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!

Your Essay’s Argument Might Be Hiding in Your Conclusion

by Sonia Epstein

“a thesis statement shouldn’t be a teaser-trailer; it should be the ‘tl;dr’ of your paper”

I’m finishing up an essay about a 19th century British novel, a pretty typical “marriage plot” novel whose curtain closes on a headstrong female protagonist, now with a ring around her finger, ready to live out her happily-ever-after: she will not become destitute; she will enjoy a respectable social standing; she will have a husband who can provide for her. My thesis statement argues that although the novel traces the triumph of this marriage, as well as the marriage of the protagonist’s close female friend, it simultaneously traces the collapse of a different relationship—the friendship between the two young women.

I’m feeling good: writing teachers often say that a thesis statement—in any discipline—answers what, how, and why questions. In an essay about a literary text, for example, you might answer the question, “What is an author doing, and/or how?” (What language does the author use, what metaphors, what kinds of characters?) I know my essay is doing this—it’s describing what I think the author is doing (showing the dissolution of a friendship) and how (by juxtaposing it against successful marriage arrangements). But what I haven’t really done is explain why the author is doing this, or why it’s important to see these contrasting relationships together.

Because I’ve extensively re-chronicled the scenes in which the protagonist is manipulative of her friend—scenes that catalyze both the marriages’ success and the friendship’s decline—it’s hard for me to see that I’m only describing “what” is happening and not “why” it’s happening. But I’m six pages in, and it’s conclusion-time. I’m gleeful. I have that feeling you sometimes get when you know you’re approaching the end of your work, and you’re ready to sign off with an epic mic-drop. This whole marriage-plot-thing has honestly made me a little angry, so I try to channel that into my final paragraph, to end with a flourish. I write that maybe, if marriage at the time wasn’t so transactional, with women needing to evaluate whose wages and estate and family are most promising, then maybe there’d be more altruism; maybe the female relationships in the book wouldn’t be so doomed to fail. There—done!

In this final paragraph, almost unintentionally, I’ve actually answered a big “why” of my essay: I’ve convinced myself that by juxtaposing the marriage plot against the friendship, the book suggests how transactional both kinds of relationships were at risk of becoming in this era of the history of the British middle class. It was difficult to understand the broader implicationsof my initial, “factual claims” (“this is what’s happening in the book; this is how”) until I’d been sitting with them for several hours—and that’s why, time and time again, I’ve found compelling thesis statements hiding in the concluding paragraphs of others’ work and my own.

Sometimes, writers will feel obligated to keep those more-developed statements of their argument in the concluding paragraph: they worry that transplanting that argument to the introduction will “give away” everything they’re going to be talking about. But a thesis statement shouldn’t be a teaser-trailer; it should be the “tl;dr” of your paper.  Your body paragraphs are there to explain the logic behind the claims in your thesis of “what, how, and why,” and convince your reader of their validity, so that by the time the reader reaches your concluding paragraph(s), you will have the opportunity to restate that thesis with authority. Having done that, you can elaborate on the significance of that argument even further: how it might contribute to a broader understanding of a topic, field of inquiry, or existing body of scholarship. In my essay, for example, I might say that paying attention to the friendships in the book allows a reader to see that, in spite of the “happily-ever-after” ending, the author is actually presenting a critique of the types of relationships existing in this world, but uses the structures of the marriage plot to convey that message in a popular form.

Now that we’ve talked about how you might find a better version of your argument in your conclusion, here are a few main action-items for essay writers:

  • If you’ve finished a draft, copy and paste your intro and conclusion to a different document. To what extent do they match? Does the conclusion present a more specific, developed articulation of your thesis? If so, try to integrate that into your introduction, and put aside fears of “giving away the argument”—your reader doesn’t want to wait until the end of the piece to understand it.
  • Go back to your body paragraphs. If you’re describing what is happening (in a book, historical event, scientific study), are you also developing that into a discussion of why it’s happening and why it’s important? Rework sentences and paragraphs to make sure that you discuss the significance of your argument with specificity and clarity.
  • If you’ve identified that your argument isn’t fully developed in the ways described above, but you’re still working on the essay and don’t have a concluding paragraph to peak at, fear not! Have faith that the writing process can bring you toward a place of greater understanding. It may sound ridiculous, but try writing what you might imagine an impassioned conclusion to your essay could be. Go overboard; wax poetic. It’s just an exercise, and it may help you take a step back from your paper to consider its overall significance. Lastly, come visit us at the Writing Center! We’ll ask you why you felt compelled to write about the topic in the first place, and revisiting that question can help you forge your path forward.

One hundred percent? Or 100%? Tips for writing numbers.

by Raymond DeLuca, English Grammar and Language Tutor

Students bring all sorts of different essays to the Writing Center, and each discipline has its own conventions when it comes to writing numbers. People are always surprised to learn that, yes, there are good and not so good ways to write numbers in English. So, this information will save you a headache. After all, it is not the best use of your time when writing an essay (especially when it’s due in a few hours) to get stuck thinking, well, is it “3” or “three”?

