Genres and Genre Film

Genres and Genre Film

After reviewing the discussion of genre in Chapter 4 of Film: From Watching to Seeing, demonstrate your understanding of one selected genre using a feature-length film.

Note: Several films are listed in Chapter 4 as emblematic of a specific genre. You are allowed to choose a film or genre not mentioned in Chapter 4, but you are strongly encouraged to email your professor to receive approval before doing so.

In 800 to 1200 words:

  • Explain genre theory and, using Chapter 4 of the text as a reference, thoroughly describe the conventions and attributes of your selected genre.
  • Identify a feature-length film that fits this genre and provide a basic summary of the movie. As you develop this summary, remember the differences between a film’s story and a film’s plot and how these differences can lead to the inclusion of genre elements.
  • Interpret at least two genre conventions exhibited in your chosen feature-length film that help classify it in the selected genre. Be sure to provide a specific example of each convention (e.g., a particular scene or plot component).
  • Provide an example of a third convention from your chosen feature-length film and explain how this convention expands the boundaries of the specified genre.

Your paper should be organized around a thesis statement that focuses on how your chosen feature-length film both aligns with and expands upon your chosen genre.

The paper must be 800 to 1200 words in length (excluding title and reference pages), and formatted according to APA style.

You must use at least two scholarly sources other than the textbook to support your claims.







Mise en scène is a term meant to encompass the arrangement and use of a variety of design elements in creating the visual theme of a film. Please look through Chapter 5 (Mise en Scene and Actors) for more information on this term.

It can be easier to grasp the importance of the term mise en scène if we break it down into its component elements. This week, we’ll look at the impact of lighting choices on the creation of meaning in a film.

In any film, the intensity and direction of lighting will influence how an image is perceived by the viewer, and it can establish or enforce particular themes. Using specific examples from your chosen film, construct a blog post in which you

  • Identify the type of lighting used in the film (traditional three-point, high-key, or low-key) and assess the impact of the lighting used to establish the theme.
    • What are the benefits of the style of lighting used?
    • How did this technique contribute to the theme?
    • How was the lighting technique suited to the genre of the film? For example, documentary films tend to rely on natural light as a way of creating an overall tone of authenticity.
  • Compare how the scene would play if different choices had been made.

You must use at least two outside sources, in any combination of embedded video clips, still photos, or scholarly sources. 300 words

Learning Objectives


After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

•Explain the difficulty in defining genre, and contrast the advantages and disadvantages that genres offer film studios, filmmakers, and audiences.

•Describe the popular film genres of westerns, gangster, mystery, and film noir.

•Describe the popular film genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

•Describe the popular film genres of romantic comedy, musicals, and documentaries.

•Categorize films into genres, recognize when films cross genres, and analyze films using genres.

•Trace the history of popular sentiments and social issues through the evolution of films inside genres and recognize various social functions of genres.





4.1 What Are Movie Genres?


A genre is a type, or category, and genre films are usually easily recognizable as part of a certain genre. This is because they tend to use familiar story formulas, character types, settings, and iconography (visual imagery with symbolic implications), all of which lead viewers to have certain expectations about what the movie will be like before actually watching it. For various reasons, which we shall note, genre films are prime candidates for analysis to reveal significance far deeper than the surface stories. Many genres also have a variety of related subgenres with more narrowly defined formulas and expectations. For example, any film in the horror genre can be expected to produce fear or anxiety in the viewer; some of the many subgenres of horror films include the vampire film, the zombie film, the monster movie, the mad doctor movie, the insane slasher-killer movie, and the psychological horror film, among others.


In Evil Dead II, a freewheeling horror film directed by Sam Raimi, Ash, the protagonist, played by Bruce Campbell, experiences some genuine terror, including (but not limited to) cutting off his own possessed hand with a chainsaw. Audiences and critics alike found it intense and scary. They also found it hilarious. How can a movie that includes the following exchange not be?


Ash (talking to mirror): I’m fine . . . I’m fine . . . (Mirror Ash jumps out of the mirror and grabs Ash.)


Mirror Ash: I don’t think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound “fine”?


Still from Little Big Man, picturing a standing man pointing a gun at a man on the ground.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Little Big Man is a revisionist western. It takes the genre’s conventions and reverses them. The Indians are the heroes and General Custer is the villain.


With its violence, gore, and shocks, there is no question that Evil Dead II, considered a cult classic, is a horror movie. With lines like the foregoing, there is also no debating that it’s a comedy. So is it a horror film or a comedy? Why can’t it be both? Evil Dead II is an example of a movie that crosses genres. The word “genre” comes from the Latin genus, which refers to birth, family, race, or class, and by extension to any sort of categorization. However, as we will see, there is much debate over just what the term genre implies and encompasses, or whether the definition really exists at all with movies.


There is little debate that American movie studios in particular often make use of the cultural shorthand that accompanies various genres—the western, the action-adventure film, the sex comedy—to market their films, and that audiences use it to decide what movies they want to see. In this chapter, we will examine various types of genres and examples of each—once we nail down that pesky definition. For example, is comedy a genre? Could drama be considered a genre? Is the epic generally thought to be a genre? Some people and video stores like to think so. But such categories as comedy, drama, and epic are broader than what the term genre typically refers to. There are western dramas, western comedies, western epics, western romances, western adventures, western mysteries, western crime melodramas, and more. Comedy and drama might more suitably be termed modes of storytelling that can be applied to any of the more specific genres. An epic is a story that is large in scale and scope (covering many years and numerous characters) and can be found within multiple genres.


What Else Do Genre Labels Mean?


A word first, however, about what a genre is not: It is not a preordained measure of quality, despite the way some film theorists and critics might dismiss a “genre” movie as too formulaic for serious dramatic analysis. If one wished to argue the point, one might include Citizen Kane, according to some critics the greatest movie ever made, in the genre category of newspaper movie. There it would find happy company with All the President’s Men and His Girl Friday. These, too, are considered by most critics among the greatest films in history. Yet they are also genre films, or films that fit neatly into a standard formula, in some regard. It is far too easy to dismiss a genre film out of hand. Certainly, there are enough by-the-numbers knock-offs of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon (including some of their own sequels) to give the action-adventure genre a bad name. Likewise with the horror genre, from the original Frankenstein and Dracula to Halloween, among others, and all their countless sequels and rip-offs. But there are also plenty of other entries in these categories, even many of the sequels and remakes, to prevent them from being looked down upon simply by definition.


So are genres important? Yes, they are extremely important, because they are, in varying degrees, how studios categorize the films they make—and how audiences categorize the films they want to see. Labeling a film with any given genre immediately creates certain expectations in viewers, making them more or less likely to want to see that film. This is behavior ingrained over more than a century of filmmaking. Genres also offer a convenient way to examine films—what makes them good, what makes them great (and what makes them fall short). Not only that, many genre films can be analyzed far beyond their surface formulas and stereotypes. As noted in Chapter 3’s section on “Metaphor and Allegory,” genre films can be the vehicle for contemporary social-political commentary disguised within the context of a popular plot formula. These may often be set in the distant past or future (such as westerns, historical war films, or science fiction) or may be present-day stories with familiar generic elements (like horror, action-adventure, disaster films, or romantic comedies). Even when intended primarily as escapist entertainment, genre films tend to treat any number of themes and issues that are topical, and whatever the genre, the films’ attitudes reflect common public sentiment and concerns at the time they’re created. Genres, in some respects, tell the story of movies and of the audiences that watch them.


The Impact of Genres on Audiences


Even though some films cross genres, and may even fit into three or four different genres, most can be filed into categories that are easily recognizable to audiences. This is important because, in addition to their artistic side, movies are a business as well. There is a segment of the audience that is, for instance, interested in any romantic comedy that is released. This type of interest extends to individual actors and actresses as well; for some, just knowing that Adam Sandler is starring in a movie is enough to justify the cost of a ticket. Sandler and other “personality actors” such as Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or Sylvester Stallone have such a consistently recognizable screen character in similar plots that their names alone might almost be considered film genres, or at least subgenres.


Breaking films down into genres is far more than an academic exercise. It is a way of looking at movies—and a way that movies look at us, their audience. John Truby, founder of a studio that offers information and tools to screenwriters, is blunt when describing the importance of genre. He claims that the entire Hollywood entertainment industry is based upon the concepts of genre and formula, as it finds formulaic films more reliably profitable than the less predictable artistic visions, which tend to be valued more highly in other countries. He says:


Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though it sometimes happens anyway). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist. (Truby, 2010)


Films like Evil Dead II and other films that combine two or more genres such as, say, Westworld or Cowboys and Aliens, provide that twist. And a film such as Snow White and the Huntsman expands its traditional fairy tale genre into a more elaborate medieval action-adventure. What’s interesting about this cross-pollination of genres is that it assumes knowledge on the part of the audience, who must recognize what is expected of the horror film and the comedy, the western and the science fiction, or the romantic fantasy and historical-action film, so that when such combinations are presented, there is no confusion. No shortcuts are needed. The audience, trained in genre over decades of immersing itself in it (knowingly or not), is comfortable with the mix.


However, some theorists debate even the existence of genres, believing the pool of categories is too muddied to the point that the definitions are fluid at best, meaningless at worst. New York University film professor and author Robert Stam writes,


While some genres are based on story content (the war film), others are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), location (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema). (Stam, 2000)


Stam makes a good point, but his designations could also easily fall into the category of subgenres, or genres within genres. One could break things down even further, but eventually such division becomes distracting and pointless. The fact remains that people tend to like convenient categories for things, and that’s exactly what genres are, even if the criteria for defining different genres may be unrelated and many films blend several genres.


Popular Genres


Instead of focusing on theoretical debates that may surround the categorization of genres in film, it is far easier, and also more instructive, to simply divide genres into more traditional categories. While doing this, it is important to recognize that there is plenty of crossover between them, and many of them may contain subcategories within them. A look at some of the major genres (see Table 4.1) will also reveal much about how the making of movies has evolved over the last century, even as the genres have stayed largely the same. Entire books could be (and have been) devoted to film genre in general and to individual genres themselves, examining specific visual tropes or iconography, character types, and plot conventions, as well as variations and subversions of genre expectations explored by certain films. We can’t possibly go into the same detailed analysis here, but in the next three sections, we will briefly discuss the most popular and lasting film genres. Students intrigued by the topic of genres (or who may be fans of specific genres) are certainly encouraged to seek out any number of more thorough genre studies for deeper analysis and insight into the wealth of information and meaning communicated by “genre films.”



Table 4.1 Film genres


Westerns Films set in the American West, usually between 1850 and 1900, and typically depicting the settling of the frontier, with its conflicts between the freedoms of a lawless adventurism and the safer restrictions of encroaching civilization; often allegories for modern issues Hell’s Hinges, The Covered Wagon, The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Jesse James, Dodge City, High Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, The Shootist, Blazing Saddles, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain, Terribly Happy, Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma, Django Unchained

Gangster Films that deal with organized crime, often with mob families; originally timely topical crime dramas inspired by recent headlines, now almost as often nostalgic recreations of past eras The Racket, The Lights of New York, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Gomorrah, A History of Violence

Mysteries Films in which characters must solve a mystery (typically a murder); may overlap with crime, horror, noir, or various other genres The Cat and the Canary, The Maltese Falcon, Philo Vance series, The Thin Man series, Charlie Chan series, Mr. Moto series, The Lady Vanishes, The Trouble With Harry, North by Northwest

Film noir Crime drama marked by dark themes, a cynical outlook, anti-heroes, often with a scheming femme fatale, nighttime actions, expressionistic visual style, and voice-over narration Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, Lady in the Lake, Affair in Trinidad, Out of the Past, The Big Heat, Touch of Evil, Chinatown, Body Heat, Last Man Standing, Red Rock West, U-Turn, Payback, Sin City

Horror Films designed to elicit fear and shock in a cathartically entertaining manner; often the next step beyond a suspense-thriller, fantasy, or science-fiction film with horror elements Dracula, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Seventh Victim, Psycho, Paranoiac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Halloween, The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Saw, Deadline, Let Me In, Insidious, The Woman in Black

Fantasy Any film with obviously unreal, magical, or impossible situations, characters, or settings, often overlapping with various other genres, especially science fiction, but sometimes historical dramas The Lost World, King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Jason and the Argonauts, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, What Dreams May Come, Night at the Museum, Enchanted, Stranger Than Fiction, Inkheart, Up, Iron Man, Inglourious Basterds, Watchmen, the Harry Potter series

Science fiction Films dealing with realistically reasoned speculation about future events or scientific theories, often set in outer space or alternative realities or dealing with time travel Metropolis, Woman in the Moon, Just Imagine, Frankenstein, Things to Come, The Thing From Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla, Mothra, Forbidden Planet, Them!, The Time Machine, First Men in the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Alien, Back to the Future, The Matrix, Moon, District 9, Avatar, Super 8, Prometheus

Romantic comedy Light-hearted, humorous story involving people in love, sometimes overlapping with subgenres such as screwball comedy, teen comedy, or gross-out comedy Young Romance, City Lights, Bringing Up Baby, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, Knocked Up, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Juno, To Rome With Love, Much Ado About Nothing

Musicals Films that focus on songs as a major element, whether sung by characters in a realistic context such as a nightclub, or sung in lieu of dialogue to further the plot and express emotions; there are also musical documentaries and concert films The Jazz Singer, Broadway Melody, The King of Jazz, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, South Pacific, Gigi, West Side Story, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Woodstock, Cabaret, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables





4.2 Westerns, Gangster Films, Mysteries, and Film Noir


The popularity of westerns and crime dramas—which include gangster and mystery films—dates back to the early days of film. While arguably formulaic, their often-traditional presentations of the world as a conflict between good and evil continue to resonate with silver-screen audiences.




At its simplest, a western is a man and his horse, taking on the struggles of nature and his fellow man. The American Film Institute (AFI) defines it more fully as “a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle, and the demise of the new frontier” (AFI, 2008). Usually, westerns are set in a time period between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, but there are a few westerns set in modern times. Film writer Tim Dirks goes so far as to call the western “the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier (the borderline between civilization and the wilderness). They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins” (Dirks, 2010b).


Still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, showing two men in the street at night, after a gun duel.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this late John Ford western (1962), the director telegraphs his awareness of the way in which westerns have shaped our views. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”—Journalist speaking to the man who shot Liberty Valance.


Studios have been making westerns since the inception of filmmaking, when oaters, or cheap, quick westerns, were churned out in large numbers. An immensely popular genre ever since The Great Train Robbery in 1903, westerns have nevertheless risen and fallen in popularity, especially major studio efforts at the genre. Low-budget formula westerns always had their audience. However, “prestige” westerns with major stars became popular with The Covered Wagon, a 1923 epic of pioneer settlers, and disappeared after the failure of the similar 1930 sound film The Big Trail. In 1939, the success of Stagecoach, Jesse James, Dodge City, and others once more revived serious westerns for the next few decades.


Another factor that likely affected the popularity of westerns was public sentiment about the treatment of Native Americans in films. In numerous sound-era westerns, Native Americans were typically depicted as evil savages. Because of this, traditional “cowboy and Indian” westerns had largely faded by the late 1960s, as society’s thoughts on this topic matured. By the time of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Native Americans would be depicted as enlightened and wise; the U.S. military was instead shown as savage in its behavior and treatment of native people. This characterization continues in westerns today, although in 2013 there was some controversy over having non-Native American actor Johnny Depp play the character of Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s revisionist version of The Lone Ranger. It is important to note that although westerns (and other films) may be set in the distant past (or future), the films themselves often closely reflect social attitudes, issues, and concerns dominating public thought at the time they were created instead of the time period they depict.


Typical westerns deal with maintaining law and order on the frontier, and their conflict derives from easily defined opposites of good vs. evil. Remember our discussion in the last chapter of white and black symbolism used to tell the audience which side is good and which side is evil? That is very common in westerns. There are lawmen vs. bandits and gunslingers, settlers vs. Native Americans, legal procedure vs. vigilantism, upstanding law-abiding settlers vs. saloon prostitutes and gamblers, refined and civilized Easterners vs. crude and wild Westerners, and many more. In westerns, as in many films, the hero and the villain may often be parallel opposites, two sides of the same coin, so to speak, and representative of the conflicting tendencies within any individual. It may well be the usually clear depiction of good and evil that caused this distinctly American genre to become very popular overseas, resulting in numerous westerns being produced in Italy, Spain, and Germany at the same time the genre was fading from American screens during the 1960s–70s. Some of these, such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, even found popularity in the United States. The western formula has become so ingrained in moviegoers that it is frequently used for non-westerns, especially modern crime stories (with a detective replacing the sheriff or marshal), and genres from the samurai film to science fiction. The following films are a few examples of the genre.



Golden Saddles, Silver Spurs: The Western Movie


Western movies were based on dime novels, such as those by Zane Grey. Thomas Edison was the first to use his new motion picture technology to channel the Western myth.

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Critical Thinking Questions

1.What was seen as the literary origin of Western films?

2.How do Western films capitalize on what this textbook has described as a “black and white symbolism” formula?


My Darling Clementine (1946)


Director John Ford’s iconic westerns include Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and The Searchers, in addition to this classic retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral. Obviously, My Darling Clementine contains many of the classic elements of the western—good vs. evil, taming the wild western town, standing bravely against danger and despair. What makes the film something more than just another genre film is what all this represents, and how Ford brings it to bear. The Earps represent the coming civilization that would eventually overtake the lawless frontier. The Clantons are the last, ugly end of an era. Their livelihood depends on absolute control, so that nothing stands in the way of their evil plans. This theme plays out in countless other westerns, and in television series such as Deadwood, which was even more specific in its representation of the coming law, order, and civilization. But Ford’s film, aided by the performances of Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan, is the definitive expression of the change that occurred in the United States by the early 20th century, when what was once a wilderness in the United States started to turn into the civilization we know today.


