A Methodology for Analysing Cinematographic Images

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Often the cinematographic elements of a film are seen only as a conduit for communicating narrative, rather than embodying aspects of meaning in the way that they are constructed.

Traditional film studies always had a literary bias, with a fixation on narrative, character and the thematic ideas underpinning stories. The technicalities of cinematography were often seen as a means to an end, i.e. to get the story on the screen. More recent volumes on cinematography have concentrated on generic forms of style and issues around developing technology (Goodridge and Grierson 2012; Keating 2014). Few writers explore the construction of the images themselves. Cinematographic images can simply convey narrative information to audiences, placing us in a location or showing us an action. Alternatively they can communicate meaning in the way they are constructed. Composition, movement and light can all imply meaning that is distinct from the events being filmed.

The limited writing on cinematography as a means of communication includes Nilsen's account of the artistic responsibilities of the cinematographer (1937), Russell's analysis of style markers in lighting (1981), Bordwell's discussion of shot functions (2005), and Cormack's brief breakdown of components of cinematographic style; camera movement, camera distance, camera angle and lighting (1994). Some theorists have attempted to categorise shot types, notably Mitry (1963), and Deleuze (1983), whilst others have discussed one particular style, for example Bazin and 'deep-focus' (1947).

The temptation for theorists like Mitry and Deleuze has been to ascribe particular functions to specific shot types, for example, Mitry's semi-subjective shot adopts the "viewpoint of a character" (1963: 218), Deleuze's affection-image is invariably a close-up (1983: 72). Specific aspects of forms should not be tied to singular, fixed meanings, or functions, as these invariably do not apply in every case. Bordwell avoids this with his discussion of shot functions (2005: 33-34), although by exclusively talking about the content of cinematographic images he does not consider the form.

Nilsen defined three stages in the evolution of cinematography, reproductional, pictorial and representational (1937). Reproductional cinematography is simply the mechanical recording of events that happen in front of the camera with no aesthetic consideration given to the use of the recording mechanisms (the camera and the lighting), typically the filming of news-gathering or documentary material. Pictorial cinematography includes deliberate, superficial aesthetic concerns, for example the 'rule-of-thirds', glamour lighting, or elaborate use of indiscriminate colour palettes. Finally representational images convey meaning embedded within their structure. Whereas Nilsen considers these types of cinematography as a chronological evolution of cinematographic art, I consider them as continuing, parallel methods of applying cinematographic technique. Films shot with standard methods, for example, cross-cutting close-ups, establishing shots of locations, realistic colour reproduction, could be described as examples of reproductional cinematography, as the main purpose of the cinematographic techniques employed is to simply convey narrative information.

To consider the cinematographic image in detail, it is important to objectively separate elements of shot composition from any preconceived notions of function or meaning. Carroll implies this approach in his argument for a functional theory of style in individual films (2003). He argues that approaching the analysis of an individual film via general notions of style, whether they are genre, period or personal style, distorts or limits our view of that film. Carroll calls for a more objective approach.

What I propose is that with an objective, and complete taxonomy of elements of shot composition, combined with an awareness of the nature of the application of cinematographic techniques, a richer analysis of cinematographic images within individual films could be undertaken.

I have developed this taxonomy having taken, or modified, elements from both Nilsen (1937) and Russell (1981), adding further elements and categories. I have identified sixteen distinct elements that contribute to the construction of a cinematographic image, divided into four broader categories, characteristics of the medium, spatial elements, lighting, and temporal elements. The sixteen elements of shot composition that I have identified provide a precise tool to objectively analyse the cinematographic image. They can be used to breakdown the way in which these elements are exploited in individual films, whether that be reproductional, pictorial or representational.

Following Carroll's suggestion that an analysis starts with the individual film, rather than from a predetermined and restricted categorisation filter, an assessment of representational treatment can be made in relation to the contextual use of these elements of shot composition, usually related to the narrative, characters, or thematic aspects of the film’s narrative. Meaning arises from the combination of the technique and the context of its use, described by Durgnat as "content-style" (1967). Meaning is not inherent in the technique itself.

By defining this taxonomy I hope to provide a comprehensive, yet workable, analytical tool, which will help to identify all functional aspects of any cinematographic image.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2018
EventAnalytic Aesthetics and Film Studies - UNiveristy of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom
Duration: 26 Oct 201827 Oct 2018


ConferenceAnalytic Aesthetics and Film Studies
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Film
  • Aesthetics
  • Cinematography


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