An awareness of poetic devices enables the student to better-appreciate poetry. So it is too with film. This section of the unit provides students with a film vocabulary and examples of such a vocabulary at work. It is a condensed version of several chapters of Sobochack and Sobochack’s text which will be duplicated and shared with students. Teachers who may wish to use this unit are advised to read Sobochack’s chapters in their entirety, for this will enable them to provide additional insight and specific examples when reviewing the hand-out with students.
Prior to writing this unit I gave the teaching of film and
a trial run. My students had previously viewed Hitchcock’s
The 39 Steps
in connection with the reading of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and George Orwell’s
Down and Out in Paris and London
. (See 1987 curriculum unit.) They discovered in all of these works similar themes and/or the articulation of concerns about the class system and, in particular, delineations of the resultant isolation and manipulation of the lower classes. The use of film in this previous unit thus served to convince students that film is not simply a vehicle for entertainment, but, like literature, reflects the concerns of the society which produce it. Though teachers may not wish to use
The 39 Steps
or my previous unit prior to teaching this unit, it might be useful to provide students with a similar introductory exposure to film
I used the teaching of
The Turn of the Screw
and its movie counterpart, The Innocents, next in order to 1.) raise the topic of literary works and film adaptations and 2.) provide students with another exposure to film prior to tackling film elements and
. Students were provided with two professional criticisms of
to read and respond to. The critics’ views as to the success of the adaptation of
varied,yet, both discussed the uses of lighting, film stock, and other elements of film during the course of their arguments. Students were asked to summarize these criticisms by articulating the main ideas expressed by the critics, and the-y were also asked to choose the one they thought was the best and to explain why they made the choice thy did. The reading of professional film criticism provided students with an introduction to the elements of film. The writing assignment—in addition to providing practice with summary writing and argument—served to underscore the seriousness of film study. Again, though teachers may wish to use different films, it is suggested that they introduce students to film criticism through examples prior to providing students with the following hand-out of film elements Such an exercise will result in student “readiness” and/or will serve to articulate the purpose of technical awareness.
When we turned to film vocabulary, I simply passed out notes which I had taken from Sobochack and Sobochack’s text. I believe the following summary of the text will work equally as well or better with students. Because the summary is so dense, teachers will have to read it aloud to students (as they follow in their own copies) and stop frequently to further explain ideas and provide salient examples. I found that students were able to provide examples of their own when asked so that the lecture format was tempered somewhat. I do not apologize for the lecture format in the least; I believe it is important to ask students occasionally to listen in order to digest new material. Yet, pressing students for their own examples insures that students remain receptive and involved in this relatively passive classroom activity.
Teachers might wish to devise follow-up-‘activities for use after the lecture-discussion which would call for student feed back. For example, a short writing exercise might be assigned; Suggested question—(What did you learn which was most interesting to you? Why? If possible, provide an example from your own viewing which has to do with this topic.) Additional ideas for student activities which will further explicate the elements of film follow the discussion of the Sobochack text.
I. Film Space
The topic, film space, essentially describes the visual component of film which helps to underscore the tone of the work.
is the “mood or atmosphere of a film [for example: ironic, comic, tragic] created by the sum of the film’s cinematic techniques.”
Five elements of
are described below; they are
film stock, lighting, composition, viewpoints,
Film Stock refers to the type of film used in a given movie. Though movies are usually filmed in their entirety in black and white or in color, instances of the use of a variety of film stocks in a single movie are not especially rare. The use of sepia-toned segments in the otherwise all-color
Murder on the Orient Express
provides an apt example. These segments indicate the past by reminding the audience of old photographs or yellowed newsprint and thus-signal use of flashbacks which deal with the kidnapping and murder of a famous child. The use of the sepia stock also helps to isolate and thus underscores the horrific quality of the crime depicted.
Black and white film stock is often used in serious films. In fact, a whole genre of film of the ‘40s and ‘50s called “film noir” dealt with the themes of urban decay and/or corruption. Certainly the use of black and white stock puts forth a drab or decaying quality. Black and white film may also indicate conflict as a result of its oppositional quality. In fact, the choices afforded the film-maker within the black and white frame work allow various emotional response to emerge.
(black and white)
has a grainy, high-contrast quality. Sometimes such stock is used to signify or underscore the notion of reality as it reminds us, if not of newsreels, then of newsprint and thus evokes the documentary. However, fast film may also represent the dream; when compared with
which is exact—that is, not fuzzy or grainy—the possibilities of representing illusion emerge. In fact, both types of stock may be used in a single film to create a variety of effects. A change of stock in a single film may also signify a change of time or place, and thus helps the viewer to grasp meaning and/or follow the film’s plot.
Of course, color film is the preferred choice of our latest film makers. Perhaps a generation of color TV watchers dictate that this be the case. In any event, film makers no longer relegate color solely to glitzy musicals or biblical epics. Various techniques are used within the color frame work to evoke a serious tone or indeed to make a thematic statement. For example, film characters might be clothed in drab costumes and then filmed against brightly-colored machinery: such a technique would emphasize the notion of a dehumanizing technological society.
