Everyone who has an interest in movies has probably tried to analyze a film at least once. Maybe you analyzed films for your own pleasure or maybe you needed to do it for a university assignment. Either way, you will probably have realized how daunting it can be. You need to take into consideration so many aspects that you might not even know where to start. Nevertheless, if you know what to look for, film analysis can be highly enjoyable and useful for your own screenwriting and filmmaking.
The most important knowledge you need is that film analysis consists of identifying the elements that compose a film and seeing how they are put together to create the story. This is easier said than done. So in this article, we will give a step-by-step description of how to analyze films. What do you need to look out for and how do you put it all together?
Table of Contents
The first key to film analysis is to have some previous knowledge of the movie you’ll be watching. This might be surprising to read as most people want to watch films without having any previous information on them for fear of coming across spoilers.
However, when it comes to analyzing films, it is important to have some essential knowledge. This is because previous information prepares you for what is to come and helps you to keep an eye out for certain elements. The usual suggestion would be to know what genre the movie is, who acts in it and who directs it. This basic knowledge might not seem much, but it can be crucial to understanding and grappling with the film.
For example, Quentin Tarantino is known for putting repeated personal touches in his movies; a “signature” style. His movies have recognizable features. Consequently, if you previously know that the director is Tarantino, then you know that a movie with gore and quick, witty dialogue is what you will be watching.
By knowing what to expect you will try to look out for certain details that those directors or screenwriters are known for. The same goes for the genre. If you watch a thriller, you will keep an eye out for elements that create suspense.
Once you distinguish these elements and trademarks, you can judge why they are there and if they are correctly and successfully employed. This is all about having a reference point from which to frame your film analysis.
Watch and Analyze Films
Watching the movie is obviously the first thing you need to do in order to analyze it. However, the way the viewer watches the movie is what is important to note.
If you want to properly analyze films, you need to watch them with a different eye than the normal audience. Regular viewers may watch the movie for entertainment and take aspects like its composition as read. If you want to analyze films, you need to step out of the pure entertainment aspect. Most importantly, question what you are watching.
How is the project made? What elements are there? Is there anything that stands out? Did something make you uncomfortable? These types of questions are what you should be asking when watching a movie. You need a critical eye to analyze films.
Another tip is to write down your thoughts as you watch the movie. If possible, write with pen and paper, not with a laptop or a cell phone. These may be scattershot thoughts that you can form into something more concrete later on. Or you may write more fully-formed sentences as you write.
The most important part of analyzing films is that there needs to be a switch from being in a spectator position to having the mentality of a critic. You need to scrutinize what you are watching, instead of just purely sitting back and taking in what’s in front of you. It’s the switch from being a passive watcher to an active one.
Identify the Elements
You are about to watch the movie; pen and paper are ready. You know that in order to analyze the film you need to identify the elements that compose it. But which elements are there and what do they contribute?
When one analyzes films, the number of elements to identify can be overwhelming. Thus, separating them into categories makes the task manageable. We’ve broken down 11 key elements to watch out for. These aren’t all the elements it’s possible to identify but are possibly the most important when approaching film analysis.
Mise-en-scène is the stage design and arrangement of actors on stage or in film. This means that mise-en-scène is the contents of the frame (the elements) and their organization (how they work with each other).
Mise-en-scène considers the elements of the frame as lighting, costumes, décor, the position of the camera, framing, color, props, and action/performance. These visual elements all bring different information to the screen in diverse ways in order to convey specific messages and tell the story with purpose. Paying attention to this is one of the first steps to good film analysis as it requires taking in all the elements at once, seeing them not as individual elements but ones in harmony.
The way the light shines on the actors and objects makes possible a series of suggestive readings. For example, a shadow on a character makes them feel mysterious.
- In the opening scene of The Godfather, the use of shadows created by a dome light lighting technique creates an enigmatic ambience around Vito Corleone.
- Furthermore, the dim lighting throughout the movie plays into the entire mood of the dark story at hand, where hushed, shady conversations take place in dark backrooms.
