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September 03, 2008

TV Drama: Textual Analysis

TV Drama: Genres


This posting is targeted towards AS Media students on the OCR course although many others will hopefully find it useful.  For those doing this course the key aim is to develop textual analytical skills particularly in relation to the moving image. This should becomes developed by understanding the the concept of representation and its relationship to the way a media text is constructed. This means that the focus of this unit is not about the genre of TV drama in general and the large numbers of sub-genres which have developed within this. There is no need to know anything about the history of the development of TV Drama which is of course an important issue in its own right.

The fundamental focus of this unit for exam purposes is understanding the relationship between how meaning within a text is constructed though the use of sounds, clothing, lighting, performance and camera angles, and tpyes of shot used. Much of TV Drama uses the same techniques for creating moving image as film. Core differences are production values which are constrained because of costs. The use of extremly expensive sets and models along with casts of thousands or even extensive use of very expensive special effects which are seen in Action-Adventure Films is simply not possible in TV. Another major difference between films made for cinema release compared to made for TV films is the way in which the characters perform more centrally on the screen. The action tends to take place here because many millions of people still have squareish TVs rather than widescreen TVs.  Increasingly TV programmes are designed for widescreen format and if you are watching on an older TV you will lose some of the credits. Having a digital box there will be a "wide mode" on the handset that will change the proportions of the image.

In order to fully understand how a preferred meaning is created by the makers of a media text you will need to understand the concept of media representation.  Remember the term media means being in the middle or inbetween things. People and places you see on TV or in film are re-presentations of a real person or event if it is a a documentary or imagined in a particular way if it is fictional like a feature film or TV drama. When you see people on screen for example how you see them  is constructed using technical conventions such as lighting and camera shots / angles to create a preferred meaning by the makers.

TV Drama: Textual Analysis & Representation

A major shift is the course this year is an increased emphasis upon issues of representation. Areas covered by this terms include gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, class & status, physical & mental ability / disability, regional identity, rural / non-rural, Britain / Rest of the World.

Moving Image Grammar & Conventions & the Creation of Meaning

Analyse and discuss the grammar and conventions of the moving image medium in relation to TV Drama in order to discuss the representation of individuals, groups, events or places. We will be learning to understand the structure and visual language embodied in moving images. This is a language which has evolved primarily in relation to film as this media form preceded TV as a media technology.

Textual Analysis Hub links  

Please note that all this work is based upon film and it tends to have a focus on Action-Adventure Films as well as this was the old specification. However the basic information about camera shots framing and sound is the same.

For more detailed work on the shot please follow this link

For more detailed work on Camera Movement / Mobile Framing please follow the link 

For more details about the use of sound including some YouTube examples follow this link

For discussion and YouTube Extracts about mise en scene please follow this link

For a revision check list of things to remember in a grid form to practise doing textual analysis at home please follow this link

For glossary guides to explanations of the terms that you will be using there are three Film & Media glossaries spilt into alphabetical sections as follows. Where you see entries with just a green hyperlink this will take you to a fuller entry.

European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E

European Cinema and Media Glossary  Ed-Mo

Media and Film Studies Glossary N-Z

Here is a Quick revision guide to technical terms  using the work of Media

Here is some Kinoeye work on genre. It is primarily written about film but the key elements of genre hold good across different media forms. An Introduction to Film Genre.


March 30, 2008

Textual Analysis OCR. Check list

Textual Analysis Exam OCR Media

Below is table which can act as checklist for revision of the action adventure film extract. It includes a wide range of shots and camera devices. It is unlikely that everything will be in one four to five minute extract.  

Table of Moving Image Textual Analysis Terms  


Shot type

Minute 1

Minute 2

Minute 3

Minute 4

Minute 5




Plan Americain




Shot reverse Shot

Over the shoulder

High angle

Low angle

Tracking Shot


Zoom in

Reverse Zoom


Whip Pan

Tilt up

Tilt down

Aerial Shot

Underwater shot

POV shot

Eyeline Match








Non Diegetic


Non Synchrounous










Fade out / Fade in


March 15, 2008

Camera Movement / Mobile Framing

Camera Movement / Mobile Framing

Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)

Return to textual analysis hub page(A2 Resits 2008-09)


With mobile framing the framing of the object being filmed changes. The concept of the mobile frame means that parameters such as camera height, camera angle, camera level and distance may all change during the course of a shot. below is a list of the different terms which describe the possibilities for the camera. Firstly though just to whet your appetite here is the famous tracking shot utilising a crane from Touch of Evil by Orson Welles. At the time is was the longest in duration and most ambitious tracking shot ever produced, enjoy it really is a classic.

Bordwell and Thompson note that camera movements have had a strong appeal for filmmakers as well as audiences ever since the beginning of cinema. They explain this as follows:

visually camera movements have several arresting effects. They often increase information about the space of the image. Objects become sharper and more vivid than in stationary framings.  New objects or figures are usually revealed. Tracking shots and crane shots supply continually changing perspectives on passing objects as the frame constantly shifts its orientation. Objects appear more solid and three dimensional when the camera arcs (that is tracks) around them. Pan and tilt shots present space as continuous, both horizontally and vertically. (Bordwell and Thompson 2008 p 195/6)

In this YouTube extract from Malick's The Thin Red Line. In following the progress of a group of soldiers through the jungle there is a cut to the camera  tilting upwards while tracking to almost 90 degrees tracking the forest canopy whilst maintaining the feeling of being with the awestruck soldiers. There are two diagetic soundsources: the internal thoughts of one of the soldiers and the sounds of the jungle and the men advancing through it. Non-diegetically there is the beating of drums which have the feel of instruments of Pacific Islanders mixed with some electronic rhythms, this keeps a progressive tension in the consciousness of the viewer.  The camera then tilts and cranes down again to track them through some bamboo groves. 

Bordwell and Thompson  point out that in this film Malick used a crane with a 72 foot arm which allowed the camera to rove over the high grass in a very unusually shot battle scene. (bordwell and Thompson 2008 p 195).

The Main Camera Movements

Crane Shot. Please see extract from Touch of Evil above for an excellent example of a crane and tracking shot of very long duration.

Dolly Shot. 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.

Hand Held.  Hand-held camera gives a shaky documentary feeling of really being at a place where events are happening. The now well known invasion of the Normandy beaches in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan provides an excellent example of this:

This YouTube extract from the second chapter of Saving Private Ryan features a lot of crane work near the water level as well as plenty of hand-held camera work giving a real feeling of being there. It is of course best viewed in the cinema to have anything like the full-on effect. Recommended.  

Pan ( short for panorama). This extract from Lawrence of Arabia starts with a panning shot to the right. Later there is a pan to the left as Peter O'Toole is enjoying his new Arab robes.

Steadicam. The invention of the Steadicam by Garrett Brown has enabled cmaera operators to shoot in difficult circumstances whilst keeping the shot steady. This has enabled filmmakers to maitain a more continuity based editing sysyem which doesn't draw attention to the film making process itself whilst being able to take advantage of making shots that were previously only available in handheld with the inevitable shaky feel. This shaky feel is now used as an aesthetic effect see entry under handheld.  Wikipedia entry on the Steadicam.   Interview with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.

Tilt. The camera is able to point either up or down in the vertical axis.

Camera Tilt

Tracking Shot / Dolly Shot. Please see the opening sequence of Touch of Evil. Also check entry for  'Dolly' above. The film camera is quite literally placed on a low platform (a dolly) 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. Below is the forementioned extract courtesy of Youtube  from Godard's Weekend:

Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)

March 14, 2008

Textual Analysis: The Shot

The Shot

Under Construction

(Most parts are now in place and the core definitions are now available)

Return to textual analysis hub page:A2 Resits Only

Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)

Camera Movement / Mobile Framing Entry  

Introduction: Codes and Conventions of Cinema

Codes and Conventions (General). Cinema uses a number of methods to organise meaning production. Some are general to narrative forms and others are specific to cinema. Cinematic conventions usually work to make the product appear to be seamlessly produced which means that it appears as though meaning had already existed prior to the construction of the film. This is called continuity editing. In fact the cinematic codes and conventions of production produce an axis of meaning which will interact with both the reactions of audiences and the exhibitionary context.