Lighting provides the film.-maker with a powerful evocative tool. The following serve as illustrative samples of the myriad uses of lighting. Pin-points of light focused on the eyes of Dracula produces a hypnotic effect and thus underscores the eerie mood of that movie. Light may.also be filtered to produce a romantic or ghostly effect. Such is the case of the film version of
The Turn of the Screw
. An over-exposure of light often creates 3d image of heat; thus the visual experience of film is able to evoke another sensory experience Harsh lighting produces a stark or forbidding image, while soft lighting often renders the idyllic.
provides a classic example of the use of light and shadow. A youthful idealistic Kane is bathed in light while the older corrupt Kane is more often filmed in shadows.
is simply the arrangement oP people within the frame of the movie screen. The frame might be filled in a balanced way, for example, to indicate harmony;or the frame might be deliberately filmed as unbalanced so as to indicate discord. Often the frame is spontaneously or randomly filmed as an expression of reality.
Various types of camera shots affect the composition and thus the tone of a given scene. For example,
may serve to dwarf characters within the context of a given environment.
may enable the viewer to feel an intimacy with a given character, but often protracted close-ups evoke a feeling of claustrophobia or disorientation as the viewer is denied a surrounding environment.
As film provides foreground, middle ground, and background, people and objects may be filmed to provide spatial relationships; this provides visual clues as to the relative importance of various components of a scene. .For example, in
The Lady Vanishes
Hitchcock creates chilling suspense and the foreshadowing of a poisoning by placing poisoned drink props in the foreground of a shot while placing the unsuspecting (and blithely conversing) victims in the middle-ground.
By and large films are filmed from an objective viewpoint That is, the audience sees the actions of characters through its own eyes and not through the eyes of a character. In other words, an omniscient point of view is suggested. Occasionally the subjective viewpoint is used to underscore a character’s experience. A James Bond movie might momentarily shift from the objective to the subjective viewpoint in order that we might vicariously experience the protagonist’s slalom down a ski-slope, for example. Films that seek to illustrate psychotic states, too, often briefly employ the subjective viewpoint in order to articulate a hallucinatory experience, for instance. Such usage of viewpoint serves to stimulate an audience’s emotional involvement with character or situation.
The frame-work of the movie’s conventional objective viewpoint does allow any number of variances. For example, the audience can be forced to look down on a subject or up to a subject according to the angle from which the subject is shot. The
serves to diminish a character through foreshortening while the
enlarges the subject. Thus these camera techniques can be used to indicate a subject’s vulnerability or strength.
The use of various lenses also serves to diminish or enlarge characters, A man seen running toward the camera equipped with a
appears to be running on a tread mill; that is, little distance appears to be covered, and therefore the man appears to be dwarfed by his environment A
, on the other-hand, initially indicates that the subject is far away, but his movement toward the camera causes his size to increase quickly, and the subject then seems to dominate his landscape.
The camera itself can be tilted to show entire scenes at an angle. Such a view creates a sense of disequilibrium.
There are two types of movement in film: camera movement and subject movement. Subject movement essentially shows the relationship between a given character and his environment or the relationship between the character and another character. The discussion of the use of various lenses in the preceding section provides an.apt example of subject movement.
Camera movement provides an interesting tool for delineating character and suggesting a mood. For example, a receding movement may serve to diminish the subject being filmed while forward movement may serve to underscore his importance or his strength.
The use of a slow pan shot when the camera slowly moves across a landscape affords the audience a feeling of omniscience. A change of speed in a pan will produce a variety of effects. For example, a
will cause the audience to feel dizzy or out-of-control. A combination of speeds will produce various rhythms which may be either comforting or disconcerting.
In general, the use of slow motion is relegated to lyrical or romantic scenes, though it may be used as well simply to prolong a scene which may be grisly in nature.
has a comedic quality. A combination of speeds might indicate life out of balance.
II. Film Sound
Though we might think of film as an essentially visual experience, we really cannot afford to underestimate the importance of film sound. A meaningful sound track is often as complicated as the image on the screen. The entire sound track is comprised of three essential ingredients: the human voice, sound effects, and music. These three tracks must be mixed and balanced so as to produce the necessary emphases which in turn create desired effects. Topics which essentially refer to the three previously mentioned tracks are discussed below. They include
authenticates the speaker as an individual or
a real person rather than the imaginary creation of a story teller. As is the case with stage drama, dialogue serves to tell the story and expresses feelings and motivations of characters as well. Often with film characterization the audience perceives little or no difference between the character and the actor. Thus, for example, Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade; film personality and life personality seem to merge. Perhaps this is the case because the very texture of a performer’s voice supplies an element of character. When voice texture fits the performer’s physiognomy and gestures, a whole and very realistic persona emerges. The viewer sees not an actor working at his craft, but another human being struggling with life.
It is interesting to note that how dialogue is used and the very amount of dialogue used varies widely among films. For example, in the film
little dialogue was evident, and most of what was used was banal. In this way the filmmaker was able to portray the “inadequacy of human responses when compared with the magnificent technology created by man] and the visual beauties of the universe.”
Bringing Up Baby
, on the other hand, presents practically non-stop dialogue delivered at break-neck speed. This use of dialogue underscores not only the dizzy quality of the character played by Katharine Hepburn, but also the absurd quality of the film itself and thus its humor. The audience is bounced from gag to gag and conversation to conversation; there is no time for audience reflection. The audience is caught up in a whirlwind of activity in simply managing to follow the plot. This film presents pure escapism—largely due to its frenetic dialogue.