In this article, you will find an extensive list of elements and questions to help you when analysing a film. Frankenstein is a film classic.
Films are similar to novels or short stories in that they tell a story. They include the same genres: romantic, historical, detective, thriller, adventure, horror, and science fiction. However, films may also include sub-groups such as action, comedy, tragedy, westerns and war. The methods you use to analyse a film are closely related to those used to analyse literature; nevertheless, films are multimedial. They are visual media made for viewers. Films take command of more of our senses to bring out emotions and create special atmospheres and feelings. Along with the literary elements such as plot, setting, characterisation, structure, and theme, which make up the text or screenplay, there are many different film techniques used to tell the story or narrative. Attention is paid to sound, music, lighting, camera angles, and editing. It is important to focus on how all the elements are used together in making a good film. Like novel analysis, film analysis may seem like a mammoth task. It is impossible to look at every aspect of a film or novel, so narrow down your focus and choose a few things to focus on. It is often a good idea to have a clear thesis to start from, so that you avoid being overwhelmed by the amount of things it is possible to look at. There are different types of film analysis. A semiotic analysis studies the symbols and imagery used in a film and what is achieved by using these devices. A narrative analysis examines story elements such as narrative structure, character, and plot. A cultural or historical analysis examines a film’s relationship with culture, history, or society. Finally, we have mise-en-scène analysis, where the focus is on how a film is made: it studies camera angles, acting, set design, costumes etc. Do not worry about having to choose one type of analysis to write: It common for an analysis to be a combination of some or all of these types of analysis. Below you will find lists of elements that can be studied in a film analysis.
- title of film
- year of production
- names of actors
- name of director
- What main genre does the film belong to – romantic, historical, detective, thriller, adventure, horror, or science fiction?
- What sub-grouping does the film belong to – action, comedy, tragedy, war or westerns?
- Setting refers to where and when the story takes place. Does the story take place in the present, the past, or the future?
- What aspects of the setting are we made aware of? Geography, weather conditions, physical environment, time of day …
- Where are we in the opening scene?
Plot and structure:
- What are the most important sequences?
- How is the plot structured?
- Is it linear, chronological, or is it presented through flashbacks?
- Are there several plots running in parallel?
- How is suspense built up?
- Do any events foreshadow what is to come?
- Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the film and is related to the main characters.
- How would you describe the main conflict?
- Is it internal where the character suffers inwardly?
- Is it external, caused by the surroundings or environment?
How are the characters described?
- Through dialogue?
- By the way they speak?
- Physical appearance?
- Thoughts and feelings?
- Interaction – the way they act towards other characters?
- Are they static characters who do not change?
- Do they develop by the end of the story?
- What qualities stand out?
- Are they stereotypes?
- Are the characters believable?
Narrator and point of view:
- The narrator is the person telling the story. Is there a narrator in the film? Who?
- Is the story told through an off-screen narrator, or is it told from the perspective of someone who is part of the action?
By imagery we mean the elements in the film that appeal to our senses or are used to create pictures in our minds. They may include:
- symbols – when something stands not only for itself (its literal meaning), but also stands for something else (a figurative meaning). For instance the feather in the film Forrest Gump symbolizes his destiny.
- Images that strongly evoke the idea of a smell, taste, or touch in the viewer. For example the images of melted chocolate in the film Chocolat from 2016.
- What are the universal ideas that shine through in the film?
- Soundtrack refers to both dialogue and music, as well as all the other sounds in a film.
- The soundtrack enhances the atmosphere of the film. What effect does the choice of music have? Does it suit the theme?
- Are any particular sounds accentuated?
Use of the camera:
- A camera shot is based on the camera’s distance from the object.
- The four basic shots used in films are:
- close-up: a very close shot where the camera lens focuses on some detail or the actor’s face.
- medium shot: a shot where the camera lens picks up some background or the upper half of the actor.
- full shot: a shot where the camera lens has full view of the actor.
- long shot: shot taken at a distance from an object.
- What camera shots can you identify in the film? How are they used?
- A camera angle is how the camera is tilted while filming.
- straight-on angle: the camera is at the same height as the object.
- high angle: the camera is filming from above the object.
- low angle: the camera is looking up at the object.
- oblique angle: the camera is tilted sideways.
