All entries for Thursday 04 September 2008

September 04, 2008



The notion of deconstruction originates with the thought of Jaques Derrida. Derrida argued that language is unstable , that meaning is therefore able to shift. Meaning is never quite the same depending upon the context in which a text is consumed. All media texts are constructed, put together by individuals or usually teams of people who have a range of messages and values embedded within a given text.  Deconstruction is a method of analysing the text and all its component elements. The term is a confusing one and some people mix it up with straightforward analysis. The BBC report here does exactly this in relation to the work of John Ellis which is a straightforward critique not a deconstruction in Jaques Derrida's terms. As far as film is concerned Susan Hayward (1996) notes Deconstructive film does what the term implies: it deconstructs and makes visible through that deconstruction the codes and conventions of dominant cinema… (p 63)

As a critical method deconstruction aims: "to draw out...a critical reading which fastens on, and skillfully unpicks, the elements of metaphor and other figurative devices at work in the texts of philosophy." (Christopher Norris Deconstruction Theory and Practice p 18-19) Thus language is always present in any discourse and film and media uses visual and aural metaphors to embellish and reinforce a preferred meaning / reading amongst its audiences. Media studies thus encourages a critical practice which identifies this media based languages at work.

An important element of Derrida's work was the identification within texts of binary oppositions. This is where ther are precise opposites the ones and zeros of computer code for example. Within media this could mean the generation of sterotypical figures who are 'goodies' or 'baddies'. In film or TV a range of conventions may empasise this differences through visual metaphors. Baddies in black hats goodies in white ones in the stereotypical Western genre.Of course there are usually a range of subtleties in a character in real life which are not brought out in a media text precisely to ensure a strong prefrred reading is given.

Of course creative people can play with these conventions. For example look at the latest Batman film. When the hostages were on the boats trying to escape and were able to blow each other up in order to escsape a huge Afro-American whose presence is  magnified by the camerawork frightens an intimidated and seemingly tiny prison governor to take the detonator to the bomb on the other ship from the governor. The huge and threatening prisoner then chucks it out of a porthole in defiance of the sterotyping to the relief of the audience. At play are a range of visual metaphors which can be identiified as being present but it is the sterotyping through the commonly understood metaphors which creates meaning within the audience which is then changed by the strategy of the text. . The underlying meaning of course is that all Americans will pull together when the pressure is on and there is a greater external threat.

Perhaps a reasonable working definition of deconstruction is that meaning is always negotiated between texts and their audiences. Meaning then becomes a shifting ground in which the parameters of meaning change in relation to a variety of circumstances including the individual positioning of people as well as their social and cultural positioning in the world.

Nevertheless it is the text which sets the agenda for the discussion and the agenda inevitably comes from the author in conjunction with the other aspects of publishing / media institution (see preferred reading / meaning). Throughout, this complex interplay of experience which is freefloating and contingent. This is happens in real life who one meets is contingent and there are no set outcomes, meaning is continually in play. 

Models based on networking which emphasises the contingency of the flaneurial lifestyle seem more relevant. Abercrombie, Hill and Turner in the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology note the method is associated with decentering of meaning away from authorial intent. The method itself could bring about a reversal of the overt and official meanings of a text in favour of a subversive reading. Critics argue that the ‘method’ is subjective (meaning is in the eye of the beholder) and arbitrary and many point out that society isn’t a text.


Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction

Yale Law School on Deconstruction (PDF)

BBC News on the Death of Derrida

Reviewing Sociology Review of Deconstruction and the Visual Arts

Shot Reverse Shot

Shot Reverse Shot

A shot-reverse-shot sequence is the normal way of representing a conversation between two people. The shots are taken from one prticipant' point of view usually over the shoulder although there may be variants on that. The next shot is taken from the other participant's point of view. The reasons for this convention are because taking a long take of a two shot might easily become tedious. The system also helps pull in the audience in an identification with one or other of the participants. Cetainly they will be encouraged to share the emotional charge that is generated between the participants. The close-ups of character's reactions can heighten the tension for example. The sequence can also be used in a fight sequence. Look out for this in Action-Adventure movies.  This sequence is especially important in the continuity editing system.

Observations on film art and Film Art From David Bordwell.  There are a lot of observations on shot reverse shot including some useful comments on the with-holding of that shot as a deliberate technique against audience expectations to introduce a sense of ambivalence into the scene and make it more open.

I tried to show that shot/ reverse shot is a fairly easy convention to learn because it mimics the alternation between speaker and listener that we find in the turn-taking of ordinary conversation.
As my examples suggest, even if person A is doing all the talking, we don’t fully understand the scene if we can’t also monitor the reactions of B. By contrast, the shot/ reverse-shot patern keeps a running tab of the dynamics of the conversation. When a director wants to suppress information about B’s response, deleting the reaction shot can create uncertainty or suspense.


