Film Language Overview

PowerPoint: Film Analysis Basics – Watch it, then read the following “Film Language Overview“.


Film Analysis Basics



Film Language Overview:


For more in-depth discussion of these terms and more, please go to Tutorials and at Movies Readings.


I. Meaning:

Let’s explain this using a movie most of us have seen – The Wizard of Oz (1939):


1) Referential Meaning: In the Depression, a tornado takes a girl from her family’s Kanas farm to the mythical land of Oz. After a series of adventures, she returns home. (Very concrete. The meaning depends on the audience’s ability to identify specific factual items about real places and events: the American Depression, the state of Kansas, and features of Midwestern climate).


2) Explicit Meaning: A girl dreams of leaving home to escape her troubles. Only after she leaves does she realize how much she loves her family. (Still fairly concrete. Explicit meaning is often the basic answer to the question: “What is the point the film?” The explicit meaning(s) of a always function within the context of the entire movie. For instance, Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home” at the end of the movie. Is that really the entire movie? If that were true, why would this cliche be transformed in this film into something that has made the film beloved by generations of people?).


3) Implicit Meaning: An adolescent who must soon face the adult world yearns for a return to the simple world of childhood, but she eventually accepts the demands of growing up. (This is considerably more abstract than the 1st two statements. It assumes something that goes beyond what is explicitly stated in the film. Dorothy’s desire to flee to a place “over the rainbow” becomes a general symbol of an adolescent’s yearning). WHEN WE TALK ABOUT IMPLICIT MEANING, we are beginning to INTERPRET an artwork)


4) Symptomatic Meaning: In a society where human worth is measured by money, the home and the family may seem to be the last refuge of human values. This belief is especially strong in times of economic crisis, such as that of the US in the 1930s. (Like the 3rd statement, abstract and general. It situates the film within a trend of thought assumed to be characteristic of American society in the 1930s. The claim could apply to other cultural products of the period: painting, plays, literature, advertising, and political speeches. It treats an explicit meaning (“There’s no place like home”) as a manifestation of a wider set of values. The same can be said for the concept of adolescence as an important transitional period in one’s life. These symptomatic meanings reveal SOCIAL IDEOLOGY.

CONCLUSIONS REGARDING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF MEANING: our understanding of meaning in the 4 categories above, IS LARGELY A SOCIAL PHENOMENON. They come from CULTURALLY SPECIFIC BELIEFS ABOUT THE WORLD. For instance, in other times and cultures, HOME & ADOLESCENCE do not carry the meanings they do in 21st Century America.



II. Narrative:


A narrative is “a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space. It is what we usually mean by “STORY“. It typically begins with one situation; a series of changes occur according to a pattern of cause and effect; finally, a new situation arises near the end of the narrative.


Consider the following sequence: “A man can’t sleep. A mirror breaks. A telephone rings.”


“A man has a fight with his boss. That night he tosses and turns, unable to sleep. In the morning, he is still so angry he punches his mirror while shaving. Then his telephone rings. It is his boss calling to apologize.”


We can now connect things in time (how long the events take to unfold) and space (setting – where they are taking place). Most important, we understand how the events are a series of causes and effects (causality). The argument causes the sleeplessness and broken mirror. The phone call from the boss resolves the conflict.


What kinds of thing can function as causes in a narrative? Usually, the agents of cause and effect are characters.


Most movies, whether made in Hollywood or overseas, follow a single mode of narration – referred to as CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD NARRATION. It is ‘classical’ because it has been dominant for over 100 years of filmmaking. In this type of narrative, the action springs primarily from individual characters. Often an important trait in the character is a desire and a goal. The character wants something. This desire moves the movie forward.