- Does the way in which the camera is held say anything about the character?
- Lighting focuses the audience’s attention on the main character or object in a film.
- It also sets the mood or atmosphere.
- While high-key lighting is bright and illuminating, low-key lighting is darker with a lot of shadows.
- What special lighting effects are used during the most important scenes?
- Filters are often used to soften and reduce harsh contrasts. They can also be used to eliminate haze, ultraviolet light, or glare from water when shooting outside.
- Using colours like red and orange can be used to enhance the feeling of a sunset.
- Can you find any examples where a filter has been used in the film?
- What effect did using a filter have on the scene?
- What colours are most dominant?
- Editing is the way in which a film editor, together with the director, cuts and assembles the scenes. The way the scenes are joined together creates the rhythm of the motion picture. Scenes can be long and drawn out or short and choppy.
- Can you see a pattern in how the scenes are cut?
- How would you describe the pace/tempo of the film?
Writing your analysis
When analysing films for school work or projects, you use as many of the elements above as you feel is necessary to comprehensively analyse the film. Try to think of the film as a whole and how the elements mentioned above work together to bring out the main message of the film. Written by: Carol Dwankowski and Tone Hesjedal There’s a lot of advice out there about writing film reviews from a critic’s perspective, each with varying degrees of advice. I’ve been analyzing movies critically for six years, and I’ve personally found that reviews don’t need to be complicated. Rather, they need to be honest and encourage discussion. Here are the steps I take from start to finish, when screening films.
Step 1: Before You Watch the Movie
The hardest part of this first step is going to be avoiding doing too much research or reading other reviews prior to watching the movie (as tempting as it may be.) I find that it’s more liberating to the experience to go in with an air of unfamiliarity. Ideally, when I start on the path of reviewing a film, I will know very little about it—aside from the actors and the director involved. If I’m not familiar with the cast and/or the director, I’ll do a little filmography research, but only about their past work if I’ve never seen it before. Avoiding exposure to the movie can be more difficult than it sounds when it’s a popular film—as trailers and marketing run rampant. But if you can avoid watching the trailers and reading about other peoples’ opinions prior to watching, you won’t have any preconceived judgments and can go in with an unbiased perspective. Trailers work well to provide some context and tone prior to watching a movie, but they can also be filled with spoilers, which is why I do my best to avoid them when possible. As for reviews, reading about what others think of the movie before watching or writing a review can affect your opinion heavily. And when you’re in reviewer mode, you want to be as honest with your own opinion as possible, and not allow any outside voice to alter it. Of course, after the review is finished, I always welcome a discussion with fellow cinephiles to hear and understand what they enjoyed and didn’t. Without being affected by the trailers, marketing, and other reviews before watching a movie, you can really put your best foot forward to creating your authentic opinion and turning that into a movie review people can trust. Avoid trailers and other reviews prior to watching as to not sway your perception.
Step 2: Watching the Movie
I believe you only need to a see a film once in order to critique a film. Of course, there are those who prefer at least a couple viewings, but from my experience multiple viewings can actually skew your assessment. What works for me is to watch the movie in its entirety without distractions in order to get a grasp on what the director intended. If you spend your first viewing pausing, playing back, and re-watching segments at a time, you won’t get a sense for the way the film was meant to be enjoyed. I also try not to take many notes while I watch the movie—if you’re jotting down a long critique or opinion while watching the movie, you can miss brief, yet vital moments. I will however, write down a word or phrase that stands out so that I can recall scenes or story information that catch my attention and that I deem important. This will help later when I’m constructing my review—for brief summary recaps, breaking down the themes, and reflecting on the direction or acting. In general, I think of pausing, rewinding, and taking notes as interruptions that will bring you out of the film—literally and emotionally—and that can play a role in how you view a film from a critical standpoint. Avoid trailers and other reviews prior to watching as to not sway your perception.
Step 3: After You Watch the Movie
The window of time immediately following the viewing is critical. Since I don’t take a lot of notes during the movie, one of the most important aspects of writing a critique is to stay focused and write down all of the things that stood out to me about the film. And since collecting my thoughts after seeing a movie can be chaotic, I need to be sure that I jot down everything that struck my radar as soon as it’s over. It’s better to get it all down on paper, and then evaluate what’s necessary to convey to the reader later. Being precise in your commentary and incorporating specific examples from the movie to back up your opinions is key. This is where the checklist comes into play. When I write a review, I do my best to cover all aspects of filmmaking that went into creating the final product, including:
- Plot: What was the movie about? Was it believable? Interesting? Thought-provoking? How was the climax revealed? How did the setting affect the story?
