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Cinematic Grammar

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Cinematic grammar refers to the visual language of film. Just as the written word is governed by general rules, which if used properly can effectively translate the thoughts and feelings of the writer into words that effectively carry the writers message to the reader, so too the cinema is governed by general rules that if used properly can allow filmmakers to effectively convey meaning and translate ideas and feelings of the story into something the viewer can understand. Below is a list of tools and techniques used by cinematographers and possible associated meanings. This list is by no means comprehensive, and depending on the content of the image and the implementation of the tool could have vastly different meanings, but is meant to be a starting point in the development of a shot list.

Pan

Panning shots are often revelatory. They give us additional information to help us form a more complete idea. In so doing they may also create in us a sort of Ah Ha or discovery moment.

Fast pans create a lot of energy and movement, high-paced, fast, exciting, intense.

Establishing shots

Often in order to eliminate confusion and give the audience a firm foundation as to where a particular scene is taking place, scenes will begin with a wide shot. They set the mood and location for where the next scene takes place.

Parallel Cutting

Parallel stories is usually between the protagonist and the antagonist in that particular moment, whether that be man vs. man, man vs. nature or man vs. something else. It can last the entire movie or within a single scene. Parallel cutting doesn’t necessarily have to involve only two stories. For example, the people trapped, the rescuers, the support for the rescuers, the object trying to destroy them.

Close-ups

Close-ups are the details that either enrich the scene or give further meaning. Close-ups also typically carry with the a feeling of intimacy, entrapment, claustrophobia. Cutting from a wide or medium shot to a close-up, especially when it is something associated with the previous shot is like the exclamation mark and adds emphasis.

A series of close-ups without seeing a lot of wider shots can create a sense of mystery as the audience tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

You can also use close-ups as transitional elements to tie one scene to another or one time to another, or one parallel story to another.

Low angle shot (worms-eye-view)

Often gives the audience a sense of belittlement or lack of control, or makes the subject seem powerful or ominous.

High Angle Shot (Birds-Eye-View)

Distances the audience. It can make the audience feel like an observer.

Subjective Point of View

The audience becomes the character. Intensifies the scene.

Following action with a steadicam

Intense. Puts the audience in the action as a very active participant.

Framing with foreground out of focus

Creates a sense of being watched by some ominous presence, a feeling as though something isn’t right with the person or place being viewed through the foreground object.

Dolly In

Moving the camera closer toward the subject almost forces the audience to lean forward in their chair. It builds anticipation; “listen intently this next part is important” kind of message. It also intensifies and existing emotion.

Wide Shots

Can create a sense of loneliness when a subject is involved, but also a feeling of vastness.

Dolly parallel to movement slow 

Deliberate, steady, focused.

Combination of slow pans and dollys

Gentle, tender, breathing, rhythmic. It can also give a sense of prowling depending on the performance and mood of the scene, or bluilding intensity.

Dolly in from wide, medium speed

Dolly in Slowly: Curiosity

Move in Extremely slow: Building intensity

Over the Shoulder

Wide is a distant relationship, medium, coming closer, and close up very intimate or intense.