Engaging Students in Film Analysis in ELA Classrooms (and Online!!)

Posted by Claire Ahn on April 20, 2020

Claire Ahn, an Assistant Professor of Multiliteracies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, provides a framework to engaging students in film analysis (in the classroom and online) as well as access to film units and resources.

Facing History's 'Close Viewing Protocol' is also a great resource that explores questions surrounding what the filmmaker is trying to convey, the choices the filmmaker has made, the role of images, narration, editing, and sound, and what the film’s purpose might be.

There are many tools you can use to watch and analyze trailers, clips and movies with your students online:

  • For Netflix users: Netflix Party synchronizes video playback for all viewers and has a group chat feature
  • For videos (self-made or YouTube): WeVu (now FREE for all users during COVID-19) allows teachers to upload videos and students to provide time-specific comments. Students can also create their own videos to upload for feedback. 
    • Similarly, YiNote is a Google Chrome extension that allows you to create a timeline of videos and annotate YouTube videos. 

Much of young people’s knowledge and competencies of visual literacy is developed outside of the classroom. And so, analyzing film as visual texts allows students to examine the nuanced play of images and to further assess the deeper meaning or purpose of the film. This provides students, many of whom can easily function in the visual world, the proper critical skills in order to understand the visual messages. As acclaimed director Martin Scorsese (2012) notes:

So much of today's society is done visually and … one has to know it's a very, very powerful tool… They need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed through a visual form, panning left and right, tracking in or out, booming up and down, intercutting a certain way, the use of a close-up as opposed to medium shot. What is a medium shot? What is a long shot? And how do you use all these elements to make an emotional and psychological point to an audience?

What does it mean, though, to include film as a visual text in the English classroom?

1. Choice of Film

  • Choose a film that is appropriate for the classroom and grade level. Think about choosing a film as you would choose a short story or novel for your students.
  • Think about films that students may not be familiar with and ones that offer varying cinematic techniques.
  • Some ideas: There are great animated feature films and animated film shorts, such as Paperman. As well, there are many great foreign films that could be studied as well, such as Pan's Labyrinth, Oldboy, and the recently acclaimed Parasite.
  • Always preview the film! 

2. Cinematic Techniques 

To begin, start with introducing and discussing various cinematic techniques: 

    1. Proxemics: the spatial relationship between characters/objects and the camera (e.g. extreme close up, medium shot, long shot)
    2. Angles: this term reflects where the camera is placed; the image you see portrays a certain feeling (e.g. flat angle, high angle, low angle)
    3. Transitions: ways in which scenes change from one to the other (e.g. cuts, transitions, dissolves)
    4. Colouring: use of bright colours, faded colouring, sepia, black and white, etc. 
    5. Lighting: even lighting, harsh contrasts (e.g. lightning during a thunderstorm)

*More information on cinematic techniques in a condensed handout format can be found here which is an adaptation/summary from parts of  Louis Giannetti’s book Understanding Movies that provides more in-depth descriptions and examples. The CineFix YouTube channel also provides great comprehensive examples of cinematic techniques, and more!

3. Mise-en-scene Analysis

  • Mise-en-scene provides students with the opportunity to learn the basic skills of film analysis through a careful examination of a still shot or 2-3 minute scene.
  • These types of scene analyses should first be introduced to students after a thorough introduction and discussion of cinematic techniques have been completed.
  • Requires students to look more specifically at the contents and organization of a frame or shot such as the use of various cinematic techniques in one shot, but also costumes, décor, positioning of actors, etc. (Giannatti, 2008)
  • The analysis can be completed in a written format, but also as a short presentation.
  • It is important to guide students through an example of what a mise-en-scene analysis might look like; a Shrek scene analysis would be a good activity to review and to assess students’ understanding of cinematic techniques, while also scaffolding one approach to a mise-en-scene analysis. The Shrek worksheet provides a good template for a written response, but a presentation style also works very well.


Examples for your classroom 

Some examples of films that provide good examples of images or scenes for analysis would be:

  • This shot from The Shawshank Redemption

  • The opening montage from the Pixar film Up!

  • The opening of Akeelah and the Bee, where we follow the title character through her neighborhood, and listen to her narrative. The transitions, angles and proxemics help to set the scene, but also invite the viewer to understand that Akeelah is feeling entrapped in her environment.

    Once these shorter activities are completed and students have a grasp of the basic concepts, then you can dive into a film analysis. I would suggest, if time permits, to watch the film in its entirety first, without interruption. This allows students to understand and become familiar with the plot, characters, etc. Then, introduce handouts and watch the film again, this time, stopping-and-pausing when necessary. 


Some examples of high school film units can be found here on my blog.

I am a strong believer in implementing film as a visual text in English classrooms, and I acknowledge that teaching ‘film as film’ can be a daunting task, as it took me quite a while to learn, and collect and develop resources. But once you do have the strategies, it will be of such benefit for your students!


Giannetti, L. D. (2008). Understanding movies. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Scorsese, M. (2012). Martin Scorsese: Teaching visual literacy. Retrieved October, 2012, from http://www.edutopia.org/martin-scorsese-teaching-visual-literacy


Topics: English Language Arts, Film, Innovative Classrooms, Online Learning, Lesson Ideas, English Classroom, Tech Innovation, Facing Canada, Digital Learning, Creative


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