  • Photographic conventions. Framing, long-shots, medium shots, and close-ups all generate particular forms of meaning: To the extent that close-ups are most commonly of central characters in film narratives, they may function to constitute that psychological realism of character which is a mark of the classic narrative. ( My emphasis: Kuhn Annette. 1982. Women’s Pictures: 37).
  • * Mise en Scene*. See separate entry and also lighting.
  • * Mobile framing*. This effect can be produced by different camera movements and can produce a narrative meaning in several ways. A zoom-in can emphasise detail which can be read as bearing a particular significance within the narrative. Camera movements can also move the plot along through panning and tracking. 

Conventions. See also Codes and Conventions. Conventions are established procedures within a particular form of media ( painting, film , novel etc) which are identifiable by both the producer of the artefact and their audiences. Conventions are thus conventions can be understood as agreements between the producer and audience. These will sometimes remain fairly static and at other times there will be moments of strong challenge to these conventions. The French nouvelle vague can be understood as challenging a range of cinematic conventions.

The Shot

Discussion of the shot relates to the framing / camera movement during the shot / the duration of the shot. This article is primarily concerned with the framing of the shot. Linked articles on camera movement and duration will be added soon.  

Shots are the smallest unit from which scenes and sequences are constructed. Shots function to frame the camera's subject. (Framing and the construction of meaning itself will be discussed in another article).  Shots themselves are linked together to form scenes by a range of cuts or transitional devices.  In reality camera shots combine several factors including the angle of the camera which can be tilted up or down and / or from side to side. The size of the content of the frame for the viewer depends upon what distance the director wants the objects/ characters to be visible. There are also decisions to be made about whther only parts of the shot are in focus or whether the whole of the foreground to the background is in focus. The fact that a camera can be moved about on a special crane or a dolly for the duration of a shot also makes a difference. The lighting too is an extremely important factor. The the way the cinematographer makes these decisions is done in discussion with the director.  Becuase of the range of variable involved it is easier to break these different elements of a shot down in different areas however it is important to understand shots as combining a range of features in order for them to effectively move the audience. Below the discussion of shots is focused mainly upon the framing of the content of the shot. Fuller discussions of particular aspects such as camera movement will be added in separate sections accessible via hyperlink when they become available. 

Shot Framing

Aerial Shot. This is a shot taken from a plane or a helicopter. These shots normally function as an establishing shot. These high altitude shots tend to take a detached perspective of what is happening. The opening scene of Mission Impossible is one such example. Aerial shots can also be involved in chase scenes such as the remake of the Italian Job or in Terminator 2. Blackhawk Down had some impressive shots of helicopters flying into Mogadishu.

Birdseye Shot. See Overhead Shot 

Boom Shot. See Crane Shot 

Camera Angle. (See also separate article). In the taking of a shot the camera can be tilted either up or down or from side to side (Canted shot).  To work out  what angle the camera is at in order to describe the  shot  one needs to  think of  what might constitute a 'standard' shot.  This is assumed to  be a straight on  shot  with the camera at the shoulder height of  an average human.  Below this height with the camera tilting upwards is a low angle shot. Above that height with the camera tilting downwards is a high angle shot.

Camera Movement. (See separate article). 

Canted Shot. See Dutch Angle

Close up. Usually a shot of the head from the neck up. Could also be a wringing of hands. See performance and shot. The object or part of the body (usually face or hands / sometimes an iconic murder weapon fill most of the frame. The purpose is to isolate detail from their context to get the audience to focus on the importance of this detail. When it is a character within the diegesis it empahises the expression of that character and it helps the audience to identify with that character.

Cutaway. A cutaway shot briefly interrupts the flow of the conversation between characters for example. It can be used to reveal what characters are thinking about, to show what they are seeing as in a reaction shot. It can also provide a transition and it can comment on the action. They are also used to to avoid showing something which may well be considered as objectionable. The scene in the de Palma version of Scarface (1983) where one of Al Pacino's associates is being cut up with a chain saw to make Pacino talk has many cutaways. 

Crane Shot. A shot made using a crane or a boom also known as a boom shot. A crane is a mechanical arm-like trolley used to move a camera through space above the ground or to position at a place in the air. A shot taken from a crane allows the camera to vary distance, angle and height during the shot.


Dutch Angle. This is a shot which noticeably deviates from the normal horizontal and vertical axes. Images thus appear tilted in realation to the rest of the objects in the frame. This gives the audience a sense of disbalance and signifies within a character a mental imbalance. This YouTube extract from Carol Reed's The Third Man (recently voted the most popular British film ever and strongly recommended) is full of canted / Dutch angles. Set in post World War Two Vienna which at the time  was occupied by Americans, British and the Russians the film's style symbolises a Europe and a world still out of kilter as it struggles to get itself back on its feet. The film can also be seen as 'Rubble film' as it has many shots of Viennese bombed and shelled buildings. 

Establishing shot. This shot uses a distant framing and enables the spectator to understand and map the spatial relationships between the characters and the set / location they are in. It usually occurs at the beginning of a scene. Its purpose is to situate the action for the audience. After the establishing shot takes place the scene becomes broken up through editing. This sequence can clearly be seen in a short YouTube extract from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. The two characters are black dots in this Extreme Long Shot (ELS), there are then some other shots around the issue of taking a drink of water and then the ELS is cut in again:

Extreme Close up. (ECU). This shows only part of an object filling the frame. In terms of the human figure an ECU isolates part of the face such as the eyes or the mouth. See this extract from a Vertigo trailer on YouTube:

Extreme Long Shot. (ELS). This is a panaoramic shot usually of landscapes in which the human figure is barely visible. These shots might empasise human vulnerability or the need for long and arduous effort in order to travel the intervening distance. There is a lot of this in Lord of the Rings for example. Please also see establishing shot above.

Eyeline Match. (See Match Cut) 

Long Shot.  Long shot is where the subject of the camera is seen in its entirety within the context of its surroundings. In relation to the human figure a standing person would be fully visible within the frame. Please see extract from Lawrence of Arabia above under establishing shot for ELS.

Match Cut / Eyeline Match. (See editing article) 

Medium Close-Up. In terms of the human figure this frames the body from the chest upwards. In this Youtube extract from Hitchcock's Vertigo James Stewart at the wheel of the car is kept in MCU: 

Medium Shot.  In terms of the human figure this frames the body from the waist upwards.

Master Shot. this is usually a wide-angle shot that shows all of the action taking place in the scene. This is then edited together with either shots taken of the same scene with different cameras from different angles or else they may have been shot at different times. The use of this shot is a fundamental tool in achieving both coverage and continuity. The mastershot willbe intercut with a variety of mid-shots or CUs. The transition will occur where there is a lot of action in order to maintain the seamless editing which is fundamental to the continuity editing system. 

Overhead shot. Here the camera is placed directly above the action.  There are often (but not always) implications of entrapment .  Fritz Lang's 'M' has a lot of overhead shots of the child murderer. Here the shots can be read as expressing vulnerability of the character to his own mental illness and also to the inexorable hunting down of the killer by all of society. He is totally isolated with police, criminals and beggars united in their efforts to hunt him down.

Pan Shot.  This is when the camera moves though a panning action in the horizontal axis. (See article on camera movement). 

Point of View (POV). This is the eyes  though which the spectator views the developing plot. In mainstream films this is understood to be through a neutral camera. This can be changed to subjective viewpoints of individual characters. This can be very drmatic at times however the normal use of this POV is to exchange perspective of characters involved in the plot in order to involve the spectator more effectively. The director can vary the amount of POFV time allotted to each character in order to have the spectator identify more with a specific character.

