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Understanding Narrative

Understanding Narrative

Narrative is simply a word for describing the plot or storyline of a film. Most mainstream films follow a very straightforward, linear structure. At the beginning of the narrative, the audience is introduced to the central characters. There is some kind of disruption to the normal state of affairs which leads to a series of problems and complications that the characters must deal with. The narrative pushes towards a resolution – sometimes happy, sometimes not – where the problem is solved.

We study narratives so we can learn how to be better filmmakers, discovering how directors – using camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound – to tell a story.

WHAT IS GENRE?

Genre is a French word that means ‘type’. In Media Studies, we classify films into different genres. When you walk around your local video store or browse through films to buy online, they are often categorised into genres. Some notable genres include: action, adventure , comedy, crime, epic films, horror, musicals, science fiction, war films, westerns and film noir.

The conventions of a genre are the elements that commonly occur in such films, they may include things like characters, situations, settings, props, themes and events. For example, a convention of the science-fiction genre is that the narrative often incorporates advanced technology. Here is a list of genres that you can read about further: ActionAdventureComedyCrimeEpic FilmsHorrorMusicalsScience FictionWar FilmsWesternsFilm Noir.

Sometimes, films cannot be easily classified into a single genre. Back to the Future Part III is a good example, because it is a science-fiction film, western and comedy.

PRODUCTION ELEMENTS

Production elements—including camera techniques, acting, mise-en-scene, editing, lighting and sound—are the basic storytelling tools that directors have at their disposal.

CAMERA TECHNIQUES

In films, the way the camera is moved, makes a big contribution to the story. Here are some common types of shot zie, camera angles and camera movement.

SHOT SIZE

Shot size refers to how far away the camera is from a subject. There are six basic shot sizes:

• Extreme long shot. Often used at the beginning of a scene to show where the scene will take place. For this reason, this type of shot is often called an establishing shot.

• Long shot. In a long shot, it is usually possible to discern individuals but there is also a great deal of background.

• Full shot. A full shot shows a character from head to toe. This type of shot is often used as a ‘master shot’ for the scene, showing all the action that occurs.

• Mid shot. A mid shot is often used when filming conversations. It is one of the most frequently used shots in film and television.

• Close-up. A close up usually shows a character’s face. Often used when shooting conversations, this is also one of the most frequently used shot sizes in film and television.

• Extreme close up. Extreme close ups are used to show small details, such as a character’s eyes.

CAMERA ANGLE

Camera angle refers to the angle at which the subject is shot. Camera angle can have a particular effect on the audience.

Overshot. The camera is positioned directly above the subject. This is often used in establishing shots, where the camera flies over city streets. Alfred Hitchcock used an overshot in Psycho when Norman Bates carries his mother out of her bedroom and down the stairs.

High Angle. The camera is positioned above the subject, looking down at an angle. This angle makes the subject appear smaller, powerless and more vulnerable.

Eye Level. This is the most commonly used camera angle in film and television. Whereas most other camera angles are highly stylised, an eye level shot creates a sense of normalcy and realism because this is how we see the world. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg used eye level shots to engage audiences, choosing to shoot characters in the water from eye level rather than from above. Cinematographer Bill Butler developed a box which allowed the water to lap up against the camera, effectively putting the audience in the water with the actors.

Low Angle. The camera is positioned below eye level, looking up, to imply a sense of power and dominance.

Undershot. The camera is positioned directly beneath the subject, looking up. Often coupled with point-of-view shots when the character is looking up at something.

CAMERA MOVEMENT

Dolly. A dolly is any sort of moving platform that a camera is mounted on. Professional camera crews often lay down tracks which the camera can be moved along. Sometimes, the camera is mounted in the back of a car. Skateboards, office chairs and supermarket trolleys are the dollies of choice for low budget camera crews. Dollies are often used in very subtle ways. Throughout the course of a conversation, for example, you may notice that the camera very subtly moves closer to the characters. In M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, for example, there is a scene where two characters – portrayed by Bruce Willis and Robin Wright Penn – are sharing dinner at a restaurant. The camera gradually dollies in on the couple to suggest a rekindled sense of intimacy.

Tracking Shot. The camera follows a moving subject.

Pan. The camera turns horizontally when mounted on a tripod.

Tilt. The camera tilts up/down when mounted on a tripod.

Crane. The camera is mounted on a crane, helping filmmakers to achieve dynamic overhead shots.

