toward a goal, and this ability shows that shot duration can be as
important to the image as photographic qualities and framing are.
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The Relation of Shot
to Shot: Editing
Since the 1920s, when film theorists began to realize what editing can achieve, it has been the most widely discussed film technique. This hasn’t been all to the good. Some writers have mistakenly found in editing the key to good
cinema (or even all cinema). Yet many film scenes don’t use editing extensively.
As we saw in the last chapter, some films consist of very few shots. Some
major films from the 1910s, such as Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm, consist
largely of single-take scenes; these shape our experience by subtle manipulations of
mise-en-scene. Other films, such as Touch of Evil and Birdman, use long takes with
camera movements to guide our moment-by-moment understanding of the action.
Films relying on long takes aren’t necessarily less “cinematic” than films that break
down scenes into many shots.
Still, we can see why editing has exercised such an enormous fascination. It’s
very powerful. The ride of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation, the Odessa Steps
sequence in Potemkin, the hunt sequence in The Rules of the Game, the shower
murder in Psycho, Clarice Starling’s discovery of the killer’s lair in The Silence
of the Lambs, the reconstruction of the Dallas assassination in JFK, the quickfire
shifts among dream layers in Inception—these and many other screen moments
derive their impact from editing. No wonder that cutting plays a huge role in mass-
market filmmaking. Today’s Hollywood movie typically contains between 1,000
and 2,000 shots; an action movie can have 3,000 or more.
Editing decisions can also build the film’s overall form. The nested segments
in Citizen Kane (pp. 101–102) are defined by editing transitions. In long-take films,
shot changes usually mark out scenes or sequences. Warhol’s My Hustler contains
only three cuts, but they give the film four large-scale parts. By stressing the shift
from segment to segment, editing can shape our responses to individual scenes and
the entire movie.
This powerful, pervasive technique confronts the filmmaker with a huge
number of choices. Cut here or there? Put this shot before or after that one? Does
this string of shots make sense? The options are multiplied in digital filmmaking,
with its power to redo shots in postproduction. James Cameron comments:
You can almost get buried by possibilities. In a normal editing situation, depending on
the material, you might end up just selecting the performance that has the least num-
ber of deficits to it. But with what we’ve created, anything can be in focus, anything
can be out of focus, or lit differently at any time. You can do virtual camera work on
a performance that was shot six months earlier. . . . There’s always the risk of getting
bogged down. You find yourself asking, “Why?” a whole lot more than you normally
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What Is Editing? 217
might. “Why am I on this angle? Why am I on a close-up on this actor when a wide
shot might work better?” In a way, it puts you back to basics as an editor.
Even without the CGI resources of Avatar, a filmmaker must think constantly about
What Is Editing?
You already know something about editing. As a viewer, you notice when the
cutting is very fast, during a chase scene or a fight. If you’ve made some videos,
you’ve probably done some editing, assembling various shots in your preferred
order and trimming them until they seem the right length. You’re aware that editing
lets the filmmaker decide what shots to include and how they will be arranged.
These sorts of decisions are multiplied vastly in professional filmmaking. Just
the matter of selection can be daunting. An editor on the typical feature-length film is
faced with a mountain of footage. The Social Network in finished form ran two hours,
but 286 hours of material were shot—not an unusual amount for such a project.
To ease the task, most fiction filmmakers plan for the editing phase during
the preparation and shooting phases. Scripts, storyboards, and previsualizations
allow shots to be imagined in advance. Documentary filmmakers often shoot extra
footage of settings, documents, or significant objects. These can be useful in cutting
together material caught on the fly. For Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin
Hood Hills, the directors filmed aerial shots of the neighborhood that was central
to the crime. These serve as transitions linking sections of the film.
Once the material is selected, the editor joins the shots, the end of one to the
beginning of another. The most common join is the cut. A cut provides an instan-
taneous change from one shot to another. Other methods of joining shots produce
more gradual changes. A fade-out gradually darkens the end of a shot to black,
and a fade-in lightens a shot from black. A dissolve briefly superimposes the end
of shot A and the beginning of shot B (6.1–6.3). In a wipe, shot B replaces shot A
by means of a boundary line moving across the screen (6.4). Here both images are
briefly on the screen at the same time, but they do not blend, as in a dissolve. Before
the rise of digital editing in the 1990s, a cut was usually made by splicing two
shots together with film cement or tape. Fades, dissolves, and wipes were executed
with optical printers or in the laboratory. In computer editing, all types of edits are
created with the software. Similar software allows all these sorts of edits to be made
in presentation programs like PowerPoint.
Although everyone is somewhat aware of editing, we can understand the
filmmaker’s creative choices more fully if we look at the technique systematically.
In this chapter, we show how editing allows the filmmaker to manipulate time,
space, and pictorial qualities in ways that shape the viewer’s experience of the film.
Editing is the basic creative
force, by power of which the
soulless photographs (the
separate shots) are engineered
into living, cinematographic form.”
—V. I. Pudovkin, director
You can definitely help
performances in the cutting room,
by intercutting reaction, maybe
re-recording lines, adding lines
over reaction shots. And you can
help a film’s structure by moving
sequences about and dropping
scenes that hold up pacing. And
sometimes you can use bits and
pieces from different takes, which
also helps a lot. What you can do
in the editing room to help a film is
—Jodie Foster, actor and director
6.1–6.4 Linking shots with optical devices. The first shot of The Maltese Falcon (6.1) ends with a dissolve (6.2) to the second
shot (6.3). In Seven Samurai, a wipe joins the last shot of one scene with the first of the next (6.4).
6.2 6.3 6.4
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218 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Why Cut? Four Shots from The Birds
Here’s a portion of the attack on the Bodega Bay waterfront in Alfred Hitchcock’s
The Birds (6.5–6.8).
1. Medium shot, straight-on angle. Melanie, Mitch, and the fisherman are
standing by the restaurant window talking. Melanie is on the extreme right,
the bartender is in the background (6.5).
2. Medium close-up. Melanie is standing by the fisherman’s shoulder. She looks
to right (out offscreen window) and up, as if following with her eyes. Pan
right with her as she turns to window and looks out (6.6).
3. Extreme long shot. Melanie’s point of view: The gas station across street,
with the phone booth in the left foreground. Birds dive-bomb the attendant,
swooping right to left (6.7).
4. Medium close-up. Melanie, in profile. The fisherman moves right into
the frame, blocking out the bartender. Mitch moves right into the extreme
foreground. All three in profile look out the window (6.8).
Each of these four shots presents a different bit of time and space and a different
array of graphic qualities. The first shot shows the characters talking (6.5). A cut
shifts us to a medium close-up shot of Melanie. Here space has changed (Melanie
is isolated and larger in the frame), time is continuous, and the graphic configurations
have changed (the arrangements of the shapes and colors vary). Another cut takes us
instantly to what she sees (6.6). The gas station shot (6.7) presents a different space,
another bit of time, and a different graphic configuration. Another cut returns us to
Melanie (6.8), and again we are shifted instantly to another space, the next slice of
time, and a different graphic configuration. The four shots are joined by three cuts.
Hitchcock could have presented the Birds scene without editing. Using deep-
space staging, he might have created a deep-focus composition like those in Figures
5.48 and 5.49. He could have placed Mitch and the fisherman in the foreground,
Melanie and the window in the middle ground, and the gull attack in the distance,
visible through the window. The scene could now be played in one shot, for we
would have no abrupt change of time or space or graphics.
But editing gives Hitchcock control of timing and impact. At a certain moment
he can fasten our attention on Melanie alone, not the men: shot 2 demands that we
notice her response. Similarly, shot 3 obliges us to watch the bird attack as she sees
it, with nothing else in the frame to distract us. Editing allows Hitchcock to march
us in step with the action.
We’ve seen that through mise-en-scene and cinematography the filmmaker can
create a shot containing many points of interest. Tim Smith’s experiment in eye-
tracking (4.122, 4.123) shows that a director can subtly guide our attention to a single
area of a shot. Why didn’t Hitchcock take that option? Because his cuts do more than
simply isolate parts of the action: they emphasize them. The cut-in to Melanie
enlarges her suddenly, creating a little punch. The same thing happens with the bird
attack. If we watched it through a window in the rear of a deep-space shot, it would be
a tiny part of the image. As an enlarged view of the gas station, it gains in significance.
In addition, if Hitchcock had presented all the action in a single shot, he
wouldn’t have engaged our minds in quite the same way. When he cuts from shot 2,
of Melanie looking, to shot 3, the gull’s swooping, we have to think a little. We have
to infer that shot 3 is what Melanie sees. We’ve known this convention for most of
our lives, but it still calls on us to use our imagination to connect the shots.
So a deep-space, deep-focus shot would have a rather different effect. But
there was another option, you might say. What if Hitchcock used a continuous shot
6.5–6.8 Editing for timing and
impact: Four shots from The Birds.
6.5 Shot 1
6.6 Shot 2
6.7 Shot 3
6.8 Shot 4
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Dimensions of Film Editing 219
but moved his camera? Imagine that the camera frames the people talking, tracks
in and rightward to Melanie as she turns, pans right to the window to show the
dive- bombing gull, and pans back left to catch the group’s expressions. This would
constitute one complicated shot, somewhat like the Grand Illusion example we con-
sidered in the previous chapter (5.194–5.200). The varied framing would provide
emphasis, picking out some parts of the scene while leaving out others. But camera
movements, no matter how fast, would not present the sudden breaks that the cuts
produce. Again, it’s a matter of timing and heightened impact. In the Grand Illusion
scene, the panning and tracking movements gradually reveal the reaction of the
German officers to the prisoners’ show. Cutting enables Hitchcock to make the bird
attack more abrupt and startling—a quality that suits the story action at that point.
In all, editing allows Hitchcock to isolate and magnify each bit of action and to
control the pace of our uptake. We must surrender to the swift, sharp flow of shots,
but we also devote a bit of mental energy to figuring out how they fit together.
When filmmakers want to pattern our experience so precisely, editing becomes an
attractive stylistic option.
Dimensions of Film Editing
Editing offers the filmmaker four basic areas of choice and control:
1. Graphic relations between shot A and shot B
2. Rhythmic relations between shot A and shot B
3. Spatial relations between shot A and shot B
4. Temporal relations between shot A and shot B
Let’s trace the range of choice and control in each area.
Graphic Relations between Shot A and Shot B
The four shots from The Birds show the time and space of the scene, but we can
see them purely as graphic configurations as well. They display patterns of light
and dark, line and shape, volumes and depths, movement and stasis. And we can
compare these qualities across shots.
For instance, Hitchcock didn’t drastically alter the overall brightness from shot to
shot, because the scene takes place during the day. If the scene had been set at night,
he could have cut from the fairly bright second shot in the bar (6.6, Melanie turning to
the window) to a shot of the gas station swathed in darkness. That would have created
a stronger contrast. Moreover, Hitchcock usually keeps the most important part of the
composition roughly in the center of the frame. (Compare Melanie’s position in the
frame with that of the gas station in 6.7.) He could, however, have cut from a shot in
which Melanie was in, say, upper frame left to a shot locating the gas station in the lower
right of the frame. Again, there would have been a sense of less graphic continuity.
We’ve already seen that pictorial contrasts can be powerful in guiding our
attention (p. 160), and Hitchcock’s editing does work a bit on them. Melanie’s hair
and outfit make her a predominantly yellow and green figure, but the shot of the
gas station is dominated by drab grays set off by touches of red in the gas pumps.
Alternatively, Hitchcock could have chosen to cut from Melanie to another figure
composed of similar colors. Furthermore, the action in Melanie’s shot—her turning
to the window—doesn’t blend into the movements of either the attendant or the gull
in the next shot. But Hitchcock could have echoed Melanie’s movement by some
motion in the shot that followed.
The implication is simple but powerful. If you put any two shots together, you’ll
create some interaction between the purely pictorial qualities of those two shots.
We discuss graphic matching in
more detail in “Graphic content
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220 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
The four aspects of mise-en-scene (lighting, setting, costume, and the movement of
the figures) and most cinematographic qualities (photography, framing, and camera
mobility) all furnish graphic elements. Every shot provides possibilities for purely
graphic editing, and every shot-change creates some sort of graphic relationship
between two shots.
Graphic Editing: Matches and Clashes Graphics may be edited to
achieve smooth continuity or abrupt contrast. The filmmaker may link shots by
close graphic similarities, thus making a graphic match. Shapes, colors, overall
composition, or movement in shot A may be picked up in the composition of
shot B. A minimal instance is the cut that joins the first two shots of David
Byrne’s True Stories (6.9, 6.10). More dynamic graphic matches appear in Akira
Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. After the samurai have first arrived at the village,
an alarm sounds and they race to discover its source. Kurosawa cuts together six
shots of different running samurai, all very brief and graphically matched (6.11–
6.13). Filmmakers sometimes call attention to graphic matches at transitional
moments (6.14–6.16).
6.9–6.13 Graphic matching, static
and dynamic. A shot from True Stories
showing the Texas horizon midway up the
frame (6.9) is graphically matched with
a shot showing the waterline of ancient
seas in the same position (6.10). Seven
Samurai: The f irst three (6.11– 6.13) of
six shots of running samurai. Kurosawa
matches the shots through composition,
lighting, setting, figure movement, and the
panning camera movement.
6.9 6.10
6.11 6.12
6.14–6.16 Graphic matching in a transition. In Aliens, the curved outline of Ripley’s sleeping face (6.14) is graphically matched by
means of a dissolve (6.15) to the outline of the earth (6.16).
6.14 6.15 6.16
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Dimensions of Film Editing 221
Such precise graphic matching is rare. A looser graphic continuity from shot
A to shot B is typical of most narrative cinema, as in the Birds shots. The director
will usually strive to keep the main point of interest roughly constant across the
cut, to maintain the overall lighting level, and to avoid strong color clashes from
shot to shot. In Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, an aspiring cook is trying to learn the secret
of good noodles, and she questions a successful cook. Alternating shots keep each
main character’s face in the right center of each frame (6.17, 6.18).
Editing need not be graphically continuous. Filmmakers working in a
widescreen format often create mild graphic discontinuities when they frame
characters facing one another. A scene from Pulp Fiction places the two hit men
opposite each other in a restaurant booth, each framed distinctly off-center (6.19,
6.20). Compared to the Tampopo example, the cut here creates greater graphic
discontinuity. Yet the overall effect is one of symmetry and balance, with each man
filling the space left empty in the other shot.
