The Semiotics and Conventions of Television
How do we know how to "read" television?
remembers learning to read a book, but when did you learn to read television or
film? People are not born with the ability to understand a television show or
film. Visual media contain languages with syntax and "punctuation," as if were
written in English. Viewers learn this system of encoding, just as they learned
An argument could
be made that reading
television is more difficult than reading a book. An understanding of English
grammar, punctuation, syntax, and vocabulary are necessary to read the latest
Tom Clancy novel. Reading is no mean feat as anyone who has picked up William
Faulkner for the first time can tell you. Television and film, however, bring
together a multitude of languages presented to us in sound, visuals, motion,
and color. The following is not meant to be comprehensive list of all visual
languages, which become conventions because they are generally recognized by
producers and students of film. Many are discussed in detail in Zettl or Metz.
the camera refers to any choices selected during the process of shooting that
is controlled strictly by changing how the film is exposed or video recorded.
is how the image is arranged within the camera.
- (1.) Over
the shoulder shot is framed with the camera looking over the shoulder of
one person and usually into the face of a second person. Usually the camera
is on the face of the person talking so that the speaker is talking to the
audience members. It also can used to show a reaction shot to what the speaker
says. This shot also indicates the physical distance between two people.-
- (2.) Extreme
close up shows only the head of the person or part of the face. This shot
can also be used to show important objects in great detail. The ECU can
assign importance to the person
being shot or provide intimacy. ECU is used in news when someone is crying
to show the audience the emotion of the person. Can be used in a love scene
to indicate the intimate nature of the relationship since the camera shows
the face at kissing distance.
- (3.) Close up is the head shot or
shoulders up. It lets the viewer to enter the personal space of the person,
usually the speaker.
- (4.) Medium shot is a neutral shot,
showing the person from chest up or waist up. The camera distance reflects
the usual distance of two people talking in our culture.
- (5.) Long shot shows the person from
at least the knees up and places the person within the surrounding context.
Frequently used to establish the scene before going to one of the other
scenes. Can also be used to indicate a great separation between two people.
(6.) Macro is a lens or lens setting
used to make small objections large enough to see, such as an ant on a nature
show. Could be used to create an ECU on the face of watch being shown as an
- (7.) Asymmetry creates tension
or mental stress for the viewer when the camera is tilted so that lines
no longer are parallel for the viewer.
(B.) Angle is the position of the
camera lens in relationship to the person being photographed.
- (1.) Low
is putting the lens below the eye level of the person and shooting up.
This assigns power to the individual. This is frequently done when the
hero is photographed or a character presents the preferred ideological
position of the film.
- (2.) High angle is putting the
lens above the eye level of the person and shooting down. This assigns
weakness to the individual. Low angle is one way of victimizing a character.
- (3.) Eye line is shooting on
the eye line of the character. This is a neutral position, essentially
showing the character as if an audience member was engaging the character.
(C.) Vectors are lines of motion
within the frame that tend to direct the viewer's attention in a particularly
direction. If a person on the left side of the frame extends an arm
and points to the right, viewers will tend to follow the line of motion
of the arm and pointed finger. Among the devices used to create vectors
are arms and legs, gaze, physical objects with strong lines, such as
an open car door beckoning you into the front seat of the car, and lighting.
(D.) Axis is the plane along which
the scene is shot.
- (1.) X axis is a camera shot
on the horizontal axis. This means that the emphasis of the shot is
from the left frame to the right. Most television shows are shot on
the x axis since the screen only holds two or three people comfortably.
The most common TV shot is one person on the left and one on the right
and the action runs on a horizontal line. -
- (2.) Y
axis is a camera shot
on the vertical axis. This means that the emphasis of the shot is
from the top of the frame to the bottom. Very few shots are made on
the y axis, which means that the action runs on the vertical line,
since both television and film are horizontal media.-
- (3.) Z axis means the scene
is shot on a three-dimensional plane. M.A.S.H. and Hill Street Blues
were often shot on the z axis because they had an assemble caste.
By shooting on a z axis, the action in the foreground could be placed
in relationship to the actions of other characters in the background.
selection, selective focus and zooms.
- (A.) Wide angle shot shows the
action in context to the setting. It also be used to create distortion
when used up close on an object or person.
- (B.) Telephoto shot will tend
to separate the image from the background by putting all of the attention
on one plane. As in the Graduate, the scene where Ben runs passed the
telephone poles, a telephoto shot also can used to distort distance,
compressing long distances into a small amount of visual space.
- (C.) Macro shots can
show very small detail, even detail too small to see with the human
eye. Since this is an image than people generally do not see (literally
and figuratively), people will tend to pay attention to macro images.
