So, your assignment is to watch a movie and analyze it in an essay. Great!
I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial I’ll show you how to write a film analysis.
In short, to write a film analysis means to:
- Identify the elements of the film
- Identify the relationships among those elements
- Form an argument about your findings
- Support your argument using evidence
If this task seems daunting, don’t worry – it is actually fun once you know exactly what to do.
So, let’s dive right in. Here are…
7 Steps to Writing a Film Analysis Essay
Step 1. Watch the movie while taking notes
If you already saw the film you need to analyze, you’ll probably need to watch it again, this time taking some notes.
Why is note taking important? Well, to analyze really means to break something into parts and to discuss relationships among them.
And to identify parts (or elements) of a movie, you need to watch it while paying attention to details and writing down your observations.
Taking notes will allow you to do several things:
- Identify some of the elements of the film so you have something to discuss
- Uncover details you would otherwise miss
- Make connections between ideas
- Get some raw content you can readily use in your essay
How to take notes
Here’s a tip on how to do it most efficiently. Play the movie on one device while taking notes on another.
For example, play the movie on your TV or iPad, and take notes on your laptop. This way, you can pause the movie and make a note without switching apps on your laptop.
What to look for
When watching the movie, you are looking for elements that it is made up of. You can simply start a bulleted list with a timeline and some of the things you observe.
Importantly, you usually don’t want to simply describe every event of the film. You need some kind of a theme or motif to focus on because otherwise you’ll simply write a synopsis if the movie.
But you want some useful notes. Here’s how to choose what to focus on.
First, your assignment should determine your focus. For example, if your instructor wants you to write about a particular character, then pay special attention to that character.
If your assignment includes more details, that’s even better. Maybe you have to pick a character and write about her love life or her relationship with her mother.
Great – that will help you narrow down your focus.
Second, you can choose your own theme to focus on. If your assignment is very general, don’t worry – just pick your own character, theme, or something in the movie you want to write about.
In this case, if you’ve already seen the film, just think back and choose something to focus your analysis on.
Third, you can simply analyze the entire film. In this case, your task is to identify the overall message of the film and how its elements help deliver this message.
Each of these ways to approach writing a film analysis essay works great. And the steps you learn here will help you whatever approach you choose.
Example of note-taking
Let me give you an example. Recently, I had to write about one particular character in a movie. I also had to discuss the mental health of the character. So, I paid special attention to anything that had to do with mental health.
I chose the movie The Hours based on Michael Cunningham’s book of the same title. And by the way, let’s use this film from now on as an example to illustrate our seven steps to writing a film analysis.
This movie follows three women at different periods of the twentieth century. One of them is Virginia Woolf, based on the real-life writer of the same name.
Since my task was to write about her, I took notes primarily related to her. But I also noted relevant elements in other parts of the film.
Note that I time-stamped the events that happen on the screen. This would help me orient myself in the story when I later read my notes.
This can also help you use quotations from the film because in some citation styles you are required to provide exact time stamps for the dialogue lines.
Here is a sample of the notes that I took while watching the movie:
00:00 – 3:30 Very compulsive behavior. Frantically dressing up.
“I feel that I’m going mad again.”
08:35 – ~11:00 “How was your sleep?” “Uneventful. No headache. I believe I may have the first sentence.”
“Always giving parties to cover the silence.” – Ed Harris. ~22:00
27:44 – 31:50 “Her fate becomes clear to her.”
Makes demands on her cook. Being kind of rude.
43:20 Doesn’t comply with doctors. Depressed all the time. Lies down by the dead bird, as if wanting to join it.
01:05:45 Talking to herself, mumbling, in the presence of others – sister, nephews, niece.
-What were you thinking about?
-I was going to kill my heroine but I changed my mind.
01:08:05 “I’m afraid I might have to kill someone else instead.”
Your notes don’t have to consist of perfect sentences. You can jot down sentence fragments, phrases, or even just words.
