Film language


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When we talk about reading a film what we actually mean is looking at the film in great detail to see how it is put together. There are many different elements to consider when undertaking such an activity and it is usual to read an extract from a film rather than the whole film.

Reading a film is just like reading a book, except that instead of looking at a written page we are looking at the cinema screen. We can look at text, books or film for a variety of purposes; we can either read a book or watch a film purely for enjoyment, or, we may want to look at it in more depth to see why it actually is that we enjoy it so much.

As with any other creative text each person will have an individual response to a film. Whilst you may enjoy say, the unusual camera angles in a film, someone else might find them annoying because they distract from the narrative. A friend may think that a certain facial expression reveals something important about a character; you may see it as meaning something completely different. When we read a film we are interpreting the text as we see it; we are saying why we think the filmmaker made certain choices and what the film means to us.

If you read a written text and it has a certain effect on you, f.or instance it makes you scared, we can look closely at the way the text has been constructed to see how the writer has used the tools at their disposal to create the fear.

Reading a film works in exactly the same way except that the tools that are used to create meaning are different. We call these tools film language.

The opening sequence - getting involved in a film

From the moment we first start watching the film we begin to get involved. The first few images of a film (the opening sequence) are very important to us as they give us lots of clues as to what the film will be about. We look at the opening shots of place and time, and put them into context. We look at the actors we are presented with and make assumptions about their characters and roles in the film and their relationship to each other. We look at the title of the film - the way it is worded and the style of the lettering and we try to guess what genre (type) of film it will be. We listen to the sound, which is often predominantly music at this stage, and the tone and beat of this again give us further clues as to how the film will develop. We do all this automatically - at this time we are extremely receptive and actively involved.

Without realising it, we have entered into the world of the film and begun to read the signals that have been set up for us; we have begun to decode the film language.

Film codes & signals

In the spoken or written language that we use, words often have hidden meaning, or a 'signal' behind the literal meaning of the word. For instance, the sun is literally a yellowish ball in the sky, but the word 'signals' to us meanings such as warmth, cheerfulness, life, etc. A teddy bear is a stuffed, brown plaything but it 'signals' comfort and childhood innocence to us. These are known as the denotative (literal) meaning and the connotative (hidden signals and implications) meaning of the word.

Films use the same signals or coding systems. For instance if we see a picture of a wooden thing with branches on screen, our mind thinks 'tree'. If the tree is a gnarled, large, spiky and leafless image, shot in black and white, we read the signal of disaster, threat, maybe horror. If the tree is drawn in bright crayon colours and is rounded and 'lollipop-like', it signals 'children', 'happy birdies nesting', etc. to us.

The codes films use do not only have to be visual. The use of sudden loud music signals 'something dramatic is about to happen – pay attention!' An extreme close-up shot of a person’s face signals 'this character's reaction is very important'. The study of these systems of signs is called semiology.

Most film audiences are able to recognize these film codes; even young children are aware of the basics. As students of film you will learn how to analyze this film language in more detail. Your level of interaction will be greater and you will be able to be more specific about what it is that makes a film 'good' or 'bad'.

Let’s look at some of the elements which make up a film and through which the signals are sent to us. These are the basic criteria through which we can make judgments about a film.

Use of the camera

1) Different types of shots are used in a combination to give you information about where and when something is happening, the role of a character and his/her reaction, to draw attention to someone or something, or to create an impression or feeling. Look at the storyboard:

There are many variations and combinations of these shots.

2) Different camera movements can be used to create a specific effect, for


A character walks into a room and the camera slowly pans across (moves from side to side). We feel as if we are the character looking around. By stopping something, our attention can be focused on this;

a feeling of unsteadiness or unease can be created by moving the camera diagonally (rolling). Our brains register that all is not well within this screen world;

the camera pulling backwards from a scene (tracking) indicates to the audience that the action that concerns us has now finished. In suspense films the action may start suddenly again at this point, thus surprising or shocking our expectations.

