How to Close Read a Film

by Nathan Roberts, Departmental Writing Fellow in Art, Film, and Visual Studies

Departmental Writing Fellows offer discipline-specific writing support to students taking courses in that department. This post is adapted from a handout Nathan shared at a recent workshop on close reading film for students in AFVS.

Step 1: Decide what to focus on depending on your assignment.

  • Are you working on a film review or critique? For a critique, it will typically be important to pay attention to the overall structure of the film, as well as salient details.  
  • Are you working on a paper? For a paper, it will be important to attend to the overall structure and specific/salient scenes and sequences that stand out as evidence for a specific argument that you’re trying to make.
    • This lends a paper care and focus and helps avoid the temptation of summary or plot analysis.
    • When choosing specific scenes, you still need to consider their place and function within the film as a whole. Ask: what sequences complicate or even contradict the reading of one specific scene? (Ex: “somewhere over the rainbow” vs. “there’s no place like home.”)

Step 2: Set watching goals depending on how many times you will be able to watch the film.

If it’s a rare film or a film that will only be shown once, I suggest these goals:

  • Consume a good amount of caffeine–but not too much.
  • Warm up by watching anything by the director/featuring the actor/etc. that’s readily available. This will attune you toward issues of style, interests, etc.  
  • Take notes in the dark about all salient features that you notice. This will help  activate your mind and your attention. Don’t worry if these are readable when writing– the main goal here is developing an active mind and memory.  As soon as the film ends, leave the theater and try to decipher your notes. Write down/type out as much as you remember.

If the film is readily available, and you’re writing a paper on it, I suggest that you watch it several times.

First watch: Note striking elements.

On the first watch of all films watched for a class, note only the aspects that stand out most to you. Focus on aspects that seem strange, weird, unusual captivating. Writing these down can keep your active attention, without expending too much mental energy on your paper. Most people find this kind of intense energy hard to sustain, especially if the film is long, and so they eventually give up writing notes all together. Noting the most striking elements will help you know which films you want to write about – trust your instincts to propel you further into your paper.

Second watch: Note the film’s formal features.

In this watch, note all the salient formal features that stand out to you.

What are formal features? Features related to how the film is uniquely crafted as a cinematic object.

Film formal features to start with: storyboarding elements (camera angles: wide shot, medium shot, close up, extreme close up, etc. memorize them. Then camera moving: left, right, up, down, track, pan, dolly, rack focus, etc.)

Then think about: what’s in the frame, what does the frame focus on?

Then consider: issues of editing: cuts, rhythm, order of shots, etc.

Then posit: sound – most people don’t attend to sound. Sound can give you a major analytical advantage if you pay attention to it – many scholars don’t

Try to list as many film formal features as you can! Don’t be afraid to be obvious/mechanical with our observation at this point.

Tip: when it comes to things like lighting or other more ephemeral aspects, YouTube or Vimeo will be extremely helpful. People have made video essays dealing with almost all of these film formal features. (If you can and you have filmmaker friends, try to get on a set, even the set of a student film.)

How can you learn more formal features?

Yale Film Analysis guide. Detailed GIFS, etc. The more you know, the better.

When it comes to things like lighting or other more ephemeral aspects, YouTube or Vimeo will be extremely helpful. People have made video essays dealing with almost all of these film formal features. (If you can and you have filmmaker friends, try to get on a set, even the set of a student film.)

Third watch: Think about what these elements do in a sequence or in the film.

An easy way to think about this is to ask yourself: “how could this have been filmed differently, and why?”

Tip: If you have access to a digital copy of the film, edit out specific scenes, or crop shots… play with what’s on the screen. If you’re thinking about sound, mute the soundtrack and see how this changes things.

Or: Play your own soundtrack under the sequence to see how this changes the tonality or affect of the sequence.

If you’re thinking about temporal spread, rhythm, compression, etc., use a stopwatch to think about how long sequences are. (In the middle sequence of an action film, for instance, you may discover that the sequence is edited faster than earlier sequences, but not as fast as later sequences. This will be useful.)

Think about how the accumulation of edited scenes make meaning. (The Kuleshov Effect.)

Final watch: Think about what these elements mean–not necessarily what they represent.

Sometimes symbols do exist in films, but asking what the film enacts or exemplifies gets you beyond the secondary quality of representation.

Representation (symbolization, etc.) tends to point toward something external to the text, something beyond what you’re reading. Enacting or exemplification does not. It does something in the world through the film; it creates something that does not necessarily exist outside of the film. And, crucially, it allows one to analyze elements that are not necessarily intentionally placed in the film by creators.

This final step will often leave you with a contestable claim or argument––and that is ok. That is the point of making arguments and engaging in academic dialogue and discourse.

Your claims should be, by this point, based firmly in how the film is constructed and what it is doing. Your close reading observations therefore put you in an immediate position of authority and allow you to make strong claims. Your approach forces potential intellectual opponents to return to the text, and argue from turf that you’ve already trodden. Therefore, your close reading has immediately made arguments that are grounded and productive.

If you are an undergraduate enrolled in a film course you can discuss a draft of any assignment with the DWF. Schedule an office hour appointment here!