Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know

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  1. Jim Makichuk says:
    214 of 223 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Good lessons in visual storytelling, September 10, 2005
    Jim Makichuk (Los Angeles) –

    This review is from: Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know (Paperback)

    Having taught screenwriting for UCLA’s Writing Program as well as being a working screenwriter for the past 20 years I’ve always been asked what separates a professional screenplay from the thousands of amateur screenplays out there. One of the things aspiring writers lack is what we call “getting your chops”, a term borrowed from musicians. Meaning real, live experience that simply can’t be taught. And usually, the only way to get it is by having your material produced. Jennifer Van Sijll’s book CINEMATIC STORYTELLING, is the first book I’ve read to take an intensive look at what takes years and lots of produced credits to learn. By using written scenes from movies, coupled with actual film scenes printed alongside, Jennifer teaches visual storytelling in a way few books have done.

    What I learned early on in this business is that there are several drafts after the one you sell. Many of us refer to them as the producer’s draft, the director’s draft, the actor’s draft and the crew’s draft. And you will make changes in all of those areas for reasons of character development, budget, schedule, location and ego.

    Do writers really need to know about how films are shot and edited, even how sound can enhance a screenplay? The answer is yes and Jennifer’s book, very appropriately titled provides invaluable information, something all writers whether aspiring ones or seasoned pros like myself need to consider. What she illustrates are the various parts of a movie and how they relate to the screenplay. The book is divided into chapters with topics like framing, locations, sound effects, transitions, camera motion and lenses, lighting, props and many more. Each chapter has many specific written scenes and still photo clips from well-known movies

    Consider transitions, difficult for aspiring writers and even some pros. Learning to write good transitions between scenes rarely is taught in writing courses, and often left to the director, producer or editor. CINEMATIC STORYTELLING presents the reader written scenes from Citizen Kane, Fatal Attraction and many more movies, illustrating how sound and visual transitions are used in a finished film. A good writer can add smooth transitions into their screenplay and make their screenplay read more like a movie and more likely to be read. I’ve always been told my screenplays are easy reads, meaning that the reader is quickly engaged in the story, and this is directly due to my knowledge of visuals including transitions, close-ups, wide shots and sound cues. The secret here is writing it like it’s part of the natural organic form of the screenplay rather than clumsy, noticeable descriptions. You don’t have to write CLOSE UP, to indicate one.

    Experience teaches the working writer and Jennifer’s book is a solid attempt at dealing with this interconnected world of writing and making movies using many classic movies like Citizen Kane, Chinatown, The Searchers (my personal favorite), as well as contemporary movies like Pulp Fiction and lesser-known indie films including the cult favorite Harold and Maude to give a really good balance to her observations. She has focuses on framing, sound effects, transitions, camera motion, lighting, even camera lenses, which may not sound like anything a writer need know. However, a working knowledge of all those elements can and will contribute to a well-written screenplay.

    I’ve always taught students that screenplays should be entertaining to read, in the same way movies should be entertaining, no matter how serious the subject. Breaking the rules is fine once you’ve sold your big feature, but don’t forget the old saying, “you gotta learn the rules before you can break them”. You have to write some thing that readers will want to read, to turn the page, to “see the movie”. By knowing what directors, editors and even actors will need to interpret your screenplay, you can write a richer, clearer story. It’s one of the best ways to protect the story you want to write, a lesson that took me years to learn. There are two things to remember when you’re writing a screenplay, write a good story and write a good movie. Jennifer’s book will help you make your screenplay more like a screenplay and will be useful time and time again.

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  2. Jeremy T. Hanke "Jeremy Hanke" says:
    111 of 120 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Review for “Cinematic Storytelling” that appeared on, November 17, 2005
    Jeremy T. Hanke “Jeremy Hanke” (Lexington, KY) –

    This review is from: Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know (Paperback)

    I recently reviewed a great debut film called ‘Ascension’ from a new microcinema director. The story and shooting style were fairly direct and straightforward; but–as this movie showed–just because the script didn’t call for Michael Bay-style camera moves, it didn’t mean that the shots had to be boring! A lot of beginning filmmakers (and even some that have more experience) can feel that they have to have lots of swooping crane or dramatic steadicam shots in order to have a great-looking movie. This isn’t true. In reality, if you don’t know how to effectively use the camera in the first place (visually speaking, not technically), you have no business putting it on a crane or steadicam; these devices cannot fix a visually uninteresting or inappropriate shot.

    Enter Cinematic Storytelling. Using some of the most iconic and well-known films as examples, Jennifer Van Sijll explains how to use visual composition, lenses, editing, sound effects, transitions, camera position, and much more to give emphasis and convey information and emotion in your movie.

