Reflective Paper on Analyzing Film
According to Boggs and Petrie, film analysis is a challenging task, as it requires total immersion in the experience of a film while still maintaining a high level of objectivity and critical detachment (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). An analyzer of film is therefore required to consider his experience of the film as a novice who is simply looking to be entertained, as well as a critic who delves deeper into the art of film-making. Analysis requires thorough dissection of a film’s genre, technique, structure, cinematography, acting and sound. It then seeks to establish whether these were effective in achievement of the film’s purpose and function. Film analysis is important because it offers insight into most of the work that goes into producing a work that would mostly be categorized as artistic. Through analysis, we advance our knowledge on how the intellect can effectively produce work that evokes thought and emotion. Film analysis is multi-faceted and involves consideration of various aspects of the movie.
The first thing that film analysis, and indeed filmmakers consider is the theme of the movie. A theme is the main idea or subject matter that a work of art tries to convey to the audience. While movies have a general message around which the entire story is based, most carry more than one theme. For example, in the Paul Haggis-directed movie, Crash (2004) multiple themes such as prejudice, racism and stereotypes are carried. An analysis of a film’s themes is important because it is around this main idea that all other aspects of the cinema are built. The characters used, the mood, the structure, the plot, and all other aspects of the film are based on that main idea that the film is trying to convey. For instance, if a film’s main theme is racism, the characters used will most definitely represent different races. The plot will involve a clash of some sort, and so on.
Also important in film analysis is the narrative. A narrative can simply be defined as the story. As in other types of art, it describes a sequence of events usually with the intent of entertaining, educating or informing the audience. The narrative can be fictional or non-fictional and at times, a mixture of both. First, the story itself is of major importance in analysis. To figure this out, what he discerned from the film that he did not know before. Next, how the story is told is taken into consideration. This can be described as the structure of the narrative. This includes such aspects as the plot, the dialogue, and the screen time. It is important to not that plot and story are different. The story is the message intended for the audience while the plot is the way this story is realized, including such aspects as suspense in order to make the story dramatic. The unfolding of the story as well as its treatment is indeed the plot. This is important as it determines how the story will be received. “To become fully involved in a story, we must usually be convinced that it could be true” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). Indeed, there have been cases of good stories but poor story telling (plot). However, some movies such as satirical films and comedies may build on the fact that the story is unbelievable.
Other than the story and the plot, several other things are important in narrative analysis. These include the narration. Whether it is a voice-over or off-screen commentary, the source/mode of narration should be considered. In addition, such narrative devices and techniques as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and sequence should be analyzed. There are also sub-narratives within the whole. Whether they can exist independently and how many they are, is a question that analysis should be able to answer. Overall, analysis of narrative also determines the importance and effectiveness of other aspects of the film in relation to the story line. These include the setting, the sound (including music), the audience (whether or not it is acknowledged within the narrative, say for instance when an actor glances at the camera and smiles), and the speech.
Character analysis should also be considered in film analysis. Characters are responsible for the development of the story and the conveyance of the message through their different functions. Some of their functions include protagonist, mentor, antagonist and comic relief. Their function closely revolves around their emotions, their personalities, their relationships with other characters, their dialogue, their choices, and most importantly, their objectives. During analysis, one should therefore consider what all the above has done to advance the plot of the film, to evoke thought and emotion, and to convey the message. There are several types of characters. A flat character for instance is a “two-dimensional, predictable character who lacks the complexity and unique qualities associated with psychological depth” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). This as opposed to a round character who changes and/or grows in the course of the movie.
Along with characters comes acting, which is also of importance in film analysis. Primarily, an actor’s appearance tells a lot about the intended message. Their physique, demeanor, clothes and attitude are effective in determining what effect they will have on the audience. In addition, their voice, facial expression and gestures signify something (Geiger & Rutsky, 2005). In addition, a film will include major actors who play the main roles, and minor actors such as those used in a crowd scene. It is important to analyze the role of each kind of actor. Of importance too is the interaction between the actors, their movement and their grouping. Effective actors are able to garner an audience’s sympathy, or dislike, which is important in guiding the audience in the direction that the creators of the film want. Simply put, effective answers are effective in their role, whatever it may be. Moreover, the relationship between the actor and the camera also needs consideration. The kinds of shots used, the placement in the view (background, foreground) and so forth.
