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.
I was thinking about how a lot of movies and shows (a rewatch of The Sopranos is what made me thing of this) could be called Sympathy For The Devil.
Isn’t the premise of this show to take a murderer and crime boss and get you to sympathize with him?
It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.
It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.
TALEB: Before 15, and I reread it many times. I’d say, before 15, I read Dostoyevsky and I read The Idiot. There’s a scene that maybe I was 14 when I read it. Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.
He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.
And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky . . . effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.
I discovered that I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I realized to have an edge as a writer, you can’t really know what people know. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff that they don’t know.
Also re: Jesus, how about Norm Macdonald on the topic:
- Work by Ai Weiwei at Marciano Foundation:
- down the docks, San Pedro:
- Good illustration of Satan in the Wikipedia page for him:
from Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio (1740) by Pu Songling
- Looking into the history of the USA and Chile, found this.
make the economy scream
- This is a take I didn’t know I had until I saw it expressed:
of course. these rascals hired her and they knew who she was. it didn’t work for them like it did for Fox so they threw her under the bus, but they’re no more principled than she is.
- moving books around:
- happy fate to be in attendance at the longest World Series game ever played. Beginning:
found in my notes some quotes from an interview with novelist Ron Hansen:
You may pray to God for guidance about some decision in your life, and God might say, ‘Look inside yourself and see what you want. It’s not necessary for you to be a priest. It’s not necessary for you to be married. It’s whatever you decide.’ In essence, God says, ‘Surprise me.’ We’re co-creators in a lot of ways, and what God relishes most about us is our creative freedom.
How about this:
For me, each Mass has a plot. It’s a kind of murder mystery. There is for me within the liturgy a sense of the importance of this celebration-this reenactment of the conspiracy and murder and resurrection of an innocent man. Here’s a man who on the eve of his betrayal celebrates dinner with his friends. Then he’s led away and whipped and has all these terrible things happen to him. But at the end the story we find out it’s a comedy, because it has such a wonderful, happy ending. And we get to share in it, in this mystery of the redemption.
love the idea of Mass as murder mystery slash comedy.
The opening of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford:
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as flour. Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children. Whenever he walked about the house, he carried serval newspapers – the Sedalia Daily Democrat, the St. Joseph Gazette, and the Kansas City Times – with a foot-long .44 caliber pistol tucked into a fold. He stuffed flat pencils into his pockets. He played by flipping peanuts to squirrels. He braided yellow dandelions into his wife’s yellow hair. He practiced out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery. He sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog. He would flop open the limp Holy Bible that had belonged to his father, the late Reverend Robert S. James, and would contemplate whichever verses he chanced upon, getting privileged messages from each. The pages were scribbled over with penciled comments and interpretations; the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel. He scoured for nightcrawlers after earth-battering rains and flipped them into manure pails until he could chop them into writhing sections and sprinkle them over his garden patch. He recorded sales and trends at the stock exchange but squandered much of his capital on madcap speculation. He conjectured about foreign relations, justified himself with indignant letters, derided Eastern financiers, seeded tobacco shops and saloons with preposterous gossip about the kitchens of Persia, the Queen of England, the marriage rites of the Latter Day Saints. He was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart. He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.
It’s 1588. You walk into a play-house. A guy walks out on stage and says:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment.
But pardon, and gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object: can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?
or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work.
That’s how Henry V opens.
That ref to the wooden O is (as I understand the only time) we hear about the Globe Theater from Shakespeare himself’s mouth or pen or whatever. Got to thinking about it in London in May.
Shakes is so good. That “o for a muse of fire” is so good. Like a Jimi Hendrix moment:
A dude who’s gone so far in his art that he’s got nothing left to do but scream at Heaven to let him ascend.
One time Yang saw this at my house and said, “is Shakespeare good?” Solid question. To answer it I suggested we watch:
which, I think is pretty good. Yang pointed out that in this version, the music does do a lot of the work.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V he’d already done Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Much Ado About Nothing, and thirteen other plays.
That’s if you believe the story.
