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Lecture Library

ARTS1060 Introduction to Film Studies — Narrative and Narration
by Michelle Langford

This lecture is designed to introduce first year film studies students at UNSW Australia to concepts of cinematic narrative and narration.

In this lecture students are introduced to some key principles of narrative and narration with the aim of developing skills in film analysis. They will already have studied mise en scene, and have been introduced to the concept of the auteur. In this lecture, emphasis is placed on medium specificity and the concept of cinematic narration. Alongside the lecture, students read David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, ‘Narrative as a Formal System’, in Film Art: An Introduction (7th edn.), Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004: 68-76; 80-91 and view Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski).

We start with a basic question. How are techniques specific to the medium of film used to tell stories and to create the ‘illusion of reality’ that enables us to enjoy the experience of film narration?

When studying narrative and narration we place emphasis film as a process.

As we saw when we studied mise en scene, watching film calls upon the spectator to be active, to play an active role in the making of meaning. Mise en scene cues us to certain elements that are important for understanding the narrative and the characters’ relationship to each other and the world they inhabit.


When we talk about narrative, we need to think about how the film organizes and controls the viewer’s access to information. This is also a process that requires active participation by the viewer.

When studying a narrative film, we should ask questions such as:

    What is shown?

    What is withheld?

    What is implied but not shown?

    Who knows what when? (Characters and viewers)

    Does the viewer know more or less than certain characters?

The Dog and HIs Various Merits (dir. Charles Pathé, 1908)


In order to explain the idea of narrative more fully, let’s turn to an example of an early film from 1908, a time when the conventions of film narrative had not yet been formalized into a system.

Notice the use of title cards between the scenes. These are an example of non-diegetic material.


If narrative consists of what is presented (the content), then narration is how the narrative is presented. This is a process.

As we saw with the example from this early film, it is not terribly easy to tell (or narrate) a story simply by pointing a camera at a scene and shooting. All the bits need to be put together in some kind of logical order that implies causality. This causality must work on at least two levels:

    On the level of plot: from one event to another fixing relationships between time and space.

    On the level of cinematic techniques — establishing relationships between individual shots.

Narrative is effectively the result of the process or mechanism of narration.

There are lots of ways of analysing narrative and narration in cinema. These include the use of various kinds of narrators, character, dialogue, text, genre conventions, plot structure. For the rest of this lecture I wish to focus on just a few aspects of narration that are unique to film.

Cinematic narration — the filmic techniques that contribute to telling the story in a filmic way.

These include (but are not limited  to: see glossary in your corse reader).

    Framing — ‘frames a scene’, selects particular bits of space to direct viewer’s attention in particular ways.

    Camera movement — can be used to ‘describe’ both space and action. Can help to make the viewer to feel that we are travelling along with the action.

    Editing — can be used to connect the bits together and helps to sustain causality from shot to shot.

Case study — Opening sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

Story: Consists of two intersecting story lines.

1. Romance: between society girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor).

2. Thriller/Horror: Birds attack humans ‘en mass.’


When? — takes place over a few days.

Where? — San Francisco & Bodega Bay.

Temporal order: Chronological — linear, no use of flashbacks although characters do talk about their past, providing some ‘backstory.’

Structure: (punctuated) by bird attacks, which increase in frequency and intensity – These serve the narrative purpose of delaying Melanie’s departure from Bodega Bay, and allow the romance between her and Mitch to blossom. The attacks also give Mitch a chance to become a ‘hero’.

I’m going to use two clips from opening sequence in order to put forward the hypothesis that in this film birds continually cause disruptions on both the level of narrative (what is being told) and on the level of cinematic narration (how it is being told). Birds frequently act as catalysts for making characters do something.

Clip 1 — Opening six shots

Clip 2 — 'Back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels'

Screening Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

Does Chinatown conform to a canonical narrative structure?

Introduction of setting & characters

Explanation of a state of affairs

Complication & consequences

Ensuing events (+ more complications)


Who knows what when?

How does the camera (framing, camera movement & editing) control our access to information?