What Are Cinematic Techniques?

Alan Rankin

Cinematic techniques are the methods filmmakers and videographers use to convey narrative and information. They include camera and editing processes, sound and visual effects, and even certain types of dramatic performances. These are seamlessly combined to present a film’s narrative with maximum impact. Their use is so widespread that audiences around the world are familiar with them and expect to see them when they watch movies. Other media, such as television and comic books, also make use of cinematic techniques.

A filmmaker controls what the audience does and does not see.
A filmmaker controls what the audience does and does not see.

The art of making motion pictures, sometimes called cinema, originated in the 1890s. The first filmmakers did not recognize the full potential of their medium, and their movies often resembled stage dramas filmed with stationary cameras. In the first decades of the 20th century, pioneering filmmakers such as director D.W. Griffith realized that film could do things no other media could do. Griffith’s films, particularly 1914’s Birth of a Nation, introduced such cinematic techniques as close-ups and editing to increase drama and narrative tension. For this reason, Nation is hailed by cinema fans as a landmark film despite its controversial stance on racial matters and the American Civil War.

Cinematic techniques are applied both during filming and during editing.
Cinematic techniques are applied both during filming and during editing.

Film and video allow the filmmaker to control what the camera does and does not see. Careful editing can fool the audience into believing, for example, that two people are having a real-time conversation, when in reality each person may have been filmed at a different time and location, sometimes days and miles apart. Cinematic techniques involve certain requirements to create such illusions. For example, to simulate such a conversation, one actor should always face right, and the other should face left; also, their heads and eyes should be carefully positioned so it appears they are looking at each other. Failing to follow these procedures will make the scene disjointed and spoil the effect.

Other cinematic techniques include the close-up and the zoom, allowing detailed views of an object or an actor’s face. Consequently, acting on film can be subtler than theatre acting, where actors must perform for an audience that can be quite distant from the stage. Miniatures, makeup, and digital effects can be added, making the actors appear to be in locations that would be dangerous or impossible to actually film. Music and sound effects complete the illusion and make the story more compelling. Most of these cinematic techniques are created in the editing room and make cinema a popular art form worldwide.

Early television shows, like early movies, were little different from filmed stage performances. Pioneering shows such as The Twilight Zone and Hill Street Blues brought cinematic techniques to TV production; by the 21st century, most dramatic shows employed these to a greater or lesser extent. Comic book artists also employ their own versions of such techniques, simulating close-ups, zooms, and other cinematic procedures on the page. Such techniques have become so familiar to movie viewers around the world that audiences usually accept them without question when they appear in other visual media.

Theatre acting is often less subtle than film acting.
Theatre acting is often less subtle than film acting.

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