Christoph Biemann

Semiotic Analysis of Films

Semiotics- that sounds very complicated and theoretical. Semiotics is the science of the signs. One system of signs we all know is language. Films also uses a kind of language made up by sounds and pictures. What is great about this language is that it is universal. Almost everybody in the world understands the language of film. You all know when you got to do with another language it is easier to understand than to speak. And that is why we want to have a closer look at films and their language. We want to speak this language, tell other people stories, explain things, entertain. I think the best way to learn this language is to have a very close look at films and the signs they are made of. Semiotic film analysis forces you to do this.

Please envision the following scene:
A telephone. Fingers with red nails dial a number. The camera pans to the ear and mouth. The mouth starts to talk:"Hi, dear! Listen, I will be late tonight. Still lots to do. ... Sure, as soon as I can..." During the talk the camera has drawn back, so we first see the man caressing the woman`s neck, then the elegant apartment. At this point the woman has finished her call. The man: "You think he is in any way suspicious?" She:"No worries.
Now we got some hours - all for ourselves!" Fade out.

I am sure, you all can almost see the scene in front of your eyes. It is a classical standard situation, seen in many films. I changed the roles a little, just to catch your attention. But even if I have described the scene in detail, I am sure what each of you see in your imagination will be different. What´s the color of the fingernails? What type of furniture? Who is acting?
It is only natural your brain has to make your own film. Our eyes can process about three million bits a second. Your perception reduces this enormous amount of data, thanks to some tricks to a couple of hundred bits a second. But that is still enough to tell Julia Roberts from Margret Rutherford, and is even enough to tell if somebody is cheating - or acting badly. But what is this against the few bits of a text. The saying " a picture tells more than a thousand words" is very true. And we talk about twenty-five pictures a second!

How are we to manage this flood of information and data? A chemist once told me, perfect analysis allows for synthesis. So with the specific ingredients he can put together the toothpaste he has analyzed. Film analysis will never be able to do this. No description will allow to draw a picture accurately. But then why analyze? The answer is simple: Because this forces us to have a very close look at each cut of the film. One who did just this was none less than Orson Welles. He took the reel of John Fords "Stagecoach" and locked himself in for four weeks in a room with a moviola. After that he shot his first movie: "Citizen Cane"

What he learned was the language of film.
Who starts to shoot his first film is being confronted with a vast amount of chices, complex and puzzling. Which is the right choice? A lot of decisions to be made. From the final film you can tell what was the choice of the filmmaker. But you will not be able to say what was the reason for this decision. And - if what we read from the screen really is what the filmmaker intended to say. So film analysis always means to interpret these decisions, think what might have been the intentions of the filmmaker and judge them. To be able to do so we have to learn which options the author of a film has got.

Since it does not make much sense to analyze a film down to the single grain or pixel, nor the single frame, it will be best to choose what is called a “take” as the smallest unit for our analysis. A take is defined to be between two cuts. Transitions such as a fade are also being defined as cuts. The easiest would be to have a fixed take; no camera movement, things just happening within the frame the camera has set. But very often we have camera movements such as pans, a movement of the camera, a zoom, so the take has to be defined between two cuts or transitions. Once we have defined our take, we have to state how the camera is set, what it shows us. To then find out why it is set the way it is set and why it just shows what we see. The most important choice the filmmaker or cameraman has to take is the framing. The options are the following:

Often it is hard to define the type of shot, so don´t get too hung up about this. What if into a panorama-shot of the monument valley an Indian warrior steps in, being seen only from his knees up? Does it remain a panorama shot or does it become a medium close shot? It´s America in any case.

To avoid difficulties in definition you should take photos of each take, at least one. As mentioned above: a picture tells more than a thousand words.

Asking ourselves why a certain type of frame was chosen, we can approach the answer with some hypotheses: A panorama shot or a long shot usually give an overview. A close-up wants to heighten the tension and intensity. A detail may want to draw our attention to some detail.

Attributing this to the choice of frame we should always be conscious that we keep dealing with hypotheses, which may have to be verified. A panoramic shot of a desert may also be used to tell our heroes have good chances of dying of thirst. A close-up may just serve to shorten the scene or to get from one shot to another. And a medium shot might be seen only because the filmmakers could not think of anything better. The hypothesis of people in the movies thinking hard about every shot and finding genius solutions all the times should be thrown overboard soon. In fact having a closer look at a film you would find many faults and deficiencies.

Another important choice the cinematographer has is the point of view or better: the camera perspective. This is very important to describe a shot. Does the camera take the perspective of a bird (high angle shot) or of a frog (low angle shot)? So everything above eye level is high angle and everything below low angle. One could discuss about this when it comes to a child´s view, what is a normal, eye level perspective then?