- Themes and Tone: What was the central goal of the movie? Was it made to entertain, educate, or bring awareness to an issue? Was there any strong impression the movie made on you? Did any symbolism come into play?
- Acting and Characters: Did you like how the characters were portrayed? Did the acting support the characters, and help them come to life? Did the characters display complex personalities or were they stereotypes? Were there characters that embodied certain archetypes to enhance or diminish the film?
- Direction: Did you like how the director chose to tell the story? Was the pacing and speed of the movie too fast or too slow? Was the direction comparable to other movies this director has created? Was the storytelling complex or straightforward? Was there a certain amount of suspense or tension that worked? Did the director create a captivating conflict?
- Score: Did the music support the mood of the movie? Was it too distracting or too subtle? Did it add to the production and work well with the script? Were the music queues timed well for the scenes they were supporting?
- Cinematography: Were the shots used in a unique way to tell the story? Did the coloring and lighting affect the tone? Was the action coherently shot? How well did the camera move? Were actors or settings framed well?
- Production Design: Did the sets feel lived-in and believable to the story or characters? Were the costumes suitable for the characters or story? Did the created environments heighten the atmosphere on camera?
- Special Effects: Were the special effects believable? Did they align with the era and tone of the movie? Were the effects overboard or too subtle? Did they integrate well to the purpose of the story?
- Editing: Was the editing clean or choppy? Was the flow consistent? What unique effects were used? How were the transitions between scenes?
- Pace: Did the movie flow well? Was it too fast or too slow? Was it clearly organized? Did certain scenes drag down the movie?
- Dialogue: Were the conversations believable or necessary? Did the dialogue bring context to plot developments? Did the words match the tone of the movie and personality of the characters?
Let’s take the special effects as an example. I want to evaluate them based on utility, use within the film, and obviously how well it looks on screen. When I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was blown away with all the practical effects and how everything served a purpose to the story. It looked like everything was well crafted and built with love to develop such a brilliantly inspired wasteland. On the other side of the coin, the Transformers movies, as detailed as the robots look, most of the time while I was watching the movies, I felt like I was watching a jumbled mess of computer animated metal smashing into each other. It didn’t look stimulating. You want the special effects to complement the story rather than just being used as a visual device. After you watch the movie get your ideas down as quick as possible.
Step 4: Writing the Review
After I have all of my thoughts down, I take as much into consideration as I can and then work on the flow. I put a lot of care into the organization of my review, and make sure my thoughts are read in a cohesive manner to help my audience understand where I’m coming from. I prioritize what’s most important to include and let the rest go. Hands down, the most important component to address in a movie review is how it made you feel. Anyone can write a summary of a film or create lists about the highlights. But good reviews should convey to the audience how the movie resonated with you. If you don’t put your voice into your critique, your audience will find it difficult to understand your perspective, connect with you as a reviewer, and most importantly, they may not be able to trust your opinion. And if they don’t trust you, they wont come back to read more of your work. And you want your review to provide value to the reader, right? I want to ensure that my thoughts encourage readers to create a constructive discussion around the film, or help them decide whether or not the movie is for them. And hopefully, the audience will have as much fun reading my review as I did writing it. The most important component to address in a movie review is how it made you feel. –– Tyler Schirado is the founder and editor-in-chief of TurnTheRightCorner.com, an entertainment blog focused on providing honest opinions on the world of film, television, gaming, and more. Legend has it that he’s said to have rid on the back of a T-Rex and has the natural survival instincts to live through the zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Twitter @TyRawrrnosaurus, and you can find TurnTheRightCorner.com on Facebook and Twitter as well. Image Source: Giphy.com
What this handout is about
This handout provides a brief definition of film analysis compared to literary analysis, provides an introduction to common types of film analysis, and offers strategies and resources for approaching assignments.
What is film analysis, and how does it differ from literary analysis?
