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Deconstructing a Film Analysis Essay: Tips and Techniques

Enrolling in a film class might seem like a fun way to pass a class — after all, it's just watching movies, right? Not exactly! While film classes certainly require you to watch movies, you're most likely to be assigned 2-3 films per week in addition to analysis work. Considering how long movies can be, this can quickly turn into quite a hefty workload.

If you've never taken a film class before, you might feel lost and confused when it comes time to writing your first film analysis paper. This is especially true if you're accustomed to writing book analysis essays for which you choose several written quotes to analyze. Films are all about visuals, so your analysis relies heavily on interpreting vital visual elements.

How should you tackle a film analysis essay? It might sound obvious, but you'll start by watching the movie. After all, there's much more to watching a film than just hitting the "play" button.

One watch isn't enough

No matter how many films you've analyzed, it helps to have watched the movie you're analyzing more than once. One viewing of the movie could cause you to miss vital details. If possible, we recommend watching the film at least twice, so you can gather as many notes as you can. Repeated exposure to the movie will also help you put potentially confusing scenes into a better context and help you understand their purpose. However, if after you've watched the movie, you're struggling to organize your thoughts, consider breaking the film down into parts. Here's how you can deconstruct the movie into three digestible pieces.

The three-act structure

The length of your assigned movie can make an essay analysis intimidating. Films can sometimes exceed a run time of three hours. For example, fan-favorite Titanic comes in at a little over three hours long. A lot can happen in a movie of this length, so prioritizing specific scenes or focusing on particular plot points can present a challenge.

If you're struggling to follow a film, consider referring to the three-act structure. This method can be helpful in any narrative analysis you write. However, remember that this is not the same as a traditional story's narrative structure. This structure breaks the film into three distinct, purposeful sections that will help you organize the movie and your thoughts.

The format of the three-act structure is:

  • Act I, Setup: This is typically the shortest part of the movie. Viewers are introduced to settings, characters, and main plot points. There is often an incident that introduces us to the film's conflict.
  • Act II, Confrontation: This is the longest and most significant section of the film. The protagonist undergoes many conflicts and obstacles leading up to the climax.
  • Act III, Resolution: The movie's ending most often provides some resolution to the conflict.

Breaking the film into these three sections will help you orient yourself as you watch and take notes. This will make the process of choosing scenes to analyze much easier.

Note-taking is a must

Since it's extremely difficult to mentally store all of your impressions and details you noticed while watching the film, note taking will give you a reference of your thoughts. But when and how should you take notes on a film? Should you write down your opinions on the actors and their characters? Do you take notes on scenes you didn't like or scenarios you wish had gone differently?

While these types of notes can certainly guide the argument you want to make, it's essential to remember that a film analysis essay is not the same as a film review. In an analysis paper, you can mention your opinion on the movie, but the primary focus of your essay is to analyze the film's visual elements. These elements you've noticed will provide the arguments you make in your essay.

Visual elements to analyze

If you've never analyzed a film before, you might not know the kinds of visual elements you should pay attention to. There is also a good deal of technical language associated with the film industry, and you'll come across this when writing your analysis. As with any subject or field you write about, you want your language to match what is customary in the industry.

Camera work

camera work
Camera work is one of the best visual elements to consider if you're unfamiliar with analyzing movies. Photo by GuruXOX.

Writers can use several terminologies related to camera work, but we will focus on two elements that are best for beginners:

  • Shots: Camera shots are identifiable by the distance between the camera and the character or scene. Let's identify two popular shots you might already know:
    • Close-up: Close-up shots focus on one subject in a scene. In a close-up, a character's face will fill most of the screen. Directors might use this technique when they want viewers to register a character's intense emotions or small details they wouldn't notice from a distance.
    • Long shot: A long shot is the opposite of a close-up. The camera films a longer distance away from the subject. A character's entire body is in the frame, but it does not make up the entirety of the frame; the space above, below, and around the character reveals more scenery. These shots help viewers become familiar with the setting and the character's place in the environment.
  • Angles: Camera angles indicate the camera's position in a given shot. Camera shot angles can impact how viewers interpret a scene or a character. For example, angles can silently demonstrate power dynamics. Consider these popular camera angles you can look for while watching a film.
    • Low angle: In low-angle shots, the camera is positioned below a character or scene, so viewers are forced to look up. If characters are filmed from this angle, we might interpret them as being powerful and superior because they appear above us.
    • High angle: In high-angle shots, the camera is positioned above a character or scene, so viewers are forced to look down. In contrast to low-angle shots, characters filmed from this position appear to be more vulnerable or have less power.


Lighting is a significant visual element movie producers use to set the tone and establish the atmosphere. Photo by gnepphoto.

When conducting your analysis, notice that lighting changes can be subtle or obvious. The scene could transition from light and joyful to dark and ominous with just a flashlight losing batteries. If you notice lighting changes during your viewing, consider these questions:

  • What does the presence/absence of light add to the scene?
  • Are there any shadows visible in the scene?
  • How does the lighting affect the character's attitude/mood?
  • How does the lighting shift from one scene to another?