3) Mise-en-Scène. This is a French term meaning ‘what is put into the scene’ or frame. It is the director’s job to decide this and what is put in or left out can make a big difference to the signals we receive and the way we decode them.

If a director wants to show that the story takes place in Victorian times, he or she will signal this by the use of period clothes and props. The specific inclusion of a bed and rocking horse will signify a nursery. He may take this one step further and include a window with a storm outside, thus creating atmosphere. He may sit a child on a low stool in the middle of the floor, her toys lined up formally against the walls, thus signalling that she is isolated and repressed by this room and the society she lives in. So the selection of specific objects and images carry broader ideas.

Like the words chosen to make up a poem, each item in a frame may be carefully chosen and positioned. The director can draw our attention to an object, a gun, say, by placing it in the foreground, near the camera lens. We then decode that the gun will be important in this scene.

One director who emphasised the importance of mise-en-scène was André Bazin, who believed that it encouraged audiences to become more involved in a scene since they had to look actively and interpret what was included.

Lighting is an important signifier as it conveys the mood or atmosphere of the scene which we are observing. In a studio, the lighting is usually from three sources and is set up as follows:

a) The key light, as the name suggests, is usually the brightest and most influential.

b) The back light helps counteract the effect of the key light, thus making the figure look more 'rounded'.
c) The filler light helps to soften the harsh shadows created by the use of the back and key lights. There may be more than one of these.

The director manipulates this basic format to achieve the atmosphere he wishes to signify. For instance, if he uses only the key and back lights, he will produce a sharp contrast of dark and light areas on the screen as shadows are formed. This is known as low-key lighting. These shadows can be decoded by the audience to suggest an air of mystery, as used in the 'film noir' (dark films) of the 1940s and 1950s. They can also be decoded to suggest a world where there is depression and decay, as we find in many modern-day films depicting life in the future. Exaggerated use of low-key lighting can be found in horror films, where underlighting (placing a light under a face or an object) gives a dramatic, often distorting effect. Low-key lighting is often seen as expressive. High-key lighting means that filler lights are used. This will appear much more normal and realistic to our eyes but can also be manipulated to give a more glamorous appearance to a star’s face, or add a 'twinkle' to their eyes. It is much 'softer' than low-key lighting.


The extra dimension that sound adds to film has been acknowledged since the early days of cinema, when live music in the form of a piano, organ or even a full orchestra accompanied the images on the silent cinema screen. Although the first demonstration of sound on film is meant to have taken place as early as 1911 in the USA, it was only in1927 that Warner Bros. released the first feature film with a soundtrack – ‘The Jazz Singer’ starring Al Jolson. One of the main reasons for the delay in the implementation of sound technology is that the film companies were unwilling to invest large sums of money into sound equipment when they were making huge profits with silent movies. However, the next commercial sound film ‘Lights of New York’ (1928) was so impressive that it stimulated a rapid and total conversion to sound within the entire film industry.

Sound on film today is of course much more sophisticated with a digital synchronised soundtrack combining the elements of dialogue, music and sound effects (SFX).

Diegetic & nondiegetic sound

The world of the film as we see it on the cinema screen is known as the diegeic world. We can see only a section of this world – the events which the filmmaker has chosen to include in the frame. However, as a modern-day, cinema-going audience we accept that there are things taking place around the edges of what we see on screen. For instance, if a character has gone to make a cup of tea, we accept that they have gone to the kitchen which is part of the ‘film’ house in which they live. However, they are still part of the film world we are watching although they are out of vision.

Often, the edges of what we can see on the cinema screen are extended by the use of sound. We might hear a doorbell ring and we acknowledge that there is someone being let into the house even though we can’t see them. Likewise, we might hear the siren of a fire engine and we know that there is a road outside.