    One of (the many) cool things about this book is that you don’t have to have had any prior experience working with cameras to be able to understand the material. If you can read English and can look at the picture examples given (still photos from various films), then you can understand the concepts conveyed in the book.
    Concepts and techniques (such as montages, intercutting, visual foreshadowing, etc.) are defined and clarified; even very subtle techniques that are almost unnoticeable in movies are pointed out and their effect explained. (For example, in describing the X-axis in screen direction, Van Sijll notes:

    “As Westerners we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio-made movies, there’s a good chance that the ‘good guy’ will enter screen left every time. When the ‘good guy’ moves left-to-right, our eyes move comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences. Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. Since our eyes aren’t used to moving from right to left, the antagonist’s entrance makes us uncomfortable. The screenwriter exploits this by transferring our learned discomfort to the characters” (4).
    The author then goes on to show stills and a script excerpt from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to illustrate the effect of this principle.

    Depth of Information
    The book covers a tremendous amount of information, starting with the conventions of stationary camera techniques and progressing through editing, sound, lenses, camera movement and positioning, lighting, and finally, environment (location, wardrobe, props, etc.). However, each topic has still photos of at least one movie that exemplifies that certain technique, as well as an explanation of its dramatic value. This latter part is essential, because it’s pointless to just talk about certain camera shots, effects, movements, etc. if you don’t explain why they are important or what they are effective for. Additionally, the techniques are explained in the context of the movie photos, thus illustrating their effect.

    [Quick side note: Jennifer Van Sijll draws from both old and new movies as examples. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 milestone Metropolis, to Citizen Kane, Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Piano, and Requiem for a Dream, all of the films she picks are excellent for viewing. You might want to add the “example movies” in this book to your Netflix or Blockbuster rental list. (Not like it’s probably already long enough as it is!]

    Interest Level
    I found that it was very easy to maintain interest in this book. Truth be told, I was rather skeptical at first when I was informed that I’d be reviewing a book entitled Cinematic Storytelling; I was expecting a textbook-sized tome with simple drawings and technical words. Not so. The format is very easy-to-follow; each chapter has approximately between 4-10 sections, with each section usually covered in one full page. This makes for quick reading and easy comprehension. There are no big, technical-geeky words to wade through, and the explanations and summaries are brief, but detailed and thorough.

    This book is definitely a must-have investment for a filmmaker; whether you are just starting your first short or are working on your tenth full-length feature, this is a book you’ll want to have within reach while planning your shot sheets and/or storyboards. And you’ll probably find yourself coming back to it again and again with each new project you do.

    Value vs. Cost
    While the listed retail price this book being $25, it is worth far more for the information and ideas it provides. If you’ve never taken any kind of cinematic layout class (and even if you have!) this book is well worth the price. This book helps you to make the maximum impact with your main artistic…

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  3. Sable Jak says:
    21 of 21 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Writers, look through someone else’s eyes., October 2, 2006

    This review is from: Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know (Paperback)

    What a fascinating book for a scriptwriter to read! At first, you think “This isn’t meant for me–it has chapters on camera lenses and camera positions, and wardrobe and sound effects! That’s stuff directors and cinematographers and other people work with.” From understanding the medium you’re working in, comes better work.

    Jennifer Van Sijll’s Cinematic Storytelling provides 100 film conventions (as mentioned in the full title) in concise, two-page examples. The pages are index card-like in their brevity, but are so well-done there is no need for extra words. First, she lists the filmmaking element, such as “Motion,” and gives an explanation. Next, she gives a film example, such as E.T., and explains the scene pictured in stills and how the particular scene conveys the element. If needed, she lists a script note or two and then explains what the dramatic value is of the element. Lastly, she lists a few other films that can serve as examples. The page with movie stills also contains the scene’s script passage to show how the element was written. A writer will find the pieces of script excellent examples from which to learn.

    Van Sijll’s layout and logical progression through the different elements of film, from frame composition to locations and lighting, are easy to follow and almost Zen-like in their simplicity. Despite that simplicity, they do make an impact and stay with you long after you’ve put the book down. You’ll find that when you sit down to write, you’ll try and put those elements into your script with just a few well-chosen words (so not to look as if you’re trying to direct). There are no exercises or homework and there is no general format information or advice on what the latest trick is to get your script seen. This is straightforward instruction presented in an easy-to-follow way.

    After each chapter, Van Sijll inserts a “Chapter Credits by Film Element” index where you’ll find a segment on each film she’s highlighted. Within the segment, you’ll find its release date, writer, director, production company and distributor. It’s an unconventional scriptwriting book, for sure, and definitely worth checking out. Van Sijll teaches at San Francisco State University, holds seminars, and also works as a script analyst for producers. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.

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