Plan Américain. Common in Hollywood cinema hence its description - the American shot- the human figure is framed from around the kneees upwards. Bordwell and Thompson point out (in their 3rd edition) that when a similar framing is done with non-human content the shot is described as a medium long shot (MLS). Blandford et al (2001) have a slightly different understanding of this shot.  They  argue that it signifies a Two Shot  (two characters occupying the frame) - from approximately the knees up.  The term came about from French critics describing aspects of the 'Classical Hollywood' cinema.

Process Shot. This is the general term applied to a special effects shot in which the live action in the foreground og the image is filmed against a background projected onto a screen by a rear projection system. This was very common in the studio era of cinema but location shooting has grown in importance.Special effects such as wire work in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero shoot the wirework with a greenscreen as a background the rest is added later. 

Reaction Shot. This is frequently a close-up shot which shows the reaction of a character to some action or event or dialogue in the previous shot.  

Shot Reverse Shot.

Tilt Shot. This is when the camera  moves up or down through a vertical axis. See article on camera movement.

Two Shot. This is a shot in which two people dominate the frame usually in a close-up or medium shot. The increasingly common use of widescreen formats allows variations upon this theme. It makes it possible to have three people in medium to close up shot. Pirates of the Caribbean has a witty scene fairly early on in the film in which Captain Jack Sparrow engages in conversation and gradually distracts two guards so that he can get around them onto a ship. 

Tracking Shot

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Camera Movement / Mobile Framing Entry


Blandford Steve, Grant Barry Keith and Hillier Jim. 2001. The Film Studies Dictionary. London: Edward Arnold

Bordwell David and Thompson Kristen. 2008 8th Edition. Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw Hill 

Hayward Susan. 1996. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London: Routledge

Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)

March 02, 2008

Textual Analysis OCR Moving Image Hub Page

Textual Analysis OCR Moving Image Hub Page


Any information relating to the OCR AS Media Studies Exam  from September 2008 ONLY relates to students who are doing resits from earlier this year. There is now a completely new specification which is based upon TV Drama & Representation.

I Repeat the new specification starting in September 2008 does NOT include Actio-Adventure films

For work on the new specification: TV Drama please follow this link


Several colleges and schools have put up information about this exam so I have decided to  create a hub page and copy and paste where there is different information and material.

Hub links  

For more detailed work on the shot please follow this link

For more detailed work on Camera Movement / Mobile Framing please follow the link 

For more details about the use of sound including some YouTube examples follow this link

For discussion and YouTube Extracts about mise en scene please follow this link

For a revision check list of things to remember in a grid form to practise doing textual analysis at home please follow this link  

Breakdown of OCR AS Media Moving Image Section of Textual Analysis 

This section comes from Northallerton College It is mainly taken from OCR's own material describing the exam specifications.  

The purpose of this unit is to assess your media textual analysis skills using a short unseen moving image media extract and to assess your understanding of the concept of representation using two texts.

The unit is assessed by examination in May of the AS year. The exam is 2 hours (including 30 minutes for viewing and making notes on the moving image extract) and you are required to answer two compulsory questions. The unit is marked out of a total of 90, with each question marked out of 45.

There are two sections to this paper:

Section A (45 marks)

An unseen moving image extract, between three to five minutes long, from the Action/Adventure genre. There will be one compulsory question dealing with textual analysis of technical aspects of the languages and conventions of moving image medium.

Section B (45 marks)

One compulsory question on a comparative study of two Situation Comedies which you will have studied in class. The comparison will largley focus upon representation of gender.


Section A will focus on Action/Adventure Films and will require you to study the technical aspects of moving image language and conventions.The focus of study for Section A is specifically the use of technical aspects of the moving image medium, and its effects on the meaning of the text for audience, rather than the content of the text itself. The technical aspects that you are required to be familiar with for the unseen extract are:

  • Camera Angle, Shot, Movement and Position (Establishing shot; master shot; close-up (and variations); long shot; wide shot; two-shot; high angle; low angle; aerial shot; point of view; pan; crane; tilt; track; dolly; zoom/reverse zoom;framing; composition; hand-held; steadicam)
  • Editing (Sound and vision editing – cut; fade; wipe; edit; FX; dissolve; long take; superimpose; slow motion;synchronous/asynchronous sound)
  • Sound (Soundtrack; theme; tune; incidental music; sound effects; ambient sound; dialogue; voiceover;mode of address/direct address)
  • Special Effects/Graphics (captions; computer generated images (CGI); animation; pyrotechnics; stunts; models; back projection)
  • Mise-en-Scène (Location, set, studio/set design; costume; properties; ambient lighting; artificial lighting; production design period/era; colour design)

Action / Adventure Films

The information below is once again lifted directly from the OCR textbook.

This unit tests analytical skills and assists you in learning how media texts are constructed. For 2003 and 2004 you are required to study action / adventure films.

The focus is on TECHNICAL ANALYSIS, which means that you need to study techniques used to construct texts. (This is done in detail to help you research FORMS & CONVENTIONS).

The test is UNSEEN so you can look at a number of different ways in which forms and conventions are used.

You need to develop the TECHNICAL VOCABULARY to describe texts. This will be necessary to enhance your practical work.


An extract of between three and five minutes will be shown. It will be shown FOUR TIMES in 30 minutes. You have a further 45 minutes to write your answer.

It will not matter if you have seen or not seen the extract before.

GENRE. This is a major Media Studies concept. You will show that you have studied the conventions of the Action / Adventure genre.

The CODES employed in a text are defined by the genre. There are also technical codes associated with the genre e.g. loud and fast orchestral music accompanies the action. This music would be out of place in the middle of a soap opera or during a news clip.

TEXTUAL CODES - An Overview.

N.B. Various examiners over the years specify different codes. Current OCR thinking specifies TECHNICAL CODES, as well as CHARACTER CODES and REPRESENTATIONAL CODES.

OCR also mentions SOCIAL CODES and the REPRESENTATIONAL CODES to be found within the Technical Codes mentioned above.

TECHNICAL CODES such as CAMERA CODES, LIGHTING CODES, EDITING CODES and SOUND or MUSIC CODES create EXPECTATIONS, and signal the GENRE of a TV programme or film. For example, the lighting of characters face is a code. If the face is lit from the top or below gives the character a harsh or soft expression. High angle shots make the character seem small and vulnerable.

CHARACTER CODES include costume, make-up, gestures and language.
(Film villains inherit many of their codes from days of silent cinema e.g. dark clothing, disability, and villainous gestures). STEREOTYPES are used to build on viewers' previous experience of film and of their own world.

Character Codes are predictable and can be used as a 'shorthand,' to tell a story quickly or they can be broken for dramatic effect (when a 'goody' turns out to be 'baddy').


There are REPRESENTATIONAL CODES such as the DIALOGUE and the NARRATIVE employed in a text. They establish whether it is a current affairs programme, a comedy, or another genre.

We are constantly confronted with genre in this way through both TV and film, and we are able to respond appropriately as they fit in with our own experience, ideology and knowledge of the world.

Even if we do not understand a foreign programme we can still 'read' the signs and codes and understand the type of programme it might be.


After studying genre conventions and basic codes, you must look at texts to see how technical codes are used to ESTABLISH the GENRE.

The examination will ask you to comment upon how the text communicates with / manipulates / engages the audience through the use of technical codes.

As a conclusion for each question about the technical codes you will be asked to comment upon the rationale behind this approach and reflect upon its success. This is intended to ensure that you do not simply describe the technical codes employed without considering their function.

You must go beyond describing what you see and hear and explain why and how the texts are constructed in the way that they are.

It is not possible in 45 minutes to discuss everything, but you can make an informed decision about which are the most significant codes.

The list of codes which follows, is NOT a definitive list - some may turn out to be irrelevant.

By observing a selection of action / adventure movies you may discover other codes which may apply.

SIX TECHNICAL AREAS (Treat every filmic discipline as codes to be read and understood by an audience which 'reads' the messages in the text.

  1. Camera techniques framing and angle
  2. Camera techniques - movement
  3. Editing
  4. Manipulating time
  5. Sound
  6. Graphics / special effects

1. Camera techniques framing and angle

e.g. Long shots - show large subjects and their surroundings

Extreme long shots - sometimes used as establishing shots. They emphasise background and reduce importance of the subject. Can be used as MARKERS between scenes - tension often builds from this point.
Establishing shots define the location and give audience a perspective on the action to come. They are often essential to initially defining the genre.