When we watch a film, the sounds that we hear can be diegetic or nondiegetic.
Diegetic sound is sound which is part of the film world we are watching. This can be dialogue, music or sound effects which come from a source within the film world. The music in this instance will be from a source in the film which we acknowledge could actually be producing music, for example, a CD player or jukebox.

Diegetic sound can occur either on screen or off screen; in other words we can either see the person or object that is making the sound (on screen) or we don’t (off screen).

Nondiegetic sound is sound which we do not recognize as part of the film world such as a voice-over or background music.

Use of editing

When the filming has been completed, the editing process begins. This is a matter of choosing which shots to include, which to put next to which, and what method to use to join the shots together. So how does the audience interact with the film through the editing?

1) Selecting and ordering the shots

The director can create a mood or atmosphere by choosing certain shots in a certain order, to build a picture in our minds. We automatically link what is happening in one shot with what happens in those either side of it, as this is what happens in real life. Thus, by showing us a window frame and then a shot of a house, we presume the house is what you see out of that window. In this way we are interacting with the film.

Some directors have exploited this idea to extremes. Lev Kuleshow, a Russian filmmaker in the 1920s experimented by showing shots of an actor in between shots of different objects – food, a dead woman and a child. The audience interpreted the actor’s expression (although it never changed!) as being hungry, sad and affectionate. This is because our brains try to make continuative sense of what we see. This placing together of images is called montage.

Sergei Eisenstein, another Russian filmmaker of the same era, believed that it was more effective if consecutive shots were not obviously linked, as the audience were forced to think and interact more to make the mental jump from shot to shot. Montage can be used effectively in propoganda, where the filmmaker wants the audience to believe in a certain idea or concept and is a common feature in present day advertising and pop videos.

2) Joining the shots

The director has a choice in the way he or she can join the shots together.

Smooth continuity of events and ‘normality’ for the audience is best achieved by using simple cuts. There are many technical rules to be remembered in order that the actors in consecutive shots are not suddenly looking in a different direction for no apparent reason. The director can also manipulate time and space by, say, having a car leaving one place in one shot and arriving at another in the next. We accept the convention that the ‘journey’ has taken place – we interact by knowing that the film is not real time.

The director can create suspense by using short shots frequently edited with other shots. For example, the murderer breaks into the house, we cut to the victim in the bedroom, then back to the murderer on the stairs and so on. Shock tactics can be used by jump cuts to a sudden close-up of an expression or object. Expectations can be built up by cutting from one shot to another and back again repeatedly, then suddenly replacing one shot with a totally new one.

Fade out shots, where the screen fades to black, or dissolve shots, where one image is slowly brought in underneath another one, are used to indicate the end of an event and beginning of a new one. These cause us to interact by giving us time to think about what has happened. A third type of cut is a wipe cut, where one part of the screen moves across the other. This is most often done today using computer graphics (swirls, blocks etc.).

The director may also choose to slow the film down at certain moments, thus highlighting say, a romantic moment or creating suspense by delaying the action. We, the audience acknowledge that in film language this is a significant part of the film. He or she may also choose to use black and white film for part or all of the film, which we will automatically read as being events in the past.

The film opens with a peaceful shot of sunrise over green hills. The camera pans over fields, and we hear gentle music and birds chirping. But the next shot shows a bare tree with rocks around it, and then cuts to the darkening sky with clouds blowing in. The music begins to rise in urgency, and suddenly it is raining; we see a long shot of a man struggling uphill with a cane. He passes a dead sheep, and comes to a cottage. When he can't open the gate, he climbs over and falls into mud. The music begins to pound as dogs come at him baring their teeth. We see his wet face in a close-up as he frantically bangs on the door. It opens, just as a voice behind him says, "Who the hell are you?"

