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Dillon Brown on Reading Films

some cursory notes on "reading" a film

by Dillon Brown


  • the major notion to keep in mind when studying a film is not just to pay attention to the object being presented (i.e. plot, characters, etc.) but to carefully examine precisely how the elements of a film are presented to you. Given their much closer proximity to what we perceive of as "reality", films can be a much more insidiously manipulative form of communication than books. This, of course, is what makes them so much fun to analyze.


  • every single element of each shot is a conscious choice made by the director (more or less) and could conceivably be significant to the meaning of the film, from the music to the background to the camera angle to the costumes to the positioning of the actors in the frame.


  • one very important aspect to consider is the shot itself: is it a long shot, medium shot, close-up, or extreme close-up? is it taken from a low angle, a high angle, from another character's point of view? is it moving or stationary? what might these differences or repetitions suggest about how we should view the action or character?


  • editing is also an extremely crucial point to consider when watching a film: what is the rhythm of the editing, fast or slow? how does this contribute to the audience's perception? are actions cut in the middle or is the editing done between actions? what images are juxtaposed by contiguity and what parallels can be drawn from this?


  • the composition of the frame itself (called mise-en-scene) is also meaningful: how are the actors positioned in relation to each other? what's in the background? what role do colors, light, and shadows play in the representation of the action?


  • the soundtrack is also important: what emotions does the music suggest? how is silence used? when are certain songs or motifs repeated and in what variations? what role do sound effects play in the film? what sounds are given precedence? what might it mean if sounds come from "off-screen" instead of from the action depicted? what is the effect of voice-over narration and what might be the motivation for its use?


  • the beginnings of films (including the opening credits) can be critical to setting a tone and providing a key to important themes and motifs; also look at how a character is first introduced; endings are also critical, providing the final cue to a film's meaning; repetition (colors, camera angles, costumes, gestures, ad infinitum) is also a common means of reinforcing themes