Master shots - are similar to establishing shots and are used at the beginning of sequences.

Medium long shots - often frame a standing actor. Lower frame line will cut off actor's feet.

Mid-shots - emphasise both the subject and its setting in roughly equal measure. Emphasises body language from head, chest and hands.

Close-up - shows a fairly small part of the scene. It abstracts the subject from its context. See also Medium close-up (head and shoulders), big close-up or extreme close-up (forehead to chin).
Close-ups focus on emotions or reactions, and are sometimes used in chat shows to show people in a state of emotional excitement, grief or joy.

BCU's are intense, MCU's less so; the camera maintaining a sense of distance.

Angle of Shot - conventionally subjects are framed at eye-level. Divergence from eye-level tends to have a specific meaning. High angles can make the viewer more powerful than the people on screen, or can suggest an air of detachment. A low-angle shot places the camera below the subject, exaggerating his / her importance.

Point-of-view shot (POV) - a shot made from a camera position close to the line of sight of a subject, to imply the camera is 'looking with their eyes'. Can be used to imply defencelessness in action film.

2. Camera techniques - movement

Zoom - when zooming in the camera does not move; the lens is focused down from a long shot to a close-up whilst recording. The subject grows in the frame, and attention is concentrated on details previously invisible as the shot tightens. It may be used to surprise the viewer. Reverse zoom reveals more of the scene (perhaps where a character is, or to whom he or she is speaking) as the shot widens. Zooming is unusual because of the disorientating effects.

Tracking (dollying) - when tracking, the camera itself is moved smoothly towards or away from the subject while the focus remains constant. Tracking in (like zooming) draws the audience into a closer relationship with the subject: moving away tends to create emotional distance.

Tracking back tends to divert attention to the edges of the screen. The speed of tracking may affect the viewer's mood. Fast tracking (especially when tracking in) is exciting; tracking back eases tension.

Tracking in can force the audience to focus on something such as the expression of a character. During chase scenes the camera will often 'track' with the action to emphasise the sense of speed.

Pan - the camera moves from right to left or left to right to follow a moving subject. A space is left in front of the subject to ensure that the pan 'leads' rather than 'trails'.
A pan usually begins and ends with a few seconds of still picture to give a greater impact. The speed of a pan across a subject creates a particular mood as well as establishing the viewer's relationship with the subject.

Whip-pan - a very fast pan causing the subject to blur.

Hand-held camera - a hand-held camera can produce a jerky, bouncy, unsteady image, which may create a sense of immediacy or chaos. A hand-held camera can be used to build up tension with unsteady images.

Steadicam - a hand-held camera worn as a kind of harness. It uses a gyroscope system to ensure the camera remains perfectly level and smooth as the camera moves. For example, a steadicam was used at the beginning of Gladiator to film the battle scenes, so the camera could be within the action to engage the audience more directly. The effect was first used in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

3. Editing techniques & 4. Manipulating Time

Cut - a change of shot from one viewpoint or location to another. This may be done to change the scene, vary the point of view, elide time or lead the audience's thoughts, for example at the opening of Gladiator where the CU on the hand trailing through the grass in the sunshine cuts to a MCU of Maximus waiting to begin the battle. The audience immediately makes the assumption that the hand and the character are connected.

There is always justification for a cut. Where a 'transition' itself is important it can be highlighted, for example, by using a fade to black to suggest a passing of time or a change of scene.

Reaction shot - any shot (often also a cutaway), in which a subject reacts to a previous shot.

Invisible editing - the vast majority of narrative films are now edited in this way. The cuts are intended to be unobtrusive except for special dramatic shots. It supports rather than dominates the narrative: the plot and the characters are the focus. The technique gives the impression that the edits are motivated by the events in the 'reality' on screen.

Mise-en-scene - meaning is communicated though the relationship of things visible within a single shot. Composition is therefore extremely important. All features of the background, costume, proxemics (or spacing, relationship of objects to others), lighting, style of production and framing are significant.

Setting - can be location or studio, realistic or stylised. Aspects of the setting or props in the text may take on symbolic meanings such as the red and blue pill in The Matrix.

Costume and make-up - these follow on from and develop these concepts. Towards the beginning of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the elaborate costumes into which Jen is forced serve both to emphasise the importance other family and position (indicating the reason why she should not misbehave), but also to reveal the restrictions and limitations of her world (showing why she feels stifled and longs to break free).

Costumes in The Matrix are futuristic and aggressive, with frequent use of sunglasses for effect and impact. This heightens the atmosphere of the film and imparts depth to the characters.

5. Sound

Music or sound, that belongs within the frame or can be considered to be a natural part of the narrative, is called DIEGETIC music. The source of the sound is often, but not always visible on screen. When the sound (usually music) is used without being part of the action (such as whenever Neo is pushed between the matrix and reality in The Matrix, it is defined as NON-DIEGETIC.

Music is a key SOUND CODE. The type of music in a text can convey a great deal of information about the mood and tone of the text. Tension can be established, emotions communicated and the music can be used as a comment on the action, to set the context for the next sequence or to provide closure, such as the beginning and end of a round in a quiz show or the entry of a new guest on a TC chat show. Music can be very powerful in shaping the form of the text. The rhythm of the music can dictate the rhythm of the cuts, such as the way the drum controls the cuts in the fight sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or can be used to establish tension. Silence can be used to create tension.

Voice-Over / Narration are used mainly in TV. Commentary can be used to mediate the audience's interpretation of visuals e.g. in Mad Max II.

Sound can be used as a bridge, to maintain continuity in a sequence by running a soundtrack under a series of images to link them. This can be useful in chase sequences for example to both create tension and to link the parallel stories of chaser and victim. The music in The Matrix acts as an underscore in this way on several occasions.

6. Special Effects and graphics

Titles are central to the opening of a text and may be interspersed at different points during the text to act as information (such as an overlay giving information about time and place) or as markers to define the action (the context information at the beginning of a film such as at the beginning of Gladiator) or to provide visual interest and reflection, or vital information such as use of subtitles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The style of text on screen can be deconstructed just as with a print text and choice of font, colour, size and so forth will all be directly related to the text.

Graphics can be used in many ways. Where used, they can be analysed as a part of the mise-en-scene of a piece and should not detract from the text.

Still images can be superimposed on each other on screen to create an effect - superimposed images ate merged to some degree as opposed to overlaid images, which hide whatever is behind them on the screen.

CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is now common in both film and TV and yet increasingly hard to identify. Identifying the scenery seen through the back window of a moving car as a back projection is easy - it is not so straightforward with more sophisticated techniques and equipment.

Most action / adventure movies make great use of special effects. Some of the final scenes in Gladiator had to be constructed using CGI following actor Oliver Reed's death. The Coliseum and the vast vistas of Rome were almost all created using CGI. (Compare these with those of Ben Hur or The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Action is frequently shot against a 'blue screen' or a 'green screen' so that the appropriate background can be constructed using CGI and the two merged to make the scene. The use of the 'blue screen' or 'green screen' means that this simple colour is easily to identify and 'key out' of the scene using a computer. It is, however, important that actors or presenters do not wear clothes of the same or similar colours or they can seem to disappear off screen.


A substantial number of Hollywood films are action / adventure films. The term is often used to define a single genre, since it can often be difficult to differentiate between the two. Films that might be included within this genre include Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone as well as the James Bond films.

Action / Adventure films are exciting stories in exotic locations. The plot will be action driven with danger and excitement throughout.

The audience may experience conquests, explorations, battles, discovery, creation of empires, and situations which threaten to destroy the main characters.

Adventure films were intended to appeal mainly to men, creating major heroic stars through the years such as Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

These courageous, patriotic or altruistic heroes often fought for their beliefs, struggled for freedom and overcame injustice.

More modern films have been balanced with female stars as well. From this came movies such as 'Speed', 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' etc.