This is how Masterpiece Theatre's Wuthering Heights begins. Viewers might settle in for one kind of film based on the opening shot -- a pleasant pastoral -- but the clues of image (rocks and bare trees, darkening sky) and sound (urgent music) would soon alert them to an ominous undercurrent. A fitting start for a work about a tortured soul, the film does not stray too far from the opening of the novel. But the language of the book's opening is difficult ("This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist's heaven.") Students who have first seen the opening scenes of the film might be better able to interpret the phrase "A perfect misanthropist's heaven." They might then be able to predict from the written text where the movie version might go next -- or even how they'd film it if they were the director. To do this, they might use the storyboarding technique from this guide to show their own translation of Brontë's words into images, and then compare how the Masterpiece Theatre team did it.

Film Basics

"How do I feel during a certain sequence, and how does the filmmaker make me feel that way?" This is the essential question for students to ask themselves as they view a film. Like the words of a novel, everything we see and hear on screen is put there intentionally, and everything contributes to the overall meaning. If students only talk about the story in a film, they miss the opportunity to analyze and interpret the film and the filmmaker's craft.

In film, those story elements (plot, character, theme, etc.) plus the production elements (camera angles, lighting, acting, etc.) make the narrative. How does lighting set a mood? How does a director create a sense of intimacy in a scene? How is a character's loneliness emphasized visually? How are various characters made sympathetic? How can the camera replace dialogue? How is point of view manipulated? How can sound intensify emotion or heighten suspense? Like looking closely at the writer's craft to see how he or she "showed" rather than merely "told," looking at film with a little knowledge of visual composition, camera movement, editing, and sound can make students active rather than passive viewers.

The basic unit of meaning in written texts is the word. The basic unit of meaning in film is the shot (the frames produced by one continuous take of the camera, without cuts). Editing -- how the shots are organized into a sequence-is what makes the narrative. The order in which shots follow each other is as important as the shots themselves. For example, imagine a sequence that begins with a shot of a woman and a man embracing. We understand from seeing this that the two people are attracted to each other -- maybe even in love. But if this shot then cuts to a shot of someone secretly watching, and if that person is the woman's husband, we have a whole new layer of information. If the camera then cuts to a close-up of his face and he is smiling rather than looking upset, the film goes in yet another direction.

To take another example, we can look at the series of crosscuts (rapid cuts between two different scenes) in an early segment of Othello. There the shots move rapidly between a high-ranking police officer's black-tie dinner and a street riot. This creates rising tension, emphasizes themes to come, and provides irony -- especially when we see the police chief at the dinner announce, "We won't surrender the streets to mob rule," just before a shot of a man smashing a car window while all around him a mob screams.

Learning the Language

Use the glossary to help familiarize students with the language of film. The activities will enable students to practice learning this language and help students understand that a film is not just a story with pictures, but a different medium with its own language. You may want to use several clips or a clip reel to illustrate camera angles, types of shots, etc. If you spend a day or so early on learning the terms and their meanings, the subsequent classroom discussion will be on a much higher level.


Types of Shots

Long shot


A shot taken from a sufficient distance to show a landscape, a building, or a large crowd.

Medium shot


A shot between a long shot and a close-up that might show two people in full figure or several people from the waist up.



A shot of one face or object that fills the screen completely.

Extreme close-up


A shot of a small object or part of a face that fills the screen.

Camera Angles

High angle


The camera looks down at what is being photographed.

Eye level


A shot that approximates human vision; a camera presents an object so that the line between camera and object is parallel to the ground.

Low angle


The camera looks up at what is being photographed.

Camera Movement



The camera moves horizontally on a fixed base.



The camera points up or down from a fixed base.



The camera moves up or down through space.

(dolly shot)


The camera moves through space on a wheeled truck (or dolly), but stays on the same plane.



Not a camera movement but a shift in the focal length of the camera lens to give the impression that the camera is getting closer to or farther from an object.




The most common type of transition in which one scene ends and a new one immediately begins.

Fade-out / Fade-in


One scene gradually goes dark and the new one gradually emerges from the darkness.



A gradual transition, in which the end of one scene is superimposed over the beginning of a new one.



An optical effect in which one shot appears to "wipe" the preceding one from the screen.


