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on September 10, 2005
Having taught screenwriting for UCLA's Writing Program as well as being a working screenwriter for the past 20 years I've always been asked what separates a professional screenplay from the thousands of amateur screenplays out there. One of the things aspiring writers lack is what we call "getting your chops", a term borrowed from musicians. Meaning real, live experience that simply can't be taught. And usually, the only way to get it is by having your material produced. Jennifer Van Sijll's book CINEMATIC STORYTELLING, is the first book I've read to take an intensive look at what takes years and lots of produced credits to learn. By using written scenes from movies, coupled with actual film scenes printed alongside, Jennifer teaches visual storytelling in a way few books have done.

What I learned early on in this business is that there are several drafts after the one you sell. Many of us refer to them as the producer's draft, the director's draft, the actor's draft and the crew's draft. And you will make changes in all of those areas for reasons of character development, budget, schedule, location and ego.

Do writers really need to know about how films are shot and edited, even how sound can enhance a screenplay? The answer is yes and Jennifer's book, very appropriately titled provides invaluable information, something all writers whether aspiring ones or seasoned pros like myself need to consider. What she illustrates are the various parts of a movie and how they relate to the screenplay. The book is divided into chapters with topics like framing, locations, sound effects, transitions, camera motion and lenses, lighting, props and many more. Each chapter has many specific written scenes and still photo clips from well-known movies

Consider transitions, difficult for aspiring writers and even some pros. Learning to write good transitions between scenes rarely is taught in writing courses, and often left to the director, producer or editor. CINEMATIC STORYTELLING presents the reader written scenes from Citizen Kane, Fatal Attraction and many more movies, illustrating how sound and visual transitions are used in a finished film. A good writer can add smooth transitions into their screenplay and make their screenplay read more like a movie and more likely to be read. I've always been told my screenplays are easy reads, meaning that the reader is quickly engaged in the story, and this is directly due to my knowledge of visuals including transitions, close-ups, wide shots and sound cues. The secret here is writing it like it's part of the natural organic form of the screenplay rather than clumsy, noticeable descriptions. You don't have to write CLOSE UP, to indicate one.

Experience teaches the working writer and Jennifer's book is a solid attempt at dealing with this interconnected world of writing and making movies using many classic movies like Citizen Kane, Chinatown, The Searchers (my personal favorite), as well as contemporary movies like Pulp Fiction and lesser-known indie films including the cult favorite Harold and Maude to give a really good balance to her observations. She has focuses on framing, sound effects, transitions, camera motion, lighting, even camera lenses, which may not sound like anything a writer need know. However, a working knowledge of all those elements can and will contribute to a well-written screenplay.

I've always taught students that screenplays should be entertaining to read, in the same way movies should be entertaining, no matter how serious the subject. Breaking the rules is fine once you've sold your big feature, but don't forget the old saying, "you gotta learn the rules before you can break them". You have to write some thing that readers will want to read, to turn the page, to "see the movie". By knowing what directors, editors and even actors will need to interpret your screenplay, you can write a richer, clearer story. It's one of the best ways to protect the story you want to write, a lesson that took me years to learn. There are two things to remember when you're writing a screenplay, write a good story and write a good movie. Jennifer's book will help you make your screenplay more like a screenplay and will be useful time and time again.
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on November 17, 2005
I recently reviewed a great debut film called 'Ascension' from a new microcinema director. The story and shooting style were fairly direct and straightforward; but--as this movie showed--just because the script didn't call for Michael Bay-style camera moves, it didn't mean that the shots had to be boring! A lot of beginning filmmakers (and even some that have more experience) can feel that they have to have lots of swooping crane or dramatic steadicam shots in order to have a great-looking movie. This isn't true. In reality, if you don't know how to effectively use the camera in the first place (visually speaking, not technically), you have no business putting it on a crane or steadicam; these devices cannot fix a visually uninteresting or inappropriate shot.

Enter Cinematic Storytelling. Using some of the most iconic and well-known films as examples, Jennifer Van Sijll explains how to use visual composition, lenses, editing, sound effects, transitions, camera position, and much more to give emphasis and convey information and emotion in your movie.


One of (the many) cool things about this book is that you don't have to have had any prior experience working with cameras to be able to understand the material. If you can read English and can look at the picture examples given (still photos from various films), then you can understand the concepts conveyed in the book.