For perspectives there is a working hypothesis too. Things seen from a high angle tend to look small and unimportant.

From a low angle some things look big and threatening. But attention: these are only hypotheses and need to be verified. In a scene with a child talking with an adult it is quite normal to show the adult from the child`s point of view and the child in the reverse shot from above. Also some cameramen think it is better to show a person from a little lower angle; it just looks better, they say.

Another choice a filmmaker may have is the focal length of the lens he uses. This determines the relation between a person for example and the background. I want to show this with three pictures. All show the person in front of the same background in a medium close shot. The first picture was take with a wide-angle lens.

As you hopefully see, the focal length influences strongly the relation of the person towards it´s environment. This is an important part of the design of the picture. Unfortunately one can not always choose the focal length to ones liking. Therefore one has to turn to wide-angle lenses when shooting interiors. Or the camera has to stay away from it´s objects so one has to use a telefoto lens. In documentaries or animal films this is often the case.

Another determining factor is lighting. If you can control the amount of light you can influence the aperture of your lens. An open aperture reduces the depth of field, where the image is shown in focus, or “sharp” as the pros say. This, together with the positioning of the lamps can either integrate a person into it´s environment or seperate her or him. Light plays a very important role in designing a picture and certainly plays an important role in creating moods..

When we take a closer look at a take, that is the piece of film between two cuts, a very important aspect is the movement of the camera. This means the change of the image within the take the camera is responsible for.

A camera on a tripod has the following possibilities for camera movement: A pan (horizontal, vertical, diagonal), a change of focus (focusing first on the foreground then on the background), called split focus shot, and a zoom. All might go together with a change in framing. With a zoom this ís always the case. But since a zoom means a change in focus length by definition, it changes the perspectives in the picture. Thus a zoom has a slightly unnatural effect, which also can be used to tell something, to transport a meaning.

Very often though a zoom is being used, where a travelling shot, with a real movement of the camera, would be more appropriate. This we know has not got to do with a lack of professional skill or carelessness, but with money. To make a camera move is quite complex and costly. You have to put up tracks, put the camera on a dolly, a little cart, maybe use a camera crane. All things that cost a lot of money and time. Which in filmmaking is the same.

The famous director Alfred Hitchcock, who liked to experiment in his films, in his film “Vertigo” did combine both kinds of camera movement. He made a real travelling shot of the camera down a staircase combined with a zoom that went the opposite direction.
So the frame did not change much, but the perspectives did - to give the audience a feeling of vertigo, the fear of heights.

A zoom can be used to substitute a travelling shot only in two cases:
As a zoom-in and a zoom-out. Lateral or diagonal camera movements can only be done by really moving the camera. Since it is so much effort to move the camera, almost certainly there is a significance to it, which you will find out about easily, when you look at your scene.

Be it zoom or travelling shot. A change of framing should always be connected with a message. A zoom-in or a travelling shot towards something focuses your attention. A zoom-out gives you distance - or the context of the detail you started with. It may also be used to make editing possible. Once we had to be very quick filming a process of production in a factory. So very often we started with a detail, zoomed out, so we could cut all our takes. Not a very elegant way to proceed, but it did work.

Many times details are used to shorten a scene. When we observe a handicraft man we show his face working to then have a look at his hands again at a more advanced stage. If the shots which have the main purpose of shortening have a meaning of their own, like the face showing enthusiasm, sweat, joy … - they are meaningful and nobody feels to be cheated.

Talking of time: Of course the length of a shot is a very important thing to look at. So when many short shots follow each other the scene will be more dynamic and full of action than it is the case when several long shots follow each other. The length of the shots determines the rhythm of the film. But like in music where it is common to have varying tempi, also in the movies a change of pace is good to have.

Sometimes, when you search for meanings in a film, you see things that are hard to explain. For example a fade-out and then the scene just continues. This happens when you deal with an American sequel. On the reel it then says: Place commercial here.


Up to now we dealt with single shots in a film. But you all know a film is made up of many takes, sometimes very many. And it will not surprise you that these single takes are related and influence each other.

Orson Welles was not the first one to explore the “language of film”. Russian filmmakers did so before him. They were forced to do so, since they did no have the possibilities to produce a sufficient amount of films for their cinemas. So they took American movies and cut them to tell their own stories. Those were silent movies, some new titles in between, some editing and they had a new revolutionary film for their purposes. One of these Russians was Lew Kuleshov, a colleague of the famous Sergeij Eisenstein. He made an interesting experiment back then.

