The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Film Analysis

What this handout is about.

This handout introduces film analysis and and offers strategies and resources for approaching film analysis assignments.

Writing the film analysis essay

Writing a film analysis requires you to consider the composition of the film—the individual parts and choices made that come together to create the finished piece. Film analysis goes beyond the analysis of the film as literature to include camera angles, lighting, set design, sound elements, costume choices, editing, etc. in making an argument. The first step to analyzing the film is to watch it with a plan.

Watching the film

First it’s important to watch the film carefully with a critical eye. Consider why you’ve been assigned to watch a film and write an analysis. How does this activity fit into the course? Why have you been assigned this particular film? What are you looking for in connection to the course content? Let’s practice with this clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Here are some tips on how to watch the clip critically, just as you would an entire film:

  • Give the clip your undivided attention at least once. Pay close attention to details and make observations that might start leading to bigger questions.
  • Watch the clip a second time. For this viewing, you will want to focus specifically on those elements of film analysis that your class has focused on, so review your course notes. For example, from whose perspective is this clip shot? What choices help convey that perspective? What is the overall tone, theme, or effect of this clip?
  • Take notes while you watch for the second time. Notes will help you keep track of what you noticed and when, if you include timestamps in your notes. Timestamps are vital for citing scenes from a film!

For more information on watching a film, check out the Learning Center’s handout on watching film analytically . For more resources on researching film, including glossaries of film terms, see UNC Library’s research guide on film & cinema .

Brainstorming ideas

Once you’ve watched the film twice, it’s time to brainstorm some ideas based on your notes. Brainstorming is a major step that helps develop and explore ideas. As you brainstorm, you may want to cluster your ideas around central topics or themes that emerge as you review your notes. Did you ask several questions about color? Were you curious about repeated images? Perhaps these are directions you can pursue.

If you’re writing an argumentative essay, you can use the connections that you develop while brainstorming to draft a thesis statement . Consider the assignment and prompt when formulating a thesis, as well as what kind of evidence you will present to support your claims. Your evidence could be dialogue, sound edits, cinematography decisions, etc. Much of how you make these decisions will depend on the type of film analysis you are conducting, an important decision covered in the next section.

After brainstorming, you can draft an outline of your film analysis using the same strategies that you would for other writing assignments. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind as you prepare for this stage of the assignment:

  • Make sure you understand the prompt and what you are being asked to do. Remember that this is ultimately an assignment, so your thesis should answer what the prompt asks. Check with your professor if you are unsure.
  • In most cases, the director’s name is used to talk about the film as a whole, for instance, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo .” However, some writers may want to include the names of other persons who helped to create the film, including the actors, the cinematographer, and the sound editor, among others.
  • When describing a sequence in a film, use the literary present. An example could be, “In Vertigo , Hitchcock employs techniques of observation to dramatize the act of detection.”
  • Finding a screenplay/script of the movie may be helpful and save you time when compiling citations. But keep in mind that there may be differences between the screenplay and the actual product (and these differences might be a topic of discussion!).
  • Go beyond describing basic film elements by articulating the significance of these elements in support of your particular position. For example, you may have an interpretation of the striking color green in Vertigo , but you would only mention this if it was relevant to your argument. For more help on using evidence effectively, see the section on “using evidence” in our evidence handout .

Also be sure to avoid confusing the terms shot, scene, and sequence. Remember, a shot ends every time the camera cuts; a scene can be composed of several related shots; and a sequence is a set of related scenes.

Different types of film analysis

As you consider your notes, outline, and general thesis about a film, the majority of your assignment will depend on what type of film analysis you are conducting. This section explores some of the different types of film analyses you may have been assigned to write.

Semiotic analysis

Semiotic analysis is the interpretation of signs and symbols, typically involving metaphors and analogies to both inanimate objects and characters within a film. Because symbols have several meanings, writers often need to determine what a particular symbol means in the film and in a broader cultural or historical context.

For instance, a writer could explore the symbolism of the flowers in Vertigo by connecting the images of them falling apart to the vulnerability of the heroine.

Here are a few other questions to consider for this type of analysis:

  • What objects or images are repeated throughout the film?
  • How does the director associate a character with small signs, such as certain colors, clothing, food, or language use?
  • How does a symbol or object relate to other symbols and objects, that is, what is the relationship between the film’s signs?

Many films are rich with symbolism, and it can be easy to get lost in the details. Remember to bring a semiotic analysis back around to answering the question “So what?” in your thesis.

Narrative analysis

Narrative analysis is an examination of the story elements, including narrative structure, character, and plot. This type of analysis considers the entirety of the film and the story it seeks to tell.

For example, you could take the same object from the previous example—the flowers—which meant one thing in a semiotic analysis, and ask instead about their narrative role. That is, you might analyze how Hitchcock introduces the flowers at the beginning of the film in order to return to them later to draw out the completion of the heroine’s character arc.

To create this type of analysis, you could consider questions like:

  • How does the film correspond to the Three-Act Structure: Act One: Setup; Act Two: Confrontation; and Act Three: Resolution?
  • What is the plot of the film? How does this plot differ from the narrative, that is, how the story is told? For example, are events presented out of order and to what effect?
  • Does the plot revolve around one character? Does the plot revolve around multiple characters? How do these characters develop across the film?

When writing a narrative analysis, take care not to spend too time on summarizing at the expense of your argument. See our handout on summarizing for more tips on making summary serve analysis.

Cultural/historical analysis

One of the most common types of analysis is the examination of a film’s relationship to its broader cultural, historical, or theoretical contexts. Whether films intentionally comment on their context or not, they are always a product of the culture or period in which they were created. By placing the film in a particular context, this type of analysis asks how the film models, challenges, or subverts different types of relations, whether historical, social, or even theoretical.

For example, the clip from Vertigo depicts a man observing a woman without her knowing it. You could examine how this aspect of the film addresses a midcentury social concern about observation, such as the sexual policing of women, or a political one, such as Cold War-era McCarthyism.

A few of the many questions you could ask in this vein include:

  • How does the film comment on, reinforce, or even critique social and political issues at the time it was released, including questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality?
  • How might a biographical understanding of the film’s creators and their historical moment affect the way you view the film?
  • How might a specific film theory, such as Queer Theory, Structuralist Theory, or Marxist Film Theory, provide a language or set of terms for articulating the attributes of the film?

Take advantage of class resources to explore possible approaches to cultural/historical film analyses, and find out whether you will be expected to do additional research into the film’s context.

Mise-en-scène analysis

A mise-en-scène analysis attends to how the filmmakers have arranged compositional elements in a film and specifically within a scene or even a single shot. This type of analysis organizes the individual elements of a scene to explore how they come together to produce meaning. You may focus on anything that adds meaning to the formal effect produced by a given scene, including: blocking, lighting, design, color, costume, as well as how these attributes work in conjunction with decisions related to sound, cinematography, and editing. For example, in the clip from Vertigo , a mise-en-scène analysis might ask how numerous elements, from lighting to camera angles, work together to present the viewer with the perspective of Jimmy Stewart’s character.

To conduct this type of analysis, you could ask:

  • What effects are created in a scene, and what is their purpose?
  • How does this scene represent the theme of the movie?
  • How does a scene work to express a broader point to the film’s plot?

This detailed approach to analyzing the formal elements of film can help you come up with concrete evidence for more general film analysis assignments.

Reviewing your draft

Once you have a draft, it’s helpful to get feedback on what you’ve written to see if your analysis holds together and you’ve conveyed your point. You may not necessarily need to find someone who has seen the film! Ask a writing coach, roommate, or family member to read over your draft and share key takeaways from what you have written so far.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Aumont, Jacques, and Michel Marie. 1988. L’analyse Des Films . Paris: Nathan.

Media & Design Center. n.d. “Film and Cinema Research.” UNC University Libraries. Last updated February 10, 2021. .

Oxford Royale Academy. n.d. “7 Ways to Watch Film.” Oxford Royale Academy. Accessed April 2021. .

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Film Writing: Sample Analysis

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Summary: A sample analysis of a filmic sequence that makes use of the terminology on the OWL’s Writing About Film page .

Written by Kylie Regan

Introductory Note

The analysis below discusses the opening moments of the science fiction movie  Ex Machina  in order to make an argument about the film's underlying purpose. The text of the analysis is formatted normally. Editor's commentary, which will occasionally interrupt the piece to discuss the author's rhetorical strategies, is written in brackets in an italic font with a bold "Ed.:" identifier. See the examples below:

The text of the analysis looks like this.

[ Ed.:  The editor's commentary looks like this. ]

Frustrated Communication in Ex Machina ’s Opening Sequence

Alex Garland’s 2015 science fiction film Ex Machina follows a young programmer’s attempts to determine whether or not an android possesses a consciousness complicated enough to pass as human. The film is celebrated for its thought-provoking depiction of the anxiety over whether a nonhuman entity could mimic or exceed human abilities, but analyzing the early sections of the film, before artificial intelligence is even introduced, reveals a compelling examination of humans’ inability to articulate their thoughts and feelings. In its opening sequence, Ex Machina establishes that it’s not only about the difficulty of creating a machine that can effectively talk to humans, but about human beings who struggle to find ways to communicate with each other in an increasingly digital world.

[ Ed.:  The piece's opening introduces the film with a plot summary that doesn't give away too much and a brief summary of the critical conversation that has centered around the film. Then, however, it deviates from this conversation by suggesting that Ex Machina has things to say about humanity before non-human characters even appear. Off to a great start. ]

The film’s first establishing shots set the action in a busy modern office. A woman sits at a computer, absorbed in her screen. The camera looks at her through a glass wall, one of many in the shot. The reflections of passersby reflected in the glass and the workspace’s dim blue light make it difficult to determine how many rooms are depicted. The camera cuts to a few different young men typing on their phones, their bodies partially concealed both by people walking between them and the camera and by the stylized modern furniture that surrounds them. The fourth shot peeks over a computer monitor at a blonde man working with headphones in. A slight zoom toward his face suggests that this is an important character, and the cut to a point-of-view shot looking at his computer screen confirms this. We later learn that this is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer whose perspective the film follows.

The rest of the sequence cuts between shots from Caleb’s P.O.V. and reaction shots of his face, as he receives and processes the news that he has won first prize in a staff competition. Shocked, Caleb dives for his cellphone and texts several people the news. Several people immediately respond with congratulatory messages, and after a moment the woman from the opening shot runs in to give him a hug. At this point, the other people in the room look up, smile, and start clapping, while Caleb smiles disbelievingly—perhaps even anxiously—and the camera subtly zooms in a bit closer. Throughout the entire sequence, there is no sound other than ambient electronic music that gets slightly louder and more textured as the sequence progresses. A jump cut to an aerial view of a glacial landscape ends the sequence and indicates that Caleb is very quickly transported into a very unfamiliar setting, implying that he will have difficulty adjusting to this sudden change in circumstances.

[ Ed.:  These paragraphs are mostly descriptive. They give readers the information they will need to understand the argument the piece is about to offer. While passages like this can risk becoming boring if they dwell on unimportant details, the author wisely limits herself to two paragraphs and maintains a driving pace through her prose style choices (like an almost exclusive reliance on active verbs). ]

Without any audible dialogue or traditional expository setup of the main characters, this opening sequence sets viewers up to make sense of Ex Machina ’s visual style and its exploration of the ways that technology can both enhance and limit human communication. The choice to make the dialogue inaudible suggests that in-person conversations have no significance. Human-to-human conversations are most productive in this sequence when they are mediated by technology. Caleb’s first response when he hears his good news is to text his friends rather than tell the people sitting around him, and he makes no move to take his headphones out when the in-person celebration finally breaks out. Everyone in the building is on their phones, looking at screens, or has headphones in, and the camera is looking at screens through Caleb’s viewpoint for at least half of the sequence.  

Rather than simply muting the specific conversations that Caleb has with his coworkers, the ambient soundtrack replaces all the noise that a crowded building in the middle of a workday would ordinarily have. This silence sets the uneasy tone that characterizes the rest of the film, which is as much a horror-thriller as a piece of science fiction. Viewers get the sense that all the sounds that humans make as they walk around and talk to each other are being intentionally filtered out by some presence, replaced with a quiet electronic beat that marks the pacing of the sequence, slowly building to a faster tempo. Perhaps the sound of people is irrelevant: only the visual data matters here. Silence is frequently used in the rest of the film as a source of tension, with viewers acutely aware that it could be broken at any moment. Part of the horror of the research bunker, which will soon become the film’s primary setting, is its silence, particularly during sequences of Caleb sneaking into restricted areas and being startled by a sudden noise.

The visual style of this opening sequence reinforces the eeriness of the muted humans and electronic soundtrack. Prominent use of shallow focus to depict a workspace that is constructed out of glass doors and walls makes it difficult to discern how large the space really is. The viewer is thus spatially disoriented in each new setting. This layering of glass and mirrors, doubling some images and obscuring others, is used later in the film when Caleb meets the artificial being Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is not allowed to leave her glass-walled living quarters in the research bunker. The similarity of these spaces visually reinforces the film’s late revelation that Caleb has been manipulated by Nathan Bates (Oscar Isaac), the troubled genius who creates Ava.

[ Ed.:  In these paragraphs, the author cites the information about the scene she's provided to make her argument. Because she's already teased the argument in the introduction and provided an account of her evidence, it doesn't strike us as unreasonable or far-fetched here. Instead, it appears that we've naturally arrived at the same incisive, fascinating points that she has. ]

A few other shots in the opening sequence more explicitly hint that Caleb is already under Nathan’s control before he ever arrives at the bunker. Shortly after the P.O.V shot of Caleb reading the email notification that he won the prize, we cut to a few other P.O.V. shots, this time from the perspective of cameras in Caleb’s phone and desktop computer. These cameras are not just looking at Caleb, but appear to be scanning him, as the screen flashes in different color lenses and small points appear around Caleb’s mouth, eyes, and nostrils, tracking the smallest expressions that cross his face. These small details indicate that Caleb is more a part of this digital space than he realizes, and also foreshadow the later revelation that Nathan is actively using data collected by computers and webcams to manipulate Caleb and others. The shots from the cameras’ perspectives also make use of a subtle fisheye lens, suggesting both the wide scope of Nathan’s surveillance capacities and the slightly distorted worldview that motivates this unethical activity.

[ Ed.: This paragraph uses additional details to reinforce the piece's main argument. While this move may not be as essential as the one in the preceding paragraphs, it does help create the impression that the author is noticing deliberate patterns in the film's cinematography, rather than picking out isolated coincidences to make her points. ]

Taken together, the details of Ex Machina ’s stylized opening sequence lay the groundwork for the film’s long exploration of the relationship between human communication and technology. The sequence, and the film, ultimately suggests that we need to develop and use new technologies thoughtfully, or else the thing that makes us most human—our ability to connect through language—might be destroyed by our innovations. All of the aural and visual cues in the opening sequence establish a world in which humans are utterly reliant on technology and yet totally unaware of the nefarious uses to which a brilliant but unethical person could put it.

Author's Note:  Thanks to my literature students whose in-class contributions sharpened my thinking on this scene .

[ Ed.: The piece concludes by tying the main themes of the opening sequence to those of the entire film. In doing this, the conclusion makes an argument for the essay's own relevance: we need to pay attention to the essay's points so that we can achieve a rich understanding of the movie. The piece's final sentence makes a chilling final impression by alluding to the danger that might loom if we do not understand the movie. This is the only the place in the piece where the author explicitly references how badly we might be hurt by ignorance, and it's all the more powerful for this solitary quality. A pithy, charming note follows, acknowledging that the author's work was informed by others' input (as most good writing is). Beautifully done. ]

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  • Dissertation: " Aluminum Lesbians: Recycling Lesbian Legacy in Classical Hollywood"
  • Chair: Mark Lynn Anderson (English)
  • Readers: Jules Gill-Peterson (English), Nancy Glazener (English), David Pettersen (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation: " Process over Product: Kinesthetic Cinema, Sporting Bodies, and Media Milieux"
  • Readers: Randall Halle (German), Adam Lowenstein (English), Neepa Majumdar (English)
  • Dissertation: White Design: Engineering the Visualization of Race and Racism in Social Media
  • Chair: Jinying Li (English) & Zachary Horton (English)
  • Readers: Mark Lynn Anderson (English), Brenton Malin (Communication), Elizabeth Reich (English)
  • Dissertation: From Women's Cinema to Women's Horror Cinema: Genre and Gender in the Twenty-First Century
  • Chair: Adam Lowenstein (English)
  • Readers: Lucy Fischer (English), Neepa Majumdar (English), David Pettersen (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation: Soviet Tableau: Cinema and History under Late Socialism (1953-1985)
  • Chair:  Nancy Condee  (Slavic)
  • Readers:   David Birnbaum  (Slavic),   Randall Halle  (German),  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English),  Vladimir Padunov  (Slavic),  Dan Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Dissertation:  Cinema in Fragments: Transmediating Popular Hindi Cinema on Small Screens
  • Chair: Neepa Majumdar (English)
  • Readers: Nancy Condee (Slavic), Jinying Li (English), Aswin Punathambekar (Communication Studies, University of Michigan), Jennifer Waldron (English)
  • Dissertation:  The Interstate Logic: How Networks Change the Cinematic Representation of Time and Space
  • Chair:   Lucy Fischer  (English)
  • Readers:  Randall Halle  (German),  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English)
  • Dissertation:  "Quiet on Set!": Craft Discourse and Below-the-Line Labor in Hollywood, 1919-1985
  • Chair:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English)
  • Readers:  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English),   Randall Halle  (German), Dana Polan (NYU),  Dan Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Dissertation:  The Matter of Identity: Digital Media, Television, and Embodied Difference
  • Chair:  Jane Feuer  (English)
  • Readers:  Brenton J. Malin  (Communication), Jinying Li (English),  Jennifer Waldron  (English)
  • Dissertation:  The Rehearsal for Terror: Form, Trauma, and Modern Horror
  • Chair:  Marcia Landy  (English)
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Dan Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Chair:  Adam Lowenstein  (English)
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English),   Randall Halle  (German),   Dan Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Dissertation:  The Cinematic Animal: Animal Life, Technology, and the Moving Image
  • Readers:  Neepa Majumdar  (English),   Adam Lowenstein  (English), Akira Lippit (Cinema & Media Studies, University of Southern California)
  • Dissertation:  Sustaining Life During the AIDS Crisis: New Queer Cinema and the Biopic
  • Readers:  Lucy Fischer  (English),   Randall Halle  (German),   Marcia Landy  (English)
  • Dissertation: Pataphysical Networking: Virtuality, Potentiality and the Experimental Works of the Collège de 'Pataphysique, the Oulipo, and the Mouvement Panique
  • Dissertation: "Everything new is born illegal." Historicisizing Rapid Migration through New Media Projects
  • Chair: Randall Halle (German)
  • Readers: Nancy Condee (Slavic), Sabine von Dirk (German), John B. Lyon (German)
  • Dissertation:  Impasse in Multilingual Spaces: Politics of Language and Identity in Contemporary Francophone Contact Zones
  • Chair:  David Pettersen  (French & Italian)
  • Readers:  Nancy Condee  (Slavic),  Neil Doshi  (French & Italian),  Giuseppina Mecchia  (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation:  Press Play: Video Games and the Ludic Quality of Aesthetic Experiences across Media
  • Readers:   Randall Halle  (German), Jinying Li (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  Dan Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Dissertation:  Shopping the Look: Hollywood Costume Production and American Fashion Consumption, 1960-1969
  • Chair:  Neepa Majumdar  (English)
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Jane Feuer  (English),  Brenton J. Malin  (Communication)
  • Dissertation:  Another Habitat for the Muses: The Poetic Investigations of Mexican Film Criticism, 1896-1968
  • Readers:  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Joshua Lund  (University of Notre Dame)
  • Dissertation:  Frame and Finitude: The Aporetic Aesthetics of Alain Resnais's Cinematic Modernism
  • Co-Chairs:  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Daniel Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Readers:  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English)

Natalie Ryabchikova

  • Dissertation: The Flying Fish: Sergei Eisenstein Abroad, 1929-1932.
  • Chair: Mark Lynn Anderson (Film)
  • Readers: William Chase (History), Nancy Condee (Slavic), Randall Halle  (Film), Vladimir Padunov (Slavic)

Kelly Trimble

  • Dissertation:  The Celebrification of Soviet Culture: State Heroes after Stalin, 2017
  • Chair: Vladimir Padunov (Slavic)
  • Readers: David Birnbaum (Slavic), Nancy Condee (Slavic), Randall Halle (German)
  • Dissertation:  A Hidden Light: Judaism, Contemporary Israeli Film, and the Cinematic Experience
  • ​Chair:   Lucy Fischer  (English)
  • Readers:  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English), Adam Shear  (Religious Studies)
  • Dissertation:  Global Russian Cinema in the Digital Age: The Films of Timur Bekmambetov
  • ​Chair:   Nancy Condee  (Slavic)
  • Readers:  Vladimir Padunov  (Slavic),  Randall Halle  (German),  Daniel Morgan  (Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
  • Dissertation:  The Flying Fish: Sergei Eisenstein Abroad, 1929-1932
  • ​Chair:   Vladimir Padunov  (Slavic)
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  William Chase  (History),  Nancy Condee  (Slavic),  Randall Halle  (German)

Anne Wesserling , Visiting Assistant Professor, University of North Georgia

  • Dissertation: Screening Violence: Meditations on Perception in Recent Argentine Literature and Film of the Post-Dictatorship
  • Chair: Daniel Balderston  (Hispanic Languages & Literature)
  • Readers: John Beverley  (Hispanic Languages & Literature), Gonzalo Lamana  (Hispanic Languages & Literature), Adam Lowenstein  (English)
  • Dissertation:  The British War Film, 1939-1980: Culture, History, and Genre
  • Readers:  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English),  David Pettersen  (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation:  Unseen Femininity: Women in Japanese New Wave Cinema
  • Readers:  Nancy Condee  (Slavic),  Marcia Landy  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English)
  • Dissertation: Visualizing the Past: Perestroika Documentary Memory of Stalin-era
  • Readers: Nancy Condee (Slavic), David J. Birnbaum  (Slavic), Jeremy Hicks  (Languages, Linguistics, Film)

Gavin M. Hicks

  • Disseration: Soccer and Social Identity in Contemporary German Film and Media  
  • Readers: John B. Lyon  (German), Sabine von Dirke (German), Clark Muenzer  (German), Gayle Rogers (English)
  • Dissertation:  Film Dance, Female Stardom, and the Production of Gender in Popular Hindi Cinema
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English), Ranjani Mazumdar (Cinema Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  • Dissertation:  Overlooking the Evidence: Gender, Genre and the Female Detective in Hollywood Film and Television
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Brenton J. Malin  (Communications)

Christopher Nielsen , Educator, Institute for Health and Socioeconomic Policy/National Nurses United

  • Dissertation: Narco Realism in Contemporary Mexican and Transnational Narrative, Film, and Online Media
  • Chair: Juan Duchesen-Winter (Hispanic Languages & Literature)
  • Readers: John Beverley (Hispanic Languages & Literature), Joshua Lund (Hispanic Languages & Literature), Giuseppina Mecchia  (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation:  New Korean Cinema: Mourning to Regeneration
  • Readers: Kyung Hyun Kim (East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of California, Irvine),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English)
  • Dissertation:  “Insubordinate” Looking: Consumerism, Power, Identity, and the Art of Popular (Music) Dance Movies
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Randall Halle  (German)
  • Dissertation:  Sustaining Feminist Film Cultures: An Institutional History of Women Make Movies
  • Readers:   Mark Lynn Anderson  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  Randall Halle  (German Language),  David Pettersen  (French & Italian)

Yvonne Franke , Assistant Professor of German, Midwestern State University

  • Dissertation:  The Genres of Europeanization - Moving Towards the "New Heimatfilm"
  • Readers: Lucy Fischer (Film), John B. Lyon (German), Sabine von Dirke (German)

Olga Kilmova ,  Visiting Lecturer, University of Pittsburgh

  • Dissertation: Soviet Youth Films under Brezhnev: Watching Between the Lines
  • Chair: Nancy Condee (Slavic)
  • Readers: Vladimir Padunov  (Slavic), David J. Birnbaum  (Slavic), Lucy Fischer  (Communication), Alexander V. Prokhorov (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  The Toy Like Nature: On the History and Theory of Animated Motion
  • Chair: Daniel Morgan
  • Readers:  Marcia Landy  (English), Mark Lynn Anderson  (English), Scott Bukatman (Film & Media Studies, Stanford University)
  • Dissertation:  Cinematic Occupation: Intelligibility, Queerness, and Palestine
  • Readers:  Mark Lynn Anderson  (English), Troy Boone  (English), Todd Reeser (French & Italian)

Yahya Laayouni , Assistant Professor of Arabic and French, Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania

  • Dissertation: Redefining Beur Cinema: Constituting Subjectivity through Film
  • Co-Chairs: Giuseppina Mecchia  (French and Italian) & Randall Halle  (German)
  • Readers: Todd Reeser (French and Italian), Mohammed Bamyeh  (Sociology & Religious Studies), Neil Doshi  (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation:  Image to Infinity: Rethinking Description and Detail in the Cinema
  • Chair:   Marcia Landy  (English)
  • Readers: Troy Boone ,  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English),  Randall Halle  (German)
  • Link to professional profile >
  • Dissertation:  Screen Combat: Recreating World War II in American Film and Media
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English),  Randall Halle  (German)
  • Dissertation:  Modern Kinesis: Motion Picture Technology, Embodiment, and Re-Playability in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twenty-First Centuries
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Giuseppina Mecchia  (French & Italian)
  • Dissertation:  Research in the Form of a Spectacle: Godard and the Cinematic Essay
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English)
  • Dissertation:  Immaterial Materiality: Collecting in Live-Action Film, Animation, and Digital Games
  • Readers:  Marcia Landy  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Randall Halle  (German)
  • Dissertation:  Nation, Nostalgia, and Masculinity: Clinton/Spielberg/Hanks
  • Readers:  Marcia Landy  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Brent Malin  (Communications)
  • Dissertation:  Body Image: Fashioning the Postwar American
  • Readers:  Jane Feuer  (English), Marianne Novy (English), Carol Stabile (English, University of Oregon)

Natalia Maria Ramirez-Lopez , 

  • Chair: Hermann Herlinghaus  (Latin American Literature, University of Freiburg)
  • Readers: Aníbal Perez-Linán (Political Science), Bobby J. Chamberlain  (Hispanic Languages & Literature), Gerald Martin (Hispanic Languages & Literature)

