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Film literacy

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Film Literacy Reading
To appreciate film with more understanding, there are a number of techniques that you can
develop which will train your eyes and your mind to recognize meaning. We could have an
entire semester just devoted to “reading” film more eloquently, so this reading will only start you
on a journey to becoming a better film reader.
This reading will also require you to follow links to outside readings and videos in order to give
more concrete examples of the ideas I’m articulating.
Narration (also known as narrative devices) is any pattern or technique used to shape the story
that is being told in a particular way. Narrative devices are not unique to film, they exist in any
storytelling art form (novels, short stories, plays, video games). But in film they usually take
slightly different shape. Sometimes narrative devices will also be “cinematic devices” (as we’ll
talk about next) but sometimes they are more recognizable as narrative patterns and not
cinematic patterns.
Here are a few examples of narrative devices that are often used in movies. Some of these
make use of cinematic devices:
● the flashback
● episodic structure
● repetition (of actions, locations, props, characters)
● non-linear storytelling
● the presence of a narrator
● two simultaneous realities going on at once.
● the use of little dialogue
● the use of much dialogue
Cinematic devices are techniques that are unique to the cinema (as opposed to books or
newspapers). Many cinematic devices have been co-opted by television and video-games, but
there are some that are much more commonly found in movies than in these other
sequential-visual mediums.
I will give more details and specific cinematic devices in a moment, but I’d like to describe visual
tropes (and make a connection to them) first.
A visual trope is an oft-repeated visual that gains at least some of meaning from its familiarity. A
trope (more generally) is a common figure of speech or way of speaking which is so familiar that
audiences immediately understand with more depth and clarity what the speaker is saying. A
visual trope is the same. Though we often can’t label visual tropes when we see them, once we
begin to look for them we see many more.
Visual tropes can be established WITHIN a particular movie — but most often have been defined
and refined in cinema before they are used in any particular film.
Many cinematic devices are also visual tropes. Particular visual tropes often arise from years of
practiced cinematic art form.
Over the next few days, I will be focusing particularly on these three elements of Filmic Literacy
in analyzing films. I am convinced that if you can become adept at recognizing narrative
patterns, visual tropes and cinematic devices, you will be well on your way to being a
film-literate student.
Cinematic devices (sometimes I also refer to them as “formal devices” other times “filmic
devices”) are ways of representing reality that are unique to the movies. The next several series
of paragraphs highlight a number of cinematic devices, but they include how close or far you
place the camera from the subject; whether the camera is “objective” (on a tripod) or
“subjective” (shoulder mounted); the way the camera moves toward or away from a particular
subject; the way that the lens of the camera redirects or shifts the audience’s focus; the way that
non-diegetic sound works with the image; the way that different images are put together through
editing; the length of time that a shot continues. There are many more, but hopefully you’re
starting to get the hang of it.
The following are some basic ways of thinking about the distinctions between cinematic devices.
The shot is the most basic unit of film understanding. It is the freeze frame of any film and it can
be evaluated for color, camera-angle, open-frame / closed-frame, composition, 180 degree
angle, subject/field relationship. I encourage you to start identifying key frames in films and
working to understand what makes them work emotionally for the film and the audience.
This article by Ebert​ articulates many specific dimensions of shot and frame analysis.
The sequence is a series of shots linked by location, flow of the camera, editing and scenes. A
sequence can be defined by the action that takes place in front of the camera (and around the
camera — sometimes off-camera action is very powerful); it can be defined as a montage; it can
be defined as the movement that the camera makes in relation to its subjects.
The following youtube video discusses several editing techniques that helpfully explain and
illustrations of how sequence creates different kinds of meaning in films. Watch it before
continuing. (While there are a few crass innuendos and references, I find the ideas to be
worthwhile and helpful for developing a good understanding of how editing influences meaning
in a film.)

Continuity editing is a practice that has grown up first in Hollywood, but now in all of the world. It
is a practice that works hard to obscure the technique or craft *from* audiences, while
simultaneously making subtle associational links *for* audiences that work either to move the
plot forward, or, more often to create emotional connections between characters, ideas, objects
and places.
You may never notice that your favorite character occupies the same identical screenspace as a
Door (a way out of the situation), but you *feel* that connection when continuity editing is used
to link the two.
