‘That’s Entertainment’: Making Meaning in Films

The cinema has become, perhaps after television, the most popular form of visual entertainment in the modern world. Every night, millions of people sit down to watch either a film on TV, a film on video, or else a film on the silver screen, at the cinema.

Cinemagoers walk away from film theatres satisfied with what they have seen, or disappointed, with some taking a sort of neutral view of the film’s quality. All, however, have been in communication with the messages put forward by the film.

Unlike printed text, which uses the word, or music, which utilizes sound, the medium of film uses several different ‘tracks’ to reach its audience. These are image, music, dialogue, noise, and written material.

These five are mixed by the film’s producers to form a ‘language’, though this is not the language of the word, the sentence or the text, but the language of the sign. All five are projected out to the audience, and each of the five constitutes a sign, a signifier, for something else. The language of film is the language of semiotics, the language of the sign.

The term ‘signifier’ is used to denote the physical form of the sign. In a film, this could be a smile, a red traffic signal, dramatic music, a shout, or the words of a letter someone is reading. Each signifies something, represents something else.

A smile might signify happiness, joy or love, but it might also signify a triumph of some sort for the person smiling. Everyone knows that a red traffic light means ‘STOP’.

Dramatic music could mean that something important is about to happen. A shout usually signifies danger or pain of some sort, but that might depend on the context in which the shout is heard. Finally, the words of a letter someone is reading on screen use the semantics of language, English, French, or Arabic, for example, in ways that we are familiar with. The word ‘dog’, for example, in the English language, represents the canine species so familiar to pet lovers, and that despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing ‘dog-like’ in the letters of the word D-O-G. The word is also a signifier.

These examples of signifiers and the things they signify, the signified, using real items, the referents, point to several important features of the language of the sign. For the signifiers to represent something to on an audience, they must be sufficiently universal to be fully and quickly understood by everyone watching. A green light that stops the traffic would puzzle everyone.

However, it is worth noting that film makers can use these ‘universals’ to some effect. If a person who has just lost a race smiles into the camera rather than frowns, the audience may be alerted to the fact that something out of the ordinary is happening; that the person intended losing the race, for a reason that might become apparent later in the film. In a letter, the word ‘DOG’ might turn out to be code for ‘SPY’, for example, and this points to yet another facet of the sign, that the context in which it appears helps determines its meaning.

A shout heard at a local football match might mean only that a goal has been scored, in a battle, that someone has been mortally injured. Within different contexts, however, a universality must apply. If it does not, that particular use of the signifier would appear either inappropriate, or misleading.

Finding meaning from apparently meaningless events is a very human trait, and the effect discovered by Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s in the former Soviet Union, and after whom it is named, is that two shots shown in quick succession in a film, one after the other, are not interpreted separately in the viewer’s mind. They are interpreted as being causally related. A + B = C, in which A and B are the two shots, and C is a new value that is not originally included in the two shots.

So, for example, if the first shot is of one showing bombs dropping from a plane, and the second shows a village in flames, the audience will assume that the bombs hit the village and destroyed it.

This accords with that peculiar characteristic of humans; their quest for meaning in otherwise meaningless items. This has its equivalent in language too. Two sentences that appear one after the other will invariably be treated as being causally connected, even though there may be nothing to suggest that.
A: The bombs fell from the plane.
B: The village was completely destroyed..
C: It would be assumed here that the village was destroyed by the same bombs that dropped from the plane. What works on film sometimes works with language too.

In today’s films, this is used to great effect, and is reminiscent of film director, Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to would be film-makers; “Don’t tell, show.” This seems to suggest that the five ‘tracks’ of film language are more powerful when used together than merely the spoken word on film. Even Shakespeare commented that, ‘the eye is more learned than the ear,’ suggesting that we do indeed learn more from being shown than being told.

In the well known series of James Bond films, for instance, the utter ruthlessness of the villain, be he a megalomaniac or a drugs baron, is depicted not so much by words about him, but rather by scenes showing an unsuspecting former confidant of his coming to a grizzly end in a tank full of piranhas or something equally distasteful and spectacular.

That he is devious in the extreme is shown in the early sequences by the friendly and urbane hospitality he shows to the hero of the hour -007.

The scenes in which he shows his true colours, come as no surprise to an audience expecting some exotic, high-tech form of brutality from Bond’s adversary.

Those of us who have seen all those films know exactly what to expect and are never disappointed. In a sense, the ‘language’ of the film extends a communication to us over several films, and to that extent, James Bond films may be said to be formulaic and predictable. Giving the public what they want, however, works at the box office; sequels sell.

In terms of what the audience bring to the film-theatre, I suppose by far the most important is expectation, the anticipation that what they are about to see on film is the same as what they expect. Trailers, adverts and the almost innate knowledge of the modern cinemagoer regarding the stars as well as the producers coalesce to ensure that all the industry’s blockbusters make money.

More unconsciously, audiences bring what has been called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to the performance and while this is more in evidence and more necessary for audiences watching live performances on stage, it is still a vital part of an audience’s participation in the cinema. Some film theorists point to the fact that a three-dimensional image, with depth and field, is projected onto a two-dimensional screen and yet still perceived as being three-dimensional, as evidence that an audience is willing to suspend some of their disbelief. The technology of the film industry giants is so extraordinary though as to render this statement quite meaningless.

In the film ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for example, the appearance of enormous mammoths in the midst of thousands of fearsome looking orcs does not really require much suspension of disbelief; everyone watching this wonderful film is well aware that such creatures do not exist anywhere on the planet. Where disbelief must be suspended initially is in entering Tolkien’s world of dragons, dwarfs and hobbits. The total universe of Middle Earth is more subtly projected. An inability to be fully engrossed in this world may interfere with any enjoyment gained from watching the film, or may prevent that person from seeing the film in the first place.

