“Talk that Talk”: The Language of Images and Film

Multimodal texts are all around us. Almost every one of our students engages in multimodal texts from the minute they wake up to the second they go to sleep, so it is important that we teach our students and familiarize ourselves with the semiotic systems which make up these new forms of texts.  Anstey and Bull stress the fact that our students see these semiotic systems in print texts, visual texts (commonly seen in pop-culture and include both still and moving images), and multimodal texts which “rely on the processing and interpretation of print information, with blends with visual, audio, spoken, non-verbal, and other forms of expression produced through a range of different technologies” (102).  Being that there are so many new forms and types of texts available to us, which do you find yourself using the most in your classroom?  Does the type of “text” you use change for different subjects you teach (math, science, history)?

Compare what you use most in school to what you use most in your everyday life. What kinds of texts do you engage in most in your daily life?  Do the kinds of texts you use in your everyday life match the kinds of texts you use in your classroom?  Do you think what is happening in your class has any relevance to the lives of your students?  If not, then you may want to rethink how you are using texts, and if they are reflecting your life more than your students’ lives.

A clip from the movie Clueless which refers to pop culture long before your students were born will definitely not be as meaningful or personally relevant for them as it would be for you. (On a related note, I recently found out that over half of my students had never seen the movie Sandlot. It was a sad day). This means we have to be “in the know” of modern-day versions of these films, and familiarize ourselves with the music of One Direction vs. *NSYNC, for example.

I don’t think One Direction can hold a candle to bands like *NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, but that’s for another post.

But it’s more than about being “hip”, because students can sniff out right away when teachers are trying too hard. It’s about picking and choosing still and moving images that are both current and clearly relate to what students have been learning. It’s about teaching students how to talk about the images they are analyzing and find meaning from them, beyond the surface level. We have to teach them to “go deeper”. Check out this lesson plan which has kids “go deeper” into interpreting their favorite TV programs. Imagine your students filling out the Media Observation sheet after watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars, Sam and Cat, or Spongebob Squarepants!

What’s interesting is that the interpretation of texts is not just about the “reading” skills one has, but it is also constituted in the funds of knowledge the person brings to the table. The interpretation of the text involves “interaction with the text and not merely identifying the meaning of the text” (105).  In other words, whenever we or our students interpret an image, a film clip, a painting, etc., we are bringing our own personal experiences and our perspectives to our interpretations. One way we can have our students realize this fact is by viewing, talking about, and analyzing advertisements, determining how our interpretation is shaped by the author’s choices and whether the author’s perspective matches our own.

View the advertisement below and see how you interpret it with these questions in mind: What is the purpose of this text? Who is this text produced for? From whose perspective is the text constructed? Whose interests are being served by this text? Who is included or excluded from this text and why? Are there any stereotypes represented or challenged?

If you had trouble making meaning of that text, then perhaps you need to brush up on your semiotic systems.  Semiotic systems are “systems of signs that have shared meaning within a group, whether societal or cultural, that allow members to analyze and discuss how they make meaning” (107).  Our job as teachers can be to teach students the metalanguage to talk about and make sense of the construction of texts like still images.  For example, many codes make up still images: color, texture, line, shape, and form. These codes are combined through the conventions of balance, layout, and vectorality to make meaning.  Students need to be able to communicate how meaning in still images is conveyed by consuming the text and also how it can be conveyed by producing the images within the print text.

Thinking back to the amount of time you spend engaging in different types of texts, estimate the amount of time you spend teaching about still images (codes and conventions) and the amount of time your students spend engaging in them.  Do you see any discrepancy between the amount of time your students are learning about the codes and conventions and the amount of time they are engaging in it?  It’s not enough for students to simply analyze still images; they need to put those skills into practice by creating their own!

Try examining still images by using the picture below from a well known picture book.  Think about the things you need to know about the codes and conventions of still images by focusing just on color.  How do you crack this image using what you know about the codes of color? How does the code (color) relate individually and in combination, that is, through balance and layout?

Just as important as the semiotic system of still images is the semiotic system of moving images.  Because students these days are constantly exposed to TV, video, film, as well as consuming and producing their own videos, it is in our best interest to teach our students the codes and conventions of moving images. For example, we can explain to students the different types of shots, such as close-ups, medium, and long shots, and examine the effects of camera angles on portraying certain characters by watching and analyzing clips from popular movies.

Watch this clip from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone in which both Harry and the audience meet Professor Severus Snape for the first time. As you watch the clip, pay attention to the use of medium and close-up shots. At what moment do we get a close-up shot of Snape? Why is that significant? What angle is the camera at? Are we looking up or down at Snape? Harry? Why do you think the camera angles for Harry and Snape differ? What effect do these shots and camera angles have on our understanding of Harry and Snape?

Asking your students these questions can help them see how the director wants us to think of Harry and Snape. Students can clearly see how shots and camera angles are chosen for certain effects–in this case, to characterize Snape as powerful and just a little bit scary.

Finally, examine the codes and conventions of film that are in the following music video.  (Warning: Video may not be safe for work, and we wouldn’t suggest showing it to your students. However, your students may be watching music videos of a similar nature, and even music videos can be analyzed for their point of view and messages about gender and sexuality, especially). Watch it one time without the sound and pay careful attention to other codes of moving images, such as point of view or camera position.  Watch it again with the sound on.  How do the codes in this music video reveal meaning?  How much does the sound (or the absence of sound) contribute to the overall meaning? Do you think the producers of this music video intended these messages?  Would this text be consumed differently by people who are similar to or different from you?

By focusing on the codes of still images and film, such as point of view, we can apply this same level of thinking when teaching our students to analyze narrative texts and nonfiction writing.  The relationship between the semiotic system of still and moving images and written language is that both have codes and conventions which have a profound effect on how the text is consumed and produced, and are both equally important to teach our students in this multimodal world!