Observations on film art and Film Art From David Bordwell

Shot Reverse Shot. Cinema Space Berkeley

Shot Reverse Shot Diagrams

Tracking Shot

Tracking Shot

Camera on dolly and Tracks

Camera on dolly and tracks

Tracking Shot (TAF). The film camera is quite literally placed on a low platform (a dolly see below) which is on a track like a railway track. This means that the camera can be kept at a precise heigght and the speed can be adjusted. A very famous and extremly long tracking shot is in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend which tracks in a parallel way alongside a road filming dozens of cars which have been involved in a a pile up. Tracking can be in parallel to a scene or else the camera can track forwards or backwards. The way the tracking is done can create a range of different connotations. Tracking done at high speed is often used in Action-adventure films in chase sequences which will emphasise the sense of speed. If tracking is done very slowly a dream or trance like feel is expressed. If a person is held consistently within the frame at one extreme of the frame it could impart a feeling of being imprisoned for example. another famous tracking shot also with a crane is the opening sequence of Touch of Evil dir Orson Welles. See it in the YouTube extract below:

Opening sequence from Touch of Evil

The story of the long tracking shot would be best told in one take. Our camera could begin with Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil," pass through Jean-Luc Godard's "Week End" and Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," and finally arrive at the latest installment in the canon: Joe Wright's "Atonement." (Jake Coyle: Boston Globe December 2007)

The tracking shot from Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend below

Tracking shot from Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend

The Atonement Tracking shot discussed is currently available at YouTube

A camera dolly

A camera dolly

A dolly is a platform with wheels which allows the camera and camera operator to move around very smoothly. for a tracking shot the camera is placed on rails. this allows he camera to make smooth changes in distance in relation to the subject of the shot. The word dolly is also used as a verb to describe the action of moving the camera when it on a wheeled platform. See tracking shot below and separate article on camera movement.

The development of The Steadicam has allowed for making tracking shots less expensive and difficult.


Guardian Film blog on Atonement tracking shot

BBC Blast Advice on how to create a zero budget tracking shot for video.

Deep Focus Cinematography

Deep Focus Cinematography

Shooting a scene in deep focus means that both the foreground and background of a shot are in focus at the same time. Andre Bazin links this technique with mise en scene and for him  helps to make a film part of realism. For Bazin deep focus has three advantages:

  1. It brings spectators into closer contact with the image
  2. It is intellectually more challenging than montage which manipulates spectators to make them see what the filmmaker wants them to see, whilst deep focus gives the viewer choice in what they see
  3. It allows for ambuguity essential to works of art. For example Bazin thought that Italian Neorealist film kept reality intact. By shooting in deep focus less cutting is necessary so the spectator is less manipulated by the narrative and more free to read the set of shots in front of them. Ideologically (see ideology) as an editing style it can be considered as counter to the Hollywood style of film making which is found in action adventure films for example.

Many people brought up with the Hollywood style of editing which contains large numbers of cuts  find  films which use a lot of deep focus photography and far fewer cuts  very slow.  Interestingly Far Eastern films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero tend to combine both elements so there are some very elegant slower moving scenes interspered with rapid action sequences.

Exemplar Extract

There is an extract from Citizen Kane dir. Orson Welles on this site in which Gregg Toland who is commonly accredited with being the first to use deep focus cinematography shot the film. However Ogle (p 59) notes that other cinematographers were experimenting with similar techniques. He cites James Wong Howe ASC who:

...seems to have produced a proto deep-focus film in his photography of Transatlantic ten years earlier.

Ogle (p59) also cites a review of Citizen Kane from American Cinematographer in which the crisp focus was a clearly a fantastic revelation:

The result on the screen is in itself little short of revolutionary: the conventional narrow plane of acceptable focus is eliminated, and in its palce is a picture closly approximating what the eyes see - virtually unlimited depth of filed, ranging often from a big head close-up at one side of the frame, perhaps only inches from the lens, to background action, twenty, thirty, fifty or even a hundred feet away. All are critically sharp. The result is realism in a new dimension: we forget we are looking at a picture, and feel the living breathing presence of the characters. (Extract from "Photography of the Month" American Cinematographer, May 1941 p 222)

Please note well: As Ogle is at pains to point out the article is inaccurate concerning the human eye which does not use deep focus rather it is able to refocus at fantastic speed. Try going into deep focus mode and you will find you can't.

