What is Film Studies?

Most people enjoy films; most are happy to make claims about how they make us feel (emotive claims) and what we think about them (evaluative claims).  We might, for example, say that a particular film made us cry, or frightened us, or had us ‘on the edge of our seats’.  We might say a film is a ‘must see’, that ‘it wasn’t as good as his last’, that it ‘stinks’, or that it was a great story.

Film Studies urges us to move beyond such claims to ask how and why films make us feel the way that they do, and why we think some films are better than others.  It requires that we move beyond the story and look rather at the form of the film – how it is put together.

In Film Studies, we employ what Hitchcock refers to as the ‘critical faculty’. We move beyond passive viewing of the story (content) and actively read the film’s form (how the content of the film is expressed). Film form can be defined as the overall pattern of relationships among elements in the whole film. These consist of both narrative and stylistic elements.

The narrative of a film is a series of events related in terms of cause and effect. For example, we see a shot being fired, then we see a man fall. The way these events are presented makes sense to us; the man was shot, the shot caused the man to fall. What happens, however, if we see the man fall first, then the shot fired? All filmmakers have a choice about how to relay the story information to us, but they must provide some form of narrative structure. The great French New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard, insisted that films must have a beginning, a middle, and an end ‘but not necessarily in that order’ (consider, for example, Christopher Nolan’s excellent Memento (2000)).

As well as the narrative structure of a film, the filmmaker also has a choice about how to convey the narrative. This process is known as narration. Such narration may be restricted to a particular character’s point of view (this is quite common in detective films) or may be omniscient (the viewer knows more than any one particular character). The amount of information we are provided with has an effect on the emotional response of the viewer.

As well as narrative techniques, a filmmaker also has a range of stylistic elements at his command. The first of these is mise-en-scene: this term (originally from theatre) can be somewhat ambiguous and is used in differing senses but, essentially, mise-en-scene consists of (at least) setting, costume and make-up, staging (acting and movement), and lighting. That is, everything that happens in front of the camera and appears in the final shot. Mise-en-scene is, as you can imagine, a terribly important part of filmmaking and, in its broadest sense, can be taken to be the whole look and feel of a film – its direction. Indeed, sometimes film directors are referred to as ‘metteurs-en-scene’.

The second stylistic element is cinematography. Cinematography is the process of capturing moving images on film (or some other medium) and the manipulation/ development of such images. The cinematographer must work very closely with the director and has at his disposal a multitude of techniques. The fantastic ‘Parlour Scene’ from Hitchcock’s Psycho utilises miss-en-scene and cinematographic technique to great effect.

The third stylistic element of film is editing. Editing in film is the coordination of one shot with another. A shot is one or more exposed frame in a series on a continuous length of film stock. These shots are combined, via the editing process, into scenes (a segment in a narrative film that takes place at one time and space or that uses crosscutting to show two or more simultaneous actions). The joins whereby two shots are combined can take different forms (cut, fade, dissolve, wipe) of which the cut is by far the most popular. An ordinary Hollywood film typically contains between 1000-2000 shots; and an action-based movie can contain 3000 or more. As such, editing is a vital part of the process of filmmaking. Indeed, Stanley Kubrick once stated: ‘I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.’

Editing also highlights the ability that film has to manipulate the viewer. During the 1920s a Soviet filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, showed that by cutting in neutral shots of an actor’s face with different images (a bowl of soup, a dead woman, a baby), the audience assumed that the actor’s expression changed and that the actor was reacting to things present in the same space as himself (the Kuleshov Effect).

Lastly, sound plays a great (although somewhat undervalued) role in film. Sound in the cinema is of three types: speech, music, and noise (also called sound effects). This sound can be either diegetic (part of the story world) or non-diegetic (external to that world). A good way to think about this distinction is in terms of what the characters in the film can hear. For example, would you be surprised if a character asked for the music to be turned down?

Once again, Hitchcock can teach us a great deal; he uses all the power of editing and sound in order to create one of the most famous scenes of all – Psycho‘s ‘Shower Scene’.

When we do Film Studies, we learn much more about all of these formal techniques that a filmmaker has to choose from. This allows us to analyse a film by:

  1. determining the organisational structure of the film, its narrative formal system;
  2. identifying the salient techniques used;
  3. tracing out patterns of techniques within the whole film, and;
  4. proposing functions for the salient techniques and the patterns they form.

In addition to formal analysis of film’s formal properties, Film Studies also looks at aspects external to the actual film, which can, in turn, inform our reading of it.  We can, for example, look at film in terms of a particular theory, historical context, director, or genre.

The earliest and most prominent theories of film are Realism and Formalism.  It is possible to see the difference between Formalism and Realism as analogous to the distinction between a canvas and a window.  Formalism dictates that the screen should be viewed as a canvas – a created world within its frame.  As such, the filmmaker is like a painter; they control what you see (and what you don’t), and do so in order to elicit a desired effect in the spectator.  Realism, however, tells us that the essence of film should be to provide us with the opportunity to look through a window which frames a small part of reality.  The role of the filmmaker is merely to facilitate our view.

Looking at film history involves viewing film in its film-historical context in relation to technical advances, particular film movements, or wider social and cultural factors.  Thus we might look at silent cinema, the introduction of sound, the Soviet Montage movement of the 1920s, the Cinema of the Third Reich, the Neorealism of postwar Italy, or the French New Wave cinema of the 1950s. In doing so, we will be able to apply particular theories, trace the development of film, and better understand where today’s cinema has come from.

As well as viewing films in their historical context, we can also view them in association with other films by the same director. As such, we can consider films as the product of a particular intellect (auteur) which can only be assessed in light of an entire body of work.  For example, we would only be able to fully understand and appreciate a Hitchcock film by viewing it in the context of all of his other films.  In contrast to this view, we could view a film, not as the product of any one director, but rather as a part of a particular genre. Thus we would ask, not ‘what makes all of Hitchcock’s films different from those of everyone else?’ but rather ‘what is it that all horrors/ westerns/ thrillers have in common?’. Looking at genres allows us to identify particular conventions, including: plot elements (investigation – detective); specific types of characters (hardball sergeant major – war); themes (love will conquer all – romance); techniques (rapid editing – action), and; Iconography.  Film Studies also addresses the potential social function of particular genres. For example, we might investigate the reasons for the rise of science fiction in the USA in the 1950s.


Film Studies involves a great deal more that you might have thought – it’s not just about watching films (although this is a large part of it).  It involves taking a range of approaches to film:

  1. Analysis – breaks down film into its component parts to better understand how it works;
  2. History – provides an insight into the historical development of film;
  3. Theory – examines film from a range of theoretical perspectives;
  4. Authorship – considers film as a product of an individual mind (auteur);
  5. Genre – addresses film in terms of genre conventions and examines the social function of genre film.

The point of this is to enable us to move beyond our initial reactions to film, helping us to explain, justify or revise those reactions. Not only does Film Studies enhance our understanding of film but, in doing so, it increases our capacity to enjoy it.

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