Visual Literacy is how we make meaning from art.
Remember the first post in this series? In our increasingly digital, fast-paced, and visual world, visual literacy – knowing how to read an image (that is, determine its implied meaning and direction) – is absolutely the most important thing you can learn to do right now (says the filmmaker, artist, and illustrator).
As citizens of the world, we may not all speak the same language, we may never learn to write code, but we CAN all learn to interpret art. A visual language, and your visual competency, is something that has the power to bring us all together.
Now that you know how serious this is, let’s get down to it. Part Two of the Visual Literacy Primer:
What’s in a shot?
Now that you’ve begun to really watch films – not just passively observing – you’re ready to read them. Read what, you say? Let’s start with the basic building block of a movie:
A shot is a length of film with no edits or cuts, composed within a frame; a moving photograph, really. The contents of a shot can be totally still, or full of movement – but the frame remains uncut.
Forget digital for a moment and think of a film strip (if you need a reminder, this is what they look like). Each cell is a still image. When run through a projector in sequence, the shots give the illusion of movement, creating a scene. A narrative film is simply a collection of scenes played in a particular order.
Christian Metz (one of my favorite critics and scholars – read his essay “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema,” for more on this topic) determined each visual shot of a film to be the equivalent of a sentence or phrase. Each shot has an individual statement to make. When edited together, those sentences have the power to tell a story.
If that’s the not the definition of visual literacy, I don’t know what is. So, in that case, how do we determine what it is that shot is trying to say?
How Shots Speak: Mise-en-Scène
This fancy French term roughly translates to “put in the scene.” It has its roots in theatre (as we physically put actors, props, and the like on stage to create the scene), is the backbone of modern film theory, and it means, basically, this:
Depending on whose article you’re reading, the definition varies (a lot – from German Expression to French New Wave to contemporary Hollywood film, everyone has their own idea of what mise-en-scène is and whether it even matters – it does). And therefore, the range of what is included in the mise-en-scène varies, too. My version? I consider all of this:
- Color (or lack thereof)
- Planes (foreground, middle, background)
Essentially, the mise-en-scène is the composition of the shot. That’s the same composition you’d consider when looking at a painting or a still photograph. It includes the frame itself, and everything going on inside it.
How Do You Read It?
Pick a film, any film.
For today, let’s take an example from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock’s films are a fantastic place to start studying mise-en-scène and shot composition, as they are so exquisitely and meticulously crafted.) For simplicity’s sake, I suggest choosing something in black and white to start.
Although the shot refers to the whole moving image, I find it’s easiest to pick a good, solid part of that shot (i.e. not blurry, nobody’s zooming around too fast, etc.) and hit PAUSE (let’s all take a moment and appreciate the magic of digital – this was hard to do with those VHS tracking lines in your way). Now, you have all the time in the world to really dig in and take notice of everything going on inside that frame.
*Ignore sound for now – a whole other primer dedicated to that element on its way.
Here’s a shot you may be quite familiar with:
In this scene, Janet Leigh’s character showers. If we were watching this on moving film, you’d see the water running down from the shower head, and her own head moving back and forth as she lets the water run down her face. You’d also notice the shadow creeping up in the background. Soon, there would be cuts between shots of a (**SPOILER ALERT**) knife, screams, the curtain strewn aside, and (my personal favorite) blood pooling down the drain. This shot is one part of that infamous shower scene. All by itself, it is a moment in time captured within the boundaries of the frame. What’s important about this shot?
As is often the case with black and white films, the most noticeable element may be the shadows. In this case, the most stand out piece of mise-en-scène, to me, is the cast of light and dark on Leigh’s face. If you’re familiar with Psycho, you know that while Leigh seems a nice enough woman, she is also a stranger to Norman Bates – and that makes Norman more than a little unsure about her true nature. The lighting suggests that weight of light vs. dark, angelic. vs. demonic, good vs. evil.
I mentioned planes in my list of elements, and they are so important here. While Leigh remains in focus in the foreground, the shadow of her stalker remains out of focus in the background. In between them is the third plane, that shower curtain – a translucent separator between the dark and the light. Again, the lighting, the construction of planes, even the blurring of shapes and figures, suggests that muddying of light/dark, good/evil, sure/unsure. The water pouring down between them only helps to keep the lines unclear.
And that’s it (though there’s LOTS MORE HERE – if you take the time to look). Visual literacy is obviously about collecting that imagery and making something out of it. Taking down all you see here, even in abstract form, you can see what (or who) is important, what is implied, what is foreshadowed, and using that info, you can make a statement out of this shot.
For me, this shot is a threat. It is a looming inevitability.
But for you – it could be something else. Visual literacy is a malleable thing, of course, but it is the means to starting a conversation.
Who Designs The Shot?
For our purposes, the director determines the mise-en-scène.
YES, film is a collaborative art form. NO, not all directors are as involved with shot design as others. On a film set, lighting is the responsibility of the Cinematographer, costume and makeup design belong to the art department, and in a contemporary film, much of the scenery comes straight out of a VFX department.
However, in theory, the actual design of the composition (the plan, the concept, the idea), is attributed to the director. It is her storyboard that creates the shots, her eye that chooses the frame the camera takes, and therefore, each statement hers to conceive. That singular shot and what it contains is the means by which the narrative will be told.
So, how can you carry this into the theater (or your super comfy couch) the next time you watch a film?
Questions to Ask About Mise-en-scène:
- What is in the shot?
- Who/What is in focus?
- Who/What is in the background? Out of focus in the foreground?
- Is the shot deep? (you can see everything in each plane, in clear focus) Or shallow? (does it appear flat, only one plane in focus, two-dimensional?)
- How does the camera see (Is the angle straight-on, canted, from above, below, or distorted in some way?)
If each shot is a sentence, then each piece of the shot is a noun, verb, or adjective. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination here – infer things from an angle, a focal point, or how much light lays across an actors face. Also, notice when any drastic changes occur from scene to scene – if this director has used a mostly shallow depth of field (painterly, flat shots) and suddenly a shot appears in deep focus (with all three planes clear), this takes on a level of importance. In fact, if you take only one thing away from this lesson on shot design and reading, let it be this: everything in a shot has potential. The potential to move, the potential to become important, the potential to change the film entirely.
The greatest myth that contemporary film-attitudes perpetuate is that the composition and content of each shot is not the conscious and precise choice of the director. I understand the sentiment – we are not a film community of Alfred Hitchcocks and Stanley Kubricks anymore (nor have we ever been). And how could EVERY SINGLE SHOT be imbued with meaning? Some of that meaning must be accidental, right?
A viewing of any Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or hell, even a Michael Bay film will confirm otherwise. Directors think. And even if they don’t (not naming names), their job is to make visual choices. In my mind (and hopefully now, in yours), there is something being said whether it is directly intended or not.
So look closely – it’s what creative critics do.
Next up in this series…
Part 3 of the Visual Literacy Primer
Sound. From the diegetic to the non-diegetic, effects to score, we’ll talk about the part of the film you can’t see (or can you?)
Do you have questions about how to watch or analyze a film? What can I teach you or help you to better understand when it comes to film viewing? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to address everyone individually, and your input will help me write the upcoming posts in this series. Anything YOU want to know about movies is fair game.