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Close Reading Guide for Moving Image texts

The close reading of an film should precede any serious essay creation, but since moving image texts are so deeply layered (while appearing transparent) and moving constantly, it is not possible to annotate the text as you might do with a written text. It is therefore critical to develop various techniques/procedures which will help students get to grips with the linguistic structure and true meaning of the text.

Some key techniques that you may want to employ are as follows:

1. Preliminary Grid Analysis

Following the initial viewing, carry out a preliminary Grid Analysis. See the section on Grid Analysis to find out how to do this.

2. Create a 'beat sheet'

Create a beat sheet of the main events in the narrative. This highlights the key events, surprises and revelations that turn the narrative.

3. Repeated viewings

Watch the short film several more times. During these viewings make notes about costumes, settings, set design, colour, lighting, rhythm, pace, mood, themes... During this phase, you may want to pay particular attention to working out the:

  • Genre: Does the narrative have a defined genre? What are the key elements that allow you to point to a specific genre? (N.B. Factual films have genres too. Many are detective stories, though there are also horror documentaries and personal documentaries that are more character-driven. Learners should be aware that genre in factual films is mostly defined in terms of how they are made, e.g. fly-on-the-wall, polemical, voice-of-God, presenter-led...)

  • Tone: Is it a comedy? If so, what type of comedy? (Slapstick, farce, comic romance, romantic comedy, thriller comedy, satire, black comedy, tragicomedy, etc.) How do you know what type it is? (N.B. Even if it is not a comedy, the narrative may still have comic moments or comic interludes and it will be worth noting how these are used and whether the tone is consistent throughout.)

4. Examine the titles and credits

Here you will be looking for clues to the intentions of the filmmakers: their artistic ambitions; how the production was funded; which audience it was intended for; and whether it needed to make a profit or not. A little further Internet research may also reveal further information about the companies and financing organisations involved.

You may also want to think about how the filmmakers use titles to either to hypnotise the audience into 'suspending their disbelief' in the fictional world, or to establish their authority and encourage us to trust in the impartiality of a documentary.

5. Listen closely

Listen closely to the soundtrack. Unless the film is very dialogue heavy, you will want to listen to the soundtrack independent of the visuals and then again with the visuals. Here you will be trying to pick apart the soundscape and use of music. You will be looking for patterns in the soundscape: whether it is predominantly diegetic or non-diegetic, the balance, the timbre of sounds, whether it repeats, etc…

The following lists of prompts may be helpful:

  • Music: Is there any particular style, pattern, timbre or tonal range to the music? Is its use appropriate to the subject matter? Is it themed in any way to event, character, setting, etc.? How is it used to support the other layers of the film?
  • Soundscape: Is there anything special about the soundscape and the balance of sounds, either in specific sections or throughout the narrative? Do the sounds tell you anything about the setting? Are the sounds 'objective' and diegetic or more 'subjective' and non-diegetic? Are many special sound effects used? How do the sound and music affect your perception of the action, your understanding of the narrative and your emotional involvement in it? Does it support the characters' motivations and actions? Does it add narrative tension and suspense?

You will find more ways to analyse sound in film here.

6. Shot-by-shot viewing

Stop the film and watch it shot-by-shot. You can analyse individual clips and sequences of clips in detail to tease out their subtleties, using the slow motion and pause button to identify particular visual compositions, camera techniques and shot sequencing. The following prompts may prove helpful:

  • Shots: Are any types of shot used more frequently than others? How are they used? Are there any used in certain moments for effect? What is that effect?
  • Angles: Is there any system to the use of camera angles?
  • Camera Movements: Are there any specific camera movements employed? Where are they used? How are they used to reveal new information and create specific effects or moods? Any repeated uses? Alternatively, any techniques conspicuous by their absence?
  • Edits: Are any types of cut used more frequently than others? What effect does this help produce?
  • Transitions: Are there any particularly interesting uses of transitions during the film? Key areas to look out for might be the way that flashback or dream sequences are used, and, in more complex movies, how they are structured and to what purpose.
  • Composition: Have any specific compositional techniques or lighting systems been used to influence the audience?

You can find out much more about all these areas in the Moving Image Education section of this site accessible through the left-hand navigation.

