What is Cinematic Language and How Do You Use It?

Cinematic Language: Understanding its Meaning

Cinematic language. You will have most likely heard this phrase being used in film circles, about a screenplay or in reference to a film or TV episode. But what is cinematic language?

Cinematic language is the methods and conventions of cinema that are used to communicate with the audience. This is often also referred to as visual storytelling, although this is only one part of cinematic language. Emotions and ideas are expressed in cinema visually through all types of techniques such as lighting, performance, mise-en-scéne, cinematography, editing and more. 

When understanding cinematic language, it is useful to consider the conventions of literature that are used to convey meaning and communicate with the reader. For example, literature often uses literary techniques such as symbolism or narration to portray meaning and communicate plot, characterisation or themes. The same is done in screenwriting, but with cinematic techniques.

A montage can represent a cunning plan coming together or a singular experience had over different time periods. Lighting and colour can be used to indicate the mood of a scene. Pacing and dialogue can convey atmosphere. Clothes can convey character and themes. This is cinematic language.

How to Recognise Cinematic Language

A good tip when trying to recognise cinematic language is to tune into how you feel when you’re watching a particular scene. Typically, screenwriters intend to present meaning to the audience subtly and subconsciously. If a man in the shadows approaching a character from behind makes you feel suspicious, that is more than likely what the film is trying to communicate!

You’re seeing it all in your mind’s eye, you’re inferring it. And this is the fourth aspect of cinema that’s so special. That inference. The image in the mind’s eye… For me it’s where the obsession began. It’s what keeps me going, it never fails to excite me. Because you take one shot, you put it together with another shot, and you experience a third image in your mind’s eye that doesn’t really exist in those two other images… And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language.

Martin Scorsese

Cinematic language in film can come in many different forms. Take the following examples: 

  • Camera framing: a camera angle and framing can tell us how to feel about a character. For example, if the camera is looking at a character from a low angle, it shows the character is important or powerful. If the camera is looking from a high angle, it can show the character is small and weak.
  • Lighting and colour: a dark and dull setting can tell us that we should feel tense or scared. Or a light and colourful setting can tell us to feel happy and warm.
  • Performance: an actor’s performance is the key to understanding their emotions throughout a film. They can communicate this in a number of ways through facial expressions, body language, pace and tone. The writer might typically convey this intention through stage direction or a parenthetical.

Cinematic Language in a Screenplay

When writing a screenplay, cinematic language is a principle you should always have at the forefront of your mind. Camera directions and editing techniques are not explicitly your responsibility to write about. But cinematic language should be at the core of your screenplay.

A good example of the use of cinematic language comes in Schindler’s List. The iconic use of colour in this famous scene (above) portrays many things: 

  • The film is entirely in black and white apart from this scene. The red coat, therefore, stands out.
  • The young girl in the red coat is framed to be small and innocent against the heavy backdrop, filled with masses of people.
  • It’s used as a way to symbolize hope, innocence and vitality amidst so much death and destruction.

Steven Zaillian, who wrote this screenplay, creates an atmosphere that highlights the meaning of the red coat and therefore is speaking a language to the audience and screenplay reader. 

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Applying Cinematic Language to Your Screenplay

Considering this example, it might be useful to ask yourself: is your screenplay portraying cinematic language? Zaillian portrays cinematic language subtly and uses the descriptions to do so.

Although it is the director’s job to bring this scene to life, it is your job as the screenwriter to characterize the scene as best you can.

Language such as ‘his attention is drawn to a small distant figure, all in red, at the rear of one of the many columns’ would give the cinematographer an idea of how to frame the girl in the shot. This communicates to the audience that she is small and vulnerable. 

Meanwhile, Zaillian’s use of sound, ‘a truck thundering down’ and ‘the gunfire outside sounds like firecrackers’, depicts an atmosphere of fear and communicates danger through audio reference points.

But What Does Cinematic Language Actually Look Like?

Still can’t quite picture what cinematic language means? Well below are a number of scene examples that use cinematic language in a range of ways.

Parasite

In Parasite, the famous montage scene is written in voiceover with a monologue explaining the plan both being laid out and taking place. Voiceover is a good technique if you want to bring further meaning to what is on screen. And monologues are also a very powerful tool in creating an engaging cinematic language.

There’s a rhythm to a monologue and this helps dictate the overall rhythm of the montage. This rhythm is essential to the montage serving as cinematic language, creating the opportunity for a perfect synthesis of music, imagery and plot.

The brilliance of this scene also relies on the character’s dialogue. If you plan on writing a meticulous scene such as this, it is important to make sure your dialogue is coherent and relates directly to what is being said. This will communicate to the audience that what is happening is vital to the narrative. 

The cinematic language used in this montage scene is crucial to communicating all elements of theme, character and plot all at once. The result is a thrilling and thoroughly entertaining few minutes of cinema.

Vertigo

Vertigo Cinematic Language

It is important to note that Hitchcock’s iconic career began in the silent era, starting with films such as The Lodger and The Ring. This helped establish Hitchcock’s mastery of visual cinematic language.