Ogle also notes that Jean Renoir was already using far greater depth of field than was usual at the time at was developing a form of realism which became developed in Italian neorealism. Ogle cites Toni (1934) as an example of this. Interstingly Luchino Visconti worked as an assistant for Renoir and his Ossessione was seen as a precusor of Italian Neorealism. furthermore the photographer Cartier-Bresson very much associated with realism worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir. When it comes to realism and the use of deep focus cinematography there is a debt to photography which need sto be recognised more fully. Less important than who was first is the fact that deep focus was realated to notions of realism in the sense of capturing natural reality as the eye could see it.


Yale University Film Classes: Cinematography

Screenville Blog: Deep focus and Realism. Interesting article here for more in depth analysis.


Ogle Patrick. 1985. "Technological and Aesthetic Influences on the Development of Deep-focus cinematography in the United States" in Movies and Methods Volume 2  Ed Bill Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press. this is a very useful follow up article.

Mise en scene

Mise en scene

This term originally came from theatre and meant staging. Its literal translation from the French means ‘having been put into the scene'. The term crossed over into cinema from theatre relating to the production practices involved in the framing of shots. This covers:

  • The location
  • The sets
  • The props
  • Costumes
  • Lighting
  • Movement within the frame
  • Sound.

These are is the expressive tools available to a film or TV programme maker.This means that analysis of mise en scene can be a way of identifying a particular filmmaker. As a range of expressive tools mise en scene is essential to the construction of a preferred reading / meaning of a media text and it is intimately bound up with the concept of representation in media.

The theory of mise en scene was developed by those interested in how the director and sometimes the team could participate in the construction of meaning. (See Auteur). Mise en scene is a term employed in theatre to designate the contents of the stage and their arrangement. In cinema however the reference is rather to the film frame, including the arrangement of the profilmic event, of everything that is , which is in front of the camera – settings, costumes and props. Mise en scene also refers more broadly to what the spectator actually sees on the screen – the composition of the image and the nature of the movement within the frame. As an element of mise en scene, composition of the cinematic image , for example, may produce narrative meanings relating to the spatial location of the story …..In any one film, mise en scene will work in conjunction with other codes to produce narrative meanings. ( Kuhn Annette, 1982 :37 ) See also props, setting, costume, performance, deep focus.


For a more in depth article see: Does style determine meaning ? The scope and importance of Mise en scene criticism

British Film Institute Resources

Further Reading

An excellent short book on mise en scene by John Gibbs is available from Wallflower Press in the Short cuts series.

Google search of Gibbs

Media and Film Studies Glossary N–Z

Media and Film Studies Glossary N-Z

Under Development

Negotiated Reading

Preferred Reading


Shot reverse shot


Preferred Meaning / Preferred Reading

Preferred Meaning / Preferred Reading

In media and cultural studies the idea of a preferred meaning that is embedded within a media text came from Stuart Hall then director of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCS) at Birmngham University.

Media studies recognises that no media text is just "neutral", instead it is recognised that each media text carries a range of meanings that have been encoded into the text either deliberately or at a more unconscious level. The meanings are embedded by using a range of technical codes such as camera angles which can often imply power relationships. Freqently low angle angle shots of a person speaking to a superior come from an 'over the shoulder shot' where the audience is literally looking up at the superior person from the perspective of the inferior person.

The BBC Newsroom in News 24 usually has two presenters one male one female which signifies gender equality. Sports and busioness reporters, editors and correspondents are a roughly equal mixture of men and women. Women who are pregnant often appear as presenters. This never happened on TV at all until the 1980s and even then very rarely. Before that  pregnancy was  pretty much a taboo subject despite the fact that over 50 % of the population is female and a large proportion of this 50+ % become pregnant at some time in their lives. This reinforces the message of gender equality through re-presentation of people in what can be considered as a normal balance of life. The newsroom also has a good range of different ethnicities represented. Where there is a single anchor person presenting the news the balance is kept between male and female. 

BBC iPlayer has a range of different News programmes available. Check them out to see what the representational balance is between male and female.

  • News at One
  • News at Six
  • News at Ten

The BBC newsroom can be understood by viewers as a representation of a media institution that values equality of opportunity and meritocracy (people getting into a job on the basis of their abilities) in a society that is cosmopolitan and heterogeneous (mixed). Because the media institution is the British Broadcasting Corporation and is funded from millions of licence fee payers viewers and also has a global reach it conveys a prefferred meaning about the nature of British Society itself.  The BBC intends that a viewer whether British or not will form an impression of Britain being a liberal mixed society and egalitarian society. Whether the viewers "reads" the text this way is another matter.  Media and Cultural Studies have developed anothe idea called a negotiated reading.

The mise en scene of the Newsroom and the way the presenters are lit and dressed all underpin these re-presentations. We can therefore think of a media text being encoded with certain messages.

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