Concepts and techniques (such as montages, intercutting, visual foreshadowing, etc.) are defined and clarified; even very subtle techniques that are almost unnoticeable in movies are pointed out and their effect explained. (For example, in describing the X-axis in screen direction, Van Sijll notes:

"As Westerners we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio-made movies, there's a good chance that the 'good guy' will enter screen left every time. When the 'good guy' moves left-to-right, our eyes move comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences. Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. Since our eyes aren't used to moving from right to left, the antagonist's entrance makes us uncomfortable. The screenwriter exploits this by transferring our learned discomfort to the characters" (4).

The author then goes on to show stills and a script excerpt from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train to illustrate the effect of this principle.

Depth of Information

The book covers a tremendous amount of information, starting with the conventions of stationary camera techniques and progressing through editing, sound, lenses, camera movement and positioning, lighting, and finally, environment (location, wardrobe, props, etc.). However, each topic has still photos of at least one movie that exemplifies that certain technique, as well as an explanation of its dramatic value. This latter part is essential, because it's pointless to just talk about certain camera shots, effects, movements, etc. if you don't explain why they are important or what they are effective for. Additionally, the techniques are explained in the context of the movie photos, thus illustrating their effect.

[Quick side note: Jennifer Van Sijll draws from both old and new movies as examples. From Fritz Lang's 1927 milestone Metropolis, to Citizen Kane, Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Piano, and Requiem for a Dream, all of the films she picks are excellent for viewing. You might want to add the "example movies" in this book to your Netflix or Blockbuster rental list. (Not like it's probably already long enough as it is!]

Interest Level

I found that it was very easy to maintain interest in this book. Truth be told, I was rather skeptical at first when I was informed that I'd be reviewing a book entitled Cinematic Storytelling; I was expecting a textbook-sized tome with simple drawings and technical words. Not so. The format is very easy-to-follow; each chapter has approximately between 4-10 sections, with each section usually covered in one full page. This makes for quick reading and easy comprehension. There are no big, technical-geeky words to wade through, and the explanations and summaries are brief, but detailed and thorough.


This book is definitely a must-have investment for a filmmaker; whether you are just starting your first short or are working on your tenth full-length feature, this is a book you'll want to have within reach while planning your shot sheets and/or storyboards. And you'll probably find yourself coming back to it again and again with each new project you do.

Value vs. Cost

While the listed retail price this book being $25, it is worth far more for the information and ideas it provides. If you've never taken any kind of cinematic layout class (and even if you have!) this book is well worth the price. This book helps you to make the maximum impact with your main artistic tool: the camera itself. Just like writers understand the impact of their words, and painters understand how colors are used on their canvas, so must the filmmaker understand and know how to use the camera without relying solely on special effects and equipment.

Overall Comment

This book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested or involved in filmmaking, storyboarding, camerawork, cinematography, producing, and/or directing. Too many filmmakers--both microcinema and "big Hollywood"--don't fully understand the purposes and implications of various shots; this book will help you make the best use of your time, equipment, story, planning, and ideas.

Understandability - 9

Depth of Information - 9.5

Interest Level - 9.0

Reusability - 10.0

Value vs. Cost - 10.0

Total Score - 8.3

Reviewed by Kari Ann Morgan
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on October 2, 2006
What a fascinating book for a scriptwriter to read! At first, you think "This isn't meant for me--it has chapters on camera lenses and camera positions, and wardrobe and sound effects! That's stuff directors and cinematographers and other people work with." From understanding the medium you're working in, comes better work.

Jennifer Van Sijll's Cinematic Storytelling provides 100 film conventions (as mentioned in the full title) in concise, two-page examples. The pages are index card-like in their brevity, but are so well-done there is no need for extra words. First, she lists the filmmaking element, such as "Motion," and gives an explanation. Next, she gives a film example, such as E.T., and explains the scene pictured in stills and how the particular scene conveys the element. If needed, she lists a script note or two and then explains what the dramatic value is of the element. Lastly, she lists a few other films that can serve as examples. The page with movie stills also contains the scene's script passage to show how the element was written. A writer will find the pieces of script excellent examples from which to learn.

