519. SIGNS, CODES and CONVENTIONS
MISE-EN-SCENE (French for ‘put in the scene’)
Some important edits are called: continuity (or ‘Hollywood’) edits; MTV (’music television’) edits; cross-cuts; follow-cuts; match-cuts; jump cuts; eye-line matches; dissolves; fades; montages; bridging; flashbacks…
Establishing shot / long-shot / mid-shot / close-up / point-of view shot / soft-focus…
Semiotics is the name given to the study of the way by which meaning is created in the world, especially in the mass media. It is based upon the Idea of ’signs’ and ‘codes’, ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’.
A sign is the basic unit of meaning in semiotics. A sign is any individual thing that signifies meaning; for example, your clothes are a group of ‘fashion signs’ which signify meaning (perhaps you are trying to look ‘cool’?). There are two ways that signs create meaning: all signs have a literal meaning, which is called their denotation; but, depending on the context, many signs also suggest other ‘layers’ of meaning, which is called their connotation. For example, an image of a girl dressed all in white denotes just that, I.e. this is what you ’see’; but it may also connote innocence or purity (and all that this means in our society and culture), i.e. this is what you ‘think’.
Connotation, therefore, is always more than the denotation. Signs rarely work alone. They are most often combined with other signs to form a code.
A code is a group of signs that we recognise as going ‘naturally together’ to signify meaning (e.g. a rose is a sign; but being handed to a girl by a boy could create a ‘romance code’ and suggest love).
Film and TV codes are often called technical codes because technical equipment is used to create them.
There are three ways through which codes and signs can signify meaning: Iconicity: an iconic sign or code looks just like the thing it seems to represent, e.g. an image of a cowboy seems to be just that; but it is called iconic because it suggests far more than it should: for example, our culture tends to associate extra meanings with the idea of ‘cowboy’, such as toughness, heroism, masculinity, etc. Iconic signs are never reality: they are a representation of reality.
Indexicality (an indexical sign or code) in a sign directly suggests meaning because what it shows seems to be the result of something we associate with the thing it represents, e.g. smoke suggests fire, sweat suggests exercise, appearance can suggest wealth, etc. This can be a short-cut way for a film director to create meaning.
Symbolism (a symbolic sign or code) suggests meaning because we have learned this meaning in our culture; a symbol, in itself, has no association with what it means, e.g. a red heart shape suggests love; letters combine to make words, etc. The meaning we gain from codes is said to be culturally determined which .means that our culture ‘taught’ us that particular way to interpret the meaning. For example, when we see our national flag, the Union Jack, we see more than what it simply denotes – a piece of coloured cloth: patriotism and pride, etc.
An important code is an enigma code. These codes put a fascinating question in the mind of the audience that only watching the movie will answer. They tempt the audience to watch and are often used in trailers. A convention is simply a way of doing something that we are so used to we usually fail to notice it; conventions can seem ‘perfectly natural’ or ‘realistic’ yet are anything but. So: women in cowboys tend conventionally to be either ‘very good’ or ‘very bad’ – and this seems ‘normal’ within the genre of cowboy movies; the wheels of a car always screech; guns always kill outright; a punch always knocks a person out cold.
Genre and narrative are important media conventions that are covered later, as are editing techniques and-the use of certain shot types (such as an establishing shot sequence or montage – see later).
Cinema and TV codes are created within an area bounded by the edges of a screen. By controlling what objects and action are in this frame, a film director creates what is called a mise-en-scene.
Asking questions such as ‘who, what and where’ of the characters and objects and their relative positions, expressions, appearance, costume, make-up, scenery, props, lighting, sounds, etc. in a mise-en-scene will help you analyse it.
Try to consider what effects are created in a mise-en-scene’, what meaning they have (their denotation and, most importantly, connotation), how they have been created and why they were created (which will be the director’s purpose – perhaps to develop a character, a mood, the storyline or plot and sometimes to explore a deeper meaning or idea, i.e. a theme).
Editing is the placing of separate shots together. This allows a director to manipulate space and time hundreds of miles or weeks of time can be reduced to a few scenes that appear perfectly natural and believable to the audience. A montage is a most important editing technique. It is a series of shots that are edited together to create a kind of ‘individual unit’ of meaning.
Continuity edits – especially matched cuts – are called ‘Hollywood editing’. This creates a sequence that seems to flow naturally on from the previous one, and in which the edits are ‘invisible’. These have the effect of creating a realistic and seamless flow to a story or narrative (see below) where one event leads naturally onto the next.
Jump-cuts are dramatic edits; MTV edits are rapid sequences of fast jump cuts used to create a conscious effect as used first in pop-videos;
cross-cuts/parallel editing follow different actions such as two people talking; follow-cuts follow an action to its consequence, e.g. a character looking edits to what they look at
eye-line matches are a kind of follow cut).