The whole idea of a “montage” is based on this notion of continuity editing. Eisenstein used
montage in Battleship Potemkin (and particularly the famous Odessa Steps sequence) to create
a kind of emotional outrage in his audience.
Various camera angles position the viewer differently in relationship to the subject they are
viewing. The formal signs that are established by the camera’s distance from the subject, by its
movement in relationship to the subject are key in developing the audience’s feelings about the
Here are some of the classical angles that are the “bread and butter” of filmmakers.
These Wide Shots are from ​NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN​ and ​20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Wide angle shots (also called wide shots or long shots) are often used for “establishing shots” at
the beginning of a sequence, scene or movie. They can also be used to show a contrast or a
relationship between the context and the subject (or character).
These medium shots from ​20th CENTURY WOMEN​ show characters roughly at conversational
distance from the camera, and often in “two shots” which show two characters in conversation.
This shot is the most conventional shot used in American narrative films and in television.
This closeup and extra closeup are from the Hitchcock film ​MARNIE
This video essay profiles five camera movements​ that achieve unique cinematic meaning in a
number of films. Please pause in your reading of this google doc and watch this video essay.
Two final concepts that helpfully orient the film viewer to insight about the film: the Diegesis is
the theoretical world that comprises the film. The sum of all the locations where a film is shot
comprise the diegesis of the film. If a filmmaker intentionally cuts one part of a room out of the
film though — and reshapes the room by shooting only from certain angles? Then the diegesis
ALSO excludes that cut-out part of the room. In other words, the diegesis IS what we see and
experience as a film-goer.
The diegesis is made out of the mise en scene which is the sum of all the props, sets, paints,
costumes and even character’s acting styles that work together to create a contiguous,
believable world.
When we speak of the mise en scene, we’re talking about the materials used to construct the
world of the film.
When we speak of the diegesis, we are speaking of the imaginary world of the film; and we are
speaking of it in affirming, believing ways.
This web site​ does a great job explaining many of these terms, and many other basic terms
which will TREMENDOUSLY help grow your film vocabulary. I strongly recommend that you
browse it, and look especially at any of the terms described here that you didn’t fully understand.
I think it’s essential in a class like this one to take notes on the films you watch. There’s no one
right way to take notes, but your notes should definitely focus on all the dimensions of film
outlined in this reading.
I like to divide my paper into two columns with a line and on the left side, I make boxes and
draw rough pictures of particular moments that are striking. On the right hand side, I pose
questions, or note especially important lines of dialogue, or jot down the time code of where in
the movie a particular action happens.
Sometimes, the note-taking is so full of insights, that I find I need to stop the movie and take
down some notes. Not usually though. Usually I’ll just leave my thoughts trailing and go back
and finish the notes at the end of the film.
(don’t feel obliged to study the links below, just read them lightly, they *won’t* be on the quiz.)
Here​ are some more helpful notes about taking notes on movies.
This lexicon of film terms​ may be a helpful resource.
Provisional Instructions
to Kino-eye Groups
The Writings of Dziga Vertov
Annette Michelson
Kevin O’Brien
California Press’ Ber”o/oy • Los Ango/os • London
…. . · ………. ·…. v.
Consciousness or the Subconscious
(From a kinok proclamation)
We oppose the collusion of the “director-as-magician” and a
bewitched public.
Only consciousness can fight the sway of magic in all its forms.
Only consciousness can form a man of firm opinion, firm
We need conscious men, not an unconscious mass submissive
to any passing suggestion .
give us a new cinema!” And in brackets, “Friends of the kinoks,
eleventh and ninety-third detachments of the Krasnaia Presnia
Young Pioneers.”
The group has about fifteen active members. Among a number
of gifts received on the detachment’s anniversary was one from the
kinoks: a real still camera with all the accessories. There was no end
to our joy.
Right now the fellows are putting out a weekly newspaper of their
own, Photo-eye, consisting of their own photographs (every photo-
Long live the class consciousness of the healthy with eyes and
ears to see and hear with!
graph, even those that have not turned out, is included). Through
Away with the fragrant veil of kisses, murders, doves, and
in addition, illuminate all the main events in their lives each week.
this newspaper they can gauge their progress in photography, and,
The detachment corresponds with the countryside and with pio-
Long live the class vision!
neers in other cities of the Soviet Union-Rybinsk, Voronezh,
Long live kino-eye I
Barnaul , etc.-and they feel it’s their duty to tell everyone about their
group and about Photo-eye.