Within the genre can be included traditional 'swashbucklers' and epics, disaster films, or searches for the unknown.

They may include stories of historical heroes, kings, battles, rebellion or piracy.

The action / adventure film first became popular with weekly Saturday serials, running in instalments that often had 'cliff-hanging' endings to entice viewers to return to the next show. (Heroine Pearl White in the silent era's The Perils of Pauline (1914); was the first major super-star of these serials.

Later examples included successful cheap or 'B' movies; 'Flash Gordon', 'Buck Rogers' and 'Captain Marvel'.

Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', (1981), the first of a very successful trilogy, was a tribute to these Saturday morning matinees with comic-book archaeologist hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) battling the Nazis while searching for the sacred Ark of the Covenant. 'Romancing the Stone' and 'The Jewel of the Nile' were similarly successful.

The first full-length adventure films were the swashbucklers which included many 'stock elements' such as lavish sets, costumes and weapons of the past. They were often built action scenes of sea battles, castle duels, sword and cutlass fighting e.g. Errol Flynn as Captain Blood, (1935), Robin Hood (1938) and the Sea Hawk (1940). Also notable from this era, Burt Lancaster as 'The Crimson Pirate' (1952).

Action / adventure Films have a tremendous impact, continuous high energy, lots of stunts, possibly extended chase scenes, rescues, battles, fights, escapes, non-stop motion, spectacular rhythm and pacing, and adventurous heroes - all designed for pure audience escapism with the action / adventure sequences at the centre of the film.

The cinematography and sound is directly structured to sustain this level of activity throughout.

Within the genre, these days, there can be said to be many genre hybrids: sci-fi, thrillers, crime-drama, kung-fu, westerns and war.

Always however, they have a resourceful hero / heroine, struggling against incredible odds, or an evil villain, and or trapped in various modes of transportation (bus, ship, train, plane etc), with resolution achieved at the end of the movie, after two crisis points along the way.

Action / adventure films have traditionally been aimed at male audiences, aged 13 to mid-30s, although modern action / adventure films have features strong female characters to attract a wider audience.

Among the most well-known and well defined modern day action / adventure hero is James Bond. Beginning in the 60s, the slick Bond 'formula' appealed to large audiences with their exotic locations, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, high-tech gadgets, fast-action suspense, impossible stunts and stunning women.

The action hero battled unlikely and incredible criminals, usually without even staining his dinner suit.

The action / adventure-film genre has been among the most successful genre in recent years. Raw, indestructible, powerful and muscular heroes of modern, ultra-violent action / adventure films are often very unlike the swashbuckling heroes of the past.

Each decade has tended to define its own heroes for the genre and this has defined the style of action / adventure films. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career out of starring in action films in the 80s and 90s, most notably in the action / adventure films Conan the Barbarian (1982), Commando (1986), Raw Deal (1986), Predator (1987), Red Heat (1988), and True Lies (1994), and also the hybrid sci-fi/action/adventure films.
His more recent films have been less successful - perhaps because he has attempted to move beyond the action / adventure genre?

To analyse the technical codes for the action / adventure genre is essentially the same as to analyse the technical codes for most mainstream Hollywood output.

There are stock conventions used in action / adventure films but these should be familiar to you from many films that you have seen. The process of analysing will be more straightforward since you will have a more secure frame of reference than if you were researching a less popularist genre.

Suggested Activities

  1. You are casting a new action / adventure movie similar to The Terminator. Draw up a character description for your lead character assuming he will be a conventional hero. Define at least FIVE CONVENTIONS of the ROLE e.g. (tall, dark, handsome, like Mr Mannix!?!). Consider the implications of casting a non-conventional hero.
  2. Select two short sequences of not more than five minutes long. Using the skills that you have studied on textual analysis earlier in this chapter explain how the sequences reflect the codes and conventions of action / adventure movies.


The Art of Film (Bordwell & Thomson)
Codes Summary


Handling the Exam Advice 

The most recent examiners report gave the following advice

• Make useful detailed notes on the extract
• Identify moving image language techniques accurately
• Select appropriate examples from the extract to discuss – you do not have to cover the
whole extract or every example
• Analyse why/how these aspects are used to create meaning for the spectator, deconstruct
what you see and hear, explain function, purpose and effect
• Refer closely to the set extract – no generalised analysis of action adventure films nor
reference to what you might know about the rest of the film
• Cover all five aspects – do not miss one out
• Avoid just describing what happens – do not just give a descriptive chronological
commentary – analyse and interpret.

March 01, 2008

Mise–en–scène & Textual Analysis: Part One

The Importance of Mise-en-scène and Textual Analysis: Part 1


For those visitors who are reading this piece to help them with an 'A' level textual analysis exam, you will find that the term mise-en-scène is a contested one. The OCR Textual Analysis paper specification is largely following the position of the writers Bordwell and Thompson in their book Film Art: An Introduction. Consequently there is a clear list of its expectations. an on-line page from Northallerton College has usefully put the OCR details up. You do need to be aware that there is a debate about exactly what constitutes mise-en-scène. Learning at A level should partially be a matter of recognising that things in the world aren't entirely black and white.  

At the end of the day, the essay you are expected to write based upon an unseen scene from an action-adventure movie needs to discuss the creation of meaning using the various elements of film-making. In that sense the film as presented to you on the screen can be considered as an organic whole which stimulates a range of meanings and interpretations. You need to write about how these various elements contribute towards the holistic meaning. You will need to say why certain shots, for example, created a deeper sense of meaning for the audience.  


The issue of mise-en-scène and textual analysis in terms of the importance of creating meaning within a film is a very large topic. Below there is some discussion about the term mise-en-scène. There is some discussion of depth of field with some video links. Use of depth of field creatively is a very important tool.There is some discussion around the notion of cinematic space and the use of different types of shots to help organise the cinematic space. Sound, which is a very important component creating meaning, is not discussed at all here and must be discussed elsewhere in order to keep the article of a manageable size. There is an extract from Once Upon a Time in the West followed by a shot and spatial analysis to show how meaning can be created. There is doubtless more that can be said here and some aspects will probably be revised and developed in due course. There are also some definitions and a Webliography and Bibliography.

What is Mise-en-Scène?

Mise-en-scène is an extremely important aspect of cinema and in many ways it is surprising that there is relatively little misè-en-scene criticism in recent film studies writing. John Gibbs (2002) focuses in the problem of misè-en-scene criticism in the opening page of his small handbook on the subject which I have paraphrased:

...mise-en-scène is sometimes used as a straightforward descriptive term but it is really a concept complicated but central to a developed understanding of film...

...Thinking and writing of misè-en-scene which is concerned with visual style in the cinema - helped the study of film reach maturity. Yet many of the textbooks of today, including those which aim to give an introduction to the subject area, underestimate the importance of misè-en-scene. (Gibbs 2002, p 1) 

This term misè-en-scene originally came from theatre and meant staging. Its literal translation from the French means:

having been put into the scene

It crossed over into cinema relating to the production practices involved in the framing of shots. This covers the sets, costumes and lighting and also movement within the frame. As this is the expressive tool available to a filmmaker analysis of mise-en-scene is a way of identifying a particular filmmaker. As a theory it was developed by those interested in how the director and sometimes the team could participate in the construction of meaning. 

Mise-en-scène 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, which is in front of the camera – settings, costumes and props. mise-en-scène 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-scène, 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-scène will work in conjunction with other codes to produce narrative meanings. ( My emphases;Kuhn, Annette, 1982 :37 )

But it is worth challenging whether this analysis is fully adequate. Gibbs (2002) is keen to emphasise the importance of the interaction of all the parts of the film. Gibbs argues that there are many variables and elements of mise-en-scène at a film makers disposal:

...these elements are most productively thought of in terms of their interaction rather than individually - in practice it is the interplay of elements that is significant.

