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Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijill

reviewed by Devon McMorrow


INTERIOR: A writer sits at her computer, composing a review of a new guide. You see her smiling. She clearly enjoys the book. A song comes on—upbeat, happy—that further enhances the mood.

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Before the first talkie was released in 1927, movies relied mainly on visuals to convey their messages. The guide Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll showcases memorable moments from one hundred movies to demonstrate non-dialog approaches.

Sijll states that dialog is important, but many people overlook the significance of cinematic storytelling. “Think of the first ten minutes of ET. The set-up is completely cinematic. Not a word of dialog. Yet any eight year-old can tell you who the bad guys are and why.” Viewers are not always aware of cinematic storytelling because it imbeds itself in the subconscious. Moviemakers and, especially, screenwriters must be well versed in this technique in order to create a blockbuster motion picture.

Sijll breaks her guide into seventeen sections. Each part is dedicated to a different element of cinematic storytelling.

In the section on Space, the author discusses the X-axis, Y-axis, and, yes, Z-axis to show how a frame can be given depth. She uses examples from films such as Citizen Kane, Strangers on a Train, and The Graduate. Each movie still or series of shots is accompanied by a brief excerpt from the script, giving the reader an example of what the screenwriter wrote to achieve the desired shot.

Words can be utilized, but not necessarily through the actors’ voices. Sijll stresses the importance of pairing a film with an excellent soundtrack in Section Seven: Music. Her first example is the opening to Apocalypse Now. Sijll provides the transcript of the movie for the opening scene, which lists the lyrics for The Doors’ Song, The End. Sijll states that lyrics can “reveal the inner thoughts in a way that can be more interesting than a simple ‘talking heads’ scene.”

Not all movies depend on what the characters wear, but in pictures such as Single White Female, Cabaret, or Ed Wood, the “wardrobe element” was crucial to the film’s success. In Ed Wood, Sijll describes how the wardrobe “works in the character’s psyche.” When Ed needs to calm down and collect his thoughts, he rubs his cheek against an angora sweater. In the film Out of Africa, the discarding of a pair of white gloves represents freedom.

Sijll uses unusual modes to show moviemakers how to penetrate the inner thoughts of their viewers. Dialog can only take a movie so far, but utilizing elements such as camera lenses, lighting, locations, music, wardrobe, camera position, and more, filmmakers can take their creations to an elevated plane.

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