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.
"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.)
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
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.
These activities will help students understand the language of film.
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