Another important aspect of film analysis is the mood. The mood can be described as the emotion or feeling evoked in the audience by a work of art. In a film, this is achieved through representation of the plot and characters’ emotions shown on-screen. Colors are also used to determine the mood. Red for instance is associated with love, black with sorrow/mourning and green with life. By determining the dominant mood in the film, one is able to classify it into specific genre. Tom Shadyac’s Ace Ventura (1994) was a ‘happy’ movie that evoked laughter in its audience making it a comedy. Other genres include action films, romance, thrillers, drama films, horror movies and mystery films. It is important for one to tell the mood of a movie during film analysis as it helps tremendously in the classification of the film. However, not all movies can be classified using mood. Other important aspects go into determining the genre of a film. These are the theme, which has already been discussed, the setting and the structure/format.
A movie’s setting is the place and time where the story unfolds. This includes “climate, terrain, population density, social structures and economic factors, customs, moral attitudes, and codes of behavior” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). Analysis of a movie’s setting provides further insight into its effect on the characters and on the development of the plot. Most aspects of the setting are pre-determined and act as the film’s background. Setting therefore offers insight on how life was before filming of the movie and what is considered the norm during the movie. It may also offer some challenges that may need overcoming in the course of the movie. Setting can be varied and can be classified as historical/contemporary, realistic/stylized, on location/in the studio (Mitry & King, 2000). It is important in plot development as it tells various aspects of the story that cannot really be told in the duration of the film.
Structural elements are also considered in film analysis. A movie’s structure or format is the basic order of unfolding. It is the framework around which the movie is built. Structural analysis mostly looks at the order of the scenes, the transition from each scene to the next, any repetition and contrast that may be used, and any recurring motifs. A good structural analysis should consider how the credits are presented and if they have any relation to the meaning of the movie. The title too should be considered in structural analysis. How it is presented, as well as the perceived meaning at first thought are important factors to be considered in film analysis. In addition, the use of sound and color in the scenes and the effect this has on the mood should be discussed. Structural analysis also considers foreshadowing and flashbacks and the effect this has on the audience. The beginning of a film carries much weight and will help determine a lot in the movie.
Cinematography is another important aspect of film analysis. Cinematography can be defined as the actual camera recording of photographic images in a movie (Elsaesser & Buckland, 2002). There are various important aspects in cinematography. These are film stock, lighting, movement and speed of motion, color, camera framing, distance, angle, focus and other visual aspects of the movie. To define a few, the film stock is the type of photographic film used. This has an effect on the type of picture produced, which can be black/white, tinted, and grainy. For instance, to achieve the effect of a character looking through a set of binoculars, the film stock for that particular scene is changed. The speed of motion, whether normal, slow, freeze frame, and fast motion are all important factors in cinematography. Shots too are important to consider. There are various kinds of shots such as long shots, close ups, and point of view shot (where the audience sees what the character is seeing). Special visual effects used in films are also part of cinematography. They help in making the unbelievable really seem believable.
Another aspect of the film to consider during analysis is the use of sound and music in the film. When it comes to music, its source can be either visible on screen, or invisible. In the movie Amadeus (1984), the source of the music is visible in various scenes. This is known as diegetic sound and is part of the story. An off-screen source is referred to as nondiegetic. In analysis of music, iota is important to consider what genre it is, and whether this genre is typical of the setting (period and people) used. The purpose of the music in film is usually that of aiding in the interpretation of the image presented to us. Sound may also reveal some aspect of the film that is not revealed by visual images. Treatment of other sound other than music is also to be considered. Dialogue and lack of it are for instance, of major importance in any film. All aspects of dialogue such as language, accents, slang, quotations, and so on are analyzed. In addition, voice-over narration and the narrators relation to other characters is important in analysis. Other than human sound and music, sound effects, whether natural of artificial, are of importance in analysis.
