LEH 353: Aesthetics and Techniques of Visual Storytelling

This course explores many different attributes of film and television in the context of visual storytelling. These topics range from aesthetic concerns such as color, lighting, narrative, and visual design, to more technical concerns such as editing, cinematography, and sound design. You will be reading about different aspects of film and television, watching many films and TV episodes, and be writing extensively about all of it.

Note: This class is fully on-line. Films and/or TV episodes will be provided to you in advance, as will the reading assignments, and post-film analysis questionnaires. You can learn how to access the readings and media for this class in the following sections. 



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Click on the image above to download the course syllabus. 



Screen Shot 2019 11 12 at 9.47.31 AMThe textbook for this class is entitled The Art of Watching Films (8th edition), by Dennis Petrie and Joseph Boggs. I have provided a PDF of the textbook for you here, but you are welcome to purchase your own copy as well. 

This book is really great and accessible, and breaks down different aspects of film and television into understandable modules in each chapter. We will be exploring most of these chapters over the course of the semester, watching some films with the chapter or module content in mind, and then answering some questions at the end of each module. 



Software Requirements and a Note On The Media

With perhaps a few exceptions, all media for this class is running off of my personal server. That being the case, there are just a few things you need to know, and few steps to complete, to access this media and begin the course modules.


plex mac icon 100634511 largeI host films and episodes for you on my server using a client/server application entitled Plex. Think of it as my own personal Netflix... or Daveflix!  To access the media, you will need to download Plex, install it, and log in with user credentials. I shared a library of films with each of you via the email accounts provided in CUNYFirst (If you wish to use a different email account, please let me know and I will make the switch). You should have received an email from Plex inviting you to begin using Plex and accept the shared media (if not, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). Once you have successfully created your account and opened the shared library – entitled "LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling" – you will be able to watch the media. I will be able to monitor what you’ve watched, when you’ve watched it, and how much of it you have completed...so no skipping movies or skimming thru them!


Getting Plex: The good news is that, because Plex is cross-platform and web-accessible, you can watch the media for this class in any browser, on your desktop, laptop, mobile device (iOS, Android), streaming device (e.g. Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, etc), even on your gaming consoles.
Plex Accounts: As I said above, you should have received an invite email from Plex at whatever email account you have listed in CUNYFirst. Follow the instructions for this email, activate your Plex account, and download the appropriate Plex Media Player software to begin watching. I myself have Plex Media Player running on my laptop, iPhone, iPad, and my Apple TV…it’s pretty incredible.


A quick note about watching the media

As the films and episodes for this class are running on my own personal server, there is the possibility of server slowdowns. If everyone in the class is trying to access media at the same time, it could cause pretty considerable slowdowns. So please keep in mind that if you’re experiencing playback stuttering and buffering errors, you may want to check back later on.


Course Structure

In general, each module for this course is structured as follows:

  1. Reading from the Text
  2. Watching the Assigned Media
  3. Answering Analysis Questions

A Note and Asynchronous Online Courses: This course is asynchronous, meaning you don’t need to complete the various modules on any particular schedule, and you may complete them in any order at any time before or during the course dates (I.e. January 2 thru January 23) . You could, for example, complete three modules in one day, assuming you had nothing else to do! Or you could take three days off, doing no work at all, and then resume. As long as the movies have been viewed by you and the questionnaires have been answered before January 24, you'll be fine!

This class incorporates extensive film and television viewing with readings and written pieces. The required readings will be from The Art of Watching Films by Joseph M. Boggs & Dennis W. Petrie (8th Ed.).Reflection questionnaires will be posted here on Schwittek.com and the Blackboard site, to complement the readings and film and TV episodes viewed in a given week.

The Reading

The first module of this course will discuss different approaches to watching films, best practices for analyzing films, and how to provide robust and well-thought out responses to films. Begin by reading chapter one in The Art of Watching Films, aptly titled The Art of Watching Films!

The Watching

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) by F.W. Murnau

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The first film we'll be watching dates from 1927, so it’s an old one, but it's one of the most excellent films ever made. It’s called Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and was directed by F. W. Murnau (as with all media for this class, you can find under the "LEH353 – Visual Storytelling" library on Plex). This is a classic from the silent film era, which I think is a great place to start because you will be forced to focus on the visual language of the film, without the benefit of sound.

The Questions

After completing the film, complete the following questionnaire:



The Reading

For this module we’re going to be reading chapter 03 in The Art of Watching Films, entitled "Fictional And Dramatic Elements.” This chapter goes into what makes any story work: dramatic structures, plot, conflict, characterization, etc. But it also explores how film is unique amongst storytelling forms: how rhythm and pacing, visual language, movement, and sound and music all work together to help tell stories in such a dynamic way.