The Shootist (1976)


The western has produced many stars, from William S. Hart and Tom Mix in the silent days to Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood. But no actor is identified with the genre as strongly as John Wayne. Though hardly a cowboy in real life, Wayne played one in numerous films, notably Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The Shootist is a film that depends heavily on the audience’s familiarity with Wayne’s career—so much so that it begins with scenes from his earlier westerns.


In this film, Wayne plays J. B. Books, a legendary gunfighter—a “shootist”—dying of cancer. The West is changing, as well; it is becoming more civilized. The shootist is something of a throwback, especially to the widow who rents him a room, but her son idolizes him. Enemies arrive in town with scores to settle with the famous gunman. Knowing that he is dying, Books arranges for one final shootout, which will end in violence, death, and betrayal. What places The Shootist beyond routine genre pictures is how Wayne and director Don Siegel so eagerly play upon the audience’s knowledge of and love for Wayne’s career. In this respect, it could be considered a meta-western, in that it is self-referential (actor Jimmy Stewart also shows up as the grumpy doctor who gives the fatal diagnosis, providing another link to westerns from days gone by, particularly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which starred both actors and had similar themes). We enjoy it more because we know that Wayne—in his last role—is playing a sort of compilation of many of his previous characters, a sort of actor’s greatest hits. It is indeed a western, but it’s more than that—it’s a statement on stardom, as well.


A History of Violence (2005) and Terribly Happy (2008)


Still from Terribly Happy, showing two men engaged in a drinking duel.

©Oscilloscope Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection


Terribly Happy, a story set in peaceful Denmark, replaces the western shoot-out with a drinking bout. In genre terms, the dramatic question is identical: “Who is the first to go down?”


These films, at first glance, are not westerns at all. They’re set in modern small towns, the second in Denmark. The characters don’t ride horses; they drive cars. The former film might better fall into the gangster genre, the latter into the crime thriller genre. However, the ways in which directors David Cronenberg and Henrik Ruben Genz construct the films conform very much to the western genre. In A History of Violence, a former mob hit man has settled in a small town to start a new life and raise a family. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom, who has become a peaceful, respected citizen running a café with no one suspecting his past. When he instinctively intervenes in a robbery and kills the criminals, media coverage of his heroic deed alerts the mob he’s abandoned, which eventually leads to a showdown. The plot has similarities to the classic western Shane (1953), which has a weary former gunfighter trying to live peacefully among some settlers until a ruthless cattle baron hires a gunslinger to drive them off their land. In Terribly Happy, Jakob Cedergren stars as Robert, the new town marshal of a dismal little place lorded over by the town bully, Jorgen (Kim Bodnia). The townspeople know that Jorgen is a vile person, but they cower in his presence and do nothing to stop him. Robert alone is willing to stand up to Jorgen, though instead of a gunfight, the two stage an epic drinking competition.


If we step back, we see all of the elements of the classic western here—the lone ex-gunfighter or lawman arrives in a remote place controlled by an evil, powerful character. No one else will stand up against him, so the brave symbol of righteousness will have to handle things himself. It shows just how flexible the form can be, for the western, like any genre film, can branch out beyond its traditional trappings while remaining true to the spirit of the genre. With several notable exceptions, the once-ubiquitous movie western may have virtually disappeared from modern cinema, but most of its formulas have simply been transferred to other, more contemporary genres, especially the gangster and crime thriller.


Gangster Films


Like the western, the crime drama has been popular almost since film began. It, too, is rooted in the basic fight between good and evil. However, particularly with later gangster films, the audience is sometimes asked to identify and sympathize not with the forces of good, but with the forces of evil. The charisma, material wealth, and power enjoyed by the bad guys make them far more attractive than the good guys, who are often depicted as plodding, clueless characters with none of the charm of their adversaries.


The gangster film is really a subgenre of the broader genre of crime film. Many westerns might also be classified as crime dramas, including what is sometimes called the first western, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Quite a few westerns deal with organized crime and political corruption, just like the gangster film. Indeed, the American Film Institute defines the gangster-film genre as centering on “organized crime or maverick criminals in a twentieth-century setting” (AFI, 2008). It is much like the western in that regard, except that many gangster films have been set during the times they were created, rather than some historical period. Even Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet is a film about vengeance-obsessed crime families, and adaptations such as Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Andrej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (2000), not to mention West Side Story (1961), emphasize the story’s gangster elements explicitly. Gangster films are certainly not limited to stories of the Italian, Jewish, or Irish-American mafia in the 1929s–30s or even the present. There are a large number of French and Japanese gangster films of the 1950s–1970s, and in recent years any number of British mob films or films depicting inner-city African-American or Mexican gangs. A variation on the formula of family-centered violent revenge can be found in Joshua Marson’s The Forgiveness of Blood (2011), set in modern Albania. In general, formulas tend to deal with a character’s thirst for and rise to power, a character’s betrayal of gang protocol or another character, and various gang or family rivalries. Unlike crime films with police protagonists or traditional westerns, in gangster films we often find ourselves sympathizing with the man in the black hat.


Still from The Public Enemy, showing a man pushing a grapefruit into a woman’s face.

Courtesy Everett Collection


James Cagney (right) is a notorious heavy—the unlikeable villain. In The Public Enemy, he mashes a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face.


Early on, the gangster film was more traditional in its depiction of morality. But the height of the original gangster films occurred in the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression, and things changed considerably. Gangsters had their own moral codes, and some appeared to be a greater threat to other gangsters than to law-abiding citizens. The coming of national Prohibition effectively turned most of the nation into lawbreakers, with bootlegging gangsters seen as providing a public service by selling illegal alcohol. And with all the devastating bank foreclosures after the stock market crash of 1929, some audience members may well have cheered for bank-robbing movie gangsters. Many gangster characters then had a certain mystique that made them appealing, almost heroic, in their ability to overcome youthful poverty and oppression to rise in power and wealth—even if it was by criminal means, and even if the criminal activities were condemned and the criminals ultimately punished. This would prove to be the case in later films as well, particularly in the Godfather series. The following three films are illustrative of the gangster genre.


James Cagney plays archetypal gangster Tom Powers, who rises from small-time criminal to powerful gangster. Violent and hotheaded, Tom mistreats women, with the exception of his mother, to whom he is devoted. Far from being discreet about his work or his lifestyle, Tom instead flaunts it, to the chagrin of his brother. Tom is eventually taken down by the end of the film by a rival gang, not by police officers. Some saw this as unflattering commentary on the deterioration of law enforcement and the government, so the studio tagged on a printed title at the end: “The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. The Public Enemy is not a man, it is not a character, it is a problem we must all face.” Studios were so concerned that their films were seen by public watchdog groups as glorifying criminals’ lifestyles that they often inserted in the films’ credits warnings about how their movies were not meant to glamorize these hoodlums’ lives, sometimes with a biblical quotation such as “those who live by the sword, shall perish by the sword.”


The brief run of outstanding gangster films in the early 1930s wouldn’t last. The original Scarface, released in 1932, was especially violent. This helped lead to greater enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, censorship guidelines that dictated what was and was not acceptable on film. Filmmakers were no longer able to depict gangster life as realistically (or as romantically), and the genre faded for a period of time, although organized crime was frequently at the root of the conflict in 1940s and ‘50s film noir thrillers.


The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)


If ever there were films that rose above their genre roots, these are the two clearest examples. They graphically depict the extreme violence that is routine in the world of organized crime, as well as various other gang-related criminal activities. However, the Godfather saga is equally an epic family soap opera. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster story is told clearly from the point of view of the Mafia family. They are the ones with whom we relate, whom we watch, whom we even root for. It’s the story of Michael Corleone, played by a then little-known Al Pacino, as he moves from the one son who was meant for something outside the family business to gradually taking over the mob family, becoming a ruthless, heartless gangster himself. By the film’s end, he is slaying his enemies while serving as godfather to his nephew.


By the second film, Michael is fully entrenched as a Mafia chieftain. But Coppola goes a step further: He takes us back in history, to Don Corleone’s entry into America, an immigrant who rises from petty thief to mob boss, giving the story epic stature. Yet Coppola tells the story as if Corleone were any kind of hard-working immigrant fighting to make his fortune in a new country. A 1990 third installment in the series completed the epic trilogy with more intrigue leading to the ironic, almost poetic fate of the now-remorseful Michael, but it was not as successful critically or commercially.


Still from Goodfellas, picturing Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco during a prison visit scene.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Martin Scorsese’s ironically titled Goodfellas uses voice-over narration, encouraging audiences to identify with the trials and tribulations of an ordinary thug’s life.


The success of the Godfather films led naturally to other gangster films in which gangsters’ lives were examined and in some cases glorified. The 1983 remake of Scarface and 1990’s Goodfellas are two examples. While both end with the defeat of the protagonist, they spare nothing in showing the trappings of wealth that the main characters’ illicit work has secured. This is also true of the popular television show The Sopranos, which ran for seven seasons beginning in 1999 and told the story of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the boss of a mob family who struggles with nuclear family problems as well. While creator David Chase and Gandolfini have stressed that Tony is supposed to be a monster, not a hero, he is nevertheless depicted as a sympathetic character.


This aspect of many modern gangster films, like those in the early 1930s, once again may be a symptom of widespread lack of public respect for a legal and political system that allows organized crime to flourish and may become corrupted by it. Effective gangster films, like any other, reflect the attitudes of both their creators and their audiences. They dramatize a social statement on a need for change, or demonstrate the destructiveness of a lifestyle in a way intended to discourage others from imitating it, although some may not recognize that point if the characters are appealing.


Gomorrah (2008)


Gomorrah, an Italian film directed by Matteo Garrone, takes the opposite approach. It tells the interrelated, swirling stories of low-level mobsters working for Italy’s Camorra, which exists in real life (the title is a reference to the mob and to the biblical city destroyed by God because of its many sins). Instead of glorifying the lifestyle, the violence, and the crime, Gomorrah shows us the brutal banality. Some of these men simply treat their work as a sort of dead-end job. Two young would-be gangsters like to play-act scenes from the 1983 Scarface—with real guns. They are both pathetic and lethal. Gomorrah, in ways far more effective than any censorship by the Motion Picture Production Code ever could be, illustrates the age-old adage that crime doesn’t pay—for most people, that is.


Mysteries and Film Noir


A distant cousin to the gangster film and another subgenre of the crime drama, the mystery film typically involves a detective, private investigator, or regular person trying to solve a crime. Often he or she must not only figure out who committed the crime but also fight against corrupt or incompetent law enforcement along the way. Sometimes there may be gangsters involved. Along with the western, the mystery is a flexible genre, allowing for adaptations in horror, comedy, and science fiction. It also lends itself to many subgenres that blend with other genres. The “old dark house” subgenre of mystery (mystery stories that, exactly as the label implies, take place at night in an old house) may often be equally a horror film.


Still from Double Indemnity, showing a woman and man in conversation.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Barbara Stanwyck (left) plays the femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity.


Other mysteries may be more specifically news reporter stories, crime thrillers, or detective stories. Perhaps the most notable of these is film noir, in which cynical, hard-boiled detectives, often tempted or betrayed by a femme fatale (a desirable but scheming “fatal woman”), solve crimes in a manner reminiscent of pulp detective novels. While gangs and organized crime may be involved, unlike the gangster film the film noir tends to center on individuals caught up in a dangerous world beyond their control, instead of the group or individuals who are trying to control that world. Some noir films, rather than focusing on detectives investigating a mystery, depict people trying to plan or commit crimes, or having general underworld dealings and double-dealings. Film noir literally means “black film” in French, and it applies to stories treating dark themes, shady characters, and, more often than not, physically dark settings with much of the action occurring at night. Low-key, high-contrast lighting and strong use of diagonal, expressionistic patterns and odd camera angles are common in noir films.


Many critics have interpreted noir genre as reflecting a new sense of alienation, unease, and cynical world outlook that seemed to be a post–World War II view of the world. The frequent presence of strong and usually dangerous femme fatale characters was seen by some to reflect the threat to a safer pre–World War II masculine order, for women had assumed much power and control during the war years as men left to fight overseas, forcing men to become more aggressive merely to survive and to live according to their personal code of rules.


Indeed, the noir protagonist can probably best be described as gritty, simply pressing forward in the face of all manner of obstacles. He (the detective is almost always male in these films) does not solve the crime for fame or wealth but simply because it is the right thing to do. Yet a noir protagonist himself is morally flawed and knows it, more of an anti-hero than the typical admirable heroic figure who would defeat the villains in a more traditional Hollywood mystery. A familiar narrative technique in a film noir is first-person point of view, often in the form of voice-over narration by the main character. This idea was taken to the extreme in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), in which virtually the entire film is shot through the eyes of detective Philip Marlowe.


Movies now generally termed film noir are a certain style of mystery that critics recognized as starting to show up during and especially right after World War II; they were popular through the mid-1950s and faded out around the time of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Movies such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in 1974 and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat in 1981 helped revive the genre so that by the 1990s what is now often called neo-noir has again become a popular if sometimes more self-conscious genre, as seen, for instance, in Sin City in 2005.


Part of the satisfaction of a successful mystery movie, much as with a mystery novel, is in solving the crime along with the on-screen detective. It makes the mystery a more participatory genre than others, at least when done well. Just as the protagonist attempts to stay a step ahead of the femme fatale or the crooked cop, so do we, and some directors make this easier for us than others. The following films offer an instructive look at the genre, how it can blend with other genres, and how it is open to different interpretations.


The Thin Man (1934)


While this film offers a genuine mystery, it’s also a first-rate example of another genre, the 1930s screwball comedy, which incorporated a strong female character and playful battles between the sexes. The banter between husband-and-wife amateur detectives Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy) would inspire similar back-and-forth rapid-fire conversations for generations.


The Thin Man is an important example of a genre film in another way as well: It inspired five sequels. Genre films, when financially successful, often spawn more films following the same characters, known as sequels, though few are as successful as the original (The Godfather: Part II being a notable exception, critically and commercially).


North by Northwest (1959)


Though he would later venture into horror with such films as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), for much of his career Alfred Hitchcock was an acknowledged master of the film mystery, though he himself denied it. “The mystery form has no particular appeal to me because it is merely a fact of mystifying an audience, which I don’t think is enough,” Hitchcock says (as cited in Stevens, 2006, p. 258). And indeed, if that were all his films did, it would not be enough. But through the performances, the direction, and some iconic set pieces, or stand-alone scenes, North by Northwest transcends the genre. It doesn’t just mystify the audience; it engages them. It contains the classic elements of a mystery—mistaken identity, an innocent man wrongly accused, a man trying to learn why others are out to kill him, secret agents, and elaborate charades—but it also rises above its genre trappings.


Still from Pulp Fiction, picturing John Travolta and Samuel Jackson standing together. Jackson holds a briefcase.

© Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection


In Pulp Fiction, the briefcase functions as a MacGuffin. It’s the object everyone is after.


Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is mistaken for another man and then kidnapped. Things fall apart from there, with thugs trying to kill Thornhill, Thornhill being accused of murder (at the United Nations, no less), a series of double-crosses going down, and more. In an iconic scene, Thornhill, in the middle of nowhere, sees a mysterious plane in the distance, as a man says, “Dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” The plane then begins chasing and shooting at Thornhill, instantly turning the mystery into a life-and-death suspense thriller. Another famous scene involves a struggle atop Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock slyly poking fun at the iconic American monument as his characters try to kill each other on its face. The film also contains, in the form of the microfilm that everyone is after, a MacGuffin—any object, Hitchcock has explained, that is vitally important to the characters in the film but that may be all but meaningless to the viewing audience. In many ways, this is the classic mystery film, incorporating the many elements of the mystery film genre, yet using them in such a way that it becomes something more. Typical of Hitchcock, it crosses genres and may be termed both a romantic comedy and a suspense spy thriller in addition to a mystery.


Chinatown (1974)


Here the genre film is used to tell a larger story, one beyond what is simply there on the screen. It contains the usual elements of a film mystery—a missing person, disguised identity, and murder—and adds more: incest and a huge conspiracy. Jack Nicholson plays J. J. Gittes, a private investigator investigating a case of adultery (or so he thinks). The case leads to much, much more, eventually enmeshing Gittes in a theft of water rights from citrus farmers that would eventually help establish Los Angeles as a major American city. He will also uncover secrets about the woman who hired him and her father, the man behind the water grab. In the classic noir mystery sense, Gittes is a man in way over his head. Yet like many private investigators in film mysteries, he is also a fighter, someone who plods along, collecting evidence, sometimes at great risk to himself, until he solves the case.


Screenwriter Robert Towne (who won an Oscar for the film) provides layer after layer of intrigue, forcing Gittes—and the audience—to burrow deeper into the corruption and immorality that drive the film. Chinatown serves as a metaphor for the corruption of cities, of the costs of progress, and not just for Los Angeles. Broken down into its individual parts, Chinatown can be viewed as a noir-inspired mystery of the classic form. But seen as a whole, it works to become much more. At the end of the movie, a character utters the famous line “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It is. But we’re supposed to see that it’s everywhere else, as well. Again, it is social commentary disguised as a genre film.



