Back to MLG Home Page
Prof. Michael Goldberg
Some suggestions on "how to read a film"
The film critic Christian Metz has written
"A film is difficult to explain because it is easy to
understand." We are used to sitting back in the dark and
viewing a film uncritically; indeed, most Hollywood films are
constructed to render invisible the carefully
constructed nature of the medium. Further, because a film is
constructed of visual, aural, and linguistic components that are
manipulated in numerous ways, it is a challenge to take apart the
totality of the film experience and to interpret how that
experience was assembled.
Below you will find brief explanations of ways to analyze the
language of film. While this list is not comprehensive, it does contain a lot
of information. If film interpretation is new to you, you will not be able to
keep track of all these elements while viewing the filmthis is an acquired
skill. Concentrate at first on a few things that seem to offer the most opportunity
for critical reading.
If viewing the film only once, try to take notes in shorthand
while watching the film. Arrows can be used to note camera angle and camera
movement; quick sketches can be used to note shot composition and elements of
mise-en-scene. As soon as possible after viewing the film, write out your impressions
of the film, noting the most important elements. If you will be writing on the
film and will be seeing it again, take minimal notes the first time through
(although do note important scenes you will want to return to) but still maintain
a critical distance.
When analyzing a film as a historical document, keep in mind
the film's contemporary audiences or authors. Your own personal reaction to
the film may serve as a starting point, but you need to convert these impressions
into historical analysishow are you different and similar to the historical
audiences/authors? What has changed and what has stayed the same? Remember too
the technological changes that have taken place, and keep in mind what audiences
would have expected, and how film makers used the technology at their disposal.
It is especially important to consider substantial changes in the manner of
presentation if you will only be watching the film on a television. Also, be
aware that most Hollywood films made after the early 1950s have an "aspect
ratio" (height and width ratio) different from television screens. Most
video tapes of these films have been altered by the "pan and scan"
method which dramatically changes elements such as shot composition and camera
movement. Video tapes that are "widescreen" preserve the correct aspect
ratio. Most DVDs now come in both "standard" (altered) or "widescreen"
(check the writing on the disk) or only in the correct aspect ratio, and most
laser disks use the correct aspect ratio. If possible, find a format that has
not altered the aspect ratio.
- Themes/tropesThe broad ideas and allusions (themes)
that are established by repetition of technical and linguistic means (tropes)
throughout the film (such as alienation, power and control, transcendence
through romantic achievement, etc.)
- Intent/MessageSometimes, as with a film like JFK
(the Kennedy assassination was the result of a massive government conspiracy)
or Wayne's World (adolescence is a goofy time that provides plenty
of laughs), this is obvious. (Just because the message is obvious, doesn't
mean that the film is simple, or that there is not a contradictory subtext).
Sometimes, however, the filmmakers aren't sure of their message, or the intended
message becomes clouded along the way. At other times, the filmmakers (principally
the producer, director, actors and actresses) are at odds over the intent.
At other times, the film makers intend one message and many in the audience
interpret the film differently.)
- Metaphor and metonymy/symbolismSimilar to literary
interpretation, only consider all aspects of the filmlinguistic, visual,
aural. Metaphors are elements that represent something different from their
explicit meaning (for example, the rose petals in American Beauty). Metonyms
are elements that are similar or the same (for example, in the final scene
of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad represents the lonely battle of activists
and Ma represents the resilience of "the people"; or when a part
of the wholesuch as a close-up of a woman's legrepresents women
as sexual objects). Metaphors and metonyms only gain relevance if they are
repeated in significant ways or connected with the larger meaning of the film.
(Avoid simplistic equations such as the white table symbolizes A; the high
angle shot of a character symbolized B).
- SubtextThe often numerous messages a film conveys beneath
the surface; sometimes intended, often unintended, and sometimes conveying
a different or contradictory message than the intended message. Look especially
for ironies, contradictions, interesting juxtapositions, or if something initially
doesn't seem to make sense. Subtext is usually developed through
the use of figurative elements like metaphor and metonymy.
- Title/opening creditsTitles are chosen carefullyconsider
alternatives and why this title was chosen; consider ambiguities in the title
(His Girl Friday, a film with a strong, independent female protagonist).
The opening credits establish a tone, and often are used to foreshadow events,
themes, or metaphorspay careful attention from the beginning.