Film analysis is the process in which film is analyzed in terms of semiotics, narrative structure, cultural context, and mise-en-scene, among other approaches. If these terms are new to you, don’t worry—they’ll be explained in the next section. Analyzing film, like analyzing literature (fiction texts, etc.), is a form of rhetorical analysis—critically analyzing and evaluating discourse, including words, phrases, and images. Having a clear argument and supporting evidence is every bit as critical to film analysis as to other forms of academic writing. Unlike literature, film incorporates audiovisual elements and therefore introduces a new dimension to analysis. Ultimately, however, analysis of film is not too different. Think of all the things that make up a scene in a film: the actors, the lighting, the angles, the colors. All of these things may be absent in literature, but they are deliberate choices on the part of the director, producer, or screenwriter—as are the words chosen by the author of a work of literature. Furthermore, literature and film incorporate similar elements. They both have plots, characters, dialogue, settings, symbolism, and, just as the elements of literature can be analyzed for their intent and effect, these elements can be analyzed the same way in film.
Different types of film analysis
Listed here are common approaches to film analysis, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, and you may have discussed other approaches in class. As with any other assignment, make sure you understand your professor’s expectations. This guide is best used to understand prompts or, in the case of more open-ended assignments, consider the different ways to analyze film. Keep in mind that any of the elements of film can be analyzed, oftentimes in tandem. A single film analysis essay may simultaneously include all of the following approaches and more. As Jacques Aumont and Michel Marie propose in Analysis of Film, there is no correct, universal way to write film analysis.
Semiotic analysis is the analysis of meaning behind signs and symbols, typically involving metaphors, analogies, and symbolism. This doesn’t necessarily need to be something dramatic; think about how you extrapolate information from the smallest signs in your day to day life. For instance, what characteristics can tell you about someone’s personality? Something as simple as someone’s appearance can reveal information about them. Mismatched shoes and bedhead might be a sign of carelessness (or something crazy happened that morning!), while an immaculate dress shirt and tie would suggest that the person is prim and proper. Continuing in that vein:
- What might you be able to infer about characters from small hints?
- How are these hints (signs) used to construct characters? How do they relate to the relative role of those characters, or the relationships between multiple characters?
Symbols denote concepts (liberty, peace, etc.) and feelings (hate, love, etc.) that they often have nothing to do with. They are used liberally in both literature and film, and finding them uses a similar process. Ask yourself:
- What objects or images are repeated in multiple instances?
- In Frozen Elsa’s gloves appear in multiple scenes.
- In what context do they appear?
- Her gloves are first given to her by her father to restrain her magic. She continues to wear them throughout the coronation scene, before finally, in the Let It Go sequence, she throws them away.
Again, the method of semiotic analysis in film is similar to that of literature. Think about the deeper meaning behind objects or actions.
- What might Elsa’s gloves represent?
- Elsa’s gloves represent fear of her magic and, by extension, herself. Though she attempts to contain her magic by hiding her hands within gloves and denying part of her identity, she eventually abandons the gloves in a quest for self-acceptance.
Narrative structure analysis
Narrative structure analysis is the analysis of the story elements, including plot structure, character motivations, and theme. Like the dramatic structure of literature (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), film has what is known as the Three-Act Structure: “Act One: Setup, Act Two: Confrontation, and Act Three: Resolution.” Narrative structure analysis breaks the story of the film into these three elements and might consider questions like:
- How does the story follow or deviate from typical structures?
- What is the effect of following or deviating from this structure?
- What is the theme of the film, and how is that theme constructed?
Consider again the example of Frozen. You can use symbolism and narrative structure in conjunction by placing the symbolic objects/events in the context of the narrative structure. For instance, the first appearance of the gloves is in Act One, while their abandoning takes place in Act Two; thus, the story progresses in such a way that demonstrates Elsa’s personal growth. By the time of Act Three, the Resolution, her aversion to touch (a product of fearing her own magic) is gone, reflecting a theme of self-acceptance.
