Film Studies — A Guideline
Quick and easy steps to basic film analysis for VCA Eastleigh students
Your Task: Analyse a film that inspires you, or you wish to research as part of your project. Record your findings in a journal and then present them in your sketchbook. The films you select can be of any length (feature or short) and might bridge a wide range of genres and styles (e.g. animation, independent cinema or experimental video art).
Step One — watch the film!
Before the film, make a note of the title of the film, the year it was made, the director, production company and any relevant details in your journal before viewing it
During the viewing, make notes on the following:
narrative structure / plot points (e.g. three-act narrative or non-linear?)
visuals — camera work, editing and lighting that you find interesting or particularly effective
sound — diegetic (sound effects) and non-diegetic (soundtrack / narration)
reoccurring themes — are there any noticeable thematic links during the film?
memorable moments — action, visuals or plot points that you find interesting
After the film, record a summary:
summarise the plot — can you boil the story down into a sentence?
critique — what did you enjoy or dislike about the film?
make a stylistic summary — record the use of visuals, colour, editing you found interesting
did the film have a message and did you derive any meaning from it?
Give yourself some distance from the film now, maybe a day, and during that time collect additional research about the filmmaker / artist and the general history surrounding the production. You could look at the filmmaker’s body of work, and if your familiar with their other films — begin to form links between them (e.g. reoccurring visual themes, camerawork, editing, subject matter etc.)
Step Two — close analysis
Select one scene from your film to closely analyse, it’s tempting to pick your favourite (that scene where the guy’s head explodes was awesome) but maybe select one you’re unsure of — maybe because it’s jarring, maybe it was confusing, maybe you just plain hated it! — either way it’s good practice as film makers to break down work we don’t fully understand.
Write down the following headings in your journal and try to write a paragraph for each. Here are some questions you should ask during your analysis:
Narrative / plot points:
how is the plot explained? — do visuals communicate the story / subject or the dialogue?
cause and effect? — does every action in the scene create a reaction later?
are the events linear / non-linear? — does the film follow parallel storylines or is the use of time fragmented and experimental?
does the film exist within (or across) any genres? (e.g. comedy, horror, western, noir)
does the film use (or subvert) any genre archetypes? (for example: a lone gunslinger rolls into town in a western, an un-trustworthy femme fatale in a noir drama etc.)
did you identify any genre paradigms? — typical examples of things that might appear in a genre film (e.g. a mask in a horror, smoking in a noir drama, shoot outs in a western)
Caméra-stylo (the camera as a pen):
how does the filmmaker employ camerawork to explore the story / subject?
can you identify any specific shot types? (e.g. p.o.v’s, tracking, tilt shot — *see shot list at the end of this post)
if so, how does the filmmaker implement them during the film and how do these shots communicate the story / subject to the viewer?
How does the filmmaker use editing? — is it fast paced? slow and considered? erratic?
Judging by the editing, what is the filmmaker’s intention? — are they telling a story, are they invoking a mood, or are they trying to subvert the audience’s expectation?
Can you identify any specific editing techniques? (jump cuts, match cuts, montage etc.)
How is lighting used during the scene? — to enhance the drama, to highlight specific subjects / objects, or to create believable realism?
How does the filmmaker frame his shots? look closely at the composition — how do certain shots communicate the filmmaker’s ideas, intentions or themes visually?
How does the director stage the scene to enhance the mood of the film? — does the set-design, props and costume enhance the themes / story?
Can you identify any themes the filmmaker explores within the scene? — (e.g. singular themes — ‘feminism’ or opposing themes — ‘technology vs. nature’)
Did you spot any visual metaphors? (e.g. a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis = rebirth)
Once you’re done, summarise your findings in a brief evaluation of the scene and outline the most interesting results from your analysis, visually, in your sketchbook. Succinctly tie together all the most valuable information that you can feed-forward into your own project work. This activity will serve as a reference point that you can return to and reconnect with during your development of your project.
If you are unsure of the terminology used during this post, here is a helpful glossary of terms you may find useful:
Auteur theory — the theory that certain directors are the driving force behind the creative expression in the film. Like an author — they have recognisable body of work that exhibits similar stylistic and thematic approaches.
Choreography — this relates to the movement of characters or subjects on screen, in relation to one-another and the camera (e.g. an actor moves from the shadows into the light to appear more prominent)
Composition — the way the action or scene is framed by the camera. Various elements like the positioning and angle of the camera, lighting, and staging might be tailored to explore or express visual ideas and themes.
Depth of Field — the area of the frame that is in focus (generally used to pick out individual characters or props to aid the visual storytelling)
Diegetic sound — sound that is intended to exist in the reality of the film (think car horns in a busy city, footsteps down a quiet corridor or crickets chirping in the countryside at night).
Discourse — a term originated in literature, which covers how the author uses certain methods to communicate their story (e.g. narration, monologue, description). In terms of film the discourse is the Mise en sene, camera work, editing and sound.
Establishing shot — a shot that introduces the viewer to the general location and / or relevant information at the start of a scene (e.g. an unguarded vault at the start of a heist)
Genre — the French word for ‘type’ or ‘kind.’ In film terms — genre relates to a recognisable ‘type’ of film; each with its own traditional conventions and rules (e.g. westerns / samurai, horror, comedy, noir etc.)
Jump-cut — a cut that jumps forward in time from one part of the scene to another and condenses the action. Jump cuts can be used to build the tempo of the drama or to disorientate the viewers experience.
Match-cut — a cut whereby two separate shots (often between different scenes or time and place) are matched in motion and / or with sound. Google the ‘2001 Space Odyssey match cut’ for a visual reference.
Mise-en-scène — originally developed to describe the arrangement and staging of theatrical productions, Mise-en-scène refers to everything within the frame of a camera and how each element (e.g. lighting, staging, props, costume) influences the visual storytelling and enhances the ideas and themes in the filmmaker’s work.
Montage — perfected by Soviet-era filmmaker Sergei Einstein, montage editing is a series of shots or stills condensed into quick succession that spans the passing of time and / or space.
Narrative theory — narrative theory was developed in response to recognisable traits in folklore stories, it was later refined in relation to the theatre, which in turn, gave rise to modern adaptations of the theory in regards to film. In most theories, the events of a film can be attributed to three-acts, each with a plot-point that drives the story and action into the following act.
Non-diegetic sound — sounds that does not exist in the reality of the film, but serves a dramatic purpose (think film soundtracks, a narrator or the inner thoughts of a central character)
Parallel storylines — two or more scenes taking place at the same moment during a narrative. The filmmaker may communicate this with cuts back and forth or by using split-screen techniques.
Plot — the events of the film that are linked to the cause and effect of the protagonist’s story (i.e. Frodo finds the ring, Frodo struggles on his quest to return the ring, Frodo drops the ring in hot lava and saves the day — wahey!)
Producer — the producer oversees the organisation and management of the production, all the way from pre-production through to the distribution of the final film. They will handle the business side of the filmmaking, making sure the production runs to schedule and within the budget.
Setting — either the period in which the film is set (the time), or, the physical environment in which the films action is set (the place).
Themes — the theme could be a range of singular issues the film explores (e.g. feminism, racism, disfranchisement etc.) or it could be a range of opposing issues (e.g. rich vs. poor, science vs. religion etc.). Themes can also manifest visually as metaphors (e.g. a broken bottle could symbolise alcoholism) or in the use of Mise en sene (e.g. the reoccurring use of the colour red to symbolise passion).