In order to review our work a diary is kept by each in turn. Certain
interesting moments in the life of the group are described in it.
The Basis of Kino-Eye
The establishment of a visual (kino-eye) and auditory (radio-ear)
class bond between the proletariats of all nations and lands on a
Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups
platform of the communist decoding of world relations .
The decoding of life as it is.
,. Introduction
Influence of facts upon workers’ consciousness.
Our eye sees very poorly and very little-and so men conceived
of the microscope in order to see invisible phenomena; and they
Influence of facts, not acting, dance, or verse.
discovered the telescope in order to see and explore distant, un-
Relegation of so-called art-to the periphery of consciousness.
known worlds. The movie camera was invented in order to
Placing of society’s economic structure at the center of attention.
penetrate deeper into the visible world, to explore and record visual
Instead of surrogates for life (theatrical presentations, film-drama,
phenomena, so that we do not forget what happens and what the
etc.) carefully selected, recorded, and organized facts (major or
minor) from the lives of the workers themselves as well as from
those of their class enemies.
future must take into account.
But the camera experienced a misfortune. It was invented at a
time when there was no single country in which capital was not in
power. The bourgeoisie’s hellish idea consisted of using the new toy
to entertain the masses , or rather to divert the workers’ attention
From a Talk by a Group Leader
Through this visit we learned how films are made. From production to screening, the fellows followed the making of an artistic
drama. They saw for themselves a studio, actors, and directors.
They saw the construction of films by kinoks; and as a result, for the
seventh anniversary of the October Revolution, the group put up a
huge poster on their car: “Down with actors and artistic dramas-
from their basic aim: the struggle against their masters. Under the
Young Pioneers.
The Young Pioneers were established by the fifth
Komsomol Congress in 1922 for children between the ages of ten and
fourteen. The organization stressed collective action rather than individual
incentive and competition. In Vertov’s Klnoglaz of 1924, members are active in campaigns for price control, the elimination of alcoholism, and in
other aspects of public education-ed.
form . We know many enemies of the contemporary theater who are
at the same time passionate admirers of c inema in its present form .
Few people see cl early as yet that nontheatrical cinema (with the
exception of newsreel and some scientific films) does not exist.
Every theatrical presentation , every motion picture is constructed
in exactly the same way: a playwright or scriptwriter, then a director
or film director, then actors, rehearsals, sets , and the presentation to
the public . The essential thing in theater is acting, and so every
motion picture constructed upon a scenario and acting is a theatrical
presentatlCJn, and that is why there are no differences between the
productions by directors of different nuances .
All of this , both in whole and in part, applies to theater regardless
of its trend and direction, regardless of its relationship to theater as
such . All of this lies outside the genuine purpose of the movie
camera-the exploration of the phenomena of life.
Kinopravda has clearly shown that it is possible to work outside
theater and in step with the revolution. Kino-eye IS continuing the
work, begun by kinopravda, of creating Red Soviet cinema.
2. The Work of Kino-Eye
On the basis of reports by film-observers a plan for the orientation and offensive o f the movie camera in life’s ever-changing
Mikhail Kaufman
environment is being worked out by the Council of Kino-Eye . The
work of the movie camera is reminis cent of the work of the agents of
the GPU who do not know what lies ahead, but have a definite
electric narcotic of the movie theaters, the more or less starving
assignment : to separate out and bring to light a particular issue, a
proletariat, the jobless, unclenched its iron fist and unwittingly sub-
particular affair.
mitted to the corrupting influence of the masters ‘ cinema . The
theater is expensive and seats are few. And so the masters force
1. The kinok-observer closely watches the environment
the camera to disseminate theatrical productions that show us how
and the people around him and tries to connect sepa-
the bourgeoisie love, how they suffer, how they ” care for” their
rate, isolated phenomena according to generalized or
workers , and how these higher beings, the aristocracy, differ from
distinctive characteristics. The kinok-observer is
lower ones (workers, peasants, etc .).
In prerevolutionary Russia the masters ‘ cinema played a precisely
similar role . After the October Revolution the cinema was faced with
assigned a theme by the leader.