The costumes reveal plenty about the character’s background. If they are wearing fancy clothes they are probably well off. If the character wears the same outfit every day that might uncover something about their compulsive personality.
The costume designers can also use costumes to create a metaphor. For example, parents putting their kids into adult clothes suggests their first step into adulthood. Costume also, crucially, proves an indication of the time period. How well the costumes are aligned to the time period is a reflection of how successful it is an element overall.
Costume, typically, is a signal of characterisation. It can be a vital way of subtly revealing key parts of how the characters move through the world. So engaging with how successful it is in doing so can form a key part of analyzing films.
The surroundings of the character can also represent their personality. Film analysis is all about focusing on every detail that appears on the screen. Everything is there for a reason.
For example, in Thelma and Louise, during the opening scene, we see the inside of Thelma’s house, specifically the kitchen. Thelma has covered her walls with coupons and pictures of nice-looking houses. This can be interpreted as Thelma’s lack of money, thus the need for the coupons, and her dreams of living somewhere nicer.
5. Position of Camera
The viewer’s access to the cinematic world depends on the camera’s position. After all, what the camera sees is what we see. Therefore, the position of it involves the audience in different ways and helps create an impression of the character.
- The camera held at a lower angle, looking up at a character, makes them seem powerful and dominant.
- While a close-up, the camera held close to the character’s face, shows the importance of that person in the film.
- If the camera is already in a scene before the character walks in, we have an objective point of view.
The above examples show how the director can position the camera in multiple ways to create different meanings. Again, in a good film, nothing should be accidental, every choice has meaning to the story at hand.
The frame accompanies the position of the camera. It also reveals a selective view of a scene. The framing of a scene chooses what to reveal to the audience.
For example, a character starts out alone in the frame. But a new character, who was there all along, reveals themselves with a slight change of framing. This can help create tension, surprises, and suspense in the film.
Framing is often crucial to dictating the film’s pace and setting the tone of the story via piecing together images in different ways. Whilst you may be used to taking the framing for granted, analyzing films requires focusing acutely on how the composition of each scene helps tell the story.
This is an expressive element that can help the audience interpret a character’s emotions. Color can also have a metaphorical meaning. It creates hidden messages by its incorporation into the décor.
The easiest way to explain it is via the color theory, which shows that for each color different emotions are associated. Thus, the director may decide to utilize certain colors to indirectly push the audience into feeling a certain way.
So understanding what different colors can convey is another string to the bow of film analysis. It’s yet another way of reading what the filmmaker is attempting to get across about the story with the choices they are making.
Keeping an eye out for objects that the characters have is also important when analyzing films. Particular objects can acquire meaning to the audience after their repeated use in the film.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the audience sees a pin with a Mockingbird on it at the beginning of the film.
- At first, it isn’t important. But the appearance of the pin increases until it starts to gain meaning.
- It is of high importance as it appears more often.
- In the end, the audience relates that pin directly to the main character and to the idea of the revolution that occurs in the film.
The performance the actors deliver is the final visual element to consider. How an actor delivers their line, their facial expressions or even how they walk is of high significance to understanding what is happening. It can show the audience how characters feel and how they behave.
Additionally, the actors’ reactions deliver important information to viewers. For example, if a character reacts with fear to something that is off-screen, it creates a sense of alarm.
All these elements when combined create meaning in a film. The audience understands the movie because the elements work with each other and have a certain organization. When analyzing films, identifying these elements and then seeing how they come together to create something more is vital.
However, the above components just relate to what is visible on the screen. For example, let’s take a look at another huge part of film analysis, recognizing the value of sound.
The obvious association to sound is dialogue. What characters say to each other or what they communicate as an omniscient narrator is the evident use of sound in film. Nevertheless, that is not the only information sound provides. It can also have a metaphorical meaning. For instance, the sound of a clock ticking indicates the passing of time.
Sound is also identifiable as background noises and music. The viewer receives context via the use of background noises. This is especially true when the viewer hears something that is not shown on screen. For instance, the audience sees a kitchen, but they hear seagulls and the sound of waves. This indicates that the house is near a beach.