Graphically discontinuous editing can be more noticeable. Orson Welles
frequently sought a clash from shot to shot. In Citizen Kane a direct cut from the
dark long shot of Kane’s bedroom gives way to the bright opening title of “News
on the March.” Welles does something similar during a transition in Touch of Evil
(6.21, 6.22). Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog created a convention by utilizing an
extreme graphic conflict between past and present. Resnais cut together color
footage of an abandoned concentration camp today with black-and-white newsreel
shots of the camps in the period 1942–1945.
6.17–6.18 Graphic matching: A matter of degree. The woman and her friend, the cowboy truck driver (6.17), confront the enraged
cook and his assistants. (6.18) Although the shots aren’t precisely matched graphically, the key characters are placed in the same area
of each shot.
6.17 6.18
6.19 6.20
6.19–6.20 Graphic discontinuity yields editing symmetry. Pulp Fiction: Vincent (6.19) and Jules (6.20) are at opposite ends of the
screen in each shot, but the cutting creates an overall balance. It also offers our attention a predictable, left-right trajectory to follow.
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222 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Graphic Contrast in The Birds Later in the Birds sequence, Hitchcock
exploits a stronger conflict of graphic qualities. Gasoline spurting from the pump
has flowed across the street to a parking lot. Melanie, along with several other
people at the restaurant window, has seen a man accidentally set the gasoline
alight. His car ignites, and an explosion of flame engulfs him. Melanie must watch
helplessly as the flame races along the trail of gas toward the station. Hitchcock
cuts the shots as shown in 6.23–6.33:
Shot 30 (Long shot) High angle. Melanie’s POV. Flaming
car, spreading flames (6.23). 73 frames
Shot 31 (Medium
Straight-on angle. Melanie, immobile,
looking off left, mouth open (6.24). 20 frames
Shot 32 (Medium
High angle. Melanie’s POV. Pan with
flames moving from lower right to
upper left of trail of gasoline (6.25). 18 frames
Shot 33 (Medium
As 31. Melanie, immobile, staring
down left center (6.26). 16 frames
Shot 34 (Medium
High angle. Melanie’s POV. Pan with
flames moving from lower right to
upper left (6.27). 14 frames
Shot 35 (Medium
As 31. Melanie, immobile, looking off
right, staring aghast (6.28). 12 frames
Shot 36 (Long shot) Melanie’s POV. Gas station. Flames
rush in from right. Mitch, sheriff, and
attendant run out left (6.29). 10 frames
Shot 37 (Medium
As 31. Melanie, immobile, stares off
extreme right (6.30). 8 frames
Shot 38 (Long shot) As 36. Melanie’s POV. Cars at
station explode (6.31). 34 frames
Shot 39 (Medium
As 31. Melanie covers her face with
her hands (6.32). 33 frames
Shot 40 (Extreme
long shot)
Extreme high angle on city, flaming
trail in center. Gulls fly into shot (6.33).
6.21–6.22 Graphic discontinuity in a transition. In Touch of Evil, Welles dissolves from a shot of Menzies looking out a window on
frame right (6.21) to a shot of Susan Vargas looking out a different window on frame left (6.22). The clash is emphasized by the contrasting
screen positions of the window reflections.
6.21 6.22
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Dimensions of Film Editing 223
In graphic terms, Hitchcock has exploited two types of contrast. First, although
each shot’s composition centers the action (Melanie’s head, the flaming trail), the
movements thrust in different directions. In shot 31, Melanie looks to the lower left,
but in shot 32, the fire moves to the upper left. In shot 33, Melanie is looking down
center, but in shot 34, the flames still move to the upper left, and so on.
More important—and what makes the sequence impossible to recapture on
the printed page—is the bold contrast between motion and stasis. The shots of the
flames present plenty of movement: The flames rush along the trail of gasoline, and
the camera pans to follow them. But the shots of Melanie could be still photographs,
since each one is absolutely static. She doesn’t turn her head in any shot, and the
6.23–6.33 Editing for graphic
contrast in The Birds. Hitchcock
employs two types of contrast. First,
his cutting contrasts the movement
of Melanie’s head with the trail of
flames. A second contrast is between
movement and stillness. The shots of
the flames show movement of both the
subject and the camera, while the shots
of Melanie’s head are completely static.
6.23 Shot 30 6.24 Shot 31 6.25 Shot 32
6.26 Shot 33 6.27 Shot 34 6.28 Shot 35
6.29 Shot 36 6.30 Shot 37 6.31 Shot 38
6.32 Shot 39 6.33 Shot 40
6.24 Shot 31
6.26 Shot 33 6.28 Shot 35
6.29 Shot 36
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224 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
camera doesn’t track in or away from her. Instead we get snapshots of her changing
attention. By making movement conflict with countermovement and with stillness,
Hitchcock has powerfully exploited the graphic possibilities of editing.
Rhythmic Relations between Shot A and Shot B
Every shot is of a certain length, with its series of frames consuming a certain amount
of time onscreen. Film-based formats, as we’ve seen (p. 10), typically run 24 or
25 frames per second. Digital cinema formats run at approximately 24, 25, 30, or
48 frames per second. A shot can be as short as a single frame, or it may be thou-
sands of frames long, running for many minutes when projected. The filmmaker can
adjust the lengths of any shot in relation to the shots around it. That choice taps into
the rhythmic potential of editing. Other film techniques, notably the sound track,
contribute to the overall rhythm of the film, as you’d expect. But the patterning of shot
lengths contributes considerably to what we intuitively recognize as a film’s rhythm.
Flash Frames Sometimes the filmmaker will use shot duration to stress a single
moment. In one sequence of The Road Warrior, a ferocious gang member head-butts
his victim. At the instant of contact, director George Miller cuts in a few frames of
pure white. The result is a sudden flash that suggests violent impact. Such flash-
frames have become conventions of action films. In any genre, flash-frames may
mark transitions between segments or signal flashbacks or subjective sequences.
Flash-frames usually provide one-off accents. More commonly, the rhythmic
possibilities of editing emerge when several shots in a series form a pattern. By
making all the shots more or less the same length, the filmmaker can create a steady
beat. Gradually lengthening shots can slow the rhythm, while shorter and shorter
shots can accelerate it.
Rhythmic Cutting in The Birds Hitchcock’s editing builds a distinct
rhythm during the gas-station attack we examined earlier. Since The Birds was shot
on film, our chart provides frame counts based on a 35mm print.
The first shot, the medium shot of Melanie and the men talking (6.5), consumes
almost a thousand frames, or about 41 seconds. But the second shot (6.6), which shows
Melanie looking out the window, is much shorter—309 frames (about 13  seconds).
Even shorter is shot 3 (6.7), which lasts only 55 frames (about 2¹/³ seconds). The fourth
shot (6.8), showing Melanie joined by Mitch and the fisherman, lasts only 35 frames
(about 1½ seconds). Clearly, Hitchcock is accelerating the pace at the beginning of
what will be a tense sequence. This arc of excitement could probably not have been
achieved if Hitchcock had handled the action in a single shot.
In what follows, Hitchcock makes the shots fairly short but subordinates the
length of the shot to the rhythm of the dialogue and the movement in the images.
As a result, shots 5–29 (not shown here) have no fixed pattern of lengths. But once
the essential components of the scene have been established, Hitchcock returns to
strongly accelerated cutting.
In presenting Melanie’s horrified realization of the flames racing from the
parking lot to the gas station, shots 30–40 (6.23–6.33) climax the rhythmic intensi-
fication of the sequence. As the description on page 222 shows, after the shot of the
spreading flames (shot 30, 6.23), each shot decreases in length by 2 frames, from
20  frames (5/6 of a second) to 8 frames—just one-third of a second! Two shots,
38 and 39, then punctuate the sequence with almost identical durations (a little
less than 1½ seconds apiece). Shot 40 (6.33), an extreme long shot that lasts over
600  frames, functions as both a pause and a suspenseful preparation for the new
attack. The scene’s variations in rhythm alternate between rendering the savagery
of the attack and generating suspense as we await the next onslaught.
Counting frames isn’t something we normally do when watching a film, but as
the film flows along we do feel the shifting tempo that’s created by the changing
On the problems of frame-count-
ing video versions, see “My name
is David, and I’m a frame-counter.”
I noticed a softening in
American cinema over the last
twenty years, and I think it’s a
direct influence of TV. I would
even say that if you want to
make movies today, you’d be
better off studying television than
film because that’s the market.
Television has diminished the
audience’s attention span. It’s hard
to make a slow, quiet film today.
Not that I would want to make a
slow, quiet film anyway!”
—Oliver Stone, director
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Dimensions of Film Editing 225
shot durations. In general, by controlling editing rhythm, the filmmaker controls
the amount of time we have to grasp and reflect on what we see. A series of rapid
shots leaves us little time to think about what we’re watching. In the Birds sequence,
Hitchcock’s editing impels the viewer’s perception to move at a faster and faster
pace. Very quickly we have to grasp the progress of the fire and Melanie’s changes in
position, and the acceleration builds rising excitement in the scene. Whipping up the
spectator through rhythmic editing remains central to action scenes in movies today.
Spatial Relations between Shot A and Shot B
Editing can control graphics and rhythm, but it can also construct film space. When early
filmmakers discovered this, they grew giddy with their godlike power. “I am builder,”
wrote Soviet documentarist Dziga Vertov. “I have placed you . . . in an extraordinary
room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are
twelve walls, shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of
walls and details, I’ve managed to arrange them in an order that is pleasing.”
We can understand why Vertov was elated. Editing permits the filmmaker to
juxta pose any two points in space and suggest some kind of relationship between them.
Establishing and Manipulating Space If you’re the director, you might
start with a shot that establishes a spatial whole and follow this with a shot of a
part of this space. This is what Hitchcock does in shot 1 and shot 2 of the Birds
sequence (6.5, 6.6): a medium shot of the group of people followed by a medium
close-up shot of only one, Melanie. Such analytical breakdown is a very common
editing pattern.
Alternatively, you could construct a whole space out of component parts.
Hitchcock does this in the Birds sequence too. Note that in 6.5–6.8 and in shots
30–39 (6.23–6.32), we don’t see an establishing shot including Melanie and the gas
station. In production, the restaurant window need not have been across from the
station at all; they could have been filmed in different towns or even countries. Yet
the cutting, along with hints in the staging and on the sound track, compels us to
believe that Melanie is across the street from the gas station.
Spatial manipulation of this sort is fairly common. In documentaries compiled
from newsreel footage, for example, one shot might show a cannon firing, and
another shot might show a shell hitting its target. We infer that the cannon fired the
shell, though the shots may show entirely different battles. If a shot of a speaker is
followed by a shot of a cheering crowd, we assume that they’re in the same place.
Today’s editors can also alter space through intra-frame editing. Digital
filmmaking makes it easy to combine parts of different shots into a single shot.
In 35mm film-based production, this effect was accomplished during filming or
during laboratory work, as with traveling mattes (p. 175). Now elements from
different shots may be blended in editing. A character can be extracted from one
shot and seamlessly pasted into another one. Vertov, who was fond of layering his
images, would have found this software irresistible for creating tricks and lyrical
effects (p. 433), but most mainstream filmmakers use intra-frame editing to gener-
ate shots that look like normally photographed ones.
Constructive Editing: The Kuleshov Effect Practicing filmmakers
sometimes reflect on their tools and their craft. Take Lev Kuleshov, a master of
silent cinema. As a teenager, he had worked as an actor and set designer for one
of Russia’s greatest directors, Yevgenii Bauer. Bauer relied on skillful staging and
long takes (p. 144), but when Kuleshov directed his first film at age 21, he mod-
eled it on the faster-cut American films he admired. At the same time, Kuleshov
wanted to study filmmaking scientifically, so in 1921 he conducted some infor-
mal experiments. His findings decisively demonstrated editing’s power over the
viewer’s sense of space.
[In editing The Dark Knight for
both Imax and 35mm presentation],
we needed to extensively test to
ensure that the cuts were not so
quick that the audience would
get disoriented, looking at that
Imax screen, and at the same time
not interfere with the pace of the
standard cinema version.”
—Lee Smith, editor
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226 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
In one experiment Kuleshov intercut neutral shots of an actor’s face with other
shots. When the face was intercut with a bowl of soup, viewers reportedly said the
man looked hungry. When the same facial shot was intercut with a dead woman,
he was taken to look mournful. Kuleshov claimed that the editing made viewers
assume that the actor’s expression changed, so that the cutting actually created
the performance. In addition, the editing pattern strongly suggested the man was
reacting to nearby things that he could see. Similarly, Kuleshov cut together shots
of actors “looking at each other” but on Moscow streets miles apart, then meeting
and strolling together—and turning to look at the White House in Washington.
Many filmmakers had already discovered this editing tactic, but because
Kuleshov called attention to it, film historians called it the Kuleshov effect. In
general, that term refers to cutting together portions of a space in a way that
prompts the spectator to assume a spatial whole that isn’t shown onscreen. Most
often, this happens because the filmmaker has decided to withhold an establishing
shot. This strategy is also called constructive editing, as opposed to the analytical
editing that breaks an establishing shot into closer views.
The Kuleshov effect has both practical and artistic advantages. For a hospital
scene in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh did not have to spend time and money
shooting an entire emergency room. He suggests the locale with simple close shots
of the husband staring as his wife goes into convulsions (6.34, 6.35). We never see
the faces of the medical staff, and we don’t even see the actors together in the frame.
The artistic benefit of Soderbergh’s creative choice carries us quickly to the heart
of the crisis facing the couple.
Once you start to watch for the Kuleshov effect, you’ll find that it’s quite
common. Sometimes it’s used to create almost impossible feats. In Corey Yuen
Kwai’s Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, a martial-arts bout between the hero and an adept
woman begins on a platform but then bursts into their audience. The two warriors
fight while balancing on the heads and shoulders of people in the crowd. Most of
the shots are rapidly edited and rely on the Kuleshov effect (6.36, 6.37).
