Top menu

How to read a movie scene

4 October 2016

  • You can learn a lot about filmmaking by analysing a single scene from a movie
  • Start by freeze-framing and looking at each shot in detail
  • Then look at the editing, sound, and how the scene shows time
  • You could even try recreating it – filming and editing your own version

You can teach yourself a lot about the mechanics of filmmaking by watching films. You’ll learn why filmmakers do things, and you’ll get an idea of what film can do. Like Quentin Tarantino said, “I didn’t go to film school, I went to films.”

But if you watch a two-hour feature all the way through, you’re probably talking about hundreds of separate shots. It’s overwhelming. So the best thing to do is go right back to the basics and look at a short sequence (one scene, or less – or a complete short film or TV ad) in detail. TV ads can be particularly useful as they fit a lot of storytelling into a short space of time.

blade runner

The interrogation scene from Blade Runner is a good sequence to analyse, with great use of camera, light, sound and editing

Shot by shot

First, look at each individual shot. Pause the video. Try and work out why the shot was used. What does it bring to the film? How does it help you understand the story?

What’s in the shot?

Look at everything you can see in the shot: people, clothes, setting, vehicles, background. Why are they there? What can you tell about them?

What’s not in the shot?

Do you think anything has been deliberately left out, perhaps to add mystery or to be revealed later?

How close is it?

What’s the shot size? Is it a closeup, that just shows a face or a detail, an extreme long shot that just shows the setting? Or something in between? Why did they use that particular kind of shot?

Where’s the camera?

Now try and work out the camera position. Was it at the same level as the subject, or was it higher or lower? How does that affect what you think of the subject?

Was it directly in front, at a slight angle, at the side, or behind? Why was it filmed from there?

How are things arranged in the shot?

Does the shot look natural, or is the composition obviously formal or symmetrical ? Or is it unbalanced, crooked or deliberately awkward?

How do things move?

What movement is there in the shot? Do things or people in the shot move? If so, are they moving towards or away from the camera, across the screen, up or down the screen? How does this make you feel about them?

Does the camera move? If it does, what kind of movement is it? Is the movement slow, fast, smooth or jerky? Why?

What colours are there?

What colours are in the shot? Are they vivid or drab? What do they mean and how do they make you feel? What about the colour of the light: is it warm (reddish/orange), cold (blue), or something else?

How is the scene lit?

Is the light bright and flat (‘high-key’), or dramatic and shadowy (‘low-key’)? Do you think the scene was filmed with natural light or artificial lights? Was there just one light, or several? Can you work out where they were?

What comes next?

Look at the shot that comes next. How is it different from the one you’ve just been looking at? What does the new shot bring to the story? Does it show the same thing filmed differently, or does it show something new?

How the sequence goes together

How are the shots edited? Are they joined with simple cuts (where one shot goes straight to the next one), or are there more complicated transitions, like dissolves or fades? If so, what are the transitions telling us?

Find  the cut

Look at where the editor decided to make the cut between two shots. Use slow motion if you can. (If you’re watching on a computer, you may be able to use the left and right arrow keys to move forward frame by frame.) How does the edit point fit with the action, the dialogue, the soundtrack or the actors’ performances?

Do the sound and picture change together, or at different times (split edits)?

Does the sequence use cutaways (where the sound from one shot continues, but we see a different image)?

Pace

Is the editing fast or slow? Does it get faster? How does this match the mood or the action?

What can you hear?

Look away from the screen or cover it up. Play the movie, listening to the soundtrack. What different kinds of sound can you hear? Can you list them all?

Now watch the movie with the sound and work out what the sound brings to the story.

If it’s music, what style of music is it? What instruments were used? How does it make you feel? Is it telling you about the place, the mood, the period, a character – or warning you about something that might be about to happen?

If there’s a voiceover, who’s speaking? How does their voice make your feel? Are they a character in the story or an impartial narrator?

With natural (diegetic) sounds, do they sound realistic or are they exaggerated? Do they come from things you can see on-screen, or do they give you information about things that are off-screen? Do you think they were recorded live, or added later as sound effects?

Time

How does the sequence show time?

Is it in real time – where things take as long as they would in real life?

If not, is it compressed time where they leave things out? If so, what’s been left out and what’s been kept in?

Or does it use stretch time, where things take longer on screen than they would in real life? If so, why? How have they extended the time?

You might also see cross-cutting or parallel editing, where the film cuts between action happening in two places at the same time. If the film uses this, how have they managed to do this without you getting confused? How do you know which location is which?

Or does the scene use flashbacks or flash forwards? How can you tell?

Now try it yourself

Depending on the film you’ve chose, you could try copying the scene yourself, shot by shot. Can you film it and edit it so that your version exactly matches the original?

More about film language

Learn about film