The Watching

After reading chapter 03, we will be watching two films for this module, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), directed by Sean Durkin, and Midsommar (2019) by Ari Aster. Each film explores the allure, as well as the dangers, of cults, but they do so in different ways. As always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions

After watching these films, complete the following questionnaire. You will only need to answer these questions once, commenting on – and sometimes comparing – both films in your answers. You can access the questionnaire for Module 02 in another window here.

Note: the questionnaire below contains multiple sections.



Themes are a big part of every story, be it in the form of a novel, short story, film, poem, or even song. Films can really be seen as centered around one or more themes, and in well-made films, each and every element of the film – characterization, dialog, production design, score, etc.) – somehow supports the theme (or themes). Therefore, for this module, you could conceivably watch any film and discuss different aspects of its thematic elements, but I have chosen one film in particular for its unique handling of theme. 

The Reading

First, you’re going to read chapter 02 in The Art of Watching Films– "Thematic Elements." Then, on to the film!

The Watching


Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders

This film by German filmmaker Wim Wenders explores the relationship between human beings on Earth and the angels that live amongst them. It’s also a love story and a meditation of what separates and unites humans and angels. Be on the lookout for themes and thematic elements.

As always, the media for this module can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions

Once you’ve completed the reading and watched Wings of Desire, answer the following questions. You can also access this questionnaire in a new window by clicking here. Note: the questionnaire below contains multiple sections.


As a designer, the visual design of a film is really close to my heart. From the aspect ratio of the screen, the film grain, and the color grading, to the lighting, framing, and set design, every visual aspect of a film works together to help tell a story.

The Reading

For this module, you’ll read all about all the different aspects of visual design and production design in chapter 04 of The Art of Watching Films (pgs. 75 – 98).

The Watching

Then you’re going to watch two pieces of media, one film and one TV episode, that are both very strong on production design. They are both futuristic dystopias, but for very different reasons and in very different ways. Compare the visual design of each and discuss in the below questionnaire how they differ, how they are perhaps similar, and how they help push the narrative forward.

Brazil (1985)

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There are many films with great production design and visual beauty. But one that really sticks out for me is Terry Giliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), starring Jonathon Price and Robert Deniro (and many other fantastic people). This film is set an a futuristic dystopia where one man falls in love and tries to break free from oppressive social constructs.


Aside from an incredible and surreal story, Brazil is also a visual feast, combining bizarre practical effects (no CGI!), a great score, and the incredible direction of Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam.


Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions

Once you’ve watched these films, complete the following questionnaire.


Broken down to its essentials, cinematography is the synthesis of photography and motion. The camera angles (close up, medium, wide, high, low, etc.) combine with lighting and camera movement to not only capture the on-screen action, but to also help tell the story. Information is conveyed through how a scene is lit. Information is conveyed through how the camera moves in the scene. Information can be found in an extreme close-up that doesn't really appear in a wide shot of the same scene…and that’s actually kind of weird, if you think about it.

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The opening shot of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 western "The Hateful Eight": an closeup of a wooden Jesus on a cross.

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The closing shot of this sequence, after going wider and wider over the span of several minutes, shows the full cross with Jesus on it, and a stagecoach riding by. We are introduced to the main characters via the stagecoach, but lost in this angle is the drama in Jesus’s face.

The Reading

For this module you are going to read Chapter 05, which is all about techniques in cinematography (pgs. 104-132.), in The Art of Watching Films.

The Watching

The Revenant (2015)

Once you’ve completed the reading, you’ll watch Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 epic The Revenant. On this surface, this film is about one man’s journey to avenge his son’s death. But it touches on deeper themes of colonialism, racism, masochism, and the bonds of family. The Revenant was nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards, and won Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor – Drama at the 2016 Golden Globes. But Emmanuel Lubezki, the film’s cinematographer, won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, so keep an eye out for the many continuous camera shots and beautiful lighting, and how they help tell the story.

Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions

Once you’ve completed the film, answer the questionnaire below:


Editing is one of my favorite things to do in the realm of film-making because, once you get past the technical elements of the editing process, it’s all about rhythm, instinct, and storytelling. At its best, editing is a visceral, organic experience, and it's also where the actual film gets made. 

The Reading

For this module, read pgs. 155 - 186 in Chapter 6 – Editing of The Art of Watching Films

The Watching

Everything you’ve ever watched on any screen of any kind was edited in some way, so you really could watch anything and analyze it’s editing. However, for this module, I want you to step outside your comfort zone and pay special attention to the story-through-editing of the film you will be watching for this module: the surreal Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by modern dancer and film-maker Maya Deren. 

