Cinematography on the Brain

Picture this: a magnificent shot of an amber sunrise illuminating the sandy specks on a beach, or even a simple frame of a coffee cup on a breakfast table. What is it that makes a visual look as if it was “straight out of a movie”? The answer can be summed up by one word: cinematography. Behind the camera, cinematographers are in charge of the visual arts aspect of the storytelling in a film, and the details and meaning behind each shot is a large part of the reason why a two-hour long film takes two hours to watch, but can take months, and often years, to make. As watching and analyzing films is one of my favorite leisure activities, learning about the role of the eyes and the brain in color perception led me to wonder how it transfers to colors in film, as well as how the brain perceives the general visual information it receives from film. Thus, I automatically focused on the workings of the cinematographer, who determines what visual information the brain receives and how the brain receives it. 

The average film includes more than 1,000 shots. As cinematography crafts each one of those shots, it contributes to the mood of the film’s narrative and acts as the rope that ties in each component to achieve a film’s cohesiveness. Two primary elements of cinematography are arguably framing and color. Framing, the composition of the series of frames seen from a single point of view, works with color to develop relationships between characters in a subtle manner. The overall color scheme of a series of frames can evoke a strong sense of the mood in a scene before the characters say or do anything at all (Bramão et al. 20101). Though the effect on the audience is usually subconscious, framing and color complement one another to draw the audience into grasping the visual narrative of the story. And, in a select choice of films, these two elements build off of one another to cultivate a meticulous technique of storytelling called parallelism. 

Parallelism is a story structure that includes two or more separate narratives through linking them by a shared character, event, or theme. Parallelism expressed through cinematography links these narratives by a visual theme, executed by a shared framing angle, color scheme, etc. These two separate narratives are chosen to be told in parallel because the timeline of the story is nonlinear, as in the narration is out of chronological order. The effect of this storytelling technique on the brain was observed in a research study through the free viewing of the movie Memento (Kauttonen J et al. 20182), directed by the Oscar winning director and one of my all-time favorites, Christopher Nolan. Because a film simulates real life events to a certain extent, scientists decided to use a film to research the ability of the human brain to rapidly recall and integrate related information exposed to them in order to comprehend events that occur in daily life. They hypothesized that despite two different events in a film being completely separate in time, when a viewer watches those events that are visually similar in elements such as framing and color, the right hemisphere, or specifically, the right fronto-parietal regions in the brain, would lead recall and recovery of information with the proper cues. Additionally, they hypothesized that the medial prefrontal cortex would be active in guiding conceptual integration and comprehension, accompanied by activity in the precuneus, angular gyrus, and frontal gyri (Kauttonen J et al. 20182). 

Since the film, Memento, was highly nonlinear in its reverse narration, and thus salient with its usage of parallelism, the researchers tested viewers’ understanding of the film with and without its use of parallelism. They showed an edited version of Memento without the parallel scenes to the control group, and the original film with the parallel scenes to the experimental group. The experimental group would have the parallel scenes to guide recognition of similar visual stimulus and easily bridge two events as related. Through fMRI data analysis, the brain activity of both groups were compared (Kauttonen J et al. 20182).

Fig. 1. This shows the brain activity of the control group on the top and the experimental group on the bottom. It demonstrates brain activity during frame onsets and brain activity following that in two second intervals. The experimental group showed considerably higher brain activity during the viewing of the film when compared to the control group (Kauttonen J et al. 20182).

The brain activity of the experimental group supported the majority of the researchers’ hypothesis that long-duration memory storing and recall as well as narrative comprehension in the brain is led by the right hemisphere, and specifically, the precuneus and angular gyrus in the parietal lobe and various parts of the right frontal gyrus. These results conclude that those parts of the brain are responsible for the viewers’ ability to recognize similarities between the first event and the second event and draw connections between them (Kauttonen J et al. 20182). 

When I explored the technique of parallelism in literature that can come alive on a movie screen, I immediately thought of the beautiful parallelism in the film, Little Women. This film, created by the genius cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, incorporated parallelism using the repetition of a conspicuous framing angle, yet contrasted them through the opposite color schemes of warm and cool tones (Post 20193). The warm tones enhanced the joyful bliss in a family reunion, and the cool tones stressed the sorrowful melancholy in a sister’s death.

Fig 2. This is a demonstration of the parallelism in the film, Little Women, through the usage of framing and color.
Fig 3. This is a photo I took of the movie poster after watching Little Women in theaters in 2019.

These elements were intricately combined by the cinematographer in 2019 to tell author Louisa May Alcott’s story from 1868, a brilliant interpretation that gifted me a cinematic experience I will never forget. And as I dove into the field of neurocinematics, I realized that this memorable experience would be due to the film stimulating the parietal lobe and right frontal gyrus of my brain. After reviewing various parallel scenes of the film, it was a refreshing way to analyze the film at an advanced level that connects my passion for filmmaking and my personal experiences with these films from a neuroscientific perspective. 


  1. Bramão I, Faísca L, Forkstam C, Reis A, Petersson KM. Cortical brain regions associated with color processing: an FMRI study. The open neuroimaging journal. 2010;4:164–173.
  2.  Kauttonen J, Hlushchuk Y, Jääskeläinen IP, Tikka P. Brain mechanisms underlying cue-based memorizing during free viewing of movie Memento. NeuroImage. 2018;172:313–325.
  3. Post magazine – cinematography: Little women. [accessed 2021 May 4].

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