Movies have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Several of these changes in popular English-language filmmaking practice are reflected in patterns of film style as distributed over the length of movies. In particular, arrangements of shot durations, motion, and luminance have altered and come to reflect aspects of the narrative form. Narrative form, on the other hand, appears to have been relatively unchanged over that time and is often characterized as having four more or less equal duration parts, sometimes called acts – setup, complication, development, and climax. The altered patterns in film style found here affect a movie’s pace: increasing shot durations and decreasing motion in the setup, darkening across the complication and development followed by brightening across the climax, decreasing shot durations and increasing motion during the first part of the climax followed by increasing shot durations and decreasing motion at the end of the climax. Decreasing shot durations mean more cuts; more cuts mean potentially more saccades that drive attention; more motion also captures attention; and brighter and darker images are associated with positive and negative emotions. Coupled with narrative form, all of these may serve to increase the engagement of the movie viewer.
Keywords: Attention, Emotion, Evolution, Film style, Movies, Narrative, Pace, Popular culture
Over at Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, James E. Cutting has an interesting paper about how popular movies have changed over time in terms of shot duration, motion, luminance, and cuts.
One thing that hasn’t really changed though: a three or four act structure.
In many cases, and particularly in movies, story form can be shown to have three or four parts, often called acts (Bordwell, 2006; Field, 2005; Thompson, 1999). The term act is borrowed from theater, but it does not imply a break in the action. Instead, it is a convenient unit whose size is between the whole film and the scene in which certain story functions occur. Because there is not much difference between the three- and four-act conceptions except that the latter has the former’s middle act broken in half (which many three-act theorists acknowledge; Field, 2005), I will focus on the four-act version.
The first act is the setup, and this is the portion of the story where listeners, readers, or viewers are introduced to the protagonist and other main characters, to their goals, and to the setting in which the story will take place. The second act is the complication, where the protagonists’ original plans and goals are derailed and need to be reworked, often with the help or hindrance of other characters. The third is the development, where the narrative typically broadens and may divide into different threads led by different characters. Finally, there is the climax, where the protagonist confronts obstacles to achieve the new goal, or the old goal by a different route. Two other small regions are optional bookend-like structures and are nested within the last and the first acts. At the end of the climax, there is often an epilogue, where the diegetic (movie world) order is restored and loose ends from subplots are resolved. In addition, I have suggested that at the beginning of the setup there is often a prologue devoted to a more superficial introduction of the setting and the protagonist but before her goals are introduced (Cutting, 2016).
Interesting way to think about film structure. Why are movies told like this?
Perhaps most convincing in this domain is the work by Labov and Waletzky (1967), who showed that spontaneous life stories elicited from inner-city individuals without formal education tend to have four parts: an orientation section (where the setting and the protagonist are introduced), a complication section (where an inciting incident launches the beginning of the action), an evaluation section (which is generally focused on a result), and a resolution (where an outcome resolves the complication). The resolution is sometimes followed by a coda, much like the epilogue in Thompson’s analysis. In sum, although I wouldn’t claim that four-part narratives are universal to all story genres, they are certainly widespread and long-standing
Cutting goes on:
That form entails at least three, but usually four, acts of roughly equal length. Why equal length? The reason is unclear, but Bordwell (2008, p. 104) suggested this might be a carryover from the development of feature films with four reels. Early projectionists had to rewind each reel before showing the next. Perhaps filmmakers quickly learned that, to keep audiences engaged, they had to organize plot structure so that last-seen events on one reel were sufficiently engrossing to sustain interest until the next reel began.
I love reading stuff like this, in the hopes of improving my craft at storytelling, but as Cutting notes:
Filmmaking is a craft. As a craft, its required skills are not easily penetrated in a conscious manner.
In the end you gotta learn by feel. We can feel when a story is right, or when it’s not right. I reckon you can learn more about movie story, and storytelling in general, by telling your story to somebody aloud and noticing when you “lose” them than you can by reading all of Brodwell. Anyone who’s pitched anything can probably remember moments when you knew you had them, or spontaneously edited because you could feel you were losing them.
Still, it’s fun to break apart human cognition and I look forward to more articles from Cognitive Science and am grateful they are free!
Another paper cited in this article is “You’re a good structure, Charlie Brown: the distribution of narrative categories in comic strips” by N Cohn.
Thanks to Larry G. for putting me on to this one.
Finding myself with an unexpectedly free afternoon, I went to see The Favourite at the Arclight,
You rarely see elderly people in central Hollywood, but they’re there at the movies at 2pm. While we waited for the movie to start, there was an audible electrical hum. The Arclight person introduced the film, and then one of the audience members shouted out “what’re you gonna do about the grounding hum?”
The use of the phrase “grounding hum” rather than just “that humming sound” seemed to baffle the Arclight worker. Panicked, she said she’d look into it, and if we wanted, we could be “set up with another movie.”
After like one minute I took the option to be set up with another movie because the hum was really annoying. Playing soon was Mary Queen of Scots.
Reminded as I thought about it of John Ford’s quote about Monument Valley. John Ford assembles the crew and says, we’re out here to shoot the most interesting thing in the world: the human face.