Art is not nature, art holds a mirror up to nature, or so we are told, but it is the holding and in the choosing what part of nature is mirrored that makes film so fascinating and meaningful. The people watching the film in the splendid isolation of the darkened cinema enjoy a form of entertainment in which this one-way communication operates, only bringing to the scene what they can: their participation in the culture in which they dwell, and their wish to know that they are not alone in this world.

It is this identification with the characters in the film that hinders their critical appraisal of it. Bertolt Brecht knew it and took steps to avoid it, but Hollywood revels in it. More identification with the leading character/s sells more tickets. Leave the critical theorizing to Media-studies courses at university. ‘Not a dry eye in the house’ is what every successful film director aims for.

Suspense, letting the audience know something that the person on screen does not know, is one of the many devices used by skillful directors. The screams heard when the woman is stabbed in the shower in the Hitchcock classic; ‘Psycho’ were probably nothing to do with the amount of pain being inflicted by the knife. Audiences cannot really imagine that. The screams were caused by the shock of the situation; the extreme levels of identification with the victim, the feeling of the powerlessness of either the victim on-screen, or the audience off, unable to stop the attack.
Why then do people go willingly to see a film they know, even hope, will terrify them?

They are experiencing something out of their total range of experience, and doing it in comfort too. They are alone, even in a packed cinema. Cinema is not a community event, it is an individualized one. In the cinema, the audience is held enthralled, in a way that is rarely possible watching the TV or a video on TV. The film on the big screen cannot be stopped. The drama unfolds with or without your presence, and few people leave in the middle of a film. That’s entertainment!

Top Tips for Getting Started in the Film Industry

BECOMING a movie maker has never been easier since the invention of digital technology. As there are no ‘official’ movie making courses as such, getting started can often be confusing for the newbie. But like most things, if you know where to look, you can be up and running pretty quick with the basics.

Film making doesn’t require a ‘DEGREE’ as such, and is more a trial and error industry where you learn on the job.


The best way to get started is to actually watch lots and lots of different movies. Buy DVDS, go to the cinema, and rent them. However, you need to be paying more attention to the filming of a scene rather than the characters, and the plot, although, all three of these are entwined in the movie making process.As Academy Award Winner Martin Scorsese said in one of his autobiographies, he didn’t go to film school, he just went to the movies.


If you are just interested in the basic the best way to get started in the industry is to buy a basic set of courses that are available online. These are not expensive, and are a good grounding to get started. These courses will often show you what type of equipment you will need as an independent movie maker. But with the invention of digital technology, you will be able to get started on a shoe-string budget.


IF you are looking to get ‘hands on’ with making movies, then film school is an option, but they can be expensive, and sometimes, forking out hundreds is not always the best option. Many of the best movie makers actually started their careers with little or no ‘certified’ training, as was said by all the great directors, making movies is about creativity, knowing what techniques will work best through watching as many movies as you can. There are a couple of good film schools online, that don’t break the bank.

Deciding where to get started is a minefield, but it is just a question of finding a method that is right for you.

Top Film Schools – How to Turn Out to Be an Expert in the Film Industry

Top film schools are able to provide you the top certification or degree in Cinematography and film production and pave the way to a career as a cinematographer, producer, director, scriptwriter or film critic. Attending the program of Cinematography and Film Production at one of the top film schools will make you become able to obtain a professional certificate or degree at the associate, baccalaureate or master’ s level in media history, camera use, ethics, digital film-making, film editing or other areas related to film media and motion pictures.

Blending vision with technological expertise, courses in this domain can be offered at community colleges, vocational schools or four-year colleges and universities with top film schools. Choosing the most suitable school is complicated, but collecting as much information as possible regarding the top film schools may help you in your decision and make your selection easier.

The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is constituted by (USC) USC School of Cinematic Arts, the United States first film school and a top film school in the nation, which was founded in 1929. Its departments involve production for film and television, criticism, animation, screenwriting, producing and interactive media. All these departments of study provide undergraduate degree programs, that can lead to a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA). This is not relevant to producing.

Production programs are integrated in the graduate possibilities and can lead you to a Master of Fine Arts (MFA); at the same time, students that opt for the Critical Studies program are able to obtain a Master of Arts or PHD. US News and World Report ranked University of South California in 2010 as the 26th top university in US, and the section of Cinematic Arts is one of the top film schools in US, with a great number of students nominated for the Academy Award. One of the highest rated film schools in US is Tisch School of Arts, part of the New York University (NYU), and its Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television offer best film programs.

The classes for undergraduate students involve film history, production, animation, directing, acting, audio production, editing, scriptwriting and film criticism. A graduate student can earn a degree at the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film-making or a dual MFA and Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Producing. While in this program MFA students must make at least five movies and also work as crew-members and camera operators on their classmates’ activities In 2010 as well, US News and World Report rated NYU as the 32nd best university in the state.

Part of the top film schools in US is the University of Chicago’ s Committee on Cinema and Media Studies in Chicago, IL, source of best-rated degrees in Film and Cinematography at the Bachelor of Arts level in Cinema and Media Studies to undergraduates and a PHD in Media Studies to graduate students. US News and World Report ranked it in the function of one among the top film schools in US, hosting the Film Studies Center, with a series of over 10,000 films, discs and videos. Its courses are configured for video production, history, theory, criticism, Film and various other sections. Another best-ranked academic institution in US is the University of Chicago, a private four-year training, whose full student enlistment is over 14,000, with a 2,000 units built for college and college students.