Dawn Seckler , Associate Director of Development, Bridgeway Capital

  • Dissertation: Engendering Genre: The Contemporary Russian Buddy Film
  • Readers: David MacFadyen (University of California, Los Angeles), Lucy Fischer  (Film), Nancy Condee (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  The Ethnic Turn: Studies in Political Cinema from Brazil and the United States, 1960-2002
  • Readers:  Adam Lowenstein  (English), Shalini Puri,  Neepa Majumdar  (English),  John Beverley  (Hispanic)
  • Dissertation:  Acting Social: The Cinema of Mike Nichols
  • Readers:  Mark Anderson  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English), David Shumway (English, Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Dissertation:  Ruins and Riots: Transnational Currents in Mexican Cinema
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  John Beverly  (Hispanic)
  • Dissertation:  The Word Made Cinematic: The Representation of Jesus in Cinema
  • Readers: Troy Boone ,  Adam Lowenstein  (English), Vernell Lillie (Africana Studies)
  • Dissertation:  Fathers of a Still-Born Past: Hindu Empire, Globality, and the Rhetoric of the Trikaal
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English), Ronald Judy  (English),  Nancy Condee  (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  Excavating the Ghetto Action Cycle (1991-1996): A Case Study for a Cycle-Based Approach to Genre Theory
  • Readers:  Jane Feuer  (English),  Neepa Majumdar  (English), Paula Massood (Cinema and Media Studies, Brooklyn College, CUNY)
  • Dissertation:  "The World Goes One Way and We Go Another": Movement, Migration, and Myths of Irish Cinema
  • Readers:  Adam Lowenstein  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English),  Nancy Condee  (Slavic Languages and Literatures)
  • Dissertation:  The Writing on the Screen: Images of Text in the German Cinema from 1920-1949
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English),  Lucy Fischer  (English), Linda Shulte-Sasse (German, McAllister College)
  • Dissertation:  Mantras of the Metropole: Geo-Televisuality and Contemporary Indian Cinema
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English); Eric Clarke (English);  Colin MacCabe  (English); M. Prasad (Film Theory, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad)
  • Dissertation:  Hollywood Youth Narratives and the Family Values Campaign 1980-1992
  • Readers: Troy Boone  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English), Carol Stabile (Communications)
  • Dissertation:  Reading Scars: Circumcision as Textual Trope
  • Chair: Philip Smith  (English)
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English), Mariolina Salvatori, Greg Goekjian (Portland State University)
  • Dissertation:  Dreaming in Crisis: Angels and the Allegorical Imagination in Postwar America
  • Chair:  Colin MacCabe  (English)
  • Readers: Ronald Judy  (English), Jonathan Arac ,  Nancy Condee  (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  Laying Down the Rules: The American Sports Film Genre From 1872 to 1960
  • Readers:  Jane Feuer  (English), Moya Luckett, Carol Stabile (Communications)

Elena Prokhorova

  • Dissertation: Fragmented Mythologies: Soviet TV Series of the 1970s
  • Readers: Carol Stabile (Communications), Jane Feuer (English and Film), Martin Votruba (Slavic), Nancy Condee (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  Nickels and Dimes: The Movies in a Rampantly American City, 1914-1923
  • Readers: Moya Luckett,  Jane Feuer , Gregory Waller (University of Kentucky)
  • Dissertation:  As Far As Anyone Knows: Fetishism and the Anti-Televisual Paradoxes of Film Noir
  • Readers: Valerie Krips, James Knapp, Henry Krips (Communications)

Alexander Prokhorov , Associate Professor, College of William and Mary

  • Dissertation: Inherited Discourse: Stalinist Tropes in Thaw Culture
  • Chair: Helena Goscilo (Slavic)
  • Readers: Lucy Fischer (Film), Mark Altshuller (Slavic), Nancy Condee (Slavic), Vladimir Padunov (Slavic)
  • Dissertation:  “Dig If You Will The Picture”: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense
  • Chair:   Marcia Landy  (English)
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English), Amy Villarejo (Cornell), Wahneema Lubiano (Duke)
  • Dissertation:   French Film Criticism, Authorship, and National Culture in the Mirror of John Cassavetes’s Body, His Life, His Work
  • Readers:   Marcia Landy  (English), James Knapp
  • Dissertation:  In The Shadow of His Language: Language and Feminine Subjectivity in the Cinema
  • Chair:   Colin MacCabe  (English)
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English), Lynn Emanuel, Patrizia Lombardo (French and Italian)
  • Dissertation:  Being In Control: The Ending Of The Information Age
  • Chair: Paul Bové  (English)
  • Readers: Jonathan Arac ,  Marcia Landy , Carol Stabile (Communications)
  • Dissertation:  The Emergence of Date Rape: Feminism, Theory, Institutional Discourse, and Popular Culture
  • Readers: Nancy Glazener  (English),   Lucy Fischer  (English), Carol A. Stabile (Communications)
  • Dissertation:  Gender and the Politics and Practices of Representation in Contemporary British Cinema
  • Readers: James Knapp,  Marcia Landy  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English), Sabine Hake (German)
  • Dissertation:  Telling the Story of AIDS in Popular Culture
  • Chair:   Jane Feuer  (English)
  • Readers: Eric Clarke (English),  Marcia Landy  (English), Danae Clark (Communications)
  • Dissertation:  Technology, the Natural and the Other: The Case of Childbirth Representations in Contemporary Popular Culture
  • Readers:  Marcia Landy  (English), Dana Polan, Iris M. Young (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh)
  • Dissertation:  Lesbian Rule:  Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English), Gayatri Spivak (Columbia)
  • Dissertation:  Feminism, Postmodernism, and Science Fiction: Gender and Ways of Thinking Otherwise
  • Chair:  Philip Smith
  • Readers:  Marica Landy  (English),  Lucy Fischer  (English), Dana Polan, Tamara Horowitz (Philosophy)
  • Dissertation:  Camp and the Question of Value
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English), Eric Clarke (English), Janet Staiger (University of Texas–Austin)
  • Dissertation:  Culture in a State of Crisis:  A Historical Construction in Cinematic Ideology in India, 1919-75
  • Readers: Paul Bové  (English),  Colin MacCabe  (English), Keya Ganguly (Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Dissertation:  The Ethics of Transgression: Criticism and Cultural Marginality
  • Chair: Paul Bove  (English)
  • Readers:   Lucy Fischer  (English),  Marcia Landy  (English), Dana Pollan, Danae Clarke
  • Dissertation:  Sally Bowles: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Politics of Looking
  • Readers:  Marcia Landy  (English), Dana Polan, Sabine Hake (German)

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50 Film Analysis

Film analysis, what this handout is about.

This handout provides a brief definition of film analysis compared to literary analysis, provides an introduction to common types of film analysis, and offers strategies and resources for approaching assignments.

What is film analysis, and how does it differ from literary analysis?

Film analysis is the process in which film is analyzed in terms of semiotics, narrative structure, cultural context, and mise-en-scene, among other approaches. If these terms are new to you, don’t worry—they’ll be explained in the next section.

Analyzing film, like  analyzing literature (fiction texts, etc.) , is a form of rhetorical analysis—critically analyzing and evaluating discourse, including words, phrases, and images. Having a clear argument and supporting evidence is every bit as critical to film analysis as to other forms of academic writing.

Unlike literature, film incorporates audiovisual elements and therefore introduces a new dimension to analysis. Ultimately, however, analysis of film is not too different. Think of all the things that make up a scene in a film: the actors, the lighting, the angles, the colors. All of these things may be absent in literature, but they are deliberate choices on the part of the director, producer, or screenwriter—as are the words chosen by the author of a work of literature. Furthermore, literature and film incorporate similar elements. They both have plots, characters, dialogue, settings, symbolism, and, just as the elements of literature can be analyzed for their intent and effect, these elements can be analyzed the same way in film.

Different types of film analysis

Listed here are common approaches to film analysis, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, and you may have discussed other approaches in class. As with any other assignment, make sure you understand your professor’s expectations. This guide is best used to understand prompts or, in the case of more open-ended assignments, consider the different ways to analyze film.

Keep in mind that any of the elements of film can be analyzed, oftentimes in tandem. A single film analysis essay may simultaneously include all of the following approaches and more. As Jacques Aumont and Michel Marie propose in Analysis of Film, there is no correct, universal way to write film analysis.

Semiotic analysis

Semiotic analysis is the analysis of meaning behind signs and symbols, typically involving metaphors, analogies, and symbolism.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be something dramatic; think about how you extrapolate information from the smallest signs in your day to day life. For instance, what characteristics can tell you about someone’s personality? Something as simple as someone’s appearance can reveal information about them. Mismatched shoes and bedhead might be a sign of carelessness (or something crazy happened that morning!), while an immaculate dress shirt and tie would suggest that the person is prim and proper. Continuing in that vein:

  • What might you be able to infer about characters from small hints?
  • How are these hints (signs) used to construct characters? How do they relate to the relative role of those characters, or the relationships between multiple characters?

Symbols denote concepts (liberty, peace, etc.) and feelings (hate, love, etc.) that they often have nothing to do with. They are used liberally in both literature and film, and finding them uses a similar process. Ask yourself:

  • In Frozen Elsa’s gloves appear in multiple scenes.
  • Her gloves are first given to her by her father to restrain her magic. She continues to wear them throughout the coronation scene, before finally, in the Let It Go sequence, she throws them away.

Again, the method of semiotic analysis in film is similar to that of literature. Think about the deeper meaning behind objects or actions.

  • Elsa’s gloves represent fear of her magic and, by extension, herself. Though she attempts to contain her magic by hiding her hands within gloves and denying part of her identity, she eventually abandons the gloves in a quest for self-acceptance.

Narrative structure analysis

Narrative structure analysis is the analysis of the story elements, including plot structure, character motivations, and theme. Like the dramatic structure of literature (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), film has what is known as the Three-Act Structure: “Act One: Setup, Act Two: Confrontation, and Act Three: Resolution.” Narrative structure analysis breaks the story of the film into these three elements and might consider questions like:

  • How does the story follow or deviate from typical structures?
  • What is the effect of following or deviating from this structure?
  • What is the theme of the film, and how is that theme constructed?

Consider again the example of Frozen. You can use symbolism and narrative structure in conjunction by placing the symbolic objects/events in the context of the narrative structure. For instance, the first appearance of the gloves is in Act One, while their abandoning takes place in Act Two; thus, the story progresses in such a way that demonstrates Elsa’s personal growth. By the time of Act Three, the Resolution, her aversion to touch (a product of fearing her own magic) is gone, reflecting a theme of self-acceptance.

Contextual analysis

Contextual analysis is analysis of the film as part of a broader context. Think about the culture, time, and place of the film’s creation. What might the film say about the culture that created it? What were/are the social and political concerns of the time period? Or, like researching the author of a novel, you might consider the director, producer, and other people vital to the making of the film. What is the place of this film in the director’s career? Does it align with his usual style of directing, or does it move in a new direction? Other examples of contextual approaches might be analyzing the film in terms of a civil rights or feminist movement.

For example, Frozen is often linked to the LGBTQ social movement. You might agree or disagree with this interpretation, and, using evidence from the film, support your argument.

Some other questions to consider:

  • How does the meaning of the film change when seen outside of its culture?
  • What characteristics distinguishes the film as being of its particular culture?

Mise-en-scene analysis

Mise-en-scene analysis is analysis of the arrangement of compositional elements in film—essentially, the analysis of audiovisual elements that most distinctly separate film analysis from literary analysis. Remember that the important part of a mise-en-scene analysis is not just identifying the elements of a scene, but explaining the significance behind them.

  • What effects are created in a scene, and what is their purpose?
  • How does the film attempt to achieve its goal by the way it looks, and does it succeed?

Audiovisual elements that can be analyzed include (but are not limited to): props and costumes, setting, lighting, camera angles, frames, special effects, choreography, music, color values, depth, placement of characters, etc. Mise-en-scene is typically the most foreign part of writing film analysis because the other components discussed are common to literary analysis, while mise-en-scene deals with elements unique to film. Using specific film terminology bolsters credibility, but you should also consider your audience. If your essay is meant to be accessible to non-specialist readers, explain what terms mean. The Resources section of this handout has links to sites that describe mise-en-scene elements in detail.

Rewatching the film and creating screen captures (still images) of certain scenes can help with detailed analysis of colors, positioning of actors, placement of objects, etc. Listening to the soundtrack can also be helpful, especially when placed in the context of particular scenes.

Some example questions:

  • How is the lighting used to construct mood? Does the mood shift at any point during the film, and how is that shift in mood created?
  • What does the setting say about certain characters? How are props used to reveal aspects of their personality?
  • What songs were used, and why were they chosen? Are there any messages in the lyrics that pertain to the theme?

Writing the film analysis essay

Writing film analysis is similar to writing literary analysis or any argumentative essay in other disciplines: Consider the assignment and prompts, formulate a thesis (see the  Brainstorming Handout  and  Thesis Statement Handout  for help crafting a nuanced argument), compile evidence to prove your thesis, and lay out your argument in the essay. Your evidence may be different from what you are used to. Whereas in the English essay you use textual evidence and quotes, in a film analysis essay, you might also include audiovisual elements to bolster your argument.

When describing a sequence in a film, use the present tense, like you would write in the literary present when describing events of a novel, i.e. not “Elsa took off her gloves,” but “Elsa takes off her gloves.” When quoting dialogue from a film, if between multiple characters, use block quotes: Start the quotation on a new line, with the entire quote indented one inch from the left margin. However, conventions are flexible, so ask your professor if you are unsure. It may also help to follow the formatting of the script, if you can find it. For example:

ELSA: But she won’t remember I have powers? KING: It’s for the best.

You do not need to use quotation marks for blocked-off dialogue, but for shorter quotations in the main text, quotation marks should be double quotes (“…”).

Here are some tips for approaching film analysis:

  • Make sure you understand the prompt and what you are being asked to do. Focus your argument by choosing a specific issue to assess.
  • Review your materials. Rewatch the film for nuances that you may have missed in the first viewing. With your thesis in mind, take notes as you watch. Finding a screenplay of the movie may be helpful, but keep in mind that there may be differences between the screenplay and the actual product (and these differences might be a topic of discussion!).
  • Develop a thesis and an outline, organizing your evidence so that it supports your argument. Remember that this is ultimately an assignment—make sure that your thesis answers what the prompt asks, and check with your professor if you are unsure.
  • Move beyond only describing the audiovisual elements of the film by considering the significance of your evidence. Demonstrate understanding of not just what film elements are, but why and to what effect they are being used. For more help on using your evidence effectively, see ‘Using Evidence In An Argument’ in the  Evidence Handout .

New York Film Academy Glossary Movie Outline Glossary Movie Script Database Citation Practices: Film and Television

Works Consulted

We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the  UNC Libraries citation tutorial .

Aumont, Jacques, and Michel Marie. L’analyse Des Films. Paris: Nathan, 1988. Print. Pruter, Robin Franson. “Writing About Film.” Writing About Film. DePaul University, 08 Mar. 2004. Web. 01 May 2016.

Film Analysis Copyright © 2020 by Liza Long; Amy Minervini; and Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Writing Place

Resources – how to write a film analysis, introduction to the topic.

While most people watch films for entertainment, those who study film focus on the elements of a film that combine to create the ultimate product. Behind the scenes production editing that occurs before, during, and after filming contribute to the images that people see on screen. A formal analysis of a film asks you to break a film down into its different components and discuss how those pieces work together to create an overall experience. Here is a checklist to help you write a film analysis.

Sections of a Film Analysis with Tips

The introduction to the paper.

Begin by  briefly  summarizing the film. You should not rehash the entire plot, but instead give the most critical information about the film to the reader. Then, introduce the formal elements that you will be discussing. Finally, your thesis should connect the elements you will discuss to their importance to the film as a whole.

The Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs of a film analysis are similar to those found in other analytical essays.  Each paragraph should discuss a different small component of the film and how the component serves the entire film. In these paragraphs, you should give concrete examples to support your claims. These examples can include scenes or quotes from the film itself, but you can also include different editing techniques or other behind the scenes work. Connect your examples to the overall film and try to answer the question, “Why does this element ultimately matter for the viewing audience?”

The Conclusion

Briefly summarize what you have talked about in the essay. Be careful not to make generalizations about the film that are not supported by the effects of the specific elements you discussed. In this section, you can discuss the overall importance of the film its historical context or address any lingering questions the film leaves.

Tips for Film Analysis

  • Understand the vocabulary of filmmaking. Knowing how to talk about elements such as lighting, special effects, framing, focus, and screenwriting are critical to writing a film analysis.
  • Try to watch the film more than one, if possible. After you decide which element(s) to write about, watch the film again, keeping those ideas in mind.
  • A film analysis is not the same of a film review. Avoid making pedestrian judgments about the film’s entertainment factor. If you wish to criticize the film, do so by referencing formal elements.
  • Unless the assignment asks you, do not try to cover every single element the film uses. Try to narrow your focus as much as you can to one or two salient elements.
  • If you are referring to the actions of a person in the film, refer to the scene using the character’s name. If you are referring the acting itself, use the actor’s real name.

Exercise: Which Sentence Belongs in a Film Analysis?

Sentences and instructions.

When writing a film analysis, many students have to fight the urge to incorporate the components of a film review into their essays. In each of the following exercises, one sentence could be a part of a film analysis, while the other is better suited for a review.

See if you can tell the difference:

1.      (a.) In  Winter’s Bone , Jennifer Lawrence gives the performance of the decade. (b.) For her role in  Winter’s Bone , Jennifer Lawrence had to learn a West Virginia accent in order to portray an authentic character.

2.   (a.) The editors of  Hocus Pocus  use special effects to create magic on screen. (b.) The editors of  Hocus Pocus  used a green screen to give the appearance that the witches were flying over the city.

 3.    (a.) The lack of shadows in  V for Vendetta  gives the viewer the impression that the editors forgot to add in some special effects. (b.) The lack of shadows in  V for Vendetta  gives the viewer the impression that the scenes are occurring in a futuristic world.

Developed by Ann Bruton, with the help of Alexander Waldman

Adapted F rom:

Dartmouth Writing Program’s “Writing About Film” 

Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program “Writing About Film”  

Click here to return to the “Writing Place Resources” main page.

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  • Open access
  • Published: 03 July 2018

A psychology of the film

  • Ed S. Tan 1 , 2  

Palgrave Communications volume  4 , Article number:  82 ( 2018 ) Cite this article

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  • Cultural and media studies

The cinema as a cultural institution has been studied by academic researchers in the arts and humanities. At present, cultural media studies are the home to the aesthetics and critical analysis of film, film history and other branches of film scholarship. Probably less known to most is that research psychologists working in social and life science labs have also contributed to the study of the medium. They have examined the particular experience that motion pictures provide to the film audience and the mechanisms that explain the perception and comprehension of film, and how movies move viewers and to what effects. This article reviews achievements in psychological research of the film since its earliest beginnings in the 1910s. A leading issue in the research has been whether understanding films is a bottom-up process, or a top-down one. A bottom-up explanation likens film-viewing to highly automated detection of stimulus features physically given in the supply of images; a top-down one to the construction of scenes from very incomplete information using mental schemata. Early film psychologists tried to pinpoint critical features of simple visual stimuli responsible for the perception of smooth movement. The riddle of apparent motion has not yet been solved up to now. Gestalt psychologists were the first to point at the role of mental structures in seeing smooth movement, using simple visual forms and displays. Bottom-up and top-down approaches to the comprehension of film fought for priority from the 60s onwards and became integrated at the end of the century. Gibson’s concept of direct perception led to the identification of low-level film-stylistic cues that are used in mainstream film production, and support film viewers in highly automated seamless perception of film scenes. Hochberg’s argument for the indispensability of mental schemata, too, accounted for the smooth cognitive construction of portrayed action and scenes. Since the 90s, cognitive analyses of narration in film by film scholars from the humanities have revolutionised accounts of the comprehension of movies. They informed computational content analyses that link low-level film features with meaningful units of film-story-telling. After a century of research, some perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that support our interaction with events in the real world have been uncovered. Today, the film experience at large has reappeared on the agenda. An integration of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms is sought in explaining the remarkable intensity of the film experience. Advances are now being made in grasping what it is like to enjoy movies, by describing the absorbing and moving qualities of the experience. As an example, a current account of film viewers' emotional experience is presented. Further advances in our understanding of the film experience and its underlying mechanisms can be expected if film psychologists team up with cognitive film studies, computer vision and the neurosciences. This collaboration is also expected to allow for research into mainstream and other genres as forms of art.

An agenda for the psychology of the film

At the time of the first kinetoscope and cinema exhibitions in 1894–1895, thanks to devices such as the Phenakistoscope, Zoetrope and Praxinoscope, moving images had been popular for decades. Just before that time, academic psychology turned to the identification of the mechanisms underlying the functioning of the mind. Perception psychologists began to study apparent movement of experimental visual stimuli under controlled conditions because they found moving stimuli interesting cases in human perception, or as part of the study of psychological aesthetics founded by Gustav Fechner and Wilhelm Wundt. The publication of The Photoplay: A Psychological Study marked the beginning of the psychology of the film. Hugo Münsterberg was trained by Wundt and recruited by William James to lead the experimental psychology lab at Harvard. Importantly, Münsterberg was also an avid cinemagoer as his analyses of theatrical films of his time may tell, and a professing cinephile at that. Münsterberg set two tasks for the study of the film: one was to describe the functioning of psychological mechanisms in the reception of film; the other to give an account of film as an artistic medium.

Münsterberg shared his contemporaries’ and even today’s spectators’ fascination for the wonder of moving images and their apparent reality. He described the film experience as a 'unique inner experience' that due to the simultaneous character of reality and pictorial representation “brings our mind into a peculiar complex state” (p. 24).

In the first part of The Photoplay , explores how film characteristically addresses the mechanisms of the basic psychological functions investigated by experimental psychology—namely perception, attention, memory and emotion. Footnote 1 In The Photoplay the imagination is the psychological faculty that theatrical movies ultimately play upon; attention, perception, memory and emotion are also directed by the film, but contribute to the film experience as building blocks for the imagination in the first place. One of the ways that films entertain the imagination is by mimicking the psychological functions. Film scenes may represent as-if perceptions, as-if thoughts, as-if streams of associations, and as-if emotions or more generally: display subjectivity. Footnote 2 Second, the film creates an imagined world that deviates from real world scenes as we perceive these in real life. Liberated from real life perceptual constraints involves the spectator’s self in 'shaping reality by the demands of our soul' (p. 41). Third, Münsterberg has a nuanced view of the automaticity of responses to film. On the one hand, it is the spectator’s choice—based on their interest—which ideas from memory and the imagination to fit to images presented on screen; they are felt as 'our subjective supplements' (p. 46). On the other, the film’s suggestions function to control associated ideas, '… not felt as our creation but as something to which we have to submit' (p. 46). And yet in Münsterberg’s view the film does not dictate psychological responses in any way. Footnote 3

Finally, The Photoplay provides abundant and compelling introspective reports of the film experience and so probes into the phenomenology of film, that is, what it is like to watch a movie. I think it is fair to say that for Münsterberg the film experience is the ultimate explanandum for a psychology of the film. In order to account for that phenomenology by mechanism of the mind proper descriptions of the film experience are needed, and introspective reports are an indispensable starting point for these.

The other task Münsterberg set himself was to propose an account of the film as a form of art. Part two of The Photoplay proposes that the film experience includes an awareness of unreality of perceived scenes. This awareness is taken as fundamental for psychological aesthetics; all forms of art are perceived to go beyond the mere imitation of nature. Footnote 4 Münsterberg showed himself a formalist in that he theorised that aesthetic satisfaction depends not on recognition of similarity with the real world or practical needs, but on the sense of an 'inner agreement and harmony [of the film’s parts]' (p. 73). Footnote 5 But in order to qualify as art, according to Münsterberg film was not to deviate too much from realistic representation that distinguishes theatrical movies from non-mainstream forms.

Münsterberg’s agenda is in retrospect quite complete. The detailed investigation of psychological mechanisms and aesthetics of film is followed by a last chapter on the social functions of the photoplay. The thoughts forwarded in it are more global than those on perception and aesthetics. The immediate effect of theatrical films on their audience is enjoyment due to their freeing the imagination, and their easy accessibility to consciousness 'which no other art can furnish us' (p. 95). Enjoyment comes with additional gratifications such as a feeling of vitality, experiencing emotions, learning and above all aesthetic emotion.

In a final section behavioral effects of successful films are discussed. Here the film psychologist vents concerns on what we now refer to as undesirable attitude changes and social learning, especially in young audiences. The agenda of today's social science research on mass media effects (e.g. Dill, 2013 ) is not all that different from Münsterberg's in the last chapter of The Photoplay.

The two tasks that Münsterberg worked on set the agenda for the psychology of film in the century after The Photoplay . It is clearly recognisable in the psychology of the film as we know it today. Footnote 6 But the promising debut made in 1916 was not followed up until the nineteen seventies, or so it seems. James Gibson lamented in his last book on visual perception that whereas the technology of the cinema had reached peak levels of applied science, its psychology had so far not developed at all (1979, p. 292). The cognitive revolution in psychology of the 60s paved the way for its upsurge in the early 80s. But some qualifications need to be made on the seeming moratorium. First, Rudolf Arnheim developed since the 1920s a psychology of artistic film form. Second, although not visible as a coherent psychology of the film, laboratory research on issues in visual perception of the moving image—in particular studies of apparent movement—continued.

Gestalt psychology and film form

Rudolf Arnheim’s essays published first in 1932 added analytic force to Münsterberg’s conviction that film is not an imitation of life. Film and Reality ( 1957 ) highlights shortcomings of film in representing scenes as we know them from natural perception. Footnote 7 In the same essay, it is pointed out that comparing a filmic representation of a scene with its natural perception is what analytic philosophers would call an error of category. In The Making of Film ( 1957 ) Arnheim presented an inventory of formative means for artistic manipulations of visual scenes, including delimitation and point of view, distance to objects and mobility of framing. It is argued that chosen manipulations often go against the most realistic options. For example, ideal viewpoints and canonical distances are often dismissed in favour of more revealing options. Footnote 8 Arnheim’s aesthetics of film gravitates towards acknowledged artistic productions more than to the 'naturalistic narrative film' (e.g., 1957 , p. 116–117) the more moderate art form that Münsterberg tended to prefer.

Arnheim was informed by such founders of Gestalt psychology as Wertheimer, Köhler and Koffka. This school held that natural perception results from the mind’s activity. It organises sensory inputs into patterns according to formal principles such as simplicity, regularity, order and symmetry. Arnheim developed into the leading Gestalt theorist of aesthetics of the 20th century. In his 1974 book he analysed a great number of pictorial, sculptural, architectural, musical and poetic works of art while only rarely referring to film. Footnote 9 The cornerstone aesthetic property of art works including film is expression, defined by Arnheim as 'modes of organic or inorganic behaviour displayed in the dynamic appearance of perceptual objects or events' ( 1974 , p. 445). Expression’s dynamic appearance is a structural creation of the mind imposing itself on sound, touch, muscular sensations and vision. Expressive qualities are in turn, the building blocks of symbolic meaning that art works including film add to the representation of objects and events as we know them in the outer world. Thus, Arnheim’s theory of expression and meaning in the arts seems to echo Münsterberg’s formalist position on the perception of 'inner harmony' as the determinant of film spectators’ aesthetic satisfaction.

Apparent motion

Münsterberg shared the amazement that moving images awakened in early film audiences. He considered the experience of movement a central issue for the psychology of the film. The experience of movement in response to a series of changing still pictures has been studied in psychology and physiology under the rubric of apparent motion . Footnote 10 In Münsterberg’s days, international psychology labs were probing the perception of movement in response to experimental stimuli that were perceived as moving images. Well-known examples include apparent motion induced by the subsequent views of single stationary lines in different positions that result in phi movement , the perception of one moving shape or line. Researchers in this area have continued to study the perception of movement in film as only one of many interesting visual stimuli, such as shapes painted on rotating disks, or dynamic computer-generated lights, shapes and objects of many kinds. Why and how we see motion has been as basic to the study of visual perception as questions of perception of colour, depth, and shape. Helmholtz proposed that what we need to explain is how retinal images that correspond one-to one, i.e., optically with a scene in the world are transformed into mental images, or percepts that we experience. In the case of apparent motion, we also need to understand how a succession of retinal images are perceived as one or more objects in motion Footnote 11 Apparent motion in film viewing needs to be smooth, Footnote 12 and depends on frame rates and masking effects. (The latter effects refer to dampening of the visual impact of one frame by a subsequently presented black frame).