A sound-bridge is a sound edit that allows sound from one shot to cross into the next to create continuity.
An establishing shot is usually the opening shot of a sequence; it ’sets the scene’ and locates the action. It is often followed by a mid-shot followed by a close-up shot.
A subjective point-of-view shot (POV) is at eye-level and appears as if you are viewing the scene from the character’s perspective (as in ‘Blair Witch’).
An objective point-of-view shot acts as if you are an observer secretly looking into a scene.
CAMERA ANGLE Eye-line match / high / low
CAMERA MOVEMENT Zooming / tracking / panning / hand-held
LIGHTING High key, neutral, low key
‘DIEGESIS’ AND SOUND
VISUAL EFFECTS / SFX
THE ‘STAR SYSTEM’
Camera angles can signify meaning, e.g. a subjective POV high angle shot can crate a superior feel. Different camera movements can create significant meaning – a zoom or tracking shot into a close-up of a face can create emotion, a pan across a war scene can suggest violence; POV tracking shots and POV hand-held camera shot can create tension and involvement by making you feel as if you are a part of the action.
Lighting can create atmosphere and mood as well as signify meaning, e.g. in a horror movie, light and shade are important codes of meaning. High-key lighting is harsh; soft-key lighting creates a romantic atmosphere, spotlighting picks out a character from a group, etc.
Diegesis means the ‘world of the film’: if something seems to be a part of the ‘world of the film’, it is called ‘diegetic’. So, sound that is a part of the action is diegetic sound, e.g. wind noise, screeching cars, etc; but sound that is added’ to create, most often, mood or atmosphere is called non-diegetic sound. Diegetic sounds may also be added in after filming, or may be exaggerated for effect (e.g. loud footsteps).
SFX (special effects’) often use computer-generated graphics to create compelling realism and meaning.
The use of a narrative structure is a major convention of cinema and TV. We are all immersed in narratives and have been since childhood as we tell of or hear about the complex events of the world not in the form of long-winded complex details or bald information but as absorbing and interesting stories. Yet this way of explaining real as opposed to fictional events greatly oversimplifies reality whilst at the same time; paradoxically, appearing very realistic and believable. For instance, real events are rarely clearly ‘connected’ by such simple ’cause and effect’ relationships as in stories (i.e. this leads to that because…). Yet in narrative they always are. And in the real world people are not either good (i.e. ‘heroes’) or evil (i.e. ‘villains’); but in narrative they always are to some degree at least. And so on. For better or worse, we tell and hear of world events as narratives and media producers know this and use it to create media texts that rely on narrative structures and forms to be absorbing, compelling and convincingly realistic. Because of this, filmed narratives can easily trick us into thinking we are viewing a real ‘window on the world’.
Genre means the type/kind of narrative being told, e.g. detective, sci-fi, horror, etc. Genre defines a text by its similarities to other texts. Importantly, when we watch a genre film we have many pre-existing expectations of the types of characters, setting and events we want to see (prediction is a major aspect of our enjoyment of a film, and genre helps this). Genre conventions are an important way a director can create believable ‘versions of reality’ because we fail to see that what is shown is not reality at, all, but a media convention that we have become accustomed to seeing in that kind of film. So… we don’t mind the owner of a casino being horribly killed because we see him, in the gangster genre as naturally a ‘villain’. Film companies use genre to sell and make films: a popular genre creates a greater chance of commercial success; and genre can be cost effective, making it cheaper to write new stories and reducing the need for entirely new sets. Iconography is an important aspect of genre. We come to expect to see certain objects within the mise-en-scene of a particular genre, for example, in a Western, we expect to see dusty lonely roads, saloon bars, cowboy hats and horses, jails, sheriffs badges, etc.; in a modern horror film, we expect lonely girls, ‘normal’ objects, use of dark and light, etc. These ‘genre indicators’ are called the iconography of the genre. Celebrities and film stars are an important part of the iconography of cinema and TV.
Different stars can be important signifiers of meaning. They can create expectations of character and action, help identify genre, and create powerful iconic representation of such as masculinity and femininity. Cinema and TV are able to offer high levels of ‘realism’: the bright screen, the clear and powerful Dolby sound, darkened room, etc. are highly compelling and persuasive. Such ‘appearance of reality’ is given the odd name of verisimilitude. This is yet another convention of course – there is nothing ‘realistic’ about an image on a flat screen.
There are two kinds of verisimilitude: generic verisimilitude is the ‘realism’ that convinces us because of the genre we are watching (in the horror genres it seems highly realistic for a vampire to sink his teeth into a person’s neck); cultural verisimilitude is the kind of reality that convinces us because it looks like the way things are or should
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Renier van Loggerenberg
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