Intro to Film Module 1 highlights – What is film?

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 VART 1 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.