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I am currently a third-year Film Studies undergraduate at the University of Wolverhampton and I would like to present in this article, primarily to those either considering or about to study cinema at university level, what they should at least be aware of before starting their course. Of course, undergraduate Film Studies courses can be different due to module content, timetable schedules etc but the following tips and guidelines explained in this article are more than likely features to be included. Being a Film Studies student at the University of Wolverhampton, I feel that this may help most to them who’ll be following after me, but still this article is targeted at others seeking to specialise in Film Studies. So, here are the key points to consider:
- Film essays are NOT film reviews.
When one associated films with writing, it is usually assumed that it is about reviews. When a film is released, reviews from magazines, websites or newspapers are to illustrate one’s overall opinion based on mise-en-scéne, acting, directing, writing etc. The writer’s main target audience is the general public and, depending on the response, the aim is to either attract or shun their interest in a film. Writing film essays are a little different as it is more of a theoretical, academic approach to cinema. We still discuss films in the essays but we do not write in a style based on opinions – more on ideas to create and analyse an argument relating to how a film is made. On that note, exterior sources written by others are central to Film Studies students illustrating independent thinking and forming their own ideas. Students elaborate on theories, such as Auteur (the conspiracy that a director uses a camera like an author uses a pen), which relate them to a filmmaker associated with it and illustrates how through certain sequences. Using textual analysis is vital, too, as Film Studies is not always about a film’s contents but production. Tip: analyse how and why a shot or sequence is done and what the significance is, not just by explaining the plot and what is going on.
- Lectures do not just consist of screenings.
I have often discussed what I’m studying with peers who’ve made comments like “So you get a degree to just watch films?” It is important to note that although most lectures consist of screenings, it is not the only aspect of studying it. Yes, the overall intention of a film is to embark its audience into a unique world featuring various characters, settings, stories etc, but studying it elaborates a little further on just viewers’ experience. It explores on certain key areas before, during and after a film is being made and can vary from the screenwriting process of pre-production, to the shooting schedules of working on set and the additional elements of post-production, such as editing and score recording (or a combination of all three by analysing significance. Film is a source of entertainment, perhaps the most wonderful and escapist one that we have today, but there are more artistic and creative values to it than that. When you watch a film, you may not look at a film in the same way again but you will learn interesting aspects of significant shots, characters and dialogue.
- Every visual element has a significant meaning.
Due to the enthralling and escapist experience of cinema, it can rarely be the case before studying it at academic level of how and why is fully understood. Film Studies students will learn that all shots included are done for a reason and has an elegant purpose in reflecting significance and arguments. We see in films an abundance of camera angles, whether still or moving, but it is why that is an important factor especially in regards to the audience’s emotional response. I will compare and contrast angles considered the opposite to clarify what I mean. So, wide shots usually feature a combination of both characters and background but the idea of it are to show their surroundings which spectators can witness, which can suggest an attraction to the landscapes. However, close-ups and extreme close-ups are used to tighten the frame around a character’s face, or a certain part of it, which becomes effective in presenting emotion. Regarding camera movement, tracking shots show that the camera pursues the subject and hand-held provides a more realistic, documentary-like feeling. Thus, camera angles are to heighten audience involvement with what’s occurring on-screen.
Furthermore, editing techniques are significant, particularly in terms of character development and narrative structure. The most basic aspect of editing is continuity editing which is usually featured in scenes of dialogue. Its purpose is to move the narrative along seamlessly by drawing closer with the characters but without paying attention to editing technique. So, students who are first exploring cinema in a technical and creative way should take note that shots are combined together for a reason to create symbolism or narrative flow.
Lighting is essential, too, as it sets the mood and builds up character. For example, high-key lighting (extremely bright) creates a cheerful or dream-like atmosphere and low-key lighting (rather dark) constructs a surreal and perhaps sinister image. It’s the significance of those images which contradicts in understanding a character and their surroundings. Sound is important, too, in either heightening the audience’s current mindset during a film – usually being music. In sequences we often see that it works alongside the shot to create a symbolic reflection or to expose an emotional feeling. Students should be aware of this as, like songs written by musicians, film music aims to create emotion whether on or off screen.