More radically, the editing can present spatial relations as being ambiguous
and uncertain. In Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, for instance, we know
only that Jeanne and the priests are in the same room. Because the neutral white
backgrounds and the numerous close-ups provide no orientation to the entire space,
we can seldom tell how far apart the characters are or precisely who is beside whom.
We’ll see later how films can create even more extreme spatial discontinuities.
The viewer doesn’t normally notice the Kuleshov effect, but a few films call
attention to it. Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid mixes shots filmed in the
present with shots from Hollywood movies of the 1940s. Thanks to the Kuleshov effect,
Dead Men creates unified scenes in which Steve Martin converses with characters
from other films. In A Movie, experimentalist Bruce Conner turns the Kuleshov effect
into a visual joke by linking shots scavenged from very different sources (6.38, 6.39).
Temporal Relations between Shot A and Shot B
Like other film techniques, editing can control the time of the action presented
in the film. In a narrative film especially, editing usually contributes to the plot’s
manipulation of story time. Back in Chapter 3 we pointed out three areas in which plot
time can cue the spectator to construct the story time: order, duration, and frequency.
Our Birds example (6.5–6.8) shows how editing reinforces all three areas of control.
Editing Shapes Chronology First, there is the order of presentation of
events. The men talk, then Melanie turns away, then she sees the gull swoop, then
she responds. Hitchcock’s editing presents these story events in the 1-2-3-4 order
of his shots. But he could have shuffled the shots into any order at all, even reverse
(4-3-2-1). This is to say that the filmmaker may control story chronology through
the editing.
For more on the Kuleshov effect
in both older and more recent
films, see “What happens between
shots happens between your
ears.” We also have a video
lecture on the subject, linked in
“News! A video essay on construc-
tive editing.”
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Dimensions of Film Editing 227
Controlling chronology can affect story–plot relations. We are most familiar
with such manipulations in flashbacks, which present one or more shots out of their
presumed story order. In Hiroshima mon amour, Resnais uses the protagonist’s
memory to motivate a violation of 1-2-3 order. Three shots (6.40–6.42) suggest
visually that the position of her current lover’s hand triggers a recollection of
another lover’s death years before. In contemporary cinema, brief flashbacks to key
events may brutally interrupt present-time action. The Fugitive uses this technique
to return obsessively to the murder of Dr. Kimble’s wife, the event that initiated the
story’s action.
A much rarer option for reordering story events is the flashforward. Here the
editing moves from the present to a future event and then returns to the present.
A small-scale instance occurs in The Godfather. Don Vito Corleone talks with his
sons Tom and Sonny about their upcoming meeting with Sollozzo, the gangster
who is asking them to finance his narcotics traffic. As the Corleones talk, shots of
their conversation in the present are interspersed with shots of Sollozzo going to the
6.34 6.35
6.36 6.37
6.38 6.39
6.34–6.39 The Kuleshov effect
enhances drama, stunts, and
jokes. In Contagion, a husband (6.34)
watches his wife dying (6.35), with
no wide view establishing the ER. In
The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, a shot
of the woman’s upper body (6.36) is
followed by a shot of her legs and feet,
suppor ted by unwilling bystanders
(6.37). In production, shots of the feet
were made while the combatants were
suspended above the crowd. The
upper-body shots were filmed while
the actors stood on some suppor t
below the frameline. In the found-
footage film A Movie, one sequence
cuts from a submarine captain peering
through a periscope (6.38) to a woman
gazing at the camera, as if they could
see each other (6.39).
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228 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
meeting in the future (6.43–6.45). The editing is used to provide exposition about
Sollozzo while also moving quickly to the Don’s announcement, at the gangsters’
meeting, that he will not involve the family in the drug trade.
Filmmakers may use flashforwards to tease the viewer with glimpses of the
eventual outcome of the story action. The end of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
is hinted at in brief shots that periodically interrupt scenes in the present. Such
flashforwards create a sense of a narration with a powerful range of story knowledge.
Editing Condenses or Expands Duration Filmmakers almost always
present their shots in chronological order, but they are more likely to use editing
to alter the duration of story events. Elliptical editing presents an action in such a
way that it consumes less time on the screen than it does in the story. The filmmaker
can create an ellipsis in three principal ways.
I saw Toto the Hero, the first film
of the Belgian ex-circus clown Jaco
van Dormael. What a brilliant debut.
He tells the story with the camera.
His compression and ellipses and
clever visual transitions make it one
of the most cinematic movies in a
long time. The story spans a lifetime
and kaleidoscopic events with such
a lightness and grace that you want
to get up and cheer.”
—John Boorman, director
6.40–6.42 Editing creates a flashback. In Hiroshima mon amour, an optical point-of-view shot shows the protagonist’s Japanese
lover asleep (6.40). This is followed by a shot of her looking at him (6.41) and then a jump back into her past: a similar view of the hand of
her dead German lover (6.42).
6.40 6.41 6.42
6.43 6.44
6.43–6.45 Editing creates a flashforward. In The Godfather, the
Corleones discuss their upcoming meeting with Sollozzo (6.43). Jump
ahead in time: Sollozzo arrives at the meeting, greeted by Sonny
(6.44). The next few shots return us to the family conversation, where
Don Vito ponders what he will tell Sollozzo (6.45). As they talk, more
flashforwards to the meeting are inserted.
6.40 6.42
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Dimensions of Film Editing 229
Suppose you want to show a man climbing a flight of stairs but you don’t want
to show every second of his climb. You could simply cut from a shot of him starting
up the stairs to a shot of him reaching the top. If you feel that’s a little too bumpy
for your viewer, you could use a dissolve or some other punctuation that signals that
some time has been omitted. This was a common option in world cinema before the
1960s. Devices like dissolves, fades, and wipes conventionally signaled an ellipsis
in the action.
Alternatively, you could show the man at the bottom of the staircase, let him
walk up out of the frame, hold briefly on the empty frame, then cut to an empty
frame of the top of the stairs and let the man enter the frame. The empty frames on
either side of the cut cover the elided time.
As a third option, you could create an ellipsis by means of a cutaway or insert.
This is a shot of another event elsewhere that will not last as long as the elided
action. In our example, you might start with the man climbing but then cut away to
a woman in her apartment. You could then cut back to the man much farther along
in his climb.
If you start to watch for them, you’ll see that ellipses are fairly common
in editing. Less common are shot-changes that expand story time. If the action
from the end of one shot is partly repeated at the beginning of the next, we have
overlapping editing. This prolongs the action, stretching it out past its story
duration. The Russian filmmakers of the 1920s made frequent use of temporal
expansion through overlapping editing, and no one mastered it more thoroughly
than Sergei Eisenstein. In Strike, when factory workers bowl over a foreman with
a large wheel hanging from a crane, two shots expand the action (6.46–6.48). In
October, Eisenstein overlaps several shots of rising bridges in order to stress the
significance of the moment.
Editing Can Repeat Story Actions We’re accustomed to seeing a scene
present action only once. Occasionally, however, a filmmaker may go beyond
expanding an action to repeat it in its entirety. The very rarity of this technique may
make it a powerful editing resource. In Bruce Conner’s Report, there is a newsreel
shot of John and Jacqueline Kennedy riding a limousine down a Dallas street.
The shot is systematically repeated, in part or in whole, over and over, building
up tension as the event seems to move by tiny increments closer to the inevitable
assassination. Occasionally in Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee cuts together two
takes of the same action, as when we twice see a garbage can fly through the air
and break the pizzeria window at the start of the riot. Jackie Chan often shows his
most virtuoso stunts three or four times in a row from different angles to allow the
audience to marvel at his daring (6.49–6.51).
[In editing James Bond films],
we also evolved a technique
that jumped continuity by simple
editing devices. Bond would take
a half-step towards a door and
you would pick him up stepping
into the next scene. We also used
inserts cleverly to speed up a
—John Glen, editor and director
Sit in on an editing session for
Johnnie To’s The Mad Detective
and see why certain cuts
were chosen in “Truly madly
6.46 6.47 6.48
6.46–6.48 Expanding duration through cutting. In Strike, a wheel swings toward the foreman (6.46). From another angle we see it
swing toward him again (6.47), and then again before striking him (6.48).
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230 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Graphics, rhythm, space, and time are at the service of the filmmaker through
the technique of editing. They offer potentially unlimited creative possibilities,
which is to say they offer a vast menu of choices. Yet most films we see make use
of a particular set of editing possibilities. This menu of choices is called continuity
editing, and it has dominated film history for nearly a hundred years. We look at
that next. Still, the most familiar way to edit a film isn’t the only way to edit a film,
and so we’ll go on to consider some alternatives to this tradition.
Continuity Editing
Around 1900–1910, as filmmakers started to explore editing, they tried to arrange
their shots so as to tell a story clearly. They developed an approach to editing,
supported by specific strategies of cinematography and mise-en-scene, that was
based on narrative continuity. Their explorations coalesced into a consistent style
at the end of the 1910s, and it was embraced by filmmakers around the world. If
you want to become a director, a cinematographer, a performer, or an editor, you
will need an intimate understanding of continuity editing.
We’ve seen that when a film technique is chosen and patterned to fulfill
certain functions, a style emerges. Continuity editing offers a good example. It’s
a patterned use of a technique, based on filmmakers’ decisions, that’s designed to
have particular effects on viewers. As its name implies, the continuity style aims
to transmit narrative information smoothly and clearly over a series of shots. This
makes the editing play a role in narration, the moment-by-moment flow of story
All the dimensions of editing play a role in the continuity style. First, filmmakers
usually keep graphic qualities roughly continuous from shot to shot. The figures
are balanced and symmetrically deployed in the frame; the overall lighting tonality
remains constant; the action occupies the central zones of the screen.
Second, filmmakers usually adjust the rhythm of the cutting to the scale of the
shots. Long shots are left on the screen longer than medium shots, and medium
shots are left on longer than close-ups. This gives the spectator more time to take
in the broader views, which contain more details. By contrast, scenes of accelerated
editing like the fire in The Birds favor closer views that can be absorbed quickly.
We discuss the emergence of
continuity editing in many entries,
particularly “John Ford, silent
man,” “Back to the vaults, and over
the edge,” and “Looking different
today?” A young filmmaker’s
multiscreen study of early edit-
ing is discussed in “A variation on
a sunbeam: Exploring a Griffith
Biograph film.”
Sometimes a simple cut straight in
can be very powerful. We discuss
these “axial cuts” (that is, cuts
along the lens axis) in “Kurosawa’s
early spring” and “Sometimes two
shots. . . .”
6.49–6.51 Editing and the replay. In Police Story, chasing
the gangsters through a shopping mall, Jackie Chan leaps onto
a pole several stories above them (6.49). He slides down in a
shower of exploding lights (6.50). Cut to a new angle: Jackie
leaps again, leading to an instant replay of the risky stunt (6.51).
While the Strike sequence (6.46–6.48) briefly repeats bits of
an action to extend a moment, this sequence from Police Story
plays out an entire action several times.
6.49 6.50
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Continuity Editing 231
Above all, since the continuity style seeks to present a story clearly and force-
fully, the filmmakers’ editing choices shape space and time in particular ways.
Spatial Continuity: The 180° System
When working in the continuity style, the filmmaker builds the scene’s space around
what is called the axis of action, the center line, or the 180° line. Any action—a
person walking, two people conversing, a car racing along a road—can be thought of
as occurring along a line or vector. This axis of action determines a half-circle, or 180°
area, where the camera can be placed to present the action. The filmmaker will plan,
stage, shoot, and edit the shots so as to maintain the axis of action from shot to shot.
The 180° system can be imagined as the bird’s-eye view in 6.52. A girl and a
boy are talking. The axis of action is the imaginary line connecting them. Under
the continuity system, the director would arrange the mise-en-scene and camera
placement so as to establish and sustain this line. A typical series of shots for
continuity editing of the scene would be these:
1. A medium shot of the girl and the boy in profile.
2. A shot over the girl’s shoulder, favoring the boy.
3. A shot over the boy’s shoulder, favoring the girl.
So far, so simple. But the choices are limited. To cut to a shot from camera
position X, or from any position within the tinted area, would be considered
a violation of the system because it crosses the axis of action. Indeed, some
handbooks of film directing call shot X flatly wrong. To see why, we need to
examine what happens when a filmmaker follows the 180° system.
The 180° system ensures that relative positions in the frame remain consistent.
In the shots taken from camera positions 1, 2, and 3, the characters occupy the same
areas of the frame relative to each other. Even though we see them from different
angles, the girl is always on the left and the boy is always on the right. But if we
6.52 A conversation scene and the axis of action.
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232 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
cut to shot X, the characters will switch positions in the frame. An advocate of
traditional continuity would claim that shot X confuses us: Have the two characters
somehow swiveled around each other?
The 180° system ensures consistent eyelines. If maintaining the axis of action
keeps the figures facing in consistent directions, that has implications for the
characters’ gazes. In shots 1, 2, and 3, the girl is looking right and the boy is looking
left. Shot X violates this pattern by making the girl look to the left.
The 180° system ensures consistent screen direction. Now imagine that the girl
is walking left to right; her path constitutes the axis of action. As long as our shots
do not cross this axis, cutting them together will keep the screen direction of the
girl’s movement constant, from left to right. But if we cross the axis and film a shot
from the other side, the girl will now appear on the screen as moving from right to
left. Such a cut could be disorienting.
Visualize a standard scene of two cowboys meeting for a shootout on a town
street (6.53). Cowboy A and cowboy B form the 180° line. But here A is walking
from left to right and B is approaching from right to left, both seen in the shot
taken from camera position 1. A closer view, from camera position 2, shows B still
moving from right to left. A third shot, from camera position 3, shows A walking,
as he had been in the first shot, from left to right.
Now imagine that the third shot was instead taken from position X, on the
opposite side of the line. A is now seen as moving from right to left. Has he lost
his nerve and turned around while the second shot, of B, was on the screen? The
filmmakers may want us to think that he is still walking toward his adversary, but
the change in screen directions could make us think just the opposite. A cut to a
shot taken from any point in the colored area would create this change in direction.
Such breaks in continuity can be confusing.
I saw David Lynch and asked
him: ‘What’s this about crossing the
axis?’ And he burst out laughing
and said, ‘That always gets me.’