Münsterberg’s conviction that the perception of movement needs a cognitive contribution from the viewer clashes with alternative explanations that rely on prewired visual mechanisms that automatically and immediately pick up the right stimulus features causing an immediate perception of motion, without the mind adding anything substantial. The inventors of nineteenth century moving image devices explained the illusion of movement by the slowness of the eye, possibly following P.M. Roget’s report on apparent motion to the Royal Society in 1824. In the early years of cinema, the persistence of vision account was meant to add precision to this explanation. It proposed that the retina, the optic nerve or the brain could not keep up with a rapid succession of projected frames, and that afterimages would bridge the intervals between subsequent frames. Anderson and Fisher ( 1978 ) and Anderson and Anderson ( 1993 ) have argued why the notion is false and misleading. It suggests that film viewers’ perceptual system sluggishly pile up retina images on top of one another. However, this would lead them to blur which obviously is not the case. The Andersons refer to the explanation as a myth because it is based on a mistaken conception of film viewing as a passive process. Even with the characteristically very small changes between subsequent frames characteristic of motion picture projection, the visual system performs an active integrative role in distinguishing what has changed from one image to another. This integrating mechanism in film viewing is exactly the same as in perceiving motion in real world scenes. Mechanistic explanations have since been founded on growing insights in the neuroscience of vision, such as single cell activity recordings in response to precisely localised stimulus features. Footnote 13 'Preprocessing' of visual input before it arrives in the cortex takes place in the retina and the lateral geniculate nucleus, which have specialised cells or trajectories for apprehending various aspects of motion. There are major interactions between perceptual modules. Footnote 14 Physiological and anatomical findings in the primate visual system, as well as clinical evidence, support the distinction of separate channels for the perception of movement on the one hand, and form, colour and depth on the other (Livingstone and Hubel, 1987 ). Research on how exactly the cortical integration systems for vision are organised has not yet come to a close. A variety of anatomical subsystems have been identified Footnote 15 , and there is room for task variables in the explanation of motion perception. Footnote 16 The operation of task variables in presumably automated processes (e.g., attentional set, induced by specific task instructions) complicates accounts of apparent motion and the perception of movement based on lowest processing levels.

Non-trivial and clear-cut contributions of the mind to smooth apparent motion have been proposed by Gestalt psychologists. Arnheim ( 1974 ) considered the perception of movement as subsidiary to that of change. The mind uses Gestalt principles such as good continuation and object consistency to perceive patterns in ongoing stimuli. Movement is the perception of developing sequences and events. Footnote 17 Gestalt psychologists have attempted to identify stimulus features that are perceived as a spatiotemporal pattern of 'good' motion, and they discovered various types of apparent motion have been distinguished as a function of stimulus features. In an overview volume, Kolers ( 1972 ) presented phi and beta motion as the major variants. Phi , the most famous, was first documented by Wertheimer in 1912 . An image of an object is presented twice in succession in different positions. Footnote 18 Pure or beta motion that is objectless motion, was the novel and amazing observation; the perception seemed to be a sum or integration by the mind beyond the stimulus parts, and asked for an explanation. It is also experienced when the objects in the subsequent presentations are different.

Wertheimer and those after him looked for mechanisms of the mind that could complement the features of the stimulus responsible for apparent motion in its various forms. Footnote 19 Other studies of apparent motion, too, indicated that simple models of stimulus features alone could not explain apparent motion. Footnote 20 One of the best examples of what the cognitive system adds to stimulus features is induced motion (Duncker, 1929 ). When we see a small target being displaced relative to a framework surrounding it, we invariably see the target moving irrespective of whether it is the target or the frame that is displaced. Ubiquitous film examples are shots of moving vehicles, with mobile or static framing.

In this summary and incomplete overview of the field, we could not make a strict distinction between mechanist and cognitive explanations for the perception of movement in film. The current state of research does not allow for it. Footnote 21 Kolers’s conclusions on the state of the field closing his 1972 volume on motion perception seem still valid. He inferred from then extant research that there must be separate mechanisms for extracting information from the visual stimulus and for selecting and supplementing the information into a visual experience of smooth object motion or motion brief. He concluded that 'The impletions of apparent motion make it clear that although the visual apparatus may select from an array [of] features to which it responds, the features themselves do not create the visual experience. Rather, that experience is generated from within, by means of supplementative mechanisms whose rules are accomodative and rationalizing rather than analytical' (p.198). But even if after Koler's analysis some perceptual (Cutting, 1986) or brain mechanisms (Zacks, 2015) have been identified today we still do not know enough about the self-supplied supplementations. Footnote 22

Perception and cognition of scenes

Mental representation and event comprehension.

Contributions of the mind can go considerably beyond apparent motion, i.e., the perception of smooth motion from one frame to another. The cognitive revolution in academic psychology that took off in the 1960s broadened the conceptualisation of contributions of the mind to the film experience beyond the narrower stimulus-response paradigms that had dominated psychological science until the 1960s. The cognitive revolution went beyond Gestalt notions of patterns applied by the mind on stimulus information. It introduced the concept of mental representation as a key to understanding the relation between sensory impressions from the environment on the one hand, and people’s responses to it. Moreover, these cognitive structures were seen functional in mental operations such as retrieval and accommodation of schemas from memory, inference and attribution. These were quite complex in comparison to perceptual and psychophysical responses. In the past 30 years, they have come to encompass event, action, person, cultural, narrative and formal-stylistic schemas. The cognitive turn in film psychology has stimulated a growing exchange with humanist film scholarship, resulting in advances in the elaboration of cognitive structural notions. Early applications of the cognitive perspective in the psychology of the film can be found in the 1940s and 50s in work by Albert Michotte ( 1946 ) and Heider and Simmel. Footnote 23

Against mental representation: direct perception of film events

The psychology of the film as a subdiscipline of academic psychology really took off in the late 1970s. Münsterberg’s broad agenda that had been scattered across isolated studies of mainly movement perception regained general acclaim. This was due first to the booming supply and consumption of moving images through media television and computer-generated imagery since the 60s. Second, the cognitive turn in experimental psychology renewed an interest in perception and cognition as it occurs in natural ecologies. This is the backdrop against which James Gibson ( 1979 ) noted the virtual absence of a psychology of the moving image, motivating his chapter on the film experience. The chapter was important in that it applied his highly influential ecological principles of perception of real world scenes to perception in the cinema. Gibson’s general theory of visual perception (e.g., Gibson, 1979 ) hinges on the notion that the visual system has evolved to extract relevant information from the world in a direct fashion. A scene presents itself to the observer as an ambient optical array that immediately and physically reflects the structure of the real world. Changes and transitions in the flow of the optical array are due to natural causes such as alternations of lighting intensity of the scene, e.g., due to clouds, or movement of objects in the scene or of the observer. These variations in the optical flow enable the automatic pick-up of invariants. Example invariants are the change in size of portions in the array, and the density of texture in that portion when the observer gets closer to, or farther away from the object. Footnote 24 The changes in these parameters are linked with depth-information in a way that is constant across different scenes, observer speeds, lighting conditions, etc. Invariants enable the direct perception of the real world in the service of adaptive action. Disturbances of the optic flow can automatically be perceived as events. The events are categorised on the basis of the nature of the disturbances, e.g., as terrestrial, animate, or chemical events. Furthermore, the direct tuning of the perceptual senses to the structures of the environment enable an immediate perception of affordances , for example the slope of a hill causes the direct perception of 'climbability'.

The experience of motion pictures according to Gibson involves a dynamic optical flow exactly like the one an observer would have when being present at the filmed scene. Footnote 25 Film represents the world to the senses that are calibrated to that world. The field of view of the camera becomes the optic array to the viewer (Gibson, 1979 , p. 298). Perception of objects, movement, events and affordances is direct and realist, based as it is on the same invariants and affordances that the scene in the real world would offer. Deviations from these as emphasised by cognitivist film psychologists from Münsterberg through Arnheim to Hochberg as we will shortly see, are largely taken as non-representative exceptions.

A major affordance offered by conventional movies is empathy with characters. Empathy presupposes that we understand what happens to characters. Scenes present their actions, reactions and feelings. However, most scenes are not continuous. How do we understand scenes presented in pieces, and what are the limits to our understanding? Gibson’s reply to the question of how continuity is perceived in scenes that is, smooth movement and unitary events across cuts would be that the perceptual system extracts the same invariants from the two shots on either side of the cut. The elegant explanation again rests upon a presumed correspondence between perception of real world scenes and film scenes.

Gibson inspired important theorising on the film experience, notably by Anderson and Cutting that we will turn to shortly. Here we emphasise that his direct perception account of the film experience stands in perpendicular opposition to the key innovation that the cognitive turn introduced in experimental psychology. Gibson denied the necessity of mental representations in the perception of objects and events, be it in real scenes or in film.

Cognitive schemas and the canonical set-up of the cinema

The role of mental representations, be they cognitive principles or schemas or other mental structures was argued over a lifetime of work in the psychology of film by Julian Hochberg. A perception psychologist with an interest in pictorial representations and their aesthetics, he devoted a large part of his work to identify what is given in film stimuli and how perception goes beyond that, in often ingenuous demonstrations and experiments. (The demonstrations are, in fact, introspective observations of film perception under exactly specified, reproducible stimulus conditions). A comprehensive overview can be found in Hochberg ( 1986 ). Footnote 26 His legacy should be referred to as the Hochberg and Brooks oeuvre, because his wife Virginia Brooks a psychologist and filmmaker, contributed such a great deal to it. Hochberg found that cognitive schemata are necessary in the perception of film for two reasons. The most profound one is that completely stimulus-driven (or 'bottom-up') accounts of the perception of movement, events, and scene continuity do not really explain the experience. For example, Hochberg and Brooks point out that neurophysiological motion detectors do not explain motion perception, that is, they 'amend but do not demolish' an account based on a mental representation of motion (Hochberg and Brooks, 1996b , p. 226). The same would go for any other direct perception account, including Gibson’s optics plus invariant extraction model. The more practical argument is that the direct perception account fails to pose limits to the scope of its application, leaving thresholds and ceiling conditions for the mechanisms out of consideration. The canonical set-up of cinematic devices for recording and displaying motion pictures has evolved to produce good impressions of depth, smooth and informative motion, emphasis on relevant objects and continuity of action, often violating the course of direct perception in comparable real world scenes. Figure 1 presents a demonstration of active disregard that viewers of mainstream movies typically display. (See also Cutting & Vishton ( 1995 ) on contextual use of depth-information).

figure 1

Example of perceptual disregard in the cinema. Hochberg ( 2007 ) discusses the view of objects moving in front of a landscape. In normal film viewing flatness of studio-backgrounds and quasi-camera movement is disregarded. Traditional films can use a painted or projected landscape at the backdrop of the set, and panning camera movements instead of a really mobile camera to create a convincing impression in the viewer of following a moving object in the scene’s space. A cycling woman is followed in a pan shot moving from left to right; frames A and B constitute the beginning and the end of the panning shot. In normal perception in the real-world objects on the horizon seem to move in the direction of the moving subject, whereas nearby objects move in opposite direction. Panning involves a stationary viewpoint, causing the image to lack this 'motion parallax'. For example, the scarecrow in the middle ground of frame B should be further to the left from the ridge on the horizon than in frame A (DA < DB), but the distance between the objects has remained identical (DA = DB). However, the lack of parallax and resulting apparent flatness can be and is disregarded and viewers experience smooth self-motion parallel to the moving object. Disregard such a this is part and parcel of normal film viewing or the "ecology of the cinema".

The most immediate demonstration of apparent motion is Duncker’s induced motion referred to above, a cinematic effect because it is dependent on canonical projection within a frame. The best analytic examples are about the perception of events in filmed dance. Footnote 27 For Hochberg and Brooks an ecological approach to perception in the cinema needs to take the ecology of the cinema into account.

The necessity of cognitive schemas in film perception was pointed out most pregnantly in Hochberg’s dealing with the comprehension of shot transitions or cuts. It was argued that known sensory integration and Gibson’s extraction of invariants, fail to account for viewers’ comprehension of frequent and simple cinematic events like elision of space and time. Overlap in contents between successive shots can be hard to identify or lack at all. Hochberg and Brooks proposed a principled alternative: films play in the mind’s eye. Viewers construct an off-screen mental space from separate views, and they can link two successive views by the relation of each of these to this space. In constructing a mental space, overlap may even be overruled by other cues, that have nothing to do with any invariance. The construction must involve event schemas and cognitive principles removed from anything immediately given in the film. Schemas may indeed outperform (mathematical) invariants picked up from the optical array offered by the screen. Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996b ) show, for example how gaze direction of film characters or personae in subsequent shots may be more effective in the construction of a continuous mental scene than overlapping spatial or visual symbolic contents. Footnote 28 Mental schemas seem to be indispensable in the comprehension of sequences of completely non-overlapping cuts. A famous demonstration by Hochberg and Brooks is reproduced in Fig. 2 . The succession of shots is readily understood when it is preceded by the presentation of a cross, which provides the integrating schema. Viewers’ schema-based continuous perception of scenes is supported by the ways that traditional cinema tells its stories. The presentation of an overall view in so-called 'establishing shots' followed by a 'break-down' of its object into subsequently presented part views is a cornerstone procedure in classical continuity film style (Bordwell and Thompson, 1997 /1979).

figure 2

Role of mental schemas in the comprehension of continuous space across shots as discussed in Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996 , 2007 ). a The sequence of eight static shots does not seem to make sense. b A static preview of the entire object as in A) would activate a mental schema of a cross. Subsequent shots are then recognised as consecutive camera relocations, counter-clockwise rotations offering subsequent views of corners From Hochberg and Brooks ( 2007 ). Adding a shot of the cross moving diagonally to the lower left corner of the frame would smoothen the transition between the entire object view and the view of its top right corner further and facilitate the perception of the subsequent parts. Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996 ) reported that replacing one of the shots by a blank frame does not lead to confusion. For example, if shot 7 were replaced by a blank frame, the view of the lower left angle of the cross would seem to have been skipped, and shot 8 would be recognised as to present a view of the lower left corner. That is, the trajectory of the views would remain intact in keeping with the overall view of the object. This illustrates all the more the leading role of the schema of a cross in the perception of its parts.

A smooth understanding of non-overlapping cuts may require dedicated knowledge of discursive story units and rules for their ordering that only literary analysis types of study can reveal (Hochberg, 1986 , pp. 22–50). Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996a , p. 382) pointed out that theoretical or empirical proposals as to the nature of such representations were lacking. They found Gestalt principles unsatisfactory (Hochberg, 1998 ). Current film psychologists have taken up this challenge as we shall see briefly.

As a final contribution of Hochberg and Brooks’ to the psychology of the film, we would like to highlight their view of film spectators as partners motivated to deliver their share in a communicative effort. Film viewers contribute to the canonical setup of the cinema in that they are astutely aware of the filmmaker’s communicative intentions: '… the viewer expects that the film maker has undertaken to present something in an intelligible fashion and will not provide indecipherable strings of shots' (Hochberg, 1986 , p. 22–53). Viewers must be assumed to have an associated motivation to explore the views presented to them. In a series of inventive experiments, Hochberg and Brooks gathered evidence for an impetus to gather visual information. Looking preference increased with cutting rate and with complexity of shot contents. Visual momentum , or viewer interest, (Brooks and Hochberg, 1976 ; Hochberg and Brooks, 1978 ) as they termed it is the absorbing experience typical of cinema viewing. These studies help us to understand how current cutting strategies meet the viewers’ typical motivation for cognitive enquiry. The reward of comprehension is carefully dosed by varying the time allowed to the viewer to inspect objects and scenes, dependent on their novelty and complexity.

Hochberg’s demonstrations of the involvement of mental structures in understanding portrayed events was in large part based on introspective evidence. They have been criticised for relying too heavily on top-down control of perception by too intricate mental structures, by Gibson and others. Footnote 29 Current research in the cognitive structure tradition uses more sophisticated experimental set-ups. Inspiration has been drawn from theories of discourse processing in cognitive science. In this research, the relationship of 'top-down' use of schemas in scene comprehension with 'bottom-up' processing of stimulus features has become an important question. Footnote 30 Zacks has extensively investigated how film viewers segment the ongoing stream of images and extract meaningful events and actions from it. Viewer segmentation depends on automatically detected changes in a situation (Zacks, 2004 ). Detection of the changes requires only minimal use of schemas, and triggers automated perceptual-motor simulations of events and subevents such as actions. Footnote 31 Segmentation follows the logic of events in the real world. Most importantly, multiple events can be organised in a hierarchical or linear fashion, as scenes, sets of events and subevents or actions (Zacks, 2013 ).

Theory of mind and layered meaning of events

Extracting events in understanding film scenes needs more than retrieving schemas of real world events. The fact that they are presented with an idea in mind, is reflected in their understanding. Understanding film scenes and especially characters, their actions, plans and goal has been argued to require a so-called Theory of Mind (Levin et al., 2013 ). TOM is a system of cognitive representations of what beliefs, needs, desires, intentions and feelings people have in their interaction with others and the world. It is acquired in early childhood, when children understand that others, too, have an internal life, similar to but also different from one’s own beliefs and feelings. Levin et al. explain how use of TOM, also referred to as mentalising is necessary for an elementary understanding of film character actions and feelings. For example, character gaze following that underlies our perception of what characters feel or want to do with respect to an object that they look at requires TOM. TOM underlies grasping spatial (and action-) relations in scene comprehension across cuts using gaze following. Understanding relations between more complex events require schema-controlled theorizing on what people believe, do, think, and feel. Finally, Levin et al. demonstrate through film analyses how film viewers construct multi-layered representations of a film’s action from the point of view of different characters, the viewer and even from the narrator’s or filmmaker’s. For example, viewer and character perspectives may clash as in dramatic irony , or the narrator may create false beliefs on story events in viewers.

Continuity of events and viewer attention

Hochberg’s question of what the mental schemas look like that enable us to perceive smooth progress of events across film cuts has recently been addressed by the next generation of film psychologists. They have sought answers in profound analyses of the canonical setup delivered by the founders of cognitive film theory in the humanities, such as Bordwell ( 1985 , 2008 ), and Anderson ( 1996 ). Bordwell’s extensive analyses of classical film narrative and his account of the viewer’s mental activity in the comprehension of the film’s story-world suggest a film-psychological hypothesis on the experience of continuity: Classical Hollywood film style serves smooth progress of the narrative. Continuity editing ensures fluency across shot transitions. Shot A cues cognitive schema-based or narrative expectations that are subsequently matched in shot B. Expectations can be perceptual or cognitive, i.e., requiring inferences supported by event schemas. Anderson added a Gibsonian perspective, arguing that the perception of film scenes mimics the perception of real world scenes. Continuity shooting and editing closely follow the constraints of the human perceptual systems that have evolved to 'extract' continuity from changing views of scenes in the real world. Recent research into the experience of smooth development of events and scenes across shot transitions draws on these principles of continuity narration. Footnote 32 Framing, editing and sound finetune the viewer’s top-down search to focus on candidate target stimuli. A quite complete and accurate explanation was offered by Tim Smith. His Attentional Theory of Cinematic Continuity ( 2012 ) explains the viewer’s sense of smooth progress by the continuity editing principles that mainstream filmmakers tend to adhere to. AToCC breaks away from Hochberg’s analyses to the degree that it holds that viewers do not need intricate spatial or semantic schemas to construct continuous events from separate shots. Rather it is built on the Gibsonian principle that perceiving continuity in film scenes derives from the continuity that we experience in perceiving scenes in the natural world. The ecology of the cinema renders it sufficient to follow a number of simple spatiotemporal guidelines. Continuity editing film style guides viewers’ attention in seamlessly following action across cuts. Attention, that is the focused selection of objects in a shot by the viewer, i.e., what and where the viewer directs their gaze, is led by the filmmaker. The viewers’ gaze in shot A is directed to the part of the screen where the target of interest in shot B, that is after the cut, will be. The shift of attention from one portion to another of the screen in shot A is shortly followed by the cut, and because the gaze 'lands' in the right place in shot B, the cut has become invisible. Footnote 33 The theory of continuity perception adds precise levels of analysis to the construction of mental scene spaces that Hochberg proposed. It distinguishes higher level and lower level control of attention. Higher-level ones include 'perceptual inquiries' as Hochberg and Brooks ( 1978a ) called them. The expectations or questions that guide the gaze may be minimally articulated, e.g., 'what or whom are these characters looking at' as in gaze following, but the operation of higher level cognitive schemas are not excluded. The best demonstration to date of the control of focus of attention by the narrative is given in research on suspense and its effects on film viewer gazes by Bezdek et al. ( 2015 ) and Bezdek and Gerrig ( 2017 ). Footnote 34 Their results can be taken to imply that suspense, a state of high absorption, is associated with focal attention to story-world details supervised by expectations created by the narrative (see also Doicaru, 2016 ).

The study of film viewers' attention has delivered a firm account of the role of the ubiquitous Hollywood continuity film style in the typical experience of smoothly flowing film scenes and stories that audiences allover the world have. (See for a review Smith, Levin & Cutting, 2012 ).

A lead role in perception for cinematic low-level features?

Experimental psychology has always aspired basic explanations of perceptual responses, preferably through transparent mechanistic associations with physically observable stimulus conditions. The role of high-level narrative schema-based attention in smooth film experiences discussed in the previous section, is subject to debates in which experimental data support arguments pro and con. To begin with, AToCC emphasises the role of leading expectations in following cuts, but more akin to the Gibsonian approach of visual perception than to Hochberg’s schema position as it is, it tends to stress lower level features as directing attention bottom-up, too or even more so. One lower level is given by film-stylistic devices, for instance the use of sound that can orient viewers to direct their gazes to the next shot’s portion of the screen where the sound’s origin will be shown. Another are lower level stimulus features in a narrower and technical sense, such as bright lights and movements with sudden onset that automatically attract attention due to the make-up of the senses and the brain. Especially movement was shown by Smith to be an extraordinary low level attentional cue. The power of low level feature control of attentional shifts has inspired Loschky et al. ( 2015 ) to speak of the 'tyranny of film'. They start from research findings suggesting that the use of low-level stylistic features can result in attentional synchrony across film audiences, that is individual viewers of a scene gaze at exactly the same portions of the screen at exactly the same time. Footnote 35 Remarkable degrees of inter-viewer synchronization of visual attention has also been established in studies of localisations of brain activity in film viewers (e.g., Hasson et al., 2003 ). However, Stephen Hinde’s research has recently shown that the distraction effect of inserted low-level attention triggers is quite limited (Hinde et al., 2017 ) In line with this notion of top-down attention control overriding bottom-up attention triggers, Magliano and Zacks ( 2011 ) demonstrated that the perception of cuts is suppressed by higher order processes related to the construction of complex events.

Gibson’s idea of invariants in optical arrays can now be made concrete, enabling the prediction of bottom-up controlled attention and perception from objectively identified features. Developments in computer vision, image and sound analysis have paved the way for automated extraction of features and patterns in visual and auditory stimuli in terms of multiple dimensions. For example, machine extraction of saliency as a feature predictive of bottom-up attention has been developed and applied in numerous computer vision applications. A much-cited article by Itti and Koch ( 2001 ) illustrates the idea for static images. Specialised neural network algorithms detect features such as colour, intensity, orientations, etc. in parallel over the entire visual field. Each feature is represented in a feature map, in which neurons compete for saliency. Feature maps are combined into a saliency map. A last network sequentially scans the saliency map, moving from the most salient location to the next less salient one and so on. Footnote 36 An excellent explanation of how to obtain saliency maps is given at a Matlab page. Footnote 37

Psychologists of film in their attempts to explain the extraordinary smooth and intense perceptual experience that mainstream film typically provides, currently seek to join forces with computer vision scientists. In a next step, they may seek collaboration with vision labs in the world that attempt to link their low-level film image feature analyses with film narrative structures and viewer responses. Footnote 38

figure 3

Examples of computational film analyses. Number of shot transitions as a function of acts. Cutting ( 2016 ), Fig. 2 . Under Creative Commons License ( ). Note that ordinates are inverted; lower positions of titles mean larger number of shots and decreased shot durations. Normalised time bins refer to units of duration standardised in view of variable film length of separate titles. Left panel displays distribution of cuts over time and acts, right panel of non-cut transitions such as dissolves, fades and wipes.

The work of perception researcher James Cutting has carried the psychology of the film into the next stage of the Gibsonian ecological approach, while also linking it with insights in the structure of film narrative from humanities scholarship. Footnote 39 In an interesting essay on the perception of scenes in the real world and in film Cutting ( 2005 ) summarised the ecological perspective on perception stating that understanding how we perceive the real world helps to grasp how we perceive film and vice versa. Footnote 40 In the last decade Cutting developed powerful computational content analysis methods that reveal the patterning of low-level features in relation to dimensions of film style and technology, in representative samples of Hollywood films of well over a hundred titles. The theoretical starting point of the approach is that movies exhibit reality. The psychologist Cutting subscribes to the analytical distinctions made in literary and film theories between plot, form and style of a narrative on the one hand, and the represented story-world on the other. The Gibsonian proposal is that analyses of the fabula or story-world (i.e., the action, events, characters and so on) should lead to identification of syuzhet features (i.e., formal and stylistic features that are physically given in the film stimulus or can be perceived without substantial instruction) functional in the perception and understanding of that story-world; vice versa, variations in form and style reflect variations in the portrayed story-world. Cutting’s definition of low-level film features used in the analyses was informed by analyses of narrative, style and technology by David Bordwell, and methods for statistical style analysis by Barry Salt ( 2009 ).

Low-level features analysed by Cutting and co-workers are physically and quantitatively determinable elements or aspects occurring in moving images, regardless of the narrative. They include shot duration, temporal shot structure, colour, contrast and movement. The value of each feature can be expressed as an index for an entire film, or for some segment targeted in an analysis. Footnote 41 Inspection by an analyst complements machine vision analyses, but I would qualify the indexing approach as computational (objective) film analysis , because of intensive tallying and numerical operations developed by specialists in psychological data-processing. The features do not constitute events or scenes, but they accentuate these. A recording of their measurements for an entire film would constitute an abstract backbone to be filled with scenes and events. One possible comparison is with the rhythmic score of a song without melodies and words. In the hands of capable film-makers they are indispensable for conveying the narrative, due to their direct, predictable and automated effects on the visual system.

