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.
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?
I spent the ensuing weeks across a table from Nic, hashing out plotlines. It gave me a chance to study him at close quarters. No one was more vehement about character and motivation than Nic. Now and then, he’d do the voices or act out a scene, turning his wrist to demonstrate the pop-pop of gunplay. He was 37 but somehow ageless. He could’ve stepped out of a novel by Steinbeck. The writer as crusader, chronicler of love and depravity. His shirt was rumpled, his hair mussed, his manner that of a man who’d just hiked along the railroad tracks or rolled out from under a box. He is fine-featured, with fierce eyes a little too small for his face. It gives him the aura of a bear or some other species of dangerous animal. When I was a boy and dreamed of literature, this is how I imagined a writer—a kind of outlaw, always ready to fight or go on a spree. After a few drinks, you realize the night will culminate with pledges of undying friendship or the two of you on the floor, trying to gouge each other’s eyes out.
I love True Detective and I loved, loved reading this profile of Nic Pizzolatto in Vanity Fair (from which I steal the above photo, credited to Art Streiber).
I did have a quibble, though.
Here’s what profile writer Rich Cohen says about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood:
Early in the history of film, when the big-time writers of the day, Fitzgerald most famously, were offered a role in the movies, they decided to write for the cash, forswearing deeper participation in a medium they considered second-rate. Perhaps as a result of this decision, the author came to be the forgotten figure in Hollywood, well paid but disregarded. According to the old joke, “the actress was so stupid she slept with the writer.”
Credit and power are shared. But by tossing out that first season and beginning again, Nic has a chance to finally undo the early error of Fitzgerald and the rest. If he fails and the show tanks, he’ll be just another writer with one great big freakish hit. But if he succeeds, he will have generated a model in which the stars and the stories come and go but the writer remains as guru and king.
Not sure this is totally accurate. I’ve read a decent amount about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. The more you read, the more it seems like Fitzgerald really loved Hollywood, and tried really hard to be good at writing movies, and was distressed by his failures. Fitzgerald loved movies:
When Fitzgerald worked on movies, it seems like he worked hard, was hurt when he was (frequently) fired, which sent him into tailspins that made things worse. But he was trying:
Those are from the great Marc Norman’s book, highly recommended:
Or how about this?:
That’s from this great one, by Scott Donaldson:
Now, that’s not to say that Fitzgerald always did everything perfectly:
(from this one, very entertaining read:
On the other hand, William Faulkner did well in Hollywood. He’s credited on at least two movies — The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not, that you’d have to put in the all-time good list. If he’d never written a single book, you could look at those credits and call Faulkner a pretty successful screenwriter.
What did Faulkner do differently than Fitzgerald? Possibly, his secret was caring less:
Murky, to be sure.
But you might say: the big difference in the Hollywood careers of Fitzgerald and Faulkner is that Faulkner teamed with a great director, Howard Hawks, who liked him and liked working with him.
That’s what Pizzolatto did too. He teamed up with Cary Fukunaga. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of season one of True Detective (and a bunch of other things worth seeing).
Fukunaga’s not mentioned once in that Vanity Fair article. That’s crazy.
Anyway. I’m excited for season two, it sounds super interesting.
Ryan Murphy sees Sarah Paulson and says, “that woman should be in every season of my show American Horror Story. A witch, a freak, a tortured soul — if it’s horrifying, she’s the one.”
Steve McQueen sees Sarah Paulson and says, “that woman should play the worst, meanest, southern plantation woman ever seen in film.”
“Truly, I’ve found the actress who can make the everyday cruelty of a slaveowner’s wife comprehensible.”
Aaron Sorkin sees Sarah Paulson and says:
“That’s the funniest woman in America.”
Contains WILD spoilers!
1) This movie has a high degree of difficulty.
I read 2/3s of the book Wild – abandoned it before I finished, but I did the same thing with Eat Pray Love and then years later started over and found it very impressive. Perhaps a similar fate awaits Wild & me.
At least two top-notch women I know swear by Tiny Beautiful Things. I like reading interviews with Cheryl Strayed, she seems like the real deal.
In books you can get into somebody’s head. That is their killer advantage, and why I don’t think books are going anywhere anytime soon. You just can’t do that in a movie. Wild the movie does a pretty good job of this, but it’s sort of just doomed, imo. This is a story about a person’s journey from one mental state to another, with most of the work done internally. Very hard to dramatize.
While there are good tricks towards doing that in this movie, it comes up a little short on the radical innovations needed to tell that story in a movie. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay: a dude who is good at this kind of thing, his books make excellent movies, but maybe a true writer-director could’ve worked the solutions even tighter?
[One particular note: it seemed to me like all the cutaways should’ve cut a few beats earlier. You’re always like, “ok, here we go, we’re about to cutaway to Cheryl’s childhood.”]
2) The story has a motivation problem.
Cheryl decided to do this, herself. No one made her, asked her, even cares if she accomplishes her goal. So when she faces difficulty or problems, it easy to think “well, you’re the one who decided to hike the PCT, dumdum. Why should I care about this?”
In a story, a person sets out to do something and arrives at a win/lose/draw (thanks to John Gardner for articulating that for me). What would count as a win in this story? Getting to Ashland? No, who cares about Ashland, nothing but hippies in Ashland. The goal of this story is: Cheryl restoring herself (whether or not she knows that’s the goal at the start).