But complete sentences, or at least sentence fragments, will help you understand what you were thinking when taking the note. A sentence will tell you more than a word or a phrase.
Write down some important dialogue verbatim. You can later use these quotations in your essay.
Elements to look for
Let’s explore what kinds of elements you can look for while watching the movie. Cinema is an amazing medium that combines a multitude of things to talk about.
A film can contain everything a novel can. And in addition, it has visuals and sound. So, it’s very rich. Let’s divide the elements into two categories – literary and cinematic.
- Story (the beginning, middle, and end)
- Plot (how events are arranged in time and space)
- Setting (where and when the action takes place)
- Characterization (characters and their unique qualities)
- Themes (recurring elements that link things together by topic)
- Message (the point, the argument, if you will, of the movie)
- Dialogue (what characters say)
- Symbols (concrete visual or auditory bits that stand for abstract ideas)
- Contrast (highlighting differences)
- Sound (music, noises, or the use of silence)
- Lighting (how light is used to convey or emphasize ideas)
- Camera angles (positioning of the camera when shooting a scene)
- Editing (putting different shots together in a sequence)
- Mise-en-scene (everything you see on the screen)
- Casting (the choice of actors)
- Acting (the art of playing a character)
If you’re a film or literature student, many of these elements will sound familiar to you. But even if you’re not, you don’t have to know much about all or even most of these to write a great film analysis.
All you need is a few good elements that will serve as ideas to organize and develop your paper. And you are probably already familiar with some of them, such as story and characters, for example.
As you watch the movie and take notes, keep these elements somewhere in your document so you could check in with the list at any time.
Step 2. Make some connections among the elements
If you really want to do well on this paper, you might want to watch the movie one more time after you’ve taken your initial notes. This time, you’ll be making connections using these elements.
You can do this step from memory and your initial set of notes, but if you do it while watching the film one more time, your paper will be a lot stronger. And the writing part will be easier.
As you watch the film, especially for the second and maybe even a third time, you’ll notice patterns.
You’ll begin to see how different elements are connected by themes and other unifying elements.
Here are examples of how different and seemingly distant elements can be connected in a movie:
Two or more characters have the same pattern of behavior. They may not know each other or may even live on different continents or in different time periods. But they both feel stuck in their marriages, for example.
Connection through dialogue
Two or more characters who, again, seem completely unrelated say the same things. Or, one character says something, and another picks it up or answers it in the next scene or shot.
Connection through mise-en-scene
Mise-en-scene is all the visual elements on the screen. A recurring visual can link different elements, such as characters, together.
For example, a character can have a red rose in her hand. Another character, in a different time and space, can also have a red rose in her hand. This is a director’s way of saying: “Pay attention and look for connections between these characters.”
The same music can play in different scenes. Or, the same tune can be played in a major, happy key in one scene but in a minor, sad key in another. Or, a short motive can be repeated at pertinent moments in the film.
Movie writers and directors make all kinds of other connections in their films. If you watch the movie more than once while being consciously aware of the possibilities, you’ll notice things.
You can choose any types of connections you want. If your instructor wants you to be specific and use cinematography and dialogue, for example, then use these two categories.
But if you identify some nice connections in other categories, put them in your notes, too. You’ll use them as supporting ideas in your essay.
Example of making connections
Let me give you an example of how I used elements of film to make some connections for that film analysis I worked on.
Note that I’m using only four categories of these elements because to discuss more of them would only make the essay get out of hand. It’s better to focus on a few. Make sure it’s no fewer than two, and preferably three or four.
The first one or two can be the main ones, and the rest can be used as supporting ideas (more on this later).
To make better sense of the example below, keep in mind that the movie The Hours follows three women in different times and places.
I used letters V, L, and C as acronyms of their first names, because it’s faster and easier that way.
Here is a sample of connections (as brief notes)
- Repressed sexuality.
- Homosexuality and bisexuality.
- Around 42:00 – L kisses her neighbor Kitty. Later, V kisses her sister Vanessa. Both women are not only stuck in their situations – they are also stuck in the closet.