There is a history of mise-en-scène criticism which goes back to France in the 1950s and then  taken up in the UK through the magazine Movie as Adrian Martin (2004) points out. Originally this discussion was linked to the notion of the Auteur - the idea of the director having at the moment of taking the shots the possibility to impose his (usually) / her creative vision and methods of making meaning upon the film. This was always an aspect of film criticism which was overemphasised and nowadays anybody who mentions the word auteur rapidly qualifies the expression by emphasising the team making aspects of a film.  

Problematising the meaning of mise-en-scène

As is becoming apparent the notion of mise-en-scène isn't quite so 'deceptively simple' as it first appears. In the argument put forwrd by Martin below there is a concern expressed that Gibbs is in danger of making the term mise-en-scène mean everything that is the director's work and risks losing the specificity of the separate aspects of the process : 

Gibbs it seems to me never frontally tackles let alone tries to resolve the foundational ambiguity that has long haunted mise-en-scène criticism. Namely: does it indicate a quite specific phase in the filmmaking process—which would be the shooting or ‘principal photography’ phase in which the scenes are blocked and shot within the décor—or is it a looser term a metaphor almost for film style taken more broadly and holistically? If it’s the former then the definition of mise-en-scène must be meaningfully limited and not allowed to ‘bleed’ over other phases of the  filmmaking process; and if it’s the latter then is the displacement of the word style by mise-en-scène blocking our full appreciation of the complex levels of aesthetic form in cinema? This is what I believe has indeed happened in many places where film criticism is practiced.(Martin, Adrian 2004)

To some extent it seems as though film criticism is short of a concept around which consensus can be constructed. Should we use the term style to define the overall effects of what is created through the whole film-making process and which combines together in an organic whole to create layers of meaning which are available for interpretation by audiences? How does this relate to the notion of the use of the term poetics which is sometimes used to describe more artistic films and is the subject of  a recent book by David Bordwell? Perhaps Martin's use of Bertolucci is helpful at this point in helping to giveus a feel of an essence of good cinema. Strangely in the spirit of serendipity this turned up on a search after I had completed the analysis of the scene of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West co-scripted by Bertolucci.

If  in this sense mise-en-scène is taken as the essence of film art, and of the auteur’s ‘gesture’, it enshrines the three-point diagram with which Bernardo Bertolucci paid fond homage to Sergio Leone and, behind him, a vast tradition of ‘organic’ cinema: what matters, fundamentally, is that mobile, modulating, sinuous relationship between the camera, the actor, and the environment (whether natural or constructed).(My emphasis: Martin Adrian 2004)

For those visitors who are reading this piece to help them with an 'A' level textual analysis exam, the next part of Gibbs' argument will not become available to them as they must currently view a five minute extract unseen from a film. This means that you are likely to have only a narrative perspective which is given in that 5 minutes which is clearly very limited. This attitude to the teaching of  whilst it is useful up to a point can have its limitations and is in danger of leading to  mechanistic approaches to mise-en-scène analysis. Those particular visitors to this page may wish to add that mise-en-scène on Gibbs' argument needs to take into account the narrative structure as well:

Additionally we need to consider the significance acquired by the individual element by virtue of context: the narrative situation, the 'world' of the film, the accumulating strategies that the film maker adopts. (Gibbs, 2002 p 26)

Gibbs' second chapter is entitled 'The Interaction of Elements' and he notes here the importance of casting:

In addition to the expressive skills which a performer brings to a film, the casting of a role has consequences for our understanding. (Gibbs 2002 p 33) 

Gibbs' third chapter is about the coherence of relationships within a film and below he refers to an examination of a scene with the film Lone Star which he examined in chapter two however the argument is relevant across cinema: order to make sense of the one moment, we have had to balance a detailed examination of the sequence itself with perspectives derived from an understanding of the rest of the film, knowledge of the traditions and conventions within and with which the film is working (those of the Western for example), and information from the world outside... (Gibbs,2002 p 39)

Gibbs argues that within a film there can be two elements contributing to a sense of coherence. In the first instance this would be taken across the whole of the film. From the pespective of those reading this to help with an unseeen extract for example Gibbs' second point will probably be prioritised. We can be talking about how the form and the narrative content merge together to make a coherent whole. In this sense it is artifical to separate out form and content. We can say on that basis that style is substance providing that there is an overall holistic sense of coherence achieved. Where a film becomes known as simply being about style then it is likely to fade in people's memories fast. If it is a truly substantive film it will probably stand the test of time.

Later on in his book Gibbs makes very clear the differences between a form of criticism and analysis which values coherence (and by implication complexity) in a film compared to an older form of criticism that wasn't so aware of the issues raised by
mise-en-scène. There is always a danger of being mechanistic in applying the notion of "rules" to an analysis of say the camera angles. The mechanistic approach suggests the a high angled camera is ALWAYS signifying a position of power and a low camera angle ALWAYS signifying a position of inferiority. Of course this is not the case at all. In the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus is introducing Neo to the concept of The Matrix they start in a sterile white space containing two retro leather chairs and a retro TV. When Morpheus shows Neo the real world of The Matrix he ends up sitting down in a clear position of authroity reinforced by his dress code compared with Neo's. The dark mirror shades simply add to the position of power. Neo is standing up very much as a minion might to a sovereign lord and master! ANALYSIS MUST ALWAYS BE GUIDED BY THE FILMIC CONTEXT!

Other Critics versus Bordwell and Thompson

Gibbs moves on to challenge the evergreen Bordwell and Thompson and their classic book on Film Art: an Introduction which many students end up with on their shelf.  Gibbs argues that to fail to think about the issue of the interaction of elements is a fundamental problem with Bordwell and Thompson's work:

It is my belief that the definition of mise-en-scène offered in the book is misleading. Bordwell and Thompson restrict thier definition of mise-en-scene to those elements common to film and thatre. The definition of of mise-en-scene therefore makes no reference to framing, camera movement or the position of the camera. Instead Film Art devotes a separate chapter (entitled "Cinematographic Properties") to the discussion of these areas. (Gibbs 2002, p 54)

Gibbs powerfully contributes to his cause when a little later he comments that the actual reality of film making supports his position:

...on set or location, film-makers do not stage the action and only subsequently think about where the camera is going to be placed in order to record it. Similarly to discuss the lighting of a shot without reference to the position of the camera is to misunderstand how films are made, one does not light a set and then set about where the camera is going to be placed. Rather a set is lit with the framing and the movement of the camera absolutely in mind. (Ibid)

Currently I don't have an up to date version of Bordwell and Thomson's book and Gibbs' comment relates to the 7th edition which may have changed I've taken it at face value for now. I guess it's time to update). There isn't the space to specifically discuss lighting in any depth precisely because of its importance. Cinema is after all 'writing with light'. Something on lighting will be added in due course. There is something very brief below.

Jacob Leigh is coming from the same direction as Gibbs (this is confirmed by looking at the bibliography. Immediately below though he cites the famous art historian Gombrich which is awarnig against reductionism when it comes to creating criticism:   

When it comes to criticism, articulating levels of meaning or describing parts of a harmonious whole risks tearing what Gombrich calls the ‘web of ordered relationships’; Gombrich notes that ‘as soon as you single out a certain relationship of forms you upset precisely that balance between all the relationships of which you want to speak’ (Gombrich 1993: 73). Further on, he emphasises: ‘It is partly a matter of taste and tact how far we want to go in articulating these levels of meaning, for they, like all others, can only be singled out at the risk of tearing that miraculous gossamer web of ordered relationships which distinguishes the work of art from the dream’ (Gombrich 1993: 79-80) [Cited Leigh Jacob]

In the early years of Hollywood lighting wasn’t meant to draw attention to itself. In some countries such as Germany lighting was used very early on to create dramatic effects. Low angle , low key lighting was used in German Expressionist cinema . There are three main aspects to lighting:

  • key lighting – hard light, used to highlight focused on a particular subject
  • Fill lighting – used to illuminate the framed space overall
  • Backlighting – this can distort and brings out silhouettes (commonly used in  horror / film noir / expressionism).