And I asked if you could do it,
and he gave me this startled look
and said, ‘Stephen, you can do
anything. You’re a director.’ Then
he paused and said, ‘But it doesn’t
cut together.’”
—Stephen King, novelist, on directing
his first film, Maximum Overdrive
6.53 A Western shootout and the axis of action.
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Continuity Editing 233
It would be even more disorienting to cross the line as the scene’s action is
starting. In our shootout, suppose we didn’t include an establishing shot but simply
started with shot X, showing cowboy A walking from right to left. Suppose we follow
that with shot 2, presenting B (from the other side of the line) also walking right to
left. The two cowboys would seem to be walking in the same direction, as if one were
following the other. We would very likely be startled if they suddenly came face to
face within the framing of setup 1. This suggests that the Kuleshov effect, which
omits an establishing shot, works best when it respects a consistent axis of action.
The 180° system prides itself on delineating space clearly. The viewer should
always know where the characters are in relation to one another and to the setting.
More important, the viewer always knows where he or she is with respect to the
story action. The space of the scene, clearly and unambiguously unfolded, does not
jar or disorient us. Most filmmakers believe that any disorientation will distract us
from the unfolding plot action. We can’t build up the story in our minds if we don’t
understand where characters are in space.
Continuity Editing in The Maltese Falcon
Thanks to the 180° principle, filmmakers have employed continuity editing to build
up a smoothly flowing space that presents narrative action crisply and clearly. Let’s
consider a concrete example: the opening of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.
Who’s There? Where Are They? The scene begins in the office of detective
Sam Spade. In the first two shots, this space is established in several ways. First, there
is the office window (shot 1a, 6.54). The camera tilts down to reveal Spade (shot 1b,
6.55) rolling a cigarette. As Spade says, “Yes, sweetheart?” shot 2 (6.56) appears.
This is important in several respects. It serves as an establishing shot, delin-
eating the overall space of the office: the door, the intervening area, the desk, and
Spade’s position. Huston hasn’t used a distant profile shot to establish the axis, as
in our shot 1 in 6.52. Nonetheless, shot 2 establishes a 180° line between Spade
and his secretary, Effie. Effie could be the girl in 6.52, and Spade could be the boy.
The first phase of this scene will be built around staying on the same side of this
180° line.
After Huston lays out the space for us in the first two shots, he analyzes it.
Shots  3 (6.57) and 4 (6.58) show Effie and Spade talking. Because the 180° line
established at the outset is obeyed (each shot presents the two from the same side),
we know their location and spatial relationships. In cutting together medium shots
of Effie and Spade, however, Huston relies on two other common tactics within the
180° system.
The first tactic is the shot/reverse-shot pattern. Once the 180° line has been
established, we can show first one end point of the line, then the other. Here we cut
back and forth from Effie to Spade.
A reverse shot is not literally the reverse of the first framing. It’s simply a
shot of the opposite end of the axis of action, usually showing a three-quarters
How do you edit a simple action
like entering a room? We survey
some options in “Come in and sit
down” and “Alignment, allegiance,
and murder.”
6.54 The Maltese Falcon: shot 1a 6.55 The Maltese Falcon: shot 1b 6.56 The Maltese Falcon: shot 2
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234 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
view of the subject. In our bird’s-eye view diagram (6.52), shots 2 and 3 form a
shot/reverse-shot pattern, as 6.55 and 6.56 do here. We’ve seen examples of shot/
reverse-shot cutting earlier in this chapter (6.17; 6.19, 6.20; and 6.34, 6.35).
The second tactic Huston uses here is the eyeline match. This occurs when
shot A presents someone looking at something offscreen and shot B shows us what
is being looked at. In neither shot are both looker and object present. In the Maltese
Falcon opening, the cut from the shot of Effie (shot 3, 6.57) to the shot of Spade
at his desk (shot 4, 6.58) is an eyeline match. The shots from The Birds of Melanie
watching the bird attack and fire also create eyeline matches. So do the examples in
which editing balances frame compositions (6.17, 6.18 and 6.19, 6.20).
Note that shot/reverse-shot editing need not employ eyeline matches. You
could film both ends of the axis in a shot/reverse-shot pattern without showing
both characters looking at each other. (In 6.58, Spade isn’t looking at Effie.) On the
whole, however, most shot/reverse-shot cuts also utilize the eyeline match.
The eyeline match is a simple idea but a powerful one, since the directional
quality of the eyeline creates a strong spatial continuity. To be looked at, an object
must be near the looker. As you’d expect, the eyeline match plays an important
role in constructive editing. The E.R. scene of Contagion (6.34, 6.35) makes sense
partly because of the husband’s shocked stare as he watches his wife’s convulsions.
In Kuleshov’s experiments, the expressionless actor was typically looking at some-
thing offscreen. When the next shot revealed the bowl of soup or the White House,
the viewer would assume that it was nearby and the actor was reacting to it.
Within the 180° system, the eyeline match, like constant screen direction,
can stabilize space. Note how in shot 3, Effie’s glance off right confirms Spade’s
position even though he is not onscreen. And though Spade does not look up after
the cut to shot 4, the camera position remains on the same side of the axis of action
(indeed, the position is virtually identical to that in shot 1b). We know that Effie is
offscreen left. The breakdown of the scene’s space is consistent. Thanks to the shot/
reverse-shot pattern and the eyeline match, we understand the characters’ locations
even when they aren’t in the same frame.
As we’d expect, the purpose is to make the shots clarify the cause-effect flow
of the narrative. Shot 1 has suggested the locale and emphasized the protagonist
by linking him to the window sign. The noise of the door and Spade’s “Yes, sweet-
heart?” motivate the cut to shot 2. This establishing shot firmly anchors shot 1
spatially. It also introduces the source of the offscreen sound—the new character,
Effie. The shot changes at precisely the moment when Effie enters, so we’re unlike-
ly to notice the cut. Our expectations lead us to want to see what happens next.
Shots 3 and 4 present the conversation between Spade and Effie, and the shot/
reverse shot and the eyeline match reassure us as to the characters’ locations. We
may not even notice the cutting, since the style works to emphasize what Effie
says and how Spade reacts. In shot 5, the overall view of the office is presented
again, precisely at the moment when a new character enters the scene, and this in
turn situates her firmly in the space. By adhering to the 180° system, Huston has
emphasized the most important narrative elements—the dialogue and the entrance
of new characters. The editing subordinates space to the flow of story action.
The Client’s Case: Developing the Spatial Layout The overall coher-
ence of the space we see is reaffirmed in shot 5, which presents the same framing as
we saw in shot 2. The office is shown again (shot 5a, 6.59), when the new character,
Brigid O’Shaughnessy, enters. Spade stands to greet her, and the camera reframes
his movement by a slight tilt upward (shot 5b, 6.60). Shot 5 is a reestablishing
shot, since it reestablishes the overall space that was analyzed into shots 3 and 4.
The pattern, then, has been establishment/breakdown/reestablishment—one of the
most common patterns of spatial editing in the classical continuity style. This is
analytical editing, cutting that analyzes the space, as opposed to constructive edit-
ing, which builds up our sense of the space without an establishing shot.
For thoughts on the importance
of eyeline directions in a very dif-
ferent art form, see “The eyeline
match goes way, way back.”
6.57 The Maltese Falcon: shot 3
6.58 The Maltese Falcon: shot 4
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Continuity Editing 235
After Brigid has walked toward Spade in shot 5, shot 6 presents a reverse angle
on the two of them (shot 6a, 6.61). She sits down alongside his desk (shot 6b, 6.62).
Up to this point, the 180° line has run between Spade and the doorway. Now the
axis of action runs from Spade to the client’s chair by his desk. Once established,
this new line will not be violated.
A new tactic for ensuring spatial continuity has been introduced in this
passage—the match on action, a very powerful device. This is simply a matter of
carrying a single movement across a cut. As Brigid approaches Spade’s desk at the
end of shot 5 (6.60), her movement continues into the beginning of shot 6 (6.61).
Again, the 180° system aids in concealing the match, since it keeps screen direction
constant: Brigid moves from left to right in both shots. As you’d expect, the match
on action is a tool of narrative continuity. So powerful is our desire to follow the
action flowing across the cut that we ignore the cut itself.
Making a match on action requires skill. Given two shots of the same action,
the editor must decide at what point to interrupt it; choosing the wrong point can
make the cut bumpy. Moreover, if a piece of action isn’t filmed by two cameras
at once, it’s likely that the first shot, in which the movement starts, will be filmed
much earlier or later than the second. The risk of continuity errors—changes of
position, or lighting, or props—is considerable.
After the match on action, the rest of the Maltese Falcon scene uses the same
editing tactics we’ve already seen. When Brigid sits down, a new axis of action is
established (shot 6b, 6.62). This enables Huston to break down the space into closer
shots (shots 7–13, 6.63–6.69). All these shots use the shot/reverse-shot tactic: The
camera frames, at an oblique angle, one end point of the 180° line, then frames the
other. (Note the shoulders in the foreground of shots 7, 8, and 10—6.63, 6.64, and
6.66.) Here again, the editing of space presents the dialogue action simply and clearly.
Beginning with shot 12, Huston’s cuts also create eyeline matches. Spade looks
off left at Brigid (shot 12, 6.68). She looks off left as the door is heard opening
(shot 13, 6.69). Archer, just coming in, looks off right at them (shot 14, 6.70), and
they both look off at him (shot 15, 6.71). The 180° rule permits us always to know
who is looking at whom.
Huston could have played the entire conversation in one long take, remaining
with shot 6b (6.62). Why has he broken the conversation into seven shots? As with
the gas-station attack in The Birds, the cutting controls timing and emphasis. We’ll
look at Brigid or Spade at exactly the moment Huston wants us to. In a long take
and a more distant framing, Huston would have to channel our attention in other
ways, perhaps through staging or sound.
Furthermore, the shot/reverse-shot pattern stresses the development of Brigid’s
story and Spade’s reaction to it. As she gets into details, the cutting moves from over-
the-shoulder shots (6.63, 6.64) to framings that isolate Brigid (6.65 and 6.67) and even-
tually one that isolates Spade (6.68). These shots come at the point when Brigid, in an
artificially shy manner, tells her story, and the medium close-ups arouse our curiosity
Hong Kong combat scenes are
fine places to study precise
continuity editing. See our entries,
“Bond vs. Chan: Jackie shows how
it’s done” and “Planet Hong Kong:
The dragon dances.”
6.59 The Maltese Falcon: shot 5a
6.60 The Maltese Falcon: shot 5b
6.61 The Maltese Falcon: shot 6a 6.62 The Maltese Falcon: shot 6b
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236 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
about whether she’s telling the truth. The shot of Spade’s reaction (6.68) suggests that
he’s skeptical. The editing cooperates with framing and acting to focus our attention on
Brigid’s tale, to let us study her demeanor, and to hint at Spade’s response.
When Archer enters, the breakdown into close views stops for a moment, and
Huston reestablishes the locale. Archer is integrated into the action by a rightward
pan shot (shots 16a and 16b, 6.72 and 6.73). His path is consistent with the scene’s
first axis of action, that running between Spade and the doorway. Moreover, the
framing on him is similar to that used for Brigid’s entrance earlier. (Compare
shot 16b with 6a, figures 6.73 and 6.61.) Such repetitions allow the viewer to
concentrate on the new information, not the manner in which it is presented.
Now firmly established as part of the scene, Archer hitches himself up onto
Spade’s desk. His position puts him at Spade’s end of the axis of action (shot 17, 6.74).
During the rest of the scene, Huston’s editing analyzes this new set of relationships
without ever breaking the 180° line.
By maintaining spatial continuity, filmmakers draw the viewer into the active
process of understanding a scene. We assume that setting, character movement,
and character position will be consistent and coherent. We make inferences on the
basis of cues, so that when Brigid and Spade look off left, we infer that someone
is entering the room, and we expect to see a shot of that person. We also form
expectations about what shot will follow the one we’re seeing.
Shots showing characters’ reac-
tions are crucial to a film. We talk
about this in “They’re looking for
6.63 The Maltese Falcon: shot 7 6.64 The Maltese Falcon: shot 8 6.65 The Maltese Falcon: shot 9
6.66 The Maltese Falcon: shot 10 6.67 The Maltese Falcon: shot 11 6.68 The Maltese Falcon: shot 12
6.69 The Maltese Falcon: shot 13 6.70 The Maltese Falcon: shot 14 6.71 The Maltese Falcon: shot 15
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Continuity Editing 237
We do this without noticing all the things that we’ve analyzed. Throughout,
the shots present space to emphasize the cause-effect flow—the characters’
movements, words, and facial reactions. The editing has created spatial continuity
in order to present ongoing story action.
Continuity Editing: Some Fine Points
The continuity system, largely unchanged, remains in force today. Most narrative films
still draw on 180° principles (6.75, 6.76). But the system can be refined in various ways.
Characters in a Circle, Shifting the Axis If a director arranges several
characters in a circular pattern—say, sitting around a dinner table—then the axis
of action will probably run between the characters of greatest importance at the
moment. In 6.77 and 6.78, from Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, the important
dialogue is occurring between the two men, so we can cut to positions around Aunt
Elizabeth (in the foreground) to get consistent shot/reverse shots. When David
Huxley leaves the table, however, the new arrangement of characters creates a new
axis of action running between the two women (6.79, 6.80).
Both the Maltese Falcon and the Bringing Up Baby examples show that in the
course of a scene the 180° line may shift as the characters move around the setting.
In some cases, the filmmaker may create a new axis of action that allows the camera
to take up a position that would have crossed the line in an earlier phase of the scene.
Deleting the Establishing Shot The power of the axis of action and the
eyelines it can create is so great that the filmmaker may be able to eliminate an
establishing shot, thus relying on the Kuleshov effect. In Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta
Have It, Nola Darling holds a Thanksgiving dinner for her three male friends. Lee
The way [Howard] Hawks
constructs a continuity of space is
remarkable, and generally holds
you ‘inside’ it. There is no possible
way of escape, unless the film
decides to provide you with one.
My theory is that his films are
captivating because they build
a sense of continuity which is so
strong that it allows the complete
participation of the audience.”