As earlier mentioned, genres are an important aspect of cinema making and therefore, film analysis. A genre can be described as the category under which a film or any other work of art is placed ( Bellour & Penley, 2000). Films are categorized according to their nature, that is whether fiction or documentary or more recently, reality. Additional categorization is made through use of theme, topic, mood, format and setting. For instance, Scott Stewart’s Legion (2010) can be categorized as drama because of the mood. It is important to analyze the genre of a film in order to determine whether it meets the requirement of that particular genre. Other than those genres mentioned earlier, others include musicals, crime, adventure, family, war, science fiction and sport. All these genres have different aspects that are characteristic to them, but these are often shared among different genres. For that reason, it is not uncommon for a film to be categorized under different genres. An example is Romeo and Juliet (Luhrmann, 1996) which can be classified as a tragedy as well as drama.
Film analysis also includes consideration of editing. Editing is defined as the manner in which individual shots are linked together to produce the final whole. In editing, various terms are used. For instance, ‘cut’ is the end of a shot replaced quickly by another. A shot may be dissolved, which means that while one image fades out, another fades out, producing a super-imposed image for a short while. Another transitional device is the wipe, where a the old image is replaced by a new one as though it were being wiped out, either diagonally, horizontally or vertically. Fade-in and fade-out is an additional device, which involves darkening the image gradually followed by the appearance of another. Sometimes, many shots are edited together without necessarily creating continuity and are linked by music or any other sound. This is known as a montage and is used to save on time by developing the plot in less time that it would have required. In addition, directors also use crosscutting, which is an alternation of different lines of actions going on at the same time in different places. The duration of the shots is also an important aspect of editing as it determines the rhythm. Rhythm can be either fast or slow. Slow rhythm is mostly used in romance films and is achieved by use of long lasting shots as opposed to action films whose shots have a short duration.
Analysis also involves considering the staging. The staging may also be referred to as mise-en-scene (French for ‘putting into the scene’) which “refers to the composition of the individual frame-the relation of objects, people and masses” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). While the term has its origins in theater, where there is a raised platform referred to as a stage, in films, the scope of the camera is indeed the stage on which the story unfolds. The setting (discussed earlier) is a major part of the stage and gives valuable background information before the unfolding of the plot. Another part of the stage is the space. Space (or lack of thereof) expresses different atmospheres and ideas. A crampled space for instance may signify poverty and lack while a cluttered space may tell of disorganization or conflict. Lighting is another important aspect of the stage. The quality of the light, the direction, and the effect are to be considered in analysis. Shade and shadow are also important and are often effective when ‘hiding’ something or someone. Another major aspect of staging is the costume and make-up. Costumes when stylized can be used to determine the genre of the film (e.g. fantasy and mystery). They also aid in character development.
Finally, symbolism, irony and use of metaphors require analysis in film. Symbolism, for instance, can be achieved by use of props and costumes and can convey an important message. A building with a cross is well known to be a church, a fact that does not require any explanation. The effect of using symbolism and metaphors is that of transference of knowledge of one thing to another. Irony is also used through various ways in film production. It may be achieved through speech and actions. It may also be achieved through setting, for example a legislator driving a large expensive car through a poor township while soliciting for votes. This tells a great deal without necessarily acting it out. Symbolism, metaphors, satire and irony are effective tools of communication in films.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that indeed, film analysis is multi-faceted and involves consideration of various aspects of the movie. While some may argue that it is too mechanical and takes the aesthetic out of the art of film (making and watching), its importance is undisputable. Not only does film analysis contribute tremendously to the growth and development of the film industry, it gives the nonprofessional, average person insight into how various aspects of cinematography are achieved. No doubt, the film industry has grown in great strides and with it too, the analysis of film. However, in the words of Boggs and Petrie (2008), “A film…can never be entirely captured by analysis.”
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Boggs, J. M. & Petrie, D. W. (2008). The art of watching films. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Elsaesser, T. & Buckland, W. (2002). Studying contemporary American film: a guide to movie analysis. Huntington Beach, CA: Arnold Publications.
Geiger, J. & Rutsky, R. L. (2005). Film analysis: a Norton reader. Norton, KS: Norton.
Mitry, J. & King C. T. (2000). Semiotics and the analysis of film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.