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The Logic of Screen Narratives

Humans are able to watch and understand screen narratives from an early age because our senses and brains are hard-wired through the process of evolution to find causal connections between what we see and hear (as well as smell and touch) in the world around us. We cannot look at two sequential images, or hear two sequential sounds, or a hear a sound within a specific setting, without jumping to the conclusion that there is most likely a causal connection between the two and then trying to work out what it is.

This makes perfect evolutionary sense. If we are walking in a dark glade and we hear a strange noise, our first instinct should be to assume this represents a threat and take cover. That doesn't make us cowards; on the contrary, it's just common sense self-preservation. Only once we are safe should we try to work out the truth.

In the early days of cinema between 1894 and 1904, pioneering filmmakers realised that this inbuilt need to 'jump to conclusions' and curiosity to divine the truth would enable them to not only document the world around them through single clips using the new medium of moving images (e.g. a train going over a bridge), but also to create complex narratives from a succession of clips that unfold through time. At first these short but complex film narratives were accompanied by musicians in the theatre but from the 1930s they were bound together with recorded sound and a synchronised soundtrack.

A moving image text can be therefore described as a multi-layered, audio-visual narrative that is developed through a process of question, partial answer, new question, from clip to clip, at exactly the pace decided by the filmmakers. The resultant film stimulates the audience's curiosity and imagination, drawing them through the narrative.

Today we view these fictional and factual narratives as fluid and seemingly seamless screenworks, an illusion that is achieved through:

  • the use of credits, titles, text-on-screen and inter-titles to frame the cinematic illusion
  • movement and dialogue expressing conflict that unfolds frame by frame within a filmed clip
  • the logical succession of joined (or edited) shots that builds on our desire to find connections between clips
  • the succession of narrative sounds (whether diegetic or non-diegetic) that accompany those clips (either singly or over a sequence)
  • the sound effects and music that bridge scenes and sequences and modulates our emotional response to the narrative
  • the use of narration (in both fictional and factual films) to frame stories and connect images, clips, sounds and music.

In the following pages, we will look briefly at how these techniques developed into a language and try to find ways to systematically decode these rich texts that fill up our waking lives.