- C is also stuck, according to her own words.
- V tries to write a novel. L tries to bake a cake. C tries to throw a party. Each one is frustrated.
- But there is a progression from V-L-C. V never succeeds. L fails at first attempt but succeeds with the second one. C makes everything ready, but the party never happens through no fault of her own.
- Also, trying to run away. V fails. L succeeds. So does Louis in modern times.
- Being stuck.
- C says at one point, “From then on I’ve been stuck.” It seems she’s stuck in bisexuality.
- When L drops off her son, it’s with Mrs. Latch (note the name). A latch is a fastening or binding device.
- Seeking freedom (the opposite of being stuck).
- Louis Waters says, “The day I left him, I got on a train and made my way across Europe. I felt free for the first time in years.”
- V succeeds on the third attempt. L contemplates it but changes her mind. C never attempts. But Richard succeeds.
- 13:54 – (1951) L’s son asks to help with the cake. L: “Of course you can, sweet pea. I’m not gonna do anything without you.” Cuts to 2001 New York: C: “No, of course!”
- It’s as if the director is being sarcastic: “Yeah, sure. Of course I’m not gonna do anything without you.”
- L eventually abandons her family, including her son. So, this juxtaposition seems sarcastic and acts as foreshadowing.
Mise-en-scene (visual elements)
- Opening scenes:
- Each of two women, V and L, is alone in a bed; one is in bed with a partner.
- L is particularly emphasized as alone with an empty half bed – happens again later in the film.
- 13:11 – L is standing against a window.
- The light is pouring in from outside, but the room is dark. She is isolated by the window frame. Isolated from everything in the home, including her son.
- Later, around 17:30, her son will be alone in a very dark apartment: “I needed to let in some light.” Maybe light is associated with freedom.
- Waking up
- V depressed, even disturbed
- L wondering what the day will bring
- C excited about the upcoming day.
- There seems to be a progression from worse to better in V-L-C.
When you actively look for connections, you’ll make many of them. In this step, you’re not thinking deeply about them. You’re just noticing things and jotting them down.
The main thinking is done in the next step.
Step 3. Formulate your main argument
Now that you have your elements and you’ve perceived some relationships among them, it’s time to formulate your thesis.
A thesis is the main point of your essay. This step is the most important because this is where you take a stand.
This is also a creative step. You’re essentially making a decision about what to say about this movie or an aspect of the movie.
Here’s a short video I created, explaining what a thesis is:
Read back through your notes
Read through the initial notes you took and the connections that you’ve made.
What stands out to you as the most important, the most general and overarching idea that is probably the main one?
Make your thesis about this idea. And the rest of the elements or ideas will act as supporting points (we’ll add them in the next step).
Choose the subject
Let’s choose what to write about – our subject – in our sample film analysis. We have four categories of elements in which we’ve made notes and connections:
Just by looking at this list and reading through the connections made, it is easy to notice:
One or more of the themes are dominant, and the rest is supportive. Therefore, our main point should probably be about a theme.
Again, if your instructor has given you a specific subject to focus on, then that’s what your thesis will be about.
In this example, let’s assume that we must simply write a film analysis, and we’re free to choose what to write about.
So, we’ll pick one of the themes, take a stand on it, and formulate our thesis based on it. Let’s look at the themes we’ve picked out again:
- Repressed sexuality
- Being stuck
- Seeking freedom
Which of these is the dominant one? Which one is all-encompassing? Which one includes some of the others?
These are some of the questions we might ask to pick the main subject for our essay. Let’s arrange these themes in the order of more general to more specific:
- Being stuck
- Repressed sexuality
- Seeking freedom
Why is being stuck the most general and all-encompassing theme? That’s because it seems that the rest of the themes are either the signs or the effects of it.
Repressed sexuality and frustration in trying to accomplish things and failing are signs, examples, or manifestations of being stuck.
It is only possible to seek freedom if you feel stuck. And suicide, at least in this film, is a result of being stuck and seeing no way out.
