Intro to Film Module 1 highlights – An introduction to form

Hello everyone!  Every week you will find with your module a set of lecture notes. Within the notes you will read my personal take on the course content, as well as a summary of the textbook information. In the summary, I will clarify and emphasize chapter information to prepare you for the upcoming quiz.

So lets get started with what may seem like a silly question..

What is film?

From broadcast to cable TV, movies, to the internet we live in an age surrounded and saturated by moving images.  Many of us grow up watching moving image media for information and entertainment, but we have often never learned to “read” and understand its fundamental formal elements.

Ways to think about moving images

Film is perhaps the most complex of of all art forms.  The underlying complexity lies in the fact that it is a combination of many different art forms such as photography, literature, acting, and sound arts.  It might be helpful to start our conversation about the fundamental characteristics of film by contrasting it with another art form to which it is closely related, theatre.

In theatre, all acting takes place one location, the stage.  Settings and props may change, but they remain on the stage. Viewers can look closely at the details and expression of a cast member; then take in the entire stage including all of the props, set details and characters. As a member of the audience, you choose where you look.  In film – through framing and the optics of the camera- these decisions are made, directed for you.  The viewer / audience relationship to the space portrayed onscreen can be flexible.

Both film and theatre allow for “suspension of disbelief”.  The viewer can become immersed in the story or narrative.

One element that may be true of moving images above other art forms; they create immersive worlds that allow the viewer to “suspend disbelief” deeply and completely.

Most moving images tell some kind of story. Storytelling is fundamental to this art form.  For many, a movie is a popular art form, typically fiction and a form of entertainment.   Movies however, come in a vast array of “shapes and sizes” from the purely abstract, sculptural installation, to various forms of documentary.  In Introduction to Film Studies you will be exposed to a variety of these moving image forms.

As we begin this course, I would like for you to do your best to let go of your preconceived ideas about film and the moving image.   Imagine that you are an alien who has landed on Earth and is seeing a film for the first time :).  With your fresh eyes you might notice these fundamental characteristics of moving image media:

1.) moving images are typically a two-dimensional representation of the “real” three – dimensional world.  They are an illusion.
2.) moving image media abstract and manipulate time and space
2.) they depend on light both in their creation and viewing
3.) they create and contain an illusion of movement
4.) they can depict “real” worlds convincingly
5.) they are created through a complex, collaborative process

Lets think a bit (in a very abstract way) about how these elements are created within a film.

How does film represent reality?A fundamental debate within film (and all of the visual arts) is how art should represent the world.

Two basic directions that explore this question are realism and fantasy.  In the most general terms, filmmakers concerned with realism will tend to present the world as it really is, while those interested in fantasy are concerned with various kinds of abstraction.  How and why a filmmaker chooses a certain path depends ideology.  Which path is more truthful or honest?  Valid arguments can be made on both sides.  If the story is about a man going through withdrawal from drug addiction is it more honest to represent images of the addict in the hospital suffering or images of what the addict is experiencing?

Important terms and concepts:

Representational: the way that a subject is represented conforms to our experiences and expectations.

Cinematic convention: accepted systems, methods, or customs by which the movies communicate.

How does a film represent time?

Films manipulate our sense of time. The simpliest way to see this to look at what we call “story time” in film studies.   The story represented within a film is much longer than the actual time that we spend watching it in a movie theater.

The audience perception of an event taking place on screen can be manipulated through the editing process.  This is particularly interesting when you consider how film editing can distort our sense of time.  An event taking place on screen can be made to seem longer or shorter than “normal”.

One way to consider this is to think about how our sense of time can be altered in the real world.  Unfortunately, a common experience is that of being in (or hopefully just missing) a traffic accident.  The split second that the near miss occurs “feels” longer than normal time.  A good example of how this experience can be created in the film editing process can be viewed within the film Good Fellas.  Watch the “May11, 1980” clip under module 1.

How does a film use light?

Without light, the photographic image – the foundation of film- could not be recorded.  (In a completely dark room we can’t see either!)   The language of light is fundamental to how we create and interpret a film.    The term “photography” simply means “writing with light”.

Your textbook puts it this way:
“Through the use of light and dark, filmmakers not only give their movies different styles, textures, and moods but also convey emotion and meaning in ways that can augment, complicate, or even contradict other elements within those movies.”

How does a film represent movement?

Movement in film is an illusion, we actually watch a succession of 24 individual still photographs a second.  The illusion of movement is created through a phenomena called PERSISTENCE OF VISION.

What is film analysis?

Analysis is the primary endeavor of this course.  Through the process of analyzing film we are able to unravel the complex formal and conceptual elements at play within a film. There are many different ways to look at, or analyze a film.

Formal analysis:  Formal analysis dissects the complex elements of cinema that make up the form, these include the cinematography, sound, design, movement, writing, acting.  We will begin work and spend most of the quarter analyzing film in terms of its formal elements.