7. Mapping and analysing structure

Fictional films (and observational documentaries) usually focus on the desires, actions, challenges and obstacles facing one character (occasionally several). Investigatory or ’voice-of-God’ documentary films are often organised around a clear question explicitly stated in the title or opening narration. Here it is not only important to know what type of text you are examining, but how it has been structured. Some of the areas you should map and analyse are:

  • Active Questions: What questions does the film put in the mind of the audience from its title, and opening sequence? If you are watching a factual text the reason for making the film will often be clearly stated from the outset, with sub-questions added as the narrative unfolds (often connected to secondary characters or secondary lines of questioning). In a fictional film, the active questions are usually revealed when the desires and ambitions of the main character are thwarted by opposing forces. The story then becomes not so much a question of "Will they get what they want?", but "How far will they have to go to get what they want?" and "Is it really worth it?".

  • Hierarchy of Questions: If there is more than one active question, how are these ordered? For example, in a 'whodunit' we first need to find out who has been killed, then who did it, then why they did it and whether they will be caught (though not necessarily in that order); in a documentary the film will usually set a central question at the beginning and several other sub-questions that support the central question as the narrative unfolds. It may also raise narrative questions connected to specific characters shown in the film.

Your line of narrative analysis will then depend on whether you are analysing a fictional or factual text, as follows:

Fictional texts (and character-based documentaries)

  • Characters: Who are the main characters and how are they introduced to us? How do we discover what they want and what they fear? (N.B. Look out for the use of POV shots in establishing desire.)
  • Initiating events: What are the initiating events in the character's story? (N.B. These may not be the same as the initiating events in the story world (e.g. why a soldier goes to war vs. why his country went to war.)
  • Suspense / dramatic irony: Who do we sympathise with and why? Why do we pity them and fear for them? You might also want to look out for any specific historical, genre or structural ironies.
  • Task: What do the characters have to do to get what they want? What would happen if they failed?
  • Opposition: Who or what stands in their way? Why do they oppose the main character?
  • Strengths and weaknesses: What are the main character's strengths and weaknesses (physical, mental and sociological)? How are these tested during the story? How do opponent(s) attack these weaknesses?
  • Stages of conflict: What are the main stages of the conflict? How does each stage challenge a different aspect of the character?
  • Reversals and revelations: What are the main reversals of fortune (from good to bad and vice versa) and revelations during the narrative? How do these help propel the narrative forward?
  • Recognition: What are the key moments when the audience realises the character will need to make greater efforts to achieve their goals?
  • Self-recognition: Does the main character realise that he or she will need to change in order to defeat their opponent and achieve their goal? If so when does this happen? (N.B. There may be more than one step to full realisation).
  • Climax: What is the climactic moment of the film? How does this satisfy the big questions the audience has been asking?
  • Resolution: Is the conflict resolved in a surprising, interesting and emotionally engaging fashion?
  • Aftermath: How has the world been changed by the action and conflict we have witnessed?

Factual texts

Documentary is supposed to be truthful as well as informative. It is the reader’s job to distinguish between fact and opinion, detect any bias or polemic, and examine how the filming may have influenced what was filmed.

  • Active questions: How do the filmmakers build and expand upon their initial arguments? Many arguments proceed along dialectical lines: the filmmakers present a thesis, show conflicting views, then try to resolve the differences between these; if they do not follow this pattern, why not?
  • Narrative sequences: What are the different sequences? What different documentary techniques do/don't they employ? (E.g. ‘Voice of God’ narration, observational sections (using continuity style cuts and/or long-tracking/panning shots that reveal the presence of the cameraman, presenter led discussion, interviews, talking head interviews with illustrative cutaways or general views.)
  • Surprises: What are the main surprises and turning points in the narrative? How are these used to influence the argument and engage the audience emotionally and intellectually?
  • Authority and trust: How do the filmmakers encourage the audience to trust in their ability to examine the argument fully? (This may be achieved by having a well-known voice provide a ‘voice of God’ narration or having a well-known presenter appear in the film to lend credibility. Likewise, the film may interview a range of experts whose names and titles appear on screen. Alternatively, a particular broadcaster, producer or director who has a reputation to preserve may produce it.)
  • Truth: Have the filmmakers been even-handed and fair? Are there times when their shooting or editing techniques favour one side? Sometimes the film may be deliberately one-sided and polemical: if so, are the filmmakers upfront about their intentions?
  • Drama documentary interludes and historical re-enactments: Have these devices been used to present an accurate portrayal of events? (They may have been written or approved by historians but where this is not clear you may need to look closely at the historical record to see how much really is known about what exactly happened and where the filmmakers have ‘filled in the gaps’.)
  • Statistics: Do they explain their method or expect you to take their gathering and analytical techniques at face value? If statistics are not explained, to what extent can the filmmakers be trusted? (Remember the quote attributed to former British PM Benjamin Disraeli and popularised by the novelist Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.")
  • Presence of camera/presenter: Could the presence of the camera/presenter or the technical requirements of filming could have changed the nature of the events being filmed?