Tips on Film Viewing

How to Watch Movies
Intelligently and Critically
(in two parts)

Part 2




Tips on Film Viewing - Part Two: This additional list of 'how-to's' is provided for the advanced movie-goer to stimulate thought about film. It gives helpful hints on the art of reading, analyzing, watching, critically viewing, and deconstructing a film (to take apart the film's components and interpret how it was all intentionally assembled together).

Anyone can learn the language, techniques, and structure of cinema of both the past and present. The Internet Movie DataBase (www.imdb.com) is always a useful resource for factual information about films. See also this site's Film Search page for other helpful film resources.

Here are additional, more detailed components to discover when critically viewing a film, to improve one's cinematic sensibility and literacy, and to unpack further layers of meaning:

How to Watch a Film - In More Depth
Learn About the Film's Production:

Know the film's dates of production; study the production credits to learn more about the film's production; research any interesting facts about the 'making of' the film.

Understand Marketing:

Discover how the film was marketed and/or distributed - what were its taglines, posters and trailers? See this site's section on Great Film Taglines.

Know Original Screensize:

Watch a film in a movie theater, if possible, where it was designed to be projected, or purchase the film in a 'wide-screen' format or in its original format.

[Note: Understand that films made before the late 1950s had a width-to-height aspect ratio of 4:3 (or 1.33:1) called 'Academy Ratio,' similar to a television screen, while more modern films have non-standard, wide-screen ratios (that are often viewed in the pan-and-scan mode).]

Determine Choice of Film Stock:

Consider why the film was made as either color or black/white (if a choice was possible).

Watch how color (or black and white) is used?

Research Budget and Box-Office:

What was the film's budget? Did it go over-budget or under-budget and why?

How did the film do at the box-office? Did it go straight to video? See this site's section on Top 100 Box-Office Hits of All Time.

Discover Film's Context:

What was the social, political, and/or historical context for the film?

Was there any controversy surrounding the film's release?

Learn About Initial Reception:

What was the film's original reception?

How is the film perceived today?

Read About Reviews and Reviewers/Critics' Opinions: or

Discern what major reviewers, press reviews, or critics have said about the film.

Also consider its critics' ratings (i.e., stars, "thumbs-up", letter grades, number ratings, etc.).

Understand Film's Influence:

Learn if the film had an influential impact on future films.

Did it pay homage to (or reference) a previous film in some way?

Study Narrative Origins and Script:

Learn about the script-screenwriter (and other works) - if a screenplay is available, compare it to the actual film.

Read about the narrative origins of the film (literary or otherwise):

  • Is it adapted from some other work, or based on an original idea? If adapted, how well does it follow the original?
  • If original, how fresh and innovative is it?

Does the film's screenplay effectively communicate the story through action and dialogue?

Learn Whether It's Fact or Fiction?:

  • If the film is based upon an historical event or person, how true to life is the film?
  • Is the film fact or fiction?
  • Does it mythologize an historical event or period?

Examine Plot, Structure or Story:

How is the film structured?

Determine the film's pivotal scene(s) and sequencing.

How is the story's plot told?

  • through normal exposition
  • by flashback
  • with a narrator (by voice-over)
  • chronologically or linearly
  • character-driven
  • objectively or subjectively
  • otherwise

Additional Questions to Decipher:

  • What is the vantage point from which the film is presented?
  • Does parallelism (the film cuts back and forth between two scenes that are happening simultaneously or at different times) exist between two or more scenes?
  • Are the transitions between scenes effective?
  • Is there a climax and resolution (and denouement)?
  • Does the film's narrative provide continuity from scene to scene?
  • Is there closure by film's end?

Study Running Time and Timeline:

Know the entire run time of the film and the locations of various segments (or sequences) or turning points within that time frame.

Keep track of the timeline of the film's parts - with the digital counter of a VCR or DVD player.

Ascertain Special (Visual) Effects:

Learn about the special (visual) effects within the film and determine how skillfully they are handled.

Consider whether the advanced, computer-generated technical aspects of the film are essential to the film's plot, or whether their unrestrained use overwhelms the dramatic, story-telling elements and sacrifices substance - namely, the plot and/or characters.

For reference, see this site's Greatest Visual/Special Effects in Film History.

Recognize Theme(s):

Look for the film's central theme, motif, idea or dominant message, as well as the film's sub-text (the message 'beneath the surface'), and then answer these questions:

  • Identify prominent symbols and metaphors within the film and determine their purpose and overall effect.
  • What popular ideologies are reproduced and reinforced in the film?
  • Does the film have an original theme or a traditional one?
  • Is the film's theme adequately or successfully supported by the story, acting, and other film elements?

Observe Style and Tone:

Decide the overall style and tone of the film (noirish, sophisticated, suspenseful, slapstick, etc.).

Observe Costuming:

Identify the use of period costumes, body physiques, hair-stylings, etc.

