George Lucas Educational Foundation

Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy

The filmmaker touches on topics ranging from the importance of teaching visual literacy to violence in films to the preservation of classic movies. More to this story.
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Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy (Transcript)

Scorsese: You know, I come from a working class family. My mother and father weren’t well-educated. Second generation, I guess, Italian American. And there was no tradition of reading in the house. No books. Of course, I read in school, etc. I read books in school and that sort of thing, but the-- it was more of a visual tradition, more if-- I was taken to movie theaters a lot. Also, being a sickly child with very severe asthma, I couldn’t play sports. So, again, the movie theater. The movie theater and the church. The church and the movie theatre. And so, along with the films, there was also the advent of television, 1948, ’49, in the heyday of really the best-- some of the best programming in American television-- in the history of American television up to this point with the fifties, 1950s. And so I saw a lot of television shows, but also films on television. Being a working class family, too, they didn’t have enough money to go to the theatre, so theatre wasn’t an option, live stage shows. So, it was mainly visual literacy what was-- was what was happening at that time to me. I did not understand that that was happening. What it made me realize was that there was an intelligence, another kind of intelligence, that was trying to tell a story through where the director, the writer and the cinematographer, where they were focusing your eyes, you know. Whether it was the-- the camera may be at an extremely low angle, looking up at you, the use of the lens, the size of the lens. I began to understand certain lenses did-- interpreted the story differently. A longer lens crushed everything together and made it flat. A wider lens stretched everything and some don’t distort it, especially if camera movement-- I learned looking at certain pictures, particularly Welles’s films and William Wyler, too. A wide angle lens, but Wyler used his wide angle lens in a very strong, steady image, but Welles used that wide angle lens, 18 mm, it turns out very often, to move along the walls, move along-- and you really felt-- I felt as if the camera was flying, as if the story was flying by, you know. I didn’t know why until I kept seeing the films again and again, and as I began to know a little more about what filmmaking was like and what cameras did, and at that’s-- I still didn’t know who made the pictures, you know, but I was beginning to understand that there are certain tools you use, and those tools become part of a vocabulary that’s just as valid as that vocabulary that is used in literature and our language.

Scorsese: One has to begin, I think, reach younger people at an earlier age for that to shape their minds to-- in a critical way-- a critical way of looking at these images and what they mean and how to interpret imagery. And I think in a more official way, I think, than just punching up on a computer or seeing something on a TV commercial or something like that. I think you really need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed through a visual form. Now that for- that form could be video, you know, or film, probably eventually be digital video from a long period-- for a long time to come, but it still has the same rules. And it still has the same vocabulary, and it still has the same grammar, I should say, really the same grammar. And the grammar is panning left and right, tracking in or out, you know, booming up and down, intercutting a certain way, use of a close-up as opposed to a medium shot. Was is a medium shot? What is a long shot? All these sort of things and how do you use all of these elements and the different kinds of lighting, and how you use all these elements to make an emotional and psychological point to an audience, and I think we have to begin to teach our younger people how to use this very powerful tool, because we know film, the image, can be so strong for-- not only for good, for good use, but also for bad use. Look at World War II and look at the films that were made in Germany. Look at the great director, Leni Riefenstahl. Look at her “Triumph of the Will” and how that really-- the extraordinary ability she had as a filmmaker that helped shape the policies of the Third Reich, and of course, we know what that lead to. And so film is very powerful. Images are very powerful, I should say, and we have to start-- begin to teach younger people how to use them and what they-- and at least to begin to understand to interpret them.

Scorsese: I think it is good if a young person wants to express themselves and take a video camera and go out. They’re going to find that they have to frame the image, and in framing the image, they’re going to find that they have to interpret what they want to say to an audience. And how do you point the audience’s eye to look where you want them to look and to get the point, the emotional, psychological point that you want to get across to them. They’re going to have to make that decision. The real making of the filmmakers when they look through that viewfinder to tell the story, and I don’t mean just telling a story man goes, you know man-- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. No, I mean a story could be the story-- a story could be rain hitting a tree, leaves. That could be your story, you know, but how? Where do you begin to put the camera? Then let them see what they do. Then, you know, I mean, yes, there’s a curiosity in children and young people. They may try one or two and then they realize it’s not for me, and they move on, but there might be those one or two that realize, “And if I put the camera under this leaf and I see this drop of rain coming at it, I get it in such a way, and if I wait for a certain hour in which the sun is glistening and then...” Who knows? May not be a filmmaker. May be a great painter, but you’ll find that they will learn. They will learn as they do it. At the same time, at the same time, the respect for the language of cinema itself, the history should be taught and the visual literacy should be taught, because there are others who are not going to be able to do that. There are others who can’t afford to get a camera, and this is one of the things. My-- where I came from, we couldn’t afford any 8 mm cameras or anything like that. I drew pictures. I imagined that they moved, but I drew them.

