Johnson Ling: The New Art of Cinematic Storytelling in a Short-Attention World

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Johnson Ling: The New Art of Cinematic Storytelling in a Short-Attention World

By Johnson Ling, Film Director, Lion & Lion.


“He frantically searches his cabinets, going through the drawers quickly. The camera pans across a desolate wasteland, a lone RV parked in the most peculiar of places. The door opens and he trudges out onto the steps of the RV carefully. The gun he is holding enters the frame, followed by a set of keys. He stops, dead set and determined, ready to face his demons, wearing nothing but a 3-day old green oxford and stained white underwear. The camera cuts to a wide, he is facing a grizzly bear in a cage. As he approaches it to open the lock, he says, “let’s f*cking go”.

Imagine all that happening in 3 seconds, 30 seconds or 3 minutes. How will that play out in your mind? I’d like to think the visual cues are jarring enough that the story still has the same hold. I borrowed inspiration from two amazing stories, Breaking Bad and The Bear, took their opening-ish, and combined it into somewhat of a cold opener, and oh, both of them are the complete opposite of each other in terms of pacing.

Now let’s put that into today’s context:
“In a rapid-fire montage, fleeting images flash across the screen – a thumbs-up emoji, a scroll through a feed, snippets of viral videos, and snippets of news headlines. The sound of incessant notifications and chimes fills the air, a cacophony of distraction. A young woman sets up a camera to take a selfie, a man bumps into her, her future life flashes in a series of microseconds, they go on dates, kiss, hook up, fight, make up, get married. She snaps back to reality and the man just continues walking on.”

Crafting Compelling Content for Short Attention Spans
That was actually a rendition of an actual Instagram or TikTok trend that was going on for a bit, but you get the point. Our brain has been skewered with incessant dings, pops and notifications that we are programmed to digest visual information within fractions of a second. We can expand or exploit that by either ramping up the ‘peculiarity’ setting to the ninth, meaning the weirder the visual, the better it holds attention. Or the other way, where we disseminate visual cacophony, in the editing, pacing and delivery, in a thoughtfully crafted piece of storytelling art.

The Power of Fast Formats
I recently watched Christopher Storer’s ‘The Bear’ and realised, here’s a show that knows how to embrace our modern consumption culture, and craft into their story so deep it wouldn’t feel the same without it. Embracing fast formats, dynamic editing, and the use of music to generate attention and intensity has become paramount in the world of storytelling. By recognizing the diminishing attention spans of audiences, storytellers can effectively capture attention within the critical 3-second window, ensuring that their messages are conveyed swiftly and powerfully.

Challenges and Opportunities
There’s a reason why some of these films and shows stand out. Directors like Damien Chazelle, Edgar Wright, the Safdie brothers, and Darren Aronofsky to name a few, utilize the power of pinpoint accuracy in their edits to compress complex narratives and maintain coherence, and create style. It also opens up exciting opportunities for creativity and innovation. Leveraging augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) technologies, for instance, can elevate storytelling to new heights, immersing viewers in captivating experiences, such as Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. With the new launch of Apple’s Vision Pro, putting the viewer right into the movie doesn’t seem too far of a stretch. Imagine you were looking through Ken’s POV, holding Barbie’s hair as she vomits pink after a night bender.

The Impact of Fast Formats on Viewer Behaviour
As tech evolves and fast formats become more prevalent, analysing how people receive and adopt these formats is crucial. Studies have shown that audiences are increasingly willing to watch content for longer durations when it is presented in fast and engaging formats, leading to a shift in consumption habits. Let’s face it, we all want our dopamine hits, no one intentionally watches something anymore. If you sit a Gen-Z down and make him/her watch My Dinner With Andre, they will spontaneously combust, it is just not possible. So tweak it. It can still be one setting, two people talking to each other, but a million things happening, editing that is focused on delivering context of the conversation like how a GAU-8 Avenger minigun delivers 3,900 rpm of ‘freedom’.

Nostalgia in the Fast Lane
Surprisingly, even nostalgic content can find a place in the fast format realm. By adapting classic material to these formats, filmmakers can appeal to modern audiences who crave quick yet familiar experiences. For example, one can consider the success of the Oppenheimer documentary, which utilised fast formats to deliver a historically significant story efficiently. With a runtime of 3 hours, we would assume it would be draggy, but the pacing of the storytelling, combined with the urgency, does not feel long. And if you’re like me with 70 year old ear drums, you literally get a jolt at how loud Nolan’s films are, it’s a wake up call!

Balancing Passion and Art
While crafting compelling content for short attention spans, it is essential not to sacrifice artistic expression and passion. Storytellers should strive to create elusiveness without revealing too much, allowing the audience to engage in an immersive experience while leaving room for interpretation and imagination. There’s a saying “Tell me without telling me” or “Iykyk”. How do you tell a massive chunk of information, draw the audience in within 3 seconds, without revealing the plot line and keep them wanting more. I still stand by that every film should begin with an explosion

● In conclusion, embracing the art of storytelling in a short-attention world requires a delicate balance of creativity, technological innovation, and an understanding of human emotions.
● Fast formats offer an exciting avenue for captivating audiences within the 3-second window, but it is crucial to retain the essence of storytelling and artistic expression to create memorable cinematic experiences that leave a lasting impression on viewers.

If you’re looking to improve your storytelling to connect with your audience, we’re here to help. Feel free to reach us at and chat with the team from Lion & Lion’s Film & Content Studio.