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The Compelling Logic of Screen Narratives

In the early days of cinema between 1894 and 1904, pioneering filmmakers began to realise that this inbuilt need to 'jump to conclusions' and curiosity to divine the truth, would enable them to not only to 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 increasingly 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 and partial answer, from shot to shot, at exactly the pace set by the filmmakers. The resultant film - if successfully constructed - will then stimulate 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 shot
  • the logical succession of joined (or edited) shots that builds on our desire to find connections between shots
  • the succession of narrative sounds, whether diegetic or non-diegetic, that accompany and bridge those shots
  • the sound effects and music that bridge scenes and sequences and modulate our emotional response to the narrative
  • the use of narration in both fictional and factual films to frame stories and connect shots, 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 occupy so much of our waking lives.