The primary use of the approach is in film analysis. The multi-feature configurations of indices can be used to reliably 'fingerprint' films or sections. Reliably because the indices are derived from large numbers of measurements. Computational film analysis uses a historical corpus of films and has been deployed over the past decade to corroborate and enrich historical analyses of film style. Footnote 42 The climax so far of efforts to integrate computational content analysis with film theory and analysis is Cutting’s ( 2016 ) report on narrative theory and the dynamics of popular movies. The corpus consisted of 160 English language films released between 1935 and 2010, ten for each year. As Figure 3 illustrates a typical course obtained of the number of shot transitions over film presentation time, interpretable as to mark the acts and the pace of narration, see Figure 3 . An important outcome of the analyses is that clear physical support was obtained for the four-act structure proposed by film historian Thompson ( 1999 ) across the entire period. It should be noted that Thompson’s act structure was identified largely on the basis of higher level narrative segmentation. Footnote 43 Shot scale was unrelated to the act structure. Cutting added analyses of higher order level film features that can be interpreted to co-vary with narration. Footnote 44 Cutting then ventured upon a multi-feature analysis of the entire corpus. Associations among all indices across all titles could be reduced to four dimensions: motion, framing, editing and sound. They correlated in a meaningful way. For example, shot scale was inversely related to shot duration; in classical narration close-ups tend towards briefer durations than wide shots. Each dimension represented polar opposites between features, e.g., music vs. conversation for sound and close-ups vs long shots for framing. Computational content analysis can explore the dynamics of the dimensional representations over subsequent acts of movies. Figure 4 reproduces Cuttings findings for prolog, setup, complication, development, climax, and epilog. Footnote 45 It would seem that the analysis winds up in a level of cinematic content representation that is grounded in directly given stimulus features, integrated with film-analytical features that can be readily indexed and seem relevant as production tools in regular filmmaking.

figure 4

Five movie dimensions in narrational space. Reproduced from Cutting ( 2016 ) Fig. 9. under Creative Commons License ( ). The displayed representation is obtained from dimensional reduction of the numerous associations between film titles in terms of their feature profiles. The results of the first stage of the analysis are not displayed here, see Fig. 8 in Cutting ( 2016 ). In that stage, the number of associations between all titles regarding all features was reduced to four dimensions (see main text) using principal component analysis. In the next stage the analysis was applied to the features and films for each separate act, to result in the configurations shown here. Arrows vary in length, correspondingly to differences in the range of values on the dimensions. Black dots indicate median values of the acts on the dimensions. Considering for example the sound dimension, it can be seen that the set-up tends to have more conversation and the climax has more music. The red bars indicate the dispersion of values on the dimension and the degree it is skewed towards one or the other end

What does computational content analysis mean psychologically, that is how do indices and dimensions function in the viewer’s perceiving and comprehending events? Patterns of features trigger changes in viewers’ physiological, attention, perception and emotion systems, according to Cutting ( 2016 , p. 27). Typical low-level configurations may correlate with possible effects on the viewer’s perception and experience of events. For example, shot duration may support interpretations of pace, mood and tension, think of drama’s long takes; temporal shot structure is functional for sustaining attention or suspense (e.g., when a sequence of brief shots abruptly merges into long duration shots), e.g., in thrillers; movement (of camera and objects on screen) serves arousal in the viewer, as in action movies; low luminance signals possible threat as in horror movies, while high luminance may lend 'a sense of other worldliness' (Brunick et al., 2013 , p. 141). All low-level features can help viewers in categorising films as to genre, and changes in these will support segmentation of events and scenes, which is at the basis of smooth narrative understanding. Combinations of indices enable more interesting interpretations of possible experience effects. Footnote 46 However, because the studies that the overarching computational content analysis was based on do not involve response measurement, a direct connection between cinematic form (especially narrative procedures) and cinematic meaning that Cutting argues for is open to further elaboration. Even in the face of the richness of directly given information that has been extracted using computers, Cutting sees room for the use of cognitive schemas. The very narrative acts that are underlined by immediately given information may be schematic in nature, but he finds it more likely that their functioning is less dependent on memory-processes than the very high-level cognitive structures implied in cognitive scripts and TOM reasoning.

To conclude the sections on the cognition of film scenes, we seem to have made important progress in understanding how movies construct events in film viewers' minds an brains, as put it in his state of the art review. Movies in part "dictate" events, actions and scenes to viewers' brains using an "alphabet" of visual and auditive features; viewers in turn contribute to the construction of story-worlds by developing and matching higher-order structural anticipations using embodied cognitive event, character and narrative schemas. Since 1916, the film units that have been analysed increased from paired single stimuli (as apparent motion experiments) to whole film acts (as in computational film analysis). Analyses of narrative structure from film theory have become for the psychology of film what harmonics and counterpoint analysis signify to the psychology of music or the theories of syntax and semantics to psycholinguistics. They inform psychological notions of film structure and organization.

The awareness of narrative film

The third part of The Photoplay deals with issues other than the psychological mechanisms or the psychology of film form namely the awareness offered by the photoplay. It was only natural to Münsterberg as a child of his time to designate the special awareness that film creates as the explanandum in psychological research, the mechanisms of film stimuli impinging on attention, perception and memory being the explanans . His characterisations of this conscious awareness, what it is like to watch theatrical films, or in other words the phenomenology of the film experience remains in my view as yet unparalleled. Apart from the sense of freedom that we have already discussed, they include attentional and affective experiences.

Münsterberg described enjoyment as the immediate effect of theatrical film, explaining it from the exceptional freedom of the imagination: "The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the form of our consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us" (Münsterberg, 1916 , p. 95). Light has been thrown on the remarkable fluency of the film experience noted by Münsterberg by current research in narrative procedures, and the mechanisms of continuity perception discussed in the previous section. Münsterberg also stressed that the enjoyment of photoplays depends on our experience of the film’s story as an emotionally meaningful world separate from reality: 'The photoplay shows us a significant conflict of human actions … adjusted to the free play of our mental experiences and which reach complete isolation from the practical world …' (p. 82). And finally, he singled out the role of focused attention in enjoyment. 'It is as if that outer world were woven into our mind and we were shaped not through its own laws but by the acts of our attention, …' (Münsterberg, 1916 , p. 39).

Twentieth century academic psychology did not develop much of a body of theory and research on human consciousness. Hence it is not surprising that alongside research into perception and comprehension one doesn’t find much work on the conscious experience of film. Measurements of perceptual, attentional, cognitive and affective responses in experimental psychology are extremely limited with regards to the contents of consciousness that they tap. Lab tasks enabling measurement are must be simple, e.g., identification, comparison or categorisation of visual stimuli, rather than free description or recall. Self-reports associated with such tasks must be quantifiable and take the shape of choice responses, simple intensity ratings or readily codifiable reports. Behavioural measures are farther removed from any contents of experience because these need to be inferred. Here, too, simple objective coding is a must. Descriptive and interpretative reports of the qualia and meaning of experiences afforded by film have been largely left to hermeneutic film criticism and phenomenologically oriented film philosophy in the humanities. Scholarship in these fields follows in the footsteps of Münsterberg. The present overview of the psychology of the film cannot go into it further; I refer to Sobchack’s ( 1992 ) volume on the phenomenology of the film experience. It opens with the proposition that film directly expresses perceptions, a proposition coming close to the observation in The Photoplay that the contents of the audience’s experience are perceptions, attention, thinking and emotion that are projected before them on the screen.

Absorption in film

Meanwhile, progress can be reported in understanding one aspect of the rich and complex film experience namely its intensity. Münsterberg observed that the film audience’s enjoyment is due to prolonged states of attention strongly focused on a fictional story-world, so strong in fact that the here and now escapes consciousness and it seems instead as if an 'outer world were woven into our mind'. Elsewhere we have proposed to refer to the experience of intense attention as absorption in a story-world (Tan et al., 2017 ), following Nell's ( 1988 ) groundbreaking description of "being lost in a book". Media psychologists specialised in research on media entertainment (Vorderer et al., 2004 , Bilandzic & Bussele, 2011 ) have developed a variety of measures capturing enjoyable absorption-like states afforded by narrative, television drama and video-gaming. We discuss four of these.

a. Narrative engagement (Bussele and Bilandzic, 2008 , 2009 ) is a pleasant state of being engrossed or entranced by the narrative as a whole as it is presented in a book or film, including the activity of reading or viewing it. Footnote 47 (Tele-)Presence (Schubert et al., 2001 ; Wirth et al., 2007 ; and others) refers to the embodied awareness of being in a virtual world: being there with your body, in other words absorption in a story-world. Footnote 48 The concept has its origin in research into the experience of virtual realities. Footnote 49 Attempts have been made to ground mechanisms of film-induced emotion on presence that is the audience’s basic and embodied awareness of being in the middle of the story-world as a witness to events befalling characters Anderson ( 1996 ); Tan (1994, 1996 ).

b. Green and Brock’s ( 2000 ) definition of transportation is the most frequently used conceptualisation of absorption in media-psychological research. It is considered a major gratification offered to readers of narrative and film viewers alike. It overlaps with presence in that it features a sense of being in the story-world, as well as a realistic and attentive imagery of details. The difference may be that as a metaphor transportation evokes associations with transition to or travel into the film’s story-world. Footnote 50 More than presence, the operationalisations of transportation entail personal relevance and participatory sympathetic feeling, amplifying the emotional quality of the experience.

c. Empathy is the common denominator for concepts referring to absorption in the inner life of fictional characters. Like transportation, it is seen as a major gratification in reading stories and watching drama and movies. Viewer empathy has been defined as perceiving, understanding and emotionally responding to character feeling in the seminal work on the subject by Zillmann (Zillmann, 1991 , 1996). Perceived similarity and sympathy for the character (grounded in moral attitudes) have been suggested and tested as determinants of spectator empathy in drama (e.g., Zillmann, 1996; 2000 ; 2003 ; 2006 ). Footnote 51 There is still a need to sort out possible forms of empathy specific to the canonical conditions of the cinema which may be quite different from situations in real life where we observe other persons. Footnote 52 Moreover, empathy with film characters can be less or more cognitively demanding. Footnote 53 Identification (e.g., Cohen, 2001 ) seems to stand for complete absorption of the viewer’s self by a represented character. Footnote 54 It can be argued that empathy is the rule in film viewing while identification is the exception (e.g., Zillmann, 1995; Tan, 1996 , 2013a , b ), as most mainstream film narratives are mainly geared towards provoking the former rather than the latter. According to Smith ( 1995 ) they use 'alignment' techniques that promote perspective taking and allegiance strategies that foster viewer sympathy for the character while the distinction between self and character is unaffected.

d. Finally, flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997 ) is the odd person out in the series of absorption-like experience concepts reviewed here, because it applies not only to absorption in movies, narratives or games, but to any activities that stand out for a certain intensity and intrinsic reward as well. The rather simple idea supporting the concept is that a pleasurable state is experienced when the challenges inherent in an activity just match the person’s capacities. In the canonical setup of mainstream film (and mainstream audiences) this balance is generally realised due to filmmakers’ skilful presentation of interesting story-events, and the overlap of it with attentional, perceptual and cognitive routines that film viewers have acquired in the real world. Mainstream movie continuity film style facilitates flow a great deal as it tedns to minimize challenges posed by transitions from one view or perspective to another. Smith's ( 2012 ) studies were discussed above as relevant to smooth continuity of visual attention, and I would also mention the research on comprehension of events by Schwann (2013; Garsofsky & Schwan, 2009 )

Obviously, these and other varieties of absorption are not mutually exclusive. Elsewhere we have presented qualitative empirical support for a dynamic interplay among the varieties of absorption (Bálint and Tan, 2015 ). Footnote 55

From the overview we may conclude that Münsterberg’s introspective psychology of the film experience is in large part echoed in the empirical observations gathered one century later. Viewers feel absorbed in another, exceptionally vivid reality, 'clothed in the [embodied] forms of our consciousness' (presence and transportation). Empathy is mentioned by Münsterberg as a prominent experience, and his notion of an unhampered stream of the imagination may correspond with the experience of flow. Focused attention is already in The Photoplay a major component of the film experience, that would later be investigated in research on bottom-up vs. top-down attention discussed above. Absorption, empathy and intensely focused attention can easily substantiate the enjoyability of watching films as Münsterberg already would have it. However, compared to Münsterberg’s conceptualisation of the typical film awareness, insights into how acts of imagination on the part of the spectatorcontribute to it have not advanced that much in the psychology of film. Footnote 56

A narrative simulation account of emotion in film viewing

Absorption is an affective state characteristic of the film expeirience. However, a description of the typical experience of narrative films is incomplete if more specific affective states are not considered. Watching movies has been identified with emotions. We go to the cinema to experience mirth, compassion, sadness, bittersweet emotions, thrill, horror, and soon in response to what we see and hear happening to characters and ourselves. Emotions of movie audiences have not received much attention since Münsterberg’s Photoplay . Twenty-first century film psychology has taken up where he left off, and a major step forward has been to regard the narrative structure of films as a fundamental starting point for explaining film viewer emotions. The narrative simulation account is, I think, dominant in today’s psychological approaches to the issue of why the cinema offers the intense and remarkable emotional experience that Münsterberg’s photoplays induced a century ago. Important work on emotion in media users has been done in media psychology, most on empathy with characters, but narrative induced emotion has not received much attention, as can be seen from a complete overview by Konijn ( 2013 ). Cognitive scholars in the humanities have highlighted different aspects of film narratives that induce perceptions of fictional events associated with intense emotional experiences (e.g., genre-typical film style: Grodal, 1997 , 2009 , 2017 ; Visch and Tan, 2009 ; narrative procedures, e.g., Smith, 1995 ; Plantinga, 2009 ; Berliner, 2017 ). I hope the reader will allow me to use my own work on the subject as an illustration. It is closely related to the cognitive - theoretical analyses just referred to. I have found a cognitive approach to emotion in general psychology fruitful for narrative modelling of emotion in film viewing. Footnote 57 Investigations of film-induced emotion have raisedthe issue of apparent realism : how can a clearly fictional world be taken for real to the effect of intensely moving emoting viewers? Oatley introduced a cognitive theory of narrative fiction as simulation ( 1999 , 2012 , 2013 ) that applies to film as a stimulus for possibly complex emotions. Narrative runs simulations on the embodied mind just as programs run simulations on computers. Footnote 58 I would add that filmviewers take part in a playful simulation in which the film leads them to imagine they are present in a fictional world, where they witness fictional events that film characters are involved in (Tan, 1995 , 1996 , 2008 ). Being a witness involves embodied perceptions of what happens in a fictional world, as well as in the imagination constructing and participating in events, without acting on these. In the process, events are taken for real for the sake of playful entertainment. This position is related to Walton’s ( 1990 ) well-known account of fiction as make-believe.

Frijda’s cognitive theory of the emotions (Frijda, 1986 , 2007) is the starting point for further explanation of emotional experiences in response to film. The theory posits that the emotion system has evolved for adaptive action in the first place. For example, the sight of a monster will spawn a strong urge to flee due to a basic concern for safety being jeopardised. Of course, film audiences do not run out of the auditorium. According to the cognitive theory of emotion, action responses are not fixed responses to emotional stimuli, but the result of appraisals of what they mean for a person’s concerns in light of the situational context. Playful simulation provides the contextual frame for the complex appraisal of apparent realism of film events. The appraisal has three stages: perceptual, imagination based and self-involved. Footnote 59

1. Many popular film stimuli provoke immediate and automated appraisals of concern relevance and ensuing emotional responses, due for instance to their nature of unconditioned stimuli in the real world. A snake popping out from the bush would be an example. Emotional appraisals in the cinema can be and often are empathetic. That is they include perspectives on events taken by film characters. Film technology in mainstream movies is used to emphasise emotional triggers; editing could strengthen the suddenness of the snake’s appearance, and photography could render fear releasers such as the typical movements of the snake more salient. Footnote 60 But popular films also present us with emotional stimuli that are immediately perceived as fake, for example a rubber prop snake. Due to the playful simulation frame further cognitive processing of perceptions takes place. In the first case, film viewers realise that just perceived events are not real but must be held true for the sake of a playful simulation. In the second, they realise that the fake stimulus is only a prompt, and comply with its invitation to hold the stimulus true and allow it to appeal to their concerns, also for the sake of playful simulation.

2. Once imagination takes over from perception, the reality status of stimuli is traded for believability. As part of the imagination fictional events are matched with higher order genre-specific narrative schemas, and then dealt with as possibilities in a particular world . As Frijda ( 1989 ) argued when he discussed the apparent reality of fiction: 'Seeing a fake snake approach a real person is not scary. But watching an imaginary snake approach an imaginary Jane is. The first is seen as unreal in a real word, and the second as real in an imaginary world. And this is how we appraise events in fiction. The fun of art is in the play with the duality' (p. 1546). Play with the possibility of events in the imagined world and entertaining as-if emotions can suffice for genuine emotion to arise. As I argued elsewhere (Tan, 1996 ) the appraisal of the possibility of events in a particular fictional world can and usually does lead to genuine emotion, because humans have been equipped with a capacity to have emotions in response to mental representations of counterfactual and imaginary events. Footnote 61

3. The genuine emotion can—but does not need to—open up considerations of the believability of fictional events in the real world. Moreover, it can lead to imaginations in which the viewer’s self is involved in the events or their ramifications. The appraisal of fictional film events is treated in more detail in Tan and Visch (2018). The search for film style and technology features that are conducive to particular emotional appraisals has only slowly lifted off. Cutting's computational content analyses were already mentioned There are scattered empirical studies e.g. of camera angle and editing pace by Kraft (1987) and Lang et al. 1995, respectively. Film technique manuals and critical anayles provide abundant intuitively convincing examples of how to produce emotionally appealing sequences. It is to be expected that computational film analysis will soon enable large scale studies of the use of style and technology in emoting scenes.

Back to emotion and action. As film viewers perceive film scenes to be projections on screen of a fictional world, they understand they cannot act, and their action tendencies are suppressed. Footnote 62 As importantly, one’s inability to act upon a fictional world is a strong trigger for emotional responses involving the imagination of action. Driven by sympathy, viewers desire that protagonists escape from a horrific situation. In their imagination they anticipate and hope that the protagonist is saved by someone or something and if need be by a fictional miracle. Footnote 63 Thus, they experience or exhibit a virtual form of action readiness (Frijda, 1986 ). Footnote 64 This readiness for action can be directly observed in film viewers from their "participatory responses" (Bezdek, Foy & Gerrig, 2013 ) - such as overt expressions of sympathy for a character (see also Tan, 2013b ). However, there is one thing that film-viewers as witnesses invariably do when properly emoted: eagerly watch the events on screen.

Following cognitive film theory further, I consider the emotional experience of film as the sum total of experience of the appraisal, internal and external bodily expressions and changes in action readiness integrated in consciousness in accompanying the sensory intake of units of film.

Film, interest and enjoyment

An account of `film - audience emotion is incomplete if it does not go into the question why we actually take the trouble of watching movies. Münsterberg already wondered how mature people can become so emotionally absorbed in fantasy worlds. Narrative films can be argued to address two basic emotional concerns in particular, curiosity and sympathy (Tan, 1996 ). All sorts of narrative fiction, including film provoke interest by presenting events with uncertain consequences. Thus, they address a basic curiosity , that is a need for novelty, knowing and exploration. Interest is the emotion that responds to appeals involving this concern. Interest in film viewing does have a real action readiness to it referred to above: watch eagerly. Because the response in interest includes spending and focussing attention to specific story-world events, its experience goes hand in hand with absorption. Mainstream film’s narrative is perfectly designed to support a characteristic systematic unfolding of interest as an emotion. Movies continuously present cognitive challenges that viewers know they can meet. Footnote 65 Silvia ( 2006 ) has shown in a greater number of studies that this is the condition for optimal interest. I have referred to the core appraisal of narrative interest as promise of rewarding outcomes , in terms either of desirability for a protagonist or mankind in general, or of coherence, completeness or elegance of a narrative’s structure, or both (Tan, 1996 ). In addition, the prospect of sought emotions, such as excitement, enjoyment and appreciation is as well part of the promise that ongoing film narratives constantly offer. Footnote 66 Interest is closely linked with enjoyment, the primary gratification that movies offer their audience. In the cinema interetst is pleasant because it is fun to entertain anticipations of as yet uncertain story-outcomes. Moreover, every outcome, even if it is unanticipated or unfavorable, is greeted with enjoyment because it answers one's curiosity. (In the case of sad, horrific or otherwise hedonically negative or mixed outcomes, "enjoyment" is not the proper label for the rewarding emotion. We return to the fun of unpleasant emotion in a later section).On a final note, interest in film viewing is a case of narrative interest as a broader category of emotions, but the sensory qualities of the medium are relevant for how interest feels. Curiosity to know is in part a desire for the closure of a propositional narrative structure, but in the cinema we do not only want to know but also to see and hear . The enjoyment of seeing a couple kiss or a heroine return after an odyssee of some sort is in the cinema incomplete when it is not shown. In the cinematic appraisal of interest, an anticipation of embodied completion of our narrative-led imagination is a major ingredient of the promise of reward.

Emotional responses to fiction film worlds

The second concern that movies touch upon is sympathy . That this concern is active throughout the reception of all traditional movies answers the question why film viewers care about damsels, hobbits or gorilla’s in distress. There is a fundamental human need for bonding with others and recognising whatever fictional character as someone 'like us' supposedly suffices for sympathy to arise. Footnote 67 Mainstream films activate the concern to the full as their sympathetic protagonists meet with ups and downs in on the way to their goals. Sympathy-based emotions like disappointment, regret, awe, mirth, suspense, hopes and fears, compassion and sadness occur in response to obstacles or their removal on the way to protagonists realising their projects. Footnote 68 Because these emotions arise in response to events (appraised as desirable or undesirable) in a fictional world, we refer to these emotions as responding emotions . Footnote 69 Some frequently experienced sympathetic responding emotions such as fear, sadness, compassion and being moved, can be empathetic , that is require mentalising a character’s inner life. Said more precisely, empathetic emotion requires that the viewer’s appraisal of any fictional events reflects the perspective of a character; the event is understood from a character’s imagined point of view and with her concerns, and feelings. In its most intense forms, sympathy can look and feel like self-indulgent sentiment . However, there is no point in condemning tears of sadness or joy as silly. The term sentiment is not necessarily pejorative. The appraisal of a character’s suffering or good doing can involve an acknowledgment of its superior measure, notably in relation to the self’s suffering or good doing. In my compassion with or admiration for a beloved character I can feel that her fate is really woeful compared to mine, or that her altruistic achievements make mine totally insignificant. Being moved , awe and having goose bumps are emotional responses accompanying such appraisals (Tan and Frijda, 1997 ; Tan, 2009 ; Wassiliwizky et al., 2017 ; Schubert et al., 2018 ) Footnote 70

However, not every responding emotion requires empathy or sympathy. Footnote 71 The sympathy concern does not only drive our siding with characters and responding emotionally to the ups and downs in their projects. As I proposed (Tan, 1996 ) it can make us invest affectively 'film-long' in characters, on top of going along in their hopes and fears, successes and failures. We are also witnesses of characters’ slower and more profound development into personae we would want them to be. The share of action or plot development relative to that of character differs from one genre to another. Footnote 72 Generally, action movies and especially comedies tend to allow for only minimal character development, whereas the drama genres may indulge into it. In these genres, viewer interest may depend in larger part on characterisation and character development.

Another class of emotions responding to the fictional world are 'spectacular' that is spectacle based . The spectacle of landscapes, buildings, natural objects and artifices, human or animal figures in motion, can surprise us and touch on a sense of beauty and invoke appraisals of harmony, elegance, or serenity. In some genres the spectacle of explosions, injury, cruelty disfiguration, etc. may incite disgust, fear raise emotions. Spectacle-based emotions do not rely on empathy of any depth, their stimulus being the mere view or sound of a fictional scene; they are neither dependent on sympathy. In more traditional terms, image and sound combinations of objects, events, and figures in the fictional world can be emotionally appraised as spectacular, beautiful, sublime, horrific, bizarre, absurd and so on. Amazement, enjoyment, awe (the wow-feeling), entrainment, being moved and aesthetic appreciation are apt labels for ensuing emotions. Like all emotional responses to fiction worlds, spectacle-based emotions can also arise when we read narratives, but in the cinema, they compete conspicuously with plot and character-driven interest and sympathy-based affective response. It seems like the viewer’s witness role is temporarily swapped for a spectator role. Footnote 73 The viewer can identify even further with patterns of motion or sequences of image and sound that lack reference to the film’s story-world. Viewers may contemplate lyrical associations of visuals, sounds, music and symbolic concepts in embodied consciousness as Grodal ( 1997 ) proposed. If story action imaginations give rise to emotions, lyrical associations are responded to with moods, e.g., nostalgic, tense or relaxed ones. The seemingly immediate representations on screen of emotions through camera movements and associative editing editing that Münsterberg described would be examples.

Emotion structure of narrative film

As a way to profile the dynamics of emotion across an entire film I proposed to represent these in a succinct model, the affect structure of a film (Tan, 1996 ). The model represents the course of interest and of responding emotions in time as predicted by theevents as they are subsequently presented by the film. Footnote 74 Generalising across titles, a most general hypothesis is that the level of interest during mainstream movies tends to rise globally. This is because on the way to protagonists’ goals, stakes tend to go up every novel complication. This will lead to increasing promise of reward roughly between the prologue and climax acts. Locally though, interest peaks and dips alternate over subsequent scenes, depending on genre and particular film. Figure 5 displays an example course of interest measured in viewers of the film In for treatment . In this study of emotions induced by a tragic drama on a terminally ill hospital patient, we found that an initial appraisal of the protagonist as increasingly suffering under the yoke of an oppressive hospital regime, was associated with a responding emotion of compassion. After the complication act, the protagonist’s acts of resistance against the hospital’s regime gave way to admiration due to an appraisal of the protagonist’s sense of self-determination. Both measures determined the level of interest measured continuously using a seven-point slider device (Tan and van den Boom, 1992). Affect structures can be more or less generic. That is, responding emotions are just like the plots, characters, and events that prompt these, characteristic for a certain genre. The study of genre-based emotion has been concentrated in research of undesirable effects of watching violence, sensation or horror in entertainment fare, see e.g. a volume edited by Bryant and Vorderer (2006). Psychological research into the role of viewer genre knowledge is on its way (e.g. Tan & Visch, 2009 ).

figure 5

Continuous interest over the course of In for treatment; N  = 21; from Tan and Van den Boom (1992). Interest was registered every second using a slider rating device. Measurement was validated by self-report interest ratings. Numbers under the abscissa represent subsequent scenes. 1–6: prolog; 7–18: complication, 19–20 development; 24: climax followed by epilog.

The appeal of unpleasant emotions

A brief glance at the success rates of films featuring sad, violent or horrific content illustrates the appeal that unpleasant emotions can have to audiences at large. Münsterberg already objected to vicious effects of violent and repulsive imagery in 1910s photoplays, contents that he observed to be worryingly attractive. The psychology of the film holds various explanations in stock, but none as yet chosen. The best documented proposal is Menninghaus et al.’s distancing-embracing model that stipulates two complmentary mechanisms. One rids painful, disgusting or otherwise unpleasant aesthetic stimuli from an impact that would prevent any enjoyment or appreciation of the stimulus. The other allows for experiences that are 'intense, more interesting, more emotionally moving, more profound, and occasionally even more beautiful' (Menninghaus et al., 2017 , p. 1). The model is meant to explain the prevalence of negative emotion in all art forms, and harbours a great many classical approaches to the issue. Media psychologists have proposed what I think are regulation accounts of the pleasures of negative emotion. An emotion such as horror results from appraisal of monsters etc. as threatening and repulsive, but the emotion itself, too, can be subject to appraisal. Likewise, your crying in the cinema may induce embarrassment upon your realising that it is only a film you are watching. Footnote 75 Serious drama, the contents of which can be appraised as poignant or thought-provoking (Oliver and Hartmann, 2010 ), and more in particular independent arthouse titles that tend to provoke appreciation and elevation rather than enjoyment seem to compensate the most painful experiences they offer by a high instruction or (self-) reflection potential (Oliver & Bartsch, 2013 ). They offer continuous promises of broadening insights or revising one’s views of the world and the self, possibly only materialising to the full long after the show. In my own work I have pointed at the modulating effects of genre schemas (Tan & Visch, 2017) and narrative interest on negative emotions. Footnote 76

In closing the sections on film-induced emotion we need to note that the account of the cognitive appraisal of emoting events given here is simplified. Even straightforward film narratives can have complexities in terms, e.g., of plot lines, or character and narrator perspective that affect the intricacies of emotional events. I refer readers to Oatley’s ( 2012 ; 2013 ) discussion of in this sense more sophisticated appraisals of fictional events. More generally, film psychological research is needed into the use of more complex TOM heuristics in the comprehension of film narrative, and in emotional appraisals of film events.