There was a def a real guy Shakespeare, a real person who was born and died. In his own lifetime this Will Shakespeare was famous for writing plays. Pirate editions of plays with Shakespeare’s name on them would be sold like scripts of The Godfather on the streets of New York.
Far as I can see, Will Shakespeare gave no evidence of giving a shit about the text/publishing of his plays. Didn’t appear to care. The fact we are reading them now would’ve probably shocked him or else he also wouldn’t have cared about that. What he cared about was like getting a coat of arms.
Is this headline correct? I dunno, I think he wasn’t exactly a nobody in Stratford.
There’s much bureaucratic evidence that Will Shakespeare existed. Probably at least sometimes he was a semi-gangster.
He was around brothels and bars. The last hot young playwright got stabbed to death in a bar.
Read this book recently:
I agree with some of the points in this New Criterion hammering of it. There’s a lotta coulda woulda shoulda. But then again if there wasn’t the book would be like five pages long.
Did Shakespeare really write all those plays?
The evidence suggests to me that yeah, real guy Will Shakespeare wrote at least most of them.
Top piece of evidence: in Shakespeare’s lifetime, real guy Shakespeare was known for writing these plays. His name was on ’em.
Well, some of ’em.
I don’t see Shakespeare’s name in the “bad quarto” of Henry V.
The scholars tell me that’s fine. Consider the folios! Put together by Shakespeare’s friends after his death! Henry V is in there, perhaps typeset from the “foul papers” of Shakespeare himself in fact! It counts.
Second best piece of evidence: Shakespeare’s fellow writers were jealous of him.
Catty remarks from the time are recorded.
He also turns up in a contemporary diary getting off a pretty good joke about boning a groupie.
Third best evidence: there’s a “voice” to the Shakespeare plays. You can feel if if you read a bunch of the best plays. I admit I haven’t read all of ’em. But I’ve read maybe a third, and I’ve read some Christopher Marlowe plays and some Ben Johnson plays, and you can tell a difference. The plays marked Shakespeare are better. In fact half the time that’s how they decide whether to include one or not.
That’s the weakest evidence, who knows what kinda bias my brain is bringing to the table when they’re presented as Shakespeare plays. Some computer/AI type analysis of word usage and so on suggests maybe he didn’t write the Henry VI ones but those suck anyway I’m told.
I think you have to admit Shakespeare wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays, right?
Not everyone agrees:
Rylance thinks now that William Shakespeare was most likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney. He argues that in the seventeenth century it wouldn’t have been appropriate for persons of rank to write for the public theatre; therefore they would need to do so anonymously. “If you even suggest that Shakespeare would have had to be at court, it’s heretical,” van Kampen said. “It’s a metaphor, and it’s about Englishness.”
(from this New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zanin).
The idea that Shakespeare was really Francis Bacon feels to me like someone five hundred years from now claiming
perhaps Barack Obama wrote Dave Chappelle’s routines and Kendrick Lamar’s raps.
it’s possible Hillary Clinton wrote Shonda Rhimes’ shows.
“I want to be Shakespeare,” he told us. “You should all want to be Shakespeare, too.”
That’s Denis Johnson. I think that quote got me back into Shakespeare.
Shakespeare scholars are not usually people who are in the habit of cranking out scripts on tight deadlines or have necessarily been around showbiz.
The experience of seeing how scripts get writ makes me wonder if Shakespeare was a showrunner. If we should think of him like Aaron Sorkin or Shonda or Ryan Murphy. Both himself a wildly talented craftsman but also a quality controller supervising and directing other writers.
Shakespeare is a happy hunting ground for minds that have lost their balance
Joyce has Stephen say in Ulysses.
Ian Buruma is a great writer. I’ve learned so much from his books, his writings on Japan were super illuminating to me, and Year Zero is a powerful work by a great mind.
That piece in NYRB by the Canadian radio guy who used to punch women in the head and choke them by surprise and be a monster to co-workers was not acceptable or valuable or at all necessary.
Didn’t Jon Robson write a whole book about this?
One of the great talents of Ian Buruma (in my experience as a reader) is opening his eyes, comprehending and informing himself and then sharing ideas about the currents of culture. I hope he keeps doing that.