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid

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This film is difficult to describe, but luckily Deren described it herself in interview. According to her, Meshes of the Afternoon "...is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event that could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” 

 Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.


The Questions


For this module, we are going to be exploring color in film, and a film with a rather historic approach to color, Singin' in the Rain (1952).

The Reading

You will begin by reading chapter 7 (pgs. 191 - 215) in The Art of Watching Films.

The Watching

Then you will watch two films that use color particularly well, and with historical significance.


Singin’ in the Rain (1952) by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen

ONESHEET1156 2Singin’ in the Rain is all about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to the age of the ‘talkies.’ It features a timeless soundtrack, being a classic Hollywood musical and all... But it also perhaps one of the most impressive of films to feature the Technicolor color process, invented in the 1920s and perfected in the 30s and 40s. You must try your best to porce yourself from the incredible music and dancing here, and instead pay special attention to the beautiful use of color to help enrich the story.

Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.


The Questions

When you have completed these two films, answer the following questions. I’ve kept them short because the films you will be watching for this module are on the longer side:


jazz singerWe tend to think of film as a visual art form, and it is! But the great thing about film is that it isn’t just one thing: it’s certainly visual like painting or photography; it's kinetic like dance; narrative like books and oral storytelling; aural like music and real life. The sound for a film gives us things like the human voice, diegetic sound (sound within the context of the story), incidental sound (to suggest mood), the musical score. There has pretty much always been sound in films, as even during the age of silent films music would have been played nearby in the theater. But synchronized sound had a difficult and uphill journey, as it required fairly sophisticated technology to synchronize both a film camera and an audio recording device.

The first commercial, feature-length film to feature sync sound was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson, and back then it was pretty earth-shattering (and totally racist). Today we take sound for granted, though sound has had a complicated role in the history of film, and was largely bemoaned at first as a gimmick that cheapened the artform.

The Reading

Read Chapter 8 (pgs. 220 – 224) in The Art of Watching Films to learn about sound in film.\

The Watching

The Vast of Night (2019) by Andrew Patterson

Vast of night posterThe Vast of Night was just released on Amazon, though it was made in 2016 on a shoestring budget, completely self-funded by novice director Andrew Patterson to the tune of $700,000! It tells the story of two young people – a local radio personality and a bookish telephone switchboard operator – as they discover a bizarre series of events in their sleepy, New Mexico town. This film is beautifully shot, with liberal use of the kind of continuous camera we already saw in Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015), but the storytelling is mostly dialog and sound driven.

Now, normally I wouldn't gravitate toward a dialog-driven movie because, as a visual medium, films should show not tell. However, as we've read in the textbook, films are not just visual: they are aural (sound and music); they have rhythm like poetry, music, and dance; and they have a story just like the written word. Films are complex structures of many types of information. 

The dialog, acting, and cinematography in this film are really tremendous for such a low-budget film, and that is a notable enough reason to watch it. But I was actually quite taken with the sound design, as it is an absolutely critical – and chilling – element to the storytelling. Enjoy!

Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.


The Questions


As the reading  makes it clear in the very first chapter, film shares a lot of similarities with music, and many other art forms:

"Film employs the compositional elements of the visual arts: line, form, mass, volume, and texture. Like painting and photography, film exploits the subtle interplay of light and shadow. Like sculpture, film manipulates three-dimensional space. But, like pantomime, film focuses on moving images, and as in dance, the moving images in film have rhythm. The complex rhythms of film resemble those of music and poetry, and like poetry in particular, film communicates through imagery, meta- phor, and symbol. Like the drama, film communicates visually and verbally: visually, through action and gesture; verbally, through dialogue. Finally, like the novel, film expands or compresses time and space, traveling back and forth freely within their wide borders.” (The Art of Watching Films, pg. 3)

chorusSo perhaps it's no surprise that I love music just about as much as I love movies. When the two are formally combined, one gets  the musical. Musical theatre has been around since ancient times, perhaps reaching a pinnacle with the chorus of ancient Greek theatre. Ironically, the Greek χορός, or khoros, means something more like singing and dancing, as members of the khoros were more likely to dance as well as sing in order to complement the emotional states of the actors on stage.    

As mentioned in the previous module on sound, when motion picture technology emerged in the early 20th century, films were often accompanied by music, played live in the theatre, that had a similar function to that of the Greek khorus: to convey the emotional component of the narrative arc.