He showed a man on a chair, who appears to look at something outside the frame. After this he cut first a plate of soup, another time an old lady in a coffin and a third time a little girl playing. The people who then watched the images later were convinced to observe in the man´s face either hunger, or grief or loving care. Still it was always the same shot of the man sitting in his chair.

As any other language the “language of film” is a system of signs. What makes this language so universal and understandable is the fact that each picture at first is a sign of itself. A picture of a frying pan shows nothing but a frying pan. Nothing else. The scientists who deal with semiotics call this the “denotation”. A picture of a rose shows a rose. What is being shown, the rose itself, is called the denoted. In the first place the meaning of the rose remains the rose.

A traffic sign in the first place is a piece of tin with some paint on it. The first meaning of it would be “tin with paint”, with the paint placed a certain way. The significance of this we know from knowledge and experience. When we see sweat on a man´s forehead we know he is warm and exerted. When we see drops of water on a bottle condensed, we assume the content of the bottle is cold and refreshing. This works also if the bottle is sprayed with glycerin. The meaning still remains even though the bottle is not cold at all.

When the rose, which at first was nothing but a rose, is being placed on a tombstone, the message of the sign changes. The denotation “rose” changes into a meaning, which is not “rose” any more, but for example “sorrow” or . If the same rose is given to another person it´s meaning could be “affection”. The meaning of a sign thus is a result of the interaction with another sign. The scientists call this Connotation. The meaning can come about in one shot. If you show a face from a very low angle, it might appear threatening, dramatic in any case.

Since films consist of many takes or shots, it seems to be obvious to produce the meaning of the takes through the connection among the shots. This might be quite simple: We see a face looking into the distance followed by a pan over a valley. Almost automatically we assume, the person looks at the valley, even though the face might have been shot in the studio.

Sergeij Eisenstein and his contemporaries very quickly discovered the possibilities of this combination of shots. So they combined images of starving peasants with pictures of the Czar family living in luxury. He got to a high level of abstraction this way, sometimes hard to understand without a certain knowledge and background. This technique is called Montage. Is is being used in commercials as well as in documentaries. The audience gets to see pictures and to hear sounds. Their meaning comes about only in the head of the spectator. Sometimes this is well calculated by the filmmakers, sometimes the meaning just is not created, and the audience is left puzzled.

In feature films you may find montage sequences as well. When a detective runs around town asking, when someone is searching a house with shots cut together seemingly at random, with abrupt changes in place and time. Here montage often has a function of
passing much story time with little screen time.

For the post revolutionary filmmakers in the Soviet Union it was important to communicate messages, make propaganda. In other parts of the world the filmmakers felt the possibility of the new medium to tell a story. In a total view or long shot they filmed scenes like on a stage. But films were still silent back then and titles cost money, also it became boring soon. So one began to “break down” the scenes, to split up a scene into different shots or takes. Very soon they discovered how dramatic close ups can be, but also the limits of the scenic editing.

This way the “optical axis” was discovered. As long as a scene was shot like on a stage, things were easy. The camera just took the position of the audience. But when filming in the studio or on location one soon discovered, that it was not possible to put the camera just anywhere. Let´s look at a very common situation: Two people talk to each other. No problem when you show both of them. But when you show close ups one should still have the impression of the two looking at each other. This works only if one looks from left to right and the other from right to left, or vice versa.

If both look into the same direction, they do not appear to look at each other.
So the “optical axis” is an imaginary line between the two characters. When the camera jumps over this line the audience will be puzzled and we talk about “jumping the axis”.
When cutting different directions of views we talk about “shot-counter shot” or “reverse angle”-shots. We talk about this not only when it comes to close-ups. Even with two armies marching one should march from left to right, the other from right to left. Or else it would look like one is running away from the other.

Breaking up an action into shot and counter shot is a choice made by the filmmaker. So there is a meaning to it. But one can only tell in the concrete example what the meaning is. Shot-counter shot can denote or mean confrontation or show a loving couple getting closer..

The choice of using shot-counter shot break-up might also have to do with the frequency of cuts. If one would show a conversation in a kitchen in one take with both actors it could become boring if not directed well. Very long takes can be the most exciting ones in a movie. But normally one prefers to cut more often in order to keep the viewers eyes and mind busy by having to adapt to changing points of views. So frequent cutting is not necessarily a sign of quality. If you find a lot of takes without a distinct meaning, it may be a sign that the filmmaker was not very confident and feared a scene to be boring.

In our example it would be motivated to start the scene with a two-shot, and then go on breaking up the scene into shot-counter shot, for example when the two start to quarrel. This would support the dramatic effect.