2. The group leader or film [reconnaissance] scout distributes themes to the observers and, in the beginning ,
the difficult task of adapting itself to the new life. Actors who had
helps each observer to summarize his observations .
played tsarist civil servants began to play workers; those who had
When the leader has collected all the summaries, he in
played ladies of the court are now grimacing in Soviet style. Few of
turn classifies them and rearranges the individual data
us yet realize, however, that all this grimacing remains, in many
respects, within the framework of bourgeois technique and theatrical
until a sufficiently clear construction of the theme is
Themes for initial observation can be split into roughly
into the production of future kino-eye series . They will
three categories :
be the author-creators of al l subsequent film-objects.
a. Observation of a place (for example, a village reading
room , a cooperative)
b. Observation of a person or objec t in motion (examples: your father, a Young Pioneer, a postman , a
streetcar , etc .)
c . Observation of a theme irrespective of particular per-
This departure from authorship by one person or a group of
persons to mass authorship will , in our view, accelerate the destruction of bourgeois, artistic cinema and its attributes the poser-actor,
fairy-tale script, those costly toys-sets, and the director-high
priest .
sons or places (examples: water, bread , footwear,
fathers and children, city and country, tears, laughter,
etc .)
3. Very Simple Slogans
The group leader must teach them to use a camera
1. Film-drama is the opium of the people .
(later, a movie camera) in order to photograph the more
2. Down with the immortal kings and queens of the
striking moments of observation for a bulletin-board
screen I Long live the ordinary mortal, filmed in life at his
daily tasksl
A bulletin-board newspaper is issued monthly or every
3. Down with the bourgeois fairy-tale script I Long live life
two weeks and uses photographs to illustrate the life of
as it isl
a factory, plant, or village; it participates in campaigns,
4. Film-drama and religion are deadly weapons in the
reveals surrounding life as fully as possible , agitates ,
hands of the capitalists . By showing our revolutionary
propagandizes , and organizes . The group leader sub-
way of life, we will wrest that weapon from the enemy’s
mits his work for approval by the Goskino cell of the
Red kinoks and is under the immediate supervision of
5. The contemporary artistic drama is a vestige of the
the Council of Kino-Eye.
old world . It is an attempt to pour our revolutionary
3. The Council of Kino-Eye heads the entire organiza-
reality into bourgeois molds.
tion . It is made up of one representative from each
6. Down with the staging of everyday life l Film us as we
group of kinok-observers , one representative of the unorganized kinoks, and, provisionally, three
are .
7. The scenario is a fairy tale invented for us by a writer.
representatives of the kinok production workers .
We live our own lives, and we do not subm it to anyone’s
In its practical, everyday work the Council of Kino-Eye
relies upon a technical staff-the Goskino cell of Red
kinoks .
8. Each of us does his task in life and does not prevent
anyone else from working . The film workers ‘ task is to
The Goskino kinoks’ cell should be regarded as one of
film us so as not to interfere with our work .
the factories in which the raw material supplied by
9. Long live the kino-eye of the proletarian revolution I
kinok-observers is made into film-objects.
The Goskino kinoks’ cell should also be regarded as an
educational , model workshop through which Young Pioneer and Komsomol film groups will be drawn into
production work .
Specifically, all groups of kinok-observers will be drawn
4. The Kinoks and Editing
By editing, artistic cinema usually means the splicing together of
indiVidual filmed scenes according to a scenario, worked out to a
greater or lesser extent by the director.
The kinoks attribute a completely different significance to editing
and regard it as the organization of the visible world.
The kinoks distinguish among :
1. Editing during observation-orienting the unaided
constructed by editing, by organizing the footage of everyday life,
unlike artistic dramas that are constructed by the writer ‘s pen .
Does this mean that we work haphazardly, without thought or
plan? Nothing of the kind .
If, however, we compare our preliminary plan to the plan of a
eye at any place, any time.
2. Editing after observation-mentally organizing what
commission that sets out, let us say, to investigate the living quarters
has been seen, according to characteristic features.
story of that investigation written before the investigation has taken
3. Editing during filming-orienting the aided eye of the
movie camera in the place inspected in step 1.
Adjusting for the somewhat changed conditions of
How do artistic cinema and the kinoks each proceed in the
present case?
filming .
4. Editing after filming-roughly organizing the footage
data of the investigation.
according to characteristic features. Looking for the
of the unemployed, then we must compare the scenario to a short
The kinoks organize a film-object on the basis of the factual filmAfter polishing up a scenario, film directors will shoot some enter-
montage fragments that are lacking.