Deep Focus / Shallow Focus Photography and the Construction of Cinematic Space

The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover

Mise-en-scène is, as Kuhn  and also Gibbs (2002) have pointed out, a way of organising what appears to the spectator on the screen

Space is a vital expressive element at a film-maker's disposal (Gibbs p 17)

The Term deep focus means that both the foreground and background of a shot are in focus at the same time. Correctly Andre Bazin links this technique of photography with the concept of mise-en-scène. Bazin argues that deep focus  helps to make a film more realistic, however it will be argued below that this is not necessarily the case . 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 ambiguity essential to works of art. For example Andrè 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.

Whilst Bazin was keen to link the concept to realism deep focus photography can of course be used for all kinds of films. It is frequently used in action adventure movies and if we add another element to that of Bazin's we can see that deep focus can often link characters together on screen whereas shallow focus could bring out the presence of one character and make a different impact upon the spectator by isolating that character from their surroundings. This would probably encourage a spectator to think in terms of the psychological state of mind of that character at that particular moment. 

Deep focus is derived from the technical term within photography called depth of field. A photographer can gain greater depth of field (keeping more of the image in frame in clear focus by decreasing the aperture and taking a slower exposure. Of course if the lighting is low as well then fast movement can be a problem to capture. The diagram below taken from the wikipedia article clearly shows the effect of a shallow depth of field. Here the butterfly is only in focus in the centre ground.  To capture a butterfly flying requires a very 'fast' lens with a very wide aperture. This wide aperture makes the depth of field narrow / shallow.

More photographic examples are available on this entry.

Wikipedia Depth of Field Diagram

A photographer can of course use depth of field to create certain affects upon the audience. In the image below the photographer simply wants to highlight the term 'depth of field'. There are also some web based videos in the webliography which explain the basic photgraphic conects effectively. 

Shallow Depth of field

Connecting the Characters in Cinematic Space

Best years of our lives

In this image from the William Wyler film the Best Years of Our Lives players of the piano duet are intimately connected to the rest of the bar as can be seen by the reactions to the music from the two men sitting at the bar who are plainly in focus because it is a deep focus shot.

Touch of Evil Deep Focus

In this shot from Touch of Evil both characters are intimately linked through the use of deep focus. This is very important in terms of narrative development. Narrative and cinematography are integrated.

Sergio Leone was an adept at utilising a low placed camera combined with a deep focus shot to link characters together within cinematic  space:

Sergio Leone Deep Focus

The lead up to the final shoot out in The Good the Bad and the Ugly starts with a wonderful establishing shot of the scene which places all the characters literally within an arena of death which is even coloured with the pall of death to emphasise the point. Perhaps it is Leone's familiarity with amphitheatres which gives him this sense of space:

Good Bad and The Ugly 2

In Once Upon a Time in America the gang arrive at the farmhouse to deal with any witnesses. The small boy is linked to the gang through a deep focus tightly cropped long shot. The colour of the clothing evoke notions of a bleak dustiness and a bitter wind seems to be blowing in the desert in a shot full of forboding. There is a strange sort of symmetry constructed with the three central gang members wearing dark hats and the ones on each end wearing light hats:

Once Upon a Time in America 4

The following extract from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is an excellent example of the construction of a cinematic space through the use of deep focus and long takes. For Bazin this might have meant reality however this is a highly stylised and choreographed scene where the villain finally meets his nemesis * in the ultimate of rvenge movies. I'm afraid this extract has got a dreadful soundtrack as somebody has made a "music video" out of it so forget that and concentrate on the visual and camera techniques!!! 

An analysis of some of the film language which Sergio Leone has utilised in the extract

If one was presented with the extract as an unseen piece it is immediately obvious from the clothing and buildings that the film is a Western of sorts and it quickly transpires that  there is some sort of stand-off which  looks as though it is a prelude to a shoot out and that it is to the to the death. This is shown by the way the space is represented and by the way the characters are moving through the space.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the whole scene is how the cinematic space is constructed as an arena which becomes a fight to the death. This fight is handled in a highly ritualised and symbolic way utilising the iconography* of the western but embedding a combination of unusual shots and a deliberately slow unfurling of the narrative which is the climax of the film wherein poetic justice is exercised. The extract has a European flavour to it in the way it utilise longer takes than Hollywood style films and Leone's style emphasises a lot of deep focus work in this extract. 

The scene starts with an LS at a normal persons height Frank's (Henry Fonda) symbolic black outfit stands out in stark contrast to dusty browns and beiges of the slightly tumbledown buildings.  There is a cut to deep focus extreme close up from behind Frank's right shoulder. We see Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in the distance. Behind him is a greyish looking hill. The arean and its protagonists are established. There are no witnesses other than the spectators voyeurs in this fight to the death. There is a reverse shot with an ECU of Harmonica's left side of his face lit up facing a black figure himself set against the background building which is in deep shadow and very dark. The manichean symbolism is hard to avoid. On a crane the cameras zooms out whilst gaining height and Harmonica walks to the left. Meanwhile Frank walks slightly forward. There is a cut to an LS of the whole area taken from behind and to the right of Harmonica. The sun is casting shadows from Harmonica's left / Frank's right. They are manouvering within the arena to ensure they are not facing into the sun. Behind Harmonica there is a low wall reinforcing the sense of an arena or theatre (of death). It is a ritualistic space. In a cut the camera is now position further to the right- now only Frank is in frame. Dust gently wafts from the right hand side of the screen to emphasise the isolation of the gladiators. There is a cut to a camera position directly behind Frank at his boot level. Still in deep focus we see Harmonica who looks relaxed with his left foot on what appears to be a tree branch in the distance as Frank sheds his black cloak which is flapping in the wind as the tension is gradually built up. The grey cliffs and the sparsely vegetated hills lends an unremitting bleakness to the proceedings. The camera cuts to a MLS of Frank with the buildings still very much in focus behind him as he moves forwards and to his right. Tracking him the shot changes to an ECU of Frank head turned towards Harmonica looking concerned this time though it is in shallow focus. The spectator is only concerned with what is going through the mind of Frank. suddenly the supreme predator has a hint of doubt. The camera pans and dollies with Frank for about 7 seconds. There is a cut to Harmonica MLS still motionless. The camera tracks to the right for amoment then there is an ECU of Harmonica who is deadpan. Still in ECU the camera dollies around him to the right whilst Harmonica is watcing Frank who is clearly moving in that direction.  There is a reverse cut to Frank who is still moving to his right in ECU. Then the camera cut to a full on CU of Harmonica zooming into an ECU. Then all is dark for a transitional to a flashback.