On the other hand, a film’s soundtrack adds to the film’s atmosphere and can be as memorable as the film itself. Its use helps accompany the action in the film, adding to the excitement. Dunkirk, for instance, is a great example of how a film can use sound to create a suspenseful and propulsive tone, using everything from a background of ticking to an underscore of ambience to a booming orchestral score.
Sound adds to the visual elements in many different ways. It accompanies them to add more information (background noise and dialogue) and to generate atmosphere (music). So when you analyze films, sound is a vital component that you need to identify. Keep your ears as well as your eyes peeled.
Finally, the last crucial element to identify when analyzing films is the plot. This is what the story is about and the nature of how it unfolds. Once the movie is over the viewer will, hopefully, know what story the film is telling. Realizing what the movie deals with can be known before, during or after the film is watched. It does not matter when we understand it.
However, what does matter is having a clear plot where certain components can be easily identified. Ask yourself, does the story have an inciting incident/conflict? Does the protagonist have character development? Does the film have a climax that reaches a resolution?
The correct plot structure is more important as an element to film analysis than the elements above. Indeed the audio-visual elements, no matter how good they are, can seem superficial if not tied to cohesive and effective plotting.
This is because the plot will allow us to understand what we are looking for with the other elements. In other words, by knowing the plot we will know what the other elements (visual and sound) are trying to transmit to the audience.
- If a movie has a plot that deals with a gruesome murder, the logical assumption is that the elements are used in a manner to move that specific plot forward.
- On the other hand, if we have a funny tale of two friends, we will expect that the elements will not be used to create mystery.
Thus, in film analysis, the plot is an element that helps one understand the other components in a correct manner. These strands must be in conversation with each other convincingly. Film analysis is about, perhaps most of all, identifying how harmonious the plot and audio-visual elements are with one another.
Rewatch the Film and Organize
Now, you have all the crucial elements in order to analyze films. What should happen next is the organization of those elements. After watching the film, you should have been able to write down the elements that you saw, how they were used and how they made you feel. If you did not manage this in your first screening of the film, you should rewatch it as many times as needed.
Once that is done, it’s time to put the elements together and see how they work with each other.
- How does the décor work with what the character says? The character has their house painted with happy colors, but does the character mirror those emotions?
- The angle of the camera is low, showing the dominance of a character. Does the lighting accompany that feeling?
- Does the plot have an inciting incident? How is that inciting incident built up by the other elements?
Those types of connections should reveal the film’s meaning. In contrast, the analysis of the film can also reveal the lack of meaning to a film. You can watch the movie, identify the elements, organize them and conclude that the elements are not used correctly. Or you may conclude that the meaning of the movie would be better translated with a different use of the elements.
Film analysis can lead to many conclusions. The viewer can end up praising the creator of the film or being their biggest critic. But either way, good film analysis will rely on the close reading of the film’s many elements of execution and an effective organization of the reading of these elements. This way, whatever the analysis’ conclusion, due diligence has been carried out.
Yet, even though you now have a guide, it is important to note that there is not one definite conclusion to film analysis. Everyone can organize the same elements in multiple ways. Therefore, the same movie can have multiple analyses, each one with its own visions and blind spots.
This is the joy of film analysis in general. Those who analyze films bring their own interpretation and perspective to the film at hand and give the reader of the analysis a new insight. With the right tools, film analysis can add enjoyment to the way we engage with filmmaking. But it also helps those who want to make films themselves by demonstrating the ingredients they need for an effective film.
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This article was written by Valentina Vlasich and edited by IS Staff.
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1 thought on “How Do You REALLY Analyze Films? The Keys to Film Analysis”
Hello, I would like to extend an invitation to Valentina Vlasich to be interviewed about this above article “How to Really Analyze a Film” on the San Diego Screenwriters’ Podcast. She did a great job and I think this coverage deserves more play. My name is Gail Stewart and I am the producer/host of the show. It currently airs on Apple Podcast, Spotify and on our local social justice network KNSJ 89.1 FM San Diego.