Movie Gangsters





4.3 Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction


Films in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction categories are among the most likely to cross genres, both with one another and with other genres. These films may focus on the unreal, but they also often convey certain social or psychological truths about humanity and society.




Film critic Tim Dirks describes horror films as


unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. Horror films effectively center on the dark side of life, the forbidden, and strange and alarming events. They deal with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our revulsions, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, or fear of sexuality. (2010a)


Alfred Hitchcock explains it more succinctly: “Horror is really an extreme of fear. It’s as far as you can go” (as cited in Stevens, 2006, p. 276). Horror films would eventually go much farther than anything Hitchcock had in mind, inspired in no small part by Hitchcock’s own Psycho (1960). The story of the horror film evolves from melodramatic to suggestive to explicit, more so than any other genre. It is a development that in some ways seems inevitable. Filmmakers push for realism and audiences demand it. In a romantic comedy, that might simply mean more realistic dialogue. In a western, it might mean shooting on location instead of a soundstage. But in a horror film, it often means the depiction of more graphic violence on screen, to the extent that a subgenre has been created: torture porn, in which stomach-wrenching violence and mayhem are shown simply for their own sake, to titillate the audience and not necessarily to advance the story.


Still from Friday the 13th, picturing a woman treading water watching actor Derek Mears, as Jason Voorhees, standing on the shore.

©New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection


Friday the 13th has risen from the dead in innumerable sequels and spin-offs.


This excessive depiction of graphic violence is by no means true of every horror film, some of which, like the 2007 Spanish-language film El Orfanato, or The Orphanage, rely on the suggestion of horror more than the explicit depiction of it, yet they manage to be scary in their own right. There is no question, however, that the evolution of horror films has moved toward more explicit bloodshed. This proves true even in remakes of horror films, such as the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left. The 1972 original is considered by some as a reaction by writer-director Wes Craven to the increasing number of soldiers killed in Vietnam:


It’s a very, very old story…and not only is it about delicious irony, it turns out to be about people who are straight and proper and descend into their own sort of darkness. I just found that very interesting at the time of Vietnam. (Anderson, 2009)


Whether this was in fact Craven’s intention, whatever social commentary existed in the original is absent completely in the remake, with its scenes of one brutal murder after another. However, the irony in the increase in gratuitous violence in modern horror movies is that, in many ways, the horror films that show less and suggest more are actually more frightening, and certainly more satisfying. Understated classics like the 1940s films produced by Val Lewton (notably The Seventh Victim and The Curse of the Cat People), and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) or Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) can still creep out and thrill viewers today. Productions such as Insidious (2010), The Woman in Black (2012), and The Conjuring (2013) are recent examples of this approach.


Still from Insidious, picturing actress Rose Byrne standing next to the bottom of a staircase, seen from above.

©FilmDistrict/courtesy Everett Collection


In a film like Insidious, the horror is created psychologically rather than by gore.


The following three films trace the path of horror films and the genre’s many variations. The numerous subgenres of horror, including the ghost story, the vampire film, the monster movie, the slasher-thriller, and the zombie picture, can each be analyzed for its effectiveness at telling a gripping story and producing fear, yet also for deeper levels of significance—psychological or social. Horror films may be spooky entertainment designed to purge audience emotions, but below the surface they are particularly revealing about the inner concerns and attitudes of the people they were made for.


Dracula (1931)


Still from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, picturing actor Gary Oldman as Dracula standing over actress Winona Ryder, who is sleeping.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Coppola, is one of more than two dozen remakes of this ever-popular vampire tale.


Dracula was by no means the first horror film—the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had already proven hugely influential, not just in horror but in all of film. It wasn’t even the first vampire movie. The 1922 film Nosferatu is so obviously influenced by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula that Stoker’s widow won a copyright-infringement suit against the studio that produced it. But Dracula was the first horror blockbuster. Based both on Stoker’s novel and a stage version, the film became both financially successful and hugely influential, paving the way for Frankenstein later that year and—in what would become a hallmark of the horror genre—countless sequels, remakes, and variations. The film tells the story of Count Dracula, a vampire played in an iconic performance by the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (who had originated the role on stage). To a modern audience, the film may at times appear slow, almost plodding. Whatever scares it provides today are more of the atmospheric variety.


Contemporary audiences, however, were terrified—and thrilled by its supernatural evil overcome by the powers of good. Most films before Dracula that included horrifying elements often balanced them with scenes of broad comedy relief so as not to alienate moviegoers. Dracula proved that audiences were willing to watch a full-length horror film; in effect, it kick-started a genre that hasn’t waned in popularity since.


Rosemary’s Baby (1968)


Director Roman Polanski’s film is scary both as a horror film and as psychological terror. Although there are a few frightening scenes, the real horror here is the realization of Rosemary (Mia Farrow) that her safe, happy life is an illusion, that it is in fact a sham, that she is a tool in a much larger, sinister plan. This character’s realization could in fact serve as a metaphor for the disillusionment many felt with government, particularly during the 1960s, with the Vietnam War and authority at the time.


Rosemary dreams that she is raped by a demon and later finds out that she is pregnant. Friends learn that neighbors Minnie and Roman are Satanists, and Rosemary grows alarmed. While the rape scene is shown, it is filmed in dreamlike fashion (Rosemary has been drugged by Minnie beforehand), and the audience sees the baby’s eyes. However, beyond that, the horror in Rosemary’s Baby is much more psychological—the realization that something you fear is actually true. Later films involving Satan and demonic possession, including 1973’s The Exorcist, would be much more explicit. Yet Rosemary’s Baby remains uncomfortable in part because its lack of special effects prevent a dated look, and because the acting, writing, and direction combine to make a supernatural story play as realistically as possible, making it all the more terrifying.


Saw (2004)


Saw is an influential film that helped change the shape of the genre, pushing its boundaries toward something much less subtle and much more explicit. And while the subgenre of gory horror films goes back at least to the late 1960s, this film and its sequels have proved wildly popular with a much wider audience base.


The film opens with two men waking up to learn that they have been kidnapped and chained to the pipes in a bathroom. Between them is a dead body with a gun and a tape recorder. They also have bags with hacksaws. They learn that they are part of a game, the object of which is to escape alive, which may involve murder, self-mutilation, and dismemberment. The story leads to other twists and turns, and plenty of realistically displayed violence. Ostensibly a lesson in teaching ungrateful people to appreciate life, Saw might be more accurately termed an endurance exercise.


The focus of the filmmakers in a movie like Saw becomes less about telling a story or creating a satisfying experience for the audience (something The Exorcist, even with its extreme gore and violence, accomplishes) and more about topping what came before it, a game of one-upmanship that films such as the Hostel series have tried to emulate. And yet, for their lack of storytelling finesse and subtlety, the films are enormously popular. Is this an example of simply giving the audience what it wants? Or is it a matter of filmmakers not trusting the audience to do the work it is asked to do in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, where the horror is not a visceral, physical reaction but a deeper one? This is a question that the audience alone can answer, but it is worth noting that audiences often prove themselves capable of much more than what filmmakers give them credit for, particularly in the horror genre.


The success of films like Saw may nevertheless indicate something about the mindset of contemporary society—a theme worth exploring critically in a more detailed psychological and sociological analysis. Other horror films are frequently seen by critics as reflecting fears, subconscious or conscious, in a metaphoric, often supernatural framework that somehow makes them more palatable and actually less horrifying than a literal enactment. Vampires are stalkers, sexual predators, who literally suck the life from their victims. Werewolves, like drug addicts or alcoholics, may normally be very nice people, but they are unable to control or even remember the violent deeds they commit whenever they’re under the power of their curse. Psychological thrillers might represent widespread mistrust of authority figures or increasingly dysfunctional families. Gigantic monsters are often inadvertent creations of toxic industrial waste or atomic experiments, dramatizing in fantasy form a worst-case scenario inspired by the latest news stories. Still other horror and science-fiction movies depict computers and smart machines that gain enough intelligence of their own to become threats to the human race. And how many space invaders are really metaphors for various foreign powers and America’s military preparedness? As with any genre films, careful analysis of horror films in the context of the time in which they were created can provide the student or film critic much to contemplate, and numerous essay topics.




Still from Alice in Wonderland, picturing actress Mia Wasikowska as Alice, gazing down a rabbit hole.

© Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection


Alice in Wonderland is a perpetual favorite, first made into a film in 1903. What could be more magical than going down the rabbit hole to discover a fantastic world where Humpty Dumpty proclaims, “When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”?


Fantasy is a fluid genre that allows crossover with horror, science fiction, comedy, holiday films, and more. The fantasy film is, on its face, pure escapism, where characters may live in imaginary settings or experience situations that break the limitations of the real world. This makes them particularly popular with younger audiences, and many, like the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia films, are aimed specifically at children or adolescents. But the best fantasy films also speak to larger issues, offering commentary that adults will recognize as important beyond mere entertainment. A film like the original King Kong (1933) or its 2005 remake can reference serious topical issues such as economic depression, satirize the excesses of the entertainment industry and moviemaking, and still deliver first-rate fantasy-adventure with a touch of romance. Movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy dramatize archetypal quests and show off spectacular visual effects. Certainly, when the country has struggled through turbulent times, fantasy films, among others, have provided the entertainment that, even if it did not solve problems, at least allowed audiences to forget about them for a time. Yet as often as not, deeper analysis may reveal a subtext.


The Wizard of Oz (1939)


Surely one of the most famous and best-loved films ever made, The Wizard of Oz tells the story of a restless teenage girl’s desire to escape her dreary world and the apparent fulfillment of that wish when a storm transports her to a mystical and colorful fantasy land. The film is notable in many respects. It contains well-loved songs, uses numerous special effects, and, most dramatically, shifts from black and white to color when the protagonist Dorothy wakes up in Oz and reverts to black and white when she returns home. Beyond its technical skill, the film also offers viewers an engaging, entertaining life lesson to learn along with Dorothy during her often-harrowing adventures. It reinforces their own sense of safety and understanding that they may actually already have what they think they want—that, indeed, as Dorothy says, with friends and family there really is “no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz is a film ripe for deeper analysis on a variety of levels, as an archetypal quest, a coming-of-age story, a sociopolitical allegory, and more.


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life is very much a Christmas film, but it is also more complex, as even the most cursory viewing proves. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, a well-loved man in the community of Bedford Falls, is on the verge of suicide. His finances have crumbled, he has taken out his troubles on his family, he has drunkenly driven his car into a tree, and he is about to jump off a bridge into the icy river below, when someone beats him to it. This turns out to be Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel. Flashbacks show how selfless George has been throughout his life, always putting others before himself, but the despondent George eventually wishes he had never been born.


In an extended fantasy sequence, Clarence shows George what life would be like without him. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, named after the dictatorial banker who has ruined George’s life. His friends and loved ones are bitter, unhappy criminals or, worse, dead, all because he wasn’t there to affect and influence their lives. George eventually begs for his old life back and gets it. Friends and family arrive at his home on Christmas Eve, all having pooled their resources to give him the money he needs. Bells on the Christmas tree ring, a sign that Clarence has earned his wings for redeeming George.


Capra uses the fantasy sequence to brilliant effect, holding nothing back, making Pottersville a truly miserable place. The film is occasionally criticized for being too sentimental, overlooking the fact that it begins with a near-suicide attempt and descends into the much darker world. Here fantasy is used not in the traditional manner—to escape a dismal world for a while—but instead to bring the audience into such a world. Once again, the film may be analyzed for its insight into universal human nature, and good and evil, as well as its vivid reflection of the contemporary society at the time it was made.


Inglourious Basterds (2009)


This film, at first glance, seems to be nothing like a fantasy film. It is a gritty war movie, in which a team of Jewish-American soldiers goes behind enemy lines and kills Nazis in brutal fashion. Meanwhile, Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of one of the “Jew hunts” by Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), now runs a movie theater where Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels will be attending a film. American plans to kill them are thwarted. Shoshana devises a plan to kill everyone inside (including herself) by burning highly flammable movie film. She even arranges to appear on screen during the movie that is playing, telling the audience that they are being killed by a Jew. So far, it plays like a traditional war film, though with Quentin Tarantino as director, it has many of his signature touches (violence leavened by quick-witted repartee).


Then the film shifts into fantasy. To the shock of the audience—the real audience, not just the one in the film—Shoshana’s plan works. Hitler and Goebbels are killed, and the war is almost assuredly over. Tarantino has used fantasy in an unconventional yet powerful way—wish fulfillment to actually change the course of history. What’s more, he uses his love of film to make it the weapon that would save the world from Hitler. The bravado on Tarantino’s part blends the war genre with the revenge formula and “what if?” historical fantasy.


Science Fiction



Monsters from the Id: Science Fiction Cinema as Exploration of Cultural Fears


Cinema reflects the society in which it’s made. In the 1950s, anxiety and fear over the threat of nuclear war permeated society and film. Science fiction allowed for allegorical discussions of taboo or frightening realities. Though science fiction is often dismissed as cheesy, it has the power to explore deep ideas.

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Critical Thinking Questions

1.In this video, what is meant by the statement that science fiction films can often be seen as allegories for things that society may not want to be discussing?

2.Can you think of an example of a science fiction film that you have seen? What made it effective (or not)? Was the film used as an allegory in any way?


Of the subgenres of fantasy films, science fiction is popular and important enough to merit individual discussion. Broadly defined as a film about the future or alternate realities, often but not always set in space, and frequently incorporating horror elements, science-fiction movies are wildly popular among fans. The best of these films offer not just an escape from our reality—something that any good film offers—but an examination of our own world filtered through a different, sometimes exotic, perspective. They typically rely heavily on metaphor to tell the larger story but should be able to be enjoyed and understood on their own terms, as well.


The 1982 film Blade Runner, for instance, directed by Ridley Scott, is, on the surface, the futuristic story of a police officer named Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, whose job is to hunt down “replicants.” They are amazingly lifelike robots that cannot be distinguished from humans with the naked eye; elaborate equipment must be used to identify them. They are used on “off-world” colonies (on other planets) and are illegal on Earth. Officers like Decker hunt them and “retire” them, a euphemism for destroying them. He is called in to find members of a particularly dangerous group of replicants running loose in Los Angeles.


The film includes a lot of action and adventure, and in many ways is essentially a film noir detective film set in the future, but to the careful observer clear themes emerge. Chief among these is the idea of identity, and what it means. Who is real? Who is not? Is Decker himself a replicant? Scott revisits this question throughout the course of the film, which also looks at the role technology plays in our lives. Of course, one not need recognize these themes to enjoy the movie (which divided critics when it was released but has since become recognized as a classic not just of the genre but of all film), but Scott provides them for those seeking a fuller experience. This is true of many science-fiction films, including The War of the Worlds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Alien, among many, many others.





4.4 Romantic Comedy, Musicals, and Documentaries


A discussion of popular film genres would not be complete without examining romantic comedies, musicals, and documentaries. While there is perhaps less crossover between these genres, all have played an important role in the history of film.


Romantic Comedy



Still from When Harry Met Sally, picturing actors Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal eating at a table.

© Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection


Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) is a romantic comedy that captured the battle of the sexes at the time. As in all classic romantic comedies, unlikely couples discover that in fact they are soul mates. “All’s well that ends well.”


Perhaps the least flexible of all the genres, the romantic comedy is somewhat limited by the scope of what it attempts to accomplish—bringing two people together. There are many ways for this to happen, and many comedic obstacles to be placed before them, but the goal remains the same. The rest is just window dressing. At its most basic, the romantic comedy plot involves a romance that leads to comic situations, although lately the term has come to mean almost exclusively a film in which a hapless female protagonist finds love despite all manner of kooky odds against it. These frequently have initial popularity with audiences but fade rather quickly and are marketed almost exclusively toward female audiences. Often these films are best described as “cute.” Modern audiences may think of the latest Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston film as typical of the romcom, as the genre is often abbreviated, but there are other examples to sample for study. The romantic comedy has spawned subgenres, such as the sex comedy (with its own subgenre, the teen sex comedy) and the screwball comedy, popular in the 1930s and 1940s, in which madcap hijinks happen to couples falling in love.


However one describes the genre, it is crucial that the successful film have both parts in equal measure—romance and comedy. When that is the case, the romantic comedy can be much more than a lark and become a more satisfying film on a deeper level. As film critic David Denby writes in The New Yorker:


Romantic comedy civilizes desire, transforms lust into play and ritual—the celebration of union in marriage. The lovers are fated by temperament and physical attraction to join together, or stay together, and the audience longs for that ending with an urgency that is as much moral as sentimental. (Denby, 2007)


Rare indeed is the romantic comedy in which we don’t get that ending, that resolution that we so want—namely that the man and woman live happily ever after. Whether this is realistic is beside the point. (Some suggest it’s not even healthy. A 2009 study found that people who watched romantic comedies tended to have unrealistic expectations and ideas about romantic relationships [Alleyne, 2008].) The point is to get the couple together and see them ride off into the sunset. There are exceptions. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is a popular romantic comedy in which the protagonist doesn’t ultimately get the girl, thanks in large part to a mountain of neuroses. However, typically in romantic comedies audiences expect a happy ending, no matter how it is achieved.


Young Romance (1915)


Like most genres, romantic comedy dates back to the beginnings of cinema, and its roots extend back to ancient theater. The early feature Young Romance (1915) has a basic plot that is just as appropriate to life a century later. A young working-class man and woman unknowingly work in different departments of the same store, splurging their savings on an expensive vacation at the same resort. Of course they meet and fall in love, each thinking the other is rich. The mistaken identity formula takes a twist when the girl is kidnapped for ransom and the boy saves her, but both are uncomfortable pursuing their relationship after their holiday is over because of their perceived differences in social status. Back at work the next week, they eventually discover they are workmates and all ends happily. In addition to being a comedy of romance and embarrassment, the film can be viewed as a documentary record of 1915 attitudes about social classes and a timeless observation of human nature.


