Media Semiotics:“Reading” Visual Texts, Part 2. Film Language Michael Fitzgerald HU-3000 Winter, 2009
Film “language”• Film does not literally have a “language” (we are using the word as a metaphor or comparison). • There is no basic linguistic unit, such as a word. • There is no formal grammar.• Film does, however, make statements, so it works like a language.• The closest devices it has to a real language are: – shots (could be compared to words) – scenes (like sentences) – sequences (like paragraphs) • However, these are often difficult to differentiate from one another: • A lengthy shot can be considered a scene. • Statements can be made within a shot, using movement, focus, color, proxemics, camera position, etc.).
Two types of film “statements”: Paradigmatic and syntagmatic• Paradigmatic: Everything that is seen in the shot (mise-en-scene) including how it is composed: – what to shoot – how to shoot it Usually associated with realism.• Syntagmatic (contextual)—usually associated with expressionism: – editing/“montage”
Paradigmatic statements• Mise-en-scene: everything in the shot, including how it is composed• Staging, sets, props, costumes, casting, etc.• Use of frame • Closed • Open• Proxemics /proximity (distance from camera) – ECU – CU – MS (“two-shot”) – LS – ELS• Proxemics /“blocking”: use of space, placement of actors, etc.• Composition – lines (vertical; horizontal; diagonal or oblique) – lighting source/direction – camera angle/PoV • tilt (low/high; up/down): look for horizon • roll (slant) • crane (extremely high) • overhead/”bird’s-eye view “(often with see-through ceiling) • helicopter (ELS): God’s-eye view
More paradigmatic statements• Choice of film: – Low or hi-rez (70 mm, 35 mm, 16 mm or Super-8; videotape). Low rez (grainy) suggests immediacy and actuality.• Lighting: – Available (“magic hour”) or artificial. – bright or dark (noir). – key, fill, back, etc. – silhouette (back light only).• Colors: – warmth, coolness, danger, passion, etc. – color intensity (saturation).• Focus: – sharp – soft (sometimes done with filters or screens) – planar (rack shot/rack focus): can alternate between two planes – deep focus (dev. by Gregg Toland; see Citizen Kane) – zoom in or out (what does zoom-in to ECU of face imply?)• Camera movement: – track shot, dolly shot, truck shot, crane (or motorized Louma) shot, sky-cam – hand-held (shaky). Documentary style: suggests immediacy, actuality, action
Close-ups• Camera angles, close-ups, and editing techniques contribute to viewers’ feelings toward a character.• Viewers do not care much either way about characters seen at a distance.• They are more likely to empathize or identify with a character who is often seen in close- ups.Meyrovitz, Joshua. “Multiple Media Literacies.” Journal of Communications 48 (1). Winter 1998: 96-108.
Syntagmatic statements• Two images juxtaposed suggest a third meaning:
Montage (Fr.: “mounting” or “assembling”• In US called cutting or editing (taking away)• Logical purpose is to collapse time (fast-forward), skip mundane details (“cut to the chase”), eliminate dead air, etc.• Occurs in: – storytelling, jokes, etc. – novels (“meanwhile, back at the ranch…”) – dreams (jump cuts)
Two basic concepts of montage:Diachronic (chronological or linear):• One idea leads chronologically to the next: • shot/reaction shot • dissolve to next scene • match cut• One idea leads logically (in terms of how the story is being told) to the next: • Flashback/flash-forward • What about Memento?Synchronic (non-linear):• Two or more things appear to happen simultaneously: • Parallel editing (“cross-cutting”): two scenes occurring at the same time (chase scene) • Two separate story lines that converge later (or maybe never—used often in serials)• Scenes/shots may have no logical relationship but are juxtaposed strictly for emotional effect: • Sergei Eisenstein (Soviet filmmaker) • Ox-slaughtering images in Apocalypse Now • Can be used to connote fast action or excitement • Often used in TV commercials and music videos to hold viewer interest— simply because movement in itself is compelling
Realist fictionBorrows from documentary/actuality– location shoots– hand-held camera technique– grainy film– available lighting– long takes, minimal editing– edits are usually linear, chronological– nonprofessional actorsEx.: Lumiere brothers, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895).
Expressionism– dream-like, fantastical, mythical– montage/jump cuts– non-linear editing– shot on sets– staged lighting– viewers expected to “fill in” their own meaningsEx.: Georges Melies, Trip to the Moon (1902) Robt. Wiene, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Classical Hollywood style• well-known actors• heavy on glamour, myth, fantasy• careful lighting (three-source)• carefully controlled sound• careful, often elaborate camera work (Steadicam, tracks shots, cranes, helicopters, etc.)• high-resolution film• smooth, precise (“invisible”) editing• usually linear, mostly chronological• does most of the “work” for viewers
Classical Hollywood style• Where does classical Hollywood drama fall in the realism-expressionism continuum? – actuality (no editing, Lumiere Bros.) – verite/direct cinema (stark documentary style, minimal editing, minimal or no story line—“slice of life”) – narrative documentary style – realist fiction – classical (Hollywood) – expressionist (Melies, Weine, etc.) – experimental (Dziga Vertov)
Quotes“Everything about a movie is manipulation.” –Frederick Wiseman, documentary filmmaker“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” – Alfred Hitchcock