Storytelling Techniques We Rarely See in the Movies Anymore

From long credits to bullet time, here are a few techniques and film conventions we don't see in the movies these days...

Over more than a century, cinema has built up its own storytelling vocabulary. Thanks to generations of intelligent and groundbreaking filmmakers, movies contain a rich and complex set of editing, filming and framing techniques, most of them so firmly embedded in our subconscious that we don’t even think about them while we’re sitting in our local multiplex.

Inevitably, there are some aspects of filmmaking that have changed considerably over time. New ideas and conventions continuously float in, while old ones become over-used and phase out as a result. It’s the latter we’re focusing on here: the filmmaking conventions and techniques that are either becoming rare, or have vanished altogether. Bear in mind that some of the things below may suddenly come back into vogue very soon, while the things we currently think of as cutting-edge in the films of 2014 may become endlessly parodied and quietly dropped in years to come. It’s all part of the natural ebb-and-flow of a medium that’s constantly evolving and changing.

Incredibly Long Opening Credits

Picture the scene: it’s 1978, and you’re a little kid, excitedly waiting for Superman: The Movie to start. You’ve been looking forward to seeing it for ages, and you’re clinging to your huge tub of popcorn with anticipation. John Williams’ exultant theme tune kicks in, and the words “Alexander Salkind Presents” whoosh up in eye-catching (and pioneering) CGI. Then up comes Marlon Brando’s name. Then Gene Hackman. You don’t realise it yet, but the actual film is still a good four minutes away…

Many opening title sequences are, of course, creative and often wonderful to watch in their own right – Saul Bass’ work for Hitchcock’s films gave a superb graphic flavor of the story to come. But some epic films had equally interminable opening credits: Ben-Hur (1959) began with about two minutes of cast and crew member listings, all set to Miklos Rozsas’ rousing score.

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These days, such lengthy opening lists are relatively rare, having been banished to the back of the film. Creative opening title sequences still remain, but the days of the Superman-style cast-and-crew roll-up seem to be over. Now, the legion of CG artists and other technicians responsible for Hollywood’s major output will scroll past as most moviegoers are putting their coats on and vacating the cinema to the sound of popcorn crunching underfoot. Unless there’s a post-credits stinger to wait for, of course…

Rapidly Spinning Clock Hands

The tools available to modern filmmakers mean that a single second can be stretched out to just about any length, and that similarly, that aeons can pass in the blink of an eye. Take a look at Inception for an example of a film where editing, slow-motion, and digital effects can come together to create a film where a fleeting moment can be turned into an extended suspense sequence.

One of the earliest means of denoting the passing of time has long since passed into cliche: that of a clock with rapidly-moving hands. There are other related techniques, too – the pages of a calendar dropping to the floor, for example. These days, most filmmakers will go for a less obvious means of showing time slipping past, such as time-lapse photography, though even that approach has become diminished by over-use. On a semi-related topic, the trippy ’70s sci-fi fantasy Zardoz has one of the weirdest ones ever, featuring as it does Sean Connery (complete with pony tail) and Charlotte Rampling aging, dying, and withering to skeletal husks before our very eyes.

Spinning Newspaper

Like the clock hands and calendars listed above, the spinning newspaper was a staple of filmmaking in the earlier part of the 20th century. At a time when print was still the fastest means of bringing news to the masses, it made sense that films like Citizen Kane (actually about a media mogul) related major events by sending newspaper headlines spiralling into audiences’ faces. But like so many familiar techniques, the spinning newspaper has fallen into parody – one episode of The Simpsons carried a headline, “Spinning headline injures printer.”

The Oscar winning 2012 film The Artist revived the spinning newspaper (among other classic filmmaking tricks), but with the web and social media now being the fastest means of sharing information, the notion of reading something in a newspaper first is becoming an increasingly antiquated one.

Iris Shot

A familiar means of opening and closing a story in the silent era, the iris in-out technique (or iris shot) used a circular mask to gradually reveal or obscure a point of interest in the frame. Again, it’s a technique revived by filmmakers when referencing movies of the past (George Lucas used it as a homage to his beloved matinee serials, while The Artist was styled after a silent film), but it’s one that is sparingly used elsewhere.

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Freeze Frame

The classic Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kidused a freeze frame to unforgettable dramatic effect at its conclusion, and the technique popped up again from time to time in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Director John G Alvidsen ended both Rocky and The Karate Kid with a freeze frame. Against All Odds, The Breakfast Club and The Full Monty ended in a similar fashion. Thereafter? The humble freeze frame has been used ever more sparingly – possibly because it was so beautifully sent up by the classic TV comedy series, Police Squad.

The Binocular Shot

Some filmmaking techniques are so common that few of us even question how strange they are. You can probably think of at least one film where a character looks through a pair of binoculars, and the scene cuts to the character’s point-of-view, which looks something like the clip above: a POV shot with an out-of-focus black mask around the edge of the screen – its familiar figure-of-eight shape mimicking, of course, the twin lenses of the binoculars. In reality, looking through a real pair of binoculars doesn’t give us this sort of view at all – instead, we get a round, tunnel-like image with a circle of dark fuzziness around the edge rather than a figure-of-eight.

Nevertheless, the binocular shot became a familiar sight in movies, and occasionally played with to amusing effect – Luke Skywalker has a pair of futuristic Macrobinoculars in Star Wars, while ’80s comedy Top Secret contained an amusing gag which involved a herd of cows:

Bullet Time

Here’s a prime example of a moviemaking technique that once looked eye-popping and new, but became diminished through overuse. In 1999’s The Matrix, the scenes where a single moment appeared fixed in time, the camera rotating round a single object (such as Keanu Reeves, leaning back, arms flailing) looked revolutionary. Within a few years, the technique had been copied and parodied to the point where it no longer meant very much. Bullet time lingers on under various guises in the realm of videogames and is still sometimes used to powerful effect, but as a storytelling device in movies, its days appear to be numbered.

A Red Line Tracing a Journey on a Map

When Steven Spielberg used this effect – that of the hero’s path across the globe signified by a red line stretching across a map – in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, he did so knowing full well that he was using a device which harked back to the 1940s and 50s.

So while many modern audiences might associate the thin red line with Indiana Jones, its lineage stretches much further back. Take a look at the opening montage of the classic Casablanca (1942), for example.

This was created by a young Don Siegel, the future Invasion Of The Body Snatchersand Dirty Harry director who started his career by making hundreds of montages like these for Warner Bros. Similar scenes can also be found in The Guns Of Navarone (1961) and the 007 adventure From Russia With Love (1963).

Indiana Jones was a hero directly inspired by classic serials and adventure cinema, so it made sense that the movie around him would lovingly revive some of the trappings of the serials themselves. George Lucas did a similar thing in Star Wars, with the wipes between scenes inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa. Spielberg and Lucas were paying an open homage to some great filmmakers with these techniques. While they’re often referenced in other movies and TV shows (particularly the map montage trick, which has appeared in everything from Chuck to Kill Bill), they’re often used to reference or parody Star Wars or Indiana Jones rather than the films they themselves were looking back to.

Externalised Character Thoughts

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, and Psycho remains a masterpiece. But how often do we see scenes like the one above in current films – that is, with their inner thoughts and memories presented to us as echoing voices?

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‘The End’ Title Card

In the early days of cinema, it was important to let audiences know that it was time to get up and vacate the theater. As a result, the words “The End” often plastered across the cinema screen in elegant script (or, less often, ‘Fin’), became a familiar staple in the movies, and often accompanied with a triumphant fanfare to underline the sense of finality. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, when a new generation of loud and brash filmmakers were cheerfully discarding the techniques of Old Hollywood, those once ubiquitous words began to fall out of the cinematic lexicon.

You only have to take a look at this website to see how these concluding title cards gradually fell out of favour in Hollywood filmmaking. In the films of such studios as Warner and Metro Goldwyn, The End was proudly displayed right up until the mid-to-late ’60s, largely because, as we saw earlier, credits were commonly shown right at the start of a movie.

Although The End still caps off a film on occasion in the 21st century – Finding Nemo and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs are two instances – these days, you’d probably only conclude a piece of entertainment like this if you were being wilfully archaic. Or if you were paying a nostalgic homage to techniques past, as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did in the cheerfully retro double-feature, Grindhouse. Both Planet Terror and Death Proof conclude with The End emblazoned proudly on the screen. But look again at the end title card in Rodriguez’s Planet Terror: as the website Annyas pointed out, it’s lifted directly from Citizen Kane. It’s another example of a filmmaker using an old cinema trapping to humorous and self-referential effect.

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