Handheld. Handheld camera movement is often used to achieve a sense of realism. Films like The Blair Witch Project, The Bourne Supremacy and Syriana. Handheld camera movement achieves a sense of realism partly because audiences associate this sort of camera movement with documentary film.

Steadicam. A device that allows camera operators to achieve smooth, fluid camera movement.

Zoom. The lens of a camera is used to magnify an image.

ACTING

Acting makes a significant contribution to the storytelling in narrative films. While we often remember performances like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, most of the time actors help to tell the story in a much more subtle way, through gestures, body language, movement and the tone of their voice. Through these things, actors can tell the audience a great deal about their characters.

When you’re watching a scene, pay close attention to actors facial expressions, movement, gestures and tone of voice. Think about how the performance helps to develop characters and tell the story.

MISE-EN-SCENE

Mise en scene is a cinema studies term that refers to what’s put in the scene. It refers to the overall effect of lighting, make up, costume, props and colour within the frame. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007) includes a fun example of how visual composition can be used to establish character. As Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is being introduced to his new colleagues, Sergeant Tony Fisher is shown sitting in front of a whiteboard scrawled with a mind-map. The bubbles that point towards his head are labeled with words like ‘DISLOYAL’, ‘RUDE’, ‘INEFFICIENT’ and ‘UNFIT’.

During the opening of Disturbia, director David Caruso uses mise-en-scene to show how the Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is affected by the death of his father. During the opening scene of the film, when Kale is spending time with his father, the shots have been adjusted in post-produciton to accentuate the golden hues of the landscape. After his father’s death, when Kale is sitting in a classroom at school, the image is dull and desaturated. This stark shift in mise-en-scene is used to convey how the death of Kale’s father has affected him.

EDITING

When you’re studying a narrative, remember that editing makes an important contribution to storytelling and audience engagement and that filmmakes think very carefully about the editing of their film. When analysing the use of editing in a scene, think carefully about every cut and transition. How does it contribute to the story? How does it tell us about characters? How does it help to make the scene more exciting or suspenseful?

When you’re writing about editing, don’t forget to listen to the sound editing. Studying scenes without vision is a great way to draw attention to the important of sound editing. What can you hear? What sounds are emphasised? When does the music become louder and why? Like every aspect of a film, the sound mix is not normal or natural, it has been carefully constructed to help tell the story.

LIGHTING

Like everything else in a film, directors think very carefully about their use of lighting and how it helps to tell the story. Lighting can tell us about characters as well as make scenes more exciting and suspenseful.

Here are is some terminology that will help you when discussing lighting:

Key light. The main source of light in a scene.

Fill light. The secondary source of light in a scene, often used to reduce shadows.

High key lighting. A scene that is well lit with few shadows.

Low key lighting. A scene with little light resulting in shadows and darkness, often used in horror and film noir.

Backlight. A light positioned behind the subject, often casting them into darkness.

At the beginning of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) there is a great example of how lighting contributes to character development. After staging an audacious bank heist, The Joker removes his clown mask and says, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” Here the use of lighting contribute to his sinister characterisation. The key light in this shot comes from a large window over The Joker’s right shoulder, casting a diffuse light across his face, accentuating his pitted and scarred face by creating grotesque shadows. While one side of his face is reasonably well illuminated, the rest is in shadow. The pallid light also makes his scars seem more grotesque. This is a very good example of lighting contributing to a narrative, helping to establish The Joker as particularly sinister and malevolent.

SOUND

When studying films, it’s important to think about the contribution that sound makes to storytelling and audience engagement. For convenience, we categorise sound into the following categories: sound effects, score, music and dialogue.Imagine a horror film in which the main character is hiding in a wardrobe of an abandoned house. We see a close up of the character’s face. The sound of soft footsteps and floorboards creaking echoes down the hallway. We hear ragged breathing and the rumble of distant thunder. As the scene progresses, orchestral music becomes more and more intense until the closet door finally swings open.

This is a great example of how sound effects can contribute to a story.

The opening sequence of Wes Craven’s Scream is a masterful example of how sound effects, sound editing and music can contribute to the narrative and engage the audience. In the opening sceneCasey Becker begins to suspect that there’s something sinister about her mystery caller. “Why do you want to know my name?” she asks. Marco Bertram’s score strikes a dramatic, low-pitched note when he replies, “So I know who I am looking at.” In the distance, a dog barks. When first viewing the film, this sound effect isn’t immediately obvious. Nevertheless, this sound effect helps to create the sense that Casey is being stalked by someone outside the house.