—Slobodan Sijan, director
6.72 The Maltese Falcon: shot 16a 6.73 The Maltese Falcon: shot 16b 6.74 The Maltese Falcon: shot 17
6.75–6.76 Continuity editing in today’s cinema. A train conversation in Duncan Jones’ Source Code obeys the 180° system, with
eyeline matches and foreground shoulders confirming our position on one side of the axis. The arrangement is similar to the one we
show in 6.52, and to the staging and cutting in the Maltese Falcon scene.
6.75 6.76
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238 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
never presents a shot showing all four in the same frame. Instead, he uses medium
long shots including all the men (for example, 6.81), over-the-shoulder shot/reverse
shots among them (for example, 6.82), and eyeline-matched medium close-ups of
them. Nola is given her own medium close-ups (6.83).
Through eyelines and body orientations, Lee’s editing keeps the spatial rela-
tions completely consistent. For example, each man looks in a different direction
when addressing Nola (6.84–6.86). This cutting pattern enhances the dramatic
6.77–6.80 Continuity around the
dinner table. In Bringing Up Baby,
shot /reverse-shot cut ting puts the
distracted David Huxley on the right
(6.77) and Major Applegate on the left
(6.78). After David leaves the table,
a new axis is established along the
length of the table. This permits a shot/
reverse-shot exchange favoring first
Aunt Elizabeth (6.79) and then Susan
6.77 6.78
6.79 6.80
6.81 6.82 6.83
6.84 6.85 6.86
6.81–6.86 Around the table with constructive editing: She’s Gotta Have It. The first shot, more or less from Nola’s point of view,
lays out the men’s position at the table (6.81). Sometimes a momentary axis of action is established between the men (6.82). Nola is
never shown in the same frame with her suitors, but her eyelines always tell us whom she’s looking at (6.83). When the men look at her,
each one’s eyeline is consistent with their initial position at the table (6.84–6.85). In the last frame shown (6.86), we get an optical POV
from Nola’s position, as Greer addresses her directly. The scene develops without an establishing shot showing all four characters.
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Continuity Editing 239
action by making all the men equal competitors for her. They are clustered at one
end of the table, and none is shown in the same frame with her. By organizing the
scene around her orientation to the action Lee keeps Nola the pivotal character. The
men are on display, and Nola is coolly judging each one’s behavior.
Cheating with Cuts Another felicity in the 180° system is the cheat cut.
Sometimes a director may not have perfect continuity from shot to shot because
each shot was composed for specific reasons. Must the two shots match perfectly?
Again, narrative motivation decides the matter. If we’re paying attention to the
unfolding action and the 180° relations are kept reasonably constant, the director
has some freedom to “cheat” mise-en-scene from shot to shot—that is, to slightly
mismatch the positions of characters or objects.
Consider two shots from William Wyler’s Jezebel. Neither Julie nor Pres
moves during the shots, but Wyler has blatantly cheated the position of Julie (6.87,
6.88). Yet most viewers would not notice the discrepancy since it’s the dialogue that
is paramount in the scene. The shots are consistent with the axis of action, and the
change from a straight-on angle to a slightly high angle helps hide the cheat. There
is, in fact, a cheat in the Maltese Falcon scene, too, between shots 6b and 7. In 6b
(6.62), as Spade leans forward, the back of his chair is not near him. Yet in shot 7
(6.63), it has been cheated to be just behind his left arm. Here again, the narrative
flow overrides the cheat cut.
Crossing the Axis Most continuity-based filmmakers prefer not to cross the
axis of action. They would rather move the actors around the setting and create a
new axis, as we saw in The Maltese Falcon. Still, can you ever legitimately cut to
the other side of an established axis of action?
Yes, sometimes. A scene occurring in a doorway, on a staircase, or in other sym-
metrical settings may occasionally break the line. More often, filmmakers get across
the axis by taking one shot on the line itself and using it as a transition. This strategy
is rare in dialogue sequences, but it’s common in chase scenes. By filming on the
axis, the filmmaker presents the action as moving directly toward the camera (a head-
on shot) or away from it (a tail-on shot). The climactic chase of The Road Warrior
offers several examples. As marauding road gangs try to board a fleeing gasoline
truck, George Miller uses many head-on and tail-on shots of the vehicles (6.89–6.93).
Filmmakers occasionally violate screen direction without confusing the viewer.
They can do this most easily when a scene’s physical layout is very well defined.
During a chase in John Ford’s Stagecoach, no confusion arises when the Ringo Kid
leaps from the coach to the horses (6.94, 6.95). We aren’t likely to think that the
coach had swiveled to face in the opposite direction, as in the possible misinterpre-
tation of the two cowboys’ shootout (6.53).
Another refinement: What happens
if a reverse shot is withheld? We
show some examples and discuss
their functions in “Angles and
6.87–6.88 The cheat cut. In this shot from Jezebel, the top of Julie’s head is even with
Pres’s chin (6.87), but in the second shot (6.88) she seems to have grown.
6.87 6.88
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240 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
6.89 6.90
6.91 6.92
6.89–6.93 Crossing the axis of action. Near the climax of
the chase in The Road Warrior, Max is driving the tanker left to
right (6.89). In later shots he is still driving toward the right. An
attacking thug perched on the front of the truck turns and looks
off right in horror (6.90). The chieftain’s vehicle, moving right to
left, is coming toward them on a collision course (6.91). The crash
is shown in several quick shots facing head-on to the vehicles
(6.92). These head-on shots provide a transition to cross the axis,
so that a long shot can now show Max’s truck plowing through the
wreckage from right to left (6.93)—opposite to the direction we’ve
seen in earlier shots.
6.94 6.95
6.94–6.95 Breaking the axis successfully. In Stagecoach, in a long shot where all
movement is toward the right, the hero begins leaping from the driver’s seat down onto the
horse team (6.94). In the next shot both he and the coach are moving leftward (6.95).
On the Axis: The POV Shot There’s one more fine point with respect
to spatial continuity, and it’s especially relevant to a film’s narration. We have
already seen that a camera framing can strongly indicate a character’s optical
point of view, making the narration subjective. We saw this in our earlier example
from Fury (p. 192). That example presents a cut from the person looking (5.119)
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Continuity Editing 241
to what he sees (5.120). We have also seen an instance of POV cutting in the
Birds sequence (pp. 218–219). Now we’re in a position to see how optical POV
is consistent with continuity editing, creating the type of eyeline-match editing
known as point-of-view cutting.
Are You Looking at Me? Point-of-View Cutting in Rear Window
The eyeline match shows a person looking in one shot, followed by a shot show-
ing what the person sees. Most eyeline matches, however, don’t show the object
of the look from the person’s vantage point. When Effie looks at Sam Spade
(6.57, 6.58) or when Brigid looks off at Archer (6.69, 6.70), the followup shot
doesn’t represent the character’s point of view. By contrast, POV cutting gives us
an eyeline match that presents something as seen by the person looking. The shot
is more or less optically subjective. This option doesn’t violate the 180° system
because the subjective shot is taken from a position presumed to be right on the
axis of action.
Again Alfred Hitchcock provides clear examples. Rear Window is built on a
Peeping Tom situation. The photojournalist Jeff is laid up with a broken leg, so he
watches life across the courtyard behind his apartment. He starts to wonder if his
neighbor has murdered his wife, but he can’t go over to investigate. He’s confined
to whatever clues he can spot from his window.
Throughout the film Hitchcock uses a standard eyeline-match pattern, cutting
from a shot of Jeff looking (6.96) to a shot of what he sees (6.97). Since there is
no establishing shot that shows both Jeff and the opposite apartment, the Kuleshov
effect operates here: Our mind connects the two parts of space, as in our Birds POV
sequences. More specifically, the second shot represents Jeff’s optical viewpoint,
and this is filmed from a position on his end of the axis of action (6.98). The camera
has not crossed the line. Through POV editing, the narration restricts us to what
Jeff sees and hears.
6.98 POV and the axis of action. An overhead diagram of POV cutting in Rear Window. The second camera setup doesn’t cross the
axis of action.
6.96–6.97 POV cutting in Rear
Window. Jeff looks out his window
(6.96). The next shot shows what he
sees from his optical POV (6.97).
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242 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Hitchcock’s gradual enlargement of POV framings in Rear Window shows that
a filmmaker can tweak standardized editing patterns in fresh ways. But in other
respects the Rear Window scenes, like the gas-pump explosion in The Birds, are
traditional. For instance, both films present a POV pattern consisting of three shots.
We see a shot of the person looking, a shot of what’s looked at (seen from a subjec-
tive angle), and a return to a shot of the person looking. This ABA pattern anchors
the subjective shot in an objective framework and tells us clearly that someone is
seeing something.
But what if you delete the first shot in the trio, the shot of someone look-
ing? You can create a small surprise by concealing the fact that someone is being
watched. This was the choice made by Debra Granik in one scene in Winter’s Bone
(6.103–6.106). Note that even though we lack the usual first shot of Ree looking,
the POV shot remains on the 180° line, and the following cut to her remains con-
sistent with that.
For Halloween, John Carpenter selected a very unusual pattern of POV
cutting, one that has strong implications for narration in this slasher horror film
(6.107–6.110). He created an uncertainty: Does Laurie actually see Michael Myers
Hitchcock is so interested in exploiting subjective cutting that he varies the
POV shots as Rear Window goes on. Eager to solve the mystery, Jeff begins to use
binoculars and a photographic telephoto lens to magnify his view. By using shots
taken with lenses of different focal lengths, Hitchcock shows how each new optical
tool enlarges what Jeff can see (6.99–6.102). As the suspense grows, we get to see
more clues to a possible murder.
For more examples of point-of-
view editing and an analysis of
a scene, see “Three nights of a
6.99–6.102 Magnifying POV. When Jeff looks through his binoculars (6.99), we see a
telephoto POV shot of his neighbor (6.100). When he employs a powerful photographic lens
(6.101), the POV shot enlarges his neighbor’s activities even more (6.102).
6.99 6.100
6.101 6.102
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Continuity Editing 243
6.103–6.106 Retroactive POV. One scene in Winter’s Bone ends with a telephoto shot of Ree walking her sister and brother to school
(6.103). Cut to the sister in class, apparently seen from an objective standpoint (6.104). But soon she lifts her eyes to stare straight at the
camera (6.105). Another cut reveals that we’ve been seeing the girl through Ree’s eyes (6.106).
6.103 6.104
6.105 6.106
6.107–6.110 POV cutting for uncertainty. Laurie looks out her bedroom window (6.107). Cut to a shot, approximating her viewpoint,
of Michael Myers in his mask (6.108). This seems a conventional POV shot, and the return to Laurie (6.109) suggests the standard ABA
cutting pattern. But the next shot of the laundry line shows that Michael is now gone (6.110). It’s very unusual to conceal such a drastic
change in the POV area during a shot of the person looking. Did Laurie imagine that Michael was there? Or does he have the power to
vanish? But if he can disappear, why doesn’t she seem surprised?
6.107 6.108
6.109 6.110
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244 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
in the yard? Or is he a figment of her imagination? Or does the character have
the supernatural power to disappear? The uncertainty plays into the film’s larger
mystery about whether the indestructible Michael is indeed “the boogyman.” POV
cutting is a fairly standardized technique, but it still offers many creative choices to
the director inclined to experiment.
Within a particular scene, continuity editing allows the filmmaker to expand or con-
tract the viewer’s knowledge. As long as you respect the 180° line, you can show
us what your character is aware of, or you can cut to things that she or he doesn’t
notice (say, a doorknob turning mysteriously). But the continuity system allows you
to make your narration wide ranging. Editing can create omniscience, that godlike
awareness of things happening in many places. The most common editing strategy
here is crosscutting.
With crosscutting, the plot alternates shots of story events in one place with
shots of another event elsewhere. The technique was first developed by D. W.
Griffith in his last-minute rescues. In The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, a cavalry
troop is riding to save some settlers trapped in a cabin and battling the Indians
outside (6.111–6.114). Griffith alternates shots of the settlers, the Indians getting
closer to the cabin, and the troop hurrying to arrive in time.
Crosscutting introduces some spatial discontinuity by shuttling us from place
to place; but by giving us unrestricted knowledge of a situation, it can clarify con-
flict and build tension. In Jerry Maguire, crosscutting shows sports agent Jerry and
At its core, it’s really about
an investigation. . . . The first part
of the movie is introducing lead
characters Blomkvist and Salander;
they don’t meet immediately. The
first part is cross-cutting their
individual stories.”
—Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, editors of
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
6.111–6.114 Crosscutting for a last-minute rescue. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, Griffith
cuts from a shot of the cavalry (6.111) to a view inside the besieged cabin (6.112). He cuts back
to the cavalry (6.113) and then back to the cabin (6.114). The technique gives us an unrestricted
range of knowledge and summons up suspense: Will the rescuers arrive in time?
6.111 6.112
6.113 6.114
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Continuity Editing 245
his rival racing to phone the same clients (6.115–6.118). Without the crosscutting,
we wouldn’t know how the rival uses unscrupulous means to make Jerry fail. Fritz
Lang’s M is entirely built upon crosscutting. Police search for a child murderer,
gangsters prowl the streets looking for him, and we occasionally see the murderer
himself. The alternation builds up suspense while giving us a wider range of knowl-
edge than any character has. We know that the gangsters are after the killer, but the
police don’t.
In the typical crosscut sequence, the two or more lines of action are taking
place at the same time. But because of its power, the technique has been extended
to situations in which the action isn’t simultaneous. Sometimes filmmakers will
crosscut one line of action in the present with another in the past. Griffith pioneered
this idea in Intolerance. Here present-time story action is crosscut with stories tak-
ing place at other historical periods. He aimed to draw parallels between intolerance
in different eras, but he also created suspense at the film’s end by crosscutting four
separate climaxes.
The technique remains part of the filmmaker’s toolkit. Christopher Nolan
employs Griffith-style crosscutting to build suspense in the climactic bomb
sequence of The Dark Knight and the multilayered dreams of Inception, which
somewhat resembles Intolerance. Nolan crosscuts past and present story lines in
Memento and The Prestige.
We have learned the continuity style so well that we aren’t usually aware of
how it shapes our responses. Filmmakers know how familiar we are with it, and
they can alter it, as long as the variations don’t violate its basic principles. (See “A
Closer Look.”)
We analyze Inception’s use
of crosscutting in “Inception
revisited” and in our e-book,
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth
of Linkages.
