The Visual Grammar of Film

From FUTURESTATES collection, lesson plan 6 of 13

Audience: Grades 9–12

Duration: This lesson should take 1-2 day, depending on the class.

Purpose of the Lesson: Use this lesson to help students engage actively with film terminology and concepts.

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Identify film terminology and explain the effects of the director’s choices
  • Recognize the cinematic and theatrical elements in film
  • Understand how filmmakers use cinematic and theatrical elements for particular effects

Materials: Have access to the FUTURESTATES site and a projector with sound.

Curricula Writer: John Golden is currently a curriculum specialist for high school Language Arts in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom (NCTE, 2001) and Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and Other Nonfiction Texts (NCTE, 2006). John has delivered presentations and led workshops around the country in order to help teachers use film actively in the classroom as a way for students to improve their reading, analytical and critical thinking skills.

Procedures Part One: Cinematic Elements

Section 1. Begin by asking students to complete the Film 101 survey, which asks them about their interests in film. Then, ask them to complete the Media Habits survey, which asks them about their use of “new media technologies.” Be sure that they have some time to write and discuss with a partner what they have learned about themselves.

Section 2. Instruct students to roll a sheet of construction paper into a tube and hold it up to their eye like a telescope. After students have completed this task, ask them to manipulate the paper camera as if it were a real camera. For example, ask a volunteer to stand in front of the class to be the subject of the students’ frame:

  • To get a long shot, students will have to unroll the paper to create a larger lens in order to get a shot of the student’s full body. Ask them what this shot enables the viewer to see.
  • Next, ask students to decrease the size of the lens on the paper camera to get a medium shot (from the waist up). Ask students to consider why a director might choose to use this shot. Further, what does this shot unveil to the viewer?
  • Next, ask students to decrease the size of the lens of the camera to get a close up shot (capturing only the face). Ask students to consider why a director might use this shot.
  • Finally, ask students to roll their paper camera tighter in an effort to zoom into an extreme close up (focusing on one specific aspect, for example an eye or ear). Again, ask students why a director might choose this shot.
  • The paper camera can be adjusted to create many different shots, angles, and camera movements. For example, a pan may be demonstrated by turning your head from left to right, and a low angle may be demonstrated by sitting on the floor and “filming” a clock up on the wall.
  • There are many other movements that you could direct students to try in order to give them a conceptual understanding of how to apply cinematic terminology. As you expose students to these terms, ask them why these shots, angles, and movements might be used. Engage students in a discussion about the similarities between a literary author’s decisions and a film director’s choices.

Section 3. Now, hand out the Film Terminology sheet and ask students to read through the document, marking any questions or examples they have.

Section 4. Play either the trailer for or the opening segment (the first 90 seconds) of Play and ask students to identify the use of as many film effects as possible. Remember, it is not enough to ask them to only identify the effect — they must learn to explain its function. Always prompt your students to follow up by asking, “Why do you think the director used that?” or “How would it have been different if the director used ...?”

Section 5. Replay the clip and ask students to identify the use of any film terms they see, using the cinematic elements note taking sheet. Show students a second clip, perhaps the trailer for Fallout, and ask them to focus on one or more of the elements on the note taking form. Note: students should NOT be asked to take notes on ALL the elements at first; it is a skill they will develop. In the meantime, assign an individual element to each student or assign students to work in groups.

Procedures Part Two: Theatrical Elements

Teacher Notes: When watching film, it is essential that students look at more than just the cinematic elements (shot type, angle, lighting, etc.) discussed in the previous part. Film is also made up of theatrical elements (costumes, props, sets, acting, etc.), which students also need to learn to examine.

Section 1. Select at least two clips from the films identified below:

  • FUTURSTATES clips: The opening two minutes of The Rise or Silver Sling. The trailer for any of the films from the FUTURESTATES site would also work well.
  • Others films:
    • The opening scene from Life Is Beautiful
    • The opening scene from Chocolat
    • When Cyrano tries to tell Roxanne he loves her at the bakery (about 20 minutes in) in the film Cyrano de Bergerac
    • Just about any scene from Moulin Rouge
    • The scene from Chicago where the lawyer and Roxie have their press conference
    • The scene in Whale Rider where Paikea looks in on the boys training (about 35 minutes into the film)

As students watch each clip, ask them to write down what they notice about the costumes, props, sets, and acting choices on the theatrical elements note taking form. Note that acting can include movement, gestures, voices, etc.

Section 2. After viewing the film clips, students should write a paragraph with a strong topic sentence that explains the effect of one or more of those theatrical elements. The way to get students to respond well is to ask them, “Why did the director use ...?”

Section 3. Before looking at one of the films from the FUTURESTATES site in its entirety, it might be a good idea to practice with the combined theatrical and cinematic note taking form while viewing one of the clips already examined.

There are no extension activities for this lesson.

  • Film module:
    Silver Sling
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