Audio elements include sound that aids in establishing the tone and setting of a scene. Photo by Jacob Lund.

Here are a couple of audio components you're accustomed to hearing during movies:

  • Music: Soundtracks can tell you a lot about a movie. Consider what types of songs play during certain scenes, and you'll find that the music plays a significant role in establishing mood. For example, an infamous song from Jaws announces the shark's presence, leaving viewers on edge. Here are some questions to consider when listening to music during a movie.
    • What genre of music is playing? Is there a pop song playing during a cheerful scene? Is the music entirely instrumental? Does it include lyrics to bring a descriptive element to the scene?
    • Is the music quiet or loud? Does the music's volume rise and fall throughout a scene, or is it purely background noise?
  • Sound effects: Sound effects can help make actions more impactful. Consider a war movie that relies heavily on battle scenes. Sounds of gunshots and explosions ring in the background as viewers focus on the protagonist. Those sound effects can make us nervous, draw us into what the character might be feeling, and foreshadow something terrible coming for the soldier. Or maybe the protagonist is finally coming face to face with the enemy, and the tension in the scene is enhanced by the crack of thunder and the whirring of wind in the background.

Costumes, makeup, and props

costumes, makeup, and props
Costumes, makeup, and props give characters depth. Photo by Gorodenkoff.

These types of elements can depict socioeconomic status and levels of power. A man dressed in a black professional suit will appear more influential than a man dressed in a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt.

Since clothing and makeup are forms of expression, viewers can learn about characters' personalities through their physical appearance. These are also transitory elements, meaning viewers can recognize a switch in characters' fortune, status, or job if their appearance changes.

Clothing and props can also reveal something hidden about a character. For example, in Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker wears a pair of black gloves and uses a walking cane. The cane reveals a physical impairment, but the purpose of his black gloves remains a mystery until his backstory is revealed. Though characters may appear one way, their clothes and props can provide an element of mystery, showing viewers that they might not be what they seem.


You can consider timing in a movie like the syntax in written text. Instead of sentence length and organization, timing refers to the length of a scene and the order in which scenes appear. The duration of the shot will impact the feel of the scene.

For example, fast-paced scenes switch from one frame to another within a short time. This makes the viewers feel like they're being rushed, and tension is high. Slower scenes feature one subject in a shot for extended periods, drawing our attention to what is happening at that moment.

Your essay structure

Now that you know how to "read" a movie, consider how to organize your analysis essay. Your paper will be set up like other analysis papers you've written. For example, the basic format of your paper will be:

  • Introduction
  • Body paragraphs
  • Conclusion

Naturally, however, the content of these paragraphs will differ from, say, a literary analysis.

What to include in the introduction

The introduction will contain specific information about the film. For example, you must include:

  • The film title
  • The director's name
  • The film's release date

These details give context to the film. For example, if you are familiar with the director of the film under analysis and you know other works of theirs, this information gives color to your analysis. This connection can help you read into the movie more deeply because you can anticipate patterns, themes, or visual elements for which the director is famous.

The introduction will also include your thesis statement. This statement serves as your argument and comes as a result of considering questions like:

  • What aspects of the film stood out to you?
  • Did you notice one specific theme throughout the movie?
  • Is there a specific object or symbol that holds significant meaning to the plot or protagonist?
  • Is there a unique pattern you want to make an argument about?

Your thesis can state whatever you find interesting as long as you prove your argument with evidence from the film.

You might follow the introduction with a brief summary of the movie. Introduce the main characters, the setting, and the conflict. Provide some context, but don't make it overwhelming.

Body paragraph analysis

Body paragraphs include your analysis. The analysis of a film differs from that of a literary essay, as a textual analysis comes entirely from passages of a book or article. While you can certainly analyze dialogue in movie scenes, film analysis focuses significantly on the film's visual elements.

The number of body paragraphs you write depends on how many scenes you analyze. Unless your assignment asks you to examine only one scene closely, we recommend you write about three scenes or more.

Your body paragraphs should each begin with a topic sentence that introduces your argument. What will you focus on in this specific paragraph? Then, frame the scene. Remember that you want to avoid summarizing the scene that you are analyzing. Instead, provide just a sentence or two of context to introduce the scene and then frame it according to your argument. Once you've done this, you can focus on the film's visual construction, which will make up the bulk of the body.

Concluding your analysis essay

Your conclusion will restate the argument you made in the introduction. Your analysis leads to a personal decision about the film, so you should also include your overall opinion. You might consider including a call to action, whereby you encourage or discourage readers from watching the movie.

It's also possible to consider the film's implications. For example, did the film touch on a political or historical issue that's still relevant today? Did the film introduce a new filming technique never seen before? How does the film inform future movies of the same genre?

Films can be lengthy and complicated, but this guide can help you deconstruct a movie and ease your analysis essay writing process. Be sure to take your time watching the movie — more than once, if you can! — and take ample notes to use as a reference. As long as you focus on your visual analysis and not a summary or description of each scene, you'll be on your way to writing an insightful analysis essay.

Header photo by stokkete.

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