Unit 1: Practical 2


Text is used in various ways within film either on the screen itself, in Title Design or through voice-over to create similar layering elements of meaning.

Reading a film

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Text, language and dialogue are normally the originating point of a film. A film cannot begin without words and ideas sketched on paper or a written script with directions. We are often asked to look and analyse a film by ‘reading’ it as if it is a text. James Monoco’s famous work How to Read a Film looks at some of the ways that a literary mode of analysis can be applied to cinema. Kamilia Elliot suggests that film is primarily seen as a purely visual form of storytelling, where “resorting to text” is a sign that the filmmaker is unable to tell the story in a proper way. (Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate 88-90). Tom Conley sees this aesthetic as the result of an intellectual act (reading) interfering “in the more sensuous play of visual forms” (Film Hieroglyphics xiv). In other words, reading on screen requires a mode of thinking that discourages the kind of immersion that many films intend.

There are two main ways in which Text enters into film.

1. A diegetic text – words found in the mise-en-scéne. 2. Non-diegetic words, or words that don’t exist within the world of the story.

Origins of Text

Let us first look at the origins of the integration of text with moving image. When talking about the relationship between text and image, first thoughts turn to printmaking and Graphic Design. Graphic design is an implicit part of the filmmaking process in pre-production, conceptual art work and in the advertising of film through posters, trailers and other forms of advertising. In Europe in the 1920s. The German Bauhaus, although more commonly recognized for architecture and craft, also had an influence on experimental filmmaking. The films of László Moholy-Nagy and Hans Richter are a good example as they explore the intersection between Modernist design, visual music, and early abstract filmmaking.

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Laslo Maholy Nagy 1895 – 1946 Lightplay 1930 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAPLscAO3mE Things to Come - 1936 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0pNV2gjhMQ


As Elliot notes in Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, text in film might have been seen as technical necessity of early film, but it also saved a lot of space. What could be said in a few words sometimes took excessive amounts of time to act out (88). This is why the amount of intertitles actually increased rather than decreased in the late silent film period. Although intertitles are always non-diegetic, some efforts have been made to make the transition from visual image to intertitle less abrupt.

Below, the intertitle for the Kino version of Nosferatu mimics something of its time period and its gothic feel.

On the right, the intertitle for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may have the same goal in mind (easing the image/text transition) but it attempts to do so by using simple, nonabrasive, non-artistic text.


There has been a fair amount of attention given to film titles lately. For a good summary, see Just the Beginning: The Art of Film Titles by J. Counts or visit the Submarine Channel, whose motto is "forget the film, watch the titles". The only thing I want to point out here is how Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard integrates the title of the film into the diegesis, whereas most film introductions tend to remain “paratextual” and establish mood and tone. Although film titles at the beginning are usually a "given," some films wait to display their title until the end, such as Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

North by North by Northwest (1961) Directed by Alfred http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIlqatMQSg Hitchcock
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A famed creator of title sequences and movie posters is Saul Bass who studied with Bauhaus designers in Manhattan. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he found his innovative ideas in high demand. His clients included Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder, to name a few. Saul Bass is the undisputed master of title and poster design in Hollywood. His credits include The Man With the Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Grand Prix, Casino, Cape Fear, Ocean’s Eleven, and Goodfellas. You can view and read about his work on this excellent website.


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Essential to graphic design is the craft of typography. In the film Helvetica , Director Gary Hustwit takes a look at the most popular typeface on the planet and interviews a number of exuberant designers about the microscopic science of how the eye reads letters on a page. This documentary details the amazing history and proliferation of the most ubiquitous typeface in the world: Helvetica. Wonderfully informative and unexpectedly funny, Helvetica features lively commentary from influential designers including Hermann Zapf, Massimo Vignelli, Tobias Frere-Jones, and Michael Beirut.




Establishing Text

The crawling text in Star Wars is not really part of the story world, as there is no text flying around space. However, it is in space, and elements from the diegesis (ships) soon occupy that same space. The non-diegetic example in this case is interesting because it “speaks” in the voice of one of the film’s stars (Mary Pickford), and even provides her signature to show its authenticity. It is an introduction to the work, but it is outside the world of the story.

Star Wars Episode V(1980) Directed by Irvin Kershner


Intertextual Reference

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) directed by Kaufman

At times, full books are displayed within the mise-en-scene. Although it appears nearly accidental, the inclusion of a book seems to say a lot about the film itself. In this case, the inclusion of Neal Simon’s plays reveals something of the character’s nature. The inclusion of the book House of Leaves inside Tim Burton’s Big Fish suggests a shared interest in a labyrinthine structure. Ficticious texts included in film lack this feature.