- Story/Plot/NarrativeThe narrative provides the basic
structure by which a feature film is understood. (Most documentaries also
have narratives.) The narrative consists of the story and the plot. The story
consists of all of the information conveyed by the film (either directly or
by inference) assembled in chronological order to communicate the overall
sense of what occurred in the film. The diegesis is the entire world
of the story. A film's diegesis may have a different logic than the "real"
world, but as long as their is proper motivation (see below) it will make
sense to the viewer. Diegetic elements are found explicitly or implicitly
in the world of the story; non- or extra-diegetic elements (the soundtrack,
the title, a voice-over, an audience's expectations of a star's persona) are
outside the story. The plot provides the cause and effect relations that cue
the audience and create suspense, surprise, and fulfill expectations. While
dialogue provides a good deal of information, pay attention to all the other
audio and visual clues that convey information about the narrative.. In considering
the narrative structure, note whether the film follows a standard chronological
narrative or not and how time is used. What are the key moments and how are
they established? What are the climaxes and anticlimaxes? How far ahead is
the audience in understanding what is happening to the characters than the
characters themselves are? What propels the story forward? What is the pace
of the narrative? How do earlier parts of the narrative set up later parts?
Where are the key emotive moments when the audience is frightened, enraged,
enraptured, feeling vindicated, etc., and how has the narrative helped to
establish these feelings? Note when there is a change of knowledge
(when characters or the audience become aware of new information) which shifts
the hierarchy of knowledge (the relative amount of knowledge characters
and the audience have). Does the narrative have a coherent unity, or does
it leave the audience feeling unfulfilled or confused? (Sometimes the latter
is the mark of an unsuccessful film; sometimes its either an intentional effect
to challenge the easy "Hollywood ending" or else the result of the
mixed intentions of the various authors.)
- Motivation"Justification given in the film for
the presence of an element. This may appeal to the viewer's knowledge of the
real world, to genre conventions, to narrative causality, or to a stylistic
pattern within the film." (Bordwell, Thompson) Failure to provide proper
motivation challenges the sense of "cinematic realism" in a film.
(If a character's personal motivation is explained in a film as a reason for
his/her action, that falls under "narrative causality." Do not confuse
character motivation as revealed through narrative with your own expectations
you bring to the film. Characters are not real people, and do not make choices
outside of what is conveyed narratively.) Hollywood films tend to stress perfectly
motivated narratives so that every element has a purpose. Discovering the
underlying motivation of the narrative often helps explain why audience expectations
are fulfilled (or if poorly motivated, unfulfilled.) For example, in the Western
Unforgiven, the close-up, eerily lighted shot of Morgan Freeman's/Ned's
scars from whipping by Gene Hackman/Little Bill motivates Clint Eastwood's/William
Money's slaughter of Hackman and various townsfolk. The shot thus cues the
audience's desire for revenge through violence (note the metonymic symbolism
of the scarred black body and the whip), despite the supposedly anti-violent
theme of the film.
Extended definition: click here.
- MotifThe repetition of an element in ways that acquire
symbolic meaning for the element. An motif can be a technical feature (a shot
angle, a lighting set up), a sound or piece of dialogue or music, or an object.
- ParallelismTwo or more scenes that are similar to each
other but which gain meaning because of their differences.
- CharacterizationWho are the central characters? How are
minor characters used? Are characters thinly or fully drawn, and why? Who
in the audience is meant to relate to which characters, and what sort of emotion
(fear, pleasure, anxiety) are audience members meant to feel because of this
identification? Is there a clear or ambivalent hero or villain? What values
do the characters represent, and do they change during the film? Are the characters
meant to play a particular type and do they play against type
at any time?
- Point of viewIs the film in general told from a particular
character's point of view, or is it objective? Is the film's perspective
primarily intellectual or emotional, visionary or realistic? Within
the film, is a particular shot viewed from a character's point of view ("subjective
shot"), and how does the camera technically reinforce the point of view?
Who is the audience meant to be focusing on at a particular moment?
MISE-EN-SCENEEverything going on within the
frame outside of editing and sound
- Setting and setsis the scene shot in a studio sound
stage or on location? How is the setting integrated into the action,
both the larger background and particular props? How is the setting used in
composing the shot (verticals and horizantals, windows and doors, the ever
popular slats of shades, mirrors, etc.)? How do particular settings (vast
mountain ranges, cluttered urban setting) function as signs in order to convey
narrative and ideological information? How are colors used?
- Acting stylemore obviously mannered
(classical); intense and psychologically
driven (method); less affectations and more
natural? Do particular actors have their own
recognizable style or type, and how do the filmmakers use
the audience's expectations, either by reaffirming or
challenging these expectations? What expectations do
"stars" bring to their roles? Do they fulfill
or challenge these expectations (playing against type)?
- Costumes (or lack thereof)note contrasts
between characters, changes within film; use of colors.