Both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie have incredible faces. It’s glorious to see them. The best parts of this movie were closeups.
Next I saw Schindler’s List.
This movie has been re-released, with an intro from Spielberg, about the dangers of racism.
This movie knocked my socks off. I forgot, since the last time I saw it, what this movie accomplished.
When the movie first came out, the context in which people were prepared for it, discussed it, saw it, were shown it in school etc took it beyond the realm of like “a movie” and into some other world of experience and meaning.
I feel like I saw this movie for the first time on VHS tapes from the public library, although I believe we were shown the shower scene at school.
My idea in seeing it this time was to see it as a movie.
How did they make it? How does it work? What’s accomplished on the level of craft? Once we’ve handled the fact that we’re seeing a representation of the Holocaust, how does this work as a movie?
It’s incredible. The craft level accomplishment is on the absolute highest level.
Take away the weight with which this movie first reached us, with what it was attempting. Just approach it as “a filmmaker made this, put this together.”
Long, enormous shots of huge numbers of people, presented in ways that feel real, alive. Liam Neeson’s performance, his mysteries, his charisma, his ambiguity. We don’t actually learn that much about Oscar Schindler. So much is hidden.
Ralph Fiennes performance, the humanity, the realness he brings to someone whose crimes just overload the brain’s ability to process.
The moving parts, the train shots, the wide city shots. Unreal accomplishment of filmmaking.
- water, recurring as an image, theme in the movie.
- there are a bunch of scenes of just factory action, people making things with tools and machines. that was the cover. was not the Holocaust an event of the factory age, a twisted branch of Industrial Revolution and efficiency metric spirit?
- reminded that people didn’t know, when it began, “we’re in The Holocaust, this is the Holocaust.” It built. It got worse and worse. there were steps and stages along the way.
- what happened in the the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place in history, focused in an area of central and eastern Europe that had its own, centuries long, context for what you were, who belonged where, history, which tribes go where, what race or nationality meant, how these were understood. Göth’s speech about how the centuries of Jewish history in Kraków will become a rumor. I felt like this movie kind of captured and helped explain some of that, without a ton of extra labor.
- In a way Schindler could almost be seen as like a comic character. He didn’t start his company to save Jews. He starts it to make money from cheap labor. He’s a schemer who sees an opportunity. A rascal out to make a quick buck, a con man and shady dealer who ended up in the worst crime in history, an honest crook who finds he’s in something of vastness and evil beyond his ability to even comprehend.
- There is a scene in this movie that could almost be called funny, or at least comic, when Oscar Schindler (Neeson) tries to explain to Stern (Ben Kingsley) the good qualities of the concentration camp commandant Göth that nobody ever seems to mention!
- Kenneally’s story of how he heard about Schindler:
- The theme of sexuality, Goth’s sexuality, Schindler’s, what it means to love and express your nature versus trying to suppress and kill. Spielberg is not really known for having tough explorations of sexuality in his films but I’d say he took this one pretty square on with a lot bravery?
- if I had a criticism it was maybe that the text on the little intermediary passages that appear on screen a few times and explain the context felt not that clear and kind of unnecessary.
- I feared this movie would have a kind of ’90s whitewash, I felt maybe takes exist, the “actually Schindler’s List is BAD” take is out there, with the idea being that Spielberg put in too much sugar with the medicine which when we talk about the Shoah, unspeakable, unaddressable, is somehow wrong, but damn. I was glad for the sugar myself and I don’t think Spielberg looked away. The Holocaust occurred in a human context, and human contexts, no matter how dark, always have absurdity.
- the scene, for instance, were the Nazis burn in an enormous pyre the months-buried, now exhumed bodies of thousands of people executed during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, Spielberg took us as close to the mouth of the abyss as you’re gonna see at a regular movie theater.
What does it mean that Spielberg made a movie about the Holocaust and the two leads are both handsome Nazis?
*As a boy I was attracted to the history of Britain and Ireland as well as Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples in America. The peoples of those islands recorded a dramatic history that I felt connected to. They also developed a compelling tradition of telling these history stories with as much drama and excitement as possible eg. Shakespeare.
At a library book sale, I bought, for 50 cents a volume, three biographies from a numbered set from like 1920 of “notable personages,” something like that.
These just looked like the kind of books that a cool gentleman had. Books that indicated status and intelligence.
One of this set that I got was Hernando Cortes. I started that one, but even at that tender age I perceived Cortes was not someone to get behind. The biography had a pro-Cortes slant I found distasteful.
Another volume was about Mary Queen of Scots.
Just on her name, really, I started reading that one.
Mary Queen of Scots’ life was a thrilling story, and this one was melodramatically told. Affairs, murder plots, insults, rumor, execution.
Sometime thereafter, at school, we were all assigned like a book report. To read a biography, any biography, and write a report about it.
Since I’d already read Mary’s biography, I picked her.
As it happened, I overheard my dad confusedly ask my mom why, of all people on Earth, I’d chosen Mary Queen of Scots as the topic for my biography project. My dad did not know the backstory, which my mom patiently explained.
