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 Writing a Film Essay: A Planning guide

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Film Example: City of God (2002)

We’ve all had those moments as students when working at the corner shop for the rest of our lives seemed like a better option than battling our way through the essay writing process. Sometimes a degree just does not seem worth the daily (okay, nightly) quest to rediscover that intelligence our parents so proudly said we had when they sent us off into the wide-wide world. If you are anything like I was, you would be looking at a mountain of notes and leftover food that have somehow infiltrated your room. You would think at that point that all trace of creativity has gone the way of the dodo.

I know I have had many such a moment when asked to write an essay. One late night however, while downing the cold residue of my tenth coffee, I had a moment of clarity. ‘Eureka!’, I thought as I frantically dove into the sea of notes in front of me – desperate to find my only pen. ‘Quick! I must make ANOTHER note before I forget I had a useful thought.’ This is what I wrote down:

Blog process steps2

It is harder to do than it looks, but by the time I got to my postgrad studies, I had this system down to the point that even my notes became organised. I realised much later that I also took significantly less notes as a result. In fact, they could mostly be contained in a single folder as opposed to the entirety of my room. I remember one of my closest friends once asked me why I didn’t have as many notes as she did. At the time, I did not actively realise that it could have something to do with this system. It is only since working fulltime at Cinéma Humain on my professional dream that I am able to see the value of the system I developed years ago out of sheer necessity.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing this process with you while providing downloadable resources to help you on your way. My focus is particularly on film, so the case studies I offer will usually lean in the direction of my own discipline, but I expect some of the same principles apply to other fields within the humanities as well.

At a later date, I will provide a PDF that will assist you in keeping control over any note-taking madness. In this post however, I will guide you through using the two-page planning resource already available in the Cinéma Humain Store. Hopefully, sharing this now will help you find the way back to your desk from underneath that stack of notes on your bed.

Consequently, this post takes the film City of God (2002) as a case study so as to more effectively illustrate how to use the resource I have developed. This is of course only one way of approaching the planning process, but it has been one that helped me quite a lot. I hope it does the same for you:

Step 1: What does the Question require of me?

As mentioned above, this is a writing resource specifically for film students who need to write an analytical essay about a specific film. This style of academic writing is usually called ‘close analysis’ of a filmic text.

Remember! This is just intended as a resource, it doesn’t replace anything you are taught or asked to do at university. It is intended to assist you in navigating through all the information you gather while researching an essay.

Step 1 essentially entails considering the essay question in detail. So, start by isolating the key terms within the question. This will allow you to systematically build your thoughts around those terms, which would in turn insure that you do not lose track of what is actually asked of you.

In the case of our example, this would be:

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  1. City of God (2002)
  2. Visual Style
  3. Social Realities in Brazil

Step 2: Some details about the film

This part of the planning process concerns itself with some of the key facts about the film you are supposed to be analysing. This should not take you a long time to complete. Writing the information down however will make things quicker later on in the process – especially when you just want to remind yourself of these facts without having to look them up again elsewhere.

Keeping everything at your fingertips is the idea behind the whole document.

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Aspects to consider is:
  1. Topic
  2. Genre
  3. Main Characters
  4. Key Plot Moments

Step 3: Stylistic Elements of the Film

Step 3 is the MOST FUN! So try and enjoy it as much as you can.

Here, I suggest you work with different kinds of post-it notes in order to make things visually organised and easy to understand at a glance.

Elements of your chosen film’s mise-en-scène are to be considered in this section. This is everything we see within the frame of a shot and includes:
  1. Camera work (movement, angle)
  2. Editing
  3. Actors
  4. Performance
  5. Lighting
  6. Set
  7. Décor
  8. Props
  9. Costume
  10. Colour

(and more)

In the case study, I focused on camera work, editing, colour, actors and performance.

Step 4: The Film's Relationship to the Question

In this section we start actively relating the information about the film we’ve accumulated so far with elements of the question above.

Step 4 therefore involves narrowing down our focus by identifying key issues, key moments and key terms that we can apply in the essay to illustrate our involvement with the subject and its issues.

You will notice that by doing this, you begin to see which sequences are most relevant to your perspective on the question.

Step 5: Chosen Sequences

Step 5 is probably one of the most important steps because it forces you to choose the sequences you will be analysing in your essay. Often students struggle to stay focused on only a few moments in the film – a problem that results in a piece of work that remains analytically superficial.

I usually suggest students to pick one or two key sequences (depending on your word count). Picking specific sequences however does not prevent you from referring to other moments in the film, but it allows you to stay focused on doing a close textual analysis. 

Step 6: Secondary Resources

After having considered the film as well as its relationship to your question, it is time to start supporting your views with secondary resources such as edited collections, books, articles, journals etc.

Personally, I found it more effective to begin with my own perspective before thinking about secondary material. Approaching it from the other way around, i.e. from the perspective of other academics, often results in an essay that is over-reliant on quotes and less involved with the stylistic choices within the film itself.

Step 6 is thus exclusively concerned with resources that you have come across while researching the topic. However, it is crucial not to add everything you have read here. That is neither necessary nor a good idea. Only write down quotes, expressions and thoughts that would support your personal perspective on the question. Your own view on the subject should be clear by now given the work you have already done in the previous steps.

In our case study above, I only included three specific resources I found most useful. From these books I focused on six concrete chapters/articles that I deemed most suitable for the argument I wish to make.

Step 7: Final Arguments

The final step in the process already suggests the form or structure your essay will finally take on, in that it isolates three core arguments out of which your overall perspective on the question is gleaned.

Isolating three points is usually enough. It allows you to go into some detail as to the sequences you chose to analyse, while also making a general judgement on the quality of the film and its message.

Important is that your overall stance toward the question should clearly reflect some of the key aspects you have isolated in Step 1.

If you have completed all seven of these steps, you are ready to move on to finalise your essay’s structure and to start writing!

A Friendly Request

I hope that this case study as well as the resource itself will help you in finding your way towards writing your final essay.

I would appreciate it if you would consider supporting me by purchasing the planning resource from our store. It is not a lot of money, but your support allows me to continue developing guides like this more frequently. Thank you for considering the effort that has gone into creating it for you.

As always, I would love to hear from you. Do you have something that you are particularly struggling with? Maybe I can help. Your views are important to me, so please share them in the comments section below.

Thanks again!

Reina