LZ411 – Critical Media
theory Semiotics of the moving image

Aims …
•To explore the moving image as ‘visual
language’ usin...
A (short) initial example

‘Pockets’ – James Lees (2008)
The problem of analysing the
moving image (film/video)
“Film is too intelligible, which is what makes it difficult to
anal...
The visual and the verbal

“The artist’s choice in cinema is without limit; the artist’s
choice in literature is circumscr...
Verbal language
“A man is sitting with his dog”

“A man is sitting with a dog on his shoulder”

“A man is sitting with a d...
Verbal language
“Sitting on a bench, a young women is resting her
head on the shoulder of an older woman. They are
hugging...
Volver (2006) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Volver (2006) – Pedro Almodovar

8
Visual and verbal ‘languages’: key
differences
• verbal signs are arbitrary
• (Moving) image signs are motivated

face
Wha...
Shots as utterances
1. Shots are infinite, words limited. Shots are thus more like
statements.
2. Shots are creations, whe...
Filmmaker choices – the
paradigmatic
• Choices of what to shoot (the pro-filmic) –
(connotations from social/cultural code...
The syntagmatic – putting it all together
• Choices of how to present within and across
shots:
• The organization of space...
Denotation/connotation in the moving
image

Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcok
Putting it all together
In our semiotic analysis of the moving image we are going to focus on various
codes: choices of si...
Pockets
Reading
Edgar-Hunt, R., Marland, J. and Rawle, S.
(2010) The language of film. Lausanne: AVA
books.
Available via our onli...
Semiotics moving image 2013
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  • Could use pockets or other short docs to illustrate some of the points here…
  • JAMES LEES ‘POCKETS’ (2008) Britdoc festival exhibited also on channel 4 commissioned. New Directors chosen to work with established composers.
    To what extent is ‘film language’ like verbal language?
    Is there such a thing as film ‘grammar’?
    Are there any ways in which ‘film language’ can never be like verbal language?
  • What does this mean?
    What is the smallest unit of construction? Is it the frame? Technically yes. In terms of meaning no.
    “The fact is that film, unlike written or spoken language, is not composed of units as such, but is rather a continuum of meaning”
  • The arbitrary nature of the minimal functional units (phonemes) and smallest meaningful units (morphemes)
    A discrete system – we can break the system down into 40 or so phonemes (in English)
    These phonemes combine into thousands of morphemes (words)
    Combinations of morphemes lead to infinite number of utterances
    Why? – ‘Double articulation’
    Can articulate (break):
    sentences into morphemes
    morphemes into phonemes
    It is raining. Example
    Morphemes = it + is + rain + ing
    Phonemes /i/ /t/ /s/ /r/ /ei/ /n/ /ŋ/
    40 or so phonemes lead to thousands of morphemes (words) which lead to an infinity of utterances
    combining words is incredibly powerful
    arbitrary nature of the minimal functional units
    Low choice
    At the lowest level we have no choice; to speak English we must use the 40 or so phonemes.
    In combination into words we have more choice but not unlimited. ‘Biyot’ is my own choice of combination that extends beyond what is currently possible with the language.
    In combining words into sentences we are bound only by syntactical rules
    Finally in combining sentences into discourse we have complete choice (within the bounds of coherence and social acceptability).
    High choice
  • There seems to be less to say about this shot. That’s partly because of the framing and partly because of the more naturlistic feel to the shot e.g. lighting, conventions of documentary, however we can still talk about the particular choices made here in terms of framing, lighting, gaze, shot length, focus, then the pose, clothing, tattoos, the dog etc (as a kind of prop) which all leads us to consider particualr connotations of who this person is and more importantly rather than the specific history (name background etc.) of this actual person who instead functions as a signifer of a different kind. Of a ‘social type’
  • The arbitrary nature of the minimal functional units (phonemes) and smallest meaningful units (morphemes)
    A discrete system – we can break the system down into 40 or so phonemes (in English)
    These phonemes combine into thousands of morphemes (words)
    Combinations of morphemes lead to infinite number of utterances
    Why? – ‘Double articulation’
    Can articulate (break):
    sentences into morphemes
    morphemes into phonemes
    It is raining. Example
    Morphemes = it + is + rain + ing
    Phonemes /i/ /t/ /s/ /r/ /ei/ /n/ /ŋ/
    40 or so phonemes lead to thousands of morphemes (words) which lead to an infinity of utterances
    combining words is incredibly powerful
    arbitrary nature of the minimal functional units
    Low choice
    At the lowest level we have no choice; to speak English we must use the 40 or so phonemes.
    In combination into words we have more choice but not unlimited. ‘Biyot’ is my own choice of combination that extends beyond what is currently possible with the language.
    In combining words into sentences we are bound only by syntactical rules
    Finally in combining sentences into discourse we have complete choice (within the bounds of coherence and social acceptability).
    High choice
  • Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura as Raimunda and Irene in Volver (2006) directed by Pedro Almodovar. This is a beautiful film about death and women.
    Put this into words. Can you put this into words? The problem is with what the ‘this’ is. This, to some degree at least, is someone else’s ‘this’. It is a specfic this. It is in the language of semiotics, composed of motivated not arbitrary signs.
    What does this mean to you? (asking about signifieds)
    How does it create its meaning? (although this elides the audience) (asking about signifiers)
    What is the relationship between the signifier and the signified? i.e. between the form of the sign (signifier) and the meaning(s) of the sign (signifieds)? (RECAP SIGNIFIER AND SIGNIFIED) Where do these meanings come from?
    Mention the staging - theatrical look - lighting, focus, placement of ‘props’, placement of characters, backdrop, the mise en scene:
    • Production Design: sets, props and costumes
    • Colour (present in both production design and lighting)
    • Lighting
    • Actors’ performance (including casting and make up) and movement (blocking)
    • Framing including position; depth of field; aspect ratio; height and angle (but not movement)
    • Diegetic sound (that is, sound that emanates from the scene and is not extraneous to it, such as the music that is not being played within the scene or a voice-over)
    From http://www.mediaed.org.uk/posted_documents/Teaching_mise_en_scene.htm
    Cultural and textual knowledge – knowledge of cultural norms and codes and knowledge of media (textual conventions and codes)
    As a feature (fiction) film, with complex charactrisation and narrative strategies, meanings come not only from the social type
  • “Where the smallest recurrent structural unit in a code is meaningful, the code has first articulation only.” (chandler 2001)
    Visual media therefore generally have the first level of articulation but not the second.
    Metz and others have argued that in film the first articulation equivalent is the shot but this is not equivalent to a word (or morpheme) but rather to a sentence or utterance.
  • Film maker choices and culturally determined meanings. 44 shots in 1 minute 18 seconds. What filmic choices can be made, what is available to filmmakers as resources in order not only to narrate an event (easy) in a succession of images, but to create a feeling, a mood, a tension, fear, horror etc.
    Here I want to emphasise the particualr resources available to film makers, moving image makers. This is to the way the assembly of a series of shots into a whole can creaet meanings beyond any one shot.
    We’ll be discussing Barthes notion of different narrative codes in the seminar. You’ll also be reading about this in the reading this week online. Part of his codification of a literary text involved developing the idea of what are the different codes of meaning in narratives. Then we can identify key signs within the text (the narrative) which trigger these different types of meaning.
    Enigma code – the setting up of puzzles questions and answers across the narrative as a whole
    Connotative code – of character and setting which add up to tell us about the character (the psychic reality of the character)
    Action code – signs which indicate the advancement of the story
    Symbolic code – the way antitheses or oppositions are embodied within the narrative
    Cultural code – the way a text refers to things already known – cultural and social knowledge
    the key denotations connotations of key signs within the sequence. Considering how the different shots make up the sequence
  • Semiotics moving image 2013