These activities will help students understand the language of film.


  1. Practice becoming more aware of images by doing an "image skimming" exercise. Watch a short segment of a film, TV show, or commercial and concentrate on each frame. Then turn it off and list as many specific images as you can remember. Practice describing the shots, building up from two or three until you can get several in a row. You might even have a contest with your classmates to see who can list the most.

  2. Cut compelling pictures from magazines, then explain what techniques make them that way. See if you can find examples that illustrate each kind of camera shot listed in the Glossary. If you have a video or still camera, you might extend this activity by photographing or videotaping examples of the terms in the glossary.
  3. Try the filmmaker's exercise of sequencing or storyboarding ten shots to show a simple activity or event. Your ten shots can illustrate something simple and everyday -- someone making dinner or leaving in the morning to go to school -- or they can illustrate a more complicated event, such as an interaction between two people.

  4. In Reading in the Dark, John Golden suggests rolling up a piece of paper into a tube and using it to visualize various shots and camera angles. As you look through the rolled-up paper, you are a director looking through the lens of a camera. For instance, look at someone across the room, framed so that you can see their entire body in a long shot. Then roll up your "camera" more tightly so that you can see only their face in a close-up. You can look at someone from a low angle, with that person standing on a chair and you looking up; a high angle could be demonstrated by standing on a chair and looking down at someone below. You can also use your paper "cameras" to pan across the classroom or to tilt from a high to a low angle.


  1. Listen to a section of film without viewing the images. As you listen, draw a line graph tracking the intensity of the music, dialogue, and sound effects. Look at your graph. What can you guess was on the screen? Now turn off the sound and view only the images in this same sequence of film. Make another line graph, this time showing the intensity of the action based on visual cues (what you see on the screen). Compare your two graphs. How similar are they? Finally, watch the sequence with the sound on. How well do the images and the sound work together? What happens when sound is missing? What can a filmmaker use sound and music to do?
  2. In Seeing and Believing, Ellen Krueger and Mary Christel recommend learning to appreciate the role of sound in film by creating a "soundscape." To do this, they suggest making a one-minute audiotape that tells a story through music, sound effects, background sound, and the use of only five words (the words are optional). You might do this in groups, either using a scene from literature or writing an original short paragraph first that describes the actions and mood you want to create. To collect these sounds you might go around your house, school, or community, or borrow them from sound effects recordings. Let your classmates listen to the audiotape. What images do they bring to mind? Write a story to accompany the sounds.

All Together Now

  1. Nothing in a film sequence or in the text of a novel is accidental, but there is much that might escape your notice the first time you view a film or read a story. Build up your observation skills by watching the same segment of a film -- perhaps the opening -- several times. Make a list of the new things you notice with each viewing. If you are reading the literary version of the same story, try making this same list as you reread the scene several times.

  2. How do people's perceptions and opinions of films vary based on their age, race, gender, and circumstances? Choose a recent film about which there was some controversy, and ask as many people as you can about their opinions of the film. (Be sure you reach a diverse group.) What conclusions can you draw? Can you imagine some circumstances in which you might change your own opinion of this film? Describe them.

  3. Use Avi's picture book Silent Movie to explore the art of filmmaking. The book, illustrated by C. B. Mordan, uses framed pictures and sparse dialogue -- reminiscent of the panels used in silent pictures -- to tell the story of an immigrant family in America. After examining Silent Movie, create your own version, either from a book you are reading in class or your own original story. Illustrate the panels and provide the dialogue and narration.

Cinematic genre

In film theory, genre refers to the primary method of (commercial) film categorization. A "genre" generally refers to films that share similarities in the narrative elements from which they are constructed.

Categorizing film genres

Three main types are often used to categorize film genres; setting, mood, and format. The film's location is defined as the setting. The emotional charge carried throughout the film is known as its mood. The film may also have been shot using particular equipment or be presented in a specific manner, or format.