Van Sijll's layout and logical progression through the different elements of film, from frame composition to locations and lighting, are easy to follow and almost Zen-like in their simplicity. Despite that simplicity, they do make an impact and stay with you long after you've put the book down. You'll find that when you sit down to write, you'll try and put those elements into your script with just a few well-chosen words (so not to look as if you're trying to direct). There are no exercises or homework and there is no general format information or advice on what the latest trick is to get your script seen. This is straightforward instruction presented in an easy-to-follow way.

After each chapter, Van Sijll inserts a "Chapter Credits by Film Element" index where you'll find a segment on each film she's highlighted. Within the segment, you'll find its release date, writer, director, production company and distributor. It's an unconventional scriptwriting book, for sure, and definitely worth checking out. Van Sijll teaches at San Francisco State University, holds seminars, and also works as a script analyst for producers. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
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on March 10, 2011
I can't say I completely recommend it, at least not until after reading more informative books about directing and cinematic composition such as Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen (Michael Wiese Productions) and Film Directing: Cinematic Motion, Second Edition, both by Steven D Katz and The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado. I'm actually a little surprised at all the overwhelmingly positive reviews of this book and thought it needed a bit of more critical appraisal.

It seems to be part of a series of books all made in the "widescreen" format, I think trying to cash in on the HD craze. The layout of these books is similar to the 16:9 HD aspect ratio, and the books are designed to be visually appealing, but seem to be very sparse on information. There's a lot of blank white space, and what few words there are suffer from a stiffly formulaic presentation loaded with pointless repetition. Each page only features a few brief paragraphs and feels like it could have been developed a lot more. And then to waste more space, each chapter pointlessly lists the credits for each movie mentioned in that chapter - what's the point of that? I wouldn't mind it if it seemed the actual descriptions of the cinematic conventions themselves -- the meat and potatoes of the book - were more fully presented first, but it seems the credits listing eats up valuable space that should have been devoted to more fully developed discussion of those conventions.

I'm not completely panning the book... it IS a good brief introduction to "100 cinematic conventions every filmmaker should know". But that's all it is. To make an analogy, it's like a book that lists 100 great ingredients with very brief notes as to how each tastes and what kind of dish it can be used in, but has no recipes in it. The books mentioned above have those recipes... they go into great detail about staging and blocking and how to arrange actors and scene elements for various effects. The information in those books is presented in such a way that you come out with coherent understanding of how to set up certain types of scenes.

Once you have a grounding in that kind of detailed info, then a book like Cinematic Storytelling is a good addition... some additional ingredients to add to your dishes once you know how to cook them. But that listing of ingredients does no good until you know some recipes.
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on November 5, 2009
I read many reviews before I commit to getting a book. Because this book was so well reviewed, I thought it would be perfect.
I am a screenwriter and I recently directed my first commercial. I turned to this book to expand my visual vocabulary. I expected to see many visual conventions explained in graphic detail that I could adopt or at least be aware about.

Don't let the reviews fool you. This book is academic jargon. Deconstructionist dribble. Postmodern silliness. It is not -- I repeat, NOT -- practical cinematic storytelling devices put on paper by a working professional, but reads more like an undergraduate film student's take on Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, etc...

If you like film criticism, great. But this book claims to be a resource for screenwriters hoping to use a richer visual technique, or for directors who need to know the most common shots and visual conventions.

So you understand what I am saying, understand: the very first chapter/point is "The Horizontal Axis." Our young author -- with no real experience -- then goes on to relate how often times good characters move from left to right, and villains move from right to left. If you don't see how annoying and impractical and just plain theoretical this book can be, let me choose another example.

Chapter 14: Triangular Composition.
Using the film "Witness" as an example, our naive author goes on to show how the filmmakers used triangles to show a love triangle between three central characters. First of all, there isn't any use of triangles in any obvious way, even in the picture she chose. Second of all, because she overlays the screenplay, you can see how there is no notion as such in the screenplay as well. Worst of all, the author then claims that the other elements in the frame --a birdhouse, picket fence -- are themselves triangular and part of the thematic message.

This is the BS that they taught me in college English courses. This is what they call deconstructionism where the author's intent has nothing to do with a reader's ability to derive whatever meaning they want.

If you are looking for a good practical shot guide, or anything to expand your moviemaking technique, do not get this book. It is not written by a filmmaker. A PA would no more about film than this woman.