Scorsese: You know, violence is an all-- is an encompassing word. It’s a word that takes in so much. It depends on the world you’re depicting. It depends on the audience you’re aiming for, and then there’s the issue of your responsibility to the story and to the world that you’re depicting, and if you’re going to go on a realistic basis, let’s say, where a world I came from, although is good, hardworking people trying to raise a family respectably, there was a lot of organized crime, and I saw a lot of violence where I grew up. I just saw it. It was part of me. When it came time for me to make movies, I knew those films were not for children. That was a time before-- that was a time with the rating system, but it was before cable television. I knew those films would never be shown on television, and if they were, they’d be edited to the point where they were unintelligible and I couldn’t care less, because I wouldn’t want them shown at six o’clock at night or eight o’clock at night for a child of mine to see. The violence that I have in my pictures and again, you know, be self-criticized, people say sure, you know, “The kind of violence you do, you think is alright, but for anybody else who does it, you’re criticizing them.” But when we’re talking about the violence in my films, it’s not pleasant. It’s not pleasant, and I’ve just finished a film, now. I’m working on this film right now, which is very violent. And it’s not pleasant at all. And it’s not-- you reap what you sow in the stories I’m trying to tell, and I don’t know any other way to show it. And it-- and there’s also to deal with the very, very dangerous aspect of that adrenaline one has as young that could be expressed many different ways and some sort of excitement, whether it’s sexual excitement or violence or whatever, there’s that danger that one has to know. That’s part of what it is being human, especially young, and that could go wrong. And when it goes wrong, this could happen. Now, the world I came from, the world I knew, or aspects, I should say of the world I knew, a lot of times was a valid form of expression. That’s the world I’m-- that’s the world I’m-- that’s the human condition. That is the human condition, and it’s tragic and it’s set up in such a way that will-- it will do us in as a species, if we don’t learn about it. I don’t put it up there for people to enjoy it, you know? And if they are enjoying it, they catch themselves enjoying it, and the characters pay for it. Watch the characters pay for it, particularly in “Goodfellas” and in “Raging Bull”, in this film, “The Departed”, which I just finished also.

Scorsese: Well, I think you have to make room for film in curriculum. I don’t think it’s time, and I don’t-- and this is a key thing, we don’t mean to be having young people take two hours of their time or three hours of their time a week or however the curriculum works to just sit and enjoy a movie. No. This is a learning experience. That also doesn’t mean that you take a notebook and you write down everything in the notes as you’re watching the film, because you can’t see the film. So, what you’re doing is training the eye and the heart of the student to look at a film in a different way by asking questions and pointing to different ideas, different concepts, suggestions. You’re training them to think about a story that’s told to you in visual terms in a different way and to take it seriously. I don’t say it’s a great film. You can learn more from even a bad film, you know, and so, uh.. this is why it’s so important, I think, because so much in-- of today’s society is done visually and even subliminally for young people that it could be dangerous, and one has to know it’s a very, very powerful tool.

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Video Credits

Interview by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Camera Crew:

  • Dominic Orlando
  • Matt LaGreca

Comments (25) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John Middleton's picture

I teach English and Film Arts at a high school in San Diego. For Film Arts, I use the book "The Art of Watching Films." For English, I use that book as well as the media literacy sections in the McDougal-Littell textbooks. Many high school ELA standards lend themselves to the teaching of visual literacy, and Film Arts employs a combination of those ELA standards, VAPA/Visual Arts standards, VAPA/Theatre standards, and CCTE Arts, Media and Entertainment Industry Sector standards.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

The only problem with using Hollywood or even independently produced product as a visual aid in the classroom is that so much of it is historically inaccurate and biased. Even documentaries are often biased. To properly educate, a teacher should present both sides of most any issue and let students decide which side to believe. I know of a teacher who taught 20th century world history and showed film of the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yet, not one mention was made of the atrocities committed by Japan upon the people of occupied China, especially during the Massacre of Nanking in 1937, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers. A documentary about that horrific event exists, but the teacher, perhaps inadvertently, injected bias into the lesson not showing it.

It's like teaching a unit on American Indians and showing only "Dances with Wolves." It's the cinematic equivalent of a history book written by Howard Zinn with a singular point of view.

Film is more visual and hence, more powerful at presenting a message. I see fewer opportunities for bias in film adaptations of fiction novels, such as the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird or the 1984 British version of 1984.

Speaking of Martin Scorsese ... I clearly remember the firestorm of controversy when his The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988. Since that time, it has become an accepted companion piece in theological studies as offering an alternate view of the Gospels, even in parochial institutions. I showed it to my film production class at Villanova University in 2004 without incident or complaint.

