Close Reading Guide for Moving Image texts
The close reading of an audiovisual text should precede any serious essay creation, whether written, audio-visual or mixed media.
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. 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 of the main events in the narrative
This should highlight the key events, surprises and revelations that turn the narrative.
3. Watch the short film several more times
During these viewings make notes about the use of settings, costumes, set design, rhythm, pace, mood and 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? Factual films have genres too. Most are detective stories, though there are also horror documentaries and personal documentaries that are more character driven like fictional narratives. (That said, students should be aware that academics often define genre in factual films more in terms of how they are made, e.g. Are they a fly-on-the-wall documentary, a polemical documentary, a voice-of-god documentary, a presenter led documentary.)
- Tone - Is it a comedy and if so, what type of comedy, and how do you know what type it is? e.g. slapstick, farce, comic romance, romantic comedy, thriller comedy, satire, black comedy, tragicomedy, etc. NB. 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. Here 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 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 or the country that you are in? Are the sounds 'objective' and diegetic or more 'subjective' and non-diegetic? Are many special sound effects used? How does 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 'How-To's' for analysing sound in film here:
6. 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 are? How are they used? Are there any used in judicious moments for special effect? What is that effect?
- Edits - Are any types of cut (on any of the layers) used more frequently than others? What effect does this help produce?
- Angles - Is there any system to the use of lenses and angles?
- Composition - Are there any specific compositional techniques or lighting systems drawn from art-history that are being used to influence the audience?
- Camera Movements - Are there any specific camera movements employed? Any repeated uses? Alternatively, any techniques conspicuous by their absence? Make notes of where and how are they used are used to reveal new information and create specific effects or moods? E.g. Dolly, Crane Shot, Crash Zoom, Pan, Zoom, and Focus Pulls.
- 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.
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 the structure of the narrative
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 your are examining, but how it has been structured. Some of the areas you should look at are:
- Active Questions – Ask what questions the film puts 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, e.g. 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? (NB: Here you should look out closely for the use of POV shots in establishing desire.)
- Initiating events - What are the initiating events in the character's story? NB: These may not be the same as the initiating events in the story world, e.g. the reasons a soldier goes to war may not be the same reasons that his country went to war.
- Suspense / dramatic irony - Who do we sympathise with and why? Why do we pity them and fear for them? As well as these dramatic ironies, 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 stands in their way? Why do they oppose the main character? NB: In a disaster movie the opponent is not necessarily a living creature but may be a hurricane or an earthquake.
- Strengths and weaknesses** - What are the main character's strengths and weakness (physical, mental and sociological)? How are these tested during the story? How do opponent(s) attack his/her 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? NB: There may be more than one step to full realisation (if indeed it happens at all, as in the case of black comedies).
- Climax - What is the climactic moment of the film and how does this satisfy the big questions the audience has been asking about the characters?
- 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?
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 – As noted earlier, look at the intial questions raised by the film. How do the filmmakers build and expand upon their initial arguments? Many arguments proceed along dialectical lines, where the filmmakers present a thesis, then show conflicting views and then try to resolve the differences between these two (or more) points of view. If they do not follow this pattern, why don't they?
- Narrative sequences - Identify the different sequences and the different documentary techniques they do and do not employ, e.g. ‘Voice of God’ narration, observational sections (either using continuity style cuts and/or long-tracking or panning shots that reveal the presence of the cameraman) or not presenter led discussion, interviews, talking head interviewees with illustrative cutaways or GVs (general views).
- Surprises - Identify the main surprises and turning points in the narrative, and how these are 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 narrate 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 - Look closely to see whether the filmmakers are even-handed and fair. Are there times when their shooting or editing techniques favour one side or the other? In some cases, the film may be deliberately one-sided and polemical, and if this is the case, are the filmmakers upfront about their intentions?
- Drama documentary interludes and historical re-enactments - Where films use these devices you will need to examine closely the issue of accuracy. The dramatic reconstructions 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 - If the film uses statistics, examine whether they explain their method or whether they expect you to take their gathering and analytical techniques at face value. 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." If people do not explain their statistics, you will need to discuss how far they can be trusted, based upon your knowledge about who made the film.
- The presence of the camera (and possibly presenter) - Examine whether the presence of the camera or the technical requirements of filming could have changed the nature of the events being filmed.