    1. 1. LZ411 – Critical Media theory Semiotics of the moving image Aims … •To explore the moving image as ‘visual language’ using semiotics •To identify the different codes operating in moving image texts (social and cinematographic) •To practise semiotic analysis of short moving image texts (short docs, TV intros and TV adverts)
    2. 2. A (short) initial example ‘Pockets’ – James Lees (2008)
    3. 3. The problem of analysing the moving image (film/video) “Film is too intelligible, which is what makes it difficult to analyze… … A film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand” Monaco, J. (2000) How to read a film 3rd ed., New York: Oxford University Press (citing Metz (1974))
    4. 4. The visual and the verbal “The artist’s choice in cinema is without limit; the artist’s choice in literature is circumscribed, while the reverse is true of the observer: the great thing about literature is that you can imagine; the great thing about film is that you can’t.” (Monaco 2000:158)
    5. 5. Verbal language “A man is sitting with his dog” “A man is sitting with a dog on his shoulder” “A man is sitting with a dog on his shoulder, looking at us”
    6. 6. Verbal language “Sitting on a bench, a young women is resting her head on the shoulder of an older woman. They are hugging”
    7. 7. Volver (2006) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar Volver (2006) – Pedro Almodovar 8
    8. 8. Visual and verbal ‘languages’: key differences • verbal signs are arbitrary • (Moving) image signs are motivated face What’s the difference in meaning? ’Face’ is generalised/abstract. It means ‘a face’ is specific. It means ‘this face’
    9. 9. Shots as utterances 1. Shots are infinite, words limited. Shots are thus more like statements. 2. Shots are creations, whereas words are shared. 3. Shots present ‘a quantity of undefined information’ unlike words. 4. Shots are like assertions. The image of a house doesn’t signify ‘house’ (abstract) but ‘Here is a house’ (an actualised house). Statements do the same. 5. “Words are always part of at least one more or less organized semantic field…Only to a small extent does a shot assume its meaning in paradigmatic contrast to other shots that might have occurred” Metz, C. (1974) Film Language. A semiotics of the cinema. (p.115)
    10. 10. Filmmaker choices – the paradigmatic • Choices of what to shoot (the pro-filmic) – (connotations from social/cultural codes) - e.g. setting, costume, acting, dialogue etc. Mise-en-scene • Choices of how to shoot (connotations from cinematographic codes) - e.g. lighting, shot size, framing, lens and camera movement, angle, focus etc. Cinematography • Choices of how to edit (connotations from editing codes) – e.g. rhythm, duration, matches, transitions etc. Editing
    11. 11. The syntagmatic – putting it all together • Choices of how to present within and across shots: • The organization of space - mise-en-scène • The organization of time – editing
    12. 12. Denotation/connotation in the moving image Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcok
    13. 13. Putting it all together In our semiotic analysis of the moving image we are going to focus on various codes: choices of signs in terms of editing, sound, cinematrography and profilmic choices. 1) Mise en scène – setting, props, dress, performance, lighting, colour, composition of elements within a shot etc 2) Cinematography – framing, camera angle, shot size, length of take, camera and lens movement, depth of field and focus etc 3) Editing – transitions, matching and duration etc 4) Sound – voice/effects/music, parallel/contrapuntal, rhythm and image/soundtrack editing relationships (sound bridges) etc 5) Narrative codes (more on this next week)
    14. 14. Pockets
    15. 15. Reading Edgar-Hunt, R., Marland, J. and Rawle, S. (2010) The language of film. Lausanne: AVA books. Available via our online library also the ‘reading list’ on the studentcentral module.
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