This tells us that being stuck as a theme is the best candidate for our thesis. In other words, this essay will be about the theme of being stuck in the film The Hours.
Formulate the thesis
At this point, we have everything we need to formulate our thesis, our main point that we’ll be supporting in the essay. Let’s do it:
“In the film The Hours, the feeling of being stuck in terms of their sexualities and life situations plagues the main characters. And the earlier in the century the action takes place, the more disastrous the consequences of them feeling stuck.”
What’s going on in this thesis?
First, we have two sentences because this film analysis is kind of complex. It is possible to write out the main point in only one sentence, but then it would be too long and complicated.
Second, note that we have all the main elements either explicitly or implicitly present in this statement. In other words, this thesis summarizes our entire essay perfectly.
It contains the themes of:
- Being stuck (which is our main subject)
- Sexuality (one supporting idea)
- Seeking freedom (from an unwanted life situation)
- Sucide (a disastrous consequence)
In other words, it’s all there in the thesis. And we’ll unpack these concepts more in the next two steps.
Step 4. Write the introductory paragraph
The introductory paragraph consists of three parts:
- An introductory sentence
- The thesis (main point)
- The supporting points
Here is a diagram of how it is organized:
We already have one of these parts, which is the thesis (part 2). Now, all we need is the introductory sentence and the supporting points.
Let’s put together our supporting points – the crucial part of a thesis statement. A full thesis statement always includes the main point and the supporting ideas. And then we’ll write out the complete introductory paragraph.
Keep in mind that each of our supporting points will correspond to a section of our essay. And I always recommend using the Power of Three to organize a paper.
Three is a great number to divide one idea into many. Note that writing an essay on any topic is very much a matter of dividing big topics into subtopics.
What three supporting points or sections can we have in this essay? Well, luckly, it just so happens that the film The Hours centers around three main characters set in different time periods and places.
This makes a perfect division into three parts. Now, your movie may not have such a clear division, and in that case you’ll need to come up with three supporting ideas creatively.
For example, you could discuss the feeling or predicament if being stuck in terms of these concepts:
And your essay would have three main sections. Each section would be devoted to being stuck in a particular sense.
In our essay, the three women are:
- Virginia Woolf (1923)
- Laura Brown (1951)
- Clarissa Vaughan (2001)
From our thesis, we know two things:
- They all share the feeling of being stuck, in similar ways
- There is a progression from past to present in how it affects them
So, now, let’s write out the complete thesis statement. Note that we’re also including the introductory sentence, whose function is to pull the reader into the subject matter of the essay.
Our film analysis thesis statement example
“Through the power of narrative and visual elements, cinema allows the viewer a glimpse into worlds she otherwise could not know, revealing difficulties people have faced throughout history. In the film The Hours, the feeling of being stuck in terms of their sexualities and life situations plagues the main characters. And the earlier in the century the action takes place, the more disastrous the consequences of them feeling stuck. Virginia Woolf, set in 1923, is in the worst situation because while she suffers from repressed homosexuality and hates living in the country, it is next to impossible for her to find a viable way out. Laura Brown, set in 1951, is also a closet lesbian and lives a small-town family life she despises. But she eventually finds a way to liberate herself. Finally, Clarissa Vaughn, set in 2001, is stuck in her bisexuality. But her life situation, while challenging, is otherwise better than those of the other two characters.”
Step 5. Outline the essay
The thesis statement that we just put together also acts as our big-picture outline. Let’s see how our essay will be organized, in terms of the main sections:
Notice that this big-picture outline is dictated completely by our thesis statement. This is why a great, detailed thesis statement is so important.
Fulfilling the word count requirement
Your film analysis essay assignment may have a specific word or page count requirement. Let me give you an example of this film analysis outline with a breakdown of words per section and subsection.
Let’s say you need to write a 2,000-word paper. Well, right now our introductory paragraph contains about 150 words. Here is how we could distribute words to meet that word count requirement.
