How to Analyze a Scene in a Film

By Robert Russell ; Updated September 15, 2017
People love to analyze and talk about movies.

Films are similar to paintings. The camera serves to frame the moving images of the film the way that a canvas frames a painter's images and representations. Each scene in the film is painstakingly planned and shot by the director with the help of the cinematographer and crew. The director works with her editor to assemble the individual shots into a coherent whole. Movies are a visual way of telling a story, and it utilizes a variety of elements to accomplish the task. The French term “mise-en-scene” encapsulates all the elements of filmmaking such as cameras, lighting, sets and props, actors and costumes. Analyzing a scene in a movie entails carefully scrutinizing all of the different elements used in creating the scene and asking critical questions.

Movie as Context

Watch the film several times. The film as a whole will serve as a point of departure for the analysis of the individual scenes. Watching the film in its entirety sets up the context for each of the scenes. Ideally, all of the scenes will work together towards the unity of the film. In reality, some of the scenes will be stronger and more interesting than others. One of the most famous scenes in film history is the final scene of "Casablanca." The director shot different versions of the scene and decided which one worked best in the overall context of the story. Watch the scene several times with a notebook in hand. Jot down various details that strike you.

Location of the Scene

Scenes occupy a particular space and time within the narrative of the film. Sometimes scenes in a film follow a strict chronological sequence. Many times, however, a director may choose different strategies for dramatic effect. All the scenes in the film noir genre usually take place at night. Flashbacks, the same event presented from multiple points of view, and blurring the distinction between reality and illusions can all add interesting angles in which to see the film as a whole. The 1990 thriller "Jacob's Ladder" is an example of blurring the distinction between reality and illusion. Jacob Singer is a Vietnam vet plagued by terrifying hallucinations that blur reality and illusion and the past, present and future. He is unable to discern whether the hallucinations are real, or if he is going crazy. “Citizen Kane” starts with the famous Rosebud death scene, and this sets up the storyline for the whole movie. Think about the setting of the scene. Think about the reasons why the director places the scene at the specific point in the movie.

Cameras and Lighting

Cameras and lighting do more than simply document the scenes they record. The way scenes are shot and lit creates the mood and environment for the storyline. The camera “frames” the action and actors in the film. A scene can be constructed with a variety of camera shots including close ups and long shots and multiple camera angles. Lighting is used for similar effect. Think about how the camera shots and lighting contribute or distract from the scene. One of the reasons why "Citizen Kane" is so well respected is that Orson Welles used camera angles and lighting in unusual ways. Color films obviously strike the viewer differently than black and white films. Think about how the use of color adds to or distracts from the scene. The 2013 film “Nebraska” was shot in black and white rather than color, and this contributes to overall feeling of loneliness and desperation of the landscape and storyline.

Actors and Characters

The success or failure of a film depends to a large degree on how well the actors play their individual characters. The actor’s primary responsibility is to bring the character to life. The audience relates at an emotional level to the characters on the screen. Method actors, such as Daniel Day Lewis, literally attempt to become the character they play. Marlon Brando is also an example of a method actor. John Wayne, Brando’s contemporary, preferred a more natural or non-method style of acting. Wayne’s own personality tended to dominate the roles he played. Bogart is another example of this approach to acting. Think about how the actors bring the characters to life in the scene. Ask yourself, “Are the characters convincing?” and “What is the acting style?” and “How does the audience relate to the characters?” A film will have little emotional impact if the actor is unable to convince the audience that they are watching a real character rather than an actor.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.