Film Studies Writing Guide

  1. Before you begin
  2. Understanding film assignments
  3. Format issues
  4. Things to keep in mind as you write

Before You Begin

  • Background reading, It's important to become familiar with the film's development, director, and political contexts.
  • Terminology. Before you can write a film paper, it's really necessary to know your terminology. This includes language created to describe lighting, shot formation, etc.
  • Watch the movie more than twice, looking at different aspects each time. It always helps to watch critical moments shot by shot and jot notes about everything that happens. Try not to get sucked into the narrative. Pause and rewind to aid your critical thinking.
  • Internet resources. If you need some basic factual information about a film, there are fairly reliable internet resources such as the Internet Movie Database and the Film Index International.

Understanding Film Assignments

  • Understanding the discipline. It may be helpful to think of film as a language. Elements of film are analogous to elements of language; just as a sentence can be broken into phonetic, semantic, and morphological elements, a film can be broken into its component parts. Film Studies papers often involve looking at the message of the film in relation to the means (component parts) by which it is conveyed.
  • Common elements of a film paper. Most film papers have two elements: a shot-by-shot analysis and an interpretation of that analysis. First, you analyze what the form is, and then you analyze what the form does. In the interpretation section, it's important to form an argument that draws on_rather than restates_the shot-by-shot breakdown of a scene. The shot-by-shot analysis provides material for you to cite as you form an argument about the way the formal aspects of the movie relate to a theme or message.
  • Constructing an argument. Analyze certain aspects of the mise-en-scène instead of only the dialogue. Find something idiosyncratic about how the filmmakers chose to express their message. Don't just pay attention to random elements when they happen to validate an argument about a film's theme. Choose 1, 2, or 3 elements of the film (such as camera angle, lighting, camera movement, sound, distance, etc.) and follow the usage of those elements throughout the film.
  • Ask your professor how formal your paper's tone should be. Swarthmore film professors differ over their acceptance of colloquialisms and first person usage.

Format Issues

  • Citations. Film titles should be italicized. When citing films, list the director and date of release in parentheses, e.g. The Crying Games (Neil Jordan, 1992).
  • Shot-by-shot breakdown. For this section, you can use an Excel chart, draw pictures, grab stills, or describe each shot in words. As long as you provide enough information in an organized way, any format is fine.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Self-reflexivity. Remember that film is a reflection of pop culture just as pop culture draws on film. Film is a self-reflexive medium. Many films (for example, Singing in the Rain) comment on other films or on the process of filmmaking.
  • Don't interpret the film in a vacuum: consider the film's message in the context of its cultural, social, and political context. Remember that filmmaking is usually a collaborative process. Focus on a few specific elements of each film, but nevertheless be aware of how other aspects of the film relate to those elements.

Compilers' note: We gathered the information for this handout from interviews with Professor Sunka Simon and Film Studies majors Gabe Hankins and Kathleen O'Hara.