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Week 10: How to Read Movies

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cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Frans Persoon

This week we enter what most students find the most challenging and/or rewarding portion of ds106: video. Working with video presents challenges with file formats, creating more complex narratives, and dealing more complex software. But it is also one of the most engaging forms of media — hence the current statistic that in the span of one minute of time, more than 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.

Before we jump into video editing, we want you to spend some time first looking critically at the video form itself. Read the rest of this post for details about your work for this week as we try to “read” movies. We are not trying to turn you into movie critics, the goal is just to practice noticing the details and techniques used in movies.

Ready Your Tools

For the work in the next 3 weeks, you will need to be using software that allows you to combine, edit, augment, re-sequence video, as well as being able to add or even replace the soundtrack within a video.

Reference the Tools for the Trade for links to software you might want to use as well as our new Video Guide for video resources and tutorials.

We most strongly recommend for the future assignment that you use the applications that come with most computers- either Windows Movie Maker or Apple’s iMovie, these are generally the easiest to get started with and should be available on your computer. Note that students often face challenges in Movie Maker and importing MP4 type videos (the most common format you will download videos in), you may have to install extra video codec software or find converters that will translate MP4 videos into AVI or WMV formats (try or

But for this week’s work, you will only do basic editing.

For making small clips from downloaded videos, get a copy of the free MPEG StreamClip, an application for Mac OSX and Windows that makes it easy to mark and export the exact portion of a video – see our tutorial that shows you how this is done.

When you write up your week’s summary, describe the video tools you have available and what your familiarity with them, even if it is none.

Reading Movies

You have likely watched plenty of movies, but when we say “reading” movies, we mean looking at them with a keener eye for the cinematic elements that make them successful (or not). This is not about reviews of “good” or “bad” movies, but how well they convey the story to all our senses, how well they suspend our disbelief to make the plot real, to draw us in– how well they tell a story.

For your work in this week, you are expected to look for details in movies, many of which are found in Roger Ebert’s “How to Read a Movie

In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive. Movement is dominant over things that are still. A POV above a character’s eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods. Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the “dominant contrast,” which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them.

Read Ebert’s guide! It is more valuable than gold.

Note that the left/right positioning of characters is best applied in scenes where the camera is facing them- e.g., when the possibility of their position is equally probable, left or right. Many scenes are shot in dialogue, when characters are facing each other, and here the placement must also honor a very important film rule, the 180 degree rule:

To get an appreciation for some of the power of cinematic techniques, watch at least 3 of the following videos about filmmaking.

Other elements to consider keeping in mind include:

  • Lighting
  • Film “tone” (bright, monochrome, washed out, high contrast, low contrast)
  • Set design, wardrobe and location
  • Sound- music, sound effects (remember Foley?)
  • Action, stunts, special effects

Look, Listen, Analyze

Now we want to apply some of criteria to classic scenes from movies. From the YouTube lists below, pick one scene you will analyze — do not watch it yet! — just choose one that might interest you.

You will now analyze the clip by watching it three times in different ways.

  1. Analyze the camera work. Before watching the first time, slide the volume on the clip (or on your computer) all the way down. Take notes on the visual aspects of the clip. Look for camera angles, cuts, how many times the camera switches view, the quality of light. Look for the ways the camera tells, guides the story.
  2. Analyze the audio track. Now turn the volume up, but play it without looking at the screen; just tune into the audio. Take notes on the pacing of the dialogue, the spaces in the the audio, the use of music or sound effects (think back to our work earlier on listening to audio).
  3. Put it all together. Finally, watch the scene as normal. Pay attention to something you may have missed the first time or how the elements you saw in the first two steps work together.

Write up a blog post that includes the embedded clip, and the notes you made in the three views of the scene. Did you notice thing new by minimizing your one of your senses?

Next use what you have read in Ebert’s column or anything else you observed in the cinematic technique videos to identify key elements of this scene. Include specific reference to Ebert’s idas of left/right character placement, what the camera angle suggests, how the way the scene is shot builds the story element. We are looking for the video aspects that makes this work well (or not) – not just “this is a great scene” or “this is my favorite movie”.

Exploring the Movie Even More

Seek more background information on this movie from its entry in WikiPedia or the Internet Movie Database. Find at least 3 interesting bits of information about the making of the movie – summarize them and link to your sources.