This also includes physiques, hair styles, etc.
- Lighting Key Light: main lighting, usually placed at
a 45 degree angle between camera and subject. Fill Light: Auxiliary lights,
usually from the side of the subject, that softens or eliminates shadows and
illuminates areas not covered by the Key Light. High Key Lighting is when
all the lights are on (typical of musicals and comedies); Low Key Lighting
is when one or more of the fill lighting is eliminated, creating more opportunity
for shadows. High contrast lighting refers to sharp contrast between light
and dark; low contrast refers to shades of gray. Hard lighting creates a harsh
light; soft lighting creates a muted, usually more forgiving lighting. "Hard"
characters often get hard lighting, and visa versa. Highlighting or spotlighting:
pencil-thin beams of light used to illuminate certain parts of a subject,
often eyes or other facial features. Backlighting: placing the main source
of light behind the subject, silhouetting it, and directing the light toward
the camera. Toplighting: lighting from above. Lighting and camera angle are
the key means of creating shadows and shadings in black and white films, which
are important elements of the overall mise en scene when conveying meaning.
All of the above terms are bipolar, when in fact many lighting setups lie
somewhere in between.
- Diffuser/Filter: A gelatin plate that is
placed in front of light to change the effect. (Whether
to cast a shadow or soften the light, for instance.)
CINEMATOGRAPHYThe camera work that records the mise-en-scene
between edits. Each shot represents many choices made by the film makers. Why
have they made these choices? What do these choices represent?
- Tonebright, sharp colors; grainy and black and white: hazy?
If black and white when color was available, why would the film makers make
- Film speedslow or fast motion used? film speed reversed?
- Camera AngleThe angle at which the camera is pointed at
the subject: low (shot from below), high (shot from above), or eye-level (includes
extreme low and high angle shots). This creates the angle of visionthe point
of viewfor the audience, and is often used to establish character's level
of power and control (high angle shots can make character seem diminished),
but there are many other uses as well.
- Tracking, Panning, and TiltTracking shot moves the
camera either sideways or in and out. The camera can be mounted on a "dolly,"
"handheld" to create a jerkier effect, mounted on a crane and moved
in all directions within a limited range, or in a helicopter, train, car,
plane, etc. for other effects. Panning swings the camera horizontally, tilt
swigs it vertically. These effects are often used simultaneously.
- Angle of View/lensThe angle of the shot created by
the lens. A wide angle lens presents broad views of subjects, and makes possible
a large depth of field (many planes of action) as well as a deep focus shot.
A normal lens (35 mm) can only focus on one plane at a time. A telephoto lens
has a very narrow angle of views which acts like a telescope to focus faraway
subjects and flattens the view.
- Focus"Shallow focus" uses sharp focus on the
characters or things in one area of the shot and soft (blurred) focus in the
rest. "Deep focus" brings out the detail in all areas of the shot.
"Focus In" gradually "zooms" in on the subject, "focus
out" gradually "zooms" out (these are known as focus
pulls). Rack focus is an extremely fast focus pull that changes focus
from one image/character to another by changing the focus to a different plane.
- Shot distanceFull shot, three-quarters shot, mid- or half-shot,
close-up and extreme close-up for shots of bodies; (extreme) long-shot, mid-shot,
(extreme) close-up to describe more general. Can be used to create sense of
isolation (extreme long shot of character in a desert) or great pain, anger
or joy (extreme close-up of character's face). Choice of lens (see above)
can create strange effects (wide angle close up extends and distorts image
at the edges, like a funhouse mirror; telephoto lens used in long shots flatten
distances and putting background out of focus.
- Framethe border that contains the image. Can be open
(with characters moving in and out); moving (using focus, tracking,
panning); canted (at odd angles, unbalanced shot composition).
- Shot compositionThe relation of the elements of mise-en-scene
to the frame. Small frames used with close-ups can create sense of claustrophobia,
often enhanced by the set (low ceilings, numerous props and furnishings) and
lighting. The set can also be used to frame the shot in other ways (lamps,
flags, etc. on either side; a bed out-of-focus at the bottom of the frame)
as can characters (as signs of intimidation, marginality, support, etc.) These
types of shots are unbalanced. Look also for shots that are perfectly symmetrical.
MONTAGEEditing (cuts) within scenes and in
the film in general, creating continuities and discontinuities, juxtapositions,
and narrative structure. The standard Hollywood practice is to make cuts invisible,
and thus they are often difficult to pick up within a scene. "Montage"
is also the term used for a series of quick cuts from a variety of locations
that cohere narratively or thematically (the baptism scene in The Godfather
I is a good example). "Accelerated montage" is what it sounds
like (the prison escape scene in His Girl Friday).