But: that’s an internal goal, how will you show it in a movie? It’s easier to answer these questions in a book, where Cheryl can articulate her reasons and get you with her and make you see that this particular journey is important even if nothing tangible’s at stake.
3) Still, pretty good movie.
Despite all that I thought the ending was pretty satisfying. It’s hard to make a pretty good movie. When Reese Witherspoon yells “FUCK YOU BITCH!” I thought that was good acting.
Sometimes I think all the hugely successful actresses [Reese, Anne Hathaway, etc.] are such intense people that when they act like normal people their instinct is to be way too intense. I would argue Julianne Moore might be the best at not doing this. Think how hard that must be: to act intense but not at your full-bore intense because you somehow intuitively understand that your own “full bore” is too strong for the screen. Acting is crazy hard.
Like all criticism should, let this come with a disclaimer: it’s easy to be a critic hard to make a thing, makers > critics x1000!
4) Interesting sex stuff in this movie.
I do remember in the book being jarred by the period of sexual degradation and heroin, hadn’t realized that was part of the tale. It was new territory, I felt, in exploring a woman’s sexual… could we call it addiction? self-punishment? Cheryl’s not not in control at that point, right? But she also isn’t having a great time. It’s fucked up, she knows it’s fucked up. But it’s not fucked up because she’s a slut, it’s fucked up because she’s not being the woman she wants to be (right?).
Whatever, it made me think/was also slightly titillating/made me feel kind of bad for the husband she was compulsively cheating on. What are the nice guy husbands of America to make of Eat Pray Love and Wild, two biggest women’s memoirs of the last ten years, that both start with a woman leaving her nice guy husband for sexual adventuring?
How often in a movie do you see sex that is intended to be not rape but also not fun?
5) The music in this movie is kind of good but also kind of sucks.
That’s my take anyway. What if I told you that in 2014 we were making an epic movie about a woman’s adventure across America? Would you say that scattered samples of Simon & Garfunkel is the best we could do? Fuck no! Why didn’t they get some awesome woman to make a badass score like Eddie Vedder did for the man-equivalent, Into The Wild?
6) There’s a weird shoutout to REI in this movie.
Where Reese calls them to get new boots and is like “you’re my favorite company ever.” Maybe Cheryl really felt that way. I have a bunch of stuff from REI, but sometimes I think their business model is based on making you think going outdoors is more expensive and complicated than it really is to sell you more junk. Which, weirdly: in the same scene where Cheryl learns about REI’s return policy, the dude is like “you don’t need all this shit.”
Former REI CEO Sally Jewell is Secretary of the Interior.
Strikes me as a very Obama kind of pick: on the one hand, kind of hip and modern and innovative, but on the other hand she was still the CEO of a huge corporation.
7) Wild and Eat Pray Love are in long American literary tradition of spiritual narrative.
If I were a grad student at Yale I’d write my Ph. D. on this, trace it all back through Emerson and Puritan religious narratives and captive narratives of 18th century New England and I’d be the smartest boy in the seminar. Since I’m not in grad school though I can make my point in one sentence which is that things that seem radical and new are often just new versions of an old tradition, we’re not so different from the past or as wildly inventive as we think we are, etc.
8) Is this how women go through life? Constantly having to wonder if a random dude is a rapist?
Damn, that might be the most important aspect of Wild, seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, showing that tension of life. When I walk around at 11pm or so in my neighborhood and I see women walking their dogs it always feels very tense. My instinct to somehow indicate I am not a rapist usually just seems to make the problem worse.
ANYWAY: one reason I was excited to see Wild is I’ve been to many of the settings along the Pacific Crest Trail on fishing trips. Here, for example, is a photo of Kennedy Meadows:
Kennedy Meadows is like a plateau high up in the Sierras. To get there you drive up a crazy 27-mile twisty road up from the 395. If you find yourself there, be sure to stop at The Grumpy Bear:
They’re happy to teach you about jerking meat:
Don’t get it confused with the other Kennedy Meadows up in Sonora.
While I was up there I crossed the PCT and wondered if it would be interesting to film a couple seconds of walking on it:
If you’d like to see Wild, but only have ten seconds, my film gets at similar themes but with more nauseating camerawork.
The main characters in Helen DeWitt’s excellent novel The Last Samurai are deeply emotionally invested in the Arika Kurosawa movie Seven Samurai.
Here is a scene from the movie they often reference:
Definite crossover with movie/TV pitching:
One of the most important things to understand is that, like all people, VCs are different people at different times of day. It helps to pitch as early as possible in the day. This is not a throwaway point. Disregard it at your peril. A study of judges in Israel doing parole hearings showed prisoners had a two-thirds chance of getting parole if their hearing was early in the day. Those odds decreased with time. There was a brief uptick after lunch—presumably because the judges were happily rested. By the end of the day people had virtually no chance of being paroled. Like everyone, VCs make poorer decisions as they get tired. Come afternoon, all they want to do is go home. It does indeed suck to have to wake up early to go pitch. But that is what you must do. Insist that you get on the calendar early.
A related point: It’s also important not to provide too much choice. Contrary to the standard microeconomics literature which extols the virtues of choice, empirical studies show people are actually made unhappy by a lot of choice. Too many choices makes for Costco Syndrome and mental encumbrance. By the end of the day, the VCs have had a lot of choices. So in addition to getting to them early in the day (before they’ve had to make a lot of choices), you should keep your proposition simple. When you make your ask, don’t give them tons of different financing options or packages or other attempts at optimization. That will burden them with a cognitive load that will make them unhappy. Keep it simple.