This would be a way to break up a scene which is quite conventional. Sometimes a filmmaker would decide to work against conventions. To realize this, you have to know the conventional way.

For a long time one used to start a movie with a panoramic shot. In his film “Psycho” the famous director Alfred Hitchcock made fun of this convention. He started with a panorama of Phoenix/Arizona with the camera moving in into a skyscraper, through a window to a close-up. A classical approach with all the framings in almost one shot. After that it became fashionable to start a movie with a detail shot.

May you have read in the end-titles the word “continuity”. It is a key word - and a profession. Usually it is the job of the assistant director or the script to take care of continuity. What is continuity about?

Suppose a car drives through town. Even when it drives around curves, it should always drive into the same direction, let´s say from left to right. Of course it should be the same car in each and every shot, the same driver, dressed the same, the same weather. This might seem to be most evident, but often takes are being filmed on different days. So it is important to keep track of everything.

So “continuity” is to take care that the audience has the impression of a continuity in space and time from one take to the other. If this is not the case either someone has not done his job well, or continuity has been broken on purpose. If the car out of the sudden drives in the dark, the meaning could one of a long distance drive.

Visual continuity can be very complicated . So it was not by chance Orson Welles chose “stagecoach” for his studies of the film language. A good part of the film takes place in a coach. So in addition to the directions of the views the landscape outside the windows has to move into the right direction. Quite a hard thing to handle.

If you look at commercials or video clips you will soon notice visual continuity is not playing an important role. The main reason might be strict continuity would be a restriction to the communication of the advertising message or the mood or the music.

But even in a drama it is important to break the continuity in space and time. In the end it rarely happens that the time of the action is equal to the screen time. Sometimes the story of whole generations is being told in ninety minutes. Like within a scene the filmmaker draws our attention to certain things, he chooses those parts of a story that seem to be important to him. Organizing time is the most important part in the job of the filmmaker.

In some cases it could also make sense to stretch time. I am not talking about slow-motion, but of the dramatic tool of stretching time. If you show someone who walks to someone to tell him or her a relative is dead, one can make this walk seem endless. Just to show he has a hard time. If you go about it well, this “endless” walk takes only ten seconds of screen time. Playing with time which is felt and real time is quite popular among filmmakers.

A little example: a man wants to visit a woman. With his car he arrives at her house. We know she lives in the tenth floor. Should we show how he stops the car, turns off the motor, steps out of the car, closes it, goes to the house, says hello to the janitor, presses the button for the elevator … and so on and so on… Endless and boring. And most of all completely irrelevant for our story.

Car arrives, they kiss - this would be a little too fast to my liking. But how about this: Car arrives. She lies in bed - on the phone, maybe even flirting. The doorbell rings, she hangs up and lets him in. This may take some seven seconds of screen time. Not even a world class sprinter would make it this fast. Still we “buy” this version, because our attention was distracted for some seconds. Maybe in this short time we also learned something about their relation. Isn´t this great?

Unfortunately solutions in dealing with time are not always this good. When in an interview the interviewer is shown nodding, one can assume with high probability the interview was shortened at this point. Scientists developed complex theories about the language of film. One of them, the French Christian Metz, distinguishes five channels of information:

  • The visual picture
  • Writing and other graphics
  • Dialoge
  • Music
  • Sound and soundeffects

Please take note that three of these five channels of information deal with sound, the majority. Indeed sound is most important. Even when it comes to interpret the pictures and the relation among them. As opposed to our eyes we cannot close our ears. Sounds and noises surround us constantly. This is why we perceive sounds different from pictures. When hearing we can be less selective and it seems that the signs we take in through our ears arrive easier in the spheres of emotion.

“The ear cheats the eye” it´s said. A completely harmless person turns to be a bad guy, only because we hear some threatening chords of music. So the music determines the meaning of the picture.

Most of the times though sound is not determining the meaning this much. When you hear rustling trees and birds singing to pictures of a forest, the sound of waves to pictures of the sea, traffic noise to pictures of the city this only serves to make our perception complete. We think it is natural to hear these sounds to these pictures, because we have the same perceptions in real life.

If this natural togetherness is altered, new meanings may come out. When in a forest the birds stop to sing for example or when the traffic noise becomes unbearingly loud.

Dialogue may also be purely denoting in the first place. The person on the screen in the first place says what he or she says. But as you know the sense of the words can be changed just by the way they are spoken. And even more so in relation with the pictures.. “Darling, your dumplings are delicious!” he shouts from the bathroom, as he dissolves one hissing Alka-Seltzer after another. She lies in bed asking: “oh, is it raining?”