- Editing pacewithin a sequence, from long takes (the opening
credits of The Graduate) to accelerated montage (the chase scene
of Bullit); within the film in general, to establish overall tone. Since the
natural state of a Hollywood film movement, long takes coupled
with a still camera can be used to increase intensity of a shot, make the
audience uncomfortable, etc.
- Establishing shotInitial shot in a scene that establishes
location, characters, and purpose of the scene.
- Shot/counter shotstandard device used during dialogue between
two characters; often starts with a two-shot of the two characters,
then moves back and forth. Combined with camera angle, shot distance, and
pace to establish point of view. Note when this standard device is not used,
and for what purpose. Note when the person speaking is not viewed, or only
back is viewed.
- Reaction shotQuick cut to pick up character's reaction
to an event. Lack of reaction shot when it seems logical should be noted.
- Jump CutA cut that occurs within a scene (rather than between
scenes) that removes part of a shot. This shot is often done for effect by
making the cut obvious and disrupting the invisible editing of Hollywood style.
- Freeze FrameA freeze shot, which is achieved by printing
a single frame many times in succession to give the illusion of a still photograph.
- CrosscuttingA shot inserted in a scene to show action happening
elsewhere at the same time.
- CutawayA cut within a shot to a location that links
the action of the shot and condenses time (for example, a reaction shot of
a woman watching a man climb some stairs, cutting out a flight in between
- Match CutA cut in which two shots are linked by visual,
aural, or metaphorical parallelism.
- ScenesAn end of a scene is usually marked by a number of
possible devices, including fade-ins and fade-outs (which may include a quick
cut or a fade to blacknote the length of time the blackout is maintained,
which often implies significance of preceding scene, or else a long passage
of time); wipe (a line moves across the screen, usually used in older films);
dissolve (a new shot briefly superimposed on an old shot), often used to express
continuity or connections (for example, the stump scene in Shane).
- SequenceA series of scenes that fit together narratively
- Accelerated montagea series of quick cuts that relate
a variety of shots from different locations into a coherent story or
SOUNDSometimes non-dialogue sound is the hardest element to
pick out and analyze, yet is often extremely important and subject to just as
much of the film makers focus as other elements. Note how sound is usedto
underscore emotions, to alert the audience to an upcoming event, as an ironic
counterpoint, etc. Carefully created and edited sounds (including the use of
silences) creates a rich aural images the same way that mise en scene, shot
composition, and montage create visual images. Note that sound is both part
of the mise-en-scene and is a separate category of editing (since the audio
track is separate from the video track).
- DialogueIs it overlapping, mumbled, very soft or loud?
- Sound effectsboth the effects themselves (a doorbell ringing)
and the manipulation of the sound (stereo effects which move sounds across
the sound spectrum, or balance sounds on one side or the other; filtering
and manipulating sounds).
- Scorethe background music used throughout the film. The
score often maintains and manipulates a similar theme at various times (especially
in older films), and is often used in relation to the narrative structure.
Particular motifs or themes may be used in relation to particular characters.
- Sound BridgeConnects scenes or sequences by a sound that
continues through the visual transition.
- Direct sound refers to sound that is recorded
at the time the scene is shot (usually dialogue, although audio inserts are
possible. All audio inserts would be post-synchronous sound.).
- Postsychronous sound refers to sound that is recorded and
placed on the film audio track after the scene is shot (virtually all scores).
Most non-dialogue sounds are inserted after production (for example, footsteps),
as well as a fair amount of dialogue that is either inserted when characters
are not shown speaking onscreen, or simply pasted over sections that the are
deemed to need improvement.
- Diegetic sound is heard within the film's diegesis (dialogue,
a shot from a gun on screen).
- Off-screen sound appears within the film's
diegesis but not within the frame (extending off-screen space).
- Non-diegetic sound is heard outside of the film's diegesis
(such as film scores and voice-overs). A pop song that seems to be part of
a the soundtrack but is found to be coming from, say, a car radio, is a diagetic
sound and is an element worth noting.
- Simultaneous sound is heard at the same time the action happens
- Non-simultaneous sound is heard before or after the action
For links to definitions used in film theory, CLICK
List of Essential Film Terms from Bordwell and Thompson,
Film Art, CLICK HERE.
- David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, 6th
- Monaco, James. How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology,
Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media. Revised Edition (Oxford
U. Press: 1981).
- Stephen Prince, Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to
- Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film.
Second Edition (HarperCollins: 1994)
Back to MLG Home Page
last updated 9/14/00