Saturday, December 7, 2019

Cinematic Secrets has created an ingenious 15-episode series called, “The Story of Film,” and I believe we can learn a great deal about our craft by watching it. The first two episodes reveal how filmmakers stumbled upon film techniques we now take for granted—the close-up, the flashback, depth perspective, etc.—and it’s not difficult to see how we can use the same techniques on paper.

Take the cut shot, for example. The earliest narrative films portrayed each scene from a single point of view, as an audience would see a stage play, but filmmakers soon realized this medium gave them the ability to switch or “cut” instantly from one point of view to another and back again.

An early example was the 1903 film, “A Day in the Life of a Fireman.” It showed a firetruck roaring up to a house afire, the firemen connecting hoses and setting up ladders, then one fireman smashing out a window on the second floor. Moments later, a fire ax breaks through another window on the second floor, the ground crew moves his ladder to that window, and the fireman emerges with an unconscious woman draped over his shoulder. Had this movie followed the stage convention of keeping the audience in the same position with the same point of view, that’s all we would have seen. Instead, the director used a series of cuts to tell the story in sequence:

* A fire truck roars up to a house afire.

* Cut to a woman’s bedroom filled with smoke. The woman struggles to her feet, then falls back on her bed, overcome with smoke.

* Cut to the exterior, where one fireman smashes out a window on the second floor.

* Cut to another smoke-filled bedroom, where the fireman breaks through its window and looks around.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman enters from the right and finds the victim unconscious. He tears down the window drapes and smashes out its window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman’s ax breaks through a second window and his ground crew repositions his ladder there.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman hoists the victim onto his shoulder and exits the window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman clambers down the ladder with the woman over his shoulder.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the smoke sudden thickens and bursts into flame. They’ve escaped just in time!

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman lays the unconscious woman on the grass, shakes her, pours water on her face, and she revives. (What do you expect? It’s 1905. They didn’t know CPR back then.)

Every cut shot is equivalent to the word then: “He did this, then he did that, then he did that,” and so on. A movie audience now accepts this storytelling technique, and virtually every movie made since 1905 has used it.

Here’s another one. A film shows a grocery wagon driver pull up in front of an apartment building, where the deliveryman goes in with a big basket of food.

* Cut to an interior shot, where he begins climbing the first flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where his horse eyes an open sack of feed leaning against the building. The horse draws the cart onto the sidewalk and begins to eat.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the horse really chows down on the open feed sack.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the ravenous horse drags his wagon over the curb, tipping it and spilling several bottles of milk onto the sidewalk.

And so on. In this case, every cut shot is equivalent to the word meanwhile. It’s a far more effective way of telling the story than simply showing a lengthy take of the delivery man climbing many flights of stairs, then showing another lengthy take of the hungry horse and the ruined groceries.

One more. In D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour 1916 epic film, Intolerance, he shows how human prejudice has led to the persecution and death of heroic figures throughout history. He does it with a series of cut shots. He shows how worshipers of two Babylonian gods slaughtered one another, then cuts to Jesus performing miracles with jealous Jewish leaders conspiring against him, then cuts to persecuted Protestants during the Reformation, etc. 

In this case, each cut shot is equivalent to the word, likewise. By juxtaposing these scenes from different periods of history that illustrate the same human tendency to be intolerant of other people, Griffith makes his point. We can do the same, especially in an epic story that spans several generations of the same family.

Such cinematic techniques are powerful ways to convey a message. Thanks to documentaries like “The Story of Film,” we can see how they work and apply them to our own storytelling.


  1. I love how you explained this. Thank you. Would you be willing to explain in a part 2 exactly how this works in writing? Would it be similar to open with a descriptive, panoramic scene, and cut to the main character's specific observations, maybe a cut to inner monologue?

    1. Great recommendation, Linda. I'll try that. Perhaps it will begin a discussion of other scene techniques as well.