Communication Arts 250 | Online Lessons

Week 7: Formal Analysis

(Go to the Online Lessons Home page to access a PDF version.)

Introduction Video | Dr. Jonathan Gray | 1:35 mins

Key Questions

Formal Analysis 

This lesson will continue to develop your skills for analyzing media texts by introducing the concept of formal analysis.  Formal analysis sees a work of art as a bundle of components organized into structures, and tries to understand how these components work together to impact the audience.  We have already started to identify some formal elements such as mise-en-scene and all of the different components that are placed within the frame.

But formal analysis also includes other aspects that we can analyze in order to consider how a work is constructed to produce effects on us.  These include:

  • Mise-en-scene
  • Structure of the text
  • Materials and techniques of the medium
  • The producers and their interventions into the text

We will be applying formal analysis to Gravity, so you should have screened this film before completing the rest of the lesson.  This was a popular science fiction film from 2013 that won Academy awards for directing, cinematography, visual effects, editing, score, sound editing, and sound mixing.  Its unique form and setting are now part of a larger set of films within its genre that take place in space and use similar formal elements (such as Interstellar and The Martian), which is why it can be helpful to try to understand it more deeply.

The Art of Glass  |  19:19 mins

One of the ways that we can improve our ability to analyze what is happening in a media text is through is to develop our vocabulary for describing how an image is shot.  In this short video, you will be introduced to a number of different names for camera shots, angles, and movements, as well as what feelings and meanings those choices might convey to a viewer.

Here is a partial list of some of the most important terms that were mentioned in this video.  You may want to use them to describe the use of the camera when you analyze media texts:

  • Close-Up, Extreme Close-Up, Medium Close-Up
  • Long Shot, Extreme Long Shot
  • Medium Shot, Medium Long Shot
  • Low Angle
  • High Angle
  • Dutch / Canted Angle

This language helps us to understand particular shots and scenes in film or television (or even their computer-generated equivalents in video games, apps, and other digital media), but we can use it to make sense of patterns or developments across entire texts. It’s helpful to ask whether we see a director heavily favor one visual technique, for instance, and if so why that might be. Or, alternately, you start from the result and ask how it was created: if a text has a sad feel to it, for example, how did it create that feeling through formal means? Formal analysis requires that you forever be asking what (what do I see? what techniques are being used? what is my eye being drawn to or away from?) and why (why am I being shown the action this way? why is that technique being used? why does the director want me to look that way?).

Techniques can be observed across visual media, of course. But to focus on one text’s use of one technique, below is Communication Arts Professor Jeff Smith discussing camera movement in the film Rouge (Red) by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Rouge is an excellent film, and well worth watching, but his (illustrated) analysis doesn’t require you to have seen the film, as it’s self-explanatory. Professor Smith made this video for the Criterion Collection, who very kindly gave permission for us to use it here.

Three Colors: Red – Formal Analysis | Dr. Jeff Smith | 10:09 mins

Gravity – Formal Analysis | Dr. Maria Belodubrovskaya | 9:11 mins.


If you haven’t watched Gravity yet, stop, go watch it (and watch for filming and formal techniques while you do), then resume.

Now, let’s consider Gravity. In a future class, we’ll engage in some ideological analysis of the same film, but here is Communication Arts Professor Maria Belodubrovskaya discussing formal analysis and applying it to Gravity.

Key Questions to Ask

In last week’s reading from Bordwell and Thompson, they helped us to think about the choices that filmmakers make with regard to form.  They emphasize that form and content work alongside one another in order to produce meaning for the viewer, setting up expectations through delivery of certain patterns.  These are the key questions that we can ask in order to consider these choices:

  • For any element in the film, what are its functions in the overall form? How is it motivated?
  • Are elements or patterns repeated throughout the film? If so, how and at what points? Are motifs and parallelisms asking us to compare elements?
  • How are elements contrasted and differentiated from one another? How are different elements opposed to one another?
  • What principles of progression or development are at work through the form of the film? Does a comparison of the beginning and ending point toward the film’s overall form?

Layers of Meaning

We also want to be attuned to the different levels of meaning that a text can have.  While some meanings are very surface-level and obvious, we also can find ways to interpret meanings that are much deeper, or that connect to ideas beyond the film itself.