City Lights (1931)


Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), often regarded by critics and audiences as one of the greatest films of all time, has many elements of the romantic comedy. Again, it is one based on a case of mistaken identity. Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp character befriends a young blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers in the street. After a variety of comic misadventures, including preventing a drunken millionaire from committing suicide, the Tramp is able to get money from this newfound friend and pays for an operation to restore the woman’s sight. She of course does not recognize the homeless man as her benefactor, but when she hands him a flower and coin, their hands touch and she recognizes him. The final scene, unlike that of many comedies, is not overplayed for laughs. Instead, as the film ends the audience is unsure whether the woman feels pity for the rumpled tramp or loves him. This shows what the romantic comedy form is capable of, if done with restraint. And emblematic of its time, the beginning of the Depression, it is an explicit presentation of the economic gap between rich and poor.


Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)


These two films are classic examples of the screwball comedy, a genre that had some precedent in the liberated women of the 1920s but blossomed during the 1930s and 1940s after the coming of sound. Men and women became equal adversaries, battling out their conflicting romantic feelings verbally and even physically. Situations were often exaggerated to an extreme that could only result in such comic byplay, cleverly written to conform to the dictates of the Production Code yet conveying much deeper sexual implications.


In Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant, a paleontologist engaged to a humorless woman, meets a free-spirited woman of opposite personality (Katharine Hepburn), which complicates things. The story from there involves a dog, a dinosaur bone, a million-dollar donation, arrest, mistaken identity, a leopard, and more. In Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, things get even more outrageous when a vivacious small-town girl (Betty Hutton) discovers she’s pregnant but can’t remember who the father is, as she’d spent the night partying with soldiers getting ready to ship overseas. Her meek boyfriend (Eddie Bracken) agrees to marry her, but things get out of hand before it’s over. These films use classic screwball setups, piling one unlikely situation atop another with no real attempt to make one situation any more realistic than the last, driven by the wit and banter between the leads.


Knocked Up (2007) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)


By the 21st century, romantic comedies had taken many turns. Classic screwball comedies would fade after World War II, but in the latter part of the 20th century wacky lighter fare would again prove popular. Annie Hall would inspire films such as When Harry Met Sally, in its own way an update of the classic opposites-attract, screwball formula. With changing audience tastes, sex that was merely hinted at in years past became a topic to be dealt with more explicitly. Knocked Up (2007) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) are in many ways the culmination of that evolution. They also demonstrate another trend of more recent romantic-comedy storytelling: The schlubby guy gets the pretty girl. Whether this is wish fulfillment on the part of the writers or the audience, it has proved popular—yet another example of films capitalizing on common stereotypes while reflecting something their creators sense is a common social attitude or desire.


Still from the set of Clerks, picturing director Kevin Smith sitting on the ground in front of a convenience store.

© Miramax Films/Courtesy Everett Collection


Clerks is the epitome of the “slacker film”—a portrait of Gen X.


In Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Seth Rogen plays a pot-smoking, aimless man who spends his days working on a website that indexes nude scenes in movies. He meets a high-strung, ambitious television producer (Katherine Heigl) at a nightclub, and after getting drunk, they have sex. She learns she is pregnant, and they decide to try to establish a relationship together. Due to their different lifestyles and outlooks, they split up, but they eventually reunite in time for the birth of their daughter. Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno also stars Seth Rogen, this time as an aimless man who decides an ideal way to make money would be to make a pornographic movie with the help of his best friend (Elizabeth Banks). Although they have never been a romantic couple, each becomes jealous of the other during the process, and they wind up together by the end.


Apatow became popular directing and producing a number of like-minded comedies, including The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Superbad, and Pineapple Express, and Smith rose to fame with Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, among others. All their films share certain similarities—they are considered raunchy, profane, and hilarious. But they also contain an underlying sweetness that makes them more palatable to a mainstream audience. While audiences of the 1940s would surely be aghast by their discussion of sex and profanity, films like these are well suited for today’s movie audiences; the edgy tone makes them seem more realistic to younger people, at whom the films are aimed. In this regard, they are as much a depiction of their era as Young Romance, City Lights, Bringing Up Baby, or Miracle of Morgan’s Creek were.




Ever since The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson performs six songs, vocal music has played an important part in film—so much so that it spawned its own genre: the musical. From The Jazz Singer to Mamma Mia!, the musical has been a well-loved type of film. Sometimes musicals touch on darker material: The Jazz Singer was a backstage ethnic drama about the younger generation abandoning its traditional religious and cultural values in a materialist and entertainment-driven society, The Sound of Music includes the rise of the Nazi party among its delightful songs. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the story of a serial killer, and Les Miserables is a relentless epic story of crime and punishment encompassing the French Revolution. Typically, however, musicals depict lighter fare, and indeed, in each case mentioned they make what might have been more difficult material easier for the audience to relate to.


Still from Little Shop of Horrors, picturing a large, talking, carnivorous plant.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Little Shop of Horrors is among those musicals that address darker subjects—in this case a plant that thrives on human blood.


Numerous subgenres exist within the musical genre, from musical comedy to musical drama to animated musicals to music documentaries and concert films like Woodstock and It Might Get Loud. Famous musicals include Top Hat, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, Easter Parade, West Side Story, The Music Man, and Mary Poppins. All are films beloved by many. Some produced classic songs of their own, and others were screen adaptations of Broadway stage musicals. Perhaps because of their often stronger focus on entertainment rather than dramatizations of social issues, musicals sometimes tend not to be taken as seriously as dramas or even comedies. For example, only nine musicals have won the Academy Award for Best Picture; until Chicago won in 2002, the last musical to do so was Oliver! in 1968. Like westerns, horror, and other genres, musicals have come and gone in terms of popularity. With a few exceptions, until the success of Chicago, the genre was largely dormant after the 1960s, except in the form of animated cartoon musicals. In India, on the other hand, the “Bollywood” musical remains a consistent audience favorite.


What makes the musical a genre in itself is that the songs do not just accompany the action shown on screen as they do in most other genres but are actually a part of it. Instead of strictly dialogue, the narrative may from time to time be advanced by characters breaking out into song. In the case of Les Miserables (2012), virtually the entire story is sung, as in an opera. Early musicals, such as 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), proved immensely popular with audiences, with lavish production numbers providing escapist entertainment for a nation struggling through the Great Depression. Yet both of those backstage stories are heavily rooted in the contemporary economic difficulties of their era. Their snappy comedy and elaborate musical numbers are mere diversions from their characters’ own struggles to make ends meet in a tough world. Even though both films, as expected, let audiences see their tangled romantic subplots resolve happily by the end after some spectacular musical numbers, they remained just as much a reminder of the world outside the movie house as they were an escape from that world. Despite their association with simple escapism and entertainment, musicals, like any genre films, lend themselves to analysis that can provide much insight into the psyche of their times and the personalities of their creators.


The Sound of Music (1965)


The film, directed by Robert Wise, is based on the stage play, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The story of the von Trapp family, which in the movie escapes Austria and the Nazis during World War II, was considered by most critics to be too sweet, too shallow. Yet it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It follows Maria (Julie Andrews), a young nun who is sent to work as a governess for a widowed navy captain, Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), to care for his seven children. A free spirit, she at first rankles the strict von Trapp, but eventually they fall in love and marry, to the delight of the children. However, when the Nazis annex Austria, the family must flee, and does so after performing at the Salzburg Music Festival.


It is true that the story is a somewhat glossed-over version of the complexities of the time period. However, the film is an excellent example of what makes a successful musical, as its songs make up for its simplistic, rather predictable story. “Edelweiss,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and “My Favorite Things” are just some of the songs from the film that have become established in popular culture. And, for the most part, they fit in the film, doing the job that songs in musicals must: entertain but also help to advance the plot. (“So Long, Farewell” even helps them escape.) The film made Andrews a star and still enjoys great popularity. It may not enjoy wide critical acclaim, but it is an example of how the varied elements of musicals can come together to elevate a movie far above what it might have been had it not had such strong songs to fall back on.


Across the Universe (2007)


Still from Yellow Submarine, picturing a cartoon rendering of the Beatles in a fantastic landscape.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Before Across the Universe, there was the Beatles-propelled Yellow Submarine, an animated musical.


Whereas most musical films are stories (very often adapted from stage plays) with songs written especially for them, and some are stories written merely to showcase various existing songs to be performed by the characters (for example, Singin’ in the Rain or the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine), this film takes an unusual approach. Its story of social turmoil, political protest, and personal heartbreak during the Vietnam War era was carefully designed around a selection of songs written by the Beatles, some actually sung by characters in the film and others merely inspiring various characters and plot situations. The result is genuinely operatic historical drama, but utilizing the actual songs from the era, it depicts the time in a way that makes it seem as if the songs were written for the plot instead of the other way around.


The Beatles’ songs and the plot are entwined throughout, as evidenced by the names of the lead characters—Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), as in “Hey Jude” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When a merchant sailor leaves his girlfriend, we get “All My Loving.” When an Uncle Sam recruiting poster becomes animated, we get “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Sexy Sadie sings “Helter Skelter.” There’s also Rita (“Lovely Rita”), Max (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), Jo Jo (from “Get Back”) and even a Mr. Kite (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”). Without the songs, there is no plot, and vice versa.


The film received mixed reviews, but its ambition is never in question. Any time a genre’s conventions can be subverted or overturned, it bears watching. Across the Universe is especially notable because, for all of the creativity they require, musicals can be especially rigid in form. Across the Universe is as untraditional as The Sound of Music is traditional; together they give some idea of the breadth possible in the musical genre.




A documentary is a non-fiction film that typically studies an event, person, trend, or other subject in depth. While this may sound by definition dry and boring, the best documentaries are anything but. Skilled filmmakers such as Erroll Morris use the same tools that directors employ in fictional films: writing (mostly narration in this case), editing, cinematography, and structure. Everyone has heard the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of a good documentary, this is proved true.


Some documentaries are meant to entertain, or to shine a light on a person or subject that has gone unnoticed. Other documentaries adopt a point of view in an effort to force action, whether it be to free the wrongly convicted or shine a light on political corruption or human-rights violations. In the hands of a good documentarian, anything can be made interesting, as the following examples illustrate.


The Thin Blue Line (1988)


On November 29, 1976, police officer Robert W. Wood was killed during a traffic stop. The case went unsolved until police got a tip from a 16-year-old boy from Vidor, Texas, which led to the arrest of a 28-year-old man named Randall Dale Adams. In this documentary, Erroll Morris used techniques that would prove influential in arguing that the case against Adams, who was convicted of the murder, was flawed. These techniques include staging reenactments of important events leading to the murder and differing versions of the murder itself. These scenes can be jarring at first, but once the viewer becomes accustomed to them, they are effective in illustrating the story beyond just the interviews that Morris conducted.


Morris explained his use of reenactment in a New York Times piece he wrote:


Critics don’t like re-enactments in documentary films—perhaps because they think that documentary images should come from the present, that the director should be hands-off. But a story in the past has to be re-enacted. Here’s my method. I reconstruct the past through interviews (retrospective accounts), documents and other scraps of evidence. I tell a story about how the police and the newspapers got it wrong. I try to explain (1) what I believe is the real story and (2) why they got it wrong. I take the pieces of the false narrative, rearrange them, emphasize new details, and construct a new narrative. (Morris, 2008)


Morris also used an innovative technique for the interviews: having the subject look directly into the camera while he or she spoke. The effect is one of greater immediacy; the audience is made to feel as if the interview subject is talking to them. At times unsettling but ultimately powerful, this technique would lead Morris to invent a special camera to facilitate these kinds of interviews. The film and the publicity around it helped lead to Adams’s conviction being overturned.


American Movie (1999)


Shooting over a period of several years, director Chris Smith set out to chronicle the efforts of Mark Borchardt, a passionate but impoverished independent filmmaker from Wisconsin, to make his first feature-length film, and ultimately his decision instead to complete the short horror film he had abandoned years before. What emerged from many hundreds of hours of footage was not merely how to make a low-budget movie, but a portrait of one man’s personal obsession against overwhelming odds, including his own problems with alcohol, gambling, ne’er-do-well friends, and a severely dysfunctional family. What also became obvious was the intense love and support that came through from his family and friends, despite their frequent skepticism, disagreements, and opposition. Mark and most of the people surrounding him have such quirky, off-the-wall personalities and life experiences (especially his burnt-out former drug addict best friend) that many people seeing American Movie unprepared believe it must be a scripted “mockumentary,” but these are real people in real situations. This mistake is encouraged somewhat by the film’s narrative approach to organization. Although like many documentaries it uses interviews with its subjects and clips from Mark’s previous short movies, it focuses on cause-effect relationships, personalities, and human confrontations, even building suspense as to whether or not he will finish this latest project, rather than merely documenting step by step how a movie is made. By the time it was completed, American Movie had become a documentary in which the techniques and tribulations of making a film with next to no money are an interesting side story, while the real story is the struggle of the human spirit to accomplish something, and how close a bond the members of even a dysfunctional family can have.



Capturing Reality: Piecing Together Reality in an Emotional Medium


Jean-Xavier de Lestrade describes documentaries as unfolding before the director’s eyes. Errol Morris, Sabiha Sumar, Kim Longinotto, Scott Hicks, and Peter Wintonick comment on the art of documentary filmmaking.

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Critical Thinking Questions

1.What does Errol Morris mean when he says that “we piece together reality . . . reality isn’t handed to us whole”? How is this concept important to the making of documentaries?

2.How can documentaries be seen as an “emotional medium”? Do you have a favorite documentary that illustrates this idea?


Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)


Director David Gelb’s film would appear on the surface to be simple: He chronicles the life and work (which are really the same thing) of Jiro Ono, who owns a small restaurant in a Tokyo subway station that is widely reputed to have the best sushi in the world. As one would expect in such a film, we learn much about Jiro’s technique and skill (though he keeps some secrets to himself). The film is photographed in such a way to make the food look beautiful and delicious (which, by accounts from the people who eat it, including food critics, it is). Jiro is portrayed as a kind of food magician, a true master of his craft. If this were as far as Gelb took the film, it would still be an entertaining look at a man who is great at what he does.


But Gelb goes deeper, and his film ultimately becomes a chronicle of family and obsession. Jiro’s sons are drawn into the family business, perhaps not completely willingly. While they are not bitter, Gelb captures a poignancy when they talk about what they might have done had they not been the sons of the great Jiro. We also learn, simply by observation, that sushi is Jiro’s life. He detests holidays and days off. He dreams of creating the perfect sushi (thus the title). By patiently letting the story unfold, Gelb allows the film to become more complex. In this regard, it could be about anything, about any type of obsession: cars, chess, stamps, whatever. Gelb makes the story more universal, in other words. One need not be a fan of sushi to find value in the film.


These are but a few examples of the nearly endless possibilities that documentaries offer filmmakers. The basic tenet of these non-fiction films remains the same as it does for any other movie: Tell a good story. The rest will follow. There are indeed cases where a documentary filmmaker is more interested in telling an entertaining story than in presenting verifiable facts. Some of these are heavily biased propaganda films passing themselves off as objective truth (from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to the films of Michael Moore), whereas others are “mockumentary” satires that merely use documentary techniques to tell a scripted or improvised fictional story (such as This Is Spinal Tap, The Blair Witch Project, or TrollHunter).





Summary and Resources


Chapter Summary


A genre is a type or category of film (or other work of art) that can be easily identified by specific elements of its plot, setting, mise en scène, character types, or style. Though sometimes derided as overly formulaic or downright lazy, genre films and film genres actually serve as a useful tool for the study of movies. While it is a mistake to try to categorize every film, most fit at least somewhat comfortably into one genre or another, and sometimes they fit more than one. Theorists and critics argue over classifications and sometimes even the existence of genres, but most audiences can agree that there are at least loosely defined ones that serve several functions. For one, they offer audiences a shortcut, a hint of what kind of film they will see and, at least in a general way, what to expect. They also offer studios an easy way to market a film, taking advantage of the audience’s assumed knowledge of individual genres.


Genres are not stagnant categories. The study of their evolution is nothing short of the study of film and the filmgoing public itself. When we break down types of film into categories, we can then observe how they have changed over the years to reflect the tastes of the audience while retaining the elements that put them into that genre in the first place. Moreover, many directors use genres to explore their pet themes, disguising social commentary within familiar formulas they know will attract more viewers than outright “message” films (just look at sci-fi hits such as Avatar and District 9 for recent examples or classic westerns such as The Oxbow Incident, High Noon, and The Searchers). Because genre films are such an intimate blend of popular entertainment subjects with pervasive sociopolitical subtext and documentary-like records of widely held attitudes, genre criticism can be a rich field for film study.


Questions to Ask Yourself About Genre When Viewing a Film

•Which of the genres discussed does the film fit most closely with? (western, gangster, mysteries, film noir, horror, romantic comedy, fantasy, musical)

•Does the film fall into the category of genre film? Why or why not?

•How can the typical elements of a relevant genre help you understand the film better?

•How does the film deviate from the genre it is most closely related to?