You can watch many of Hitchcock’s scenes with the sound turned off and still understand what he is trying to communicate. The Ernie’s restaurant scene from Vertigo is a perfect example of this.

This scene is a crucial introductory scene for the character Madeleine. The use of lighting and colour draws Madeleine out from the crowd.

In this scene, the cinematic language of the setting also foreshadows the events of the narrative. The scene communicates with the audience without them even knowing as the painting and wallpaper mimic flowers, a symbol of what is to come.

The slow pace and tone of the scene is also essential to showing that Madeleine is the most important thing to this narrative and to Scotty. It’s a perfect example of a film talking in its own language. It doesn’t need dialogue, the message is communicated by the visuals alone, with all that comes around it serving as further support.

The Godfather

This iconic baptism scene from The Godfather demonstrates the use of multi-linear storytelling as a cinematic language.

  • As Michael is at a baptism becoming a godfather, the film intercuts between the church setting and the hits that Michael has ordered on his rivals.

This technique is used to reflect Michael’s character arc, which has changed him considerably since the beginning of the film. Contrasting parallel scenes like this in your screenplay can create a lot more meaning to a climactic event as it enables the audience to gain an insight into the characters’ psychological state and feel tension towards the events that are unfolding.

The use of montage going in between the storylines is a portrayal of the conflict present in the film’s themes. The cinematic language is representing innocence and purity in the setting of a family baptism, but violence and death as Michael’s men go around murdering his rivals.

This scene is the perfect example of cinematic language. There is little dialogue telling the audience what is going on, but the use of montage, setting and action shows them instead.

Moreover, it’s the visual contrast that speaks volumes about the film’s themes – horrific acts of violence being carried out within the same moment as Michael speaks words renouncing sin. This duality is at the core of the film and we understand that by seeing it at the core of this climactic scene. The cinematic language of a montage is the only way to convey this duality, as it allows for many moments to be happening all at once.

But What Does This Mean for Your Screenplay?

Now it is time to consider applying cinematic language to your screenplay. Ask yourself, am I communicating with my audience? Does this part of my screenplay mean something to the film as a whole?

Here are some tips in creating a cinematic language throughout your screenplay.

Before writing a scene, write down what you are trying to say.

  • Writing down the meaning of the scene you are about to write can be useful when trying to create cinematic language throughout your screenplay.
  • From there, you can begin to analyse how you are going to convey that meaning through cinematic language.

You might use some of the following:

  • Dialogue. Dialogue can be essential in communicating to the audience in either its abundance or scarcity. An abundance of dialogue can allow the audience to understand how the characters are feeling and representing themselves externally. Whereas a scarcity can increase the tension and atmosphere within the scene.
  • Colour. Drawing attention to colour in your screenplay can be important if you want to create symbolism.
  • Mise-en-scéne. Outlining the mise-en-scéne at the beginning of the scene you are writing immediately communicates to the audience the atmosphere and feeling of that scene. For example, a small, enclosed space with illogical arrangements can communicate claustrophobia and confusion. Whereas a large open field can communicate freedom.
  • Performance. You cannot simply write how a character is feeling, it needs to be visually shown. If you state that this scene feels ‘unreal’, then the actor will take that to reflect their performance and act shocked, communicating to the audience how they feel instead of telling them through dialogue. 
  • Tone. Deciding if you want this scene to be fast or slow, jittery or confusing, determines how the film will communicate the mood of the narrative.

Watch Films and Look Out For Cinematic Language

Watching films and reading screenplays is a great way to enhance your understanding of cinematic language. Take a mental (or literal!) note when you recognise the use of cinematic language. 

Look out for:

  • Mise-en-scéne
  • Colour and lighting.
  • Editing techniques, such as montage.
  • Use of dialogue.
  • Narrative (the timings of scenes and the importance of their placement in the narrative timeline).
  • Cinematography choices.
  • Sound.

Although some of these concepts will not be included in your screenplay, it is essential that you understand how they are communicated in films and TV. This knowledge will enhance your writing and allow you to create meaning and depth to your screenplay within the very essence of the writing itself.

Cinematic language is what makes a screenplay unique. It’s what justifies the screenplay’s existence in the format it is in and creates a compelling argument for realisation. This is why it’s so important, a moment for the screenplay to stand up and shout about its form and the content within it.

In Summary

What is Cinematic Language?

Cinematic language is the methods and conventions of cinema that are used to communicate with the audience.

What Are the Elements of Cinematic Language?

The elements of cinematic language include camera angles, focus and movements, mise-en-scéne, lighting, sound and music, editing and performance.

How to Use Cinematic Language in Your Screenplay?

Be considerate of all the types of cinematic language even if you are not directly writing them. Always ask yourself what you are trying to portray in the scene that you are writing and analyse if all the different parts of your scenes are essential to the point and meaning of your screenplay overall.

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This article was written by Daisy Hirst and edited by IS staff.

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