Tips on Film Viewing

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

Part 1

Tips on Film Viewing - Part One:

Watching a film's moving image, other than just for pure entertainment's sake, is usually enhanced by viewing it with an informed awareness of how a film works, and with some understanding, skill and background training in the elements of the craft of film-making. Each film viewer or movie-goer should strive to be a 'critic' (in the best and most general sense of the word) and be receptive to the full experience.

Viewing a film critically and attentively means to realize cinema with greater thought and awareness, and to elevate one's celluloid experience. It also means possessing an informed knowledge of the film's complex and dense 'language,' its conventions, codes, symbols, cinematic attributes, and other factors.

Before investigating a film more thoroughly for a serious film buff, read about various aspects of film-making, including film terms essential to know in order to fully understand the 'language' of film. (See this site's illustrated Film Terms Glossary for definitions of many terms used here.)

This short list is provided for the average movie-goer to stimulate thought about film, and help the viewer to become cinematically-literate. 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 ( 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 some simple suggestions, as a first step, for viewing a film intelligently:

How to Watch a Film - The Fundamentals
Choose an Appropriate Film to View:

Usually, watch a film that is worth your while. If you are in a film studies class, you will probably be studying some of the classics of cinema, rather than watching the latest popcorn film, action film or blockbuster.

This exhaustive list of various steps is not intended for fluffy, entertaining films that are to be watched for pure enjoyment's sake. However, make sure to choose a film from any of the wide selection of genre films available so that you can experience the entire spectrum of different types of films.

Know The Basics:

Note the following basic facts (see some of these factors further below):

  • film's title (and alternate titles or production titles, if any)
  • year of release
  • main stars/performers
  • director
  • studio
  • rating
  • running time
  • genre classification
  • brief summary
  • tagline(s)
  • awards

Identify Studio:

Know the studio responsible for the film. Was it made by a major studio, a minor studio, or an independent?

Why was the film made?

Note Film's Rating:

Consider the film's official MPAA rating (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, or unrated). See Film Ratings Guide.

Was there any controversy surrounding the film's rating?

Classify Film's Genre:

Decide on the film's principal type, its genre and sub-genre categories (such as action, adventure, musical, comedy, etc.). If it's a hybrid (a combination of two or more genres), what are they?

How does the film fit (or not fit) into its conventional, recognizable classifications?

Write One-Liner Summary:

If you were to write a short 'one-liner' summary to describe the film (often called a synopsis or film treatment), what would it be?

Classify Type of Film:

Read about whether the film is a sequel, prequel, re-make, a spoof, an homage film, etc.

Are there other versions of the film's story or tale?

Briefly Evaluate Production Values:

Does the film have one or the other:

  • high-production values (with a glossy and expensive look)
  • low-production values (it's a low-budget, amateurish, B-film)

Look Up Awards and Honors:

Find out about the film's major awards (i.e., the Academy Awards ), nominations, or other honors bestowed upon it.

Have a Second Viewing: [Note: Not all films deserve such scrutiny.]

Watch a deserving film more than once, and preferably with others so that the experience may be discussed afterwards.

During the first viewing:

  • become familiar with the basic plot, main characters, important action, etc.
  • in other words, acquire a brief synopsis of its story including time and place, the characters and their interactions, and the film's main themes without taking notes

The second time around:

  • pay more detailed attention to what is being projected
  • take notes and make observations
  • begin to think in a more concentrated way about the film's structure, acting, directing, the camera shots and angles, etc.

Turn on Dialogue Subtitles:

Use the closed-caption feature with DVDs, in order to better understand the dialogue.

[Note: Oftentimes, the subtitles are abbreviated or modified and do not match the actual spoken words.]

Examine Title and Credits:

Consider a film's main title and its opening credits:

  • Why was the specific title chosen (were there any other alternatives considered?), and how do the credits establish a tone or mood?
  • What are the first sounds and images in the film?
  • Can you find any motifs in the credits?
  • Do the end credits have any unusual features (e.g., out-takes, gags, additional footage, etc.).

[Note: Up until the 1950s, films had a very set format for the credits: (1) credits at the start, (2) a "The End" title card following the film, and (3) a cast list with character names. Recently, most films immediately begin with a plot sequence, with 'opening' credits ("main title") super-imposed over them after a few minutes, and extensive rolling 'full credits' ("end title"), usually white text on a black background, after the film concludes.]

Use Freeze-Frames:

Be prepared to pause (the freeze technique allows one to 'see' how everything is positioned in a frame) and to replay various scenes, shots, or sequences.

Listen Carefully to the Soundtrack:

Prepare to listen carefully to the film's soundtrack and how the music, songs, and score enhance the actions of the characters and the film's mood.

Watch Film Extras:

Play the added special features of most DVDs, including audio commentary, the original theatrical trailer or teaser, deleted scenes, and other related material.

Maintain Objectivity:

Maintain objectivity to what is being presented, without pre-judging the film based on what you've heard about it (from critics or friends), your preconceptions about the actors in it, the reputation of the director, etc.

Overall Quality:

View the film as a whole, realizing that it is composed of the sum of all of its parts. Some individual parts may be 'great' but the film must hold together, and be cohesive and meaningful in its entirety.

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