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!

When you don’t have much time to revise, focus on topic sentences.

by Nicole Kagan and Nicolas Yan

What are topic sentences?

Topic sentences are sentences that lead each paragraph of an essay. Think of them as flags: at the beginning of each paragraph, you are “flagging” to the reader what the direction of the paragraph will be (more concretely, what the claim you are making in that paragraph is).  

Why are topic sentences important?

Topic sentences are important both for the reader and for the writer. Because topic sentences clearly present arguments in a way that flows, they allow a reader to understand not only the direction of each paragraph, but also the snowball structure of the paragraphs taken together. That is, before you can prove Y (your thesis), you must first prove X1, X2, and X3 (every claim made in the body paragraphs). For the writer, meanwhile, topic and supporting sentences are essential for conceptually and specifically outlining the structure of the essay and increasing its clarity. 

Paying attention to topic sentences can often deliver the highest return on investment when it comes to editing your paper, especially if you don’t have much time. As a general rule of thumb, somebody reading your essay should be able to gain a good understanding of what your argument is about by simply reading the introduction, each topic sentence, and the conclusion. By going through this “skim-reading” exercise and revisiting your topic sentences, you should be able to identify any logical or structural weaknesses in your argument, particularly with regards to the order of your paragraphs.

So what makes for an effective topic sentence?

An effective topic sentence should accomplish four main functions:

  1. It should highlight the claim (i.e., the main idea) of the paragraph that follows;
  2. It should organize and advance your argument by relating back to your thesis statement and developing your argument’s logical progression;
  3. It should create signposts that enable the reader to easily follow your argument, often by utilizing bridge words (see this blog post for more on bridge words); and
  4. It should be specific—if it would be possible to pick up your topic sentence and drop it into another essay with a different thesis, then it is not specific enough. 

To illustrate these functions more clearly, let’s take a look at the topic sentences of an example essay.

Imagine that you have been asked to discuss whether the most effective way of reducing gas consumption is providing government subsidies for electric vehicles. You might decide to argue this thesis:

Although subsidizing electric vehicles would help to reduce gas consumption, an effective government strategy must also boost the demand of electric vehicles relative to gas-powered cars by instituting a gas tax.

Your argument might proceed according to the following steps:

  1. First, you might begin with a general explanation of how subsidies work.
  2. Next, you might explain how subsidizing electric vehicle production would reduce gas consumption.
  3. Then, you might concede that pursuing a strategy of government subsidies in isolation may have some drawbacks.
  4. Next, you might argue that governments should simultaneously pair subsidies for electric vehicle production with a tax on gas.
  5. Finally, you might want to address a potential counterargument.

Your topic sentences should therefore mirror the structure of your argument:

  1. TS1: To understand this argument, it’s important to understand that government subsidies work by encouraging companies to increase the production of a particular good by lowering production costs.
  2. TS2: Government subsidies for electric vehicles would reduce gas consumption by increasing the supply, and decreasing the price, of electric vehicles.
  3. TS3: However, insofar as subsidizing electric vehicles would only target the supply of electric vehicles, pursuing such a strategy in isolation would have certain drawbacks.
  4. TS4: Therefore, in order to target both the supply of and the demand for electric vehicles, governments should simultaneously pair electric vehicle subsidies with a gas tax.
  5. TS5: Though some might argue that subsidizing public transportation would be a more effective way of reducing gas consumption, such a policy would overlook those who live in more rural areas that lack connectivity to public transportation networks. 

Each of these example topic sentences clearly highlights the claim, or main idea, of the paragraph that will follow. Additionally, these sentences clearly organize and advance the argument—each topic sentence logically builds upon the previous one. The argument would not make sense if the topic sentences were rearranged (for example, TS4 could not precede TS3, since the claim in TS4 logically depends on the claim in TS3). Furthermore, using signpost words (like “however,” and “therefore”) helps to signal transitions between ideas to the reader. And perhaps most important, these topic sentences make specific claims that would not easily fit into a different argument. Finally, they pass the “skim-reading” test; reading each of the topic sentences would give the reader a pretty good idea of the overall argument, even without the body paragraphs.

The Nuclear Option: How to Write a Paper the Night Before It’s Due

by Sam Berman-Cooper

We’ve all been in this situation. 7pm. Paper due tomorrow at noon. No draft. No outline. No time machine. What do you do, what do you do?

