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Applying Film Theory to eLearning

#designedexperience #elearning #elearningdeveloper #filmhistory #filmtheory #instructionaldesign #storyboarding #storytelling #visualdesign Feb 17, 2023

We as instructional designers and eLearning developers wear many hats. Consider one more!

When we create instructional materials, we have to think very carefully not just about the content, but also about the visual design. Everything should have a purpose and be tied to the learning objectives. Visuals should always reinforce the content. If a picture or illustration does not have a very clear purpose and connection to the content, then it actually can take away from the learning experience. (Think of extraneous cognitive load.)

This idea brings me back to film school. One of my majors for my undergraduate degree was Film and Media Studies. Because it focused heavily on film theory, I learned how to critically analyze the media I consumed. The foundation of critical analysis and film theory is film history; I’ve linked the textbook that got me started.

One of the things you learn about in film theory is that early cinema took direct cues from theater. In theater, there’s a French phrase, mise-en-scène, which translates to “put into (the) scene.” Originally, it referred to how scenery, props, lighting, etc. were arranged on stage. In cinema, it deals with what’s shown in each frame. The idea is that there are intentional and methodical choices about what to put in each frame, and where precisely to position everything within that frame. All of that is part of the storytelling, and that storytelling creates a very carefully designed experience for the audience.

A related aspect of film theory that I want you to consider is “metteur-en-scène” versus “auteur.” (Yes, more French – if you didn’t know, several French artists helped pioneer the medium. Three of particular note are Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. I highly recommend visiting the Lumière museum in Lyon if you have the opportunity. It’s incredible to see many of the precursors to modern-day cameras.) Anyway, a “metteur-en-scène” is basically what you’d call a director who doesn’t have a distinctive style but does effectively tell a story visually with what’s in the frame. An “auteur” also tells a story using visual information, but does it masterfully, putting their own unique mark on it so you instantly recognize it as their work. Alfred Hitchcock is a classic example of an auteur, with the dolly zoom being an in-camera effect that he (and his cinematographer, Irmin Roberts) developed and popularized in Vertigo.

I propose that, as an instructional designer and especially an eLearning developer, you think of yourself as a metteur-en-scène. (What’s one more “personality,” when we already embrace so many?) When you storyboard, you are essentially setting the scene. While there are different types of storyboards used in our industry, I’d argue that the ones that contain images really do help you to use visuals that have a clear purpose and directly connect to the content.

Could you become an auteur eLearning developer? Maybe. It is hard to design and develop courses that have a unique visual style that’s all your own. That’s also not really the goal, as there are web content accessibility guidelines and company design standards to which we should adhere. If you can break the mold while being accessible and meeting those standards, however, go for it! There is an art to instructional design and eLearning, after all.

At the very least, your portfolio could be that “auteur” outlet. Allez-y!


About the author:

Brenda is a learning designer with a passion for making learning accessible and meaningful. She loves to create and innovate while also being very process-driven. Check out her work at and connect with her on LinkedIn.