Cinematic storytelling

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by morten2020

This article is a boil down of a lecture I held a Nordic Multimedia Academy, as an introduction of the topic cinematic storytelling. Held in spring 2012.


Cinematic storytelling is the discipline of having stories come to life by using moving pictures with sound.

This is different to literature, radio, and presentations,where the story has to live by words.

In that way it is using  many “sister” disciplines, like graphic design, photography, art and music and so on. To really master this kind of language, a understanding of how the human mind works and how we process information is important.

The cinematographer need to work with the screenwriter and the director, but to be any of these an understanding of cinematic story telling is crucial.

Working with cinematic storytelling, to me, is to work in 3 levels:

  1. The story
  2. The tools
  3. The vocabulary

1. Our goal: to tell a story:

It is all about the story!  If the story is not engaging, everything else is just technical excersises.

Therefore the story must have a structure, plot, characters and conflicts, so we to keep the audience interested to the end. (We all know films where this has not been the case.)

The screenwriter is doing the script, and then it is our task to make it come alive cinematic.

To do this we must somehow answer the following questions:

Where does the story take place?
When is it happening? E.g. time period, time of the day, present vs. future or past.
Who are the hero, the villains, helpers and so on?
What actions are taking place?
Why? Every thing must happen out of a reason, if we don’t understand why, we will not be involved.

I think great cinematic storytelling is using as few words as possible.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot use “on-screen text”, but in the nature of the medium the visual and auditable part are the most interesting.

2. The tools:

The complexity of the many “channels” that are used to tell the story cinematic can be frightening.  At the same time that is what makes this medium so interesting to work with, and of course to watch.


(mis-en-scene- or what’s in front of the camera.)

Lights and color
Shapes, textures, graphic style


(behind the camera)Framing and composition
Lens/Depth of Field/focus

Editing and postproduction

Spatial, time, relational
Cut types
Clip order
Visual Effects
Color correction


Diegetic – sound from the films universe (on screen or off screen)
Dialogue, ambient, sound from objects, in film music

Meta diegetic (effects, symbolic, emotional)

Non diegetic
Voice over, narration
Sound effects


3. Vocabulary

This is the advanced part. It’s about the understandings that you need to have, to unfold the story.
In the end the story is being created in the minds of the audience. So we need to understand how they react to certain input, as it’s the input that we can control through the tools above.

Signs and symbols. (Semiotics) How the different objects and elements signify certain meanings and interpretations with the audience.

This will have an influence on what we decide to put in front of the camera. E.g. rain in a scene often signifies sadness.

Psychology. What are the basic human traits, that motivates our behavior. Including topics like emotions, motivations, ethics, fears, love, pride, power, sexuality, human archetypes and perception psychology.

Often our main characters are built on personality archetypes that will help us understand their motivations. E.g. the introvert intellectual (seen in Woody Allens films), the overworked policeman, the mad scientist, the underdog, the blonde bombshell, and so on.

Culture. Shared understandings, references, stories, values and so on, including sub cultural understanding.

Film history. We build on the films that have formed the medium, and set standards for our interpretations and expectations. Most film uses a filmic language that the audience has learned by watching enormous amount of films, or video or TV or commercials.


Concept Development

Posted on: May 25th, 2012 by morten2020

Concept elements

Getting ideas is like catching butterflies, hard to catch and very fragile. So to be good you need a degree of sensibility, but also a sense of methodology.

I will here try to give boil down on my views on developing great communication concepts. But let’s first look at what it is.

What is a concept?

Concepts are used in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it is about a distinct style, sometimes about the story, and sometimes the idea.

In my opinion a concept is:
“the creative solution to a communication problem”
Or in other words
How to convey the message

This solution includes:

visual style,
story or theme,
characters and
media mix

Developing concepts – The process

Idea generation can be divided in 3 steps

For starters getting ideas is about preparations.

1. Preparations

Collect as much information as possible, about the client the product the competitors and the target audience.

Do a creative brief, describing:

  • Purpose (Why are we doing this?)
  • Goals (What should we achieve? e.g. sales or branding)
  • Target audience
  • Main message
  • Tone and atmosphere (How should it look or sound like)
  • And a sum up of your research findings (Client id and values, product, competitors)

The more you know about this, the higher the probability that your idea will match the requirements.
The brief should help us in the development of the creative part.

2. Generation

We need to figure out:
What to say, where to say it, and in what form!
Main messages (Unique selling point- the single most persuasive thing we can say)
How to say it? (Story, ethos-logos-pathos, genre, references, characters, communicators)
Visual style (How should we look to be noticed and send the right signals)
Where to say it? (Media and format. E.g TV, print, web, environment…)

There are several brainstorming techniques, but for all the key to success, is be clear about what you are going to achieve. So do step 1!

I suggest starting with doing unsorted lists of answers to the following questions to clarify the main message: (If in a group, preferably on a white board, as every one can see it.)

What are our biggest assets? What do the target group like about our offer?
What are our biggest problems? What’s stopping them from buying?
How are we different?

When you have these lists, start developing your concept:
What should be our main message?
How can we say it?
Where should we say it?

“Brain” freely and keep at it for minimum 30. Minutes.

You cannot be critical of your ideas at this point of time – anything goes!

This sounds obvious but in my experience this is very hard.
This is the core of the butterfly analogy. This is the most fragile part. So be open and supportive.

Now its time to visualize your ideas, and develop the style.

Do this by doing sketches and mood boards!
I suggest real tangible hands on tools, like pencil and paper, but in the digital age, image and inspirations searches also help a lot.
Do many.
Show to others, get feed back from peers and users, and client.
Spend time on it.
If you could have at least one nights sleep, it will dramatically improve your ideas. Try prepping your self before you go to sleep. And then jot down ideas as first thing you do when you wake up.

3. Selection

By now you hopefully have a big selection of concept ideas. It’s time to decide which one to go for. This is where the logical and analytical part of your brain should make its appearance.

Evaluate your ideas on the following parameters:
Does it reach the target audience?
Is it fulfilling the strategy?
Is it different from the competition?
Does it answer “what’s in it for me”?
Is it visual compelling and up to date?
Does it communicate the USP?
Does have a clear visual hierarchy?

If yes, you have your concept! Congratulations.
Prepare the pitch! Go sell it to the client.

But, don’t forget:

4. Finalizing and clean up
Now, off to the hard work of producing the concept. Don’t under estimate this part. This is the time to focus on production quality. This is where detail counts, where all your design skills should come in handy.

Phew, that’s it. This sounds harder than it it. It is actually great fun.

If you have the time read the last section as well. It’s just some thoughts that I wanted to include somehow.

A few notes on mental attitude and other things to think about

First don’t stop with your first idea
Sketches and storyboards must be quick and easy to make, so you can do many. Start with the large brush strokes, and the gradually refine the variations, to cover more details.

Sleep on it
Your mind keeps working with the problem, also when you are not.

Keep a notebook
Try to always have a notebook at hand, to jot down ideas as the come.
They will disappear if you don’t.

“Now is Now”
You have to work with your personal assets as they are right now. Don’t wait till you know more, are more in the mood or have more inspiration.

Reload your guns
Schedule time for preparing for future tasks. You need and arsenal of inspirations and experiments for your next combat. Read books, look at other peoples work. Doodle, and experiment without goals. This will enable you to shoot when “Now is Now”.

Reference is king.
No one creates entirely from scratch. Do your mood boards or mood reels, by researching what others do. Then combine that, to create something new. (Link: Everything is a remix)

Listen to others
You will have blind angles with regard to your own work, use others the really see. Often this is very inspiring and it will lift your creative level.