Understanding Film Assignments

The infomation below is from Swarthmore University1:

  • 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. The film professors may differ over their acceptance of colloquialisms and first person usage.

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.

Scene Analysis

The purpose of analyzing a scene is to expand your understanding of how film constructs meaning by looking at both its traditional narrative structure as well as its technical aspects, such as sound and cinematography. We have a small overview that can be found in Student Success's writing process.

Youtube Examples: The examples below are of different aspects necessary for analyzing a scene. You will need to be able to look at tone, technique, construction, and storytelling

Terminology Resources

Essay Resources

How to Write a Film Review

The information below is from the New York Film Academy2:

  • Watch the film at least once. Once is necessary; twice is preferable. Taking notes is also a good idea and will help the writing process by making it easy to refer to your in-the-moment thoughts and reactions.
  • Express your opinions and support your criticism. Professional reviewers do not shy away from telling their readers whether they thought the movie was good, bad, or indifferent; in fact, readers come to rely on those reviewers whose tastes reflect their own when deciding whether or not to spend their time and money. Professional reviewers also have watched a lot of movies and can express why and how they came to their criticism. Be sure to back up your thoughts with specifics–a disappointing performance, a ridiculous plot, beautiful cinematography, difficult material that leaves you thinking, and so on.
  • Consider your audience. Are you writing for a fan site, a national news outlet, or a Teen Magazine? Knowing who your readers are can help you decide what elements of the movie to highlight. You should also adjust your writing style to fit the target audience.
  • Know the actors’ portfolios. Many casual filmgoers will be inspired to see a movie if a favorite actor is in it, so you should probably spend a little space talking about the performances: seasoned actor in a new kind of role, brilliant performance from a rising star, excellence despite a lackluster script, dynamics in an ensemble, and so much more can be said about the actors in any given film.
  • Call out directors, cinematographers, special effects. This is where your film geek can really shine. Tell your readers about the highlights or missteps of directors, cinematographers, costume designers and CGI magicians. What worked, what surprised, what fell short of expectations, are all great questions to address in the body of your review.
  • No spoilers! Give your readers some idea of the plot, but be careful not to include any spoilers. Remember the point of a good review is to get people interested in going to the movie. Don’t get over excited and ruin it for them!
  • Study the professionals. As with all writing endeavors, the more you read the better you will be. And when you read film reviews that you like (or don’t like), think about why. Use your critical eye to think about why one reviewer has a hundred thousand followers and another only has two. Be sure also to read the publications where you’d like your writing to appear as a template for your own reviews, and don’t forget to read the submission guidelines!
  • Reread, rewrite and edit. Edit your work; your opinions will not be taken seriously if you misspell the director’s name or can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence. Take the time to check your spelling and edit your piece for organizational flow.
  • Find your voice. The best reviewers have a distinct personality that comes across in their writing. This does not happen overnight, so take every opportunity to write as an opportunity to develop your own style and voice that will grab the reader’s attention and keep them coming back for more.

Additional Resources

Research Databases

Additional Resources from the UWC

  • The Writing Process: We are walking you through the entirety of the writing process with this comprehensive guide. Each step contains multiple resources to help different types of learners understand how to navigate the college essay.
  • Research: We have crafted a resource to help you navigate the research process. This page includes brainstorming an idea, searching for sources, creating an argument, crafting the assignment, and revising the final draft in addition to a curated list of resources provided by the library as well as video essay examples.
  • Citation Resources: This page includes information about MLA, APA, Chicago as well as a few other citation styles utilized across campus.
  • Formatting Resources for Microsoft Office and Google (including citation documents)
  • Subject-Specific Resources: Student Success has compiled a page with content and writing resources tailored to all of the majors. By clicking on the corresponding major, students with also be able to identify an approximation of how much writing could be required as well as the types of writing assignments in any class.


  1. "Film Studies Writing Guide." Writing Associate Programs, Swarthmore College, https://www.swarthmore.edu/writing/film-studies-writing-guide. Accessed 28 May 2020.
  2. "9 Tips for Writing a Film Review." Student Resources, New York Film Academy, https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/9-tips-for-writing-a-film-review/. Accessed 28 May 2020.