Watching Film Analytically
You’re probably here because you’ve been assigned a film to watch. Perhaps you’ve also been asked to write a film analysis. The good news? You are already more prepared than you might have guessed! If you are familiar with movies, television shows, YouTube videos, magazines, billboards, or advertisements, you can use your visual literacy to your advantage when watching film as part of an assignment.
Often film techniques are easiest to notice when they’re clunky or overly obvious. For example, have you ever watched a video on YouTube and noticed the “bad editing”? What about a “whodunit” that makes its clues all too obvious by showing them in close up? In both these examples, the choices of how to present a sequence of shots shape our understanding of what happens on screen. The challenge when watching a film analytically is to notice and name these techniques—even when they are being used more subtly.
Before watching the film
Here are some steps to help you get started on watching an assigned film for the purpose of analysis:
Start with your assignment. Review your assignment and identify any tasks you’ve been asked to perform and any questions you’ve been asked to address. Highlight these or list them out as a prompt for note taking.
Decide when, where, and how many times you will watch the film. How long is your film? Have you seen it before? It can help to watch any film once without taking notes, and then watching it a second time for analysis and note taking. If you take notes without pausing, you may miss things (including the timestamps relevant to your observations), but pausing itself interrupts the film and the viewing experience. Watching a film straight through allows you to experience it as intended, while watching it a second time provides an opportunity to analyze.
Make a research plan. How much background information about the film, its director, history, or context will you need for your assignment? Whether the source is a lecture, a course reading, or your own research, when will you obtain this information? Another advantage of watching a film twice is the opportunity to research a film between viewings. You may find this research more interesting after you have seen the film once, and this information can inform your second viewing.
Study the film terms you will need to name what you observe. What film terms have you learned and how will you practice applying them while watching the film? For note taking, will it help to develop abbreviations or shorthand (for example, “CU” for “close up”)? It can help to study terms before you begin, or you may find yourself searching for words. This tip sheet will use the following film terms:
- Track: Tracking shots occur when the entire camera apparatus moves along with the characters on-screen—literally “tracking” (following) their movements.
- Eyeline match: An eyeline match shot is an editing technique that shows a character looking and then shows the object of their gaze in the following shot, as if the camera follows the character’s line of sight.
- Tilt: A tilt is a camera movement in which the camera itself “tilts” upward. It may be helpful to think of the camera as a human head—it can move in the same ways our own heads can move!
- Zoom: A zoom is a lens adjustment that means an object on screen is brought closer to us, making it appear larger and take up more of the screen.
While watching the film
Let’s practice with this clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). After watching the clip straight through, try taking notes starting at 25 seconds in the following clip and going until 1:08.
As you take notes, ask yourself:
- When and where do you see the camera tracking?
- When and where do you see the camera tilt and zoom?
- How many eyeline match shots do you observe?
- What is highlighted by the eyeline match shots in this clip?
Include timestamps in your answers so you can find scenes later on. These questions focus primarily on camera movement, but you could also ask yourself about framing, lighting, lens choices, the score, or whatever stands out to you.
After watching the film
Now that you have some notes on this film clip, think about how films create meaning. Just as your literature professor may have written “don’t summarize!” in the margins of your essay, your film professor is likely to want you to say more about the film than just “what happened.”
Your next steps are to ask how the film’s formal elements that you’ve observed contribute to your understanding of the film. How do these formal elements relate to the plot, themes, or other aspects of film that have come up in your class?
- For example, you could ask yourself: How does the film position you as the viewer? Through lens choice and framing, do you inhabit the viewpoint of the protagonist or are you rather positioned as a spectator, watching or observing what unfolds on screen? (Perhaps the perspective or point of view even shifts throughout the film, confusing your position as spectator or changing your allegiance halfway through the movie).
- For another example, you could ask yourself: How does camera angle impact your understanding of on-screen relationships? For example, if one person is always shot from a low angle, making them appear larger than they actually are, what might this visual choice communicate about their role in the film?
These are just two examples of the kinds of questions you can ask as you watch. Use what you have been learning in your course to brainstorm additional questions.
To return to the clip shared above, it may help to know that the man portrayed is a detective who has been hired to investigate the troubled behavior of the woman portrayed. She says that she is possessed by the spirit of the woman in the portrait, who she says is her grandmother—but all is not as it seems. Review your notes to ask yourself how the formal elements of this scene may reflect or convey the progress of the detective’s investigation or the themes of this kind of detective story.
Next time you have a film assignment, take notes on your second viewing and ask yourself how the formal elements might complement, corroborate, or even subvert the narrative’s development. These observations can then serve as the foundation for a written film analysis.
Bordwell, David, et al. Film Art: an Introduction. McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.
Hitchcock, Alfred., dir. Vertigo. 1958; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures. https://youtu.be/d-kcczAff40
Metz, Winifred. “Film Terms & More.” Film & Cinema Research. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill University Libraries. Accessed August 1, 2020. https://guides.lib.unc.edu/c.php?g=711231&p=5060435
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
If you enjoy using our handouts, we appreciate contributions of acknowledgement.