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The Punctuation and Grammar of Moving Image Texts

In this section we will look at the basic choices available to filmmakers in constructing their narratives. Moving image texts have many of the attributes of a language.

They have:

  • a defined vocabulary of shots and angles;
  • punctuation in the form of camera movements and edits; and
  • a codified grammar that imparts specific meaning to particular shot sequences.

A wide angle shot from a low level from the film Health of a City

These 'linguistic' elements are used to give the audience a definite relationship to the characters, action, objects and emotions depicted. They can be used to progress the audiovisual narrative in an emotionally engaging and apparently seamless fashion.

Example of a Close Up shot of a man with a Match Cut leading into a POV shot: The man is looking at something (the audience will ask itself, "What is he looking at?") and the answer is provided in the POV shot that follows.

When close reading a film, it is necessary to look both at the individual use of these elements as well as their total effect. For instance, one can show a reaction shot in medium-close, close or ultra close up to varying effect; similarly, the meaning of a cut may be significantly changed by a subsequent camera movement such as a pull back to reveal. Worth noting too, that the shots, cuts and angles that filmmakers don’t use can also be significant. It is also important to note visual composition, lighting and the arrangement of subjects within the pictorial space or 'frame'.

A short word about Animation

Animators have much greater (though varying degrees of) freedom to play with the visual space of the worlds they create. In line-drawn animation, lines and shapes can readily transform defying the normal spatial principles of our three dimensional world (see Potato Picking Trailer). That said, most animators will usually still use the techniques of live-action cinematic montage to great effect.