You Try It

1.Think of one film you have seen that could be considered a genre film. How well does the film fit into the description of the genre in this chapter? Does it rise above the genre, or is it limited to it? Go to ( and search “The Shining” to view the following clip from the film, in which Danny sees the ghosts of young girls:


Hyperlinked photo of actor Danny Lloyd facing two twin girls at the end of a long hallway in the film The Shining. (

©Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection


“Come Play With Us” (


To view this clip with closed captioning, please visit ( and use the searchbar to search for “Come Play With Us.”

2.Think of one film you have seen that you believe crosses genres. What are the genres the film fits in, and how well does the film fit into each category? For example, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein blends the classic Frankenstein story with humor. Go to ( and search “Young Frankenstein” to view the trailer for the film:


Hyperlinked photo of actor Danny Lloyd facing two twin girls at the end of a long hallway in the film The Shining. (

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.


“Trailer #1” (


To view this clip with closed captioning, please visit ( and use the searchbar to search for “Young Frankenstein Trailer.”

3.What do you see as the advantages of categorizing films into genres or subgenres? What are the disadvantages?

4.With an eye toward marketing, which is what trailers are used for, search for and view the trailers for the following films on iTunes ( ( ):


Season of the Witch

Let Me In

Due Date


See whether you can tell to which genre each film belongs. Explain why you chose your answer, and whether the studio properly advertises the film in this way (does it reveal too much, too little?).

5.Choose a genre and list the elements that you expect from a film that fits into it.


Key Terms


Click on each key term to see the definition.


documentary (


A non-fiction film that typically studies an event, person, trend, or other subject in depth; one of the major genres.


fantasy film (


A film with obviously unreal, imaginative elements; one of the major genres.


film noir (


A type of mystery thriller marked by dark themes, shady and unsavory characters, an often pessimistic outlook, and physically dark settings; one of the major genres; French for “black film.”


gangster film (


Technically a subgenre of crime film, the gangster film deals with mobsters and organized criminal activity.


genre (


A category or type of something (in this case, film) that is recognizable by shared characteristics with others of its type.


genre films (


Films with easily identifiable formulas, character types, and iconography.


horror film (


A film intended to produce fear or anxiety in the viewer; one of the major genres.


iconography (


The use of images symbolically in art and film, especially picture composition, props, settings, lighting styles; an icon is literally an image.


MacGuffin (


Director Alfred Hitchcock’s term for a plot element that is of critical importance to the main characters in a film but may be all but meaningless to the viewing audience. It simply serves as the catalyst to move the characters into action (e.g., the secret microfilm they’re trying to obtain, the body they’re trying to hide).


musical (


A film incorporating songs as a primary element; one of the major genres.


mystery film (


A film in which the viewer typically tries to solve some mystery, often a crime story, along with its characters; one of the major genres.


oater (


A slang term for a western film, because westerns typically have horses, which eat oats; usually used for low-budget, very formulaic westerns. Another slang term for westerns is horse opera.


romantic comedy (


A film whose primary focus is balanced between the romantic relationship of a couple and the comic circumstances surrounding it.


sequel (


A movie or book whose plot follows the same character(s) as another movie or book (usually a very popular one), but at a later period in time, often employing similar events, actions, and story elements that had proved successful in the previous installment.


subgenre (


A more narrowly defined category that also fits within a broader category.


western (


A film set in the American West, typically during the nation’s period of expansion from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, often dealing with good people’s struggles against the lawlessness of the frontier; one of the major genres.











Still from Sin City picturing actors Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton. Aside from Shelton’s lips and dress, which appear in red, the still is in black and white.


Still from Sin City (2005). ©Dimension Films/courtesy Everett Collection


We are affected and defined by light. Light is the most important tool we have to work with, not only as cinematographers, but as people.

—Laszlo Kovacs



Learning Objectives


After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

•Have a working knowledge of the cinematographer’s job.

•Describe how camera placement and use affects the way we interpret a film.

•Discuss the difference between cinematography and mise en scène and recognize the importance of each.

•Explain the importance of lighting design and how it affects the tone and feel of a film.

•Give examples of how filmmakers use and manipulate color to reinforce the mood of a film.

•Demonstrate how different focal length lenses affect the look of a shot.

•Define terms such as deep focus, panning, tilting, tracking shots, and aspect ratios, as well as explain certain special effects.






6.1 The “Look” of a Scene


Still from The Godfather picturing Marlon Brando seated in a chair and holding a cat.

©PARAMOUNT PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


Scene from the movie The Godfather. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, overcoming studio reservations, insisted on creating an extremely dark look for The Godfather.


When we are first introduced to Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, played by Marlon Brando, the Mafia boss is sitting in the study of his home. Along with his consigliore, or adviser, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Corleone is listening to a line of people requesting favors on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Corleone is immensely powerful, as we learn by the scope of the favors he is asked to grant, which in one case includes the desire of a singer to be cast in a film to revive his musical career, and Corleone’s ability to grant them. However, it is not just what Corleone says in the scene, which introduces us to all that will follow, that makes us aware of his power. It is also how the scene looks, how it is shot, and how color and light are combined that give The Godfather such an immediately distinctive feel. The rich hues, the closed blinds, the placing of Corleone behind the desk, a traditional seat of power, tell us that this is a man in charge, a man who is both wise and dangerous. The tone of the film is established from the opening frames. As we discussed in Chapter 5, all of these things we see are elements of the mise en scène. They are what is in the scene.


Director Francis Ford Coppola had much to do with this, of course, as did the actors Brando and Duvall. But an equal, if lesser-heralded, partner in the establishment of Corleone as the head of the crime family is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who served in the same capacity for the two Godfather sequels and such films as All the President’s Men, as well as for many Woody Allen films, including Annie Hall and Manhattan. Willis’s use of dark tones and lighting, one of his trademarks, gives the film a serious feel, one that not only echoes the mood of the film but also serves to make the actors stand out amid the backgrounds. We know from the start that Don Corleone may be able to grant you a favor, but you are better off not being in the position of having to ask for one.





6.2 What Is Cinematography?


If the director is responsible for the film overall, in a general way, the cinematographer is responsible for its look, in very specific, shot-by-shot terms. He or she is responsible for the images that the camera sees, and by extension the images that the audience will see in the finished film. Cinematographer is the name applied to a movie’s director of photography, but it’s more than that. The word “photography” means literally writing with light in its ancient Greek roots. Cinematography, on the other hand, means “writing with movement.” Movies move. Cinematography is a true movie art form, to be sure, but it is also a highly technical exercise.



Successful Teamwork in Filmmaking: On Cinematography


Richard Donner, Sydney Pollack, Adrian Lyne, Robert Altman, Frank Darabont, and other directors discuss elements of cinematography, an element that can make or break a film.

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Critical Thinking Questions


1.How does the role of cinematography fit into the definition of mise en scène?

2.According to the various anecdotes in this video, how would you describe the relationship between the director and the cinematographer?


Whereas mise en scène is what we see in a scene, the cinematography determines exactly how we see it. Editing, which we’ll discuss further in Chapter 7, determines when and how long we see the individual views of the mise en scène that the cinematographer has composed. Elements of cinematography go far beyond the mise en scène element of lighting. When we discuss elements of cinematography, we will often use the word shot, which is the camera’s view from a single position. For example, if the camera is far away, we see a long shot that shows us all or most of what is in the scene. If it’s closer to the actors or objects, we see a medium shot that leaves some things out of the scene but draws our attention to one portion of it. If the camera is very close, we see a close-up, which shows us one character or an extreme close-up showing only specific details the director wants us to notice (see Table 6.1 for descriptions of standard shot distances). The camera may also be placed at eye level, at a high angle looking down, or at a low angle looking up. The camera may be stationary or moving.


Additionally, certain characters or props may be in sharp focus, whereas others may be blurred; focus can change during a shot (a technique called racking focus), or everything may be in focus at once. The choice of lens can make things appear normal or distorted in some way. The type of film stock or camera sensor (and chemical or digital processing) that is used will force the viewer to see things in a specific way through the cinematography—sharp and crisp or soft and “grainy” on film (or “pixelated” with digital video); in natural colors, artificial colors, or black and white. Even the shape of the screen is a function of the cinematography.



Table 6.1 Types of camera shots (by relative distance to subject)*



Extreme long shot Long shot Medium long shot Medium shot Medium close-up Close-up Extreme close-up

Camera a very long distance away and/or using a wide-angle lens; human figures appear tiny Camera a moderately long distance away; human figures are recognizable in setting and visible head to toe Human figures are visible between head to toe and head to knee in the frame Human figures are visible from about the mid-thigh to waist up Human figures are visible head to chest Human figures are visible head to neck Camera close enough to show only part of face (from eyes to mouth, or eyes only, mouth only, etc.)

*All distances are relative to each other and may overlap or be variable from film to film or shot to shot (e.g., an MLS may be considered an LS in some situations or an MS in others, and an MS may be relatively close up compared with the rest of the scene).


Still from Lawrence of Arabia, picturing a long shot of three people riding camels through the desert, silhouetted against a setting sun.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Cinematographer Freddie Young had a long and productive partnership with director David Lean. Together they created Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Young won a Best Cinematography Oscar for each one.


The cinematographer’s job is to translate the director’s vision for the film, to capture what the director wants to see and to say, and to physically make that happen. Obviously, this requires a great deal of collaboration, though, as we will discuss, different directors offer more freedom than others. Some directors use the same cinematographer on every film; this plays a large part in a director’s film having a certain look. Other directors change cinematographers routinely. Whichever route a director takes, cinematographers are enormously influential in how a film is seen. Think of the contrasting yet wholly original look of films such as Blade Runner, The White Ribbon, Sin City, Lawrence of Arabia, and Apocalypse Now. Yes, their directors shaped their look, but cinematographers actually created it.


When we discuss editing, we will be referring to the process of both constructing and refining a film after it has been shot, or recorded, by the cinematographer. Most directors use several takes and different camera setups or versions of the same scene. This allows them to pick and choose the best of what they’ve shot and to put scenes together in the way that most effectively tells the story they are trying to tell. In order to have a variety of shots to edit together, however, all those different types of shots must be photographed in the first place. The director and cinematographer must have an understanding of the editing process so they can arrange the mise en scène and compose the shots in ways that will make the editing easier as well as effective. A good cinematographer knows to provide the director and editor with several options, to cover each scene from a variety of viewpoints that may or may not be used in the final film. This is called coverage. Likewise, camera placement must be consistent to maintain the illusion of continuity (the “180-degree rule”), as we’ll discuss in the editing chapter.


In this chapter, we will look at the various tools at the cinematographer’s disposal and how they’re used. In previous chapters, we have discussed storytelling and uses of mise en scène to tell the story, including actors; here we will delve more deeply into the physical makeup of a film and how it is achieved—the nuts and bolts, as it were, of filmmaking.





6.3 How Does Mise en Scène Relate to Cinematography?


Often thought of as the responsibility of the director, the mise en scène is interpreted and intensified by the cinematographer, and one key element—the lighting—is designed by the cinematographer. Thus, it is included here, along with a recap of its basic elements. As noted in the last chapter, mise en scène includes the props, the background, the blocking (or placing of actors), the costumes, the makeup, and the lighting (or lack thereof). Because film is a visual medium, what is shown—and, just as importantly, what is left out—is essential to our understanding of what we’re watching. Effective framing of the mise en scène is one of the cinematographer’s most important tasks. Framing is done by aiming the camera in a certain way so that only a specific portion of the scene appears within the frame that will appear on screen. But first, let’s look back at how the mise en scène itself can help tell the story.


An example of an exceptional mise en scène can be seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent 1920 German Expressionist film in which director Robert Wiene and cinematographer Willy Hameister create a disturbing, surreal world where images are distorted, props and backgrounds are at odd angles, and shadows and light play off each other (often painted directly onto the set). In the film, a man named Francis starts to tell the story of his friend Alan and his fiancée Jane, and an evil magician named Dr. Caligari who hypnotizes a man named Cesare to kill them. After he begins to tell the story, we see it dramatized on screen. At the end, however, we learn that he, Cesare, and Jane are all patients in the asylum, and that Caligari is actually the director; what we’ve seen is Francis’s delusional fantasy.


Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari picturing a main chained to a rock, sitting on the floor of a tall, narrow room.

Mary Evans/Decla-Bioscop AG/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


Scene from the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A high angle frames the subject by looking down on him. This makes the character smaller, less powerful, and often less significant.


The heavily stylized, unrealistic look of Dr. Caligari tells much about the story and influenced countless later films. For instance, when Francis begins and ends his tale, the surroundings and background are relatively normal looking. But the story within the story has wild distortions among props and backgrounds, both giving the film a creepy, unnatural feel and, as we later learn, signaling Francis’s insanity. The stylized mise en scène (done in a style called “Expressionism”) does not just enhance the story, then; it helps to tell it, expressing mood and content through physical distortions. Most later films do not go to such extremes in set design, but rather combine harsh patterns of diagonal light and shadows with unusual camera angles to suggest a similar atmosphere within an otherwise more realistic setting.


In the 1982 film Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth crowd the Los Angeles of 2019 with people, machines, and more, giving the city a claustrophobic feel intensified further by the low-key lighting (high-contrast lighting dominated by deep shadows with a few bright highlights) that pervades the film; things have clearly spun out of control. Not only does this make it more difficult for someone like Decker (Harrison Ford) to find replicants, or artificial humans; it also contributes to a dehumanizing effect, which is the point of the movie overall.


Perhaps the most famous example of mise en scène appears in the 1941 film Citizen Kane. Director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, upon whom Welles relied heavily, created a scene early in the film set in the boardinghouse where the young Charles Foster Kane lives with his parents. They live in poverty until a gold mine is discovered on the property. Charles’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) signs the necessary papers to send Charles away with the banker Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris) so that the boy can get an education. Yet while we see them in the foreground, in the background we see Charles playing in the snow outside the window, joyous (he is unaware that he is about to be sent away), riding on his sled. He, too, is in perfect focus, so that the audience is forced to consider both the adults and the boy with equal weight. Viewers may subconsciously note throughout this shot that the child is literally as well as figuratively separating his parents. The staging of the actors within the set demonstrates Welles’s control of the mise en scène, carefully accentuated through the use of the camera—its position, movements, and choice of lenses. Toland (the cinematographer) was able to use deep focus, in which everything in the foreground and background is clear and precise, more expertly than anyone had done at the time.


Still from Citizen Kane picturing a man standing at the head of a long table of seated men in suits.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie Citizen Kane. Greg Toland and Orson Welles worked closely together on the deep focus approach to Citizen Kane. Welles shared his title card in the credits with Toland, recognizing the importance of their collaboration. This celebratory dinner, like so many other scenes, is composed in great depth.


In Citizen Kane, the cinematographer and director work together to choreograph camera movements along with the movements of the actors, their shifting positions reflecting changes in character dynamics as the actors determine the rhythm of the scene through their performances. Welles (the director) allows the entire scene to play out in only two very long, uninterrupted takes, plus three shorter takes, two to introduce and one to close the scene. And what Welles and Toland have chosen to include in the shot is equally important, though we do not know it at the time. Not until the last scene of the film do we learn the explanation for “Rosebud,” Kane’s famous last words that have set the movie in motion. It is the name of the sled he rode as a boy, playing in the snow. At the end of the film, it is tossed into an incinerator with countless other artifacts from Kane’s life, symbolizing his loss of innocence and joy as he grew older and attained power, often by disreputable means.




6.4 Lighting


Still from Marie Antoinette picturing actress Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, surrounded by decadent pastries and having her foot massaged by a maid.

©Sony Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection


In Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, high-key lighting underscores the effervescent, dream-like feeling of living an over-the-top life as queen.


Technically, lighting is a part of the mise en scène, whether or not a camera is on the set (such as with live theater). However, it is the focusing of light onto a photosensitive emulsion on film, or electronic sensor in a video camera, that makes possible the recording of a photographic image. Thus, the cinematographer is responsible for ensuring there is enough light and typically designs the lighting “look” of a movie. A high-key lighting design has very bright light over everything, with few shadows and relatively low contrast between the lightest and darkest parts of the scene. This style of lighting is typical of comedies, happy scenes, institutional and office scenes, and the like. A low-key lighting design looks dark overall by comparison. It is marked by extreme use of deep shadows, with very high contrast between the brightest parts of the scene and the darkest parts, which are obscured in shadows. Often there may be only a single source of light, coming from the back or the side of the main characters. Low-key lighting is often used for intense dramatic scenes, horror films, mystery thrillers, and the like. However, most scenes of most movies fall somewhere in between these extremes of high-key and low-key lighting.


Still from Breakfast at Tiffany’s picturing actress Audrey Hepburn seated at a table in a restaurant.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Cinematographer Franz Planer used the three-point lighting technique to give believable dimension to his subjects while simultaneously setting them apart from the background. Note the rim of light around Audrey Hepburn’s hair, face, and shoulders that is created by the use of backlight.


Part of the so-called “film look” that people shooting on digital (or analog) video strive to achieve comes from the use of lighting in ways traditionally associated with film. The style of lighting that has differentiated professional photographic portraits from personal snapshots and has made Hollywood films stand out from newsreels, home movies, and amateur productions for over a century is some variation on what is called three-point lighting (see Figure 6.1). This style of lighting is based upon careful control of shadows by using three main light sources. Two are in front of the subject, but on opposite sides of the camera aimed at roughly 45-degree angles (about 90 degrees from each other). A bright key light provides the most light from one angle. Using only a key light, however, creates harsh shadows across an actor’s face. A slightly dimmer fill light also coming from the front but on the other side of the camera fills in the shadows, but not so much that it eliminates them. This provides a three-dimensional but not-too-harsh modeling to the actor’s face that is absent with very diffused light, which seems to come from everywhere (as on a cloudy day), or the “flat” shadowless lighting that happens when a single light is shining directly from the camera position (as with the flashbulb used for snapshots or light attached to a TV news camera). The third light in the three-point system is a very bright backlight positioned behind the actor and shining at the back of his or her head and shoulders. Now why would a cinematographer want to light up the backs of the actors if the camera is in front of them? The reason is that the bright rim of light visible from the camera position (sometimes called rimlight) makes the actors “pop out” from the background, making it much easier for the audience to find those particular characters in the scene and to draw attention more to the characters than to the background. An example of this is a TV news broadcast—the news anchors and people being interviewed in the studio are usually lit with perfect three-point lighting, although in those cases the fill light may be nearly equal to the key light (giving a high-key effect).