6.115–6.118 Crosscutting for tension. Jerry is in a race to secure his clients’ loyalty before his arrogant rival gets to them. A shot of
Jerry seething (6.115) is followed by a cut to the rival and his assistant (6.116). As Jerry tries to reach his clients on the phone (6.117) we cut
to his rival doing the same (6.118).
6.115 6.116
6.117 6.118
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246 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Intensified Continuity: Unstoppable, L. A. Confidential,
and Contemporary Editing
By the 1930s, most of the world’s commercial filmmakers
had embraced the continuity editing system. But it under-
went changes over the years. Today’s editing practices
abide by the principles of continuity but amplify them
in certain ways. We can call this newer style intensified
A straightforward example comes from Unstoppable
(6.119–6.122). This scene obeys the 180° system,
but some of director Tony Scott’s choices wouldn’t
have been made by Huston in The Maltese Falcon or
Hitchcock in Rear Window. For one thing, the cutting
is very fast. The conversation, which takes 28 seconds,
is shown in 15 shots, an average of less than 2 seconds
per shot. At one point, a single line of dialogue is bro-
ken into 3 shots.
Between 1930 and 1960, a film typically consisted
of 300–800 shots. Things changed from the sixties
onward, and today a 2-hour film might contain 3,000
shots or more. (Unstoppable has over 3,200.) Hitchcock
could cut action scenes quickly, as we saw in The Birds’
gull attack, but his dialogue scenes were more slowly
paced. By contrast, intensified continuity cuts conversa-
tions quickly as well. “You always hear things like, ‘We
need to put more energy into this scene,’” says Tim
Streeto, editor of Greenberg. “That can translate into
quick editing, where you go back and forth between two
characters like a ping-pong match.”
Partly because filmmakers have chosen faster editing,
they tend to build their scenes out of fairly close views of
individual characters, rather than fuller, longer-held shots.
As we’ve seen, the viewer can absorb close views more
quickly than long shots. As filmmakers have concentrat-
ed more on faces, they have opted for fewer establishing
shots, and those may come late in the scene’s action
rather than near the start.
246 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
6.119–6.122 The persistence of classical continuity editing. In Unstoppable, two rail yard workers come to Connie, their supervisor,
and report that an unmanned train is running free. The scene is treated through conventional continuity, with an establishing shot (6.119),
reverse angles (6.120), eyeline matches (6.121), and over-the-shoulder framings (6.122). The axis of action is respected throughout, as is
the balancing between decentered reverse shot (see 6.19–6.20).
6.119 6.120
6.121 6.122
Now nobody trusts the actor’s performance. If an
actor has a scene where they are sitting in the distance,
everybody says, ‘What are you shooting? It has to be close-
up!’ This is ridiculous. You have the position of the hand, the
whole body—this is the feeling of a movie. I hate movies
where everybody has big close-ups all the time. . . . This is
television. I have talking heads on my television set in my
home all the time.”
—Miroslav Ondříček, cinematographer
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Continuity Editing 247
Moreover, many of the close shots are taken with
telephoto lenses. Nearly all the shots in the Unstoppable
scene are captured by long focal-length lenses, which
can create fairly tight framings (6.120, 6.121). Because
modern screen formats are wide, we may find two or
more facial close-ups filling the screen. We also find
more frame mobility. The Unstoppable scene includes
many reframings, a tracking shot, and no fewer than five
quick zooms.
These creative decisions create a faster, more con-
centrated version of classic continuity. We can analyze
this style in a bit more detail by examining a scene from
L. A. Confidential.
After arresting three black suspects, Lieutenant Ed
Exley prepares to bully a confession from them. The
scene takes less than a minute but employs nine
shots, two with significant camera movement. Director
Curtis Hanson shifts the emphasis among several key
characters by coordinating his editing with anamorphic
widescreen compositions, staging in depth, tight fram-
ings, rack-focus, and camera movement (6.123–6.134).
Interestingly, the actors make little expressive use of
their hands or bodies; the performances are almost com-
pletely facial.
The persistence of the continuity system may seem
surprising, since modern films may feel rougher-textured
than classic studio products. Mismatches on actions or
eyelines are a bit more common now, but they’re often
used as an accent within a series of correctly matched
cuts. A chase or a fight can be spiced up by a shift in
screen direction or a jerkily matched movement. As
Chris Lebenzon, an editor on Unstoppable, puts it: “In the
action world, sometimes what used to be called a ‘bad
cut’ is actually kind of a good one because it jars you in
a way that’s more appropriate to the scene.”
Why did this intensified form of continuity become
so common? It was encouraged by many factors,
including computer-based editing, but television was
a major influence. Since the 1950s, many television
directors favored close-ups, fast cutting, and consid-
erable camera movement. On small screens, closer
views look better than long shots, which tend to lose
detail. Rapid cutting and camera movement constantly
refresh the image and could keep the viewer from
switching channels. In the 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers
realized that the movies they were making for theaters
would find their ultimate audience on the home screen.
Accordingly, many directors “shot for the box.” Later
generations of directors, such as Ridley Scott and David
Fincher, began their careers in commercials and music
videos, so they were already adept in the quick pace of
modern television. Today intensified continuity is well
suited to being watched on laptop computers, tablets,
and smartphones.
Continuity Editing 247
6.123 Shot 1: The scene begins by presenting only a portion of the space, a suspect in
the interrogation room. A reflection shows Exley waiting and his colleagues milling about
outside the room. This image singles out the core dramatic action to come—Exley’s brutal
confrontation with the suspects.
After you’ve read about L. A. Confidential, you might visit
our blog entries on the Bourne trilogy: “Unsteadicam chron-
icles,” “[insert your favorite Bourne pun here],” and “I broke
everything new again.” The entry titled “Intensified continu-
ity revisited” compares a scene in The Shop Around the
Corner with the same one in the remake, You’ve Got Mail.
For thoughts on multiple-camera shooting and continuity,
see “Cutting remarks: On The Good German, classical style,
and the Police Tactical Unit.”
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248 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
6.124 Shot 2: A match on Exley’s
action of turning gives us a fuller view
of the policemen and establishes
two other main characters: Jack
Vincennes on the far left and Bud White
in the background, frontally placed
and watching. This is only a partial
establishing shot; a later camera
movement will specify the layout of the
interrogation rooms.
6.126 Shot 4: In an echo of the opening
framing, Exley now stands at the second
interrogation room, seen in another
ref lection. The shot also reiterates
Vincennes’s presence. He’ll provide an
important reaction later.
6.125 Shot 3: Hanson underscores
White’s presence by cut ting to a
telephoto shot of him saying that the
suspects killed his partner.
6.127 The camera tracks with Exley
moving right to study the suspect in
the third room. White’s reflection can
be seen in frame center. The camera
movement has linked the three main
detectives on the case while also
establishing the three rooms as being
side by side. At the end of the camera
movement, Exley turns, and . . .
248 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
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Continuity Editing 249
6.128 Shot 5: . . . a cut to two-shot
establishes his superior, Smith, on
the scene. As Smith explains that the
suspects’ shotguns put them at the
murder site, the camera racks focus to
him, putting Exley out of focus.
6.129 Shot 6: A cutaway to White
listening—again, a tight facial shot
taken with a telephoto lens—reminds
us of his presence. He is only an
observer in this phase of the scene,
but as the questioning heats up, he will
burst in to attack a suspect.
6.130 Shot 7: Returning to the two-
shot shows Smith demanding that
Exley make the men confess.
6.131 Shot 8: A reverse angle on Exley,
the first shot in the scene devoted
to his face alone, underscores his
determination: “Oh, I’ll break them, sir.”
Continuity Editing 249
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250 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
A C L O S E R L O O K Continued
6.132 Shot 9a: A cut back to the two-shot supplies Smith’s satisfied reaction.
6.133 Shot 9 continues: Exley turns away. The lens shifts focus to catch his grim face in the
foreground, preparing us for the brutality he will display.
6.134 Shot 9 continues as Exley walks out of frame, revealing with a rack-focus Vincennes’s
skeptical expression. The telephoto lens, supported by the rack-focus, has supplied facial views
of Smith, then Exley, and then Vincennes all in a single shot.
250 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
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Continuity Editing 251
Temporal Continuity: Order, Frequency,
and Duration
As we’ve seen in Chapter 3, in narrative form, the plot’s presentation of the story
action usually involves manipulating time. Continuity editing offers the filmmaker
many choices about presenting story time. Those options involve the dimensions
we’ve already charted: order, frequency, and duration.
Order and Frequency Continuity editing typically presents the story events
in a 1-2-3 order. Spade rolls a cigarette in one shot, Effie enters in another shot,
and so on. The most common violation of 1-2-3 order is a flashback, signaled by
a cut or dissolve. As for frequency, classical continuity editing also often presents
only once what happens once in the story. Within this tradition, it would be a gross
mistake for Huston to repeat the shot of, say, Brigid sitting down (6.60). So chrono-
logical sequence and one-for-one frequency are the standard methods of handling
order and frequency within the continuity style of editing. There are occasional
exceptions, as we saw in our examples from Hiroshima mon amour, The Godfather,
and Police Story (pp. 228–230).
Duration: Continuous or Elided Duration offers more unusual editing pos-
sibilities. In the classical continuity system, story duration is seldom expanded by
editing. Admittedly, overlapping cutting (p. 229) sometimes stretches out an action.
But usually duration is presented continuously (plot time and screen time equaling
story time) or is elided (story time being greater than plot time and screen time).
Dialogue scenes are the most common examples; they’re typically played out in
their story duration.
Let’s first consider temporal continuity, the most common possibility. Here a
scene occupying, say, five minutes in the story also occupies five minutes when
projected on the screen. We can pick out three ways to achieve temporal continuity,
all of them present in the first scene of The Maltese Falcon.
First, the narrative progression of the scene has no gaps. Every movement by
the characters and every line of dialogue are presented. Second, there’s the sound
track. Sound issuing from the story space (what is called diegetic sound) is a stan-
dard indicator of temporal continuity, especially when, as in this scene, the sound
bleeds over each cut. Third, there’s the match on action between shots 5 and 6. So
powerful is the match on action that it creates both spatial and temporal continuity.
The reason is obvious: If an action carries across the cut, we assume that the space
and time are continuous from shot to shot. Continuous story action, diegetic sound
overlapping the cuts, and matching on action are three primary indicators that the
duration of the scene is continuous.
The filmmaker may not want complete continuity of duration. Just as a nov-
elist sometimes condenses a scene to its high points, a filmmaker may want to
skip over some less important moments. That will demand editing that creates
temporal ellipsis. An ellipsis is something that has been omitted, and thanks
to cutting a filmmaker may skip over seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, or
centuries. Let’s say you want to show a character getting ready for work in the
morning. If you’re making a classically constructed film, you might reduce this
process to a few shots of the character going into the shower, putting on shoes,
and frying an egg. As we saw on p. 229, the classical approach to editing may
use empty frames, cutaways, or optical devices like dissolves to cover short
temporal ellipses.
Elliding time offers a good example of how cinematic conventions have
changed. In films made before the 1960s, dissolves, fades, or wipes were typically
used to indicate an ellipsis between shots, usually the end of one scene and the
beginning of the next. The Hollywood rule was that a dissolve indicates a brief time
lapse and a fade indicates a much longer one.
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252 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
Contemporary filmmakers usually employ a cut for such transitions. For exam-
ple, in 2001, Stanley Kubrick cuts directly from a bone spinning in the air to a space
station orbiting the earth, one of the boldest graphic matches in narrative cinema.
The cut eliminates millions of years of story time. Less drastically, most contempo-
rary films indicate the passage of time simply by direct cuts. Changes in lighting,
locale, or character position cue us that story time has passed (6.135–6.137).
The dissolve and fade have made a comeback in the age of digital video. For
one thing, editing programs provide them, along with many varieties of wipes, so
these optical effects are easy to incorporate. In addition, many online documenta-
ries employ dissolves in the older manner, to indicate a passage of time. When the
maker of a YouTube video wants to skip over the boring stretches of a cat fighting
with a paper bag, a gentle dissolve may do the trick.
Montage Sequences One form of ellipsis has persisted from the 1920s to the
present. Sometimes the filmmaker wants to show a large-scale process or a lengthy
period—a city waking up in the morning, a war, a child growing up. Here the film-
maker can pick another device from the menu: the montage sequence. (This should
not be confused with the concept of montage in Sergei Eisenstein’s film theory.) Brief
portions of a process, informative titles (for example, “1865” or “San Francisco”),
stereotyped images (such as the Eiffel Tower), newsreel footage, newspaper head-
lines, and the like can be joined by dissolves and music to create a quick, regular
rhythm and to compress a lengthy series of actions into a few moments.
American studio films of the 1930s established some montage clichés—
calendar pages fluttering away, newspaper presses pounding out an Extra—but in
the hands of deft editors, such sequences became small virtuoso pieces. The driv-
ing pace of gangster films like Scarface and The Roaring Twenties owes a lot to
dynamic montage sequences. Slavko Vorkapich, an experimental filmmaker, cre-
ated somewhat abstract, almost delirious summaries of wide-ranging actions such
as stock market crashes, political campaigns, and an opera singer’s career (6.138).
Montage sequences have been a mainstay of narrative filmmaking ever since.
Jaws employs a montage to summarize the start of tourist season through brief
shots of vacationers arriving at the beach. A montage sequence in Spider-Man
shows Peter Parker sketching his superhero costume, inspired by visions of the
girl he loves (6.139, 6.140). All these instances remind us that because montage
sequences usually lack dialogue, they tend to come wrapped in music. In Tootsie,
a song accompanies a series of magazine covers showing the hero’s rise to success
as a TV star.
As with space, the filmmaker who employs the continuity style uses cinematic
time primarily to advance the narrative. Like graphics, rhythm, and space, time is
organized to unfold cause and effect and arouse curiosity, suspense, and surprise.
In turn, we viewers who know the conventions pick up the cues and engage with
the ways in which time is presented. We expect the editing to present story events
in chronological order, with perhaps occasional rearrangement through flashbacks.
We expect that editing will usually respect the frequency of story events. If an
action is shown two or three times, it’s exceptionally important. And we assume
that the actions that don’t matter to story causality will be dropped or trimmed by
judicious ellipses. All these expectations allow the viewer to follow the story with
minimal effort.
