Skip to Main Content

Film & Media Studies Resources: Researching a Film

Best practices in film analysis and research resources in Film and Media Studies.

Watching Film Analytically

1. Start with the assignment.

Review the assignment prompt and identify the tasks your instructor has asked you to perform and the questions you've been asked to address. Write them out at the top of your notes before watching the film.

2. Review film terms.

Review the terms you've learned in class and practice applying them while watching your film. Studying these terms before you begin watching can help you develop abbreviations and avoid searching for these words while you watch.

3. Watch the film.

Watch the film at least once without once before (unless you've seen it before) to watch uninterrupted. When you take notes, be sure to pause when writing. This disrupts the viewing experience. 

Starting the Film Analysis Essay

4. Brainstorm

After you've watched the film at least twice, it's a good idea to brainstorm ideas based on the notes you took. Cluster your ideas around the themes or topics that emerge in your notes, possible in a concept map. If you're writing an argumentative essay, your brainstorming ideas can be used to draft your thesis statement or research question.

Things to remember:

  • Use your assignment prompt as a guide.
  • Write about the film in the present tense in your essay. (i.e., “In Vertigo, Hitchcock employs techniques of observation to dramatize the act of detection.”)

5. Make a research plan.

  • Review your brainstorming notes and decide what type of analysis you want to write.
  • Do you need research or other background information for your essay?
  • Do your sources need to be scholarly or can you use critics' review?

6. Find Sources and Reviews


  • Finding a screenplay/script of the movie may be helpful and save you time when compiling citations. But keep in mind that there may be differences between the screenplay and the actual product (and these differences might be a topic of discussion!). The Popular Culture Library has a great collection of movie scripts. 
  • Reading reviews and other analysis essays between viewings can help your own analysis of the film. Search in Summon or subject databases listed below for the film's title and the ideas you brainstormed to look for sources.

Types of Film Analysis

Symbolic Analysis

Symbolic (or semiotic) analysis is the interpretation of signs and symbols, usually involving metaphors and analogies to both inanimate objects and characters in a film. Because symbols can have multiple meanings, you will need to determine what a particular symbol means both in the film and in a broader context, whether in other films, or in other disciplines, like literature. 

Be sure to bring the analysis back to your thesis, or why this symbolism matters.

Some questions you could ask when writing a symbolic analysis essay:

  • What images or objects are repeated in the film?
  • What colors, clothing, or food is associated with a character?
  • How does a symbol or object relate to other symbols and objects?

Narrative Analysis

Narrative analysis is an examination of the narrative structure, character, and plot of a film (i.e., the story elements). This analysis considers the story the film seeks to tell. 

Questions to consider when writing a narrative analysis:

  • How does the film fit into the Three Act structure?
  • How does the plot differ from the narrative of film? Or, how is the story told? (i.e., Are events presented out of order or chronologically?)
  • Does the plot revolve around one character or multiple? How do these characters develop across the film?

Cultural or Historical Analysis

In this type of analytical essay, you examine a film's relationship to its broader cultural, historical, theoretical contexts. Sometimes films intentionally comment on these contexts, but even if they don't, they are still a product of the culture or time in which they were created. This type of analysis asks how the film models, challenges, or subverts these relationships.

Questions to ask for a cultural or historical analysis:

  • How does the film comment on, reinforce, or critique social and/or political issues at the time it was released, including questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality?
  • How might a biographical understanding of the film's creators and/or screenwriters and their historical moment affect the way the film is viewed?
  • How might a specific theory, such as Queer Theory, Structuralist or Marxist Film Theory, provide a way of analyzing or viewing the film?

Mise-en-scene Analysis

A mise-en-scene (French for "putting on stage") analysis looks at the compositional elements of a specific scene or even a single shot, as well as the how those elements come together to produce meaning. You can focus on anything in the scene, including blocking, lighting, design, color, costume, and how these work in conjunction with other elements, like sound, cinematography and editing.

Questions to ask when analyzing a scene:

  • What effects are created in a scene and what is their purpose?
  • How does this scene represent the theme of the movie?
  • How does a scene work to express a broader point to the film's point?

Film Analysis Books

Chat With Us


This guide was adapted from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center's Film Analysis and Watching Film Analytically.