A Quick Guide to Visual Style

How to analyse the visual elements of a film

Film communicates information. 

Not exactly life-shattering information, there. Film communicates story: it’s one of the reasons we – a storytelling species – spend so much money producing and consuming it. It communicates a whole lot of other information as well, about the social mores of the producing society and historical period, and that’s where film analysis gets really interesting.

Because a great deal of that communication happens without us noticing: both the encoding and the decoding process. Film analysis provides us with a structured approach to formulating a response to a film text, taking into account all of the various different elements of the film, how they work together, and especially how they can be used to create meaning in the mind of the viewer. Where the elements comprise what we can see on the screen, we call them, collectively, the film’s visual style. 

The visual style of a film isn’t something that we understand innately – we do understand it without thinking about it, but we don’t usually understand that we understand it, because it’s developed to be largely invisible. But we learn to read it, just as we learn to read text; it’s just that, unlike learning to read text, we don’t notice ourselves becoming familiar with the messages woven through visual style. 

Film studies gives us a structural framework for unpacking this reading process. By understanding this structural framework, we can learn to take a step back as a viewer and to actively – rather than passively – watch and consume the meanings being made in film. 

Visual style is basically the visual language of a film. It’s the look and feel of a film. It produces and provides information, and it generally does this invisibly, without you necessarily being aware of receiving that information. It comprises a number of different elements that combine to make up everything you see in front of you on the screen.

When we talk about visual style, we can usefully group all these different elements under the following headings:

  • Cinematography
  • Mise-en-scene
  • Montage

This article – the first in a series of four – will take a brief look at each of these elements and dive more deeply into them, one by one, over the next three posts.

Cinematography

Cinematography refers to every aspect of visual information that’s created specifically with the camera. The following elements are all aspects of cinematography:

  • Shot size
  • Type of shot
  • Camera angle
  • Shot length
  • Focal length
  • Exposure

Lighting, which falls under the responsibilities of a cinematographer, is, confusingly enough, not an element of cinematography. It belongs to mise-en-scene, but we’ll get to that.

Cinematography uses the camera to direct the viewer’s attention and to provide visual cues that may call attention to themselves – such as the dramatic canted angles of film noir – or which draw from a lexicon of signals that we’ve learned, over years of film consumption, to read without realising. This sequence from Citizen Kane is one of my very favourite examples.

Citizen Kane, dir. Orson Welles (1941)

It’s worth watching a couple of times and exploring your reaction to Kane throughout. Consider the balance of power that exists between Kane and his wife Susan at the beginning of the clip and at the end of the clip. It’s possible, in this sequence, to pinpoint the exact moment that it shifts, and it’s all down to camerawork.

I’ll discuss exactly what’s going on here, from a cinematographic perspective, in next month’s instalment.

Mise-en-scene

Originally a theatrical term, mise-en-scene has developed a separate meaning system when applied to cinema. It translates literally as “placed in the scene” and refers to everything in front of the camera – which is why lighting is an element of mise-en-scene rather than cinematography. The cinematographer may have ultimate authority over the lighting crew – without them, it’s not going to be possible to have the camera crew achieve the cinematographic effects required – but lighting is a physical element that the camera captures. It’s placed in the scene.

Aspects of mise-en-scene include:

  • Props
  • Set
  • Actors
  • Costumes
  • Lighting
  • Composition

As you might imagine, it’s possible to convey a lot of information with mise-en-scene, both directly and indirectly. A dressed set and/or costumes can instantly indicate period setting, genre, location and so on. More subtly, aspects of mise-en-scene can be used to draw the viewer’s attention to an element within the shot that the director wants to highlight. Colour is one way of achieving this – see, for example, this famous image, which is scarcely subtle but which lands its gut-punch no less effectively.

Schindler’s List, dir. Steven Spielberg (1993)

As ever, it’s the stuff you have to make yourself notice that gives you the really juicy details – but more on that later.

Montage

No, not that kind of montage. Before the Rocky Balboa movies were a thing, montage simply referred to the art of making meaning via editing. And, again, this element of visual style communicates much more than the immediately obvious.

Dominant mainstream movies of all flavours and persuasions, these days, tend to use  (or, at the very least, react to) what’s known as continuity editing. This feels absolutely ingrained in the process today, so firmly has it become entrenched in filmic storytelling, but it was something that cinema had to learn to do. Early silent film did not use continuity editing. It simply presented things happening on screen, then some more things happening on screen, and then, if you were lucky, a few more things happened on screen. If any of those things were happening concurrently in the movie’s diegetic reality, well, tough. You watched them happening one after the other.

This film is one of the first known uses of continuity editing. It’s from 1903. Moving pictures had been around for more than two decades at this point.

The Great Train Robbery, dir. Edwin S Porter (1903)

We have been trained by film to create causal connections between unrelated images that exist nowhere but in our minds. It’s… kind of amazing, really.

But, yeah, say “montage” these days and we’ll bet you think of this…

Why it’s important to understand visual style

The thing is, in this media-saturated age, film is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. You have to make a conscious decision not to interact with film, and that, in itself, is an expression of your opinion about film. That’s why understanding the medium is a vital skill, and decoding elements of a film’s visual style is one of the key tools in analysing a film text.

The information coded into visual style is not necessarily the same thing as authorial intent. That’s a whole other can of worms. Whether or not a director means for us to read his action movie as a commentary on the first Iraq war (word to the wise: not a good idea to discuss 300 with Rachael; she has opinions and she will give them to you, whether you want her to or not) is an argument that flows out of an understanding of visual style, but it’s different from the simple fact that we’ve learned to make causal connections between two totally unconnected frames of film or that we automatically go, “Ah! Canted angle! Must be a nihilistic commentary on the frailty of man in a world where old certainties no longer hold true!” 

Visual style is the cinematic alphabet. What directors do with that is Pride and Prejudice (in this analogy, directors are Jane Austen). Whether or not you think it’s worth reading is a question of taste, but isn’t it better to have the tools to make that choice?

Of course it is. So look out for Part II of this series next month, where we’ll take a deep dive into the arcane mysteries of cinematography.


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