“boing”,”splash”, “bang”! - The sound effects. Often they are very similar to natural sounds and used only to support the recorded sound. But when a car tire looses air the sound is not very spectacular. You will have to add this typical “Pffft”-sound, without which the whole action would seem unnatural even. When cars drive around curves, a squeaking sound has to be heard if the message is to tell of velocity. A fight without a whole lot of sound-effects would seem to be only half the news.

Sound effects are needed not only to make noise “realistic”. They may also have a function of their own. If for example some knocks at his head and a hollow “tok” is heard. Or if some sound appear again and again. In comedy and slapstick these kinds of sound effects are very effective. Sometimes it is only them to create a funny situation.

Occasionally it is hard to distinguish between sound effects and music. At times a sound effect is created by percussion instruments or a brass instrument imitates a natural sound.

In Hollywood movies of the thirties and fourties of the past century the so-called “underscoring” technique was state of the art. A big symphony orchestra in the sound stage, a bigger version of the sound studios we know today, tried to support as much as possible of what happens on the screen. When somebody dropped something the harmonies would go down accordingly.. A window pushed open by a blow would incite the strings to jump the highest heights, either full of joy or with a connotation of threat and fear. So the music also would determine the meaning.

Of all the elements that make up a movie, music is the one to influence it´s mood and atmosphere the most. Just turn down the sound of your TV and play the radio or some other music. You will soon realize how the music influences your viewing. And this is just random music. Imagine how effect a music would make that is chosen carefully or even composed for the film. If you put together clips from the material you shot and cut it to music, the single shots may be glued together. It almost seems they just belong together.

I use this effect frequently to put together different scenes. By beginning the music before one scene ends or letting it fade out as the new scene has started, I achieve a very moody transition from one scene to the other.

You see, the filmmaker has a lot of choices, options and possibilities to communicate messages and meanings through pictures and sounds. For this purpose there are not only the specific cinematic means of expression, like camera positions, -movements and editing but also all the possibilities of the other arts like acting, dancing, painting, sculpture, photography, Music etx.

The art of the filmmaker is to form out of all these elements a movie; create something living from ideas and thoughts. In the history of film many more flops than hits were produced. And more than once it was proven that even a big budget is no guarantee for a successful movie. Something magic remains, and that´s not so bad.

Maybe you will succeed to reveal some of the secrets with the instruments of semiotic film-analysis. Probably you will make the experience of the surgeons who had many important insights by opening bodies, but never found out why this flesh was living and where the soul is located.

For me film analysis still is important to learn how to make a film. During the years film language has undergone several changes. Some are a passing fashion, some are real developments, in the sense of progress. Who has grown up with television, commercials and music video clips will have a completely different perception of a film than someone who grew up without any screen. If you want to do research on this or want to know how television affects society you have to analyze the signs used.

As with many other things you learn most about film analysis by doing it. I would like to distinguish between a rough analysis and detailed analysis. The detailed analysis is the one where you learn the most.

If you want to take a close look at a commercial of thirty seconds, you may go ahead with the detailed analysis. If you want to have a look at a long feature film, you should start with a rough analysis. You do this by writing a list of scenes with a rough description of the content of the scene and it´s function in the movie. This way you can study the build-up of the whole film. To this list you may also add a description of the scene, such as dialogue scene, montage, action, love scene etc.

As far as the function of the scene is concerned, you may have a scene that is the exposition of a conflict, the introduction of a main character (hero), arising difficulties, the climax, the solution of the conflict. In other words: With the rough analysis you find out about the dramatic structure of the film.

Now you should have a list which allows you to select scenes for a detailed analysis. I would recommend to select scenes of different character. Maybe one with dialogue, one where there is little speech, an action scene, or a Montage. I would advise you

to start with no more than three scenes. You may add more later. For the detailed analysis you should have a form for each shot to complete. I will attach a proposal form, which you may alter.

As you fill out the forms, take pictures of the single shots (More than one, if camera movement, a zoom or something else makes it necessary) you will surely see many things you had not seen when you viewed the film for the first time. At first all this filling out and viewing and re-viewing to take the photograph, measure the duration etc. will seem to be boring. But going through this you will learn a lot and find many of the little tricks and cheats of the filmmakers.

With all this information gathered you can for example make a drawing using the length of the single takes on one axis, and the framing on the other - starting with the panorama shot at the bottom and putting the detail shots on top. Or you could draw a line with the camera perspectives. This will give you more insight on how the scene is built up. Very often scenes would start with wide shots, then the shots will be closer (and shorter?) so the scene becomes more dramatic.

It is some effort to do a film analysis. But I assure you after that you will know a lot more about filmmaking. Isn´t that worth every effort?