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.