Professional Learning

Reading Movies: Learning How Film Communicates

Film literacy deserves an Oscar of its own.

March 12, 2007

As our nation focuses on the coming Oscar extravaganza, consider how much attention and excitement the film industry generates -- yet how little we do to prepare students to understand how film communicates so powerfully. I meet many students who are tremendously excited to hear about GLEF and our mission, supported by George Lucas and Lucasfilm. They are hungry for information on how they might prepare to work in the entertainment industry, but they don't see a pathway from their interest in the arts and technology to careers in live-action filmmaking or television production, or animation or video games.

Special note to California policy makers and educators: This is even more unfortunate in our state, the epicenter of the entertainment business, and is a critical workforce-development issue.

Lucas and Martin Scorsese are both familiar to Oscar-ceremony watchers. This year, Scorsese was nominated for the Best Director award for The Departed, and a number of the talented digital artists in visual-effects design and sound design at Lucasfilm were nominated for their work on films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I'll let you in on a secret: Both filmmakers have been significantly involved in nonprofit work to advance the cinematic arts in education.

Of course, those familiar with GLEF will know about Lucas's commitment to education and his concern for the diminution of the arts in education. In a video interview on this site, he says this about today's youth:

"They know music. They may not know the grammar of music. They know cinema, because they spend a huge amount of time in front of the television. So they know visual communication, they know the moving image. They intuitively know a lot of the rules, but nobody's actually taught them. We go through school and learn the grammar of English -- punctuation, capital letters, run-on sentences, what a verb is. But nobody teaches what screen direction is, what perspective is, what color is, what a diagonal line means. . . . Somehow, in the educational system, these need to be balanced out so that kids can communicate using all the forms of communication, especially in this day and age where the power of multimedia is coming to the children."

Lucas and Scorsese both serve on the board of directors of the The Film Foundation, in Los Angeles, which has produced the best curriculum I've seen for aiding teachers and students in the analysis of how films communicate: The Story of Movies. Scorsese played a starring role in its development; he's also featured in its materials, which are intended for middle school classes but, as with all good curricula, can be aged up or down. Its first curriculum unit, on To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 2005 in partnership with IBM and Turner Classic Movies.

"The Story of Movies was not to be just another curriculum on how to make a movie or how to compare a movie to a book," according to The Film Foundation's Web site. "Rather, the focus was to guide students in learning how to read moving images. Although teachers frequently use films in the classroom, film as language and as historical and cultural documents is not widely taught."

On the advice of the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council of Social Studies, the International Reading Association, and other organizations, the curriculum's producers chose three classic films for in-depth study based on their quality, educational value, student interest, and age appropriateness: To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee's novel in 1962, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise in 1951.

When free kits of the To Kill a Mockingbird materials were promoted on Turner Classic Movies, more than 10,000 sets were distributed, an encouraging sign that teachers are eager for high-quality materials on multimedia literacy. Now, teachers can use the materials by downloading PDFs of the teacher and student guides at and obtaining a copy of the film for classroom viewing.

These three films address significant periods in American history, include children in major roles, and address middle school standards related to civil rights and racism, American history, and the role of government and the legal system. The curriculum states that the Story of Movies is an interdisciplinary curriculum developed in accordance with the following fundamental principles:

1. Film is a language. Students study the way in which images are framed, sequenced, paced, and combined with sounds. They analyze the purpose of a shot, as well as its suggested meanings.

2. Film is a cultural document through which we can explore the values and social issues of the past. Students explore the historical period in which the film was made and the social issues relative to the film's themes.

3. Film is a collaborative art, the result of the collaboration of many professionals and artisans spanning science and cinematography, literature and language arts, music, art and design, and digital technology.

The teacher's guide for To Kill a Mockingbird is divided into four chapters, titled "What Is a Movie?" "The Filmmaking Process," "Film Language and Elements of Style," and "Historical and Cultural Contexts," focusing on, for instance, Jim Crow laws and racial violence in the 1930s. Three appendices of teaching resources provide chapter tests and answer keys, performance-based assessment standards, and the National Film Study Standards, developed by the Film Foundation.

In "Film Language and Elements of Style," students are led to consider composition of the frame, the meaning of camera distances and angles, principles of frame lighting -- such as direction, intensity, and quality of light -- how the arrangement of shots suggests sequential action, and how the rhythm, dynamics, and pitch of music communicates meaning.

In the instructional DVD included in the kit, two students, Jody Sutula and Herschel Mirabel, recount their understanding of how one sequence of scenes communicates. Atticus Finch, the lawyer and widower played by Gregory Peck, is putting his daughter, Scout, to bed. Scout asks Atticus about her mother, whom she doesn't remember. The camera moves out of Scout's bedroom window to see Atticus sitting pensively on a two-person porch swing with his arm around the back.

The students describe how these scenes illustrate the inner emotional life of the outwardly stoic Atticus, how he is missing his wife, who might have been sitting next to him on the swing were she still alive, and his concern for raising his children without their mother. As Scorsese says, "What you're doing is training the eye, and the heart, of the student to look at film in a different way, by asking questions and pointing to different ideas, different concepts."

The DVD also includes commentary from Scorsese and Clint Eastwood on their own misconceptions about film when they were boys, such as not understanding that films are shot out of sequence and not realizing the amount of planning that goes into each shot.

These efforts are just the first ones of educators, curriculum designers, and a few celebrity filmmakers to enable more students to be successful in school and life, to paint -- academically speaking -- with a fuller palette on a larger canvas. Our common goal should be to move these early innovations into the mainstream of schooling, redefining the nature of school, curriculum, and student achievement.

Perhaps in 2025, in place of current required courses titled English and those scattered elective courses on Filmmaking or Film History taken only by artistically inclined students, there will be one integrated course required for all students, teaching all forms of media, called Communication. That course might be based on the work of the Film Foundation, which is why I say this year's educational Oscar should go to Martin Scorsese for the Story of Movies.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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