This handout discusses ways to approach film as a visual medium. It offers suggestions for focus, prewriting tips, and guidance on how to think critically about a medium many of us think of as popular entertainment. It does not include a comprehensive list of technical film terminology, although it does provide links to several sources that do. This handout deals with decoding film as a viewer, considering how the film appears rather than how it was made. Overview: What are Visual Rhetoric and Visual Literacy?
The simplest definition for visual rhetoric is how/why visual images communicate meaning. Note that visual rhetoric is not just about superior design and aesthetics but also about how culture and meaning are reflected, communicated, and altered by images. Visual literacy involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image, as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image.
Moving from Passive to Active Viewing
How writers get from images on a screen and sound from a speaker to the variety of impressions with which a powerful film leaves the audience? Most people can recount the plot of a film, usually after watching it only once. It is more difficult to explain how the images and sounds presented make up such a narrative, communicating meaning not just through the characters’ actions, but also through framing, camera movement (reframing), editing, optical effects, lens choice, sound, and a number of other technical elements that often go unnoticed by viewers looking for the plot.
Through careful attention to what occurs on the screen (and how it got there), the reviewer identifies the visual strategies employed by a film to elicit a certain effect. The best way to do this accurately, and a good starting point for understanding how any film works, is to watch it carefully and observantly, to take notes while watching, and to watch it more than once.
The list of things that go into any single film can be daunting. To make the task of approaching film from an analytical viewpoint more manageable, this handout addresses four basic components of film:
1)Image; 2)Movement; 3)Sound-Image, the Miseenscène (When applied to the cinema, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before thecamera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting); 4)Framing
DVD and electronic technology makes it very easy to get a clear still image, which is a good place to start to think about how film builds images into meaning. The two main things to pay attention to in a film image are miseenscène and framing. Miseenscène is a French term meaning literally “put in the scene,” and it was originally adapted from the theater. It refers to everything that goes into a film before it is photographed, including set dressing or location, costumes, lighting, actors, blocking (actor locations and movement), and dialogue. These elements constitute what occurs if the viewers were there with the crew when the scenes were being filmed. The camera adds to this framing (setting the bounds of the image, usually in a rectangle) and camera movement (reframing). Framing is as important for still photography as it is for film, since it works with miseenscène to determine the overall composition of the image. Moving from Description to Analysis
Here are three descriptions of the same image:
Orson Welles, The Trial (1962)
1. K. is asking the Advocate for help.
2. K. is framed in the center of the shot, with the Advocate dominating the right side of the frame. The setting is fancy but dilapidated, and there are two prominent light sources, one from the deep space behind K. and another lighting the faces of the two figures.
3. Although K. is framed in the center of the shot, there is no doubt as to who has the power h3. Although K. is framed in the center of the shot, there is no…