Cultural analysis: This type of analysis explores a film’s function and influence within popular culture.  In cultural analysis you will often hear the analogy; “looking through the lens of___”.   Common cultural analysis topics in film include historical, race , gender, nationality, and sexual orientation.

Film analysis or criticism?

Film criticism is fundamentally different from analysis in that criticism is a subjective evaluation a film’s artistic merit and mass appeal.  Film criticism generally takes two basic forms: film review written for general audiences that appear in public media and essays published in academic journals.  In VART 1, the analysis paper that you will write will be analysis, NOT criticism.

Important terms and concepts from this section:

Explicit meaning: slightly more sophisticated than looking at plot summary.  Explicit meaning is usually fairly obvious.  Your textbook uses the film Star Wars (George Lucas 1977) as an example.  An explicit meaning  in Star Wars is that it is a film about good vs. evil (and that good will ultimately triumph).

Implicit meaning: An association , connection, or inference that a viewer makes on the basis of the explicit story and form of a film.  Implicit meaning lies below the surface of explicit meaning .. “reading between the lines”.  A good example of an implicit meaning in the film Star Wars is that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a father figure to Luke Skywalker.

 What is film form?

For the purposes of the class film form can refer to a number of things:

1.) The arrangement or order of parts of the movie.

2.) The elements: (picture, sound, setting, choreography, acting, music, etc.) manipulated by filmmakers to create a movie.

3.) Cinematic convention. The “systems” within a movie that causes viewers to respond to, comprehend, and interpret the movie in particular ways.

4.) Genre.  Different categories of films, or the commonly accepted ways in which the content of a film is expressed.

Elements of film form are the fundamentals of the language of the moving image.  Our primary task in this course is to learn how to analyze and interpret each of these elements of filmic language.

Form  vs. content

What is the difference between form and content? Take a look at this tutorial on form and content from your textbook “Looking at Movies”.

Content is the subject of an artwork.

Form is the variety of means by which the subject is expressed.

Take a look at three very different sculptures created at points in history. 

Photograph: Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus sculpture by Praxiteles. 4th century BCE

Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus sculpture by Praxiteles. 4th century BCE

photograph of the bronze sculpture Walking Man II (1960) by Alberto Giacometti

Walking Man II (1960) by Alberto Giacometti

photograph of steel sculpture Self Portrait, Keith Haring 1989

Self portrait, Keith Haring 1989









At first glance the subject of all of the sculptures is the same, a male nude.  However the form of the sculptures is radically different.

The form of each of these sculptures is so different that we must recognize that the “content” of each has changed, they are no longer about the same subject. The classical Greek sculpture of a man is highly idealized.  Is this man perhaps more perfect than that of the “real” world?   The hunched, elongated Giacometti man perhaps speaks to something within the human condition.  The Haring sculpture if playful and full of joy.

Is any one of these representations of a man more “true” or honest than another?

Please watch this short film from your textbook on the differences between form and content.

Ideological perspectives in film form:

Formalist (or anti-realist) perspective –  Elements of film form are often manipulated and or abstracted in order to communicate meaning.  “Formalist” filmmakers may create fantastic film worlds or those that fall outside of common human experience.

Filmmakers working from an “anti-realist” perspective believe that film should defamiliarize or abstract the everyday.  The intent of this process is to make audiences more aware of some dimension to the everyday that we normally don’t see.

Examples of a few famous formalist filmmakers and films

Orson Welles: Citizen Kane

Darren Aronovsky: Requiem for a Dream

Martin Scorcese: Good Fellas


Realist – filmmakers attempt to present the world as realistically as possible, with little manipulation of elements of form.  “Realist” oriented filmmakers typically create stories about everyday life.

Ideas within realist filmmaking

Art should strive to reflect reality and nature

Film should be a medium for conveying reality

Films should strive to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, they should not be “directed” or told what to think about the subject.

Often, realist films support a humanistic perspective, i.e. they create stories that support the best characteristics of humanity, or bring to light social concerns, the needs, well being of people.

How can film language “direct” the audience to think / feel a certain way?

A few examples of “realist” filmmaking movements in film history

Italian Neo-realism:  post WWII to the early to mid 1950’s  Wikipedia: Italian Neorealism

Social Realism:  social realism in film developed out of Italian Neo-realism.  Wikipedia: Social realism

Both neo-realism and social realism often explore and bring to light social injustice,  economic hardship, these genres emphasize the lives of the common man.

Dogme ‘95  Wikipedia: Dogme 95

A few quick thoughts…

If you had a chance to direct your own film would you approach the subject as a realist, formalist, or conceptualist?

Any thoughts about why you would be inclined toward one ideology or another?

Can you see any particular ideological perspective in the films and filmmakers you most admire?