Dramatic scenes in films will vary the intensity and positions of the fill and back lights to suit the mood or to simulate the sources of light visible in the scene (table lamps, street lights, etc.). Shadows can be made sharper or softer by aiming lights directly at the subject, through diffusion screens, or at reflective surfaces. Moving the camera to a new position, of course, changes the relative position of which lights are “front” and which are “back.” Because of this, in commercial films, the lighting positions may be readjusted with each close-up and camera setup for aesthetic and artistic reasons, rather than to create the appearance of “natural” lighting.



Figure 6.1: Three-point lighting


Three-way lighting reduces the appearance of harsh shadows and creates the fuller, more three-dimensional “film look” we associate with professionally shot films and photographs.

An illustration of three-point lighting showing an actor standing in the middle of three lights. The backlight lights the actor from behind, the key light lights the actor from the front on the actor’s right-hand side, and the fill light lights the actor from the front on the actor’s left-hand side. A camera is positioned directly in front of the actor.



Sometimes flat lighting (using a soft light source placed close to the camera to minimize surface detail) is used intentionally, because its lack of shadows enhances a mood the director is looking for. Natural light usually comes from above—the sun or moon in outdoor scenes, ceiling lights in typical indoor scenes. Lighting that comes from below an actor may be natural if it’s from, say, a campfire; but underlighting, sometimes called “Halloween” lighting because it is so often used for spooky, unnatural situations, creates an unsettling mood for viewers because we’re not used to seeing light come from below the subject. Makers of documentaries and fiction films shot in a documentary style, however, usually prefer a natural look over these other options. They often intentionally try to avoid the artificial three-point system, using whatever type of light is available in the environment they’re shooting in, although they may try to position people to take advantage of natural lighting that looks similar to a traditional three-point setup. Interviews conducted in a studio rather than on location, however, typically use the more controlled three-point studio lighting, varying from high-key to low-key depending upon the documentary’s subject material.





6.5 Color


Still from The Last Emperor picturing a large courtyard filled with people wearing brightly colored uniforms.

©Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection


The Last Emperor (directed by Bernardo Bertolucci) uses color for both dramatic and symbolic effect. Red is the color of imperial rule. Green is knowledge, which is hidden and unseen until the arrival of the child emperor’s tutor.


Ask interior decorators the quickest, easiest, and best way to change the appearance and mood of a room, and they will tell you color. The same is often true with movies. The infusion of color into a scene immediately alters it, letting us know the intent of the director and cinematographer with a visual cue. The color may be part of the mise en scène, utilizing carefully planned color schemes in the set, props, costumes, and lighting, all simply recorded onto color film. It may also be a function of the cinematography, as the cinematographer can put a colored filter over the lens, or instruct the photo lab to manipulate the colors in certain ways to create a specific “look.” Over the past 20 years, colors have been increasingly manipulated digitally after the film is edited to intensify moods and create an overall look. Colors in the finished film do not need to be accurate or even realistic representations of what was on the set. For example, the flashback scenes in the Godfather films tend to have a yellowish cast, which was created in the printing process by using a color filter. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing used many intense reds and other warm colors in the settings, but it also used color filters to give a yellowish-orange cast to scenes. Today, many directors of crime, science-fiction, and serious dramatic films prefer the “cool” mood suggested by using bluish-greenish colors throughout the scene design and cinematography. Tim Burton, in films such as Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd, used not only a cool, bluish look, but also desaturation with the colors (in effect, “turned down” to look less intense) nearly to the point of being black and white at times. The film Payback with Mel Gibson had an overall bluish cast with pale, desaturated colors (obtained partly through set design but largely through printing techniques) when originally released, but for the DVD “director’s cut” edition, the director decided to use more natural-looking colors, as they’d actually been recorded on the film.



The Technology of Film: Playing with Color in Film


A production team describes how colors in a film can be digitally altered to look different after filming occurs.

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Critical Thinking Questions


1.What is the purpose of altering color in a film? How can this process enhance the film’s story?

2.What could be the downside of playing with and manipulating color?


History of Color


The earliest movies were black and white by necessity, because only black-and-white film was available. Filmmakers could still use color to suggest moods by tinting the black-and-white film with a dye that made the clear film base become a certain color (e.g., blue for night scenes, red for fire scenes) or chemically toning the image so that dark portions turned some other color, often a shade of brown called sepia. Tints and tones were sometimes used together, such as a blue tone with a pale yellow tint to suggest a moonlit night. Some films were even hand-painted or colored with stencils, a mechanical equivalent of computer colorization. When color photography became practical for movies, it obviously opened up a wider palette for filmmakers, but it still did not become the norm until the late 1960s. The color processes developed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were both technically very complex and economically very expensive. In the 1950s and 1960s, easier and cheaper color processes became available, and after all three television networks switched to color in 1965–1966, Hollywood films largely abandoned black and white. This is not to say that black-and-white films were not expressive of the emotion and feeling that color could make easier to display. In fact, iconic films such as The Seventh Seal and Citizen Kane could have been made in color—the technology existed—but were no less brilliant for being made in black and white. Directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles were masterful in their use of light and shadow, allowing them to “color” their films in rich shades of gray without using color. Later directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Joss Whedon, and Alexander Payne have elected to use black and white instead of color for certain films. The Best Picture winner at the 2012 Academy Awards, The Artist, was shot not only in black and white but also as a “silent” film with no recorded dialogue, as was the 2012 Spanish variation on the Snow White fairy tale, Blancanieves.


Contrasting Color With Black and White


Still from The Wizard of Oz picturing actress Judy Garland as Dorothy, along with her dog, Toto, and a dancing Scarecrow, on the Yellow Brick Road.

Mary Evans/WARNER BROS MGM/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


Scene from the movie The Wizard of Oz. What could say more vividly that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” than the yellow brick road to Oz?


The introduction of color revolutionized filmmaking as much as the introduction of sound. For an early example, we need look no further than The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, which uses black and white and color dramatically—to contrast Dorothy’s real life with the one she experiences after a blow to the head during a tornado. In this movie, Dorothy (Judy Garland) is a schoolgirl in Kansas who runs away from home, but a visit to a fortune-teller (Frank Morgan) leads her back, just as a tornado strikes. A window hits her in the head, and she sees the house being carried into the sky by the tornado, landing in the magical land of Oz—and on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, who is killed. As Dorothy steps out of the house, the film, up to this point shot in black and white (and printed in a brown sepia tone), changes to vibrant color. Dorothy’s friends will appear in Oz as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion; there is now a Wicked Witch of the West, swearing revenge against Dorothy for the death of her sister. Color now becomes central to the story. The slippers worn by the Wicked Witch of the East, given to Dorothy, are ruby. Dorothy and her friends must follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where they will find the Wizard of Oz (also played by Morgan). The color scenes are shot in Technicolor, a technology that could produce rich, vivid, hyper-realistic colors.


When Dorothy clicks her heels three times and finally returns home to Kansas, vowing never to leave again, the film reverts to sepia-toned black and white. It is an interesting contrast. Her fantasy life, which she experiences while unconscious, is represented by vibrant color, which is still striking and might have seemed an almost miraculous effect to the 1939 audience. Yet Dorothy spends her time in Oz working out how she will get home. In Kansas, where she is surrounded by her family and friends, Dorothy’s life is shown in black and white, considerably more drab than the segment in Oz. Yet while in Oz—where her life is shown in rich, vivid color—she longs only to return home. Whatever the intention of director Victor Fleming (and the other, uncredited directors the film had at various times), the effect of color could not be more striking, serving as a clear division between Kansas and Oz.


In the 1998 film Pleasantville, director Gary Ross and cinematographer John Lindley use color as a symbol of freedom in a repressive world. The film stars Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as David and Jennifer, twins with little in common. They are transported into Pleasantville, a Leave It to Beaver-like black-and-white 1950s situation comedy David watches, by way of a magical remote. Once there, the film switches to black and white, as David and Jennifer must impersonate characters in the show.


However, they bring their contemporary 1990s views and values to the show in which they are now living. Jennifer in particular is much more sexually liberated than the women living in Pleasantville, and David becomes a civic leader, advocating more personal freedom. As the townspeople begin to rebel, their lives turn to color. The repressive town leaders, meanwhile, remain in black and white. The device is sometimes used to comic effect, other times more dramatically. While it may sound like a too-obvious conceit, the change from black and white to color is actually quite effective.


In The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 film, black and white is used exclusively to chronicle the fall of a silent-film star juxtaposed with the rise of an actress during the transition from silent film to talkies. Obviously, this is used as a device to convey the look of films in the 1920s, but it was also considered something of a risk at a time when color and special effects dominated theatrical releases. That’s because, in addition to being shot in black and white, the film is also largely silent, with title cards and music carrying the story. But Hazanavicius never wavers, using spoken dialogue only sparingly at the end of the film (and as a crucial part of the story).


The effect is to transport one back to the time of silent film, which makes the illustration of the sometimes painful transition to sound all the more powerful. Is it a gimmick? Probably. Yet the film managed, according to critics, to transcend this; it received 10 Academy Award nominations and won five, including Best Picture. Other films, like 2013’s Frances Ha, Nebraska, and Much Ado About Nothing, would also use black and white, though not as such a significant part of the storytelling process.


Use of a Single Color


As color cinematography came to be the accepted form of filmmaking, directors and cinematographers began to explore its possibilities even further. The use of a single hue, or color, in the mise en scène could be used to heighten suspense or to enrich storytelling. In Don’t Look Now, a horror film released in 1973, director Nicolas Roeg and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond use the color red throughout the movie to great effect. Donald Sutherland stars as John Baxter, an architect married to Laura (Julie Christie). Their daughter drowns in a pond; as John pulls her lifeless body from the water, she is wearing a vivid red raincoat. The Baxters move to Venice, where John takes a job restoring a church. However, he repeatedly catches glimpses of a small figure in a red raincoat. Is it the ghost of his daughter? Or could it be something else? Red is used not just in these scenes, but also throughout the film as a sort of connective device. As Roger Ebert writes:


The shiny red raincoat will be a connector all the way through. In Venice, Baxter will get glimpses of a little figure in red running away from him or hiding from him, and may wonder if this is the ghost of his daughter. We will see the red figure more often than he does, glimpsing it on a distant bridge, or as a boat passes behind two arches. And the precise tone of red will be a marker through the movie; Roeg’s palette is entirely in dark earth tones, except when he introduces bright red splashes—with a shawl, a scarf, a poster on a wall, a house front painted with startling brilliance. The color is a link between death past and future. (Ebert, 2005)


Years later, in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List, director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski would use black and white to create stark depictions of concentration camps in World War II. The film tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who saves the lives of more than a thousand Jews by putting them to work in his factory, spending his entire fortune to bribe guards to allow for more humane treatment. The lack of color lends an almost documentary feel to the movie’s exteriors and a classical Hollywood feeling to its interiors, giving it both a historical and a contemporary resonance. Yet Spielberg and Kaminski use the color red to haunting effect in two scenes. In the first, we see a little girl in the streets, wearing a red coat. Later we—and Schindler—see the girl, identifiable by the red coat, in a pile of dead bodies. She stands out in sharp relief to the black-and-white backgrounds around her, a sign of the hideous acts of which the Nazis were capable and a symbol of innocence sacrificed among the atrocities of war. In the television show Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Spielberg explains the use of red:


America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in. (Anker, 2004)


The decision lends the scenes in which the girl appears a heartbreaking power, with the contrast between color and black and white all the more distinctive.




Still from Top Gun picturing actor Tom Cruise sitting in the cockpit of a fighter plane in front of an American flag.

©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection


Bright, saturated colors burnish the heroic image of a warrior of the air in Top Gun.


Saturation is the deepness, vibrancy, of bright, pure color. Heavily saturated color is often used to express vibrant emotion or heightened reality. In the 1990 version of Dick Tracy, for instance, director Warren Beatty and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro limited themselves to the types of colors found in comic books and the newspaper funny pages, the source for the film. As Kathleen Beckett-Young writes in The New York Times:


Just as the strip used a limited number of colors, so does the film. Although there is some fudging, everything is colored either red, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, fuchsia, black, or white. And, just as in the funnies, every red is the same red, whether it’s a dress or a chair or a building. . . . Glenne Headly’s trusting Tess Trueheart first appears on screen wearing green, a color [costume designer Milena] Canonero finds soothing, then switches to red as she approaches danger. (Beckett-Young, 1990)





Still from Saving Private Ryan picturing American soldiers firing guns at off-screen enemies.

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


The desaturated look of Saving Private Ryan is reminiscent of classic World War II-era color home movies and black-and-white newsreel films such as John Huston’s documentary The Battle of San Pietro.


Desaturated colors, as discussed earlier, have been muted, appearing less intense, which some filmmakers feel contributes to a more realistic, often gritty look (even though technically it is just as artificial as using oversaturated colors). This technique was used to good effect in Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg’s film about the invasion of Normandy during World War II and the subsequent search for a soldier whose brothers have been killed. In the Saving Private Ryan Online Encyclopedia, the filmmakers explain the technique:


To achieve a tone and quality that not only were true to the story, but also reflected the period in which it is set, Spielberg once again collaborated with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg says: “Early on, we both knew that we did not want this to look like a Technicolor extravaganza about World War II, but more like color newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is very desaturated and low-tech. (Saving Private Ryan: Combat footage, 2010)


The Golden Hour


Still from Days of Heaven picturing actress Brooke Adams sitting cross-legged in an open field.

Mary Evans/PARAMOUNT PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


Shooting Days of Heaven was prolonged by director Terrence Malick’s insistence that the filming be done during the “magic hour.”


The golden hour, also known as the magic hour (although it actually lasts only about 20 minutes), is the term used for the time of day just before sunrise and the time just after sunset, when colors appear more warm, almost glowing, and there are no shadows, because the sun is not in the sky. Filmmakers often schedule outdoor scenes to be shot during these times, to enrich the use of color. Terrence Malick wanted his film Days of Heaven shot entirely during that period, a long and painstaking process for a full-length feature.





6.6 The Camera, the Lens, and Their Uses


On one level, the camera is the basic element of making a movie. It’s what the cinematographer uses to record the action, whether it be on film or, as is often the case in contemporary movies, digitally. A movie camera records numerous individual images, or frames, each second, and those frozen instants of time are then played back at the same speed they were shot at to reproduce the illusion of smooth, natural motion. The earliest movies might range from about 12 to perhaps 50 images per second, and during the “silent” era usually averaged somewhere between 16 and 30 frames per second, with theaters adjusting their projectors for proper playback. Since the late 1920s, the projection rate was locked at 24 frames per second, standardized when the film industry switched from silent to sound movies and needed one constant speed for compatibility. Movies shot at a slower frame rate will appear to be in fast motion when viewed at the standard rate, and movies shot at a faster frame rate will be in slow motion at the standard viewing rate. Slow motion and fast motion effects can be achieved by the cinematographer’s camera settings. They can also be added artificially during post-production by duplicating or eliminating frames, although the results are often more jerky looking. The irregular duplication of frames to adjust the speed of the action to play at modern frame rates is why many silent-era films look jerky on modern equipment, even though they would have had smooth, natural motion when they were originally made and could be projected one frame at a time at any speed.


The camera itself requires a lens to focus an image onto the film. The types of lenses and focal lengths have an important bearing on exactly how that image appears. Through choice of lenses, framing, focus, and camera techniques, which we will discuss next, directors and cinematographers direct our eye—sometimes subtly, sometimes not—to what they want us to see in any given scene.


Camera Distance, Angle, and Level


Still from Pickup on South Street picturing a woman sitting on the floor of a cabin with a man looming over her. The entire scene appears to be tilted toward the right of the frame.

TM & ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie Pickup on South Street. This Dutch angle adds to the overall menace and violence of this film noir about a pickpocket pursued by communist spies.


As noted earlier, the cinematographer photographs only a small portion of the overall mise en scène by deciding just where to place the camera. This decision determines whether a particular view is a long shot, medium shot, or close-up, and whether characters are viewed at eye level, from a low angle, or from a high angle (see Figure 6.2). A camera may also be tilted slightly off-axis so it doesn’t look level, a so-called Dutch angle that might give an off-kilter, unsettling feel to a scene or may make action scenes more dynamic.


Most scenes of most movies are typically shot at a horizontal eye level. This puts the audience on the same level as the characters, and variations from eye level will convey certain psychological perceptions that may not be inherent in the performances or the mise en scène by itself. When the camera looks up at a character, the audience may be meant to “look up” figuratively to that character as admirable or may be intended to find that character domineering and intimidating. When a camera looks down on a character, we may be intended to view that character as “below” us or inferior to another character in the film, in a submissive position, or simply from an objective distance. It all depends on the context of a particular scene. Citizen Kane makes frequent use of different camera angles, low and high, to imply the relative positions of power of Kane and other characters.




