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Beginner Activities

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 13 years, 4 months ago

Film Basics

"How do I feel during a certain sequence, and how does the filmmaker make me feel that way?" This is the essential question for students to ask themselves as they view a film. Like the words of a novel, everything we see and hear on screen is put there intentionally, and everything contributes to the overall meaning. If students only talk about the story in a film, they miss the opportunity to analyze and interpret the film and the filmmaker's craft.

In film, those story elements (plot, character, theme, etc.) plus the production elements (camera angles, lighting, acting, etc.) make the narrative. How does lighting set a mood? How does a director create a sense of intimacy in a scene? How is a character's loneliness emphasized visually? How are various characters made sympathetic? How can the camera replace dialogue? How is point of view manipulated? How can sound intensify emotion or heighten suspense? Like looking closely at the writer's craft to see how he or she "showed" rather than merely "told," looking at film with a little knowledge of visual composition, camera movement, editing, and sound can make students active rather than passive viewers.

The basic unit of meaning in written texts is the word. The basic unit of meaning in film is the shot (the frames produced by one continuous take of the camera, without cuts). Editing -- how the shots are organized into a sequence-is what makes the narrative. The order in which shots follow each other is as important as the shots themselves. For example, imagine a sequence that begins with a shot of a woman and a man embracing. We understand from seeing this that the two people are attracted to each other -- maybe even in love. But if this shot then cuts to a shot of someone secretly watching, and if that person is the woman's husband, we have a whole new layer of information. If the camera then cuts to a close-up of his face and he is smiling rather than looking upset, the film goes in yet another direction.

To take another example, we can look at the series of crosscuts (rapid cuts between two different scenes) in an early segment of Othello.There the shots move rapidly between a high-ranking police officer's black-tie dinner and a street riot. This creates rising tension, emphasizes themes to come, and provides irony -- especially when we see the police chief at the dinner announce, "We won't surrender the streets to mob rule," just before a shot of a man smashing a car window while all around him a mob screams. (For a more in-depth discussion of the concept of mise en scène -- a term which refers to everything that is seen on screen -- you may want to read Warren Buckland's Teach Yourself Film Studies. See Resources.)







These activities will help students understand the language of film.


  1. Practice becoming more aware of images by doing an "image skimming" exercise. Watch a short segment of a film, TV show, or commercial and concentrate on each frame. Then turn it off and list as many specific images as you can remember. Practice describing the shots, building up from two or three until you can get several in a row. You might even have a contest with your classmates to see who can list the most.

  2. Cut compelling pictures from magazines, then explain what techniques make them that way. See if you can find examples that illustrate each kind of camera shot listed in the Glossary. If you have a video or still camera, you might extend this activity by photographing or videotaping examples of the terms in the glossary.

  3. Try the filmmaker's exercise of sequencing or storyboardingten shots to show a simple activity or event. Your ten shots can illustrate something simple and everyday -- someone making dinner or leaving in the morning to go to school -- or they can illustrate a more complicated event, such as an interaction between two people.

  4. In Reading in the Dark, John Golden suggests rolling up a piece of paper into a tube and using it to visualize various shots and camera angles. As you look through the rolled-up paper, you are a director looking through the lens of a camera. For instance, look at someone across the room, framed so that you can see their entire body in a long shot. Then roll up your "camera" more tightly so that you can see only their face in a close-up. You can look at someone from a low angle, with that person standing on a chair and you looking up; a high angle could be demonstrated by standing on a chair and looking down at someone below. You can also use your paper "cameras" to pan across the classroom or to tilt from a high to a low angle.


  1. Listen to a section of film without viewing the images. As you listen, draw a line graph tracking the intensity of the music, dialogue, and sound effects. Look at your graph. What can you guess was on the screen? Now turn off the sound and view only the images in this same sequence of film. Make another line graph, this time showing the intensity of the action based on visual cues (what you see on the screen). Compare your two graphs. How similar are they? Finally, watch the sequence with the sound on. How well do the images and the sound work together? What happens when sound is missing? What can a filmmaker use sound and music to do?

  2. In Seeing and Believing, Ellen Krueger and Mary Christel recommend learning to appreciate the role of sound in film by creating a "soundscape." To do this, they suggest making a one-minute audiotape that tells a story through music, sound effects, background sound, and the use of only five words (the words are optional). You might do this in groups, either using a scene from literature or writing an original short paragraph first that describes the actions and mood you want to create. To collect these sounds you might go around your house, school, or community, or borrow them from sound effects recordings. Let your classmates listen to the audiotape. What images do they bring to mind? Write a story to accompany the sounds.

All Together Now

  1. Nothing in a film sequence or in the text of a novel is accidental, but there is much that might escape your notice the first time you view a film or read a story. Build up your observation skills by watching the same segment of a film -- perhaps the opening -- several times. Make a list of the new things you notice with each viewing. If you are reading the literary version of the same story, try making this same list as you reread the scene several times.

  2. How do people's perceptions and opinions of films vary based on their age, race, gender, and circumstances? Choose a recent film about which there was some controversy, and ask as many people as you can about their opinions of the film. (Be sure you reach a diverse group.) What conclusions can you draw? Can you imagine some circumstances in which you might change your own opinion of this film? Describe them.

  3. Use Avi's picture book Silent Movie to explore the art of filmmaking. The book, illustrated by C. B. Mordan, uses framed pictures and sparse dialogue -- reminiscent of the panels used in silent pictures -- to tell the story of an immigrant family in America. After examining Silent Movie, create your own version, either from a book you are reading in class or your own original story. Illustrate the panels and provide the dialogue and narration.


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