If you like post-modern crap, then get this book. I wish I could get rid of it.
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on September 4, 2005
Years ago I placed two stickers on my computer monitor. One sticker said: "You are a storyteller." And the other sticker said: "Think Visually." The first sticker was to remind me that, in my simplest form, all I wanted to do was tell stories to move and entertain people. The second sticker was to remind me to not be so clinical in my writing and think visually as to how I want the scene to look; to look at other approaches, VISUAL approaches, so I don't become a static writer writing just the basic words to get the scene across.

Years later, those stickers are gone but the core ideas are not.

It is the most common thing I write on a script that I am editing: "How do you show?" The character is angry. "How do you show?" The character wears a t-shirt. "Does it say anything?" The character drives up in a car. "What kind of car is it?" And, more often than not, the writer looks at me with a blank look on their face to say: "You expect me to put that in?" "OF COURSE I EXPECT YOU TO PUT THAT IN! AREN'T YOU A WRITER?"

Then the argument comes back to me: "I've heard that Producers don't want lots of detail." "I've heard that Producers look at how much white space there is before they'll read the script." "I'm trying to keep it as basic as possible." Which tells me they want to keep it BORING! You are a WRITER. WRITE!

"Cinematic Storytelling" is a book that rubber stamps my continued arguments with writers. It breaks down, by explanation, script examples and photos, how a scene is put together visually - and all the different combinations there-in. The subtitle to the book is: "The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know"

Jennifer Van Sijll, using examples from the silent film "Metropolis" to Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill 1" (and everything in between) explores those 100 Powerful Film Conventions in great detail.

The book is broken up in 17 chapters, each with an introduction and then within those chapters she breaks down each convention. For instance, Chapter 5 deals with "Time" while Chapter 9 deals with "Lenses." As you read through this book she provides you with an explanation to the convention, she will often provide the bit of the script that refers to that convention, and then photographs from the scene to reinforce the convention.

In the chapter on "Lighting" (Chapter 12) she breaks down "Motion Lighting" showing how the opening scenes of ET used lights in motion to heighten the suspense of ET running through the forest. First, with the truck head-lights and then, secondly, with the flashlights the pursuers use. She also re-prints the part of the script where this scene is described to show you, the writer, how it translated from the page to the screen. There are quite a number of "script segments" that are, of course, different from the draft or shooting script to what was actually shot, printed and shown. Did you know the opening to the film "Adaptation" was actually in the 2nd Act of that film?

Besides the above, she also includes details on each example she used at the end of each chapter: Title, date, writer(s), director, production company and distributor. I think this information would be very helpful if you're doing research on these persons or the process.

I found myself, as I read through this book, thinking about the films I had most recently seen trying to find examples of what she was referring to. I was questioning some of my favorite films confirming a lot of what she explains in the book. These conventions really do add to the whole story-telling process and they do help the page "come alive" on the screen.

There are two complaints I have with this book:

1. 90% of the script portions she uses come from films that were directed by the writer. Joel and Ethan Cohen ("Fargo" and "Barton Fink"), Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane"), Luc Besson ("The Professional), etc. Obviously their vision is going to be more "complete" because they are directing what they have written. What I feel would have been more beneficial, especially for amateur screenwriters, is to show how a "Spec" Script was modified from the written version to what the director envisioned. Did the sparse description turn into a riveting scene because of what the director did with the script? Or was there enough on the page for the director to work with? As an amateur writer there is a "less is more" approach to writing which, in my opinion, saps the writer from being creative and stamping their script with a particular vision. A few more examples of this would have been helpful.

2. The other complaint piggy-backs the first. Many of the script examples she provides came from screenplays that were obviously shooting scripts or scripts that had been through the Hollywood mill. Jennifer explains in the "Note on Credits and Script Sources" how she came to the scripts and what she had to work with. I think it's excellent to have the script portions in the book and extremely helpful to the reader - but it also may confuse new writers who suddenly feel they have to include scene numbers or every single camera angle. She DOES note when the script portion is a draft or a shooting script but I still think this could add to some confusion.

But how does this book help that writer who's afraid a Producer will balk when they see a camera movement or a highly detailed description? What I feel this book DOES do is confirm that writing a screenplay is more than just typing: "Joan walks into a bar." And turns it into: "Joan, mid-thirties and wearing a slinky red dress, slinks into a smoke-filled sports bar." If a Producer doesn't get more drawn in with example number two - then you probably would not want to work with that Producer.