But there are many alternatives to the continuity approach, and these are worth
a look.
Alternatives to Continuity Editing
Powerful and widespread as it is, the continuity tradition remains only one approach
to editing. As you’d expect, some filmmakers have explored other possibilities.
6.135–6.137 Elliptical cuts in
Wendy and Lucy. Arrested for
shoplifting, Wendy is worried about
having lef t her dog Luc y at the
supermarket. As she’s fingerprinted,
Wendy glances up, and an eyeline
match shows the clock (6.135). A cut
to the next shot shows Wendy in a
cell, indicating that some minutes
have elapsed (6.136). The clock shot
functioned as a cutaway to cover a
time gap. In the cell, another cut shows
Wendy in a different position (6.137).
This suggests that still more time has
passed. An older f ilm would have
implied the passage of time through
dissolves, but here the abrupt changes
of locale and charac ter position
suggest the same thing. A later shot
of the clock will show that Wendy has
been held for at least two hours.
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Alternatives to Continuity Editing 253
Graphic and Rhythmic Possibilities
Films using abstract or associational form have emphasized the graphic and rhyth-
mic dimensions of editing. Instead of joining shot 1 to shot 2 to present a story, you
could join them on the basis of purely graphic or rhythmic qualities, independent of
the time and space they represent. In films such as Anticipation of the Night, Scenes
from Under Childhood, and Western History, experimentalist Stan Brakhage uses
purely graphic means of joining shot to shot. Continuities and contrasts of light,
texture, and shape motivate the editing. Similarly, parts of Bruce Conner’s Cosmic
Ray, A Movie, and Report cut together newsreel footage, old film clips, film leader,
and black frames on the basis of graphic patterns of movement, direction, and
Many nonnarrative films have emphasized editing rhythm over the images
themselves. Single-frame films (in which each shot is only one frame long) are the
most extreme examples of this concentration on rhythm. Two famous examples are
Peter Kubelka’s Schwechater and Robert Breer’s Fist Fight (6.141). Other avant-
garde experiments coordinate editing rhythm with abstract graphics, as we’ll see
with Ballet mécanique in Chapter 10.
The graphic and rhythmic possibilities of editing haven’t been neglected in
narrative film, either. In Busby Berkeley’s elaborate dance numbers in 42nd Street,
Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Dames, the
story periodically grinds to a halt, and the film presents intricate choreography
that highlights geometrical configurations of dancers and background (4.158, from
6.138–6.140 Montage sequences old and new. Maytime
uses superimpositions (here, the singer, sheet music, and a
curtain rising) and rapid editing to summarize an opera singer’s
triumphs (6.138). Citizen Kane ironically refers to this passage in
the montage sequences showing Susan Alexander’s failures.
For a montage sequence in Spider-Man, CGI technique creates
a split image, showing both Peter’s expression and a close-up of
the costume he’s designing (6.139). The Spider-Man sequence
also uses a more traditional linking device, a dissolve that briefly
superimposes two shots (6.140).
6.139 6.140
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254 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
42nd Street). More complex is the graphic editing of Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s cutting
is often dictated by a much more precise graphic continuity than we find in the
classical continuity style. He playfully creates close graphic matches on movement,
position, and color (6.142–6.145).
Some silent filmmakers experimented with vigorous rhythmic cutting. In
such films as Abel Gance’s La Roue, Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle and La Glace
à trois faces, and Alexandre Volkoff’s Kean, accelerated editing renders the
tempo of an onrushing train, a whirling carousel, a racing automobile, and a
drunken dance. We can find strong passages of rhythmic editing in sound cinema
too, from 1930s films such as Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight and René
Clair’s Le Million to later films like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Terminator.
Pulsating rhythmic editing is prominent in films influenced by music videos,
such as Moulin Rouge.
Spatial and Temporal Discontinuity
How might you tell a story without adhering to the continuity rules? One option
is to use spatial continuity in ambiguous ways. In Mon Oncle d’Amérique, Alain
Resnais interrupts the stories of his three main characters with shots of each charac-
ter’s favorite movie star, taken from French films of the 1940s. In some scenes, the
cutting relies on continuity cues but uses them to create a discontinuity that arouses
some uncertainty in the viewer (6.146–6.148).
More drastically, a filmmaker may violate or ignore the 180° system. The edit-
ing choices of filmmakers Jacques Tati and Yasujiro Ozu are based on what we
might call 360° space. Instead of an axis of action that dictates that the camera be
Early Japanese swordplay movies
display some daring rhythmic edit-
ing, as we demonstrate in “Bando
on the run.” We find something
similar in Hong Kong action films.
See “Bond vs. Chan: Jackie shows
how it’s done” and “Planet Hong
Kong: The dragon dances.”
6.141 Single-frame filming. This
strip of film shows the one-frame shots
in Breer’s Fist Fight. Onscreen, they
create a pulsating f licker of barely
discernible images.
6.142–6.145 Graphic matching in narrative cinema. In An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu cuts
from one man drinking sake (6.142) to another in a very similar costume doing the same thing
(6.143). In Ohayo, Ozu creates a playful graphic match by cutting from a clothesline with a
bright red sweater in the upper left (6.144) to an interior with a red lampshade in the same
position (6.145).
6.142 6.143
6.144 6.145
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Alternatives to Continuity Editing 255
placed within an imaginary semicircle, these filmmakers work as if the action were
not a line but a point at the center of a circle and as if the camera could be placed
at any point on the circumference. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Play Time, and Traffic,
Tati systematically films from almost every side; edited together, the shots present
multiple spatial perspectives on a single event. Similarly, Ozu’s scenes construct
a 360° space that produces what the continuity style would consider grave editing
errors. Ozu’s films often do not yield consistent relative positions, eyeline matches,
and screen directions (6.149, 6.150).
Are such cuts confusing? Defenders of the standard continuity system would
say yes. But anyone who has seen films by Ozu or Tati can testify that their stories
don’t become unintelligible. These and other directors have found ways to keep the
plot developments clear while also recalibrating our perception of space and time.
Historically the continuity system offers one effective way to tell a story, but artisti-
cally, it isn’t a necessity.
Apart from breaking or ignoring the 180° system, there are two other major
tactics of discontinuity. One is the jump cut. This term is used in various ways but
one primary meaning is this: When you cut together two shots of the same subject,
if the shots differ only slightly in angle or composition, there will be a noticeable
If you have trouble spotting a jump
cut, you could check our entry,
“Sometimes a jump cut. . . .” The
martial-arts scenes discussed
there use the technique for a very
different purpose from the jump
cuts in 6.151–6.155.
6.146–6.148 Mixing continuity cues and discontinuity. At one point in Mon Oncle d’Amérique, René’s pesky office mate calls to him
(6.146). Resnais cuts to a shot of Jean Gabin (René’s favorite star) in an older film, turning in reverse shot (6.147), as if he were replying
to the man. Only then does Resnais supply a shot of René turning to meet his questioner (6.148). The film doesn’t definitely present the
Gabin shot as a fantasy image. We can’t tell whether René imagines himself as his favorite star, or whether the film’s narration draws the
comparison apart from René’s state of mind.
6.146 6.147 6.148
6.149–6.150 Ozu’s 360° editing system. One of the gravest sins in the classical continuity style is to match on action while breaking
the line, yet Ozu does this comfortably in Early Summer. He cuts on the grandfather’s gesture of drinking (6.149) to a view from the
opposite side (6.150).
6.149 6.150
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256 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
jump on the screen. Instead of appearing as two shots of the subject, the result looks
as if some frames have been cut out of a single shot (6.151, 6.152). Many filmmak-
ers believe that jump cuts can be avoided by shifting the camera at least 30 degrees
from shot to shot (the so-called 30° rule).
Even though jump cuts skip over some moments, they remain different from
more common elliptical cuts. We saw an instance earlier, in the shots showing
Wendy sitting in two positions on her cell bunk (6.136, 6.137). Those shots present
two very different angles on the subject. A jump cut, however, shows the action
from one angle or two very similar ones.
Jump cuts are quite noticeable and were long considered amateurish mistakes.
But audiences eventually accepted them, although not in the doses that Godard
supplied. Filmmakers now may use jump cuts in montage sequences and during
moments of surprise, violence, or psychological disturbance (6.153–6.155).
A second sort of continuity disruption is created by the nondiegetic insert.
Here the filmmaker cuts from the scene to a metaphorical or symbolic shot that
6.151–6.155 Jump cuts then and now. Jean-Luc Godard’s
Breathless used jump cuts freely. A cut from this shot of
Patricia (6.151) to the next one (6.152), creates a jarring effect,
as if some frames had been dropped. Montage sequences
may use jump cuts to suggest rapid change. In The Wolf of Wall
Street, jump-cut long shots evoke an almost magical growth
of the protagonist’s stock brokerage (6.153–6.155). A more
gradual process is suggested by the dissolves in the montage
sequences in Maytime and Spider-Man (6.138–6.140).
6.153 6.154
6.151 6.152
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Alternatives to Continuity Editing 257
doesn’t belong to the space and time of the narrative (6.156, 6.157). In Sergei
Eisenstein’s Strike, the massacre of workers is intercut with the slaughter of a bull.
In Godard’s La Chinoise, Henri tells an anecdote about ancient Egyptians, who
thought that “their language was the language of the gods.” As he says this (6.158),
Godard cuts in two close-ups of relics from the tomb of King Tutankhamen (6.159,
6.160). As nondiegetic inserts, coming from outside the story world, these prompt
the spectator to search for implicit meanings and ask if the relics corroborate what
Henri says.
There are still other alternatives to classical continuity, especially with respect
to time. Although the classical approach to order and frequency of story events
may seem the best option, it’s only the most familiar. Story events don’t have to be
edited in 1-2-3 order.
Modern audiences have become accustomed to scenes that are interrupted
by brief flashbacks. But some editing choices trigger greater uncertainty about
exactly when something is taking place. Resnais’s La Guerre est finie interrupts
scenes cut in conventional continuity by images that may represent flashbacks, or
fantasy episodes, or even future events. In Michael Haneke’s Caché after a shot of
a building, we see a boy looking out a window. This recalls the POV shots of Jeff
looking at his neighbors in Rear Window (6.96, 6.97, 6.99–6.102). But in Caché the
presumed chronological connection is revealed to be false (6.161, 6.162).
We’ve seen that editing can replay past scenes or Jackie Chan stunts (6.49–
6.51). But filmmakers can repeat events to more disruptive effect. In La Guerre
est finie, a future funeral is depicted in alternative ways, with the protagonist
either present or absent. The escape sequence in Godard’s Pierrot le fou not only
scrambles the order of the shots but also plays with frequency by repeating one
movement, Ferdinand jumping into the car (and showing it differently each time)
(6.163–6.166). These editing choices block our normal expectations about story
action and force us to concentrate on piecing together the film’s narrative.
6.156–6.160 Nondiegetic editing. In Lucy, Luc Besson interrupts a scene of the title character being lured into danger (6.156) with an
abstract shot of a mouse approaching a trap (6.157). A diegetic shot of Henri in La Chinoise (6.158) is followed by nondiegetic shots of the
lion bed of King Tutankhamen (6.159) and his golden mask (6.160). Do the relics corroborate or challenge what Henri says?
6.156 6.157
6.158 6.1606.159
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258 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
6.161–6.162 Ambiguous POV editing. Caché repeatedly shows a luxurious apartment building seen from across the street. After
one nighttime view (6.161), there is a two-second shot of a bloodied boy watching (6.162). Later we’ll learn that the editing has misled
us severely.
6.161 6.162
6.163–6.166 Juggling temporal order and frequency. In Pierrot le fou, Ferdinand jumps into the car as Marianne pulls away (6.163),
but the next shot flashes back to them fleeing their apartment (6.164). After they seem to have escaped (6.165), earlier phases of the
action are repeated, including Ferdinand’s jump into the car (6.166).
6.163 6.164
6.165 6.166
The editing may take liberties with story duration as well. Although complete
continuity and ellipsis are the most common ways of rendering duration, expansion—
stretching a moment out, making screen time greater than story time—remains
a distinct possibility. François Truffaut uses such expansions in Jules and Jim to
underscore narrative turning points, as when the heroine Catherine lifts her veil or
jumps off an embankment into a river.
Filmmakers have reworked some of the most basic tenets of the continuity
system. We’ve indicated, for example, that a match on action strongly suggests that
time continues across the cut. Yet Alain Resnais creates an impossible continuity
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Alternatives to Continuity Editing 259
of motion in Last Year at Marienbad (6.167, 6.168). The smooth match on action,
along with the woman’s graphically matched position in the frame, implies that
her head turns continuously, yet the change of setting contradicts this impression.
As we’ll see in Chapter 10, experimental films push ambiguous or contradictory
editing even further.
Over time, audiences can become accustomed to discontinuities in narrative
contexts. But with the jump cut, the nondiegetic insert, and the inconsistent
match on action, temporal dislocations can push away from traditional notions of
storytelling and create ambiguous relations among shots. These ambiguities needn’t
confuse us: they can stir our imaginations. Sergei Eisenstein’s classic October
provides many good examples.
Discontinuity Editing in October
For many Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, editing didn’t simply serve the narrative
progression, as in the continuity system that Kuleshov so much admired. Editing
could be a tool for organizing the entire form of the film. Eisenstein’s Strike,
Potemkin, October, and Old and New were all built on the basis of certain editing
devices—sometimes recruited to advance a plot, but at other times serving to
comment on the action and suggest implicit meanings.
Eisenstein understood the continuity system quite well, but he sought to go
beyond it. He believed that all sorts of clashes from shot to shot would prod the
spectator to engage more actively with the film. Discontinuities of space and time
could stir the spectator’s senses by creating a sharp impact. They could arouse
feelings, as viewers began to see the emotional connections among shots. And
certain kinds of discontinuities could spur the spectator to reflect on the themes
that Eisenstein sought to communicate.
