Metalanguage is language that describes language. In films, we also need to consider cinematography – the technical side in the making of the film. For a detailed discussion, see What is metalanguage?
The prospect of writing a Text Response or Comparative essay on a film can be daunting—it’s difficult to know how to identify filmic devices let alone analyse why the director has used them to give meaning to particular scenes. To start us off, below are some filmic devices commonly used by directors that all students should be aware of when studying films.
This refers to the amount of space that is seen in one frame, which can be used to emphasise different aspects of the film’s setting or characters.
Example: An extreme close up of a character’s face to portray their emotions.
The way in which the audience is positioned to view the setting or character/s. This can enhance the audience’s understanding of the relationship between characters, or the way in which a character is feeling in a particular situation.
Example: a low camera angle can be used to demonstrate how a character is feeling empowered at a particular point in the film.
Any sound where the source of it can be seen in the scene (or is implied to be present)
Example: Voices, are diegetic. Any sound that comes from outside the scene itself, for example, soundtrack, is non-diegetic. We can analyse the way in which sound enhances the mood of the film.
In the Made in Dagenham clip above, diegetic sound such as the pouring rain, spoons tapping on cups, radio in the background are all used to offer viewers a 'real' sense that we're in the cafe too.
The way in which the scene is lit can create interesting effects in what it suggest about the characters in the scene.
Example: if the main source of light comes from the side of the screen, lighting up one side of a character’s face, this can create a sense of mystery.
How a character is dressed in any given scene is very important; their clothes can say a lot about their present state of mind or their physical situation.
In-depth analysis using Mabo
Even once we know all this, it can still be difficult to use these devices as evidence to support our ideas in a text response essay. So let’s put our knowledge into practice and take a look at a few scenes from the film Mabo, directed by Rachel Perkins.
Opening scene: Perkins uses a series of long shots of Murray Island in the opening scenes of the film, with high camera angles. This is done to contextualise the setting, as well as foreshadow the great significance the land will have on the events of the film. The subsequent low camera angle shots of the trees on the island present them as being tall and majestic. Paired with the upbeat, vibrant native music (non-diegetic sound) that is playing, it is evident that Perkins is celebrating the beauty of the land and emphasising its importance, not just in the film, but in the islanders’ lives.
Benny Mabo and a young Eddie walking the beach: a mid-shot is initially used in this scene to show father and son walking in the water. This alludes to the strength of the connection that the Mabos have to the island in depicting them as being immersed in water. The subsequent close ups of their faces, conveying their contentment, with the waves of the ocean in the background, indicate that this connection to the land goes beyond the mere fact that they live there; the pair are shown to have a profound spiritual and emotional connection with the island. This is emphasised by the soft, peaceful music that plays alongside Benny’s recital of Malo’s law.
Killoran exiles Eddie off Murray Island: side lighting is used in this scene to shadow some of Killoran’s face. This has a sinister effect. It suggests that his intentions toward Eddie are not honest, and further symbolises the corruption and lack of transparency in the Australian government in their dealings with the Indigenous. The cloud of cigarette smoke that surrounds him further highlights he toxicity of his presence on Murray Island, as does the solemn, foreboding music that plays throughout his conversation with Eddie. The close up shots of Eddie’s face convey the strength of his resolve in refusing to “[work] as a slave” for Killoran in penance for his crime.
Eddie on the railway tracks: this scene is all about Eddie’s internal conflict; his desire to return to his homeland, and the allure of the opportunities that the ‘mainland’ offers him (in particular, Bonita). The high camera angle is used to show him dancing across the railway tracks, which is heavy with symbolism, representing the choice between his old and new life. The close ups of his face as he sings his native song convey his emotional attachment to Murray Island and the depth of his despair at
not being able to return to it. His costume is comprised of old, dirty clothing, which is representative of his confused, weary and sorrowful state of mind. Yet the use of backlighting as he dances suggests that his decision to embrace his new life on the mainland will empower him. It further foreshadows the significance of this choice in enabling him to pursue the land rights case.
The Indigenous protest: Perkins deliberately uses archival/stock footage in this scene to enhance the viewer’s experience of the Indigenous’ protest at the Mayday march. By using real life footage from this actual historical event, Perkins adds authenticity to this scene, in order to effectively convey the importance of Eddie’s decision to participate. The high angle shots, and long shots, are used to show the sheer number of people who were fighting for change. The music quickens in pace to indicate a change, a turning point in Eddie’s life, in which he can no longer overlook the racism that his people have suffered. The close ups of his and his wife’s face during this scene express their passion and determination in supporting this cause, as well as their strong love for each other.
List of film techniques
These are just a few examples of the way in which you can use the techniques discussed to make your ideas more credible in text response essays. Some teachers may say that these filmic devices are a secondary source of evidence, but I believe they are equally as important as quotes in demonstrating a thorough understanding of the text—as long as you analyse why the director has chosen to include them.
Remember: the director only has a certain amount of time to tell the story, so every scene is important, and every technique is deliberate. That being said, don’t use these devices at the expense of quotations!
This study guide is written by Gabrielle O'Hagen (Mabo examples), and Lisa Tran.