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Cinematic Storytelling: How Directors Manipulate Audiences
It’s easy to lose yourself in a movie, forgetting that you’re even looking at a screen—and much of that is because of the ways the camera lures you in. Read on to learn some of the basic techniques directors use to subtly affect our emotions.
Though much of a movie’s story is told through dialogue, film is inherently a visual art. As a result, many of the techniques filmmakers use—the language of the cinema, so to speak—are subtle visual tricks designed to instill certain thoughts or emotions in an audience’s mind. One of the simplest of these techniques is controlling the direction of movement. If a character enters from the left side of the screen, viewers may naturally consider him a “good guy,” instantly feeling at ease with his presence. The idea behind this principle is that the eye is more comfortable moving from left to right, since this mimics the motion of reading in most Western cultures. Likewise, a character entering from right to left can be seen as unnatural and unfamiliar—a clear antagonist. Directors can also use vertical motion to influence audiences. If a character moves down the screen, from top to bottom, it appears comfortable, as the audience subconsciously assumes the pull of gravity aids in the motion. All of these tricks can be used together to instill a scene with unbearable tension—if the camera moves diagonally up the screen from right to left, defying both gravity and the eye’s natural movements, audiences can feel dread without even knowing it.
Though they sound like clever artistic flairs, many of these techniques were the children of necessity. For the filmmakers who made classics such as The Great Train Robbery and Metropolis, the camera had to do all the work of telling the story without the help of sound. Title cards could communicate locations and dialogue, but directors used them as a last resort since their static appearance was less engaging than the marvel of a moving image. Thus, filmmakers were forced to experiment with the nascent art of cinematography. Along with the aforementioned tricks, directors found ways to introduce plot and character details without saying a word, such as using light to highlight important objects or shooting a character from a low angle to make him instantly appear more powerful.