Perhaps it isn't so surprising then that, as soon as synchronized sound was invented and perfected, the first thing Hollywood did was produce a musical: 1927’s The Jazz Singer.  Since that time, the musical film has emerged as one of our most beloved genres, with award-winning iterations for many sub-genres of music, from classical (Amadeus (1985)), to jazz (West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002)), to the undefinable and uniquely American (My Fair Lady (1964)).

The Reading

For this module you are going to begin by reading Chapter 9 in The Art of Watching Films (pgs. 250 – 266).

The Watching

Birdman (2015) by Alejandro GonzAlez INArritu

0cf932b9eeedda4813de2d427a590498For this module, you’re going to watch a non-musical film, but a film that nonetheless deftly combines its flowy, jazzy score with an equally flowing and winding narrative. This film won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture, and is the second Iñárritu film we’ve watched for this course (the first being Module 05’s The Revenant). Emmanuel Lubezki also served as this film's cinematographer, and – surprise! – also took home the 2015 Oscar for Best Cinematography.

And while that's great and all, I want you to pay close attention here to jazz percussionist Antonio Sánchez’s amazing score, which is mostly percussion and has an important connection to the cinematography and the narrative. 


Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions 

After completing the reading and the watching, please complete the following questions:


The job of a film director is multifaceted. On the one hand, she's responsible for researching and planning the many ways in which a script can be translated to the screen. She'll therefore have lots of ideas about camera angles, visual design, locations, and set design, actors and action, lighting design, and pacing. 

Once on set, after a lot of those choices have already been decided, the director is more necessary than ever, as she must be present every day to make sure those pre-production plans are properly executed. The director also needs to work directly with the actors, making sure they hit their marks and deliver their performances in a believable and appropriate way throughout the entire production phase. 

After the production is completed – wrapped, as they say – and the film crew has gone home, the director's job of making the film really begins: in the editing room. In other words, a director has to have a vision for the story and then see that this vision is executed as closely as possible from start to finish. 

It’s no wonder that directors get the most important credit! 

The Reading 

Begin by reading about" The Director’s Style" (Chapter 11) in The Art of Watching Films (310 – 329).

The Watching – Three Films by One Director

For this module, you are going to research the work of one director in an attempt to analyze the evolution of her directing style. I have chosen Ava Duvernay for the director we will analyze this semester, as she is one of the few women of color directors in Hollywood and has made a series of very important – and very timely – films in the last decade. Starting with Selma (2014), for example, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, culminating in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then came 2016's 13th, a documentary exploring race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States through the lens of the titular 13th amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the US. And though in a very different vein, A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is notable because, with its release,Duvernay became the first black woman to direct a live-action film grossing over $100 million at U.S. box office. 

All these movies have significant differences: one is a dramatization of a historical event; another is a documentary (about a series of historical events); and still another is a cinematic interpretation of a classic – and entirely fictional – young adult novel. But I'm asking you to think about similarities. Thinking about the reading, which concerns elements of a director's style, can you describe a stylistic thread running through these three seemingly different films? 

The Questions

Once you’ve watched these three films, answering the following questions:


As with any writing-intensive LEH course, you are required to complete a Culminating Research Document, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘final paper.’ Below you find the requirements for this document, an outline to follow, as well as some suggested topics.  

Please note: you are free to write this paper whenever you wish: i.e. before the course officially begins or during the course beginning and end dates. However, you must submit the final paper below.


  • Write a 3-5 page paper about one of your favorite films or television/streaming series

  • answer the questions for a minimum of three categories in Part 01

  • sum up the paper by answering the questions in part 02  

  • Submit the finished document in BlackBoard by accessing the "Final Paper" link in the left-hand sidebar menu.

Outline and Suggested Topics

Part 01: Choose one of your favorite films or television program episodes (preferably something you’ve seen many, many times). Everyone must answer the last question in Part 02, but you are free to choose a minimum of three of the following topics to discuss this film or TV episode.  

  1. Plot and Narrative Structure

    • Summarize the plot of the film, touching on the main characters, the significance of the title, the story’s credibility, and the dramatic structure.

    • Discuss the conflict(s) in the film.  

    • Discuss the use of symbols, metaphors, and irony.

    • In what ways, if any, were the film’s characters introduced in a memorable and purposeful way? How did their introduction relate to their unique character attributes and motivations?  

  2. Themes and Thematic Elements

    • What was the unifying, central concern of this film?

    • Discuss the special focus that united this film together. Was it the plot, the emotional effect or mood, the characters, the style/texture/visual presentation, or a concept or idea that was given the most focus? How so?