Overall this is an excellent book which goes beyond the typical screenwriting books. There is no mention of proper formatting. No talk of three act structure. The book challenges you, the storyteller, to look at your script in a visual way. To push those visual clues and see how you can write a script and add those images that fit YOUR vision, too.

Screenwriters, whether amateur or not, need to be reminded that they are, indeed, storytellers and they must tell their stories visually. This book helps you explore those visual options.

"Cinematic Storytelling" reminded me of the basics of screenwriting: "Telling a story in a visual way." It's a lesson all screenwriters need to learn - it's a lesson all screenwriters need to remember.
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on September 18, 2013
In general, most of these 'cinematic techniques' are discussed in a very basic fashion. The coverage is cursory at best. What would help it a lot is more 'best practices' kind of discussion, and showing more how to get good results with specific applications of the techniques. This is done to a small extent, but it is way too limited to be very helpful. Many of the 'techniques' are so simplistic, it is like saying 'Well, if the scene is too dark, you can shine a light in there.' If you compare this book to 'Master Shots', you can see my point.
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VINE VOICEon August 31, 2005
The language of cinema gets full exposure in this comprehensive reference guide that takes a look at 100 years of film history and technique, focusing on elements such as lighting, editing, sound and direction as key tools for powerful storytelling.

Most of us think of visual effects and dialog as the most obvious tools of communication when it comes to film, but a deeper examination of what makes a good film great reveals true artistry that goes beyond what is being said and done on the screen. Author Jennifer Van Sijll, a screenwriting teacher at San Francisco State with an MFA from USC's Dept. of Cinema-Television, has undertaken a huge task here, compiling dozens upon dozens of examples of how the use of sound, camera motion, angles and picture quality all serve to enhance the magic of cinema.

Chapters cover the gamut from screenwriting and directing technique to the use of space and dimension, frame composition, editing, using the expansion and contraction of time, sound effects, scene transitions (both audio and visual), lighting, use of color, props, camera motion, differing camera lenses, where to position the camera, wardrobe and locations and so much more. In fact, if it isn't included in this virtual encyclopedia of film technique and artistry, it must not exist.

Each chapter includes plenty of film grabs from the most memorable films in history, from "The Graduate" to ""Pulp Fiction" to "Citizen Kane," as well as photographs that compliment the description and give the reader a more visual sense of the technique's effect. There are also descriptions of the dramatic value achieved with each technique, as well as actual pages from the screenplays that drive the point home. Sijll also includes suggested reading and additional films to view that compliment the elements being discussed, so filmmakers can continue to explore the concepts and techniques outside of the content of this book.

Making films is all about telling a story and that is not just done with words on a page, or even pictures on a screen. There are so many elements involved in the creation of a film, and understanding how to use those elements can truly make the difference between a movie and a masterpiece. For anyone interested in a career in film, "Cinematic Storytelling" is a priceless guide to creating memories on screen that will last a lifetime and beyond.
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VINE VOICEon March 29, 2014
Not at all what I expected. I was looking for a book on how to translate ideas into visual scenes, and this book isn't that. However, it covers lots of things I never would have thought about if I hadn't read it. Just one example that sticks out is the series Helix. I watched many episodes of it without noticing anything different about it until I read this book. Now I know it was mainly shot in shades of green, and the love interest of the main character, and there are two, would always wear red, so you instantly knew which one he was closest to at the moment. Without this book I would have never noticed that.

I had no idea that directors and editors looked at the sort of stuff this book talks about. Fascinating. It's like it opened up a whole new world to me.
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on August 28, 2007
To call me a newbie screenwriter would be to insult newbie screenwriters. I'm a fledgling, nascent, inchoate, and very bad screenwriter. And if you would read the mere one-page script I wrote yesterday, you'd call me some choice names but I daresay 'screenwriter' will not be one of the myriad.
That said, this is such a great book, the highest quality through and through, from the binding to the clear type and the clear picture examples of each shot type. I found myself reading this like I would an easy novel: it was literally a page-turner and filled with so much information, and information I could immediately start using.
With each example, I popped in the respective DVD and found the particular shots and marveled at how the author's description and subsequent interpretation of the scene was spot on, a real "Aha!" moment on each page. In my long and very arduous road to screenwriting mediocrity, I believe 'Cinematic Storytelling' will be a staunch ally, immovable from its perch as a resident of my reference bookshelf.
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