Above all, we must offer students choices in what to believe. Too many teachers use their positions as bully pulpits for their own political views. Film choices, like book choices, have to be carefully considered.

Maya Gorum's picture

I agree with you that using classic films will make learning more meaningful and exciting. Movies are so popular, and any time teachers can use things that students are interested in to teach, it is great to do so. Not only does it keep students interested, but it shows them that learning does not stop at school, and that there are opportunities to learn everywhere!

paigeg's picture

I think that it is great to be able to use visuals when it comes to learning. Being able to see ideas and emotions is so important. When we see things visually, we can add meaning to words, pictures and emotions. I like how Scorsese mentions that the vocabulary is the same. Visual learning is just as important and powerful. I agree when he says that is a way to interpreting and expressing oneself. It also can be used to keep students engaged. I like using visuals because for me, it puts meaning behind what I am learning and I make more connections with the world around me. In my classroom, the students use different visuals and it is positive when it comes to their learning and how they process what it being presented to them. Students learn differently, so when we can incorporate different tools in the classroom, it helps students use different resources. I think visual literacy also teaching students to question what they see. So it is not just visually stimulating, but it can help students gain critical thinking skills as well. I want to be able to use visual literacy for students to question, discuss and engage in what they are learning and make connections.

Mike's picture

Hello Paige,
I totally agree with what you said about making more connections with the visuals. I feel the same way. I suppose it's because I was taught these abstract concepts with nothing to connect it to. I also wanted to mention that kids today are watching YouTube to learn stuff. I know that's what my son does, he doesn't watch television like I do. Plus this can be used as a tool to help kids make their own YouTube videos and they could become an internet star.

Emilia Meyer's picture

I agree that a lot of our past films are biased and unfairly represented but I don't think that is Scorese's point. He is not suggesting we let students know about the content but rather the cinematography and how that plays a role in how we feel about the film. How filming from an areal perspective when showing a war gets us a closer feeling of the immensity that a war can offer. Regardless of the content, if we can show students to look past the inaccuracies than this is a perfect tool. Visual literacy lets us imagine vocabulary in a different way than we may have when just taking one approach to the viewing.

Alexandra Anzaldua's picture

I think visuals are extremely important. I agree with a user above who mentioned YouTube. We use youtube all day in my classroom. I also agree with the use of classic films. I loved when we would read a book and them compare the movie if we could in school. I also think that video technology is important in schools.

RadRedway's picture
Student Teacher

Jennifer, thank you for sharing your experience of using visual literacy with your students. I find it heartening that your students are exploring their own identity and probably also their own emotions through their creation of film. You have provided a whole new advantage to the use of film in the classroom. I remember when I first discovered photography in High School, and a whole new world opened up to me. It taught me awareness of my surroundings, portrayal of emotion, and most importantly, of stories like M.S. talks about in his video. By using film we are doing more than supplementing students learning, we are giving them a chance to explore and enjoy on their own accord. After watching this video and being inspired by your experience, I think I may search for ways to gracefully incorporate the concept in my lesson plans. I am at a pueblo school, where photos and film are superstitiously viewed and I greatly fear pushing boundaries. However, the kids show interest in it and I can clearly see the benefit educationally as well as personally for my students. After all, the content is all around them, from YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, documentaries, etc., it is imperative we give our students the tools to evaluate these surroundings and their own portrayal they put out into the world.

Thank you again for the inspiration.
-Jazzmin Redway

Micayla Kavanaugh's picture

Maya, I think the concept of movies and using that form of multi media in your classroom is so important. I think people can often be lazy with it at school and only use it when they don't feel like teaching, but it can be so helpful for students to see things through different lenses. I am in a "Books and Related Materials for Young Adults." and that is all the class is about. I really do enjoy learning about it, and how if it is used effectively, it can be really beneficial for students.

winnek's picture

Multi media use in the classroom is so important for modern day students, it is a way of differentiating at a level that makes learning accessible to all students. With the "regular classroom" model of a teacher standing in front of a class, data has shown students struggle to engage. Students all have different types of learning styles, whether auditory, visual, written, or kinesthetic. By including media into our classrooms, we can reach a multitude of students as they learn (allow they to fidget or walk as they listen and watch). Additionally, it provides students a space to feel as though they do not have to be at the center of attention, which is oftentimes a deterrent for students who want to engage in classroom conversations or learning dialogue opportunities. While not all movies provide exactly the correct re-telling of events, this is also true for modern classroom books (if there was anything I learned while teaching on Navajo is that there are often so many identities that have been left out of the conversation that not everything we read is true, sometimes it intentionally dissuades us from learning tragic truths).

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