The Art of Storytelling: FILM

This exercise is borrowed and adapted from Professor Mindi Bailey.

Whenever one ponders any kind of storytelling, it is important to think about not only the story itself (content: plot, setting, character) but also about how the story is being told and who is actually telling it. Ultimately, you can only understand the story if you understand the perspective from which it’s being told. But, as with life in general, we are easily swept away by the plot and characters and seldom bother to think about the actual point of view that is being voiced. In film, for example, many times the viewer will literally look through a particular character’s eyes, which in turn forges a psychological affinity with that particular character. This character/audience linkage then becomes a vehicle for the film to play with our minds. What is the difference between a story narrated from a first person point of view and a story told from a third person point of view? What’s the difference between a third person limited and a third person omniscient point of view? How close are we to the characters in each case? Think about the effect of a hero telling his own story as opposed to another person who witnessed the heroic deed telling the tale. We’ll be looking at specific instances where this happens in film and will then be discussing what effect this has on our viewing of the film.

What are we talking about when we speak of film as art? Before you can answer that question, you must first answer another difficult question: What is art?

If art is a creative expression intentionally designed/composed to emote a response from the viewer, then many films might indeed be considered art. But film is a unique art form. Who is the author of a film? Who is the artist? Probably the most distinctive quality about film as an art form is the fact that it is by its very nature a creative collaboration whose authors are its screenwriters and composers, actors and cinematographers, directors and producers, make-up artists and other technicians…The list goes on and on, as you know if you've ever sat through the entire list of the cast and credits at the end of a film! As film techniques and sophistication evolve, the list of artists grows and grows. In the end, however, what does it tell us about a particular film to say that it is a Hitchcock or Tarantino film as opposed to a Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt flick?

Elements of composition & design

As we explore cinematic art, I would ask you to take several things into consideration: How do films reflect and inform culture? How are foreign film different from American films? How do films translate stories from page to screen? How do filmmakers deal with the rhythm and passage of time within the narrative flow of the story? What qualities does film have that literature does not and vice versa? What is the mythic quality of film? What is it about particular films that qualify them to be considered works of art?

In order to uncover the magic of any given film, it is important to observe the technique and compositional elements of the film.

¥ The first viewing of the film should be a cinematic experience with popcorn and silence.

¥ Turn off the cell phones and don’t answer the door.

¥ The next screenings of the film should be with notepad in hand and a critical eye toward the ways in which the filmmakers collaboratively compose the film.

Pay careful attention to the following film techniques, tools, and codes, jotting down notes for later reference:

· Costumes & props

· Setting / scenery

· Movement of body and facial expressions

· Movement on the set / camera movement

· Rhythm and timing of actions and events

· Color—visually imparts emotional, symbolic, and cultural perceptions

Film codes and techniques

Sound-- How does the music/sound effects manipulate your emotions or mood? Instruments? Lyrics? Volume? Intensity? Tempo? Rhythm? Background or foreground?

Lighting—can be used various ways to create particular moods; can be used symbolically

· High-key lighting: brightly lit scene; creates cheerful, light atmosphere

· Low-key lighting: illuminations create contrast and a chiaroscuro effect; creates a mysterious, eerie, or ominous mood

· Front lighting: softens facial features

· Bottom lighting: casts shadows from below; eerie, ghoulish, sinister effect

Camera Angles:

· Low angle shot from below—shows power or status of the subject or object viewed from that angle, and conversely, the possible vulnerability or powerlessness of the POV the camera is reflecting (this can be the viewer or a character in the story).

· High angle shot from above—shows weakness or vulnerability or an objective overview, i.e., God’s eye view. If you’re looking into a small space, like a jail cell, it intensifies the claustrophobic feel of the cramped space.

Framing: what the camera sets as the perimeter of our view. What’s in and what’s out?

· Establishing shot: shot taken from a distance that establishes important locations or situates/contextualizes important characters in place, time or in relationship.

· Long shot: shot from far away; gives overview and is often used in establishing shots at beginning and final shot.

· Medium shot: shot that’s neither near nor far

· Close-ups: used to impart an emotion, to show us inside a character’s thoughts, or to emphasize a particular aspect of something/someone.

Shots and Transition:

· Matching shot—change from one scene to the next by matching images and placement.

