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The Language of Film

Film Basics | Learning the Language | Activities

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.

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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. (For a more in-depth discussion of the concept of mise en scène -- a term which refers to everything that is seen on screen -- you may want to read Warren Buckland's Teach Yourself Film Studies. See Resources.)

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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.

Close-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

Pan    The camera moves horizontally on a fixed base.

Tilt    The camera points up or down from a fixed base.

Boom    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.

Zoom    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.


Cut    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.

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

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

Adaptation used by permission from Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults by Alan B. Teasley and Ann Wilder. ©1997 by Alan B. Teasley and Ann Wilder. Published by Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. All Rights Reserved.

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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.

Film in the Classroom:
Film in the Classroom Home | About This Guide | Introduction
The Language of Film | Adaptation | Literary Elements | Wrap Up
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