A hand is holding a harmonica which is being forced into the mouth of a youngish teenager. Only at that moment is the audience privileged to understand what has happened in the past. as the scene unfurls the narrative details become clear.   The camera zooms slowly out to reveal that there is somebody standing on the teenagers shoulders. The camera continues to zoom out to reveal the rest of the surrounding scene. A young man is talking to the boy. There are a group of horses grazing in the background there is a man tending them. There are mountains in the extreme distance. This is all in deep focus. Continuing to zoom out whilst the camera is tracking backwards and going higher on a crane the spectator now sees the full scenario. The man on the boy's shoulders has a noose around his neck which is attached to something that itself is a part of a strange arch structure in the middle of a desert. Probably marking agateway to the property of the man and boy. Some other cowboys are symmetrically lounging at the bottom of each side of the arch.  The camera cuts to an ECU of a younger Frank smiling viciously; there is then a reverse shot to the boy in CU who is wobbling from the strain and the heat with the harmonica in his mouth knowing that eventually he will collapse and the man on his shoulders will die. The camera tilts upwards tracking up the man man to a very low angle shot of his face in CU. As he wobbles there is a cut to the distressed features of the boy in ECU in shallow focus with the boots just showing. Again the audience is drawn into wondering what is going through his mind as the sweat drips of his face. It is clear that his hair is also drenched in the sweat of fear / physical strain / heat.  Cut to a reverse slightly low angle shot of the younger Frank with a contemptuous sneer on his slightly curled lip. A moment of blackness. The camera reverses to a cut of the boy in MCU with camera at waist height. It is a shallow focus shot with the legs of a gunman whos is leaning nonchalantly against the archway to the boys right whilst behind the boy who has clearly collapsed to his knees are the pair of boots dangling at an angle which makes it clear that the wearer has now died. The camera tracks the boy down as he collapses face first into the dusty soil at a slightly high angle as he hits the ground. We see the harmonica by his mouth then there is a cut to the draw with the camera positioned at waist height behind Frank,  Harmonica appears as a 'Plan Americaine' so the camera is at a slightly low angle. We seem them swiftly drawing their guns with Frank's holster in CU and in the deep focus shot we see the smoke from the muzzle of Harmonica's revolver.   There is a reverse cut and the spectator sees Frank wheel to his left jerking backwards. There is a cut to a blurry shallow focus ECU of Frank. Here the audience is led to identify with Frank's subjectivity or point of view (POV)*- he has been critically wounded and his vision is going. The image snaps back into focus for a moment and then cuts away to Frank's right with the background slightly out of focus.  For a couple of seconds the audience sees the hand trying to reholster the gun while the body is shaking hard in the background. Then the gun drops. There is a CU of Frank tottering forwards unbelievingly. The camera tracks back and zooms out slowly as Frank staggers forwards after it, refusing to give up on life. He comes to a stop as the camera tracks up on him whilst at the same time he falls to his knees.  The camera stops moving and zooming and the head of Harmonica appears in the bottom of the frame behind and to the right of Frank. He walks forward implacably into frame in slightly low angle shot.  Frank collapses to the left of the screen just the brim of his hat showing as Harmonica moves towards the right of the screen. The camera cuts to a high angle deep focus shot from behind Harmonica's left shoulder. Looking down on the stricken Frank.  The shot is held for some seconds whilst Frank queries Harmonica. There is a cut to an extreme low angle shot of a now smilingly scornful Harmonica in ECU in a position of absolute power. He says nothing. There is a reverse cut high angle ECU to Frank staring up, then it cuts to a low angle medium close up of Harmonica ripping the harmonica of its string.  The camera pans left following Harmonica down as he gets to his knees beside Frank.  In a low angle two shot from behind Fonda with the camera seemingly at ground level Harmonica leans forward with the harmonica in his left hand. The audience know what he is going to do. The camera cuts to a very high angle shot with Frank in ECU and Harmonica's hand so close to the lens it is blurred.  Frank's performance manages to combine a look of fear and loathing knowing what Harmonica  is about to do.  The hand implacably moves into full focus and thrusts the harmonica into Frank's mouth. Frank takes a few breaths and his eyes wander. There is a cut to the teenage boy falling into the dust and Frank knows who his nemesis* is. There is a cut back to Frank from the same high angle - he gives a slight nod of recognition then starts to fall to his side. There is cut to a two shot ECU of Frank's head from beneath him with Harmonica looming up. The camera tracks him down as he collapses dead onto the ground the camera is at ground level and Frank's face is in ECU with the harmonica so close to the lens it is slightly out of focus.

In terms of its wider meaning the film's climax is about the delivery of poetic justice (see also definition of nemesis below*), as this whole piece is about trying to get better definitions of meanings then this too needs defining. My fairly ancient Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms has this in the entry:

...the morally reassuring allocation of happy and unhappy fates to the virtuous and the vicious characters respectively, usually at the end of a narrative or dramatic work...the term may also refer to a strikingly appropriate reward or punishment , usually a 'fitting retribution' by which a villain is ruined by some process of his own making. (Baldick,1990 : Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms )

There are layers of meaning within the mise-en-scène which simply are not available to those who see the film as just this extract however on Gibb's notion of coherence in terms of the film as a whole as well as the extract in isolation we can begin to weave together certain aspects of the scene's overall coherence through the clothing and make up and performance of the actors.  Even in this scene the viewer can see the difference in the way the actors are dressed. Frank in this scene and also throughout the film has a certain sartorial elegance which is amplified by his dress, posture and attitude. He is a man of the city, articulate and, knowing and powerful, able to be a leader of men albeit of the most unpleasant sort. By comparison Harmonica is taciturn in the extreme. He is almost the colour of the earth into which he collapsed in the scene and he blends with the countryside.

Bronson in Once Upon a Time in America 1

Bronson playing the taciturn Harmonica looks and dresses as though he has come from the earth itself, dusty and bleached out. Signifying perhaps a force from beyond the grave.

Frank's city clothes stand out he is not of this space, but he feels he can control it. However throughout the extract we see that his supreme confidence starts to take on elements of doubt. The fact that he feels the need to move. The fact that had we seen the previous scene Harmonica already had the drop on him and has given him what appears to Frank to initially be an easy chance to win in a formalised showdown sees consternation begin to emerge in his face. Why would this seemingly implacable enemy even give him this seeming chance to avoid death unless he was so confident he could beat Frank. Here Henry Fonda's performance and indeed his casting fit beautifully with the role just as Bronson's for those familiar with The Magnificent Seven know him to be both taciturn and brilliantly fast with a weapon. This of course relates to Gibbs' point about knowledge and expectations about the genre. 

Fonda as Frank

One can get an impression here that Frank has a better dress code than Harmonica. In the scene below Frank is is in a position of power in the ornate railway carriage interior, smoking a cigar. Here the image is in quite shallow focus. With the horses out of focus the viewer is led towards the meeting between the two men. Not only does the high angle shot make Harmonica look inferior it can be sen that Frank's dress is more in keeping with the interior. Harmonica looks out of place: 

Fonda as Frank 2

*Iconography: Buscombe came closest to arguing the position that a genre’s visual conventions can be thought of as one of the defining features of a genre such as guns, cars, clothes in the gangster film. It is hard to argue this with any great consistency because the possible connections between the items or icons is unclear. More importantly it is actually very difficult to list the defining characteristics of more than a handful of genres, for the simple reason that many genres – among them the social problem film, the biopic, the romantic drama and the psychological horror film – lack a specific iconography. The genres of the western and gangsters discussed by critics McArthur and Buscombe happen to fit the concept of generic iconography very well. Others that fit well are the gothic horror film, and the biblical epic. Neale argues that the failure to apply the concept productively to other genres suggests that the defining features of Hollywood’s genres may be heterogeneous.

*Nemesis: "retribution or punishment for wrong-doing; or the agent carrying out such punishment, often personified as Nemesis, a minor Greek goddess responsible for executing the vengeance of the the gods against erring humans".(Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.)

*Point of View: The following definition is taken from the Dictionary of Literary Terms and of course literature is not cinema although there are obvious cross-overs. More work will be done on point of view (POV) later. The position or vantage-point from which the events of a story seem to be observed and presented to u. The chief distinction usually made between points of view is that between third-person narratives and first-person narratives. A third person narrator may be omniscient, and therefore show an unrestricted knowledge of the story's events, another kind of third-person narrator may confine our knowledge of events to whatever is observed by a single character or small group of characters, this method being known as 'limited point of view. A first-person narrator's point of view will normally be restricted to his or her partial knowledge or experience, and therefore will not give us access to other character's hidden thoughts. Many modern authors have also used the multiple point of view, in which we are shown the events from the positions of two or more different characters.


Filming Shakespeare's Play. A Google search of this book provides an explanation and shows how deep focus helped create a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. go to pages 48 / 49.

Depth of field Wikipedia entry

Photography tutorial on depth of field from 'My Cambridge'

Yale Cinematography notes

An interesting and in depth for the more advanced visitors. This  blog posting and discusssion on the importance of Bazin and misè-en-scene and takes issue with some comments by the well known critic David Bordwell.

This Film Lexicon from MIT is particularly useful providing information and ideas about film language well beyond the notion of  deep focus.

TV Critical Methods and Applications  

Category D: A film and Media Blogspot

Adrian Martin Film Philosophy

Jacob Leigh from the Screen Studies postgraduate training site 

A useful basic glossary of moving image 'grammar'.  


Baldick,1990 : Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gibbs, John. 2002. Mise-en-scène: film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower Press

Kuhn, Anette. 1982. Women's Pictures. London: Routledge

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