Building blocks of film analysis

With film examples, mp3 files and texts we explain numerous aspects of the film language. With our interactive analysis tool you can analyze six films online.

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  2. Building blocks of film analysis

Building blocks for film analysis – learning to read films

In the context of the SchulKinoWoche Baden-Wurttemberg, film pedagogical advanced trainings are offered annually, among others with the film scientist Manfred Rusel. His explanations of the basics of the aesthetics and design of film, which he illustrates by means of short film excerpts, we have combined here into a unit on film analysis. The aim is to raise awareness of the complexity and differentiation of the medium of film and to make it clear that every film is staged down to the smallest detail.

Film history

Sortie de l’usine

It was the Lumière brothers who taught the pictures to walk. With a film, a short sequence about how workers leave the factory, film history began in December 1895. Incidentally, this was the Lumière family’s factory for chemicals and photographic plates. Already in this short film nothing is left to chance, but the whole thing is staged through and through. The workers wear their best clothes, they avoid looking directly at the camera, at the beginning a door opens and at the end it closes again. Small punchlines also provide a certain dramaturgy.

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Visual Concept

Every film follows a visual concept that determines how the characters are shown, which atmosphere is created at which point in the film, and which moods and associations are to be awakened in the viewer.

Billy Elliot (GB 2000, Stephen Daldry)

In the course of the film, open spaces take the place of walls and bars, thus tracing Billy’s path through the imagery, and in part already foreshadowing it, which he is able to follow more and more freely towards the end.

Four Minutes (D 2006, Chris Kraus)

In this film, too, we encounter the closed form in numerous scenes. Jenny is a young murderer and is in prison. But also when she is allowed to go to a music competition thanks to her talent, the film shows this in closed forms and at the same time stages Jenny’s turmoil as well as that of her piano teacher.

Exposition

After just a few minutes, we already know what the film, which is actually still ahead of us, is about. The very first shots usually briefly summarize the entire theme of a film. Therefore, if you look carefully at the beginning, you can discover what’s coming up. Exposition means the visual and acoustic introduction of the viewer to the basic mood, initial situation, conditions, time, place and characters of the film and the communication of the preconditions and background of the film plot that are important for comprehension.

The fat years are over (D 2004, Hans Weingartner)

Manfred Rusel describes important elements of an exposition on the basis of the film Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The fat years are over).

Camera angles

For the dramaturgy of a film sequence, the camera perspective plays a very important role. Three terms in particular keep coming up in this context:

The normal view is, so to speak, an eye-to-eye perspective. It corresponds to our everyday perception when we face a person.

The bottom view, i.e. objects and persons shot from below, immediately appear in a completely different way. The point of view can work to make a person appear as a hero, idol, star, or powerful person, or it creates – embedded in other appropriate elements such as lighting, set, etc. – a threatening effect. The extreme form of this perspective is called frog perspective.

The top view shows objects and people from above, making them appear smaller, more helpless, lonelier or even powerless. The extreme form of this perspective is called bird’s-eye view.

Nosferatu (D 1922, Friedrich W. Murnau)

The extreme bottom view from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film Nosferatu has also gone down in film history. In 1922, he was the first to show evil from this perspective. In the meantime this belongs to the fixed repertoire of directors.

"What is so remarkable about this shot is that it is the first extreme bottom view in film history. So the film crew goes down to the bottom of the ship, films the count . from the extreme perspective from below. He is already relatively tall the actor and is demonically drawn over the mask, with the long fingernails and the bald head and the effect of this under-view emphasizes this menace."

The Subject (D 1951, Wolfgang Staudte)

Another example of the skilful use of camera angles is the film Der Untertan (1951), also a literary adaptation. Power and powerlessness are beautifully illustrated here with the alternation of top and bottom views.

"There’s a film that I always like to use to make the shift between literature and film adaptation quite clear, which also works with camera perspectives, which is Der Untertan by Wolfgang Staudt. This is also an old black and white film from 1951. There you can see very nicely how a film condenses very nicely: 400 pages of novel – 90 minutes of film. And the way he focuses [. ] is condensed into a short scene, not much longer than a minute, and this interplay of subject and ruler, of powerlessness and power, is made wonderfully clear, almost paradigmatically, with the interplay of camera perspectives of the top and bottom view."