Just as there are different citation styles for citing sources in different academic fields, there are also different conventions for writing numbers. Each of the most common citation styles—MLA, APA, and Chicago– offers slightly different rules for writing numbers. You should always make sure you know what style and citation guidelines you should be following for a specific assignment. If you are writing a non-technical paper and can choose your style, I recommend following the MLA guidelines, which make a lot of sense and are commonly used in cases where you’re not using a lot of numbers.

Rule #1: When should you write out numbers and when should you use the number?

For papers in the humanities and in some social sciences, you will often use either the MLA or Chicago citation styles. In those styles, when you are writing a non-technical paper, you should write out numbers less than one hundred, using a dash for two-digit numbers: eight, fifteen, forty-five, sixty-two, eighty-seven, etc., etc.  And, for numbers over one hundred: 1,435; 2,870; 5,740; 11,480. Someone here is bound to ask: “Well, does that mean one trillion should be written as 1,000,000,000,000?” No, of course not. If the number (even if it’s above one hundred) can be easily expressed in words, then keep it in words: four hundred, eight thousand, three billion, nine quintillion, etc.

If you’re using APA style, you should generally only write out numbers 1-9 and use numerals for everything else. But there is an exception: If you are using a number at the beginning of the sentence, you should write it out.

Rule #2 What about percentages?

Just like with regular numbers, different style guides express different preferences for percentages.  I like the MLA style, which advises that for a percentage less than one hundred, you should write it in words: two percent, seventy-six percent, ninety-nine percent, but, for a percentage greater than one hundred, write it in numerals: 110 percent, 500 percent, 999 percent. Besides that, as you can see, in non-technical writing, it is better to use the word “percent” rather than the percent sign, “%.” It’s ugly.

In this case, Chicago and APA style both call for using use numbers in percentages.

Rule #3: What about years?

MLA, Chicago, and APA style all say that years are better written in numerals, not words: 1967, not “nineteen sixty-seven.” (Sometimes students write out the years to pad their paper’s word count; it’s not a good look! Everyone can see what you’re doing.) It’s also considered poor style to start a sentence with a year, i.e., “2020 has been a bad year.” You could rephrase that, writing instead: “Many people thought 2020 would be a better year.”

Rule #4: What about decades?

If you’re talking about a series of events that occurred in a certain decade, say, from 1980 – 1989, you can refer to that period in three different ways: the eighties, the ‘80s, or the 1980s. But stay clear of the “nineteen eighties.”

Rule #5: If you ever find yourself writing about a score or a court decision or a ratio, you should stick with numerals (even if said numbers are less than one hundred). For example, “The Red Sox were up 4-2 before losing 6-4,” or “The contentious 5-4 Supreme Court ruling says…”

These are obviously not the only situations you will encounter when you need to write a number, but these rules will help clear up some of the most common issues I’ve seen in student writing. Numbers can be as easy as one, two, three. If you find yourself writing a science or an econometrics paper, you may have to use way more numbers than you would otherwise, and you will need to make sure you are following the guidelines in your field. Generally, though, these five suggestions are good to keep in mind.

Stop splicing those commas!

by Raymond DeLuca, English Grammar and Language Tutor

The comma splice is a common mistake that I often find in student writing. It is, by no means, a catastrophic mistake, but it tells me that the writer is still trying to figure out what to do with commas, which play a really, really important role in English writing.  Just in these two sentences, I’ve already used five commas—now six! So, what is a comma splice?

To “splice” something means to unite it or to join it together with something else. When you connect two independent sentences with a comma instead of a period, a semicolon, or a coordinating conjunction (more on all that in a future post) that is called a comma splice.


I love my Expos class, writing isn’t so bad.

This sentence is written incorrectly. The comma in between “class” and “writing” is splicing together two separate sentences. Commas do a lot of different things in written English, but they cannot (on their own) connect two sentences. How could we re-write the above example to make it correct? Here are a few solutions:

Solution #1: I love my Expos class. Writing isn’t so bad.

Solution: #2: I love my Expos class; writing isn’t so bad.

Solution #3: I love my Expos class, and writing isn’t so bad.

The simplest way to fix the comma splice is Solution #1. A period, not a comma, is what we need to separate two sentences: I love dogs. I love cats. Dogs love me. Cats could care less about me.

Let these short sentences stand and breathe on their own. For those of you who are a bit confused by Solution #2 and/or Solution #3, don’t worry. There’ll be a future blog post about that soon. For now, remember that a period is the easiest way to fix a comma splice.

It should be said that some writers intentionally use comma splices for stylistic purposes. A comma splice can convey causality, give a sentence an informal tone, or be used for dramatic effect. For example, writers tend to transcribe Julius Caesar’s famous phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” in English as “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not as “I came. I saw. I conquered.” It’s more impactful with the comma splices, isn’t it? But save that sort of splicing for the pros. You need to learn the rules before you can start breaking them.