A good cinematographer knows how to frame each shot for a combination of dramatic impact and aesthetic balance. The cinematographer and director first must agree upon an aspect ratio, which is a number describing the ratio of the frame’s width to its height and may range from nearly square to almost three times wider than it is tall. When movies were first invented, every camera maker was free to use film and image shapes of any width. Within about 10 years or so, movies quickly standardized with 35 mm film that had a picture exactly one and a third times wider than it was tall (an aspect ratio of 4:3, usually called 1.33:1 or simply 1.33). Television adopted the same shape. Then Hollywood introduced a variety of widescreen processes in the early and mid-1950s to lure audiences away from television and back into theaters. Although some of these processes used bigger film and special projectors, most widescreen formats were designed to be compatible with the existing technical standards of film so theaters would have minimal financial investment to convert—buying only a larger screen and new set of lenses, instead of needing new projectors, and maintaining the ability to run films in the traditional format if desired.



Figure 6.2: Framing


Camera position can create a variety of psychological perceptions that might not otherwise exist in an actor’s performance or in the mise en scène. Think about how a low camera angle would make you feel about a character versus a high camera angle of that same character. Would your perception change along with the camera position?

An organizational chart breaking down the different aspects of camera placement into distance, height from ground, level, and angle in relation to the subject. Distances include the long shot, medium shot, and close-ups. Height includes low angle, eye level (also known as normal angle), and high angle. Level includes level to the horizon and canted off-axis (also known as Dutch angle). Angle in relation to subject includes head-on, oblique, and profile. Note that major figures are usually framed slightly off-center, looking into or walking toward the empty space. Actors typically have heads near the top of the frame with a small amount of headroom.



By the late 1950s, theaters standardized two main ratios: 1.85 for “flat” films that used regular lenses but cropped off the top and bottom of the film frame, and 2.35 for “scope” films that used the entire area of the film frame with a special lens to stretch it out twice as wide. The so-called 16:9 ratio (1.78) was created for HDTV and is not normally used in theaters. Even when movies are shot digitally with 16:9 image sensors, they are normally composed for cropping to one of the three standard theatrical ratios used by film. See Figure 6.3 for aspect ratios in use today. Cinematographers usually compose the image to look properly balanced in one aspect ratio but will sometimes “protect” the image for later television broadcasts that may crop off the sides or show extra image above and below what was seen theatrically.


Still from Jack Goes Boating picturing actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in a swimming pool. A grid is superimposed over the image, dividing the scene into nine equal parts.

K. C. Bailey/© Overture Films/courtesy Everett Collection


Images are usually composed with elements of the scene broken into three approximately equal portions left to right, top to bottom, and foreground to background. They are also often approximately one-third dark to two-thirds light (or vice versa). This shot from Jack Goes Boating includes the graphic lines dividing the picture in thirds.


Sometimes the frame’s balance is symmetrical and calls attention to itself by its equal division into two parts. Typically, however, a shot conforms to the rule of thirds. Briefly, this principle divides the screen into three equal parts, whether from side to side, top to bottom, or foreground of the scene to the background of the scene (or any combination). One-third of the image is balanced by the other two-thirds. This may be based on ratios of light to dark, distribution of characters or objects, or of subject(s) to background. Most often, a character’s eyes are on the borderline between the top and middle third of the screen, giving a slight amount of “headroom” above, with the character placed on the left or right third of the screen looking into the two-thirds that shows other characters or scenery. If a character is placed looking off screen with two-thirds of empty scenery behind him instead of in front of him, the audience will expect that someone or something will soon be entering that empty space, and this type of image composition can thus increase dramatic tension.


The framing of a shot also can reinforce, emphasize, or de-emphasize the relationships between characters or between a character and the setting or specific props. For example, a scene depicting a very religious character may take care to include some religious objects or symbols in the background every time that character is on the screen. A character expecting an important phone call by a certain time may be framed so that a telephone or a clock is always included in the shot. One character may always be seen on screen with another character in the shot, or may always be seen without a certain character in the shot (think of The Sixth Sense).



Figure 6.3: Film aspect ratios


Of the numerous image dimensions used by filmmakers since the invention of movies, three have become standard. Commercial movie theaters today are normally equipped to project films at two aspect ratios: the 2.4:1 “scope” ratio and the 1.85:1 standard widescreen ratio. From the 1890s through 1953, films were shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (sometimes known as 4:3), which continued to be used for television until the early 2000s and is still used by a few independent filmmakers. To fit onto a television screen, wider-aspect-ratio movies must have the sides cut off the image, or else be shrunk smaller, leaving blank screen space above and below. In certain cases, television may show extra image area that was intended to be masked off in theatrical screenings. Today’s 16:9 widescreen televisions must show blank screen on both sides of the image (a process called “pillar-boxing”) for films shot in any aspect ratio narrower than 1.78:1 to avoid cutting off the top and bottom of the original frame, yet they must still “letterbox” any films shot in wider aspect ratios to avoid cutting off the sides.

Examples of film aspect ratios as displayed on three different screens. Each screen features varying widths of side masking, or black vertical bars on the left and right of the screen. A CinemaScope screen is characterized by minimal side masking, which allows for a 2.4:1 aspect ratio. A normal widescreen displays a moderate amount of side masking, creating a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. A standard screen features the widest width of side masking and a 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

Source: Illustration from “Basic Booth Operation” (Jacobs, 1988, 2006), courtesy Christopher P. Jacobs. Akbar Media Services/Midco Theatres.



Focus and Focal Lengths


Still from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly picturing three men standing apart from one another in a wide-open desert space.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A wide-angle lens shows a large perspective from a shorter distance away, exaggerating spatial distances to make things seem farther apart, and keeping both foreground and background in focus. Also, note how the rule of thirds is displayed in this shot.


To photograph a scene so that we see it from a normal perspective, as we would in real life, a cinematographer must use a lens that is considered within the “normal” or middle range of possible focal lengths. The focal length is the distance between the glass lens element and the surface of the film or imaging sensor; the “normal” distance for this will vary depending upon the size of the film or sensor. People and objects shot with a normal lens will look relatively larger when they’re close to the camera and relatively smaller when they’re far away, just as in real life. Using a lens with a significantly shorter or longer focal length will distort those apparent distances, so things will look either further apart than they actually are (with a short lens) or closer together (with a long lens). A short focal-length lens also takes in a wider field of view than a normal lens and is thus often called a wide-angle lens. A long focal-length lens takes in a much narrower field of view than a normal lens, making things look larger or closer, but instead of being referred to as a “narrow-angle” lens, it’s usually called a telephoto lens. A wide-angle lens allows the cinematographer to get a long shot without moving the camera any farther away, and a telephoto makes close-ups possible without moving the camera any closer. See Table 6.2 for descriptions of different focal lengths.



Citizen Kane: Deep Focus


Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and long sequence shots to reproduce reality in Citizen Kane. Film critic Robert McKee disputes the reality of these techniques.

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Critical Thinking Questions


1.Why did director Orson Welles think it was important to use deep focus techniques that could capture an entire room?

2.What is your reaction to McKee’s argument that deep focus is actually less realistic than traditional filming techniques? Do you agree? Why or why not?





Table 6.2 Lens focal lengths*


Lens type Lens focal length Depth of field Perspective

Wide-angle Short focal length (e.g., 28 mm) Great depth of field (nearly everything in sharp focus) Stretched perspective (things look larger and farther apart)

Normal Standard focal length (e.g., 50 mm) Moderate depth of field (main subject and a little more in sharp focus) Normal perspective (things look like they do with the human eye)

Telephoto (narrow angle) Long focal length (e.g., 120 mm) Shallow depth of field (only one plane is sharp) Compressed perspective (things look closer together)

Zoom (variable) Infinite number of focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto

*Focal lengths for each type are relative according to size of photographed image (i.e., a “normal” lens length for 35 mm film will be a moderate telephoto for 16 mm film and a long telephoto for 8 mm film, but a wide-angle for 70 mm IMAX film).


Still from The American picturing actor George Clooney looking through the scope of a rifle that is pointed at the camera.

©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie The American. A telephoto lens has extremely limited depth of field. Note how the front of the rifle is out of focus in this shot.



Typically, though not exclusively, whatever the director and cinematographer bring into focus is what we are expected to pay attention to. If two characters are talking to each other, they might naturally be placed in focus so that we concentrate on them; the background behind them need not be in focus, unless it has bearing on the scene. This technique is called shallow focus. At other times, the director and cinematographer will use deep focus, as we have discussed at length with Citizen Kane. Everything in the frame is in clear focus, even what is seen in the background. This gives every element visible in the frame—the mise en scène—importance and value. As we watch films, this is an important visual clue that directs us to pay attention to everything going on in the scene, not just the characters or objects in the foreground.




Modern Camera Techniques


Photo of Alfred Hitchcock behind a large film camera.

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


Photo of director Alfred Hitchcock. Today’s hand-held, portable, lightweight film and video cameras are a far cry from the behemoths that filmmakers used previously, especially, as seen here, when they had to be enclosed in soundproof “blimps.”


Technological developments have allowed modern photography to be flexible. From the earliest years of movies, tripods have given cameras stability to produce a steady image, and precision mounts were designed to allow them to pan and tilt smoothly. Soon, wheeled platforms or “dollies” permitted the entire camera to move around smoothly. Other advances have resulted in smaller cameras that allow for freedom and flexibility, so that in a film such as Breaking the Waves, by director Lars von Trier and cinematographer Robby Müller, following the action with a hand-held camera gives the film a documentary-style feel. Here the camera follows the characters, as our eyes would, instead of the characters having to be blocked, or placed, in a rigidly controlled space. Characters don’t move out of the camera’s range, as they would with more stable, traditional camera placements. Instead, the camera simply follows them when they move. This technique became especially popular in television series in the early part of the 21st century, as more comedies were shot like feature films.


Groundbreaking shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development used what is called the single camera technique, following the characters rather than making frequent cuts to other angles. With this film-style technique, any changes in camera angle must be achieved by shooting the scene over again from a different position, providing opportunities for adjusting performances rather than shooting everything live and uninterrupted. Some directors and audiences found this particularly freeing for television, which for generations had worked almost solely with the three camera technique, with characters arranged on a static set, much like in a play, while three or more cameras shot them simultaneously. This gave the director reaction shots as well as the main action without having to repeat the scene for additional takes as required when using a single camera (the way most movies are shot). Theatrical films are more likely to shoot with multiple cameras for scenes requiring elaborate stunts or pyrotechnics so they’ll only need to be done once. They may also use two or more cameras when actors are allowed to improvise, so that editing can remain consistent.


Some filmmakers prefer to move the camera rather than to cut to a new angle, so that an uninterrupted take can keep the rhythm of the actors’ original performances. When a camera is said to pan, it simply rotates horizontally to follow the movement of characters or objects; the camera swivels as our heads might as we follow the action. When the camera tilts, it twists up and down, vertically, again replicating the movement of the audience member’s head and line of vision. These shots keep characters in frame, or within the camera’s (and audience’s) field of vision. See Table 6.3 for descriptions of types of shots.



Table 6.3 Shots with frame movement*


Type of shot Changing field of view in the camera while it is running (e.g., to follow action, call attention to something, reveal more of the same)

Pan Camera twists from side to side on a single axis

Tilt Camera twists up and down on a single axis

Dolly/tracking/Steadicam Camera itself moves smoothly forward, backward, or sideways (with a Steadicam, the camera is mounted to a mobile operator rather than to a piece of wheeled equipment)

Crane/jib/helicopter Camera physically moves up and down (not just tilting); helicopter shots permit ascending all the way to or descending from aerial views, but are frequently limited to just aerial views

Zoom LENS adjustment of focal length—NOT a camera movement!

*Camera may be on tripod or hand-held.


But what about scenes in which characters walk or run past, going beyond the limits of the frame? Often directors and cinematographers use dolly or tracking shots, in which a camera is mounted on a wheeled platform that is then rolled along tracks, similar to train tracks, keeping the characters or objects in front of the camera and audience. Tracking shots are also used for more complex shots as well. The development of the Steadicam, which helps stabilize the camera while its operator carries it, made more difficult shots possible, especially when used in conjunction with a crane. Director Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) has an elaborate Steadicam shot following Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta as he walks from his dressing room up into the arena, and down through the crowd to the boxing ring, with the camera finally craning up and going back to a long shot, without a single cut, or a change from one shot to another shot, which we will cover in the next chapter on editing.


Takes and Montage


In the 2007 film Atonement, director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey stage an incredible tracking shot, in which star James McAvoy comes upon the almost surreal scene along the beach in France, as troops await the evacuation of Dunkirk. The scene lasts five and a half minutes, as we—and McAvoy’s character—see the exhausted, spent troops. It is a single take; that is, it was done in one continuous shot, with no cuts or edits. More often, a take (a single operation of the camera from turning it on until turning it off) is broken up by the editor into several shots on the screen, interrupted by cuts to other angles or scenes. The long take in Atonement is a remarkable feat, one that Wright says required the services of 1,000 extras and 300 crewmembers. In response to criticism that the shot is too overwhelming, too technically astounding, that it takes away from the rest of the film, Wright admits he’s asked himself “‘Am I just being flashy?’ . . . I don’t have an answer. But I do get a kick out of those shots” (Wloszczyna, 2007).


In most scenes, modern films seldom have shots last longer than 10 seconds on screen. The majority of shots in most movies tend to last between a few seconds and maybe half a minute before there is a cut to another shot. Nevertheless, the cinematographer has often filmed the entire scene all the way through from each different vantage point that is seen on the screen, only in short segments. The long take is a term applied to any shot lasting perhaps a full minute or longer on the screen (up to the maximum length a camera’s capacity allows) without a cut to another shot. It is often used in combination with the tracking shot, but it can involve the use of cranes and other equipment to move the camera.


Still from Touch of Evil picturing a group of men and one woman walking by a recently exploded vehicle.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Scene from the movie Touch of Evil. A long-running single shot without a cut provides context and drama. According to film critic André Bazin, long takes are more “democratic,” allowing viewers to find their own way through cinematic reality.


One of the most famous and influential long takes in film history occurs in the opening scene of the 1958 film Touch of Evil. Director Orson Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty begin the scene, which lasts three and a half minutes, by showing a man putting a bomb in the trunk of a car at the border between the United States and Mexico. A couple then gets in and drives across the border into the United States, the camera, mounted on a crane, following in real time. The car slowly passes Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), as they walk across the border. The camera continues to follow both the car and Vargas and his wife, until the car finally drives on, leaving Mike and Susie in the frame. As they kiss, we hear the car explode, and Welles cuts to it. By doing the shot in one take, Welles ratchets up the intensity of the scene. We know that there is a timer on the bomb. When will it explode? Will it occur while the car is driving along the streets? Will we see it when the couple inside is talking to border police? Could it possibly happen while Mike and Susie are standing beside it?


The long take requires no editing, which contrasts with the use of montage—when a director cuts between many related images to create a scene or even just a visual impression. Directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Hollywood montage specialist Slavko Vorkapich relied upon editing numerous individual shots into relatively short sequences to convey information with a very different mood and pacing. Montage will also be discussed in Chapter 7, but essentially it is the opposite approach to using long takes, requiring many, many different shots for the same amount of screen time and stressing the use of editing to create new meaning, rather than upon cinematography as the main tool for interpreting the mise en scène.


Objective and Subjective Camera


In addition to how the camera records the story, it is also crucial to think about how it tells the story. The cinematographer and director may decide to use the camera primarily as a medium for showing the key elements of the story for the audience to follow. On the other hand, the camera may be used to make the audience a more active participant in the story, identifying with one or more characters, or perhaps even shifting points of view at different times.


The objective camera is the term used for simply recording the action as it happens with the audience becoming a neutral observer. The camera rarely moves; characters and action take place within its range. This does not mean that the film is shot like a stage play. Different scenes take place in different places. However, the audience remains more of an observer than a participant. This is not necessarily a less effective way to make a film; High Noon, for example, an allegorical 1952 western, plays out in real time. Gary Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, who has turned in his badge after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker and pacifist. But Kane learns that a criminal he arrested is on his way back to town, with friends in tow, swearing revenge on Kane. Kane decides to stay and fight, while one by one the townspeople cowardly refuse to help. As various clocks are shown ticking, with noon and the showdown approaching, tension builds to the climactic shootout. Director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby use the real-time device, as well as a realistic, uncluttered mise en scène, to tell the story in a straightforward but effective way. Very few camera “tricks” are used, and Zinnemann doesn’t use the camera to show us, for example, what Kane is seeing.


In Citizen Kane, we see the action as it unfolds simply as an observer would. This does not mean that we do not have a vested interest in the outcome; we certainly root for Kane to defeat his adversaries. But even though most of the film is related in flashbacks ostensibly told by different characters, we are simply observing, as we might a football game. In that case, we have a team we are rooting for, but we are simply watching the game take place. We cheer, we boo, we are excited and entertained. But we have no insight into what players and coaches are thinking before they act. In a film, of course, even objective action is carefully scripted and choreographed, but with the objective camera we remain more observer than participant.


Still from Rear Window picturing actor James Stewart behind a camera with a long lens.

Courtesy Everett Collection


Rear Window is all about L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies’s (James Stewart) point of view. We see what he sees.