The following are some examples of well-established genres in film. They are often further defined to form subgenres, and can also be combined to form hybrid genres.


  • Crime - places its character within realm of criminal activity

  • Film noir - portrays its principal characters in a nihilistic and existentialist realm or manner

  • Historical - taking place in the past

  • Science fiction - placement of characters in an alternative reality, typically in the future or in space

  • Sports - sporting events and locations pertaining to a given sport

  • War - battlefields and locations pertaining to a time of war

  • Westerns - colonial period to modern era of the western United States


  • Action - generally involves a moral interplay between "good" and "bad" played out through violence or physical force

  • Adventure - involving danger, risk, and/or chance, often with a high degree of fantasy.

  • Comedy - intended to provoke laughter

  • Drama - mainly focuses on character development

  • Fantasy - speculative fiction outside reality (i.e. myth, legend)

  • Horror - intended to provoke fear in audience

  • Mystery - the progression from the unknown to the known by discovering and solving a series of clues
  • Romance - dwelling on the elements of romantic love

  • Thrillers - intended to provoke excitement and/or nervous tension into audience


  • Animation - the rapid display of a sequence of 2-D artwork or 3-D model positions in order to create an illusion of movement.

Target audience

  • Children's film — films for young children; as opposed to a family film, no special effort is made to make the film attractive for other audiences.

  • Family film — intended to be attractive for people of all ages and suitable for viewing by a young audience. Examples of this are Disney films.

  • Adult film — intended to be viewed only by an adult audience, content may include violence, disturbing themes, obscene language, or explicit sexual behavior. Adult film may also be used as a synonym for pornographic film.

What genres are not

There are other methods of dividing films into groups besides genre. For example auteur critics group films according to their directors. Some groupings may be casually described as genres but this definition is questionable. For example, independent films are sometimes discussed as if they are a genre, but in fact independent production does not determine a film's storyline, and they can belong to any genre.

Some have argued that genre needs to be distinguished from film style. A film's style concerns the choices made about cinematography, editing, and sound, and a particular style can be applied to any genre. Whereas film genres identify the manifest content of film, film styles identify the manner by which any given film's genre(s) is/are rendered for the screen. Style may be determined by plot structure, scenic design, lighting, cinematography, acting, and other intentional artistic components of the finished film product. Others argue that this distinction is too simplistic, since some genres are primarily recognizable by their styles. Many historians debate whether film noir truly is a genre rather than a style of film-making often emulated in the period's heyday.

Are film genres definable?

A genre is always a vague term with no fixed boundaries. Many works also cross into multiple genres. In this respect film theorist Robert Stam has noted:

A number of perennial doubts plague genre theory. Are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities? Are genres culture-bound or trans-cultural?... Should genre analysis be descriptive or prescriptive?

While some genres are based on story content (the war film), other are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), location (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema). (Robert Stam 2000, 14).

Many genres have built in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Films that are difficult to categorize into a genre are often less successful. As such, film genres are also useful in areas of marketing, criticism and consumption.

John Truby, Hollywood story consultant states that " have to know how to transcend the forms [genres] so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise."[1] Some screenwriters use genre as a means of determining what kind of plot or content to put into a screenplay. They may study films of specific genres to find examples. This is a way that some screenwriters are able to copy elements of successful movies and pass them off in a new screenplay. It is likely that such screenplays fall short in originality. As Truby says, "Writers know enough to write a genre script but they haven’t twisted the story beats of that genre in such a way that it gives an original face to it."[2]

It makes sense for writers to defy the elements found in past works and come up with something different or opposite to what's been done before. Originality and surprise are the elements that make for good movie stories. For example, spaghetti westerns are known to have turned the western film genre upside down by making the good guy be bad as well as good. Prior to them, westerns had what are now considered genre clichés, like good guys wearing white hats, bad guys wearing black hats, and the good guy always beating the bad guy in a shootout. The cliché western disappeared after the spaghetti westerns broke the "rules" of the genre.
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