Here are some of the terms we use to describe these levels:

  • Referential—Refers to things or places that already have significance in the real world so that the viewer can readily make sense of them.
  • Explicit—This is the obvious “point” that the film is trying to make, the more overt, obvious levels of meaning.
  • Implicit—But we can also dig for meanings that are not stated directly, but instead the viewer needs to work to produce an interpretation of the film’s meaning. These meanings may rely upon the explicit or referential, but are more below the surface.
  • Symptomatic—These meanings are more abstract and general, getting at the film’s deeper, even involuntary meaning.

So these are the meanings where you have to peel back some of the layers, and see what’s underneath.

The reading gives an example of how this works with the meanings of Wizard of Oz, but to practice these terms we can also use the example of Gravity.

Layers of Meaning: Gravity

  • Referential—A woman is left stranded alone in space after her shuttle is destroyed, and she must fight to survive and journey back to Earth.
  • Explicit—A woman must find the strength within herself to survive on her own in the isolation of space.
  • Implicit—A mother who is broken from having lost a child and her male companion is left without purpose and spinning out of control until she can start all over on her own.
  • Symptomatic—If we go even deeper, we might argue that the film is really about how women rely on the rationality and logic of men to solve problems, even when they actually have the strength to do so on their own.

Each of these levels is not necessarily completely separate from the other levels, as each layer of meaning builds upon and can become inextricably connected to the other meanings.  But the fact that there is a clear difference between explicit meanings and implicit meanings will be important as you write your textual analysis paper, because you will be crafting your argument around an implicit meaning.

Formal Analysis of Television Openings

Television intros and opening sequences can be a helpful place to start thinking about formal analysis, because they are often densely packed with meaning. They usually need to do a lot of work introducing everything from characters, genre, tone, and style to prospective or new viewers, while also getting returning viewers back in the mood.

The sequence that opened the Showtime series Dexter offers us an example.  Even if you are unfamiliar with this show, watch it and think about how it is setting up expectations through tone, visuals, sound, and music.  There is no text or title cards, but hopefully through analysis of form we can still begin to decode a lot about what the show is about.

Dexter – Opening Sequence | 1:36 mins.

What did we see?  First, the sequence uses a lot of extreme close-up shots, which immediately promises us greater access, or literally a closer look at this character. These close-ups include a man engaged in his morning routine as he performs simple, everyday tasks like flossing or putting on a t-shirt. But each act also resembles an act of violence—the floss, for instance, looking more like a garrote, the t-shirt like a sheet placed over a corpse. And thus this character is surrounded by violence and aggression, and these qualities are already a part of him—all we needed to do is look up close to see it.

We can also note that numerous shots point to his enthusiasm for this violence, such as the relishing of killing a mosquito and the voracious cutting of flesh in the preparation of breakfast.  Images of a shaving accident remind us that drops of blood are a part of everyday routines, but also help to reveal the dual nature of the gruesome acts that we can become comfortable with.  Even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the fact that this program follows a serial killer, this opening conveys a great deal about Dexter as show and Dexter as character: we know to expect violence from him, and to expect his enjoyment of it. We know that we’re going to get uncomfortably close to him, to be spared no detail. And we know it’s primarily about him, as there are no other characters depicted or hinted at.

But of course turning all these everyday things into violent acts is an act of visual play, albeit dark, and thus the show signals its often dominant mode of dark humor. The music helps here too, as it’s both eerie and somewhat whimsical. There’s a carnival aspect to it that suggests Dexter is our carnival figure, vacillating between more jaunty, playful parts and more raw aggressive parts (as when the saxophone roars alongside the pushing down of his French press coffee plunger). Capping that dark humor is his final wink at the camera and the musical “ding” that accompanies it, as this is both somewhat threatening and somewhat playful.

So these are some of the ways that we can apply formal analysis to different kinds of texts besides film.

The Formal Analysis of Anything

Above, we’ve applied formal analysis to some celebrated texts — Rouge, Gravity, and Dexter. Formal analysis, though, can be applied to any visual text. Granted, some directors, cinematographers, and writers are especially intentional in their art or craft, thereby giving us much more to analyze and appreciate. But all visual texts are rich with visual meanings: why, for instance, are the lights so bright on daytime talk shows or game shows? what is the effect of the soap opera’s fondness of close-ups? Or why do various video game designers place “the camera” in certain places not others? We’ve also talked only of visual cues, but you could also ask a whole slew of questions about how sound is used.

Key Takeaways

  • Formal analysis
  • Camera shots, angles, and movements
  • Phases of the story, film structure
  • Mobile camera
  • Long takes
  • Point-of-view shot
  • Referential meaning
  • Explicit meaning
  • Implicit meaning
  • Symptomatic meaning


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