5. Gauging by sight (hunting for montage fragments)-
taining film-illustrations to go with it: a couple of kisses, a few tears, a
instantaneous orienting in any visual environment so as
write “Long live.
murder, moonlit clouds rushing above, and a dove. At the end they
. I” and it all ends with “The Internationale.”
to capture the £ssentiallink shots. Exceptional
Such, with minor changes, are all film-art-agitdramas.
attentiveness . A military rule : gauging by sight, speed,
When a picture ends with “The Internationale,” the censors usu-
attack .
6. The final editing-revealing minor, concealed themes
together with the major ones . Reorganizing all the foot-
proletarian hymn in such a bourgeois context.
age into the best sequence . Bringing out the core of the
is a short story that these people desire to transfer to the screen.
film-object. Coordinating similar elements , and finally,
numerically calculating the montage groupings.
When filming under conditions which do not permit preliminary
ally pass it, but the viewers always feel a bit uneasy hearing the
A scenario is the invention of an individual or a group of people; it
We do not consider this desire criminal, but presenting this sort of
work as cinema’s main objective, ousting real film-objects with these
little film short stories, and suppressing all the movie camera’s re-
observation-as in shadowing with a movie camera or filming unob-
markable possibilities in worship of the god of art-drama-this we
served-the first two steps drop away and the third or fifth step
cannot understand and do not, of course, accept.
comes to the fore .
When filming short moments, or in rush filming, the combining of
We have not come to cinema in order to feed fairy tales to the
Nepmen and Nepwomen lounging in the loges of our first-class
several steps is possible .
In all other instances, when filming one or several themes, all the
movie theaters.
steps are carried out and the editing is uninterrupted, beginning with
amuse the consciousness of the working masses with new rattles .
the initial observation and ending with the finished film-object.
We are not tearing down artistic cinema in order to soothe and
We have come to serve a particular class, the workers and
peasants not yet caught in the sweet web of art-dramas .
We have come to show the world as it is, and to explain to the
5. The Kinoks and the Scenario
It is entirely appropriate to mention the script here. Once added
to the above-mentioned editing system, a literary scenario immediately cancels its meaning and significance . Because our objects are
worker the bourgeois structure of the world.
We want to bring clarity into the worker’s awareness of the
phenomena concerning him and surrounding him . To give everyone
working behind a plow or a machine the opportunity to see his
3. small, lightweight, hand-held cameras,
4. lighting equipment that is equally lightweight,
5. a staff of lightning-fast film reporters,
6. an army of kinok-observers .
In our organization we distinguish amongst:
1. kinok-observers,
2 . kinok-cameramen ,
3. kinok-constructors [designers!.
4. kinok-editors (women and men) ,
5. kinok laboratory assistants.
We teach our methods of cinema work only to Komsomols and
Young Pioneers ; we pass on our skill and our technical experience
to the rising generation of young workers in whom we place our
We venture to assure both respectable and not-so-respectable
film directors that the cinema revolution is only beginning .
We will hold out without yielding a single position until the iron shift
of young people eventually arrives , and then , all together , we will
advance , over the head of bourgeois art-cinema , toward the cinematic October of the whole Soviet Union, of the whole world .
The Man with a Movie Camera
6. Kino-Eye on Its First Reconnaissance
Part One of the Film-object Life Caught Unawares
brothers at work with him simultaneously in different parts of the
editing of Kinoglaz, Part One, was done according to the editing
world and to see all his enemies , the exploiters .
We are taking our first steps in cinema, and that is why we are
scheme set forth in an earlier section of the present article.
called kinoks . Existing cinema, as a commercial affair , like cinema
as a sphere of art, has nothing in common with our work .
Even in technique we only partially overlap with so-called artistic
cinema, since the goals we have set for ourselves require a different
technical approach .
We have absolutely no need of huge studios or massive sets , just
as we have no need for ” mighty” film directors , “great” actors, and
“amazing,” photogenic women.
On the other hand, we must have:
1. quick means of transport,
2. more sensitive film,
In Part One we note the following themes :
1. The ” new” and the ” old.”
2. Children and grown-ups.
3. The cooperative system and the marketplace.
4. City and country.
5. The theme of bread.
6. The theme of meat.
7. A large theme: home-brew-cards-beer-shady
business ; “Ermakovka” -cocaine-tuberculosismadness-death. A theme to which I find it difficult to
A hostel on Kalanchevsky Street in Moscow-ed .

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