CHAPTER 9: WRITING FILM ANALYSIS
Excellent film analysis will explain how a film has been made: which filmmaking techniques have been chosen and why, how the visual storytelling supports the narrative, and the effect that filmmaking elements have on the viewer. It brings together the explicit facts of the film – mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing, sound – with the implicit or subliminal effects of the film on its audience.
We often can immediately describe a film's plot and how the film made us feel. These are easy qualities to identify that do not require analysis to understand. But what is much harder to explain is how filmmaking choices support the film's narrative and how the film creates the feelings that the audience experience. Film analysis aims to make visible the qualities of film that usually remain invisible. To do this, you must be trained in film literacy – which you have been through your Film Appreciation course! – and you must apply this training to a film that is worthy of being analyzed. Not every film warrants a close reading of its parts. But a film that is worthy of being examined will flourish under analysis and reveal itself to be a complicated system of moving parts that is just as exciting to admire as it is to experience.
This chapter includes resources for your film analysis paper writing. Papers should start with gathering data about the filmmaking of your chosen film. Use the "Questions to Ask" list to gather information about the film's visual storytelling. See student samples for how this data can be turned into analysis paragraphs. To form a thesis and larger argument, use the "Writing Tips" list to keep your paper focused and organized.
Questions to Ask
These are questions to help you gather data for analysis. You do not need to answer every question in your essay.
How do props and costumes convey characters and themes? Are particular colors dominant (or absent)? Is the setting significant? If so, how is it presented? How does the lighting help convey the setting and the action? How is character blocking and placement used? Are there any motifs introduced in your film? Where do they occur in the film, and how do they cue the viewer's expectations?
Is the film space deep or shallow? How is space framed to allow a greater understanding of characters and story? How do editing and sound construct the space of the scene, and how does this space relate to the overall narrative action of the film?
Where is the camera placed in relation to the action? How do particular compositions draw attention to elements of the settings, characters, or themes? How does camera movement function in the scene? Are different focal lengths or depths of field used? How does cinematography reinforce the mise-en-scène?
What kinds of transitions are there between shots? Are these always the same? Do they change? Does the editing have a particular rhythm, and is it consistent? Does it conform to rules of continuity, or does it seem disjunctive and discontinuous? What spatial and temporal relations are articulated through cutting? Graphic relations? Rhythmic relations? Associative connections?
What sounds are present? When does volume or pitch change? Is silence used? Are specific sounds linked to cuts or camera movement? When and how are onscreen and off-screen sound used? Are sounds diegetic or non-diegetic?
Sample of Close Analysis
First published by James Barrie as a play in 1904, the classic story of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, has been told countless times across the century. Today, the story: “Peter Pan stands in our culture as a monument to the impossibility of its own claims” (Rose, 94). P. J. Hogan’s 2003 live action film, Peter Pan, attempts to draw in the viewers to a world where imagination and reality are indistinguishable to children. In a single shot from the 2003 film, the clip during which Wendy, Peter and the boys first begin flying over the city is presented with a tone, which contributes a more romantic element that is unrealistic at such a young age. Primarily, as the four fly over London, the focus of the scene is centered around interactions between Wendy and Peter rather than all four of the children and the environment. The choreography of the two characters conveys a more romantic relationship through the proximity of the actors’ faces, the facial expressions of the actors, and the motion of their heads and hands toward one-another. Similarly, the lighting in the scene during the sunset creates a more romantic tone than a lighthearted one of childhood. The depiction of the characters flying through the pinks, reds and oranges of the sunset with low fill lighting, backlighting, and warm tones creates a sense of romantic ambience which distracts from the novelty of the flying experience.
The claim "romantic tone" is proven with choreography, framing, lighting, and color evidence.
In combination with this, the director’s choices in the framing and setting create a more character-focused scene rather than a thematic scene. The setting claims to feature London yet includes nothing but chimneys and a rather empty street. In choosing a less detailed setting, Hogan’s film detracts from the connection of reality to the imagination. Because the children are not easily identified to be in a realistic, established city, the imaginary aspect of flying above a city loses much of its connection and context with the film’s theme of blending reality and imagination. While the children briefly fly past Big Ben, they interact amongst stars and planets for a significant amount of time. In “space,” the director’s choices for the setting mimic a project or mobile and even include a few unrecognizable planets to significantly emphasize imagination over reality.
Connects terms with visuals. "Thematic scene" is linked with setting-oriented reality. "Character-focused scene" is linked with a bare setting and imagination.
Terms used to prove that how the film privileges imagination over reality.
Links mise-en-scène with symbolic meaning.
The connection of the nursery shot and flight shot serves to both contrast and connect imagination and reality. The scene centers much more upon the experience of the characters than the overall theme. Both the nursery scene lighting and the lighting in the flight shot utilize warm, fill lighting. It can be argued that this version of the film is actually set in the land of make believe, rather than linked between the imaginary and the real. The use of snow in the setting before the children begin to fly contributes to the youthful attitude of imagination in contrast to the rigidity of the adults in the scene. The choreography of the young boy “tumbling” behind the heads of the adults contrasts his movement to that of the grown characters. By including this, the adult’s focus on the loss of the hat rather than the fact that the children are flying symbolizes the blindness of adults to the imaginary world of children. The vivid coloration, despite the low-key lighting, connects to the setting as fantasy as well. Although Big Ben is still included briefly in the children’s flight, it is featured so much less than the vivid planets and stars that its inclusion seems to be an afterthought.
Connects two scenes through lighting, choreography, and color to show overall pattern in filmmaking.