The subjective camera, by contrast, uses the camera as an extension of the characters. We often see what they see, experience what they are experiencing. In director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, James Stewart plays Jeff Jeffries, a photographer who has broken his leg on assignment and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Jeff Jeffries spends most of his time spying on the courtyard and other apartments of the complex in which he lives, often using a telephoto lens to get a closer look. One apartment he spies on contains Lars Thorwald, who cares for his invalid wife. However, when his wife doesn’t show up for a few days and Thorwald acts suspiciously, Jeffries suspects that Thorwald has murdered his wife. Throughout the film, Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks employ the subjective camera in different ways, though in all of them we see the action from Jeffries’s point of view.


This is, first and foremost, a film about voyeurism, about watching other people. Yes, we watch Jeffries and his girlfriend, Lisa, but we also watch Jeffries watching others in a multitude of ways. There is, of course, the view through which he uses the telephoto lens to spy on one of the residents practicing her dancing in her underwear, for instance; that’s the point of view Hitchcock adopts, and the one that we use as well.


The use of the subjective camera is terrifically effective here, allowing the audience to experience the action in the film in much the way that Jeffries does. It’s not that it heightens the realism—this isn’t a particularly realistic film to begin with. Instead, it greatly heightens the excitement, which, coupled with the outstanding performances, makes Rear Window one of the all-time great thrillers, telling the story in a way in which the objective camera could not.


When taken to its extreme, the subjective camera shows the audience exactly what one character is seeing through his or her eyes, and nothing else. When this is done throughout an entire film, as in Robert Montgomery’s murder mystery Lady in the Lake (1947), it can be simultaneously intriguing, suspenseful, and frustrating for viewers, as we are so accustomed to seeing the actor playing the protagonist (as well as other points of view) and not just what the character is seeing. On the other hand, in films like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), the camera mostly observes the characters in their daily lives, but when they speak to each other they frequently look directly into the camera, as if the audience member is the one being addressed by each person in turn. Throughout the film, the camera is also usually positioned at a low level, at eye level for someone sitting on the floor according to Japanese custom, helping make the viewer a more intimate, subjective observer, almost another character.


Special Effects


Special effects have been used in films almost since the beginning of the medium. As early as the 1890s, director Georges Méliés exploited the camera’s ability to show things that appeared magical. His 1902 film A Trip to the Moon employs various effects to depict a journey from Earth to the moon. In its most famous scene, the bullet-shaped rocket hits the man in the moon in the eye. Effects would grow more sophisticated over time, until, with James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, computer images were blended seamlessly with real life, an astonishing leap forward.


Still from Who Framed Roger Rabbit picturing actor Bob Hoskins posing with animated characters Jessica Rabbit and Roger Rabbit.

©Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection


Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses the green screen technique, uniquely combining animation and live action.


Matte shots, often with paintings used as partial backgrounds, and miniature models of scenery, props, and even people, would figure heavily in creating effects throughout most of the 20th century. Rear projection, in which scenes play behind actors to create the illusion of movement or to make it appear as if actors on a studio soundstage were in different settings, would further enhance effects. (The more elaborate front projection would eventually all but replace rear projection.) Stop-motion animation, in which models are moved slightly and shot frame by frame so that they appear to move fluidly when the film is replayed continuously, became popular after the success of fantasies created by Willis O’Brien such as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). The foremost later practitioner of this technique was Ray Harryhausen, the effects master whose films include the groundbreaking Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).


Blue screen and green screen techniques allow for images to be shot for background use, and for actors to later be shot separately; the two images are then blended optically or digitally using a travelling matte for a realistic effect. (This is often used for TV weather reports, in which the meteorologist appears to be standing in front of a map that moves, but is actually standing in front of a blue or green screen whose color can be removed either electronically or digitally and replaced with an image of the map or some other scene.)



100 Years of Hollywood: Special Visual Effects


Today some 7,000 graphic artists digitally revamp films to the wishes of producers. This video highlights some of the ways things like location, stunts, and monsters are faked.

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Critical Thinking Questions


1.What is the value of using special effects to make Los Angeles look like New York City, or vice versa?

2.Do you think it is possible for special effects to be overused? Why or why not?


Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film about an amusement park with dinosaur clones, ushered in the era of the heavy use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). By this time, anything seemed possible, and it probably was. In Forrest Gump, released in 1994, actor Gary Sinise’s character is wounded in battle and loses his legs. The computer-generated footage of him in a wheelchair with his legs missing was so realistically portrayed that audiences believed he really had been injured and lost his legs (he hadn’t). By 1995, Toy Story, an animated feature, would be created entirely on computer, at which point, the only real limitation on what could be depicted on screen was the director’s imagination. Director James Cameron would be especially innovative in this regard, creating, among many other effects, underwater alien tentacles for his 1989 film The Abyss, which would serve as a sort of practice run for the new-model, shape-shifting Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991. Cameron’s Avatar would take effects further than even he had taken them before, using new technology, some of which he developed, to create incredibly realistic three-dimensional fantasy worlds in which actors and computer-generated and -enhanced characters interact. What’s more, he created effects that allow a blending of human actors and computer effects to create digitally enhanced characters (the Na’vi) capable of showing emotion.


However, some critics complained that Avatar relied much more heavily on special effects than it did on plot development and story. This points out one of the inherent dangers of the use of special effects. Ideally, they are used to enhance a story, not to overwhelm it or even replace it. Effects, including three-dimensional photography (or conversion to 3D), can make a movie more realistic, more satisfying, more fun. However, they cannot, by themselves, make a movie better, no matter how advanced they are or become. As we discussed in Chapter 1, the essential aim of a film is to tell a story, and effects are simply tools to enhance that aim. Thus, a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the 2009 sequel to the original Transformers, may have jaw-dropping special effects, in which cars and trucks transform themselves into robot-like aliens fighting their own battle, with Earth as the venue. They interact seamlessly with human characters. Yet in director Michael Bay’s film, many reviewers believed that these human characters took a back seat to the often-chaotic action involving the enormously loud effects. It makes for a movie, they said, that is in some respects fun to watch, but ultimately unsatisfying and eventually exhausting, a reminder that effects are rarely effective when used simply for their own sake. The effects that are truly effective have always been those that the viewer doesn’t even realize are special effects because they do not call attention to themselves by creating something that looks spectacularly dangerous or like obvious fantasy.



Shots with Frame Movement






Summary and Resources


Chapter Summary


With all these specifics of cinematography and mise en scène in mind, we can pay more attention to what the director and cinematographer are trying to tell us in every scene. What is included? What is left out? How is it lit? How is it framed in the shot? Is the camera stationary or does it move? Why? Every choice made by the cinematographer has an effect on the final film. The cinematographer occupies one of the most essential roles in the making of movies. Working in collaboration with the director, the cinematographer shapes the finished film in crucial ways. The cinematographer is responsible for the actual photography, for recording the action in various ways (providing adequate “coverage”) that will be assembled by the editor. Whether it is in the setup of cameras, lens choices, or use of hand-held cameras or some other device, the cinematographer translates the director’s idea of the mise en scène by deciding what is included in the frame in each shot and, just as importantly, how it is seen by the audience. While the director receives the lion’s share of credit for the overall film, the cinematographer is intimately involved with the actual look of it, bringing his or her talents and expertise to create a distinctive work. Lighting design, color manipulation, and special effects are just three of the many tools a cinematographer has at his or her disposal. Yet for all of the technology currently available to help tell a story, it is essential that the story remain the most important element of the film, and that the effects and other devices remain just that—devices that help carry the story, and not the other way around.


Questions to Ask Yourself About Cinematography When Viewing a Film

•What appears in the mise en scène and how much of it does the camera reveal at any given moment?

•What kind of lighting is used?

•What kind of color is used (color vs. black and white, single color tints/tones, saturated color, desaturated color)?

•What do the camera distance and angle look like?

•What kind of framing is used and how does it intensify the scene?

•What focal length is used?

•Is the camera objective or subjective?

•Are there special effects?


You Try It

1.Choose one film that you have available to watch. Rather than watch it in its entirety, select and watch three scenes from it, concentrating on the mise en scène. What are the director and cinematographer trying to say by what they include within the frame? And what are they saying by what they leave out? How do the lighting and the framing of the camera draw your attention to certain things? How often can you see the principle of the rule of thirds being used? What did you notice in the scenes after reading this chapter that you hadn’t noticed before? Go to ( and search “There Will Be Blood” to view the following examples. For each clip, pay attention to what you are seeing within the frame, how the director holds us where he wants us and directs our eyes to what he wants us to see:




Hyperlinked photo of a burning oil well in the film There Will Be Blood. (

Mary Evans/Paramount Vantage/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


“The Well Burns Up ( ”



Hyperlinked photo of actor Daniel Day-Lewis kneeling in front of a cross in the film There Will Be Blood. (

©Paramount Vantage/courtesy Everett Collection


“Daniel’s Confession ( ”



Hyperlinked photo of actors Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis having an argument in the film There Will Be Blood. (





“I Drink Your Milkshake! ( ”



To view these clips with closed captioning, please visit ( and use the searchbar to search for “The Well Burns Up,” “Daniel’s Confession,” and “I Drink Your Milkshake!”

2.Using the same film you used in the previous question, but a different scene, concentrate on who and what are in focus—and who and what aren’t. Does the director emphasize a character by placing him or her in focus, or de-emphasize another by placing him or her out of focus? Does focus shift from one character to another or to a prop in the setting during a shot? How does this change in focus (or lack of it) affect our understanding of each character or prop’s importance in the scene? Go to ( and search “There Will Be Blood” to view the following scene in which a young boy loses his hearing after an accident; pay particular attention to the well that has caught fire:



Hyperlinked photo of actor Daniel-Day Lewis holding a young boy in his arms in the film There Will Be Blood. (

©Paramount Vantage/Courtesy Everett Collection


“Young H.W. Loses His Hearing ( ”


To view this clip with closed captioning, please visit ( and use the searchbar to search for “Young H.W. Loses His Hearing.”

3.Watch the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) snatches the golden idol and flees. Try to identify how many different types of camera setups were used. What camera positions and angles are used? Are there tracking shots? Crane shots? What makes each shot effective?

4.Watch The Wizard of Oz until Dorothy is taken by the tornado to Oz. How would you describe the look and feel of the film up until that point, when it is in black and white? How does the shift to color change the mood and feel of the movie? How does it change the way you feel about the movie? Go to ( and search “The Wizard of Oz” to view the following clips. The first clip shown here is of Dorothy in Kansas; the second is when she realizes, as she says, she is not in Kansas anymore:




Hyperlinked sepia-toned photo of actress Judy Garland singing in the film The Wizard of Oz. (

Courtesy Everett Collection


“Somewhere Over the Rainbow ( ”


Hyperlinked full color photo of Judy Garland in the land of Oz in the film The Wizard of Oz. (

Courtesy Everett Collection


“We’re Not in Kansas Anymore ( ”



To view these clips with closed captioning, please visit ( and use the searchbar to search for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.”

5.Watch the scenes in Forrest Gump in which Forrest (Tom Hanks) is shown in video clips with famous people in history. Pay special attention to the quality of the effect that puts Forrest in the clips. Do you find that the insertion of Forrest into actual historical footage enhances or distracts from the telling of the story? Explain your point of view.


Key Terms


Click on each key term to see the definition.


aspect ratio (


The ratio of a picture’s width to its height, determining the shape of the rectangular screen; the most common aspect ratios for movies are 1.33 (4:3) for standard-definition television and pre-1953 films, 1.85 for post-1953 non-anamorphic widescreen films, and 2.35 to 2.4 for anamorphic CinemaScope widescreen films. A few other aspect ratios that have had significant usage by theatrical films at various times include 1.18, 1.66, 1.75, 2.0, 2.2, and 2.55. High-definition television uses a 1.78 (16:9) aspect ratio.


blue screen and green screen (


A special-effects technique, sometimes called a traveling matte, in which actors perform in front of a solid-colored background. That color is then removed optically or digitally to create a silhouette matte of the actors so that they can be superimposed onto another scene that was filmed separately.


cinematography (


The process of photographing motion; a movie’s director of photography is called a cinematographer.


computer-generated imagery (CGI) (


Images that are created by means of a computer instead of—or possibly in conjunction with—paintings and miniatures; often blended with separately shot live-action footage or, in the case of digital animated cartoons, used by itself.


coverage (


The practice of shooting a scene from multiple angles and camera distances so there will be plenty of choices during the editing process and more options for covering up any inadvertent continuity errors.


deep focus (


The technique of shooting a scene with nearly everything in focus at the same time, from the extreme foreground to the background; easiest to achieve with a wide-angle or relatively short-focal-length lens and a small aperture.


desaturation (


The process of making colors less intense, through filters or chemical or electronic processes, so that they may appear nearly monochromatic.


Dutch angle (


A camera setup that is slightly off of a horizontal axis, making the horizon look tilted and often giving an unsettling mood to a scene.


focal length (


The distance between the lens and the film or image sensor; a short focal length takes in a wide-angle field of view, whereas a long-focal-length (telephoto) lens takes in a narrow field of view. A wide-angle picture, which refers to the field of view covered from the camera position, must not be confused with a widescreen picture, which simply refers to the shape of the image.


frames (


Numerous individual images that a movie camera records; those frozen instants of time are then played back at the same speed they were shot at to reproduce the illusion of smooth, natural motion. Also refers to the shape of the image and what appears on the screen “in the frame” at a given moment.


framing (


Aiming the camera in a certain way so that only a specific portion of the scene appears within the frame that will appear on screen.


golden hour (


The brief period just before the sun rises or after it sets while there is still enough light in the sky to shoot a scene but there are no visible shadows and there is often a golden cast to the light; sometimes called the magic hour.


hand-held camera (


A camera held by the operator instead of being mounted on a tripod, dolly, or crane, so movements tend to be jerkier, especially if the camera operator is walking.


high-key lighting (


A lighting style marked by high levels of light, low contrast, and few shadows.


hue (


The value of a color in the spectrum, such as red, green, or blue.


in frame (


Something that is visible on the screen due to the positioning of the camera.


lens (


The glass that focuses an image onto a piece of film or digital imaging sensor.


long take (


A relative term applied to shots lasting usually a full minute or longer without a cut to another shot, often including elaborate camera movements to avoid a long, static shot.


low-key lighting (


A lighting style marked by low levels of light, high contrast, and very deep shadows.


matte shot (


A special-effects shot in which part of the frame is “matted” or blocked out so that another scene can be inserted later from another piece of film, often of a painting or miniature set; created in-camera in the early 1900s, and through optical printing in a film laboratory by the 1930s. Today, matte shots are usually done digitally in a computer.


normal lens (


A lens with a medium focal length, showing things the way we see them with our eyes.


objective camera (


A style of shooting a scene objectively so the audience is mainly an outside observer.


pan (


Turning a camera from side to side, usually to follow a character or to provide a “panoramic” view of the scenery.


rear projection (


A special-effects technique in which actors (or stop-motion figures) are filmed in front of a screen showing film of the setting they’re supposed to be in; most often used for scenes of characters driving somewhere.


rule of thirds (


A concept for aesthetic framing of a scene to create a balanced frame, based on dividing the picture into three areas from left to right and top to bottom.


saturation (


The intensity or vividness of a color.


shallow focus (


Keeping only one thing in sharp focus at a time; this is easiest to achieve with a longer-focal-length lens and a larger aperture.


shot (


The view a camera takes from a single position or setup (whether stationary or moving). The term also refers to the portion of a camera take that is used in the finished film. Most scenes are made up of several shots photographed from different angles and distances. A shot may range from a single frame (a 24th of a second) to several seconds or several minutes to the length of an entire scene or even an entire movie.


single camera (


A system of shooting a movie using only one camera, requiring scenes to be staged multiple times, at least once for each new camera setup.


Steadicam (


A gyroscopic body brace designed so that a camera operator can achieve hand-held shots with movements as smooth as those on a dolly.


stop-motion animation (


A process of photographing model figures one frame at a time while changing their position slightly each time, so that they appear to be in motion when played back.


subjective camera (


A style of shooting a scene so the audience sees something through the eyes of one or more of the characters in the story.


Technicolor (


A complex technology developed in the late 1910s, improved in the 1920s, and perfected in the 1930s for shooting motion pictures in color, but discontinued in the 1950s after color film became available. Technicolor employed a special camera using colored filters with panchromatic black-and-white film in a specially designed camera, and later mechanically superimposed vivid color dyes onto a clear strip of film, one for each of the two complementary or three primary colors recorded in the original photography.


telephoto lens (


A lens with a long focal length; it takes in a narrow field of view and is marked by a shallow depth of field, exaggerating distances to make things look closer together as well as closer to the camera.


three camera (


A system of shooting that allows actors to perform uninterrupted, as onstage; action is recorded on film or video from three or more cameras simultaneously.


three-point lighting (


A lighting style based upon three primary sources of light, a bright key light and slightly dimmer fill light to the upper right and left sides of the camera, aiming at the subject to create a three-dimensional appearance with soft shadows, and a back light placed behind the subject and aimed at its back to create a rim of light that separates it from the background.


tracking shots (


Shots made while the camera is moving on a dolly or on special tracks, usually to follow moving characters or to bring the audience closer to or further from the action.


traveling matte (


A silhouette of moving objects or characters, which may be painstakingly traced by artists onto clear film and sandwiched against the negative in bipack printing or created optically or digitally through the use of a blue screen or green screen process.


wide-angle lens (


A lens with a short focal length; it takes in a wide field of view and is marked by a great depth of field, exaggerating distances to look farther apart and farther from the camera (not to be confused with “widescreen,” which merely refers to the aspect ratio of the image and applies to any picture wider than the original 1.33 standard).

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