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Reading a Film Sequence

Reading a Film Sequence

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Published by Julie Thrasher
Prompt questions to aid reading a film sequence
Prompt questions to aid reading a film sequence

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Published by: Julie Thrasher on Nov 24, 2008
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09/21/2010

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Reading a Film Sequence
Some Notes
FILMS IN CONTEXT
Every Film or Media Text is a function of at least two contexts: the contextin which it was made, the context in which it functions.Media texts recycle the givens of tradition, engaging various forms of  ‘discourse’, putting them together in a way to produce an artistic entity.They are something like a stringing together of quotations, of reworkingconventions, of adding together a number of impulses from the world inwhich one lives, appropriating various elements in a way that leads tosomething different, and in that sense, new.Any thorough analysis of a film involves studying the following:
the socio-historical background to the film, economic and politicalfactors that conditioned its making
the traditions out of which a given film arises -the sort of culturalquotations it uses, the conventions it makes use of, the degree towhich it participates in certain ‘types’ of production (e.g.Hollywood? Bollywood?)
the institutional positioning of a given film -its status in the publicsphere in which it is received
the director's larger body of work, of which the film is part of alarger whole;
the "work" of the text itself, never forgetting, though, that filmsissue from a whole world (or realm) of films
the question of a film's reception in time and how this has pre-shaped our own expectations as well as the film's place in history;
the relation of a text to certain other texts; these can be directlysuggested by a film or they can be creative associations suggestedby the spectator.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF -----------------------------------------
I. Narrative
1. What is the function of this sequence within the larger narrative action
is it exposition, climax, foreshadowing, transition etc?Does the sequence encapsulate the major oppositions at work in thefilm?What are the underlying issues in the sequence (often glossed overand obscured in the overt action and in the dialogue, but possiblyalluded to in the visuals)?
 
What is the selected sequence “really” about? What aspect of thestory does it establish, revise, develop?How do the visuals express it?
2. How is the story told?
Linear, with flashbacksflash-forwards, episodically?)What “happens” on the level of the plot?How do plot and story differ, if at all?
3. Can the sequence be divided into individual segments (indicated, forinstance, by shifts of location, jumps in time, inter-titles, etc.)?4. How do the various ‘channels’ of information used in film (image,speech, sound, music, writing) interact to produce meaning? Does one of the channels dominate in this sequence?5. Is there a recognizable source of the narration? For example: Voice-over or off-screen commentary? If so, what is the narrator's perspective?6. Does the film acknowledge the spectator or do events transpire as if noone were present?7. Do characters look into the camera or pretend it is not there?8. Are we made to respond in certain ways to certain events (say, throughmusic that "tells" us how to respond or distances us from the action)?9. How are women portrayed? Are they primarily shown as passive objectsof the ‘male gaze’?10. Does the narrative (as encapsulated in the sequence) express(indirectly) current political views?11. Does the film sequence conform to, affirm, or question dominantideologies?
II. Staging
The filmmaker stages an event to be filmed. What is put in front of thecamera? How does the staging comment on the story? How does itvisualize the main conflicts of the story?1. Setting:Is the film on location or in the studio? "Realistic" or stylized?Historical or contemporary? Are there any props that take on a symbolicfunction? Are things like mirrors, crosses, windows, books accentuated?Why? How do sets and props comment on the narrative?2. Space:Is the space cluttered or empty? Does it express a certainatmosphere? Is the design balanced or unbalanced? Is space used as an
 
indirect comment on a character's inner state of mind?3. Lighting:What is illuminated, what is in the shadow?
Lighting quality: hard lighting (bold shadows) or soft (diffusedillumination)?
Direction: frontal lighting (flat image), sidelighting (for dramaticeffect), backlighting (only the silhouette is visible), underlighting(from a fireplace, for example)?
"Realistic" or high contrast/symbolic lighting?
High key/low key? Special lighting effects? (e. g. shadows,spotlight). Natural lighting or studio?
How does the lighting enhance the expressive potential of the film?4. Acting and Choreography (part of mise-en-scene):What do appearance,gestures, facial expressions and voice signify?5. The Movement of characters: is it toward or away from the camera,from left to right or vice versa?
Do characters interact with each other through their gaze?Who looks at whom?Is the grouping of characters before the camera significant?Is our view of characters clear or obscured [behind objects], isolatedor integrated, center or off-center, are they in the background orforeground?)How do acting and choreography attract and guide the viewer’sattention (and manipulate his/her sympathies)? How do they createsuspense, ambiguity, wrong clues, complexity, and certainties?
5. Costume and Make-Up:Are they "realistic" or stylized/abstract?6. What do the costumes signify (status, wealth, attitude, foreignness,etc.)?
III. Cinematography
The filmmaker controls not only what is filmed but how it is filmed: howthe staged, "pro-filmic" event is photographed and framed, how long theimage lasts on the screen.1. Photography:
Film Stock:What type of photographic film is used? (Fast film stockto achieve grainy, contrasty look) Is there any tinting? Is the filmover/underexposed? Black and white or color? Symbolic use of colors? Subjective use/colors linked to certain characters? Colors as

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