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SEMIOTIC FILM THEORY

An introduction

SIGNS

HOW FILMS SIGNIFY


Semiotics is the study of signs; or, how films
signify
A way of understanding how meaning is conveyed
through the various methods human beings
employ to convey messages.
Body language
Gesture
Letters
Words
Pictures
Visual Illustrations

LOOK AT THE FOLLOWING SIGNS...

IN FILM, SEMIOTICS IS A USEFUL ANALYTICAL TOOL


FOR STUDYING THE WAYS BY WHICH VISUAL IMAGES
FORM A SYSTEM FOR THE COMMUNICATION OF
MEANING. ANY GIVEN MOMENT CAN BE RICH IN
VISUAL MEANING. BUT, WE CANNOT BE TOO
SCIENTIFIC ABOUT IT. SOMETIMES A TRAIN IS JUST A
TRAIN.

(CLOSELY RELATED TO)


STRUCTURALISM
Elements within a structure do not possess
meaning as individual units but gain their
meaning through their relations to other
elements.
Structuralist film theory emphasizes how
films convey meaning through the use of codes
and conventions not dissimilar to the way
languages are used to construct meaning in
communication.

STRUCTURALISM

An example of this is understanding how the


simple combination of shots can create an
additional idea: the blank expression on a
person's face, an appetising meal, and then back
to the person's face. While nothing in this
sequence literally expresses hungeror desire
the juxtaposition of the images convey that
meaning to the audience.

Unraveling this additional meaning can become


quite complex. Lighting, angle, shot duration,
juxtaposition, cultural context, and a wide array
of other elements can actively reinforce or
undermine a sequence's meaning.
Look at the following exercise. The meaning of
the last frame has been created through the
questions asked in the first few shots.

THE SIGN

THE SIGN

A sign can be anything in a film shot (visual or aural) that


stands for something else
A

persons face
A prop
A background detail.

There are three main components to remember: The (1)sign is


composed of a (2)signifier -- the material form of the sign -and (3)the signified -- the concept it represents.

Sign -- The written word STOP


Signifier -- The letters S-T-O-P
Signified concept -- The motion category "stop"

semiotics, the sign is divided into two parts: the signifier and
the signified

In

THE SIGNIFIER AND THE SIGNIFIED

The signifier
The

aspect of the sign we perceive physically

The

mental concept to which the sign refers.

The signified

Meaning is conveyed by the relationship


Signifier
------------------------------- Signified
Denotation ------------------------------- Connotation

DENOTATION AND CONNOTATION


In semiotics there are different 'orders of signification'
(levels of meaning). Semioticians distinguish between
denotation - what a sign stands for - and
connotation - its cultural associations.
Connotation involves emotional overtones, objective
interpretation, socio-cultural values and ideological
assumptions. A car can connote virility or freedom in
Western cultures, and so on.
Think about Midnight Cowboy. What do the following
things connote?
1. Joe Bucks cowboy outfit
2. The city street
3. The greyhound bus

CODES
Codes are the systems
of meaning into which
signs are organised.
Different types of codes

Cinematic

Codes (eg
Editing/shot types)
Cultural Codes (eg
class, status,
handshakes)
Generic Codes
(Western/ Buddy )
Aesthetic Codes
(gestures)

CODES

"The way we watch


television and the way we
perceive [everyday] reality
are fundamentally
similar, in that both are
determined by conventions
or codes. Reality is itself a
complex system of signs
interpreted by members of
the culture in exactly the
same way as are films and
television programmes.
(Fiske)

PARADIGMATIC AND SYNTAGMATIC


MEANING

If a film maker has chosen to employ a particular


sign at one point from a range of possibilities
that is a paradigmatic choice. (e.g. what costume
to choose for a character).
If a sign is related to the signs that occur around
it than that is a syntagmatic relationship. (e.g.
the final shootout scene in The Good, The Bad,
and The Ugly we see shots of eyes, guns and
graves. They work together to create meaning.)

MYTHS

1.

2.

Myths are powerful chains of


concepts by which we
understand our world. (Think
of the myth of clean green
New Zealand.) Myths are
constructed but often appear
natural, a part of reality itself.
Is there a myth of Wellington
College? Storyboard how you
would present this myth in
five shots.
What myths are being
presented in Midnight
Cowboy?

METONYMY
Metonymy refers to the
ability of a sign to represent
the whole of something
while literally being only a
part of it. The Eiffel Tower is
a metonym for Paris, a palm
fringed beach is a metonym
for Tahiti, a TV news
graphic of a tank passing a
village church is a metonym
for the war in Bosnia.
Film uses metonyms a lot
because as signifiers they
are economic users of time in
a text.

HOW TO USE SEMIOTICS WHEN


READING A FILM (EG MIDNIGHT COWBOY)

Semioticians look closely at film shots in order to


break down their messages into systems of signs
and codes. What signs are prominent in Midnight
Cowboy?
Think

about how Joe Bucks costume is a signifier.


The radio.
The greyhound bus

Look at how the film subverts myths and codes.


The

American Dream
The myth of the West.
Generic Codes (i.e. Western codes subverted)

What syntagmatic relationships can you uncover?


Lets

watch some...

SOME FURTHER READING


http://
www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.
html
- Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. As
good a place to start as any.