Narratives are stories. They are our way of making sense of our lives and the world. When we want to tell or hear about life, we want to tell it and hear it in the form of a story. This means that we frequently follow a particular form and structure when we tell about things, whether we tell about real or imaginary events. We have learned to use narrative as the means of telling about people and events such that it has become ‘hard wired’ into our mind as the most interesting way to tell about events in life and the world. Because we have grown so used to using it, narrative has become transparent”, i.e. we don’t know we use it. This means we can call it a convention; it seems the natural way to tell of things. The paradox of narrative is that despite massively simplifying reality, it creates the illusion of offering authenticity and truth. A narrative typically begins with a sense that the world is in equilibrium – a calm place; this equilibrium becomes disrupted before eventually returning to a new equilibrium; because we believe that the world should be in a state of calm, we expect any disruption to be resolvable and to be returned to calm. This results in a connected beginning-middle-end structure in which a ‘villain’ disrupts the calm of a ‘hero’s’ world. In the real world, of course, people are never wholly good or wholly evil; life is not necessarily ‘naturally’ calm and events are never so simply related one to another. But, that’s the way we see the world and by presenting a word of people and events in the form of a narrative, media texts work easily to trick us into believing we are being shown a ‘window on the world’ – reality. TV ads are mini-narratives in which we add in missed aspects in our desire to see a story unfold and be resolved. Often we become the hero and the advertised product becomes the ‘helper’ – equivalent to the magical potion of ancient fairy tales that helps change the frog into a handsome prince and so on…


Genre is the kind of narrative being told, e.g. detective, Western, science fiction, horror, etc. It defines a text by its similarities to other texts. Watching a film, we have many pre-existing memories and expectations regarding characters, settings and events: it is this that helps us enjoy predicting what might happen next and working out where events will lead. Genre allows a director to create seeming realism because we fail to see that what we see is not reality but a media convention. So… in the gangster genre, we don’t mind the owner of a casino being horribly killed because we see him, within this genre, as belonging to the side of the ‘villain’. Film companies use genre both to sell and help make successful films: a popular genre creates a greater chance of commercial success, so genre is a cost efficient way of planning a film, making it cheaper to write new stories and reducing the need for entirely new sets; a negative aspect is that it being ‘safe’, it can also act to reduce choice and creativity.


Iconography is an important aspect of genre. We expect to see certain objects on screen when we see a particular genre, for example, in a Western, dusty lonely roads, saloon bars, cowboy hats and horses, jails, sheriffs badges, guns, etc.; in a modern horror film, we expect young girls, ‘normal’ objects, use of dark and light, etc. These genre indicators are called the iconography of the Mise-en-scène or genre.


III. Mise-en-scène (meez-ahn-sen):

Mise-en-scène means “putting into the scene” and was first applied to stage plays. Film scholars use the term to signify the director’s control over everything that appears in the frame. This is everything that makes up the scene or sequence in the movie.

Normally it means the actors, stage, setting and everything else you can see. It can also refer to the time period and cultural setting. Asking ‘who, what and where’ of the characters and objects and their relative positions, expressions, appearance, costume, make-up, scenery, props, lighting, sounds, etc. in the Mise-en-scène will help you analyse and understand it. What effects are created in a particular Mise-en-scène, what meaning do they have, how they have been created and why created that particular way (which is director’s purpose – perhaps to develop a character, a mood, the storyline or plot and always to contribute to the exploration a deeper meaning or idea, i.e. a theme).

Certain film stars can be an important part of a film’s iconography and become signifiers of meaning; they create expectations of character and action, genre, and powerful iconic representations of such as masculinity and femininity. In the past, stars were contracted to stop them moving studios and genres.


Character relationships (proxemics): If there is more than one character, what is their relationship to each other within the frame? Are they close or apart? How is their body language used to communicate a message to us?

Character movements: Do the characters move in the scene? Do they move within the frame of the shot, or do they move off-screen, or enter into the frame from off-screen.

Dialogue: What dialogue (two or more people talking. A single character only talking is a monologue) is taking place?

Colors: What colors dominate the movie or a scene?  What meanings do they imply?