Identify Dialogue:

Identify the most important line(s) of dialogue, and identify any lengthy monologues or speeches (see this site's Greatest Speeches and Monologues).

Note how the dialogue is delivered (fast, mumbled, overlapping, loud/soft, etc.).

Are there any recurring lines of dialogue and how do they function?

Distinguish Characters and Acting Performances:

List the following:
  • the film's main characters (are their names significant?)
  • also consider a few of the minor characters and how they are used
  • a brief description for each one
  • their major motivations or ethical values/assumptions
  • their character development

Then, ask yourself these additional things:

  • Is there a hero or anti-hero?
  • Are the characters believable and three-dimensional?
  • Is the acting memorable, exceptional, or inferior?
  • Ask yourself about 'star quality' - why were specific performers (or stars) chosen (or cast) to play each role - were they appropriately cast (i.e., the right age or size, or with the proper accent)? Were any of the performers cast against type? Were there any debut performances?
  • Were their performances appropriate for the roles?
  • Was the acting professional or non-professional?
  • Does one performer steal the spotlight from others?

Disclose Stereotyping:

Were the popular stereotypes (attitudinal or imagined) about different kinds of people (fathers, gays, Native Americans, the elderly, women, the mentally-ill, blacks, rural folks, etc.) challenged or reinforced?

Were there any caricatures?

Reveal Directing:

Learn about the director's entire repertoire of films, stylistic characteristics, and favorite techniques.

Is the director a veteran or a novice?

How has the director shaped, auteured, interpreted or controlled every aspect of the film's making, and the telling of its story? See this site's Greatest Directors section.

Perceive Cinematography and Visual Cues:

Identify the film's cinematographer, stylistic and visual characteristics, use of lighting and color (or black and white) to create a mood, use of a static or moving camera, amount of closeups, and favorite techniques. Compare screen time to 'story time.'

Be attentive to various visual clues, such as the following:

  • establishing shots (the initial shot in a scene)
  • camera lighting (diffuse, high-key, low-key, muted, highlighting, spot-lighting, use of light and dark areas)
  • focusing (zooms, rack-focus, blurry, deep-focus)
  • camera distance and framing (full shots, medium shots, closeups)
  • compositions (positioning of elements, symmetrical vs. asymmetrical, use of shadows, doors, low ceilings, windows, mirrors, etc.)
  • camera angles (tilted, wide angle, telephoto, POV shots, low/high angled, etc.)
  • camera movements and shots (dolly shots, crane shots, pans, tracking, hand-helds, freeze-frames, reaction shots, the number and order of shots, the use of shot/reverse shots in conversations or interviews, etc.)
  • colors used (or color filtering)
  • film speed (reversed, or fast/slow-motion)

Overall, is the cinematography effective?

Listen to Score and/or Soundtrack:

Identify the film's composer, and any previous similar works. Note any memorable songs (and their lyrics) and/or dances.

Listen carefully to how the music/score functions within the film to underscore the action, to move the story along, or to provide an emotional tone or mood.

  • Is the film's soundtrack appropriate, subtle and effective, or inappropriate, overwhelming and domineering? Note if silence is used, at times, in place of sound

Find Out About Mis-en-Scene:

Understand the 'mis-en-scene' of the film. (Mis-en-scene can include the setting, costumes, make-up, lighting, and camera positioning and movement.)

How were the scenes 'orchestrated' or set up for the camera?

Identify Locations or Settings:

Identify the settings for each scene. Are they each appropriate and effective?

Note the different kinds of settings:

  • geographical (place)
  • temporal (time period)
  • locations (on-site)
  • studio sets
  • important props

Notice Film Conventions or Cliches:

Notice the typical conventions used in the film, for instance, (1) cars that crash will almost always burst into flames, or (2) all telephone numbers in America begin with the digits 555.

Detect Editing:

Is the film seamlessly and smoothly edited? (See this site's Great Film Editing Sequences)

Note the film's transitional edits, such as the following (see this site's Film Terms Glossary):

  • jump cuts
  • wipes
  • fade-ins
  • fade-outs
  • fade-to-black, dissolves
  • lap dissolves
  • mixes
  • use of montage or rapid cutting between shots
  • juxtapositions (cross-cutting, cutaways, match cuts)
  • aural editing (how music, noise, or transitional dialogue create the illusion of continuity between cuts)
  • the pace and rhythm of editing (the typical length and speed of sequences or shots)

Listen to Audio Clues:

Listen for the film's audio clues, including one of more of the following:

  • sound effects
  • music
  • dialogue or voice
  • silence

Study and distinguish the use of the following:

  • sound bridges
  • on-screen vs. off-screen sounds (to provide an impression of 3-D space)
  • post-synchronized sound vs. direct sound
  • diegetic sound (i.e., dialogue and sound effects)
  • non-diegetic sound (i.e., the musical score, narrative voice-overs)

Note when sound transitions do not match shot transitions.

 



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