No longer bound by conventional dramaturgy, Eisenstein’s films roam freely
through time and space. Crosscutting, eyeline cuts, and other devices of the
continuity system are pushed in new directions, plunging us into a realm that could
only exist on film. A short passage from October can illustrate how he uses editing
The sequence is the third one in the film (and comprises over 125 shots!). The
story action is simple. The Provisional Government has taken power in Russia
after the February Revolution, but instead of withdrawing from World War I, the
government has kept its troops on the front. This maneuver has left the Russian peo-
ple no better off than under the czar they deposed. In classical Hollywood cinema,
this story might have been shown through a montage sequence of newspaper
We visit some striking editing deci-
sions in “Some cuts I have known
and loved.”
6.167–6.168 The impossible match on action. In Last Year at Marienbad, small groups of guests are standing around the hotel
lobby. A medium shot frames a blonde woman beginning to turn away from the camera (6.167). In the middle of her turn, there is a cut to
her, still turning but in a different setting (6.168).
6.167 6.168
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260 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
6.169 6.170 6.171
6.172 6.173 6.174
6.169–6.175 War, government, and the home front in October. The sequence
begins with shots showing the Russian soldiers on the front casting down their rifles and
joining the German soldiers. Soon the former enemies are drinking and laughing together
(6.169). Eisenstein then cuts back to the Provisional Government, where a flunky extends a
document to an unseen ruler (6.170); this pledges the government to continue the war. The
soldiers’ fraternization is suddenly disrupted by a bombardment (6.171). The soldiers run
back to the trenches and huddle as dirt and bomb fragments rain down on them. Eisenstein
then cuts to a cannon being lowered off an assembly line by factory workers (6.172). For a
time, the narration crosscuts the descending cannon (6.173) with the soldiers (6.174). In the
last section of the sequence, the shots of the cannon are crosscut with hungry women and
children standing in breadlines in the snow (6.175). The sequence ends with two intertitles:
“All as before . . . ”/ “Hunger and war.”
headlines smoothly linked to a scene showing a protagonist complaining that the
Provisional Government has not solved people’s problems. October’s protagonist,
though, is not one person but the entire Russian people, and the film does not typi-
cally use dialogue scenes to present its story points. Rather, October seeks to go
beyond a straightforward presentation of story events by making the viewer active-
ly connect those events and reflect on their implications. So the film confronts us
with a disorienting and disjunctive set of images (6.169–6.175).
Not only does October lack an individual protagonist; this sequence exploits
spatial and temporal discontinuities. Although at times the 180° rule is respected
(especially in the shots of women and children), never does Eisenstein introduce
his situations with establishing shots. The major components of the locales are
seldom shown together in one shot. On the whole, constructive editing builds up
each line of action. (No surprise: Eisenstein studied under Kuleshov.)
The broader organizing principle of the sequence is crosscutting. Eisenstein
alternates images of battlefield and government, factory and street. In the
continuity system, crosscutting usually indicates that different actions are taking
place simultaneously. But October’s crosscutting doesn’t specify when the events
are occurring. The women and children are seen at night, but it’s daylight on the
military front. Do the battlefield events take place before or after or during the
women’s vigil? We can’t say. Eisenstein’s crosscutting is primarily emotional
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Alternatives to Continuity Editing 261
and conceptual. He’s less concerned with presenting a linear story than arousing
indignation at government policy and sympathy for its victims.
For example, to dramatize how the government prevents men meeting
peaceably, Eisenstein shatters the friendship of the soldiers with disruptive cuts
(6.176–6.181). The soldiers fraternize in fairly continuous duration, but the
Provisional Government’s behavior is given in drastic ellipses. This permits
Eisenstein to identify the government as the unseen cause of the bombardment that
ruptures the peace. This implication is reinforced by the way the first explosions are
followed by the jump cut of the government flunky (6.180–6.181). Ellipsis takes on
another role when the editing dramatizes the suffering of the women and children
waiting in line. Instead of a gradual wasting away, we get abrupt decline: First we
see them standing, then later lying pitiably on the ground.
Thinking like a filmmaker: How would you dramatize the idea that the
government oppresses its people? Eisenstein does it daringly, by creating a visual
metaphor. Once the government orders the bombardment of the front, the soldiers
are huddling under the barrage. This already suggests that the government, not
the German army, is the real enemy. Eisenstein takes things further by showing
men crushed by the war machine. Thanks to editing, shots of the cannon slowly
descending are contrasted with shots of the men crouching in the trenches (6.173,
6.174). The graphic clash of directions is reinforced by a false eyeline match. The
soldier looks upward, as if he could see the lowering cannon, even though he and
the cannon are in entirely separate places. By showing the factory workers lowering
the cannon (6.172), the cutting links the captive soldiers to the proletariat. Finally,
as the cannon hits the ground, Eisenstein crosscuts images of it with the shots of
the starving families of the soldiers and the workers. They, too, are oppressed,
literally pressed down, by the government machine. As the cannon wheels hit the
floor ponderously, Einstein cuts to the women’s feet in the snow. The machine’s
6.176–6.181 The government breaks the peace. Eisenstein cuts from a laughing German soldier facing right (6.176) to a
menacing eagle statue, facing left, at the government headquarters (6.177). A static shot of rifles thrust into the snow (6.178) cuts to
a long shot of a bursting shell (6.179). The impact is enhanced by a bold jump cut: The flunky is bowing (6.180), but suddenly he is
standing up (6.181).
6.176 6.177 6.178
6.179 6.180 6.181
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262 CHAPTER 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
heaviness is linked by titles (“one pound,” “half a pound”) to the steady starvation
of the women and children. Eisenstein’s editing discontinuities encourage us to
build up a political commentary on the story events.
Graphic discontinuities recur throughout October, especially in scenes of
dynamic action, and they hit our eyes more forcefully than neatly matched shots
would. To watch an Eisenstein film is to submit oneself to percussive graphic
editing. But that editing also gives us powerful images—friendly soldiers, faceless
bureaucrats, suffering women and children—that stir our emotions. By refusing to
focus on one protagonist, Eisenstein moves masses of people to the fore.
But he did not want to stop with mere sympathy. October tries to show the
underlying causes of the masses’ suffering more directly than the traditional
dramatic conflict between individualized heroes and villains could. Eisenstein’s
editing constructs correspondences, analogies, and contrasts that ask us to interpret
the story events. The interpretation is not simply handed to the viewer; rather, the
editing discontinuities push us to work out implicit meanings. By assembling the
shots in our minds, we grasp his idea that the new government is no different from
the old one and that ordinary people are sacrificed to a war machine.
No one was more aware of the multitude of creative decisions involved in
editing than Eisenstein. He saw that classical continuity would not achieve his
purposes. So he chose to make a film in which discontinuities of graphic elements,
time, and space could prod the spectator into sympathy and thought. In the process
he demonstrated that there are powerful alternatives to the principles of continuity
When any two shots are joined, we can ask several questions:
1. How are the shots graphically continuous or
2. What rhythmic relations are created?
3. Are the shots spatially continuous? If not, what
creates the discontinuity? (Crosscutting? Ambiguous
cues?) If the shots are spatially continuous, how
does the 180° system create the continuity?
4. Are the shots temporally continuous? If so, what
creates the continuity? (For example, matches on
action?) If not, what creates the discontinuity?
(Ellipsis? Overlapping cuts?)
More generally, we can ask the question we ask of
every film technique: How does this technique function
with respect to the film’s narrative form? Does the film
use editing to lay out the narrative space, time, and cause-
effect chain in the manner of classical continuity? How do
editing patterns emphasize facial expressions, dialogue,
or setting? Do editing patterns withhold narrative
information? In general, how does editing contribute to
the viewer’s experience of the film?
Some practical hints: You can learn to notice editing
in several ways. If you are having trouble noticing cuts,
try watching a film or video and tapping each time a
shot changes. Once you recognize editing easily, watch
any film with the sole purpose of observing one editing
aspect—say, the way space is presented, or the control of
graphics or time. Sensitize yourself to rhythmic editing
by noting cutting rates; tapping out the tempo of the cuts
can help.
Watching 1930s and 1940s American films can
introduce you to classical continuity style; try to predict
what shot will come next in a sequence. (You’ll be
surprised at how often you’re right.) When you watch a
film on video, try turning off the sound; editing patterns
become more apparent this way. When there’s a violation
of continuity, ask yourself whether it is accidental or
serves a purpose. When you see a film that does not obey
classical continuity principles, search for its unique editing
patterns. Use the slow-motion, freeze, and reverse controls
on a video player to analyze a film sequence as this chapter
has done. (Almost any film will do.) In such ways as these,
you can considerably increase your understanding of the
power of editing.
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C H A P T E R 7
Sound in the Cinema
You’re planning a scene that shows Jim phoning Amanda. As usual, you confront a choice.You can show both sides of the conversation, cutting between Jim and
Amanda as they exchange lines. (Many phone scenes are staged and filmed as if
they were shot/reverse shot conversations.) Or you could stage it in split-screen,
which would keep both Jim and Amanda visible for the whole dialogue. Either
option yields unrestricted narration, which is ideal if you want to reveal both char-
acters’ behavior in the conversation.
Alternatively, you could keep the camera on one character, say Jim, for
the entire scene. Instead of showing Amanda, you would simply let us hear her
responses. Showing only Jim would restrict us to his range of knowledge, and that
choice can add uncertainty and suspense. If we hear Amanda agree to the date, but
we don’t see her doing so, we might entertain some doubts about her interest or her
motives. And is she alone or with someone? As often happens, restricted narration
might yield some curiosity and suspense.
But there’s another option still. Suppose we don’t see or hear Amanda. We
hear only Jim’s side of the conversation, broken by pauses when he’s listening to
Amanda’s replies. Our narration has grown still more restrictive: We know less
than Jim knows. This option is often used for perfunctory actions, such as someone
phoning to order a cab. Applied to a more significant scene, it could oblige us to
listen more intently and imagine what’s happening on the
other end of the line (7.1).
Sound Decisions
We’ve seen at several points that film art offers both opportu-
nities and constraints. As a filmmaker, you face a rich array
of options. But you have to choose among them, and each
choice has different implications. Moreover, some decisions
create a cascade of further choices. If you show only Jim and
keep Amanda offscreen, you still have to decide whether to
let us hear her lines or not.
Filmmakers have to consider these options, either
intellectually or intuitively, because each alternative
affects the audience differently. Sound, like every other
technique, offers a plenitude of possibilities, but the film-
maker judges which ones to pursue, based on how they suit
the film’s overall form and how they shape the viewer’s
7.1 The telephone teaser. One way to handle a phone
conver sation: In Chungking Express, a young man dumped
by his girlfriend calls up other women he’s known, eventually
reaching those he hasn’t seen since grade school. We hear only
his clumsy efforts to remind them who he is. The comic effect
comes partly from imagining the puzzlement and annoyance
the women must be expressing.
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264 CHAPTER 7 Sound in the Cinema
As we saw in Chapter 1, in the process of film production, the sound track is
constructed separately from the images, and it can be manipulated independently.
This makes sound as flexible and wide-ranging as other techniques. Yet sound is
perhaps the hardest one to study.
It’s not because we’re bad at listening. Even before we’re born, we can dis-
tinguish voices. We differentiate male voices from female ones, and we recognize
Mother’s above all. Once we’ve grown, we exist in a continuous bath of sound. Just
as our stereoscopic vision helps us locate details in the visual world, our ears can
triangulate a sound’s location—particularly if it’s human speech, to which our audi-
tory system is very sensitive. At our peak of health, we can note volume differences
at a range of a trillion to one. We have, auditory scientists tell us, over 400,000
distinct sounds in our memory.
Yet unless we’re musicians or sound engineers, we’ve learned to ignore
most sounds in our environment. Our primary information about the color,
texture, and layout of our surroundings comes from sight, and so in ordinary
life, sound is often simply a background for our visual attention. Similarly, we
speak of watching a film and of being movie viewers or spectators—all terms
implying that the sound track is a secondary factor. We’re strongly inclined to
think of sound as simply an accompaniment to the real basis of cinema, the
moving images.
This inclination lets sound designers create a world without our noticing. On
the screen we may see merely an anxious face against a cloudy sky, but we may
hear a fierce wind, a police siren, and a child’s cry. Suddenly we conjure up a situ-
ation of danger. A low-budget horror film with awkward acting and unconvincing
special effects can stir an audience to shrieks with disgusting slurps, snaps, and
gurgles. “Sound is the biggest bang for your buck of anything in the movie busi-
ness,” says the manager of Skywalker Sound (7.2).
Fortunately, filmgoers have started to notice. Star Wars and other hits of
the 1970s introduced the broad public to new technologies of sound recording
and reproduction. Audiences came to expect Dolby noise reduction processes,
expanded frequency and dynamic range, and four- and six-track theater play-
back. During the early 1990s, digital sound became routine for big-budget
pictures, and now virtually all releases have crisp, dense sound tracks. “An
older film like Casablanca has an empty soundtrack compared with what we
do today,” remarks the supervising sound editor for Lost in Translation. Today’s
romantic comedy is as densely packed with sound effects as an action picture
was 20 years ago. Multiplex theaters upgraded their sound systems to meet film-
makers’ challenges, and the popularity of DVDs prompted consumers to set up
home theaters with ravishing sound.
Viewers’ new sensitivity to sound is apparent in the custom of starting a film’s
sound track with dialogue or sound effects, before the images appear. You can
argue that this device serves to quiet down the audience so that the opening scene
gets the proper attention, but often the sonic information draws us slowly into the
story. Many modern films lead us by the ear. Not since the first talkies of the late
1920s have filmgoers been so aware of what they hear.
The Powers of Sound
Sound is a powerful film technique for several reasons. For one thing, it engages
a distinct sense mode. Even before recorded sound was introduced in 1926, silent
films were accompanied by orchestra, organ, or piano. At a minimum, the music
filled in the silence and gave the spectator a more complete experience. More sig-
nificantly, the engagement of hearing opens the possibility of what the Soviet direc-
tor Sergei Eisenstein called “synchronization of senses”—making a single rhythm
or expressive quality bind together image and sound.
7.2 Sound summons up an unseen
space. Orson Welles had a radio
career before going to Hollywood, so
he understood the power of sound to
arouse the audience’s imagination.
At the s tar t of this scene from
The Magnificent Ambersons, Georgie
Minafer says good-bye to his Uncle
Jack, who’s about to board a train.
But there’s no establishing shot of the
station, not even a sign identif ying
it. We see the two men aga