Subtitles are also always non-diegetic, and like intertitles, they are generally designed to be as transparent as possible. However, the use of context-sensitive subtitles changes this transparency. A good example is the 2004 film Man on Fire, in which subtitles are released from their traditional place at the bottom of the screen and allowed to appear at various places. They are also freed from their role as a translator, because in Man on Fire, text often appears even when the spoken words are in English. Finally, as the example shows, emotion is displayed through the text; it gets bigger as the character’s voice grows in intensity.


Inscription is an act of writing wherein the writing device presses into the medium. In writing, this is the pen carving into the paper; in film, this is the image being burned into the celluloid. In the film Memento, the protagonist is always writing, (on paper, photographs, or through tattoos) trying to supplement his memory. Often, this writing forms a kind of concrete poetry. On the right, this is a “still” from the introduction to the film Se7en, in which text has been inscribed on the film. The meaning of “D35” is unclear.

Seven David Fincher



This is text placed on top of images, blurring the distinction between the two. The best example is Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, where text appears (without an apparent source) as if it is projected on the scenes in the film. Other examples include Andy Campbell’s Last Dream, a new media work that integrates superscribed text and the moving image. The Pillow Book (1996) directed by Peter Greenaway


How does language work as an image, rather than as a spoken  Many film and video artists have explored the word?

connection between words and pictures. Their investigations into the interplay between them reveal new meanings and subvert old ones. Preconceived notions of how a word describes an image are challenged as artists re-present the image and the word in unexpected configurations. to great comic effect.

MESSAGES Guy Sherwin 1981-3 35mins black & white silent 16mm
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A response to my young daughter's discovery of language and to her questions about the world. ‘Messages was made over a 3 year period, when my daughter Maya was first learning to talk and write. It was my first film that involved gathering material around a central theme. That theme was not constant, but shifted its ground between ideas to do with childhood, with language, or with visual perception. A major source of inspiration for the film was Maya's questions about the world, starting with questions to do with her perceptions of the physical world, and as she got older, questions more to do with social behaviour. These 'innocent' questions (apart from being almost impossible to answer) seemed to me to be of a philosophical order that challenged long-established 'truths' about the world. They made it clear to me that 'knowledge' which is hidden and acquired, supplants raw perception in many areas of our understanding (we learn to 'see' the table as square, not trapezoid).


I also included material from Jean Piaget's book of 1929 'The Child's Conception of the World', in which he asks a number of children questions about the origin of the stars, sun, moon. I wanted to include an external source of ideas to give myself a measure of distance from the project, and to place the emphasis on childhood in general rather than my daughter's childhood in particular. The pace of the film is slow, and the structure of the film is open-ended. The images progress through oblique association rather than linear sequence, allowing the viewer to make his or her own connections with different points in the film, as well as drawing on personal childhood associations (two aspects of memory are involved here). The implication is that each person will 'see' the film differently and uniquely. I first used an open structure like this in 'Short Film Series', a group of 30 3-minute films which can be programmed in any number and permutation. The idea of the viewer 'doing work' (not necessarily unpleasant work) on the film is an important tenet of a progressive film practice.

A PORTRAIT OF GA Margaret Tait 1955 7min colour 16mm

A film as a poem started in words and finished in moving images. A PORTRAIT OF GA is an early experiment in portraiture from Tait. In filming her mother she asks the wider question of how much the camera can reveal of the person. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwGNAIbe-xQ

ASSOCIATIONS John Smith 1975 7mins Colour 16mm

Images from magazines and color supplements accompany a spoken text taken from Herbert H. Clark's "Word Associations and Linguistic Theory" (in New Horizons in Linguistics, ed. John Lyons,1970). By using the ambiguities inherent in the English language, Associations sets language against itself. Image and word work together and against each other to destroy and create meaning. "Associations is a straightforward rebus—a game in which words are replaced by pictures. But the text is so dense with contemporary linguistic theory, and the combination of visual puns so extensive, that a simple, unique reading of the film is impossible."


ASSUMPTION Peter Gidal 1997 1 min Colour 16mm

Assumption is a film which operates on many levels. It features glimpses of life at previous, less luxurious premises of the London Film Makers' Co-op; but it is more than a potted history of an organisation. It pays tribute to Mary Pat Leece, a founding member of Four Corners Film Workshop and a teacher at Chelsea School of Art and St Martin's School of Art, one of the true innovators of the independent film sector who died earlier this year; but it is more than just an elegiac tribute. With its virtuoso editing, voice-overs and scrolling titles, it works as a densely-plotted celebration of independent film culture at the end of the 1990s.


A BOOK FOR A PERFORMANCE Katharine Meynell 1986 Performance and Installation

A Book For a Performance is both part of Meynellâ’s performance and a record of it, serving as a sort of fetish complete with a lock of hair. - C. Elwes Installation with 2 monitors and books.

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