Sound: Is the sound diegetic (originating only in the scene itself… eg characters talking, music playing in the scene, sound effects etc.) or is it non-diegetic (added in the editing phase of the movie…eg a soundtrack song, a voiceover). The diegesis is the ‘world of the film’: if something is on the screen (including sounds from objects within the Mise-en-scène) it is ‘in the diegesis’ or said to be ‘diegetic’. Sound that is a part of the action is diegetic, e.g. wind noise, screeching cars, music from a hi-fi, etc; sound that is added to create mood or atmosphere is non-diegetic. Diegetic sounds may, of course, also be dubbed after filming, or may be exaggerated for effect (e.g. loud footsteps, whistling wind, etc.).

Music: What music is used? Is it a score (music created just for this movie by a composer) or is it popular music? If it’s not a score, then how is the music matched to sequences? Is it contemporary to the movie (eg. a movie set in the 1970s plays music from the 1970s) or is it current music (eg music from NOW but played as the soundtrack for a film set 100 years ago. How does the music set the mood?

Total composition: What makes up the whole of the sequence? Is it designed to look or feel like something, remind us of something or show an important moment in a specific way?



IV. Cinematography


Lighting: How is the scene lit? Is it an exterior scene that appears to use natural light or an interior scene that appears to use artificial light (nearly all movies use artificial light at all times and just seem to use natural light). Lighting can create atmosphere and mood as well as signify meaning, e.g. in the horror genre, light and shade are codes of meaning. High-key lighting is harsh; soft-key lighting creates romance; spotlighting picks out a character from a group, etc. Available light suggests natural light. Full-face lighting suggests openness and honesty; shadow can suggest fear or lack of trust, and so on.

Contrasting areas: Are there any areas of great contrast. Is the foreground much more visible than the background, for instance, or are there areas that are really bright, or especially colorful.

Shot type: Is it a long shot, a close-up or other type of shot…or a mix. What is the purpose of using the range of shots that have been chosen?

Camera angle: How is the camera angled? Is it looking straight at the characters or is it angled up to, or down on the characters or important parts shown in the sequence. Is the camera tilted (or canted) at all? Why is the camera set this way?

Camera movement: Does the camera move or is it stationary. If there is movement, what type of movement is that…is it tripod based rotation, or tracking motion (using a dolly) or is it the result of using a boom or handheld camera. Is the motion panning, or zooming? Does the camera move to follow the characters.

Depth of field and Camera Lenses: How is the sequence set up? Is everything in the whole scene clearly in focus or is only the foreground or background in focus? Are other techniques used to position the camera, e.g. over-the-shoulder shots?


V. Editing:


Editing is the cutting and joining of lengths of film to place separate shots together yet still manage to suggest a sense of a continuing, connected and realistic flow of events and narrative (see below). A montage is an edited series of shots that works as an ‘individual unit’ of meaning greater than the individual Mise-en-scène from which it is created.


Continuity editing refers to editing techniques that keep the sense of narrative flow such as matched or eye-line cuts. A jump-cut is a dramatic edit that breaks time / space continuity yet still appears continuous and ‘natural’; an MTV edit is a rapid sequence of fast jump cuts that creates a conscious effect such as in music videos; a cross-cut follows action in two separate scenes; a follow-cut follow action to its consequence, e.g. a character looking out cuts to what they look at. Fades (sometimes to black) and dissolves create the sense of scenes moving forward. A sound-bridge carries sound across shots.  Parallel action allows two scenes to be viewed yet still retain the continuity and realism and uses cross cuts. A sequence is a series of shots (i.e. a montage) that leads up to a climax as in a story sequence.


Time: What is the duration of each shot?

Editing style: How is the editing completed? Does the editing use many short sequences, a few longer sequences or a combination of the two. Why is the editing like that? How is it designed to have an effect on the audience?

Transitions: What transitions are used between shots. Are they regular cuts (goes immediately to the next shot without transition), or are there transitions between the shots for a reason. What type of transition is used? What is the reason for using those transitions?









Film Art: An Introduction, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson

Looking at Movies, by Richard Barsam.

Steve Campsall – 27/06/2002 (Rev. 17/12/2005) Media – GCSE Film Analysis Guide

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