- Cinema has its own terminological language.
In many ways and like many creative industries, cinema has its own abundance of terminological language in film production, whether it is camera techniques, sound, lighting, sets, cinematography etc. Films are made in a variety of ways throughout production and all the different strategies to cast emotion, spectacle, excitement etc have different terms. For instance, “close-up” is a written term used to explain a close shot of a character. Still, it’s important to state that term than describe it like this – “an angle that zooms close on a character.” There are different labels for all kinds of film production so it is vital that students gain an understanding beforehand. In fact, I have seen a number of film glossaries within books I’ve read that alphabetise filmic terms and explain their definitions. Still, judging from my experience of not only writing about films, but discussing them with lecturers and other people within the industry, gaining an understanding of film terminology will be crucial to gaining good marks.
- You will likely be studying broader aspects of films outside of Hollywood.
It’s become quite obvious these days that people, particularly youngsters, tend to pay the most attention to blockbusters and high-concept films produced in Hollywood. However, you are more than likely to not receive an Honours degree in Film Studies if you do not explore wider areas of cinema across the globe or explore it in different ways. Many countries across the world have origin background as to forming their own film industries, though a number of them influence from Hollywood. This is where you’ll get a more historical idea of filmmaking, especially as many feature movements that develop new styles of filmmaking techniques. Movements such as German Expressionism, French New Wave, Poetic-Realism, Italian Neorealism and Dogma 95 each have a different impact on the film industry, many of which are referenced in films today (e.g. Tim Burton’s influence on German Expressionism). So, it is important to at least try and take an interest in these films because it’ll not only broaden your knowledge but also passion for cinema. After all that is why you’re studying it, isn’t it? On a similar note, you may watch the occasional silent film from the earliest years of cinema. So, be sure to understand what they consist of and what the director tries to get across (like rhythm of music with shots) and understand that, at least before sound was produced, cinema was an experimental art at the time and still plays a significant part in films we see today. You may also study some television shows and documentaries, primarily to demonstrate the differences between them and cinema.
- Lecturers are not meant to tell you everything.
It’s important to clarify that university lecturers will not highlight every aspect of a certain subject. A lecturer’s knowledge is not something that students can simply use to pass exams, write essays or just generally get their degree. Yes, some may specialise in the subject that they are lecturing, but their job is to introduce them and demonstrate to students what they consists of. It is then up to you to develop your own ideas and create your own arguments based on your research. I have been told numerous times that there is no right or wrong answer to cinema, just like there is not regarding opinion, as it explores at an analytical depth; thus, exposing broader ideas. So, it is relevant to state that while students can utilise notes within lectures and guidance from lecturers, your degree is still mainly reliant on your independent thinking, research methods and academic writing style.
- Some lectures may loosely reference other subjects relating to the films.
Although students have opportunities to do a joint-degree specialising in two different subjects, if you are specialising in only Film Studies, there may be some lectures that will underpin other frameworks, such as historical events, politics and religion. So, for some assignments (of course depending on what the module consists of), you may have to research or gain an understanding of other subjects to relate them to your film examples as well as support your ideas. For example, I’m currently writing my third-year project on cinema’s representation of disability with Frankenstein (1931), The Elephant Man (1980) and My Left Foot (1989) being my chosen films to analyse. Now, in order to enhance some theoretical background, I’ve been conducting research on disability’s place within society – Victorian freak shows, eugenics, the T4 programme by Nazi Germany and the Disability Rights Movement. That background information I am going to explore will be supporting my ideas relating to those films I’ve just mentioned. So, Film Studies students at my university, and perhaps at others too – prepare for a little historical and cultural information and research.
- Write films in italics.
When you are writing film titles in essays, be sure to note them in italics (as I have just demonstrated). This is common knowledge but when we use capital letters in our sentences, it is for a name of a person, place or object. However, because films are centered to the essay and are generally-speaking finished products with a name, we do that. Still, the reason for writing them in italics is because it is a formula to show one’s finished work. In fact, it is the same with articles, poems, short stories as well as production in film, music videos and theatre. I have learned that by not writing them in italics, you can lose a substantial amount of marks and it can be pretty costly. So, whenever you mention a film title – use italics!