    • Discuss which overarching theme this film had and why you think so:

      1. Morality or moral implications

      2. Universal Statements about Human nature

      3. Social Ills

      4. The struggle for human dignity

      5. The complexity of human relationships

      6. Coming of age/loss of innocence

      7. Moral/philosophical riddle

  3. Visual Design and Production Design

    • Discuss your immediate thoughts about the visual qualities of this film. How did the setting and set design lend towards the believability and realism of the film?

    • How did the setting and set design enhance or distract from the story? The costuming, the make-up, the lighting design, the special effects?  

    • How did the production design complement or impede the proposed time period the film was taking place in?

    • Be sure to focus on the quality of light in the film you are watching, and how it aids or distracts from the story-telling. A sign of good lighting design is that we don’t notice it, but comment on what you thought about the lighting in the film.  

    • How would you have designed the production differently?

  4. Cinematography

    • How was this film cinematic? In other words, discuss how the use of camera movement, camera angle, and lighting not only helped tell the story but enhanced the story. If you saw an animated film, in what ways did the animators strive to make their film cinematic, or ‘like a film?’

    • How is the cinematography consistent or inconsistent throughout?

    • How did the framing and angles of the camera bring you in – or perhaps distance you – from the action. Did you feel like you were in the room with the action, or just a passive observer, or somewhere in between?

    • How did the filmmaker succeed or fail in keeping the scenes visually interesting?  

    • How was the cinematography memorable?

    • Comment on the use of special effects: how were they useful in telling the story? How subtle or overt were they? Etc.  

  5. Editing

    • How did this film’s editing help to shape the story in your mind, enhance your emotional response to the scene, and maintain continuity between different angles?

    • Describe the nature of the editing: was it disruptive, choppy, chaotic, or was it smooth, unobtrusive, almost unnoticeable?

    • Were there any specific editing choices that jumped out as you as particularly memorable?

    • How did the rhythm of the editing relate to the pace of the film?

    • Describe any portions of the film that seemed to perhaps hold too long on a particular scene before cutting to another. Was it effective, or did it feel odd and unnecessary?

  6. Color

    • Describe how color is used to express the emotions and motivations of the characters.

    • How are certain trademark colors used in the set, prop, and/or costume design to convey certain character attributes?          

    • How is color used in an obvious way to transition between scenes?

    • How is color used to draw emphasis to particular characters, objects, set pieces, etc?  

    • Discuss the use of atmospheric color or the overall color and tone of the film.    

  7. Sound

    • Discuss the ways in which sound is used to make the overall story larger than the bounds of the screen. How does it help build the unseen universe the characters inhabit?

    • How is sound used as plot devices, and to drive the story along?

    • Which sound effects contribute to the film’s realism?

    • Where is sound used to represent a character’s state of mind, rather than the environment she inhabits?

    • Where is unusual emphasis placed on sound? Does it strengthen the narrative, or draw attention away from it?

    • If a voice-over or narration is employed, imagine the film without it: would it be a better or worse film without the voice-over?  

  8. Music

    • Most films use some type of music. Discuss in general the qualities of the music in your film.

    • How did the music in your film or television episode enhance the narrative? Was it necessary to punctuate particular scenes? Did it create an appropriate emotional atmosphere? Did it complement other elements such as production design, color, editing, cinematography? Or was it merely distracting? Explain.

    • How conscious of the music were you during the piece you were watching? Was it obvious, subversive, or perhaps a mixture of the two?

  9. Acting

    • Effective acting should, first and foremost, make you believe the story is real. What qualities of the acting made you believe in the story?

    • Why did you care about the actors? What qualities did you yourself identify with?

    • If there were unconvincing performances, what made them unconvincing? What would you have liked to see instead?

    • If you have seen these actors in previous roles, how do you think their performances in this movie stacked up?

    • How much did his or her performance in this film or television episode demonstrate a particular actor’s range? How deep do you think this actor had to go to convincingly portray the character?  

  10. Style

    • For this line of questions, you would really need to have watched other work by the director of this film or TV episode:

    • What commonalities in style do you notice? What comparisons can you draw between the atmosphere, acting, visual storytelling, pacing, etc?

    • If you had to sum up this director’s style in two words, what would those two words be?  

    • Which themes do you see reoccurring across this director’s body of work?

    • How does this director deal with communicating space and time?

    • Leaving aside other work, how does the director of your piece use narrative structure, sound, music editing, lighting and camera work, special effects, and acting in a unique way to tell this story? 

Part 02: Final Thoughts 

After answering a minimum of three of the above series of questions, sum up your written document by answering the followings:  

  1. What made you choose the film? What makes you watch it again and again?

  2. Share with us any final thought you have about the film in general, or its narrative, thematic structure, symbolism and metaphor, production design, cinematography, or editing qualities.