Next, try to identify the film genre and justify your choice with supporting evidence from the film using one of the references below:

Following this, find at least two other YouTube clips from this same movie; download all the clips as .mp4 files to your computer (here is a tutorial on downloading YouTube videos).

To get practice in basic video sequencing, locate at least two smaller portions within these clips that demonstrate the points you made in your analysis above. We want you to put these scenes together in a short montage, sequencing them together so that you get some basic experience with video editing. The goal is to pull sections out of the scenes with MPEG Streamclip and combine them into a newly edited video. This is possible to do just with the MPEG Streamclip see our tutorial on combining clips with MPEG Streamclip. You can of course use any other software, but you should try to use Streamclip’s trim tools to make the shorter clips

Upload your montage to YouTube, and include it as part of a post on Exploring a Great Movie Scene summary.

What Are the Genres of YouTube?

You’ve read a little bit of genres in movies and film, but given the volume of video content on YouTube, and its meme generating nature, might there be ones specific to this type of video?

Review this document of ones genres identified by previous students. See if you can add a new example to an existing genre, or create a new one and add an example to it.

Write a blog post describing your thoughts on the genres listed and the justification for the example you chose or genre created. And of cours, embed the video in your post!

A Little bit of Pre-Production First

Before we set you loose on the Video Assignments next week, many of which require use video editing tools and techniques, we would like to focus on pre-production steps that will help you complete the assignments.

What we want you to do this week is to identify two video assignments that appear interesting to you, and just do the set up work that will enable you to complete the assignments next week. DO not start editing, just identify and assemble the media you think you will need (e.g. find the source clips you might use in YouTube, list or find the types of images or audio files you might need) and what you think it will take to create your own video.

We offer a few recommended assignments listed below, chosen because they have plenty of examples done by previous ds106 students and several also have tutorials that others have written for the assignment

  • Return to the Silent Era: Select a trailer or movie segment you can use for this assignment.  Outline the things you can add to make it more like silent movie style, or write the text you will use on the screens that display dialogue.
  • Vintage Educational Video Assignment: Identify an educational video you could use to create your own; create a script and set of media needs to complete  the assignment.
  • Play by Play: Write a script and record audio you can use for this assignment.
  • Plinkett Review: Write a script and record audio you can use for this assignment.
  • Make a Scene from a Horror Film: Outline and describe what you would need to do for this assignment
  • Redub a Movie: Write a script and record audio for this assignment.
  • Or choose any other video assignment, and document all you would need to do before going into editing

Again the point here is to just do everything you would need to do for these assignments up until you do video editing. Write a blog post outlining what you’ve completed for pre-production for these assignments. Include in your writeup a short review of 2 previously done examples you looked at for each assignment.

Daily Creates

To keep your creative juices running, do at least two daily creates this week. Doing a video one would be good practice or maybe including some aspect of your movie reading experience into your work.

For Your Weekly Summary

Be sure to include these items in your weekly summary as well as your reflections about what you learned from trying to read movies.

  • Include in this week’s summary your review of what video editing tools you have available and can use, as well as describing your familiarity with using them (“none” is fine, it just helps to know where you are starting from).
  • A post after your “3 time” review of a selected movie scene. Be sure to include aspects you learned from Ebert’s “Reading Movies” essay as well as other things you observed about the use of sound, camera techniques, lighting, set design. Be sure to link to any of the resources you used as a reference. Your post should also include the embedded YouTube video of the scene.
  • A second post with what you learned about the making of the movie, any production information you find interesting, and its genre. Try to identify another movie from the same genre. Embed the clip you created by combing clips from two different scenes together, this should be uploaded to YouTube as well and describe the details you “read” in these scenes.
  • A third post describing the YouTub genre example you added to the shared document and /or the new genre you added. Are these meaningful or just playful? Is YouTube really just video as we know it on the web or something different?
  • A fourth post describing two of the ds106 video assignments you might consider working on next week. This should include a reason why the assignment appeals to you, as well as a description of the types of media or techniques you think it might need based on the description of the assignment and the examples done by others.
  • A summary of the two Daily Creates you have done this week, including any connection they might have to this week’s topic of reading movies.

Next week we dive head first into doing video assignments.


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