Intro to film language booklet

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  • AS FilmStudiesFM: Exploring Film FormUnderstanding FilmLanguage 1
  • What is film language?In his 1948 essay, The birth of a new avant-garde: le camera-stylo, theFrench film critic Alexandre Astruc wrote: The cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successfully a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of camera-stylo.Whereas he defines it as a means of expression, we would add to thisdefinition the following: Film language refers to the means by which meaning is created in a film-to tell a story, create a character and so on. This includes dialogue and voiceover, but really focuses on cinematic aspects such as cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and special effects, as well as genre, narrative, representation and the start system. Film language is a system of signs. Audiences use these signs to construct meaning and this is often in relation to other texts. When we see a star on screen, we are probably aware of other texts s/he has been in and this may influence our response to the character.The study of film requires two approaches: 1. Macro analysis. This focuses primarily on the way film language works within the film as a whole (narrative/story) or in relation to a group of films (genre), but also includes such aspects as representation, country of origin and the star system. 2. Micro analysis. This refers to analysis of the production techniques used to create meaning in an individual scene-for example, cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and SFXBear in mind though that a macro analysis cannot function without makingreference to the micro elements. How could we consider a character withoutconsidering the way in which that character is lit and photographed? 2
  • The production processes of filmmakingPre-productionThis is the first stage in the creation of a film. It all starts with an idea and ascript. This may be a fully developed screenplay or just a basic pitch in whichthe writer describes the pitch. The script will influence many of the macroaspects of film language, such as character, theme, tension etc. However it iscommon for scripts to be rewritten, sometimes beyond recognition during pre-production.Casting is a critical element of pre-production. The director is one of the firstto be appointed and will have a significant influence over all elements of thefilm from then onwards.Star power is very strong in Hollywood, and this means that the leading actoris sometimes involved in production. Casting is not just looks or style, butwhat audiences may expect from a certain actors. For example, castingRenee Zellweger as a romantic lead will create a very different meaning fromcasting Julia Roberts in the same role.At this stage, production, set and costume designers will work on the overalllook of the film. Location scouts are employed to find suitable places to shootand storyboards are prepared.Special effects work begins including computergenerated images, animatronics, prosthetics etc.ProductionUnder the guidance of the director the actors perform their roles for thecamera. The director of photography (DP), or cinematographer, is one of themost important people at this stage. In consultation with the director, s/he setsup camera movement, instructs the lighting crew and composes the shots weeventually see.Some special effects are constructed and performed at this stage.Pyrotechnics and stunts are filmed on set. Chroma key sequences(green/blue screen) are shot in special studios.Post productionAt this point, editing and sound become the main focus. The editor cuts thefilmed footage into a meaningful sequence. The language of film is composedof many elements and editing is one of the most important. Think ofcinematography as making the visual equivalent of words; film editingarranges these words into sentences, paragraphs and chapters.Sound is also managed at this stage. The key players are sound designers,Foley artists (who create sounds using objects and items to mimic a soundeffect) and composers to create the soundtrack or score. Apart from dialogue,almost all sounds are created and added during post-production. Rememberthat every sound in a film is a decision, a message to the audience.This is also the time when the final elements of special effects are created.Animated sequences are mixed with live action. 3
  • The following are all credits you might see at the end of a film. Decide whether they are jobs in pre-production, production and/or post- production. Then try to explain what the job is.Job Pre- Produ Post- Role produ ction produ ction ctionProducer Finding money to make the filmDirectorWriterArt directorComposerGafferGripEditorFoley artistContinuityStoryboard artistCastingLocation scoutAssistant directorSecond unitHairdresserMakeup artistTechnical advisorCinematographerSoundSound editor 4
  • MACRO ANALYSISFilm genreA genre is a type of film (eg horror, war, romantic comedy and, arguably filmnoir), but is also a system of signs used by producers, filmmakers, andaudiences to make meaning. A specific genre can be defined by typical plots,characters, themes and cinematic techniques. The plot of a romantic comedy,for example, usually involves a man and a woman overcoming a series ofobstacles before they get together at the end. More often than not, a horrorfilm is characterised by low lighting, dramatic music and a monster.Genres exist in the film industry for a number of reasons: In the past, producers have capitalised on successful formulas by repeating them in a slightly different format. Producers are able to identify and target specific audiences Genre films are economically efficient. Sets, costumes and props can be used again; camera crews get used to filming certain set sequences (eg car chases in action movies); some stars stay within a particular genre and fit certain characteristics of, say heroes and villains. Audiences are more likely to pay money to see a film if they know what to expect. Consequently, marketing films will often emphasise generic elements. Genre provides a framework which a director or writer can express his/her individual style and themes. It is also a way for audiences to differentiate between films.Repetition and difference in film genresAs you will be aware, film producers re-use successful formulas, but withvariations so the audience dont get bored. On the one hand, audiences enjoyfamiliarity of genre films. On the other, much of the pleasure of watching agenre film is in its variation from what is considered by the audience as thenorm. Indeed a director with a distinct visual style (an auteur) might use thegenre as a vehicle for self expression.As a result, the conventions of genre are not fixed, but evolve over time,usually in line with changing audience expectations and attitudes. 5
  • Write down the last film you saw and its genre. In the first column, makea list of the conventions of the genre. What conventions were repeatedfrom other films in the genre? What was different?Film: Genre:Conventions of the genre Repetition Differences 1. In your opinion, was it a good film? Explain your answer. Was your response to the film (positive or negative) related to its genre? 2. Will your experience of the film affect your decision to go and see another like it? 3. What led you to see the film in the first place? 6
  • Iconography in film genreIt is through repetition that a genre develops its iconography. Iconographyrefers to recurring symbolic images that carry meaning. The term normallyrefers to objects and settings (eg in Westerns, the six-shooter, the horse, thesaloon bar etc.) but can also be the physical attributes of an actor or star (egArnold Schwarzeneggers muscles in the action genre). All genres depend onthe audience making certain associations with images.Through iconography then, information is passed on quickly to the audience inorder to communicate aspects of character or setting. If an icon is overused,however, it will become a clich and lose its power.Working in pairs, make a list of the iconography typically found inscience-fiction cinema as well as what it may mean to an audience.Icon MeaningCharacter types in film genreA genre film also uses stock characters or types that fit into plot formulas. Theaction-adventure film, for example, will probably include a hero, a sidekick anda villain. The male female romantic leads in rom-coms usually have lessattractive