The conclusion on the psychology of film awareness must be, I think, that the gripping nature of the film experience is as astonishing today as it was to early film audiences. Media psychologists have started to measure it, and cognitive film scholars have forwarded theoretical frameworks for an account of film viewer affect and emotion. But the phenomenology of film has not been expanded by film psychologists beyond the descriptions of what it is like to watch a movie provided in The Photoplay .

The psychology of film as art

Whether or not the awareness of film entails appreciations of artistry can only be a rhetorical question, but the psychology of the film has not explicitly addressed the subject. After Münsterberg and Arnheim hardly any psychologist considered film as an art form at all. And neither have general psychological aesthetics taken film into consideration. The psychology of narrative film as it developed since the 1990’s has addressed the aesthetics of movies, but rather implicitly. We have discussed psychologists’ efforts to explain the natural fluency in the perception of story-events that Münsterberg already found characteristic for the film experience. They pointed at the conventional use of continuity film style. Mainstream cinema’s narration has been demonstrated by cognitive film theorists to be at best marginally self-conscious (Bordwell, 1985 , 2006 ). That is formal features of a film’s composition, style and use of technology are non-salient and subservient to the viewer’s reconstruction of and absorption in a fabula . The viewer’s construction of a story-world is only discretely cued by the narration, and formal or stylistic patterns that do the job tend to escape consciousness to a more than considerable degree (see Tan et al., 2017 ). We could say, I believe, that the psychological aesthetics of popular film is as it stands, first and foremost about absorption , the intense and fluent imagination of being in a fictional world. And it should be added that a psychological aesthetics of forms other than popular narrative fiction film is missing. Available knowledge suffices to propose a psychology of the thriller, the romance drama or the coming-of age film, but not for a psychology of the documentary, the expressionist, the surrealist or the postmodern film, let alone of experimental, avant-garde and other museum film art forms. After all then, at present we are not far removed from Münsterberg’s speculation on the aesthetic experience of theatrical film as intense absorption due to the inner harmony of a film’s parts and conditional on only modest deviations from realistic photo-representations of the worlds that it plays.

However, as we write, everything seems set to embark on research in the film audience’s aesthetic appraisals of movies. We can rest assured that at present 'the inner parts' of mainstream film in terms of contents, style and technology have been well-described by film theorists such as those referred to above. They can help psychologists teaming up with computer vision and hearing specialists to develop computational analyses of 'the inner harmony between the parts'. As a favourable sign of the times we also note a growing interest in the implicit knowledge that the regular film audience has of patterned uses of film style and technology in various forms and genres (see, e.g., Visch and Tan, 2009 ). Moreover, the first attempts have been made to identify the psychological dimensions that underlie film audience aesthetic tastes. Footnote 77 Dimensions of what I called the Artefact emotions , that is the affective evaluations of films as aesthetic products will soon be identifiable from reviews by critics and the film audience at large that are already available in large data repositories. Footnote 78 Large scale highly data-intensive research can be accompanied by smaller scale laboratory studies of whether and how viewers attend to aesthetically relevant patterns of formal and stylistic features. Footnote 79

Concluding remarks

The agenda that Hugo Munsterberg set for the psychology of the film, explaining the film experience through revealing psychological mechanisms underlying it, and accounting for its aesthetic functions is after a century still leading. I believe that psychologists of film have over the century not added new questions, while the ones he posed have been shown to be complex or even resilient. Nonetheless the field has gradually expanded. After the 1970's growth accelerated and today we face what in modesty may be called a surge. Two film-psychological books, Art Shimamura’s Psychocinematics (2013) and Jeffrey Zacks’ Flicker: Your brain on movies ( 2014 ), have recently filled the void left after The Photoplay .

The review of psychological studies into the film experience presented in this contribution is highly selective. It was not meant at all to cover the entire field, if only because we selected achievements from the vast research area of moving images and their perception. This is why the essay is titled 'A psychology of the film' rather than 'The etc.'. Granted its basic limitations, an overview of a century of film psychology could conclude with a comparison with research agenda that was set in Münsterberg’s Photoplay . The typical gripping experience that mainstream movies offer the audience has now come to be characterised as a sense of being absorbed by and quasi-physically present in a film scene that feels like going on as smoothly and continuously as a scene in real life. Considerable progress has been made in understanding how the basic psychological functions attention, perception and memory contribute to viewers’ comprehension of film. An understanding has developed of how attentional, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms dovetail with the solutions and norms of traditional cinemascopy. In the conventional 35 mm theatre set-up, the dark environment where high-density projections extend over the limits of the foveal acuity field, screens are big enough to allow for sufficient stimulation of the peripheral motion-sensitive visual field and the spinning projector shutter makes for smooth stroboscopic movement. Moreover, the visual system is quite resistant against perspective transformations due to less optimal viewing points, probably through extracting invariants under transformation (Cutting, 1986 ). Mainstream narrative continuity film-style ensures a fluent perception and comprehension of a film’s story-world, action, characters and their inner lives. Emotional responses can be explained from the development of the story and the progress of protagonists’ projects.

And yet, a lot less effort has been spent in theoretically elaborating further on what the film experience is. There is a general disbelief that it would involve a mere recognition of events, situations, persons etc. as we know them in the real world. But what exactly the spectator’s imagination contributes to the typical awareness of the film is still mysterious. And how filmic events, and the ways they have been staged, acted, framed, photographed and edited exactly influence and prompt acts of imagination on the part of audiences, has only in part been understood.

Meanwhile, the supply of "photoplays" has immensely multiplied and diversified since 1916, but the mainstream narrative film has by far remained the most popular form. Today’s ubiquitous access to moving images through a multiplicity of screens has made it more urgent than ever for psychologists to understand the experiences associated with extremely different cinematic devices. They range from handheld phones to giant 3-D multiplex screens and surround installations in museums. Canonical set-ups of the cinema also tend to diverge because of networked interaction technologies seeking application in the production, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures. Psychologists of the film can use their current understanding of how audiences experience mainstream cinema as a basis for differentiating what film semiologists call 'dispositives': clusters of production, exhibition and reception practices characterised by specific expectations, attitudes and competences of their end users. Footnote 80

The psychology of film is rapidly developing into an interdisciplinary field. Münsterberg’s psychological study already reflected inspiration from fields far removed from experimental psychology such as the then conventional practice of the photoplay as well as from Aristotelian poetics of the theatre play. In the same vein, current psychologists of film as we have seen, improve their understanding of the perception and cognition of film in a collaboration with experts in the analysis of narration in the fiction film. Advances in current models of film viewer attention featuring narrative cuing are profoundly informed by (historical) film analyses. Footnote 81 Scholars in cognitive film studies, such as those collaborating within the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image are steadily producing in-depth analyses of film at work conjointly with the viewer’s mind. Footnote 82 The same goes for the (more modest) advances made in psychological models of film-produced emotion. Further collaborations with specialists in machine-analysis of image and sound can be expected to add to an objective identification of formal and stylistic film structures, also beyond the domain of traditional mainstream film, 'in the wild' of cyberspace, and in experimental art cinemas.

The technology of measuring psychological responses to film structures (perception, attention, memory and affect) has also developed tremendously since Münsterberg founded the perception lab at Harvard. Gaze tracking, fMRI and TMS have been added to the psychophysical and cognitive response registrations. Integration of large scale image analysis data with behavioural measures obtained in the lab or as 'big data' is the next step in the development of film psychology. The study of integral responses to units of film extending beyond a few seconds entailing entire actions, events, scenes and acts, or even films as a whole, requires new response recording devices and data models. Perhaps it will be feasible within a decade or so to append large emotional response datasets obtained from social media and filmdatabase metadata to computational content analyses described above. We will then be able to categorise films into meaningful clusters, e.g., genres and subgenres based on relations between themes, plots, film style and emotion profiles. Small scale lab experiments can tell us more about what exactly the mind adds to the image on screen and the sound from cinema loudspeakers remains. Let me single out as the leading issue the question how bottom-up and top-down mechanisms interact in producing the film experience. Footnote 83 Diversification of the set-up of in-depth studies is also necessary following the multitude of conventional set-ups of film viewing on various screens and in on-line or 'live'(?) exhibitions.

And just as in 1916, a select but growing minority of researchers in academic, empirical psychology want to understand why and how it is we perceive and what it is like to enjoy movies. They want an understanding because first they are movie-loving psychologists and second they find film a challenging testing ground for fundamental models of attention, perception, memory, imagination, emotion and aesthetics.

A more detailed discussion of the functions in photoplay viewing can be summarised thus: As regards the perception of film scenes, Münsterberg argued that in the cinema depth is seen without spectator’s taking it for real, that movement is perceived not without the spectator’s mind adding the quality of smooth motion to merely seeing a succession of positions. For example, apparent movement of in fact stationary lines is '… superadded by the action of the mind, to motionless pictures' (1916, p. 29). Attention in the cinema concentrates the mind on details that acquire an unusual vividness and become the focus of our impulses and feelings. Close-ups objectify this weaving 'of the outer world into our minds' (p. 39). Attention is characterised by a series of subsequent shifts in its object. Shifts are provided by scene or action details made salient by spatial mise-en-scène, notably actor expression (movement and gestures), and mobile framing. Memory is used at any moment to remember events presented earlier in the film. Just as attention and perception are an instrument of the imagination, memory enables the fusing of events in our consciousness that are physically apart. Münsterberg’s view of the emotions showed similarities with James’ theory on the subject, as it stressed their embodied character; emotions cannot do without behavioural and physiological expressions. Münsterberg proposed that emotions that film audiences experience are portrayed on screen. The viewer’s imagination transforms what they see into their own felt emotion: The 'horror, pain and the joy' that spectators go through are 'really projected to the screen' (p. 53). In addition, he introduced a distinction between what we would refer to today as emotions based on empathy with characters on the one hand, and on the other emotions responding to the scenes they are in.

Münsterberg’s observation of how film expresses the basic psychological functions has been compellingly argued by Baranowski and Hecht’s ( 2017 ) in their excellent review of Münsterberg’s Photoplay .

Even if what we call today automated responses do have a place in the psychological functions, perception, attention, and memory are according to Münsterberg in the end acts of the mind, and imagination is even more so.

The aesthetic experience is grounded in a Kantian conception emphasising the completeness of the work of art in itself, and an explicit denial of the contemplant’s desires or practical needs in it.

This in turn requires that we 'enter with our own impulses into the will of every element, into the meaning of every line and colour and tone. Only if everything is full of such inner movement can we really enjoy the harmonious cooperation of the parts' (p. 73).

This probably not in the least due to the stability of the experimental and social have been on the agenda of the psychology of film ever since. The functions and mechanisms of the mind that experimental research focuses on have globally remained the same, and the interest in aesthetics has not waned.

Constancies in visual perception are disrupted due to the optical and mechanic qualities of film. Examples in point include reduced depth, absence of colour, object shape and volume distortions due to insufficient information on object size or camera’s distance.

A famous example is the ballet sequence in René Clair’s Entr’Act (1924). Filmed through a glass plate on which the dancers move, they are seen from a most unusual angle, at least compared to the canonical views that theatre audiences have, i.e., from below, and from an as unusual distance, i.e., from nearby. So close indeed that their robes fill the entire frame, and the spectator is struck by their expanding contours in the 2D plane of the screen.

To be sure, his treatment of the perception of movement, dynamics and expression in works of all arts, seem to be modelled after the organisational principles the mind uses in shaping the film experience.

Cutting has often convincingly argued that stroboscopic motion is a better label than apparent motion. His definition is 'a series of discrete static images can sometimes render the impression of motion'(Cutting, 2002 , p. 1179)

Why and how we see motion has been as basic to the study of visual perception as questions of perception of colour, depth, and shape. Helmholtz proposed that what we need to explain is how retinal images that correspond one-to one, i.e., optically with a scene in the world are transformed into mental images, or percepts that we experience. In the case of apparent motion, we need to understand in addition how a succession of retinal images are perceived as one or more objects in motion.

By smooth is meant that no transitions or flicker are seen, and no blurring of superposed images occurs. The problem of apparent motion in film has been formulated in this way by the Dutch perception psychologist and filmmaker Emile van Moerkerken in an unpublished chapter written in 1978 . The issue of why and when flickering instead of smoothly projected images are seen has been technically resolved through trial and error. Cinematic projectors need to present at least 24 frames per second if flicker is to be avoided, and higher frequencies, for instance 72 fps are even better (e.g., Anderson, 1996, pp. 54–59). These frequencies are above the human perception system’s critical fusion frequency, at least for the conventional luminance ranges in cinematic projection.

In the late nineteen sixties the organisation of the cortical cell complexes for visual perception in layered columns were identified by neurophysiologists Hubel and Wiesel ( 1959 ). Cells in Brodman areas 17 and 18 were found sensitive to different aspects of motion (e.g., orientation and spatial vs. temporal resolution), while integration into forerunners of motion perception is assumed to take place in areas V4 and MT.

Luminance and colour identification have been shown to interact with the more motion dedicated complexes in delivering impressions of motion, while the phenomenon of perceiving depth from movement has been very well documented.

For example, form-invariant apparent motion—that seems to require somewhat less elementary integration has been shown attributable to specialised MT cells for slower and faster motion (O’Keefe and Movshon, 1998 ). And as another example, Anstis (1980) discovered a system based on comparison of subsequent locations for apparent horizontal motion of a single dot, and another one for the perception of wave-form motion of an array of dots.

For example, it has been reported that test participants accurately perceive velocity of motion of a grating pattern only when they pay attention to its details (Cavanagh, 1992 ).

As another example, tension in a static work of art is perceived due to the brain’s synthesis of forces from implied movements, such as outward-directed tensions perceived in symmetrical geometric shapes. These can be observed in 'gamma movement', Arnheim, 1974 , p. 438.

The presentation times are short (flashes), say two-hundred milliseconds. The objects differ between the two presentations only in spatial position, we refer to these as A1 for object A in position 1, and A2. Depending on the interval between presentations apparent motion can be seen. With a briefest interval simultaneity of objects A1 and A2 is seen; less brief (appr. 100 Ms) makes us see 'pure motion'; that is 'objectless movement'; with still briefer intervals (appr. 60 Ms) we see 'optimal movement' of the object A1 to A2; and with briefest interval partial movement.

Wertheimer believed that perceived motion patterns reflected a short-circuiting between cells in the brain that were successively stimulated.

For example, among Korte’s laws, proposed in 1915, was a rule stating that the ratio of spatial distance between shapes and the interval between successive presentations was constant for the perception of 'good motion', clearly a Gestalt-like pattern. This coupling of the two features obtained in controlled studies, is surprising until today because purely mechanistic intuition would have it that increases in spatial distance would need 'compensation' by briefer inter-stimulus intervals to preserve smooth apparent motion. A related discovery, reported by Kolers (1972, p. 39 also militates against light-hearted use of an analogy with mechanics: Decreasing the spatial distance between successively presented shapes does not necessarily result in better movement.

First, the physiological account resting on 'prewired' neurocircuitry cannot do without integrative operations at a higher level of mental processing involving integration across separate cortical modules. Even if such operations are prewired, they represent contributions of the mind. Second, as importantly, the impact of visual stimulus features has on the perception of movement, and especially more complex forms, have been shown sensitive to control by the will within certain bounds. Third, figural processes in apparent motion appear to be extremely plastic, defying explanations by stimulus factors, as the example of induced motion illustrates.

As an illustration, even a somewhat forgotten proposal by Van der Waals and Roelofs ( 1930 ) according to Kolers, seems to go. They proposed that in apparent motion, the intervening motion is constructively interspersed in retrospect that is, only after the second presentation of the Koler object. And after Kolers' volume on apprent motion, several proposals have been forwarded on possible mechanisms. For example Kubovy and Gepshtein ( 2007 ) demonstrated in two experiments that spatial and temporal distances act either in trade-off or coupled to one another to provide for smooth apparent motion; the one at low speeds and the other at high speeds. None of the proposals have been accepted as the final solution, also because different definitions of the factors or the criterion for motion have been used.

Michotte (1946) attempted with some success to capture configurations of moving objects that would be perceived as instances of causation , a mentally represented concept. For example, block A is seen to 'push' block B forward if A approaches B (that is standing still) with an appropriate speed, and contact time. Alternatively, B will be perceived to 'depart' if some time in contact has elapsed before B moves away from A. In fact, Michotte’s experimental phenomenology was influenced by Brentano who was a major inspiration to the early Gestalt psychologists as well. Another great contribution by Michotte to the psychology of the film was that he was one of the first to analyse the problem of the apparent reality of cinematic scenes that Münsterberg and Arnheim had signalled. His diagnosis was that we see non-real objects, that is shapes projected on the screen. However, we do perceive—physiologically—real movement of these, and this is a condition presumed to be decisive for perceiving reality. Heider and Simmel are known for their demonstration of the inevitability of event, person and story-based schema-based inferences that viewers of simple animated geometric figures tend to make (Heider and Simmel, 1944).

Note that objects are not part of an optic array, as the latter refers to the metrical organisation of patterns of light.

There are certainly limits to the likeness of the dynamical optical flow offered by film images to real world ones. First, the flow is interrupted by cuts, and second the projected image in the cinema constrains the optic flow in a variety of ways. (Thanks to one the anonymous reviewers).

The discussion of Hochberg and Brooks’ psychology of the film is based on an earlier essay (Tan, 2007 ).

Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996a ) provided wonderful examples of the intricate aesthetics of camera movement when filming a human figure in motion, examples that require frequent analyses of filmed dance, or to film dance oneself, as Brooks has done indeed. Movement may be seen where there is actually none, apparent reversals of direction or apparent stasis may all occur, even in parallel. Hochberg and Brooks ( 1996b ) demonstrated that complex movements need to be ‘parsed’ by viewers into components depending on factors such as fixation point and even viewer intentions. Direct realist explanation of the film awareness would soon stumble on degrees of stimulus complexity too high to capture in optical array invariants; input from other cognitive structure-based mechanisms capable of selecting candidates for 'pick-up' would be necessary.

Hochberg ( 1986 ) stated that in some cases only the most complex cognitive efforts could explain an understanding of shot transitions, that could only be conveyed through literary analysis. Here he was probably referring to cases in artistically highest end productions.

For example, Hayhne (2007) criticised Hochberg’s stipulation that mental schemas used in understanding shot transitions cannot be spatially precise or complete. She quoted evidence of the use of self-produced body movements following a mental map with extreme precision.

According to one such theory (the so-called Event Indexing Model, Magliano, Miller & Zwaan, 2001 ) viewers of film like readers of stories generate embodied cognitive models of (story-) situations. These mental models represent sequences of events, people and their goals, plans and actions, in spatiotemporal settings. The situation model is continuously updated while the film proceeds. Updates follow upon the identification of changes in story-entities (e.g., movement of characters or objects), time, causality and intentionality.

This synthetic response by the viewer can be taken as the actual recognition and categorisation of an event or action. Neuroscience research has identified areas of the brain involved in recognising—and 'simulating' actions such as grasping an object, or exhibiting a facial expression, e.g., Hasson et al. (2004).

As an example study, Garsoffky et al. ( 2009 ) demonstrated that the recognition of events by film viewers improved when framing objects or events across shots adheres to viewpoints that are common in real world perception. Other studies tested the notion that movies adhering to this style present viewers with simplified event views that they can readily integrate in an available event schema (e.g., Schwan, 2013 ).

The cueing of attentional shifts to the target portion of screen B can assume distinct forms, such as through match on action, establishing and shot/ reverse shots, and point shot. The attentional shift has carried the conscious experience across the discontinuity in views. The theory is documented by numerous analyses of scene perception, in which analysed shot contents are overlaid with dynamic gaze maps. The model can explain how violations of continuity principles result in less efficient gaze behaviours. Artistically motivated violations are taken seriously, but dealt with as atypical for the canonical set-up.

Bezdek et al. ( 2015 ) report a study in which participants were shown a film scene at the centre of fixation while checkerboard patterns were flashed in the periphery of vision. The results of fMRI analyses showed that activity of peripheral visual processing areas in the brain was diminished with increasing narrative suspense of the scenes, whereas activity in areas associated with central vision, attention and dynamic visual processing increased.

In one experiment, viewers were presented with a sequence from Moonraker in which James Bond jumps out of a plane and can be expected to fall 'safely' onto a circus tent. This high-level event schema-based cognitive expectation was enhanced in one condition but not in another, through providing a written context before the sequence was shown. It turned out that providing context knowledge led to the critical inference and to less surprise, pointing at the functionality of high-level attention cues. However, gaze behaviour did hardly differ between the high-level cued vs. non-cued viewers. Moreover, effects predicted from a tyranny of film analysis of the sequence—that is where viewers looked and what, were much stronger than the subtle effects of high-level cognitive processes.

The computation of visual salience can easily be extended to the case of film by replacing the input image by a series of frames and the output by an array of saliency maps. Furthermore, low-level features such as colour and orientation need to be integrated over successive images into dynamic ones, e.g., changes in orientation, and into motion features.

See:!/2013/05/saliency-maps-and-their-computation.html (accessed 31 Jan 2018).

For example, an international group from the universities of Brescia and Teesside has recently shown able to predicts movie affect curves that is, dynamic patterns of emotional responses, from low-level features such as colour, motion and sound, while taking into account the influence of film grammar (e.g., sequences of varying shot-types) and narrative elements (e.g., script or dialogue analysis classifications). The analysis of the grammatical and narrative features can be supported by the computer but are not entirely machine-executably algorithmic. The emotional responses were measured using physiological and self-report measures (Canini et al., 2010 ).

In his earlier widely acclaimed work in general visual perception, Cutting continued the Gibsonian ecological approach to the perception of real world scenes, attempting to find formal extraction and coding principles sustaining the direct pick-up of behaviourally relvant information. See, e.g., Cutting ( 1981 ), in which ecological tenets regarding the perception of events based on invariant structures in the information offer of the visual stimulus. This line of research also included cinematic perception. An example is his study on the perception of rigid shapes when viewers are seated at extreme angles vis-à-vis the centre of projection, e.g., front row side aisle (Cutting, 1987 ).

In the essay Cutting lists the cues in the optical array that sustain the perception of distance in the real world, and then elaborates on how filmmakers manipulate depth cues in order for the audience to perceive scenes exactly the way the narrative requires them to.

Following the convenient overview in Brunick et al. ( 2013 ) they are for duration average shot duration in seconds; for temporal shot structure the distribution of shot durations; for movement the degree of difference between pixels in adjacent frames (zero when frames are identical means no movement); for luminance the degree of black vs white of images; and for colour the distribution of hues and degrees of saturation of frames.

For example, in the analyses just mentioned Cutting et al. established in their Hollywood sample an increase of movement between 1905 and 1935 and could relate this finding to film-analytic accounts of stylistic changes supporting growing emotional impact of movies. As another example, consider the well-documented finding that shot duration tends to decrease across the history of popular film. Salt (2009) reported a linear decrease of average shot length. Cutting and Candan ( 2015 ) could use his data and added nuances to the general linear decrease trend that they replicated. One was that different slopes for shot classes obtained, especially in the post 1940s’ Hollywood films, another that shot scale, in particular increasing use of wide angle shots, contributed considerably to the decrease in shot duration.

The climax works towards the minimum as the narrative tends to progress here presenting focused events without disruption, while its scope is wider and shifting in the set-up and epilogue acts. Consistently, during the climax movement is more frequent while shots also tend to be darker compared to the remaining acts. The set-up and epilogue contrast most conspicuously with the climax, while complication and development exhibit steady in-between values for the low-level feature parameters.

They do not manifest physically, but their indexing is perceptually straightforward. One is time shifts, a structural feature. It decreased over the time of a film, in line with the film-narratological notion that a film’s action thickens towards a deadline. Three other higher-level features were more semantic in nature. Character appearances dropped after the set-up. Action shots were most numerous at the end of the set-up and the beginning of the climax, while conversations levelled down during the climax.

Cutting’s ( 2016 ) interpretative qualifications illuminated the stylistic distinctions among the acts. They are most informative and any summarisation would be detrimental to the value of the analyses. To give just one example For example: 'The development also has several characteristics in contrast to the complication: its shot durations are a bit longer (Study 1), it has more noncut transitions (Study 2), and it is dimmer (Study 4) so that by its end the luminance falls to the psychological and literal “darkest moment” for the protagonist' (Cutting, 2016 , p. 24). I encourage the reader interested in the stylistic comparison of the acts to reading the original article.

An example is an analysis by Cutting et al. ( 2011 ) of 150 historical films were indexed as to movement and shot duration. They observed a decrease of movement with decreasing shot durations, and reasoned that a basic perceptual mechanism could be at the basis of this correlation: people can only follow so much movement in a duration-limited view. The researchers then analysed newer films that far exceeded the maximum movement-to- shot duration ratio, and it was found from the public discourse around the titles that viewers could not cope with the overload stimulation.

Dimensions captured in the instrument include comprehension of the narrative, a sense of being in the story-world, emotional responses to story-world events and characters, and attentional focus on story-world details. The remaining experience concepts refer to experiences of entertainment or story-worlds excluding awareness of a narrative or any other constructions underlying these.

Hinde ( 2017 ) has recently presented evidence showing that self-reported presence is positively related to response latencies in a dual attention task in which participants were required to respond to a distractor signal while watching a movie. This result supports the notion of absorption and loss of awareness of the real world.

Variants of presence stress embodied apparent reality of the portrayed world, and the loss of awareness of mediation. Loss of awareness and apparent reality point to the illusion of being absorbed by the story-world. Presence seems the most immediate experiential outcome of natural or real-world scene perception and event comprehension mechanisms. It was implied in Gibson’s summary of the awareness of film: 'We are onlookers in the situation, …, we are in it and we can adopt point of observation within its space'.

In this respect, the concept of transportation builds on Gerrig’s ( 1993 ) seminal work on the experience of narrative worlds. Transportation requires a 'deictic shift' (Segal, 1995) from the real to the story-world (Segal, 1995 in Bussele and Bilandzic, 2009 ). When the narrative ends the spell is broken and the audience returns into the previously inaccessible real world.

In line with general psychological research on empathy, a distinction has been made between embodied simulation of film character feeling and a cognitively more demanding forms of empathy with characters (e.g., Tan, 2013a , b ). Complex forms of empathy that require TOM cognition presuppose that there is an awareness of the distinction between self and other. The highest degrees of absorption by characters (measured by items such as 'I became the character') seem characterised by a complete fusion of the viewers’ self with the character and are properly referred to as identification (e.g., Cohen, 2001 ). In this case, viewer emotion is identical with character emotion.

For example, cinematic techniques of selective or emphatic framing of character expression can lead to stronger mimicry or embodied simulation on the part of the viewer than observation of a person in the real world would allow (e.g., Coplan, 2006 ; Raz et al., 2013 ).

The less demanding forms are based on automated embodied simulation or mirroring, for instance mimicry. Complex forms involve mentalising, or reasoning supported by general Theory of Mind schemas and inferencing. The most demanding occur when the film’s narration withholds information about a character’s inner life in relation to story-events as in some arthouse films (Tan, 2013a , b ). Mentalizing has like cognitively less demanding forms of empathy been shown to be affected by film style. Rooney and Bálint ( 2018 ) recently demonstrated that close-ups of the face stimulate the use of TOM in the perception of characters.

Identification has been empirically observed and isolated from other forms of absorption by Cohen (2001); Tal-Or and Cohen ( 2010) ; Bálint and Tan (in press).

In an attempt to qualify what it is like to be absorbed in a film, Bálint and Tan (2015) synthesised a summarising dynamic image schema, from a study of film viewers’ reports on their own experience of absorption while watching a film. Image schemas are culturally shared embodied cognitive structures that have been identified by cognitive linguists and are hypothesised to underlie cognition and experience and are more specifically used in metaphorical thinking and use of language. The schema entails the viewer’s self-travelling into the center of the story-world. The self exerts forces to remain inside the story-world, and is taken there in some cases notably by the author. In Bálint and Tan’s study, readers of novels turned out to use the same image schemas to describe their experience as film viewers.

It is noteworthy that Münsterberg considers the activity of the basic functional mechanisms perception, attention and memory as consisting of 'acts', rather than responses as it would become common in mainstream experimental psychology, see, e.g., p. 57. 'Imagination' refers to acts resulting in 'products of the active mind' (p. 75) in particular memories, associations and emotions added to perceptions as 'subjective supplements' (p. 46).

For an overview of current cognitive emotion theories see Oatley and Laird ( 2013 ).

Through procedures such as suggestion and juxtaposition of fictional elements and perspectives, and due to strong coherence of elements, simulations are as engaging as to allow for recipients’ explorations of social situations, involving the self. This results in emotions ranging from the more basic to the social and culturally sophisticated type.

The stages correspond to Oatley’s ( 2013 ) direct, imaginative and self-related modes of appraisal in film-induced emotion.

There is some literature on the affective potential of mainstream film techniques. See for example experiments on camera angle and image composition on emotional appraisal of objects and characters such as weakness, tenseness, dominance or strength reported in Kraft ( 1991 ), and an overview of formal and presentation features of media messages in relation to their emotional effects by Detenber and Lang ( 2011 ).

This capacity has the obvious adaptive advantage of learning proper responses to critical situations before they are met in the actual world. The same point has been made by Currie ( 1995 ); see also Currie and Ravenscroft ( 2002 ). See also Tan ( 2008 ) on pretense play as exercising emotions and adaptive responses in film viewing. My position on the issue of the authenticity of emotion in response to fictional narrative is opposed to Walton (1990) who proposed that make-believe worlds can only induce 'as-if emotions'.

Neuropsychological accounts of film viewer emotions, such as those by Grodal (2009) and Zacks’ ( 2014 ) emphasise suppression of actions such as fight or flight, by prefrontal circuits following appraisals, e.g., of threats or provocations. In my related application of the cognitive theory to film viewing, viewers can experience a tendency to flee as an initial tendency, due to automated mimicry or simulation.

An attempt to measure virtual forms of emotional action readiness in response to several film genres was reported in Tan ( 2013a , b ).

In the end virtual action responses in the cinema should be understood as an example of the situatedness of emotion in general. (See Griffith & Scarantion, 2009 ). The conventional set-up of the cinema positions spectators as witnesses to fictional events and appraisals, experiences, expressions and action readiness take shape according to the cinematic situation.

In the end, viewers know on the basis of their narrative and genre schemas, the film will provide answers to extant questions they have underway.

Needs of mood management and the occurrence of emotions that help to improve moods have been shown to explain preference for entertainment products such as movies (Zilmann, 2003).

Sympathy for mainstream protagonists is probably rather immediately induced by our felt similarity and familiarity with them, and more especially in terms of moral values (Zillmann, 2000 ).

The nature of the events and their outcomes corresponding to ups and downs in the life of a protagonist vary from one genre to another. For example, the action heroine meets with assaults on her life and deals blows to her stalker; the romance protagonist with separation and reunion. See also Zillmann’s theory of the enjoyment of drama.

I have introduced these emotions earlier (Tan, 1996) under the heading of Fictional World emotions or F emotions, because they are responses to events in a fictional world. F emotions include empathetic and non-empathetic emotions. Non-empathetic emotions can either be based on sympathy, for example, when we fear that a bomb will explode to the harm of a protagonist, or not based on sympathy. Awe induced by the sight of a sublime landscape would be an example. F-emotions are defined in opposition to A emotions. The latter category consists of responses to the film as a human-made artefact instead of a fictional world produced in the viewer’s imagination.

The point has been made in Tan and Frijda ( 1997 ) and Tan ( 2009 ), and more recently underscored in psychophysiological research using film by Wassiliwizky et al. ( 2017 ). Schubert et al. ( 2018 ) refer to the emotion as kama muta a socio-relational emotion of feeling closeness when an intensification of communal sharing relations is appraised. In the study just referred to such moments had been analysed in film fragments.

An example is the fear we have when we watch a horror monster in a view not aligned with any character’s, or without a character being in the neighbourhood of the monster.

See, for example, study of interest during character vs. action development oriented films Doicaru (2016, Ch. 2).

See for empirical comparative analyses of absorbed modes of witnessing drama and detached modes of spectatorship in watching nature documentaries Tan ( 2013b ).

Films are segmented (from larger to smaller units) in acts, scenes and events. All subsequent events induce interest. Every scene offers answers or matches to anticipations induced earlier, leading to enjoyment. Enjoyment tends to reinforce interest—as it stimulates intake and rewards past efforts. Every scene, too, induces novel questions and affective anticipations, keeping interest at least alive.

Some researchers of media entertainment refer to such regulatory reappraisals as meta-emotions (Bartsch et al., 2008). Positive gratifications may be derived from such reappraisals and associated emotions. Viewers of sad drama may appreciate their own moral stance that transpires through their experience of a character’s losses and suffering from injustice. Horror lovers may like the emotion because they explicitly seek it, and younger male audiences of extremely violent films have been shown to test, and pride themselves on their coping abilities (Hill, 1997). A related act of emotion regulation is male viewers’ display of protective attitudes towards their female company during horror shows (Zillmann and Weaver, 1997).

In Tan ( 1996 ) I proposed that, in contrast to aversive situations witnessed in real life, popular fiction scenes on separation, isolation, violence, terror and horror and so on are due to their being part of a story always signal that we are in medias res ; the narrative is to be continued, we are curious to know where it is heading, and it is virtually impossible to completely abort expectancies and imaginations of a turn to the positive. Entertaining these is in itself not unpleasant, especially when viewers are open to the possibility that they can learn from the unpleasant events.

Doicaru (2016) reviewed general models of aesthetic appreciation as to their suitability for explaining aesthetic appreciation of film. She reported a validation study of a measurement instrument in which five general factors were identified that may be used to describe dimensions of aesthetic appraisal in film viewing. They were Cognitive stimulation, Negative emotionality, Self-reference and Understanding. A corpus of films from different genres and aesthetic categories (e.g., mainstream, arthouse and experimental were used, and according audiences were involved.

Movies can move us not only in our role of witnesses of events in a fictional world, but also as artefacts made by filmmakers with some formal intention in mind; appreciation of visual beauty etc. are an example. They have the construction of the artefact as their object, and need to be distinguished, as artefact emotions from emotional responses to witnessed events in fictional worlds. They are aesthetic emotions because they involve appraisals of artefact features, such as form, style, use of technology and implied meaning. Untrained audiences can recount their artefact emotions: Professional critics can add elaborations of the appraisals they made while viewing. They have as their object the complex of film form, use of style and technology and intended or unintended meanings. We can further our understanding of appraisals in Artefact emotions using such intuitions available in critical film analyses. They are massively represented in internet user groups like Youtube and Metacritics. Machine learning algorithms are now being developed to extract and categorise emotions from film forums, and differentiate both films and target audiences, see, e.g., Buitinck et al. ( 2015) .

A few example studies on effects of foregrounding procedures in narrative film and their effects on cognitive strategies and aesthetic appreciation can be found in Hakemulder ( 2007 ) and Bálint et al. ( 2016 ).

The concept has developed over the past three decades, see Casetti ( 2015 ). I have freely summarised meanings to fit the purpose of sketching a research agenda for psychologists.

The large project started by Bordwell et al. (1985) on the historical poetics of American mainstream cinema, already have provided psychological research into the mechanisms underlying the film experience with major concepts and reference norms for conventional structuring of film narratives and their stylistic parameters. Among these are continuity, spatiotemporal segmentation and stylistic emphasis.

Interested readers should regularly consult the society’s scholarly journal Projections .

In the role of top-down influences I emphatically include the Münsterbergian acts of imagination on the part of the spectator.

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The research for this article has been supported in part by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), grant number 360-30-200 for the project 'Varieties of Absorption'.

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Film Studies (MA) Theses

Below is a selection of dissertations from the Film Studies program in Dodge College of Film and Media Arts that have been voluntarily included in Chapman University Digital Commons. Additional dissertations from years prior to 2019 are available through the Leatherby Libraries' print collection or in Proquest's Dissertations and Theses database.

Theses from 2023 2023

Desire for Transformation: The Actualization of Self-identity Through Change In the Films Raw and Titane , Owen Bradford

The Rape-Revenge Genre in the Digital Age of Heightened Visibility: The Rise of Female Storytellers and Fourth-Wave Feminism , Marynell Dethero

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How Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election Eclipsed Frank Underwood’s Election in ‘House of Cards’ , Charna Flam

Balancing Multiple Worlds: The Multiverse and the Fractured Asian American Experience in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) , Austin Kang

The Disintegration of Marriage in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour (2015) , Afra Nariman

What Are You Crying For?: Renegotiating White Masculine Hegemony through Melodramatic Excess in the 1990s Films of Tom Hanks , Bryce Thompson

“Let’s Do The Time Warp, Again!” The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Hysterical Theatre , Frances Wendorf

Theses from 2021 2021

(De/Re)Constructing ChicanX/a/o Cinema: Liminality, Cultural Hyphenation, and Psychic Borderlands in Real Women Have Curves and Mosquita y Mari , Diana Alanis

Obsessed With the Image: Vulgar Auteurism and Post-Cinematic Affect in the Late Films of Tony Scott , Ethan Cartwright

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Cinematic Palimpsests: Polysemy and In(ter)dependency in the Spectator Experience , Lyric Luedke

Beyond the Image: Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, and The Method , Emily K. Oliver

Layer Cake: Post-Cinematic Aesthetics and the “Social Justice Impulse” in Kaneza Schaal's Jack & , Amber M. Power

Re-animating Post-Digital Cinema: [Animated] Fluidity and Hybrid Aesthetics in Tomm Moore’s Celtic Trilogy , Thomas James Schwaiger

Curation of the Video Art Exhibition in the Museum , Kamla Thurtle

Pennies from Heaven: Death and the Afterlife in World War II Fantasy Films , Elise Williamson

Theses from 2020 2020

Unreal Reality: Post-socialist China's Massive Infrastructural Agenda in Jia Zhangke's "Three Gorges Films" , Weiting Liu

Smell as Self-identity: Capitalist Ideology and Olfactory Imagination in Das Parfum’s Multimedia Storytelling , Xinrong Liu

Revitalizing Hollywood Stardom: Classical Star Power and Enduring Marketability at Warner Bros. in the Beginning of New Hollywood , Tham Singpatanakul

Bong Joon-Ho’s Transnational Challenge To Eurocentrism , Lisa - Marie Spaethen

Theses from 2019 2019

Stardom, Spectacle, Show, and Salability: United Artists and the Founding of the Hollywood Blockbuster Model , Jessica Johnson

Iranian Cinema in Transition: Relative Truth and Morality in Asghar Farhadi’s Films , Mazyar Mahdavifar

AI Film Aesthetics: A Construction of a New Media Identity for AI Films , Priya Parikh

A Cauldron of Chaos and Cultivation: Rediscovering Disney Animation of the 1980s , Thomas Price

Inflicted Viewing: Examining Moral Masochism, Empathy, and the Frustration of Trauma Cinema , Kira Smith

Representative Biodiversity: The Ecosystem of Cartoon Network , Carl Suby

Bending Family Friendly into Fear: Nostalgia, Minstrelsy and Horror in Bendy and the Ink Machine , Isabelle Williams

Theses from 2014 2014

The Criterion of Quality: A Paratextual Analysis of the Criterion Collection in the Age of Digital Distribution , Jonathan Charles Hyatt

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How to Write a Film Analysis Essay: Examples, Outline, & Tips

A film analysis essay might be the most exciting assignment you have ever had! After all, who doesn’t love watching movies? You have your favorite movies, maybe something you watched years ago, perhaps a classic, or a documentary. Or your professor might assign a film for you to make a critical review. Regardless, you are totally up for watching a movie for a film analysis essay.

Our specialists will write a custom essay specially for you!

However, once you have watched the movie, facing the act of writing might knock the wind out of your sails because you might be wondering how to write a film analysis essay. In summary, writing movie analysis is not as difficult as it might seem, and experts will prove this. This guide will help you choose a topic for your movie analysis, make an outline, and write the text.️ Film analysis examples are added as a bonus! Just keep reading our advice on how to get started.

❓ What Is a Film Analysis Essay?

  • 🚦 Film Analysis Types

✍️ How to Write a Film Analysis

  • 📄 Essay Examples

🔗 References

To put it simply, film analysis implies watching a movie and then considering its characteristics : genre, structure, contextual context, etc. Film analysis is usually considered to be a form of rhetorical analysis . The key to success here is to formulate a clear and logical argument, supporting it with examples.

🚦 Film Analysis Essay Types

Since a film analysis essay resembles literature analysis, it makes sense that there are several ways to do it. Its types are not limited to the ones described here. Moreover, you are free to combine the approaches in your essay as well. Since your writing reflects your own opinion, there is no universal way to do it.

Film analysis types.

  • Semiotic analysis . If you’re using this approach, you are expected to interpret the film’s symbolism. You should look for any signs that may have a hidden meaning. Often, they reveal some character’s features. To make the task more manageable, you can try to find the objects or concepts that appear on the screen multiple times. What is the context they appear in? It might lead you to the hidden meaning of the symbols.
  • Narrative structure analysis . This type is quite similar to a typical literature guide. It includes looking into the film’s themes, plot, and motives. The analysis aims to identify three main elements: setup, confrontation, and resolution. You should find out whether the film follows this structure and what effect it creates. It will make the narrative structure analysis essay if you write about the theme and characters’ motivations as well.
  • Contextual analysis . Here, you would need to expand your perspective. Instead of focusing on inner elements, the contextual analysis looks at the time and place of the film’s creation. Therefore, you should work on studying the cultural context a lot. It can also be a good idea to mention the main socio-political issues of the time. You can even relate the film’s success to the director or producer and their career.
  • Mise-en-scene analysis . This type of analysis works with the most distinctive feature of the movies, audiovisual elements. However, don’t forget that your task is not only to identify them but also to explain their importance. There are so many interconnected pieces of this puzzle: the light to create the mood, the props to show off characters’ personalities, messages hidden in the song lyrics.

Even though film analysis is similar to the literary one, you might still feel confused with where to begin. No need to worry; there are only a few additional steps you need to consider during the writing process.

Need more information? It can be found in the video below.

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Starting Your Film Analysis Essay

There are several things you need to do before you start writing your film analysis paper. First and foremost, you have to watch the movie. Even if you have seen it a hundred times, you need to watch it again to make a good film analysis essay.

Note that you might be given an essay topic or have to think of it by yourself. If you are free to choose a topic for your film analysis essay, reading some critical reviews before you watch the film might be a good idea. By doing this in advance, you will already know what to look for when watching the movie.

In the process of watching, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Consider your impression of the movie
  • Enumerate memorable details
  • Try to interpret the movie message in your way
  • Search for the proof of your ideas (quotes from the film)
  • Make comments on the plot, settings, and characters
  • Draw parallels between the movie you are reviewing and some other movies

Making a Film Analysis Essay Outline

Once you have watched and possibly re-watched your assigned or chosen movie from an analytical point of view, you will need to create a movie analysis essay outline . The task is pretty straightforward: the outline can look just as if you were working on a literary analysis or an article analysis.

  • Introduction : This includes the basics of the movie, including the title, director, and the date of release. You should also present the central theme or ideas in the movie and your thesis statement .
  • Summary : This is where you take the time to present an overview of the primary concepts in the movie, including the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why)—don’t forget how!—as well as anything you wish to discuss that relates to the point of view, style, and structure.
  • Analysis : This is the body of the essay and includes your critical analysis of the movie, why you did or did not like it, and any supporting material from the film to support your views. It would help if you also discussed whether the director and writer of the movie achieved the goal they set out to achieve.
  • Conclusion: This is where you can state your thesis again and provide a summary of the primary concepts in a new and more convincing manner, making a case for your analysis. You can also include a call-to-action that will invite the reader to watch the movie or avoid it entirely.

You can find a great critical analysis template at Thompson Rivers University website. In case you need more guidance on how to write an analytical paper, check out our article .

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Writing & Editing Your Film Analysis Essay

We have already mentioned that there are differences between literary analysis and film analysis. They become especially important when one starts writing their film analysis essay.

First of all, the evidence you include to support the arguments is not the same. Instead of quoting the text, you might need to describe the audiovisual elements.

However, the practice of describing the events is similar in both types. You should always introduce a particular sequence in the present tense. If you want to use a piece of a dialogue between more than two film characters, you can use block quotes. However, since there are different ways to do it, confirm with your supervisor.

For your convenience, you might as well use the format of the script, for which you don’t have to use quotation marks:

ELSA: But she won’t remember I have powers?

KING: It’s for the best.

Finally, to show off your proficiency in the subject, look at the big picture. Instead of just presenting the main elements in your analysis, point out their significance. Describe the effect they make on the overall impression form the film. Moreover, you can dig deeper and suggest the reasons why such elements were used in a particular scene to show your expertise.

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Film Analysis Essay Topics

  • Analysis of the film Inception by Christopher Nolan . 
  • Examine the rhetoric in the film The Red Balloon .  
  • Analyze the visual effects of Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero .  
  • Basic concepts of the film Interstellar by Christopher Nolan.  
  • The characteristic features of Federico Fellini’s movies.  
  • Analysis of the movie The Joker .  
  • The depiction of ethical issues in Damaged Care .  
  • Analyze the plot of the film Moneyball .  
  • Explore the persuasive techniques used in Henry V .   
  • Analyze the movie Killing Kennedy .  
  • Discuss the themes of the film Secret Window .  
  • Describe the role of audio and video effects in conveying the message of the documentary Life in Renaissance .  
  • Compare and analyze the films Midnight Cowboy and McCabe and Mrs. Miller .  
  • Analysis of the movie Rear Window .  
  • The message behind the film Split .  
  • Analyze the techniques used by Tim Burton in his movie Sleepy Hollow . 
  • The topic of children’s abuse and importance of trust in Joseph Sargent’s Sybil .  
  • Examine the themes and motives of the film Return to Paradise by Joseph Ruben . 
  • The issues of gender and traditions in the drama The Whale Rider.   
  • Analysis of the film Not Easily Broken by Duke Bill.  
  • The symbolism in R. Scott’s movie Thelma and Louise .  
  • The meaning of audiovisual effects in Citizen Kane .  
  • Analyze the main characters of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo .  
  • Discuss the historical accuracy of the documentary The Civil War .  
  • Analysis of the movie Through a Glass Darkly . 
  • Explore the core idea of the comedy Get Out .  
  • The problem of artificial intelligence and human nature in Ex Machina .  
  • Three principles of suspense used in the drama The Fugitive .  
  • Examine the ideas Michael Bay promotes in Armageddon .  
  • Analyze the visual techniques used in Tenet by Christopher Nolan.  
  • Analysis of the movie The Green Mile . 
  • Discrimination and exclusion in the film The Higher Learning .  
  • The hidden meaning of the scenes in Blade Runner .  
  • Compare the social messages of the films West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet .  
  • Highlighting the problem of children’s mental health in the documentary Kids in Crisis .  
  • Discuss the ways Paul Haggis establishes the issue of racial biases in his movie Crash .  
  • Analyze the problem of moral choice in the film Gone Baby Gone .  
  • Analysis of the historical film Hacksaw Ridge . 
  • Explore the main themes of the film Mean Girls by Mark Walters .  
  • The importance of communication in the movie Juno .  
  • Describe the techniques the authors use to highlight the problems of society in Queen and Slim .  
  • Examine the significance of visual scenes in My Family/ Mi Familia .  
  • Analysis of the thriller Salt by Phillip Noyce.  
  • Analyze the message of Greg Berlanti’s film Love, Simon .  
  • Interpret the symbols of the film The Wizard of Oz (1939).  
  • Discuss the modern issues depicted in the film The Corporation .  
  • Moral lessons of Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond . 
  • Analysis of the documentary Solitary Nation .  
  • Describe the audiovisual elements of the film Pride and Prejudice (2005) . 
  • The problem of toxic relationships in Malcolm and Marie .  

📄 Film Analysis Examples

Below you’ll find two film analysis essay examples. Note that the full versions are downloadable for free!

Example #1: The Intouchables

Raising acute social problems in modern cinema is a common approach to draw the public’s attention to the specific issues and challenges of people facing crucial obstacles. As a film for review, The Intouchables by Oliver Nakache and Éric Toledano will be analyzed, and one of the themes raised in this movie is the daily struggle of the person with severe disabilities. This movie is a biographical drama with comedy elements. The Intouchables describes the routine life of a French millionaire who is confined to a wheelchair and forced to receive help from his servants. The acquaintance of the disabled person with a young and daring man from Parisian slums changes the lives of both radically. The film shows that for a person with disabilities, recognition as a full member of society is more important than sympathy and compassion, and this message expressed comically raises an essential problem of human loneliness.

Example #2: Parasite

Parasite is a 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller movie directed by Bong Joon-ho and is the first film with a non-English script to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020. With its overwhelming plot and acting, this motion picture retains a long-lasting effect and some kind of shock. The class serves as a backbone and a primary objective of social commentary within the South Korean comedy/thriller (Kench, 2020). Every single element and detail in the movie, including the student’s stone, the contrasting architecture, family names, and characters’ behavior, contribute to the central topic of the universal problem of classism and wealth disparity. The 2020 Oscar-winning movie Parasite (2019) is a phenomenal cinematic portrayal and a critical message to modern society regarding the severe outcomes of the long-established inequalities within capitalism.

Film Analysis Essay FAQ

  • Watch the movie or read a detailed plot summary.
  • Read others’ film reviews paying attention to details like key characters, movie scenes, background facts.
  • Compose a list of ideas about what you’ve learned.
  • Organize the selected ideas to create a body of the essay.
  • Write an appropriate introduction and conclusion.

The benefits of analyzing a movie are numerous . You get a deeper understanding of the plot and its subtle aspects. You can also get emotional and aesthetic satisfaction. Film analysis enables one to feel like a movie connoisseur.

Here is a possible step by step scenario:

  • Think about the general idea that the author probably wanted to convey.
  • Consider how the idea was put across: what characters, movie scenes, and details helped in it.
  • Study the broader context: the author’s other works, genre essentials, etc.

The definition might be: the process of interpreting a movie’s aspects. The movie is reviewed in terms of details creating the artistic value. A film analysis essay is a paper presenting such a review in a logically structured way.

Want more examples? Check out this bonus list of 10 film analysis samples. They will help you gain even more inspiration.

  • “Miss Representation” Documentary Film Analysis
  • “The Patriot”: Historical Film Analysis
  • “The Morning Guy” Film Analysis
  • 2012′ by Roland Emmerich Film Analysis
  • “The Crucible” (1996) Film Analysis
  • The Aviator’ by Martin Scorsese Film Analysis
  • The “Lions for Lambs” Film Analysis
  • Bill Monroe – Father of Bluegrass Music Film Analysis
  • Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’ Film Analysis
  • Red Tails by George Lucas Film Analysis
  • Film Analysis – UNC Writing Center
  • Film Writing: Sample Analysis // Purdue Writing Lab
  • Yale Film Analysis – Yale University
  • Film Terms And Topics For Film Analysis And Writing
  • Questions for Film Analysis (Washington University)
  • Resources on Film Analysis – Cinema Studies (University of Toronto)
  • Does Film Analysis Take the Magic out of Movies?
  • Film Analysis Research Papers –
  • What’s In a Film Analysis Essay? Medium
  • Analysis of Film – SAGE Research Methods
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Have you ever read a review and asked yourself how the critic arrived at a different interpretation for the film? You are sure that you saw the same movie, but you interpreted it differently. Most moviegoers go to the cinema for pleasure and entertainment. There’s a reason why blockbuster movies attract moviegoers – cinema is a form of escape, a way to momentarily walk away from life’s troubles.

Custom Writing

It’s an interesting point of view. Thank you for your opinion, Sourav!


Thank you, Mike!

Hi Rebecca,

Glad you liked the post. Sure thing, feel free to share the link with your audience!

All the best.

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Film Analysis: Example, Format, and Outline + Topics & Prompts

Films are never just films. Instead, they are influential works of art that can evoke a wide range of emotions, spark meaningful conversations, and provide insightful commentary on society and culture. As a student, you may be tasked with writing a film analysis essay, which requires you to delve deeper into the characters and themes. But where do you start?

In this article, our expert team has explored strategies for writing a successful film analysis essay. From prompts for this assignment to an excellent movie analysis example, we’ll provide you with everything you need to craft an insightful film analysis paper.

  • 📽️ Film Analysis Definition

📚 Types of Film Analysis

  • ✍️ How to Write Film Analysis
  • 🎞️ Movie Analysis Prompts
  • 🎬 Top 15 Topics

📝 Film Analysis Example

  • 🍿 More Examples

🔗 References

📽️ what is a film analysis essay.

A film analysis essay is a type of academic writing that critically examines a film, its themes, characters, and techniques used by the filmmaker. This essay aims to analyze the film’s meaning, message, and artistic elements and explain its cultural, social, and historical significance. It typically requires a writer to pay closer attention to aspects such as cinematography, editing, sound, and narrative structure.

Film Analysis vs Film Review

It’s common to confuse a film analysis with a film review, though these are two different types of writing. A film analysis paper focuses on the film’s narrative, sound, editing, and other elements. This essay aims to explore the film’s themes, symbolism , and underlying messages and to provide an in-depth interpretation of the film.

On the other hand, a film review is a brief evaluation of a film that provides the writer’s overall opinion of the movie. It includes the story’s short summary, a description of the acting, direction, and technical aspects, and a recommendation on whether or not the movie is worth watching.

This image shows the difference between film analysis and film review.

Wondering what you should focus on when writing a movie analysis essay? Here are four main types of film analysis. Check them out!

📋 Film Analysis Format

The movie analysis format follows a typical essay structure, including a title, introduction, thesis statement, body, conclusion, and references.

The most common citation styles used for a film analysis are MLA and Chicago . However, we recommend you consult with your professor for specific guidelines. Remember to cite all dialogue and scene descriptions from the movie to support the analysis. The reference list should include the analyzed film and any external sources mentioned in the essay.

When referring to a specific movie in your paper, you should italicize the film’s name and use the title case. Don’t enclose the title of the movie in quotation marks.

📑 Film Analysis Essay Outline

A compelling film analysis outline is crucial as it helps make the writing process more focused and the content more insightful for the readers. Below, you’ll find the description of the main parts of the movie analysis essay.

This image shows the film analysis essay outline.

Film Analysis Introduction

Many students experience writer’s block because they don’t know how to write an introduction for a film analysis. The truth is that the opening paragraph for a film analysis paper is similar to any other academic essay:

  • Start with a hook to grab the reader’s attention . For example, it can be a fascinating fact or a thought-provoking question related to the film.
  • Provide background information about the movie . Introduce the film, including its title, director, and release date. Follow this with a brief summary of the film’s plot and main themes.
  • End the introduction with an analytical thesis statement . Present the central argument or interpretation that will be explored in the analysis.

Film Analysis Thesis

If you wonder how to write a thesis for a film analysis, we’ve got you! A thesis statement should clearly present your main idea related to the film and provide a roadmap for the rest of the essay. Your thesis should be specific, concise, and focused. In addition, it should be debatable so that others can present a contrasting point of view. Also, make sure it is supported with evidence from the film.

Let’s come up with a film analysis thesis example:

Through a feminist lens, Titanic is a story about Rose’s rebellion against traditional gender roles, showcasing her attempts to assert her autonomy and refusal to conform to societal expectations prevalent in the early 20th century.

Movie Analysis Main Body

Each body paragraph should focus on a specific aspect of the film that supports your main idea. These aspects include themes, characters, narrative devices , or cinematic techniques. You should also provide evidence from the film to support your analysis, such as quotes, scene descriptions, or specific visual or auditory elements.

Here are two things to avoid in body paragraphs:

  • Film review . Your analysis should focus on specific movie aspects rather than your opinion of the film.
  • Excessive plot summary . While it’s important to provide some context for the analysis, a lengthy plot summary can detract you from your main argument and analysis of the film.

Film Analysis Conclusion

In the conclusion of a movie analysis, restate the thesis statement to remind the reader of the main argument. Additionally, summarize the main points from the body to reinforce the key aspects of the film that were discussed. The conclusion should also provide a final thought or reflection on the film, tying together the analysis and presenting your perspective on its overall meaning.

✍️ How to Write a Film Analysis Essay

Writing a film analysis essay can be challenging since it requires a deep understanding of the film, its themes, and its characters. However, with the right approach, you can create a compelling analysis that offers insight into the film’s meaning and impact. To help you, we’ve prepared a small guide.

This image shows how to write a film analysis essay.

1. Understand the Prompt

When approaching a film analysis essay, it is crucial to understand the prompt provided by your professor. For example, suppose your professor asks you to analyze the film from the perspective of Marxist criticism or psychoanalytic film theory . In that case, it is essential to familiarize yourself with these approaches. This may involve studying these theories and identifying how they can be applied to the film.

If your professor did not provide specific guidelines, you will need to choose a film yourself and decide on the aspect you will explore. Whether it is the film’s themes, characters, cinematography, or social context, having a clear focus will help guide your analysis.

2. Watch the Film & Take Notes

Keep your assignment prompt in mind when watching the film for your analysis. For example, if you are analyzing the film from a feminist perspective, you should pay attention to the portrayal of female characters, power dynamics , and gender roles within the film.

As you watch the movie, take notes on key moments, dialogues, and scenes relevant to your analysis. Additionally, keeping track of the timecodes of important scenes can be beneficial, as it allows you to quickly revisit specific moments in the film for further analysis.

3. Develop a Thesis and an Outline

Next, develop a thesis statement for your movie analysis. Identify the central argument or perspective you want to convey about the film. For example, you can focus on the film’s themes, characters, plot, cinematography, or other outstanding aspects. Your thesis statement should clearly present your stance and provide a preview of the points you will discuss in your analysis.

Having created a thesis, you can move on to the outline for an analysis. Write down all the arguments that can support your thesis, logically organize them, and then look for the supporting evidence in the movie.

4. Write Your Movie Analysis

When writing a film analysis paper, try to offer fresh and original ideas on the film that go beyond surface-level observations. If you need some inspiration, have a look at these thought-provoking questions:

  • How does the movie evoke emotional responses from the audience through sound, editing, character development , and camera work?
  • Is the movie’s setting portrayed in a realistic or stylized manner? What atmosphere or mood does the setting convey to the audience?
  • How does the lighting in the movie highlight certain aspects? How does the lighting impact the audience’s perception of the movie’s characters, spaces, or overall mood?
  • What role does the music play in the movie? How does it create specific emotional effects for the audience?
  • What underlying values or messages does the movie convey? How are these values communicated to the audience?

5. Revise and Proofread

To revise and proofread a film analysis essay, review the content for grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. Ensure the paper flows logically and each paragraph contributes to the overall analysis. Remember to double-check that you haven’t missed any in-text citations and have enough evidence and examples from the movie to support your arguments.

Consider seeking feedback from a peer or instructor to get an outside perspective on the essay. Another reader can provide valuable insights and suggestions for improvement.

🎞️ Movie Analysis: Sample Prompts

Now that we’ve covered the essential aspects of a film analysis template, it’s time to choose a topic. Here are some prompts to help you select a film for your analysis.

  • Metropolis film analysis essay . When analyzing this movie, you can explore the themes of technology and society or the portrayal of class struggle. You can also focus on symbolism, visual effects, and the influence of German expressionism on the film’s aesthetic.
  • The Godfather film analysis essay . An epic crime film, The Godfather , allows you to analyze the themes of power and corruption, the portrayal of family dynamics, and the influence of Italian neorealism on the film’s aesthetic. You can also examine the movie’s historical context and impact on future crime dramas.
  • Psycho film analysis essay . Consider exploring the themes of identity and duality, the use of suspense and tension in storytelling, or the portrayal of mental illness. You can also explore the impact of this movie on the horror genre.
  • Forrest Gump film analysis essay . If you decide to analyze the Forrest Gump movie, you can focus on the portrayal of historical events. You might also examine the use of nostalgia in storytelling, the character development of the protagonist, and the film’s impact on popular culture and American identity.
  • The Great Gatsby film analysis essay . The Great Gatsby is a historical drama film that allows you to analyze the themes of the American Dream, wealth, and class. You can also explore the portrayal of the 1920s Jazz Age and the symbolism of the green light.
  • Persepolis film analysis essay . In a Persepolis film analysis essay, you can uncover the themes of identity and self-discovery. You might also consider analyzing the portrayal of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, the use of animation as a storytelling device, and the film’s influence on the graphic novel genre.

🎬 Top 15 Film Analysis Essay Topics

  • The use of color symbolism in Vertigo and its impact on the narrative.
  • The moral ambiguity and human nature in No Country for Old Men .
  • The portrayal of ethnicity in Gran Torino and its commentary on cultural stereotypes.
  • The cinematography and visual effects in The Hunger Games and their contribution to the dystopian atmosphere.
  • The use of silence and sound design in A Quiet Place to immerse the audience.
  • The disillusionment and existential crisis in The Graduate and its reflection of the societal norms of the 1960s.
  • The themes of sacrifice and patriotism in Casablanca and their relevance to the historical context of World War II.
  • The psychological horror in The Shining and its impact on the audience’s experience of fear and tension.
  • The exploration of existentialism in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind .
  • Multiple perspectives and unreliable narrators in Rashomon .
  • The music and soundtrack in Titanic and its contribution to the film’s emotional resonance.
  • The portrayal of good versus evil in the Harry Potter film series and its impact on understanding morality.
  • The incorporation of vibrant colors in The Grand Budapest Hotel as a visual motif.
  • The use of editing techniques to tell a nonlinear narrative in Pulp Fiction .
  • The function of music and score in enhancing the emotional impact in Schindler’s List .

Check out the Get Out film analysis essay we’ve prepared for college and high school students. We hope this movie analysis essay example will inspire you and help you understand the structure of this assignment better.

Film Analysis Essay Introduction Example

Get Out, released in 2017 and directed by Jordan Peele, is a culturally significant horror film that explores themes of racism, identity, and social commentary. The film follows Chris, a young African-American man, visiting his white girlfriend’s family for the weekend. This essay will analyze how, through its masterful storytelling, clever use of symbolism, and thought-provoking narrative, Get Out reveals the insidious nature of racism in modern America.

Film Analysis Body Paragraphs Example

Throughout the movie, Chris’s character is subject to various types of microaggression and subtle forms of discrimination. These instances highlight the insidious nature of racism, showing how it can exist even in seemingly progressive environments. For example, during Chris’s visit to his white girlfriend’s family, the parents continuously make racially insensitive comments, expressing their admiration for black physical attributes and suggesting a fascination bordering on fetishization. This sheds light on some individuals’ objectification and exotification of black bodies.

Get Out also critiques the performative allyship of white liberals who claim to be accepting and supportive of the black community. It is evident in the character of Rose’s father, who proclaims: “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could” (Peele, 2017). However, the film exposes how this apparent acceptance can mask hidden prejudices and manipulation.

Film Analysis Conclusion Example

In conclusion, the film Get Out provides a searing critique of racial discrimination and white supremacy through its compelling narrative, brilliant performances, and skillful direction. By exploring the themes of the insidious nature of racism, fetishization, and performative allyship, Get Out not only entertains but also challenges viewers to reflect on their own biases.

🍿 More Film Analysis Examples

  • Social Psychology Theories in The Experiment
  • Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader: George Lukas’s Star Wars Review
  • Girl, Interrupted : Mental Illness Analysis
  • Mental Disorders in the Finding Nemo Film
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Film: Interpretive Psychological Analysis
  • Analysis of Spielberg’s Film Lincoln
  • Glory – The Drama Movie by Edward Zwick
  • Inventors in The Men Who Built America Series
  • Crash Movie: Racism as a Theme
  • Dances with Wolves Essay – Movie Analysis
  • Superbad by G. Mottola
  • Ordinary People Analysis and Maslow Hierarchy of Needs
  • A Review of the Movie An Inconvenient Truth by Guggenheim
  • Chaplin’s Modern Times and H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • Misé-En-Scene and Camera Shots in The King’s Speech
  • Children’s Sexuality in the Out in the Dark Film
  • Chinese and American Women in Joy Luck Club Novel and Film
  • The Film Silver Linings Playbook by Russell
  • The Role of Music in the Films The Hours and The Third Man
  • The Social Network : Film Analysis
  • My Neighbor Totoro : Film by Hayao Miyazaki
  • Marriage Story Film Directed by Noah Baumbach

❓ Film Analysis Essay: FAQ

Why is film analysis important.

Film analysis allows viewers to go beyond the surface level and delve into the deeper layers of a film’s narrative, themes, and technical aspects. It enables a critical examination that enhances appreciation and understanding of the film’s message, cultural significance, and artistic value. At the same time, writing a movie analysis essay can boost your critical thinking and ability to spot little details.

How to write a movie analysis?

  • Watch the film multiple times to grasp its key elements.
  • Take notes on the story, characters, and themes.
  • Pay attention to the film’s cinematography, editing, sound, message, symbolism, and social context.
  • Formulate a strong thesis statement that presents your main argument.
  • Support your claims with evidence from the film.

How to write a critical analysis of a movie?

A critical analysis of a movie involves evaluating its elements, such as plot, themes, characters, and cinematography, and providing an informed opinion on its strengths and weaknesses. To write it, watch the movie attentively, take notes, develop a clear thesis statement, support arguments with evidence, and balance the positive and negative.

How to write a psychological analysis of a movie?

A psychological analysis of a movie examines characters’ motivations, behaviors, and emotional experiences. To write it, analyze the characters’ psychological development, their relationships, and the impact of psychological themes conveyed in the film. Support your analysis with psychological theories and evidence from the movie.

  • Film Analysis | UNC Writing Center
  • Psychological Analysis of Films | Steemit
  • Critical Film Analysis | University of Hawaii
  • Questions to Ask of Any Film | All American High School Film Festival
  • Resources – How to Write a Film Analysis | Northwestern
  • Film Analysis | University of Toronto
  • Film Writing: Sample Analysis | Purdue Online Writing Lab
  • Film Analysis Web Site 2.0 | Yale University
  • Questions for Film Analysis | University of Washington
  • Film & Media Studies Resources: Types of Film Analysis | Bowling Green State University
  • Film & Media Studies Resources: Researching a Film | Bowling Green State University
  • Motion Picture Analysis Worksheet | University of Houston
  • Reviews vs Film Criticism | The University of Vermont Libraries
  • Television and Film Analysis Questions | University of Michigan
  • How to Write About Film: The Movie Review, the Theoretical Essay, and the Critical Essay | University of Colorado

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Film Analysis: Example, Topics, & Essay Writing Guide [2024]

Film Analysis: Example, Topics, & Essay Writing Guide [2024]

It’s hardly possible to find one who is not keen on watching films. It is one of the most common ways of spending free time. When it comes to writing a film analysis essay, you would probably be confused.

Don’t worry! We gathered everything you need to make it without a hitch. What’s more, you will find free essay samples as a bonus.

📽️ What Is a Film Analysis?

✍️ film analysis terms, 📜 film analysis types.

  • 📼 Film Genres: List

✨ How to Write a Film Analysis

  • ✍️ Film Analysis Essay Topics
  • 🗒 Film Analysis Template and Example

🔗 References

F ilm analysis expresses the afterview synoptic. The result is a transparent and informative thesis and its arguments .

Don’t forget you should maintain an appropriate academic style. This article explains how to manage it well, using the proper terminology, structure, techniques, etc.

As an introduction to film analysis, explore a list of general film analysis terms. They come as an inseparable part of your film analysis essay.

Find them below.

Auteur definition.

Auteur: Definition

The auteur is the French equivalent of the English word author. The auteur’s definition is straightforward. As a rule, the film’s director is the author. Why so? Director is a core role that manages all processes: from organizing a filmmaking crew and cast to every aspect of the film.

Diegesis in films is all about the fictional world elements. Everything the director creates and transfers on the screen is diegesis. Time framework, setting, range of events, etc., are examples of those elements.

Flashback and Flashforward

Flashback and flashforward imply relating to a chronological flow of a narrative. Flashback is a scene that takes it back in time from the present point of the film.

A flashforward differs from the flashback only by the time-shifting direction: it takes the audience to the plot pieces later in the film.


The term looks confusing, but it is easy as pie. A pre-defined set of a film’s scene is a mise-en-scène . Everything in the camera’s focus: exposure, actors, and other elements form a mise-en-scène.

The Plot of a Story

The plot of a story is a sequence of events and their interactions that make up a story shown in a film.

Scene vs. Sequence

To put it simply, the scene and the sequence differ by the number of shots. The scene is short and consists of a few shots. The sequence is a more significant film part as it implies several scenes. As you may have guessed, the entire movie consists of several sequences.

The variety of possible film genres and their complexity assume more than one way to analyze them. There are several film analysis types, depending on the reviewing angle.

Narrative Analysis

This approach is similar to literary analysis. It means examining the film plot, narrative structure, motives, and characters. The research is built on answering the three simple questions: who, what, and where?

Mise-en-scène definion.

Semiotic Analysis

Everything about understanding the hidden meaning of the symbols is a semiotic analysis of the film. Those symbols usually appear more than once in a movie. Also, particular directors tend to repeat specific symbols. This type of analysis requires very close attention to detail.

Mise-en-scène Analysis

We have already found what mise-en-scène is: a setting with the lighting, soundtrack, background, etc. When we focus on those audio and visual elements and their meaning, we talk about the mise-en-scène analysis. Audiovisual elements may seem insignificant at first glance, but they carry tremendous importance and power to support the plot.

📼 Film Genres List

Having grasped the basic film analysis terms and types, we move on to the starting point of film analysis. We talk about defining a film genre.

You do not have to be a cinema theorist or a crazy film fan to identify one from another. Anyways, let’s list the common film genres and describe them briefly. Please, check the table below:

There is also a deeper categorization. Each genre in the list has several, sometimes overlapping sub-genres.

We are closer to the central part: we’ve approached the writing guide.

Are you still struggling with how to write a film analysis essay? The solid solution is, to begin with conducting a step-by-step plan. Move on, and we will tell you how to do it!

Like every other paper, hence literary analysis, writing film analysis involves several ultimate steps. There is nothing groundbreaking here. All the steps are familiar. They are:

  • Thesis statement
  • Introduction

Let’s touch upon each step and note what is worth considering (after watching the movie itself).

Film Analysis Outline

The first and foremost step is writing a film analysis essay outline. You need to make a short draft with the core measures to analyze the film. Mind the instructions in case you have them. Organize the ideas in a list and proceed to the next step.

Film Analysis Thesis Statement

Pay special attention to writing a film analysis thesis statement. You first need to squeeze out the central narrative threads and ideas. The thesis statement should focus on what you will prove in your essay by transforming those ideas into new meanings.

Concentrate on the combination of film expectations, the auteur’s point of view, and your own critical opinion. In the end, formulate a concise thesis statement and move on to the introduction preparation.

Film Analysis Introduction

Your film analysis introduction should be informative and catchy. Give the general information about the film. It may contain the movie title, director, release year, and cast. 

After building an introduction background:

  • Dive deeper.
  • Explore the director’s filmography or build possible links between the film and the current trends or social agenda.
  • Include as many valuable insights as you can to spark a thought in the reader’s mind. 

Remember that the introduction should validate and complement your thesis statement. 

Having the outline and the formulated thesis statement, you should, in a way, break down a film into its creative elements and analyze each of them. At once individually, and then as a whole picture.

What are those creative elements?

  • Directing. Since we have mentioned the role of the director time and again, let’s start with it. Trace their distinctive directing manner to find new patterns and compare them to previous works.
  • Scenario. In most films, often except for art-house cinema, the script plays one of the critical roles in its power. A well-written scenario helps develop the narrative and each character. It reduces the risk of silly inconsistencies or mistakes. After watching, try to access the level of scripting consistency and clarity.
  • Acting. Even though we’ve just defined the role of the scenario, acting sometimes plays louder than words. Try to answer the question: how accurately does the actors’ performance reveals and conveys the author’s main idea and your thesis statement.
  • Music and visual effects. Setting the overall mood is what is impossible without soundtracks and visual effects. Provide an example of how each part, special effects, sounds, make-up, or costumes, help, or vice-a-versa, interfere in expressing the author’s message.

While analyzing, don’t forget to build logic between each element. Make a smooth and solid review.

We’ve approached the icing on the cake — your film analysis conclusion. Once again, make sure your analysis confirms the thesis statement and show it in your resolution.

Remember that movies are complex pieces of art. Don’t be too shallow in your essay. Try to see a bigger picture and put it in words.

Now that we’ve outlined the plan let’s figure out how it works on a real example.

✍️ 20 Film Analysis Essay Topics

  • Sociological concepts in “The Truman Show” film
  • The process of shame to violence in Bergman film: “Shame”
  • “The King’s Speech” movie and anxiety disorder
  • Gender biases in “If These Walls Could Talk 2” film
  • “The Neighbor’s Window”: film review
  • Ethical, political and social issues in business in “The Corporation” movie
  • Mental health illness in the film “When a Man Loves a Woman”
  • The Devil Wears Prada film’s critical analysis
  • Negotiation situation in “The Godfather” movie
  • “Watchmen” film in relation to the American dream
  • Moral and theme in “The Pursuit of Happiness” movie
  • “The State of Play: Trophy Kids”: main idea and summary of the film
  • Narrative campaign of “The Hunger Games” film
  • Review of “Mon Oncle” movie: a portrayal of France
  • Gender and family in “Gone With the Wind” film
  • Sociology of “Avatar” movie by James Cameron
  • Historical themes in the movie “Gladiator”
  • Review of “Kung Fu Panda” movie: educational psychology
  • Settings in Bollywood cinema: “Bobby” movie
  • Visual effects in the “1917” movie

🗒️ Film Analysis Template and Example

We prepared a short-outlined essay sample. Explore the table to understand what your analysis may look like. Here is the “Solaris” film analysis essay example.

You may take this or other essay samples from StudyCorgi as a template for your future writing. It will save your time and make the process transparent. Don’t hesitate to use them!

You’ve just found out the primary terms, tips, and a film analysis guide.

Now, as we have shed light on the film analysis techniques and showcased the real examples, the task seems not as tricky as at first sight. Save this article or share it with a friend to avoid losing!

What Is the Purpose of Film Analysis?

Film analysis aims to extract value from watching a movie, except for leisure. Films do not just tell a story. They bring a message, provoke feelings, and teach precious lessons. Directors sometimes encode priceless meanings applicable to many generations.

How to Analyze a Movie Effectively?

To analyze a movie effectively, you should acquire the appropriate terminology. Then, understand the existing types of film analysis and their difference. After that, outline your future film analysis paper and look through the extant examples.

What Is Formal Analysis in Film?

The formal analysis comprises the investigation of professional elements of film production like camera motion, lighting, color editing, special effects, and other inner working processes. The average viewer does not pay much attention to them, but we should not diminish their importance.

What Are the 4 Elements of Film Analysis?

One of the many interpretations of this question is the following: the first component is a film plot, the second one is the existing arguments about the film, the third one is a film background, and the fourth is their evaluation.

  • Film Analysis — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Film Term Glossary — Brooklyn College
  • Film Analysis and Methods — Penn Arts & Science Cinema & Media Studies
  • Movie Genres – 120+ Examples of Different Movie Genres – NFI
  • A Guide to Writing a Film Studies Paper: Carleton University
  • How to Write an Analytical Essay — MDC
  • Film Analysis Research Papers –
  • Shot, Scene, and Sequence — Columbia Film Language Glossary
  • Diegesis — Oxford Reference
  • Film Analysis Essay Sample — Purdue Online Writing Lab
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Home > FACULTIES > Film Studies > FILM-ETD

Film Studies Department

Film Studies Theses and Dissertations

This collection contains theses and dissertations from the Department of Film Studies, collected from the Scholarship@Western Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Theses/Dissertations from 2015 2015

The Rise of Marvel and DC's Transmedia Superheroes: Comic Book Adaptations, Fanboy Auteurs, and Guiding Fan Reception , Alex Brundige

Contemporary French Queer Cinema: Explicit Sex and the Politics of Normalization , Joanna K. Smith

Rob Zombie, the Brand: Crafting the Convergence-Era Horror Auteur , Ryan Stam

Transnational Monsters: Navigating Identity and Intertextuality in the Films of Guillermo del Toro , Sean M. Volk

Theses/Dissertations from 2014 2014

Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom: Modernist Moods of "West Side Story" , Andrew M. Falcao

Theses/Dissertations from 2013 2013

Music, Cinema and the Representation of Africa , Natasha Callender

Clash of the Industry Titans: Marvel, DC and the Battle for Market Dominance , Caitlin Foster

The New French Extremity: Bruno Dumont and Gaspar Noé, France's Contemporary Zeitgeist , Timothy J. Nicodemo

'Subbed-Titles': Hollywood, the Art House Market and the Best Foreign Language Film Category at the Oscars , Kyle W. J. Tabbernor

Theses/Dissertations from 2012 2012

Fighting, Screaming, and Laughing for an Audience: Stars, Genres, and the Question of Constructing a Popular Anglophone Canadian Cinema in the Twenty First Century , Sean C. Fitzpatrick

New York Beat: Collaborative Video and Filmmaking in The Lower East Side and the South Bronx from 1977-1984 , Andrew G. Hicks

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Sample Dissertations

Sample Dissertations | University Dissertations | Dissertation Examples

How to Write a Film Studies Essay

Films are designed to be heard and seen, to appeal to our aural and visual senses. Just like any art form, films are also designed to be understood and felt, to appeal to our minds and emotions. The best measure of a film’s credibility is determined through assessing the elements that comprise the whole process. This is achieved through a film study, this post discusses how to write a film studies essay.

Film study essays require more work than movie reviews. This is because they entail that you engage on a level further than storytelling. The essays offer a critical analysis of a complete film. Analyzing a film gives rise to a variety of topics, including the role of propaganda with respect to political and social issues, the influence of cinema on your culture, as well as the emergence of auteur paradigm. The topics are fascinating and they enhance the insight and inspiration of film students. This is a crucial ingredient in the course of writing film studies essays.

The initial step when writing a film studies essay involves narrowing the scope of interest to a specific area. This stage calls for extensive investigation from a wide variety of sources to enhance insight into the area of study. An individual should provide key details and thematic issues under the scope of the study. This enables you to maintain the focus of the film analysis of a scene or sequence that may have escaped the audience’s attention during past viewings. This section also focuses on presenting crucial details on the formalism, genre, historical implications, national background, auteur, and the ideology behind the film. In the course of writing the film analysis, you should pay attention to length, source, and style requirements.

When writing about a specific film, it is always assumed that the targeted audience is familiar with the film under analysis. Such an analysis is always introduced by presenting the major topics of interest while avoiding getting into lengthy details. Special focus should feature while investigating the style and structure of a particular film. This section focuses on the screen events and ignores other outside factors like the historical context, the life history of the director and others. A good film essay should provide the most fascinating and crucial features of the style and structure of the film. Details like sound, lighting, and cinematography contributing to the meaning of the film should also feature.

A good film study essay should also consider the common sequences of form and content. This includes editing, lighting, cinematography, narrative, characterization, thematic concerns and others. This enables the target audience to ascertain how a film diverges or conforms from a genre category. A film study essay writer should consider a film’s historical moment as genre varies with time. At this point, it is important to emphasize the common structures, techniques, and themes associated with the genre of the film. If the genre conforms to expectations, it is necessary to make that acknowledgement.

Analyzing the historical features of a film is an important requirement in writing a film study essay. This approach investigates and positions the unique historical flash of the film’s content, as well as its production or release. You should inquire whether the historical moments /events are depicted in a particular film. Having a historical background enhances the understanding of the narrative or techniques employed in the film. An objective argument should be provided as it will help clarify the film’s place in history. The argument should show how the film relates to the evolutions resulted by technological advancements in the film industry. A film study essay writer should compare the subject matter of specific films to their unique historical moments. A documentation of the reception of a film by a certain audience will come in handy.

Some film studies have theoretical content in their analysis. This form in general requires the writer to have a good comprehension of film history, film technicalities, or film theory. Generally, the essay presents some of the complex and larger structures of the cinema, as well as how the audience understands them. The analysis should center on the national arena,auteur, and the ideology of the film.

An analysis of the national cinema assesses a film through considering each country’s unique mode of studying the cultural implications resulted by these effects. This also helps the audience create the distinction between local and foreign films. It is crucial to determine whether the meaning of the film is changed when a film is observed outside of its culture. After identifying the dominating culture in the film, a cultural research should be carried out to enable a deeper understanding of the themes.

A film’s auteur reflects a director’s individual creative vision and it makes him appear as the film’s author. This is always achieved by a filmmaker who exercises creative management  over his works and possesses a strong personal style. Auteur theory is one of the most persistent  theoretical forms. This analysis focuses on how directors and other dominant figures like actors and producers employ pervasive themes and styles in their volume of work. Though a director rarely has total control over a film, it is important to establish the degree of influence. This will help to ascertain how the historical circumstances of a film’s production promote or discourage the unity of the director’s work. This section should also show the most distinguishing indicators of the director’s control over the film.

The political and social implications of a film are captured in its ideological analysis. Every film has an objective to pass a particular message to the society. An ample film study essay should have a clear underlying message that the film is trying to pass to the society. An analysis of culture, gender, characterization and other tenets help reveal the main message(s) in the film. Ideology can also be broken down into Hollywood Hegemony (observes how classical film designs distort and dominate people’s perception), class analysis( investigates how economic and social arrangements are represented in and surrounding a film influence and reflect the distribution of social command), feminist analysis ( investigates the level of women representation in front and behind the camera both positively and negatively), race studies( determines how various races have been positively or negatively embodied behind and in front of the camera, post colonial analysis ( from an international perception, how the subjugation and subsequent reemergence of native culture is revealed and represented in a particular film.

