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Tips for Students: Reading Films as Language

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.

Film Language: The universal language you might not even know you know

Film language surrounds you every day.  It is such an ordinary part of modern life that we take it for granted.  You may not have realized that film language even exists!  And yet, on a daily basis, film language is very likely to be the language that influences the way you interpret what you are seeing more than any other.  That’s pretty powerful!

Even if we are used to hearing words and music on TV or in the movies, we always want to remember that film language is fundamentally a picture language that moves.

And even though it is a language, it has nothing to do with words.  That is why no matter what language you speak or read, film language is the same for everyone.

Picture storytelling has been around for thousands and thousands of years. From vivid cave paintings to comic books, we humans have been using pictures to understand our experiences and illustrate both real and imaginary events.

The arrival of moving pictures in the late 1800s opened up enormous, exciting possibilities. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers in France projected the first theatrical movie – a simple, but earthshaking, image of a moving train headed right at the audience as it arrived in La Ciotat station.  The Lumiere Brothers based their first film projector on a hand cranked sewing machine.  By turning the crank, they pulled the film through the projector at a steady rate that made individual pictures look like they were moving.  In 1902, George Melies created the world’s first science fiction film and took moviegoers to the moon.  Or at least the moon as he imagined it.

But this amazing and magical new method of visual storytelling didn’t come with an instruction manual! Even though it seems natural to us now, film language had to be invented step by step.

How do we stick together a bunch of pieces of film and make them add up to a believable experience? How do we establish where the story is taking place?  How do we move the story forward?  How do we make people care about what’s happening on the screen?

Inventing film language – which is, after all, less than 130 years old — wasn’t easy.  But persistence paid off.  With a lot of trial and error, this brand new universal picture language was born and developed into the language that now seems so natural you might not even have known that you know it.

Recent research has shown that understanding film language definitely isn’t automatic or instinctive. Like any other language, it has to be learned – even if you don’t remember learning it.

In this talk, we went back thousands of years to the very beginning of picture language.  We saw how picture languages told stories before the days of movies.  Then we took film language apart to see how it works and learned a few crucial tricks like the Kuleshov Effect and Fake Geography. We examined how easy it is to create illusions that your brain is perfectly willing to believe. Together, we gained essential understanding about how this very important language can be made to say just about anything you want it to without any words at all.

Tips for Students Who Want to Learn Film Language

  1. Remember that film language is a powerful picture language that communicates with people all over the world no matter what languages you speak.
  2. Always be aware that film is an artfully constructed illusion – and what you see is assembled to create a compelling narrative. That doesn’t make it good. That doesn’t make it bad.  But…it also doesn’t make it real, even if looks totally convincing.
  3. To deepen your understanding of how film language actually works, watch movies with the sound turned off! That takes away the distraction of words and music and focuses your attention on how the pictures are very carefully put together to tell a story.  The order of the images is crucial.
  4. See if you can spot tricks and techniques like great leaps in time or space, cutting on an action to make transitions look smooth, and close-ups that zero in on emotional moments.
  5. If you put a series of pictures together, your mind will usually connect them even if they have nothing to do with each other.
  6. If you want to tell stories using effective film language, remember the power of Fake Geography and the Kuleshov Effect. What could you create using these techniques?
  7. Observe! Experiment! Practice! Follow your curiosity! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Have fun!

Additional Resources for Students Who Want to Study Film Language

There is so much to learn about film language that we have just begun to scratch the surface.

This is very short history of film from the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England that also has a few more resources at the end of the article:

The basics we have explored are essential, but film language doesn’t stop there.  Like other languages, film language continues to evolve.

Watch really old black and white movies as well as new ones – especially the classic comedies! These come after the earliest days of film language, but before your parents were born. You may end up feeling that you’ve discovered a secret goldmine 😊

Here are just a few of my personal favorites for starters:  Ninotchka, Roman Holiday, The Great Dictator (with Charlie Chaplin), I Know Where I’m Going, The Lady Vanishes.

There are many others.  They’re not only delightful and different from what you are likely to see these days, the film language is easy to decode (even with the sound on).

Here’s an article from Psychology Today about how studying the language of film helps show is how the mind works. You will find more about that film language experiment conducted with the Turkish mountain village, look here as well:

Remember the 75 scenes of the long, hand-embroidered Bayeaux Tapestry from about 1100?  Here’s a YouTube video of the tapestry from end to end complete with Latin. (The person who made the video takes a few liberties which makes it more fun – and you can also see that the seeds for visual storytelling were planted long, long ago.) Watch:

For the stop-motion enthusiast: Well, actually for everyone…  Here’s a lot of information about the amazing Ray Harryhausen, who was an absolute genius at stop-motion animation, all done by hand long before we had computer generated images. See:

And last for now, but absolutely not least, someone asked about when picture flip books came about.   Here’s an article from the Wray Museum that even includes a how-to in case you want to make your own. Read:

Authored by: Rosanne Daryl Thomas
Bio: Rosanne is the mother of a former Young Scholar and has been working with Davidson Young Scholars for a really long time. Most recently, she facilitated an exciting Write Your Own Adventure Story seminar. She has a graduate degree in film from Columbia University and is passionate about pictures and picture language in all forms. Rosanne Daryl Thomas is the author of five books, including literary fiction, a memoir about beekeeping, and humor.


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