Gandy, UNG Class of 2001, from her paper
Sample of Compare-and-Contrast Analysis
To get a better understanding as to what the expectations are for the classic shootout scene, one merely must look back to the American Western. One of the most classical and cultural wellknown variations of the shootout is the “Mexican standoff”. One famous example that contains the Mexican standoff is Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. This version of the shootout consists of two or more people standing face to face at a set distance. There is a slow build-up of tension as everyone is anticipating when the other men are going to draw their weapons and fire. It all builds into a climactic and swift gunfight that usually ends with the main character prevailing over his foes in an epic showdown. This type of shootout is the most satisfying for the audience as the tension building up leads to a conclusion in which all enemies to the hero are vanquished and the hero can walk off into the sun victorious over evil.
Overview of one genre's style, including framing, tempo, and duration. Will be used later to prove difference form other genre styles.
The shootout scene in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), however, is used in a less traditional manner than what could be expected from genres like the Western. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy with a fictionist historical setting. Although the cast includes a wide array of well-known actors, this film can easily be considered an alternative film. The shootout scene in question occurs at the climax of the film and has a short duration of one minute. Although shootout scenes are more associated with the action genre, Anderson has already set up the audience’s expectation to how this shootout will occur. His sense of humor and use of comedy prepares the audience for how ridiculous the scene ends up being. If there was one shot throughout the entire scene that truly expresses what Anderson was trying to convey with this scene it is the extreme long shot pointing straight to the ceiling as a blaze of gunfight is exchanged through the chamber. No one can be seen firing the guns; the audience can only see the muzzle flashes and the walls getting impacted by an absurd quantity of bullets. This shot also puts into perspective as to how big the space of the hallway floor is. As for the entire sequence, it all started with the main villain firing at our heroes. This act of sudden violence leads to more and more people exiting their rooms with weapons drawn already and proceeding to shoot and continually miss each other. The majority of shots during this sequence are wide angle with some panning shots to further explore how huge the room is and to show the amount of random people that have entered the shootout. The amount of firepower occurring in this scene with no one ever getting injured is humorous, and the ending with the constable arresting everyone for the shootout is not how we would expect this scene to end. This seemed to be the actual climax where a lot of people, including the villain and maybe even the heroes, would die. However, Anderson merely used the shootout scene to have a quick excerpt on the absurdity of how a scene like this can play out. And his use of the shootout scene works very well for his comedic purposes that fits seamlessly in his style of humor.
One stylistic element is isolated to showcase the film's overall style.
Close anlaysis of mise-en-scène.
Explains humor by naming audience expectations and how they are defied by the scene.
As for Bad Boys II, Michael Bay’s 2003 portrayal of the shootout scene is seemingly more straightforward with a modern twist to it. Starting with the music, it is more upbeat and central to the action as a non-diegetic source to help keep the pace. One series of shots that portrays Bay’s style in earnest is the 360 degrees rotating camera. The camera physically travels through walls in a few separate long takes to reveal what the Haitians and the cops are doing simultaneously. The camera is continually in motion, which adds to the fast pace and intensity of the scene as the audience can get a grasp of what each side is doing to outmaneuver the other. The camera in this case is restrained to medium and close-up shots focusing more on the characters as the space is more cramped, which is fitting for this type of shootout as both parties are forced to fight head on. Additionally, this scene does include a hint of comedy. However, the comedy mainly comes from the dialogue. The focus of the scene is clearly the action as the comedic elements like Marcus and Mike’s banter or toilet water splashing onto Mike’s face are secondary. This type of blunt humor is also a staple of Michael Bay as the jokes are simple and to the point. It is unmistakable that Bay is more concerned with making sure that the audience is fully engaged in the firefight and wants them to take it for what it is; a battle between the good guy cops and the previously unexcepted enemy that we want the cops to defeat because they are established to be criminals.
Proves scene "intensity" with cinematography details, like camera movement and long takes.
Differentiates this humor from Anderson's style with specific comparison: dialogue.
Each of these two-shootout scenes are different as they were made by two different directors, yet there are also similarities as these scenes do come from a common place. They both in some way go against the cultural expectation of what the shootout scene should be. They were able to subvert these expectations through their direction and sense of genre. The genre from each film depends on how the director orchestrates the scene. One used in a quirkier form of comedy while the other is used for pure action and excitement. The shootout scene ultimately is about conflict between the leading characters and an opposing force. It was originally meant to add tension and a sense of danger for the characters the audience has grown to root for. Even if these two scenes are used in different manners, both scenes achieve creating a build-up that would lead to a satisfying end whether it was meant to be funny or action packed.
Clearly states two specific similarities, while keeping the styles separate in this comparison.
Azotea, UNG Class of 2020, from his paper
"Expectations of the Shootout Scene
Through Different Genres"
Find a Focus
Establish an argument upon which your ideas hinge. Think about what stand or point your paper is making. Analyze your film to prove this larger point.
Look closely at the visual and aural choices that the film has made. Find patterns, and draw conclusions to help develop your argument.
Avoid Plot Summary
Organize your essay around key points in your argument, rather than a chronological recap of the sequence.
Use Examples, Not Extended Visual Description
Select specific filmmaking examples to fully analyze rather than describe everything that you see on screen.
Balance Evidence with Analysis
For every sentence or two of observations, follow with a sentence or two of your analysis.
Replace Evaluative Language with Explanation
Analyze the effects of techniques used, not their reception.
Use Precise Film Terms
Is the camera movement a track, tilt, pan, or zoom? Is it a high-angle shot or a low-angle shot? When in doubt, check the glossary.
Avoid Vague Language
Aim instead to analyze the specific effect of individual techniques.