Before writing a film studies essay, one should offer a brief overview of the narration. However, care should be taken to avoid coming up with a synopsis of the film’s story as it is more of an analysis. The author should reveal plot complications or the film’s ending only if they relay directly to the analysis. If possible, a writer should write the film analysis with the movie at hand. A sufficient understanding of the films sould be reflected by the writer before embarking on writing the analysis. If the analysis is about a part of the movie shot from the point of view of one of the actors, one should write about the subjective camera task. A proper utilization of a film making terms will strengthen the command of the film studies essay.

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4 thoughts on “How to Write a Film Studies Essay”

Good points. Good for me. Can I write a film analysis thesis using phenomenology and hermeneutics but not film theory? Thanks.

Hi, you can write using either but there is more reference material relating to phenomenology.

You have done a great job writing this essay to keep us informed. Please add more

Thanks Lacey – We are always adding new content. Be sure to keep an eye out.

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Film Analysis

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All art forms convey meaning, and film is no different. Whereas paintings convey meaning through shape and colour, and works of literature convey meaning through language, films convey meaning through various audiovisual elements, such as mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing, and sound, among others. The purpose of a film analysis paper is to explore how these formal features contribute to a film’s meaning. 

Remember that a film’s formal features are the result of creative decisions made by the filmmaker. So, when analyzing a particular formal aspect of a film, ask yourself: Why has the filmmaker constructed the film in this way? What effect might they be trying to elicit in the viewer? In Film Art: An Introduction , Bordwell, Thompson, and Smith provide examples of some questions that illustrate how films convey meaning through form:

Does the use of music or noise alter our attitude toward a character? Does the composition of the shot tend to make us concentrate on a particular detail (4.153, the shot of Anne’s face in  Day of Wrath )? Does the use of camera movement hold off story information to create suspense, as in the opening of  Touch of Evil  (pp. 213–215)? Does the use of discontinuous editing cue us to create thematic comparisons, as in the sequence we analyzed in  October  (pp. 259–262)? Bordwell, Thompson, & Smith, 2017, p. 309.

Here are some other tips to consider when you are conducting film analysis: 

Aim to persuade

Just like most university essays, a film analysis paper is a form of persuasive writing, and as such, it advances an argument that is backed up by evidence. Usually, your paper will need to have a thesis statement, located in the introduction, that summarizes your main argument, and body paragraphs that present and analyze evidence supporting your thesis. Your evidence must include specific examples drawn from the film(s) you are studying. For some assignments, you may also be permitted or even required to draw on outside sources (such as film criticism or historical/biographical information) to contextualize your analysis.   

Avoid film review

The goal of a film analysis paper is not to state whether you liked or disliked the film, or to encourage people to see it or not. The goal is to analyze the film. Analysis means breaking something down into its constituent parts and showing how these parts function and relate to one another to make up a unified whole. Film analysis reveals something about how the film works that you may not have noticed the first time you watched it. Therefore, rather than merely claiming that a particular shot is beautiful, ask yourself: Why do I find this shot beautiful? What cinematic techniques does the filmmaker employ to create this effect?

Avoid excessive plot summary

Summary states what happened; analysis explains how or why it happened. In a film analysis paper, you can usually assume that the reader is familiar with the film you are writing about and therefore knows “what happened” in it. The reader is much more interested to know how the film was constructed and to what effect. Summarize only those aspects of the film’s plot that the reader needs to understand your analysis.

Consider the narrative

Don’t take the film’s plot—or any of its narrative aspects—for granted. They all result from creative decisions made by the filmmaker and therefore require critical analysis. Ask yourself: How is the sequence of events in the film ordered? Is it linear or not? From whose point of view is the film’s story told? Is the narration restricted or unrestricted, subjective or objective? To what effect? If the film lacks a conventional narrative altogether, does it employ another sort of organizing principle or pattern? Keep in mind that your analysis should pay attention to both the narrative and stylistic aspects of the film. If your argument could equally apply to a novel on which the film is based, you are not analyzing the film as a film .

Consider the film’s theme(s)

One of the ways films produce meaning is by engaging with themes. Themes are what you might say a film is “about.” They are broad, universal topics, such as romantic relationships, mortality, and good versus evil, which have served as the subject matter of art time and time again. However, different filmmakers deal with these themes in very different ways. Therefore, rather than merely claiming that a film is about romantic relationships, ask yourself: What is the filmmaker saying about romantic relationships? And importantly, how is this claim or message reinforced through the film’s form and style? 

Consider the film’s genre, place in film history, and filmmaker

To fully appreciate the significance of a film, you may need some understanding of its genre, place in film history, or filmmaker. Ask yourself: Does the film belong to a genre category, such as action, horror, sci-fi, or comedy? Does the film conform to the typical norms and conventions of the genre, or does it deviate from them? To what effect? Is the film part of a specific tradition or movement in film history, such as the French New Wave of the early ’60s or the New Hollywood era of the ’70s? What characteristics do films of this kind have in common? Is the film the work of a recognized auteur? If so, what is distinctive or unmistakable about this person’s filmmaking style?

Consider the film’s ideological stance

Some films are made to advance a particular social or political message. However, upon close analysis, films may also be shown to express ideological beliefs or assumptions that the filmmaker did not directly intend. When analyzing a film, you should be on the lookout for both types of meaning. Ask yourself: What values does the film advocate (both explicitly and implicitly)? To what degree do these values reflect the time and place in which the film was made? How does the film represent racial, gender, and class relations? Does the film exhibit any unacknowledged biases or prejudices?

Further Reading

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. “Glossary.” In Film Art: An Introduction , 11th ed., G1–6. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.

Corrigan, Timothy. “Film Terms and Topics for Film Analysis and Writing.” In A Short Guide to Writing about Film , 8th ed., 36–82. Glenview: Pearson, 2012.  

Gocsik, Karen, Richard Barsam, and Dave Monahan. “Formal Analysis.” In Writing about Movies , 4th ed., 35–54. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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Film Dissertation Topics (28 Examples) For Research Ideas

Mark Jun 18, 2020 Jun 18, 2020 Film No Comments

The discipline of film studies in the world of academia is linked with the critical, historical, and theoretical approaches to films. A list of film dissertation topics is developed to help students in choosing the right topic for their thesis, research project, and dissertation. Choosing a topic from the list of film dissertation topics can […]

film dissertation topics

The discipline of film studies in the world of academia is linked with the critical, historical, and theoretical approaches to films. A list of film dissertation topics is developed to help students in choosing the right topic for their thesis, research project, and dissertation. Choosing a topic from the list of film dissertation topics can help in gaining a fascinating experience of research.

The project topics on films and research topics on films are developed to help students in finding a topic according to their area of interest. We have a team of highly experienced and professional writers who can help you in writing proposals and dissertations on your selected film dissertation topic.

List of Film dissertation topics

An analysis and comparison of the most popular genres of cinema in the world today.

To compare the commercial cinema and non-commercial cinema – A literature review.

Studying the role of marketing in the Chinese and Japanese film industry.

Examining the cinema and film culture in the Middle East.

An analysis of the perceptions of youngsters on horror films.

Exploring the concept of special effects in silent movies.

Creative translation and cultural transformation impact on the film adaptation.

How has the digital revolution influenced the film and cinema industry?

An empirical analysis of music and soundtracks in films.

Exploring the diverse film elements and pedagogical feasibilities for creative writing.

An analysis of film education as a multiplicity of practices.

Evaluating the evolution of music in the film – a comparative review.

Studying the evolution of urban film making.

How are technological advancements contributing to the film industry?

An analysis of the importance of a Character in a film.

Studying the landscape of Eastern film making.

Exploring the relationship between literature and film.

What are the special aspects of film making and how it influences the different people involved in the process?.

Why is violence in commercial cinema overrated?

An analysis of participatory film production a media practice.

Exploring the role of women in film – cultural impact on the changing discourse on gender representation in films.

A sentiment analysis on IMDb movie reviews using hybrid feature extraction model..

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How to Write a Film Analysis Essay – Step by Step

film analysis dissertation

So, your assignment is to watch a movie and analyze it in an essay. Great!

I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial I’ll show you how to write a film analysis. 

In short, to write a film analysis means to:

  • Identify the elements of the film
  • Identify the relationships among those elements
  • Form an argument about your findings
  • Support your argument using evidence

If this task seems daunting, don’t worry – it is actually fun once you know exactly what to do. 

So, let’s dive right in. Here are…

7 Steps to Writing a Film Analysis Essay

Step 1. Watch the movie while taking notes

If you already saw the film you need to analyze, you’ll probably need to watch it again, this time taking some notes. 

Why is note taking important? Well, to analyze really means to break something into parts and to discuss relationships among them. 

And to identify parts (or elements) of a movie, you need to watch it while paying attention to details and writing down your observations. 

Taking notes will allow you to do several things:

  • Identify some of the elements of the film so you have something to discuss
  • Uncover details you would otherwise miss
  • Make connections between ideas
  • Get some raw content you can readily use in your essay

How to take notes

Here’s a tip on how to do it most efficiently. Play the movie on one device while taking notes on another. 

For example, play the movie on your TV or iPad, and take notes on your laptop. This way, you can pause the movie and make a note without switching apps on your laptop. 

What to look for 

When watching the movie, you are looking for elements that it is made up of. You can simply start a bulleted list with a timeline and some of the things you observe. 

Importantly, you usually don’t want to simply describe every event of the film. You need some kind of a theme or motif to focus on because otherwise you’ll simply write a synopsis if the movie. 

But you want some useful notes. Here’s how to choose what to focus on. 

First, your assignment should determine your focus. For example, if your instructor wants you to write about a particular character, then pay special attention to that character.

If your assignment includes more details, that’s even better. Maybe you have to pick a character and write about her love life or her relationship with her mother. 

Great – that will help you narrow down your focus. 

Second, you can choose your own theme to focus on. If your assignment is very general, don’t worry – just pick your own character, theme, or something in the movie you want to write about.

In this case, if you’ve already seen the film, just think back and choose something to focus your analysis on. 

Third, you can simply analyze the entire film. In this case, your task is to identify the overall message of the film and how its elements help deliver this message. 

Each of these ways to approach writing a film analysis essay works great. And the steps you learn here will help you whatever approach you choose. 

Example of note-taking

Let me give you an example. Recently, I had to write about one particular character in a movie. I also had to discuss the mental health of the character. So, I paid special attention to anything that had to do with mental health. 

I chose the movie The Hours based on Michael Cunningham’s book of the same title. And by the way, let’s use this film from now on as an example to illustrate our seven steps to writing a film analysis. 

This movie follows three women at different periods of the twentieth century. One of them is Virginia Woolf, based on the real-life writer of the same name. 

Since my task was to write about her, I took notes primarily related to her. But I also noted relevant elements in other parts of the film. 

Note that I time-stamped the events that happen on the screen. This would help me orient myself in the story when I later read my notes. 

This can also help you use quotations from the film because in some citation styles you are required to provide exact time stamps for the dialogue lines. 

Here is a sample of the notes that I took while watching the movie:

00:00 – 3:30 Very compulsive behavior. Frantically dressing up. 

“I feel that I’m going mad again.”

08:35 – ~11:00 “How was your sleep?” “Uneventful. No headache. I believe I may have the first sentence.”

“Always giving parties to cover the silence.” – Ed Harris. ~22:00

27:44 – 31:50 “Her fate becomes clear to her.” 

Makes demands on her cook. Being kind of rude. 

43:20 Doesn’t comply with doctors. Depressed all the time. Lies down by the dead bird, as if wanting to join it.

01:05:45 Talking to herself, mumbling, in the presence of others – sister, nephews, niece. 

-What were you thinking about? 

-I was going to kill my heroine but I changed my mind. 

01:08:05 “I’m afraid I might have to kill someone else instead.”

Your notes don’t have to consist of perfect sentences. You can jot down sentence fragments, phrases, or even just words. 

But complete sentences, or at least sentence fragments, will help you understand what you were thinking when taking the note. A sentence will tell you more than a word or a phrase. 

Write down some important dialogue verbatim. You can later use these quotations in your essay. 

Elements to look for

Let’s explore what kinds of elements you can look for while watching the movie. Cinema is an amazing medium that combines a multitude of things to talk about.

A film can contain everything a novel can. And in addition, it has visuals and sound. So, it’s very rich. Let’s divide the elements into two categories – literary and cinematic.

Literary elements

  • Story (the beginning, middle, and end)
  • Plot (how events are arranged in time and space)
  • Setting (where and when the action takes place)
  • Characterization (characters and their unique qualities)
  • Themes (recurring elements that link things together by topic)
  • Message (the point, the argument, if you will, of the movie)
  • Dialogue (what characters say)
  • Symbols (concrete visual or auditory bits that stand for abstract ideas)
  • Contrast (highlighting differences)

Cinematic elements

  • Sound (music, noises, or the use of silence)
  • Lighting (how light is used to convey or emphasize ideas)
  • Camera angles (positioning of the camera when shooting a scene)
  • Editing (putting different shots together in a sequence)
  • Mise-en-scene (everything you see on the screen)
  • Casting (the choice of actors)
  • Acting (the art of playing a character)

If you’re a film or literature student, many of these elements will sound familiar to you. But even if you’re not, you don’t have to know much about all or even most of these to write a great film analysis. 

All you need is a few good elements that will serve as ideas to organize and develop your paper. And you are probably already familiar with some of them, such as story and characters, for example.

As you watch the movie and take notes, keep these elements somewhere in your document so you could check in with the list at any time. 

Step 2. Make some connections among the elements

If you really want to do well on this paper, you might want to watch the movie one more time after you’ve taken your initial notes. This time, you’ll be making connections using these elements.

You can do this step from memory and your initial set of notes, but if you do it while watching the film one more time, your paper will be a lot stronger. And the writing part will be easier.

As you watch the film, especially for the second and maybe even a third time, you’ll notice patterns. 

You’ll begin to see how different elements are connected by themes and other unifying elements.

Here are examples of how different and seemingly distant elements can be connected in a movie:

Thematic connection

Two or more characters have the same pattern of behavior. They may not know each other or may even live on different continents or in different time periods. But they both feel stuck in their marriages, for example.

Connection through dialogue

Two or more characters who, again, seem completely unrelated say the same things. Or, one character says something, and another picks it up or answers it in the next scene or shot. 

Connection through mise-en-scene

Mise-en-scene is all the visual elements on the screen. A recurring visual can link different elements, such as characters, together.

For example, a character can have a red rose in her hand. Another character, in a different time and space, can also have a red rose in her hand. This is a director’s way of saying: “Pay attention and look for connections between these characters.”

Musical connection

The same music can play in different scenes. Or, the same tune can be played in a major, happy key in one scene but in a minor, sad key in another. Or, a short motive can be repeated at pertinent moments in the film. 

Movie writers and directors make all kinds of other connections in their films. If you watch the movie more than once while being consciously aware of the possibilities, you’ll notice things. 

You can choose any types of connections you want. If your instructor wants you to be specific and use cinematography and dialogue, for example, then use these two categories. 

But if you identify some nice connections in other categories, put them in your notes, too. You’ll use them as supporting ideas in your essay. 

Example of making connections 

Let me give you an example of how I used elements of film to make some connections for that film analysis I worked on. 

Note that I’m using only four categories of these elements because to discuss more of them would only make the essay get out of hand. It’s better to focus on a few. Make sure it’s no fewer than two, and preferably three or four. 

The first one or two can be the main ones, and the rest can be used as supporting ideas (more on this later). 

To make better sense of the example below, keep in mind that the movie The Hours follows three women in different times and places. 

I used letters V, L, and C as acronyms of their first names, because it’s faster and easier that way. 

Here is a sample of connections (as brief notes)  

  • Homosexuality and bisexuality. 
  • Around 42:00 – L kisses her neighbor Kitty. Later, V kisses her sister Vanessa. Both women are not only stuck in their situations – they are also stuck in the closet. 
  • C is also stuck, according to her own words. 
  • V tries to write a novel. L tries to bake a cake. C tries to throw a party. Each one is frustrated. 
  • But there is a progression from V-L-C. V never succeeds. L fails at first attempt but succeeds with the second one. C makes everything ready, but the party never happens through no fault of her own.
  • Also, trying to run away. V fails. L succeeds. So does Louis in modern times. 
  • C says at one point, “From then on I’ve been stuck.” It seems she’s stuck in bisexuality. 
  • When L drops off her son, it’s with Mrs. Latch (note the name). A latch is a fastening or binding device. 
  • Louis Waters says, “The day I left him, I got on a train and made my way across Europe. I felt free for the first time in years.”
  • V succeeds on the third attempt. L contemplates it but changes her mind. C never attempts. But Richard succeeds. 
  • 13:54 – (1951) L’s son asks to help with the cake. L: “Of course you can, sweet pea. I’m not gonna do anything without you.” Cuts to 2001 New York: C: “No, of course!” 
  • It’s as if the director is being sarcastic: “Yeah, sure. Of course I’m not gonna do anything without you.” 
  • L eventually abandons her family, including her son. So, this juxtaposition seems sarcastic and acts as foreshadowing. 

Mise-en-scene (visual elements)

  • Each of two women, V and L, is alone in a bed; one is in bed with a partner. 
  • L is particularly emphasized as alone with an empty half bed – happens again later in the film.
  • The light is pouring in from outside, but the room is dark. She is isolated by the window frame. Isolated from everything in the home, including her son. 
  • Later, around 17:30, her son will be alone in a very dark apartment: “I needed to let in some light.” Maybe light is associated with freedom.
  • V depressed, even disturbed
  • L wondering what the day will bring
  • C excited about the upcoming day.
  • There seems to be a progression from worse to better in V-L-C. 

When you actively look for connections, you’ll make many of them. In this step, you’re not thinking deeply about them. You’re just noticing things and jotting them down.

The main thinking is done in the next step. 

Step 3. Formulate your main argument

Now that you have your elements and you’ve perceived some relationships among them, it’s time to formulate your thesis. 

A thesis is the main point of your essay. This step is the most important because this is where you take a stand. 

This is also a creative step. You’re essentially making a decision about what to say about this movie or an aspect of the movie. 

Here’s a short video I created, explaining what a thesis is:

Read back through your notes

Read through the initial notes you took and the connections that you’ve made. 

What stands out to you as the most important, the most general and overarching idea that is probably the main one?

Make your thesis about this idea. And the rest of the elements or ideas will act as supporting points (we’ll add them in the next step). 

Choose the subject

Let’s choose what to write about – our subject – in our sample film analysis. We have four categories of elements in which we’ve made notes and connections:

  • Mise-en-scene

Just by looking at this list and reading through the connections made, it is easy to notice:

One or more of the themes are dominant, and the rest is supportive. Therefore, our main point should probably be about a theme . 

Again, if your instructor has given you a specific subject to focus on, then that’s what your thesis will be about. 

In this example, let’s assume that we must simply write a film analysis, and we’re free to choose what to write about.

So, we’ll pick one of the themes, take a stand on it, and formulate our thesis based on it. Let’s look at the themes we’ve picked out again:

  • Repressed sexuality
  • Frustration
  • Being stuck
  • Seeking freedom  

Which of these is the dominant one? Which one is all-encompassing? Which one includes some of the others?

These are some of the questions we might ask to pick the main subject for our essay. Let’s arrange these themes in the order of more general to more specific:

Why is being stuck the most general and all-encompassing theme? That’s because it seems that the rest of the themes are either the signs or the effects of it. 

Repressed sexuality and frustration in trying to accomplish things and failing are signs, examples, or manifestations of being stuck. 

It is only possible to seek freedom if you feel stuck. And suicide, at least in this film, is a result of being stuck and seeing no way out. 

This tells us that being stuck as a theme is the best candidate for our thesis. In other words, this essay will be about the theme of being stuck in the film The Hours .  

Formulate the thesis

At this point, we have everything we need to formulate our thesis, our main point that we’ll be supporting in the essay. Let’s do it:

“In the film The Hours, the feeling of being stuck in terms of their sexualities and life situations plagues the main characters. And the earlier in the century the action takes place, the more disastrous the consequences of them feeling stuck.” 

What’s going on in this thesis? 

First, we have two sentences because this film analysis is kind of complex. It is possible to write out the main point in only one sentence, but then it would be too long and complicated. 

Second, note that we have all the main elements either explicitly or implicitly present in this statement. In other words, this thesis summarizes our entire essay perfectly. 

It contains the themes of:

  • Being stuck (which is our main subject)
  • Sexuality (one supporting idea)
  • Seeking freedom (from an unwanted life situation)
  • Sucide (a disastrous consequence)

In other words, it’s all there in the thesis. And we’ll unpack these concepts more in the next two steps. 

Step 4. Write the introductory paragraph

The introductory paragraph consists of three parts:

  • An introductory sentence
  • The thesis (main point)
  • The supporting points

Here is a diagram of how it is organized:

film analysis dissertation

We already have one of these parts, which is the thesis (part 2). Now, all we need is  the introductory sentence and the supporting points. 

Let’s put together our supporting points – the crucial part of a thesis statement. A full thesis statement always includes the main point and the supporting ideas. And then we’ll write out the complete introductory paragraph.

Keep in mind that each of our supporting points will correspond to a section of our essay. And I always recommend using the Power of Three to organize a paper. 

film analysis dissertation

Three is a great number to divide one idea into many. Note that writing an essay on any topic is very much a matter of dividing big topics into subtopics. 

What three supporting points or sections can we have in this essay? Well, luckly, it just so happens that the film The Hours centers around three main characters set in different time periods and places. 

This makes a perfect division into three parts. Now, your movie may not have such a clear division, and in that case you’ll need to come up with three supporting ideas creatively. 

For example, you could discuss the feeling or predicament if being stuck in terms of these concepts:

And your essay would have three main sections. Each section would be devoted to being stuck in a particular sense. 

In our essay, the three women are:

  • Virginia Woolf (1923)
  • Laura Brown (1951)
  • Clarissa Vaughan (2001)

From our thesis, we know two things:

  • They all share the feeling of being stuck, in similar ways
  • There is a progression from past to present in how it affects them

So, now, let’s write out the complete thesis statement. Note that we’re also including the introductory sentence, whose function is to pull the reader into the subject matter of the essay.

Our film analysis thesis statement example

“Through the power of narrative and visual elements, cinema allows the viewer a glimpse into worlds she otherwise could not know, revealing difficulties people have faced throughout history. In the film The Hours, the feeling of being stuck in terms of their sexualities and life situations plagues the main characters. And the earlier in the century the action takes place, the more disastrous the consequences of them feeling stuck. Virginia Woolf, set in 1923, is in the worst situation because while she suffers from repressed homosexuality and hates living in the country, it is next to impossible for her to find a viable way out. Laura Brown, set in 1951, is also a closet lesbian and lives a small-town family life she despises. But she eventually finds a way to liberate herself. Finally, Clarissa Vaughn, set in 2001, is stuck in her bisexuality. But her life situation, while challenging, is otherwise better than those of the other two characters.”

Step 5. Outline the essay 

The thesis statement that we just put together also acts as our big-picture outline. Let’s see how our essay will be organized, in terms of the main sections:

film analysis dissertation

Notice that this big-picture outline is dictated completely by our thesis statement. This is why a great, detailed thesis statement is so important. 

Fulfilling the word count requirement

Your film analysis essay assignment may have a specific word or page count requirement. Let me give you an example of this film analysis outline with a breakdown of words per section and subsection.

Let’s say you need to write a 2,000-word paper. Well, right now our introductory paragraph contains about 150 words. Here is how we could distribute words to meet that word count requirement.

Outline with word count distribution

  • Introductory paragraph (150 words)
  • Sexuality ( 300 words )
  • Life situation ( 300 words )
  • Conclusion (100 words)

If you add up all the sections and subsections, you’ll get 2,050, which is about our desired word count. 

If you need to write 5,000 words, then distribute your words accordingly. You’ll have about 250 words per introduction and conclusion, which will leave you with 4,500 words for the body of the essay.

That will be 1,500 words per main section. Divide each main section into three subsections using the Power of Three, and you have 500 words per subsection. 

It’s very helpful to know how to distribute your words because that allows you to map out how much you’re writing in each section and paragraph. 

Step 6. Write the body of the essay

The body of a film analysis essay consists of sections, and each section consists of one or more paragraphs. 

So, your main building block in the body of the essay is the body paragraph. Here is how a body paragraph is structured:

film analysis dissertation

The first sentence is the so-called lead sentence. It must summarize the contents of the paragraph succinctly and perfectly. 

An explanation is where you have a chance to provide any reasoning or describe a process.

And examples are the most specific parts of any paragraph or essay. They are the most fun to write and to read. 

Let’s write a body paragraph to illustrate exactly how such a building block works in a movie analysis. 

Our example is about Virginia Woolf. It belongs in Section 1, subsection 1 – about being stuck with repressed homosexuality. 

Note that this subsection can have more than one paragraph. This will be one of the paragraphs in this section. 

Film analysis body paragraph example

“Virginia feels stuck in her personal life as if in a prison because of her repressed sexuality. She appears to be a closet homosexual, which is a difficult predicament to endure in the early 20th century England. Homosexuality was looked down upon, and a woman had to be married to a man, regardless of her innate sexual preferences. She lives with her husband who takes care of her and clearly loves her. However, when her sister Vanessa comes to visit, at the end of the visit, Virginia gives her a long, passionate kiss on the lips that is apparently reciprocated. The kiss is so intense that it indicates a repressed desire. Vanessa accepts it, but it is not clear whether she does so out of mutual attraction or compassion for her sister’s suffering.”

This paragraph follows the structure illustrated in the diagram. 

It opens with a lead sentence which summarizes and introduces the entire contents of the paragraph perfectly. It is also the most general statement of the essay.

Next comes the explanation. We explain why we think that Virginia has a problem. The time period she lives in makes it difficult to be a sexual minority. 

Finally, we provide an example – the most specific kind of evidence in an essay. It is an example of a kiss, with a description and implications. 

To complete the body of the essay, we would need to build it out by writing one paragraph after another, following the outline and maintaining this body paragraph structure. 

Note that you can also use outside sources to support your points. But first write out what you can without resorting to research. And only then go and find sources that would confirm your thinking and ideas. 

Step 7. Write the conclusion

This is the final step and the easiest one. I usually advocate for concluding with a simple restatement. 

All you need to do is write out the thesis statement using different words so it doesn’t come across as a mere copy. 

Your conclusion can be shorter than the introductory paragraph. After all, you’ve already said it all. And now, just restate in fewer and different words. You can also add a more general statement at the very end, as a finishing touch. 

And let’s do it.

“The Hours is a fascinating study of how repressed sexuality and confining life situations have affected people’s lives throughout the twentieth century. The three characters live in different times, and the earlier the period the more difficult the situation and the harder it is to endure. Virginia commits suicide because she can’t find a way out of her situation. Laura almost commits suicide but then chooses to abandon her situation, which is physically a little easier in the 1950’s. And Clarissa lives with her girlfriend. Her situation is better although she is still stuck as a bisexual. Life in 2001 is significantly better, though not devoid of challenges.”

And there you have it. Now you know exactly how to write a film analysis paper. 

I hope this was helpful!

Tutor Phil is an e-learning professional who helps adult learners finish their degrees by teaching them academic writing skills.

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    Why is violence in commercial cinema overrated? An analysis of participatory film production a media practice. Exploring the role of women in film - cultural impact on the changing discourse on gender representation in films. A sentiment analysis on IMDb movie reviews using hybrid feature extraction model..

  23. How to Write a Film Analysis Essay

    Step 1. Watch the movie while taking notes If you already saw the film you need to analyze, you'll probably need to watch it again, this time taking some notes. Why is note taking important? Well, to analyze really means to break something into parts and to discuss relationships among them.