· Panning shot—the camera moves from left to right or right to left

· Tracking shot—the camera itself moves in or out by traveling rather than using the zoom feature

· Following shot—the camera keeps pace with a moving figure

· Crane shot—the camera is attached to a crane and moves up or down

· Hand-held shot—the camera is carried or strapped onto a character or camera operator

· Point of view shot—the camera films something as if looking through a character’s eyes so that when the camera movement reflects the gaze of the character; forges an identification with character and puts us inside the character’s mind &/or experience.

· Fade in and out

· Jump cut—the camera shot jumps from one thing to another without benefit of fading or superimposition

· Dissolve—one image fades out over another image that is simultaneously fading in—sometimes used to show the unfolding or condensed passage of time.

· Rack focus—an obvious shift in focus from foreground to background or vice versa. This shifts your attention from one thing to another and directs your focus. Shifts in perspective.

· Montage sequence—events are connected by circumstance, theme, or idea but are disconnected physically; spliced together to show movement toward one another or parallel or converging events unfolding.

This movie critique should present your interpretation by

1) briefly introducing and summarizing the story/ tell what happens: storyline or plotline.
2) describing the most important scene in the film (the one that you think encapsulates the spirit of the work) For instance, describe the music itself and the camera work that accompanies it. What shots are used: long shot, close-up? Does the camera pan fast or slow? Left to right or vice versa? This is the “WHAT” of your assessment.
3) analyzing the scene you’ve chosen (focusing on the composition and design by discussing film codes, music, setting, etc. and how they are woven together.) This is the “HOW” of your assessment.
4) interpreting the meaning found in one specific scene-- as a means of revealing how the observations you made in your earlier description and analysis actually provide insight and reveal deeper meaning, This is the “WHY’ of your assessment. WHY do we feel as we do about characters or events? WHY do we see things from a particular perspective?

*Note: steps 3 & 4 frequently overlap and intertwine, so don’t struggle to keep them separated. What I’m after here is interpretive analysis.

5) judging the film and giving your reasons for concluding that this film is indeed a work of art. This requires you to briefly sketch your own interpretation of what art is and what purpose it serves. Then, show how this film is indeed a work of art. This is the part where you wrap it up by telling me why I mustn’t miss this film. This is also the place to discuss themes or other important aspects of the film. Finally, you might want to give kudos to the wizardry of the artists who collaborated on the film.

List of Movies: Choose one from the following for your project. If you have another movie in mind, check with me first!


Batman Begins
Batman: The Dark Knight
Indiana Jones (any)


The African Queen
Animal House
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Blues Brothers
Bottle Rocket
Bringing Up Baby
The Big Lebowski
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Groundhog Day
Grosse Pointe Blank
It Happened One Night
Knocked Up
Life of Brian
Little Miss Sunshine
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Much Ado About Nothing
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ocean's 11 (Clooney Version)
Ocean's 12
Ocean's 13
Office Space
Real Genius
Roman Holiday
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Thank You for Smoking
This is Spinal Tap


An Inconvenient Truth
Roger and Me


American Beauty
Cool Hand Luke
Fight Club
Forrest Gump
The Fugitive
Good Will Hunting
The Great Debaters
The Green Mile
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Imitation of Life (either version)
Lawrence of Arabia
Lilies of the Field
Million Dollar Baby
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Othello (Lawrence Fishburne version)
Pi π
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Shawshank Redemption
The Queen
To Kill a Mockingbird
To Sir, With Love


Chicken Run
Finding Nemo
The Lion King
Monsters, Inc.
Shrek (I only)
The Wizard of Oz


Life is Beautiful
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Run, Lola, Run


2001: A Space Odyssey
Alien 3
Back to the Future (I, II, or III)
Battlestar Galactica (2004 miniseries)
Caprica (miniseries pilot)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Donnie Darko
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
The Fifth Element
Flight of the Navigator
Harry Potter (any up through The Half-Blood Prince)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I, Robot
Independence Day
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Island
The Last Starfighter
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Lord of the Rings (any of the trilogy)
Men in Black (I only)
The Matrix (any of the trilogy)
Minority Report
Terminator (I or II only)
Transformers (2007 movie)
The Truman Show
Twelve Monkeys
Shaun of the Dead
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Wars (any of the 6)
War Games


All the President's Men
Full Metal Jacket
The Right Stuff
Shakespeare in Love


Moulin Rouge
Mr. Holland's Opus
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Walk the Line


The Bourne Identity
The Birds
Citizen Ka
Rear Window (Hitchcock's version)
The Sixth Sense


Brokeback Mountain
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Lonesome Dove (miniseries)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada