Secret to cinematic storytelling

Visual effects guru Rob Legato unfolds the secret to cinematic storytelling, sounds exciting? Watch the video below:

What do you think about this talk? I thought it was pretty awesome! Especially the part where he talked about how we remember events.

Reality vs. Perception

There is a huge difference between what we perceive (visually and audibly) and what we remember. To quote Rob Legato: “When we’re infused with either enthusiasm or awe or fondness or whatever, it changes and alters our perception of things. It changes what we SEE. It changes what we remember.”

Now, notice that I emphasized the word see in the sentence above. That is because Rob Legato thinks visually. But exactly the same can be applied to sound, we can change it to: “When we’re…it changes what we HEAR.”

Sound design guru Randy Thom said that in sound design you begin by trying to forget for a while what it would really sound like and start thinking about what it would feel like. (1)

Some of you may argue that this is a different approach (what we remember vs. what it feels like), but it is the same: Emotional experiences, whether good or bad, leave strong traces in the brain. (2) These emotional experiences are likely to be recalled more often and with more clarity and detail than neutral events. (3)

For example, I could describe you in vivid detail the evening when I cooked a meal for the first time for my girlfriend, but I wouldn’t be able to describe what I did that day in the morning, because there was no emotion connected to this.

The art of creating awe

The point is, we as storytellers (sound designers, VFX artists, cinematographers, editors, you name it…) use this emotional memory to enhance the story and make it emotionally true and real. In other words: We don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 (1995)

This is why Rob Legato replicated the launch sequence in Apollo 13 based on what people remembered and thought was memorable. (And memorable doesn’t necessarily mean real or accurate.)

Secret to cinematic storytelling

Sound designers use sweetening, cinematographers color palette etc., because this is how it would feel like, this is how we would remember the event. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese: “The idea behind sound effects in Raging Bull is to give impression of the battles inside the ring. It’s the way the character would perceive it.”

Again, we as filmmakers don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality. And this is the reason why I fell in love with filmmaking and became completely obsessed with cinematic storytelling.




Visual accident in In Cold Blood

Let me start this article by a great quote by Scott Adams:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

If you work in some creative field, you know that mistakes happen from time to time. Well, I like to call them happy accidents. One of the best examples I can think of in music is Cher’s ‘Believe’. The vocal effect that is on the record is basically a happy accident resulting from experimentation with vocoding and filtering.

Here is a historical footnote from Sound on Sound article (originally published in February 1999):

It was the first commercial recording to feature the audible side-effects of Antares Auto-tune software used as a deliberate creative effect. The (now) highly recognizable tonal mangling occurs when the pitch correction speed is set too fast for the audio that it is processing and it became one of the most over-used production effects of the following years.

However, the happy accident is not enough to make a monster hit record like Cher’s ‘Believe’. It’s just a starting point. So the reason why the record sounds so great is that the producers (Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling) used it very creatively – they applied the vocoded sections only to parts where they had the most striking effect and not to the whole vocal track. Overall, it was very painstaking process, but well worth it – Cher was amazed!

This blog is focused on the art of cinematic storytelling, so I won’t write more about recording process of Cher’s song, since this was supposed to be only a short introduction to happy accidents, but if you are interested in music, sound design or just curious, I totally recommend reading the whole article at, where you’ll learn more about the recording process of Cher’s ‘Believe’.

Now, back to the art of cinematic storytelling! Today’s article deals with a purely visual accident that happened in one of the last scenes in In Cold Blood.

The scene in question is when Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) is about to be hanged at the end of the movie. It’s very sad and you do feel sorry for him, even though he committed such brutal crime.

The whole scene was shot on stage – they made an artificial rain and they also had a fan to the side, which was blowing the spray from the rain against the window.

When they were rehearsing the scene, Conrad L. Hall (cinematographer responsible for such great movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke or American Beauty) noticed a very interesting light effect that happened once on Perry’s face. He loved it immediately.

After the discovery, they changed the blocking (staging) so that the light effect would stay on Perry’s face all the time.

As the water is running down and light hitting his face through that window, it seems like he is crying. It makes the scene extremely emotional and hard to watch. He talks about his father, how he hates him and loves him at the same time. He is not crying, but the visuals are crying for him. I think this has to be one of the most beautiful examples of cinematic storytelling.

And the best part about it is that it was “just” a visual (happy) accident, it wasn’t planned at all!

Now, there are other examples of rain running down on window used for similar purposes. One of them is a scene in Toy Story 3. In this case it wasn’t an accident probably, because Pixar storyboards everything very carefully. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful example of cinematic storytelling.

Toy Story 3 - Lotso
Toy Story 3 – Lotso

The picture above was taken from a scene, where Lotso learns, that he was replaced by another toy. Even though he is not crying, the visuals tell everything!

I usually have problem with the last sentence in my blog posts, what to write, how to finish, but here it is easy: Make mistakes, use your tools in unusual ways, think outside the box, look for happy accidents and who knows – maybe one day you’ll make a monster hit record or an unforgettable movie scene!


Other Examples

Team America - Gary Johnston
Team America – Gary Johnston

Gorgeous time-lapse in Forrest Gump

I’ve seen the movie so many times and every time I watch it, there is something new, I haven’t noticed before. Recently, thanks to Mike Seymour from, I’ve discovered another great example of cinematic storytelling.

Time-lapse is a technique of taking still frames at much lower speed, than they will be played back. There are various uses for the time-lapse sequences, for example filming processes that are too subtle to be noticed by the human eye, or, when used creatively, to show a passage of time in a movie.

The time-lapse scene in Forrest Gump takes place between a scene where Forrest and Jenny get married and the following scene, when Jenny is very sick, lying in the bed and knowing, that she is dying. The filmmakers could have used other techniques to forward the time,  for example titles saying “few months later” or some kind of dissolve between the scenes, but they didn’t, they chose the time-lapse, which works perfectly.

I have to admit, that I wouldn’t probably notice it, if I wouldn’t listen to the podcast at fxguide. But that’s why I love the movie so much! There are thousands of visual effects in this movie, but all of them are serving the story. Either by enhancing it, emphasizing certain points, or enabling filmmakers to film something, which wouldn’t be otherwise possible.

Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump (1994)

Now, let’s look closely at the scene in question. Forrest and Jenny are walking, together with young Forrest, back to the house of Forrest’s mother. The camera starts low and then tilts up and becomes stationary – at that moment, you’ll see that the shadows start to move rapidly across the road – showing thus the passage of time.

Forrest Gump (1994) - Clean Plate
Forrest Gump (1994) – Clean Plate

The filmmakers probably shot firstly the scene with characters in it, then, from exactly the same spot, they filmed a short time-lapse sequence of shadows moving across the road and then composited these two shots together.

The time-lapse sequence in Forrest Gump is a great example of cinematic storytelling and at the same time, a great example of using visual effects to tell a story. Beautiful!