My dad’s reaction on hearing I’d picked Mary Queen of Scots, while not as harsh as Kevin Hart’s imagined reaction on hearing his son had a dollhouse, helps me to understand where Kevin Hart was coming from. Confusion, for starters. Upsetness.
At the time the guys I thought were really heroes were probably like JFK and Hemingway.
The sequence beginning around 3:30 is captivating.
What’s going on here? We are right to be confused:
So I’m told in this one:
Some of the Oxford Very Short Introduction books aren’t that helpful. Some are great. I got a lot out of this one. I didn’t know this story about Lucille Ball, for instance:
Saw this clip on some retweet of this fellow’s Twitter.
I was struck by
- the bluntness and concision of the advice
- the fact that the advice contains a very specific investment strategy down to what funds you should be in (80% VTSAX, 20% VBTLX)
- the compelling performance of an actor I’d never seen opposite Wahlberg (although I’d say it drops off at “that’s your base, get me?”)
It appeared this was from the 2014 film The Gambler
The film is interesting. Mark Wahlberg plays a compulsive gambler and English professor. There are some extended scenes of Wahlberg lecturing his college undergrads on Shakespeare, Camus, and his own self-absorbed theories of literature, failure, and life. The character is obnoxious, self-pitying, logorrheic and somewhat unlikeable as a hero. Nevertheless his most attractive student falls in love with him. William Monahan, who won an Oscar for The Departed, wrote the screenplay. The film itself is a remake of 1974 movie directed by James Toback, in which James Caan plays the Mark Wahlberg role.
Here’s the interesting thing. Watching the 2016 version, I realized the speech I’d seen on Twitter that first caught my attention is different. The actor’s different — in the movie I watched it’s John Goodman.
What happened here? Had they recast the actor or something? The twitterer who put it up is from South Africa, did they release a different version of the movie there?
Did some investigating and found the version I saw was made by this guy, JL Collins, a financial blogger.
Here’s a roundup of his nine basic points for financial independence.
He did a pretty good job as an actor I think! I believe the scene in the movie would be strengthened from the specificity of his advice. And the line about every stiff from the factory stiff to the CEO is working to make you richer is cool, maybe an improvement on the script as filmed. I’ll have to get this guy’s book.
It would make a good commercial for Vanguard.
VTSAX vs S&P 500:
Readers, what does the one to one comparison of JL Collins and John Goodman teach us about acting?
Question about this film, if you’ve seen it:
(and don’t get me wrong, I had a good time)
why was a high-altitude parachute jump the best way to get into Paris?
From Comedy’s Greatest Era (1949):
Sennett used to hire a “wild man” to sit in on his gag conferences, whose whole job was to think up “wildies.” Usually he was an all but brainless, speechless man, scarcely able to communicate his idea; but he had a totally uninhibited imagination. He might say nothing for an hour; then he’d mutter “You take . . . ” and all the relatively rational others would shut up and wait. “You take this cloud . . .” he would get out, sketching vague shapes in the air. Often he could get no further; but thanks to some kind of thought-transference, saner men would take this cloud and make something of it. The wild man seems in fact to have functioned as the group’s subconscious mind, the source of all creative energy. His ideas were so weird and amorphous that Sennett can no longer remember a one of them, or even how it turned out after rational processing. But a fair equivalent might be on of the best comic sequences in a Laurel and Hardy picture. It is simple enough – simple and real, in fact, as a nightmare. Laurel and Hardy are trying to move a piano across a narrow suspension bridge. The bridge is slung over a sickening chasm, between a couple of Alps. Midway they meet a gorilla.
Agee speaks of the side-splitting laughter that would erupt in silent movie houses, and how you just can’t get that level of laughter from “talkies,” no matter how funny.
the best of comedies these days hand out plenty of titters and once in a while it is possible to achieve a yowl without overstraining
but nothing like what the “ideally good gags” of the silent days would provoke.
Wasn’t sure I understood what levels of laughter in the movie theater Agee was talking about until I saw the Jackass movies:
At a time in my life when I had a lot of time and a physical DVD Netflix account I started watching the films of Zhang Yimou.
These movies are great. The plots are crazy, but compelling. There are other ways to tell stories besides the save the cat way.
(save the cat lol there’s a famine killing forty million people!)
A woman married to the brutal and infertile owner of a dye mill in rural China conceives a boy with her husband’s nephew but is forced to raise her son as her husband’s heir without revealing his parentage in this circular tragedy.
Plus just trying to discern the basic premises the characters assume or the worldview of the movie assumes adds a whole other level
Been thinking about these movies in the context of a much, much, much more minor cultural revolution I perceive in the USA and especially Hollywood/the media, where people are like examining themselves and confessing to their political crimes.
Zhang was born in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. Zhang’s father, a dermatologist, had been an officer in the National Revolutionary Army under Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War; an uncle, and an elder brother had followed the Nationalist forces to Taiwan after their 1949 defeat. As a result, Zhang faced difficulties in his early life.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Zhang left his school studies and went to work, first as a farm labourer for 3 years, and later at a cotton textile mill for 7 years in the city of Xianyang. During this time he took up painting and amateur still photography, selling his own blood to buy his first camera.