Camera movements

Most people associate camera movement with terms like tracking shot or panning shot. Nowadays, however, the use of camera and computer is even more diverse than it used to be. How the camera is moved in a designed film space gives information about the effect the director wants to create. Two examples are singled out here: the hand-held camera and the Steadicam, usually combined with computer-animated images.

Panic Room (USA 2002, David Fincher)

Panic Room is a good example of camera movement using a Steadicam. What we see is a smooth movement through the room, allowing us to view the ambience at our leisure.

"The camera movement that you have seen here suggests to us in a single shot to describe the whole scene, there are only three or four cuts in this scene. It’s a camera movement that is very elegant, that runs very stably and calmly, nothing wobbles. [. ] Of course, it performs the most impossible movements: driving into a keyhole, through the handle of a cup, so insofar as film technology is concerned, it’s a combination of a so-called Steadicam and a computer.

Steadicam is a device that the cameraman straps around his waist and can then drive through the room, the camera is set up far away on a scaffold and the cameraman controls the camera via such a small monitor. This is a camera technique that is used today in almost every movie, but also in every crime scene. Is very expensive, you need your own cameraman. It allows a smooth movement through the room. [. ] It seems like a harmonic camera movement. The narrator’s perspective is an auctorial one, so there’s an omniscient narrator here who tells us exactly what’s happening. [. ] Many films definitely work with a combination of both: handheld camera or Steadicam. [. ] Depending on what I want to say, I choose my camera movement, my camera style."

Light and color

Light and color are immensely important for the effect of a film. These two elements are even formative for the quality of the whole movie. Using both correctly requires skill and a lot of money.

Misery (USA 1990, Rob Reiner)

Manfred Rusel chose the film Misery to illustrate the lighting effects.

"Notice how, with the same logical lighting – that’s simulated with spotlights, of course – both characters are nevertheless shown differently. Here you see with him this pinkish light, far warmer tones than on the other side: quite hard directed light comes here from the right one sees here again the classic example of the bottom view. So since Nosferatu, Lord of the Rings – the evil everywhere to see like in this bottom view. By the way, there are also directors who call it the ‘terminator shot’, those are the ones who start to deal with the film later and who saw it for the first time in the Terminator (first part 1984).

Here the so-called chiaroscuro, the light that thus shows the antagonist of the film only half, this is a convention of cinema. This signals us: this is not the good guy, at most an ambivalent character, probably rather the bad guy. This is a convention in cinema. Anyone who is lit like this, with harsh directional light that makes one half of his face fall into the shadow area, is not the positive identification figure."

Vertigo (USA 1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

A film by the grand master of directing – Alfred Hitchcock – can excellently demonstrate what an intense effect a filmmaker can create with the means of coloring. In Vertigo, the color scheme takes over a piece of the message of the whole film.

"Now it all depends on the atmosphere of the light, the lighting. And you’ll see, it seems quite strange. [. ] Now the apartment is green for the first time. But it’s not green in a positive sense, it’s such a greasy, weird green that’s motivated by the neon sign outside, that creates a very specific effect. Then here the colors are missing in the apartment. Today we say ‘desaturated colors’. You actually only see such a strange washed-out pink-brown tone, this green tone in a room that otherwise (during the film) appeared quite different. And even the bed, which we’re about to see in another shot, is designed so that this shade of green defines that bed frame there. The picture up there was all colorless.

Now the lover emerges from the bathroom and the music plays a very important role here [. ] it’s Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner [. So it’s a direct combination of the message level of the music and the image. It’s a love story that didn’t end well, either. And now she emerges from the tomb of the dead. There. As if through a veil it emerges from the mist. And on the other side we see his face and that the eyes are shining. This is a special light, called eye light, that is used here to make his eyes shine. [. ]

The positive hero [. ] resurrects the dead. So is someone who lives only backwards, who practices something like necrophilia. So the Hitchcock breaks here in this scene (through the light and color effects) with the star James Stuart, in which he actually reproaches him: what you do is abnormal. I always ask my students: ‘Imagine if your friend were to design you in the image of the ex’."

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