Have no fear! Here are a few Quick Tips you can follow to avert disaster.

1. Ask yourself: Have I done the reading? If your answer is “no” go on to step 2. If you answer is “yes,” ask yourself “what are 4 or 5 interesting facts about the reading? If you cannot produce said facts, you answered incorrectly. You may have “done” the reading, but in practice, you may as well have not. Go on to step 2. If you are confident in your mastery of the necessary reading, ask yourself “do I have a good idea to write about?” If your answer is “no,” go to step 3. If your answer is “yes,” go on to step 4.

2. Accept the fact that you are not going to hand in your paper on time. Accept that this is not the end of the world. Email your TF (or whoever is grading your paper) and tell him/her that your paper will be late and you have no valid excuse. Without notification, he/she will be confused as to where your paper is, and probably more irritated than if you had been upfront about it. Go on to step 3.

3. Go over your readings with a pen or a highlighter. Figuring out an idea to write about should be your first priority as you read. Take your time and think carefully about the authors’ arguments. There is no such thing as a good paper without a good idea. Once you’ve decided what you want to argue, go on to step 4.

4. To quote the immortal Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’ve done the readings and you have an idea. It may be that you can still get a good grade. Even if you can’t, just think how many assignments you are going to do here in four years. One average grade won’t kill you (or your chances of making mad bank).

5. DO NOT plagiarize. Let me repeat that. DO NOT even consider plagiarizing. You will get caught. You will get Ad-Boarded. It will go on your record. You will regret it.

6. Figure out exactly how much time you have between NOW and the time your paper is due. Do not try to work straight through. You will get less and less efficient (and worse and worse at writing) if you refuse to take breaks.

7. Figure out what kind of essay you are writing (lens essay, research paper, etc.) and Check THE WRITING CENTER BLOG for templates. For example, check out Emily’s post for tips on how to write a good lens essay.

8. Quickly create a schedule to accommodate your personal writing process. I like to make very detailed outlines and spend less time drafting and revising. If I have 12 hours to do a close-reading paper (critical analysis of one source or one author), my schedule might look like this:

a. Midnight-1:00am: Use a Writing Center Blog Post to help create a very loose outline – just a vague thesis, ideas for topic sentences, 3- 5 body paragraphs, and possibly a conclusion.

b. 1:00-2:30am: Close-read/re-read relevant parts of the text to find quotes/evidence and flesh out each body paragraph. Add each quote (with its page number/source) to the outline.

c. 2:30-3:00am: Take a break. Get some food, maybe do some jumping jacks. In the short term, 15-20 minutes of exercise is proven to be more effective for waking you up than a 15-20 minute powernap.

d. 3:00-3:45am: Write a thesis statement and introduction. This is the most important part of your essay, so take your time.

e. 3:45-7:00am: SLEEP!!! I cannot stress this part enough. You will have a much clearer mind and work much better and much faster if you get some sleep cycles in.

Check out this page on typical sleep cycles to help you plan your nap. Deep Sleep and REM sleep are particularly important for processing information and feeling alert and energetic when you wake up. If you set your alarm to go off during DEEP SLEEP (stages 3+4) you will probably feel groggy (and not much better at writing) when you wake up. Try to get a least one full cycle (3 hours) and time your naps to not wake up during periods of Deep Sleep.

f. 7:00-7:30am: Shower/eat. Showering will help you wake up, plus it will give you time to think about what you want to say. Don’t go without food. Your mind is a machine, and it needs fuel!

g. 7:30-10:00am: Write your body paragraphs. Follow your outline as closely as possible. This is GO TIME, when the heart of your essay comes to life. You should feel a little pressure at this point, but that’s a good thing – it will make you work faster. As long as your outline includes all the evidence you need, the real work is done. Now you’re just translating bullet points into sentences.

h. 10:00-10:15am: Another break. Stop thinking for a little while. You will feel better.

i. 10:15-11:00am: Write a conclusion and start re-reading/revising. Keep your eyes out for sentences that seem unclear, points that need a little more evidence, spelling and grammar; any problem that can be solved with a quick fix.

j. 11:00-Noon: Final revision. Double-check all your sources and look for carelessly placed words and grammatical errors. Save, print, staple. You have successfully completed an essay in 12 hours. After class, pass out for as long as possible!