Many people hardly notice the orchestral score for a film or recognise its important contribution to their emotional engagement with the narrative. In narratives, orchestral music does a number of things.

It can establish setting. In the opening shot of Braveheart, the camera soars over the Scottish highlands and James Horner’s score, which makes extensive use of bagpipes commences. In conjunction with the visuals, the music helps to establish the setting of the film within seconds.

The score also conveys information about character. In The Dark Knight, composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard collaborated on a theme for The Joker: a single note played on the violin which increases in intensity and pans rapidly from left to right, gradually joined by other discordant and distorted electronic instruments. The jarring wall of noise contributes a lot to how sinister this character seems. John William’sImperial March is another great example of music being used to characterise a villain. Of course, film scores also help to characterise heroes as well. Take John William’s Raider’s March or The Theme from Superman.

Popular music also contributes to narratives. When the T-800 travels back through time in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, he arrives in the present day completely naked, finds the nearest seedy bar and demands the clothes, boots and motorcycle of one of its patrons. He emerges from the bar clad completely in black to George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’. Although music is frequently used in to complement a scene like this, filmmakers often use music in an ironic or unexpected way. In John Woo’s Face/Off, a child caught in a massive gun battle between criminals and police listens to the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ through a pair of headphones. Windows explode, machine guns flash and spark as the room is showered with bullets. The scene plays out in slow motion to this unexpected music. A similar example occurs near the beginning of I am Legend, when Robert Neville (Will Smith) is bathing his dog and singing along to the Bob Marley song ‘Three Birds’. Contrary to what the lyrics suggest, everything is not going to be all right. How could it in a nightmarish world filled with bloodthirsty vampires?

THINKING ABOUT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

In class, we’re going to examine how characters are established in a number of films. Like every other aspect of storytelling, characters are established using camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound.

When you are asked to explain how a character is established, you will need to watch the scene you’re looking at several times and consider the following questions.

• Camera techniques. Are there any particular camera techniques that help to tell me about this character? Look out for uses of shot size, camera angle or camera movement that might reveal something about the character.

• Acting. What do the actor do? Think about their movement, facial expression, gesture and tone of voice. Describe this and explain how it helps to develop the character.

• Mise en scene. Think about costume, make up, the positioning of props, the use of colour…how does this develop the audience’s understanding of the character?

• Editing. Think about every cut and transition in the scene. Does it help to reveal something about the character? Is the editing fast paced or slow? Are there flashbacks? Think about the sound editing, are some sounds louder than others and does this help to develop the characters?

• Lighting. Think about how the character is lit. Is the light natural or artificial? Is it warm or cool? Is it high key or low key? Are there shadows?

• Sound. How do sound effects, music and dialogue help to tell us about the character?

WRITING ABOUT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Now that you’ve identified some of the ways that the director is conveying information about a character, it’s time to start writing something more formal.

Always open with a topic sentence like this which identifies the film, the director and some of the production elements used to develop that character.

In Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman uses a number of production elements, including editing, acting and sound, to establish the character of Ryan Bingham.

Then go on to give further detail.

Early in the film, Ryan is packing his bag for yet another business trip. There is a tightly edited series of shots showing him quickly packing his bag. Folding up a t-shirt, Reitman jump cuts to a shot of Ryan putting in his running shoes, zipping up various compartments. No shot in this sequence lasts more than a few seconds which helps to establish that he is an efficient traveller. The director uses a similar pace of editing when he is going through security at the airport.

Sound is also used to establish this character. In this scene, fast paced music helps to create the impression that he is an efficient traveller. His voice over also helps to explain this. “All the things you probably hate about travelling…are warm reminders that I’m home,” he says.

In this scene, acting also helps to tell the audience about this character. When he arrives at the flight desk, the woman at the desk smiles warmly. Ryan returns the smile, this small example of acting helping to create the impression that he’s a ladies’ man.

Every paragraph should open with a topic sentence, explaining the technique you’re about to discuss. Give examples of how the technique is used and what it tells the audience about this character. 

Finish with a topic sentence similar to the once you started with.

Throughout this scene, director Jason Reitman uses a number of techniques – including editing, sound and acting – to develop the character of Ryan Bingham.