Outline with word count distribution
- Introductory paragraph (150 words)
- Section 1 – Virginia Woolf (600 words)
- Sexuality (300 words)
- Life situation (300 words)
- Section 2 – Laura Brown (600 words)
- Sexuality (300 words)
- Life situation (300 words)
- Section 3 – Clarissa Vaughan (600 words)
- Sexuality (300 words)
- Life situation (300 words)
- Conclusion (100 words)
If you add up all the sections and subsections, you’ll get 2,050, which is about our desired word count.
If you need to write 5,000 words, then distribute your words accordingly. You’ll have about 250 words per introduction and conclusion, which will leave you with 4,500 words for the body of the essay.
That will be 1,500 words per main section. Divide each main section into three subsections using the Power of Three, and you have 500 words per subsection.
It’s very helpful to know how to distribute your words because that allows you to map out how much you’re writing in each section and paragraph.
Step 6. Write the body of the essay
The body of a film analysis essay consists of sections, and each section consists of one or more paragraphs.
So, your main building block in the body of the essay is the body paragraph. Here is how a body paragraph is structured:
The first sentence is the so-called lead sentence. It must summarize the contents of the paragraph succinctly and perfectly.
An explanation is where you have a chance to provide any reasoning or describe a process.
And examples are the most specific parts of any paragraph or essay. They are the most fun to write and to read.
Let’s write a body paragraph to illustrate exactly how such a building block works in a movie analysis.
Our example is about Virginia Woolf. It belongs in Section 1, subsection 1 – about being stuck with repressed homosexuality.
Note that this subsection can have more than one paragraph. This will be one of the paragraphs in this section.
Film analysis body paragraph example
“Virginia feels stuck in her personal life as if in a prison because of her repressed sexuality. She appears to be a closet homosexual, which is a difficult predicament to endure in the early 20th century England. Homosexuality was looked down upon, and a woman had to be married to a man, regardless of her innate sexual preferences. She lives with her husband who takes care of her and clearly loves her. However, when her sister Vanessa comes to visit, at the end of the visit, Virginia gives her a long, passionate kiss on the lips that is apparently reciprocated. The kiss is so intense that it indicates a repressed desire. Vanessa accepts it, but it is not clear whether she does so out of mutual attraction or compassion for her sister’s suffering.”
This paragraph follows the structure illustrated in the diagram.
It opens with a lead sentence which summarizes and introduces the entire contents of the paragraph perfectly. It is also the most general statement of the essay.
Next comes the explanation. We explain why we think that Virginia has a problem. The time period she lives in makes it difficult to be a sexual minority.
Finally, we provide an example – the most specific kind of evidence in an essay. It is an example of a kiss, with a description and implications.
To complete the body of the essay, we would need to build it out by writing one paragraph after another, following the outline and maintaining this body paragraph structure.
Note that you can also use outside sources to support your points. But first write out what you can without resorting to research. And only then go and find sources that would confirm your thinking and ideas.
Step 7. Write the conclusion
This is the final step and the easiest one. I usually advocate for concluding with a simple restatement.
All you need to do is write out the thesis statement using different words so it doesn’t come across as a mere copy.
Your conclusion can be shorter than the introductory paragraph. After all, you’ve already said it all. And now, just restate in fewer and different words. You can also add a more general statement at the very end, as a finishing touch.
And let’s do it.
“The Hours is a fascinating study of how repressed sexuality and confining life situations have affected people’s lives throughout the twentieth century. The three characters live in different times, and the earlier the period the more difficult the situation and the harder it is to endure. Virginia commits suicide because she can’t find a way out of her situation. Laura almost commits suicide but then chooses to abandon her situation, which is physically a little easier in the 1950’s. And Clarissa lives with her girlfriend. Her situation is better although she is still stuck as a bisexual. Life in 2001 is significantly better, though not devoid of challenges.”
And there you have it. Now you know exactly how to write a film analysis paper.
I hope this was helpful!