Contextual analysis is analysis of the film as part of a broader context. Think about the culture, time, and place of the film’s creation. What might the film say about the culture that created it? What were/are the social and political concerns of the time period? Or, like researching the author of a novel, you might consider the director, producer, and other people vital to the making of the film. What is the place of this film in the director’s career? Does it align with his usual style of directing, or does it move in a new direction? Other examples of contextual approaches might be analyzing the film in terms of a civil rights or feminist movement. For example, Frozen is often linked to the LGBTQ social movement. You might agree or disagree with this interpretation, and, using evidence from the film, support your argument. Some other questions to consider:
- How does the meaning of the film change when seen outside of its culture?
- What characteristics distinguishes the film as being of its particular culture?
Mise-en-scene analysis is analysis of the arrangement of compositional elements in film—essentially, the analysis of audiovisual elements that most distinctly separate film analysis from literary analysis. Remember that the important part of a mise-en-scene analysis is not just identifying the elements of a scene, but explaining the significance behind them.
- What effects are created in a scene, and what is their purpose?
- How does the film attempt to achieve its goal by the way it looks, and does it succeed?
Audiovisual elements that can be analyzed include (but are not limited to): props and costumes, setting, lighting, camera angles, frames, special effects, choreography, music, color values, depth, placement of characters, etc. Mise-en-scene is typically the most foreign part of writing film analysis because the other components discussed are common to literary analysis, while mise-en-scene deals with elements unique to film. Using specific film terminology bolsters credibility, but you should also consider your audience. If your essay is meant to be accessible to non-specialist readers, explain what terms mean. The Resources section of this handout has links to sites that describe mise-en-scene elements in detail. Rewatching the film and creating screen captures (still images) of certain scenes can help with detailed analysis of colors, positioning of actors, placement of objects, etc. Listening to the soundtrack can also be helpful, especially when placed in the context of particular scenes. Some example questions:
- How is the lighting used to construct mood? Does the mood shift at any point during the film, and how is that shift in mood created?
- What does the setting say about certain characters? How are props used to reveal aspects of their personality?
- What songs were used, and why were they chosen? Are there any messages in the lyrics that pertain to the theme?
Writing the film analysis essay
Writing film analysis is similar to writing literary analysis or any argumentative essay in other disciplines: Consider the assignment and prompts, formulate a thesis (see the Brainstorming Handout and Thesis Statement Handout for help crafting a nuanced argument), compile evidence to prove your thesis, and lay out your argument in the essay. Your evidence may be different from what you are used to. Whereas in the English essay you use textual evidence and quotes, in a film analysis essay, you might also include audiovisual elements to bolster your argument. When describing a sequence in a film, use the present tense, like you would write in the literary present when describing events of a novel, i.e. not “Elsa took off her gloves,” but “Elsa takes off her gloves.” When quoting dialogue from a film, if between multiple characters, use block quotes: Start the quotation on a new line, with the entire quote indented one inch from the left margin. However, conventions are flexible, so ask your professor if you are unsure. It may also help to follow the formatting of the script, if you can find it. For example: ELSA: But she won’t remember I have powers?
KING: It’s for the best. You do not need to use quotation marks for blocked-off dialogue, but for shorter quotations in the main text, quotation marks should be double quotes (“…”). Here are some tips for approaching film analysis:
- Make sure you understand the prompt and what you are being asked to do. Focus your argument by choosing a specific issue to assess.
- Review your materials. Rewatch the film for nuances that you may have missed in the first viewing. With your thesis in mind, take notes as you watch. Finding a screenplay of the movie may be helpful, but keep in mind that there may be differences between the screenplay and the actual product (and these differences might be a topic of discussion!).
- Develop a thesis and an outline, organizing your evidence so that it supports your argument. Remember that this is ultimately an assignment—make sure that your thesis answers what the prompt asks, and check with your professor if you are unsure.
- Move beyond only describing the audiovisual elements of the film by considering the significance of your evidence. Demonstrate understanding of not just what film elements are, but why and to what effect they are being used. For more help on using your evidence effectively, see ‘Using Evidence In An Argument’ in the Evidence Handout.
New York Film Academy Glossary
Movie Outline Glossary
Movie Script Database
Citation Practices: Film and Television
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. Aumont, Jacques, and Michel Marie. L’analyse Des Films. Paris: Nathan, 1988. Print.
Pruter, Robin Franson. “Writing About Film.” Writing About Film. DePaul University, 08 Mar. 2004. Web. 01 May 2016. “Film Analysis.” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License
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