- (D.) The area in focus is generally
what the audience will see, ignoring images out of focus. Racking focus
in or out changes the direction of the audience's attention. For example,
in TopGun, one scene shows Tom Cruise in focus in the foreground, then
the focus is racketed out to bring Van Kilmer into focus, re-enforcing
visually the competition between the two.
- (E.) Zooming in or out changes
both the focus and, in effect, the lens, permitting combinations of
focus shifting and context placement as described under shots and focus.
In addition, zooming can create a sense of speed when the zoom is very
fast or unusually slow.
(3.) Depth of field refers to the
area in focus. A shallow depth of field will concentrate attention on
one area of the viewing screen. Deep focus means an infinite area is in
focus, such as in a panorama. F-stop or the lens aperture controls depth
of field. Since recording speed is usually a fixed number, illuminating
a large area may be the only to create a large depth of field in film
(4.) Editing is the process, according
to film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, of linking two separate ideas together,
creating a new meaning through the edit. One shot shows the boy, shot
two shows the girl, and by editing them together, the film editor has
created a personal relationship, even if in reality the two never met.
(A.) Cross cutting is described in
the previous paragraph. By cutting from a shot of one person to a shot of
another person or from a person to an object, a relationship between the
two is created. (B.) Eye line
cut is when a person looks in a particular direction, then the film cuts
to another shot. The assumption is that the person is looking at whatever
is shown in the follow shot.
(C.) Montage editing is creating a
relationship between two ideas. If one shot shows a rich man eating and
the follow shot is of a poor baby starving, the conclusion might be drawn
that the rich man is taking food from the mouth of the baby. The most famous
example of montage editing is in Eisenstein's Battleship Potekim, particularly
the baby carriage scene where the cruelty of the Czarist troops is contrasted
with the anguish of the people being shot and the innocence of the baby
in the carriage bouncing down a flight of stairs. (D.) Editing pace and
camera run refer to how long a shot runs before there is an edit. A movie
like Speed has a very fast editing pace, meaning there are many shots edited
together within a one-minute span. A Saturday morning children's hour advertisement
will often have 45 cuts in 30 seconds. A European film will seem to drag
because the camera will be allowed to record continuously for a minute or
more without an edit. A fast editing pace makes the action seem to pass
quickly while a long camera run makes time seem to be more slowly.
(E.) Scene, sequence, and shot are
three different ways of putting film together on the basis of time and space.
The shot is a continuous run of the camera. Scene is two or more shots without
a break in time or space. Sequence is two or more shots with a break in
time or space. In the scene, the audience is a witness to the action the
whole time without a change in location. In the sequence, the audience accepts
ellipses. In a scene, we would watch as a man on the couch, he stands, he
walks to the television, he turns over to the TV, he walks to the table,
he picks up keys, he walks to front door, he opens the front door, he walks
out door, he closes door, he walks down the sidewalk to the car, he puts
a key in car door and unlocks it. In a sequence, we could short cut that
to: shot one of man on couch, shot two of man turning off TV, shot three
of closing the door, shot four of opening car door. (F.) Insert edit is
a shot inserted into the narrative flow. The woman is watching TV, cut to
an insert edit of the clock, cut back to the woman watching TV. The shot
of the clock is an insert edit.
- (G.) Jump cut is an unexplained
break in time and space. Two examples of jump cuts are many MTV videos
and Field of Dreams. A music video might show the band running down the
alley with the crowd in pursuit and then in the next shot show them running
up the alley with the crowd in pursuit without an explanation of how everyone
got turned around. In Field of Dreams Kevin Costner is driving to Boston
to meet James Earl Jones and he practices what he is going to say to the
Jones' character to convince him to accompany him to a baseball game.
The audience sees Costner practicing line after line in a series of shots
that follow one another without explaining the lost time.
(H.) Fades, dissolves, wipes, cuts,
and superimposes. Straight cuts are not the only one to advance from one
shot to another. A fade to black and then returning to image has generally
represented a passage of time. Dissolves indicate a closer relationship
between shots than a cut. Superimposes show the closest relationship between
shots, frequently that a person is thinking about what has been superimposed
over the person's image. Wipes vary in meaning too much to discuss them
except in general as a convention.
- (A.) Diagetic sound is that which
is heard by the actors.
- (1.) Dialogue is the script;
the spoken words.
- (a.) Pitch is how high
or low on the scale the words are spoken in. A recent Domino's
Pizza ad used pitch as a technique. Boys (high pitch) that ate
the deep dish pizza sounded like men (low pitch).
(b.) Tone is the use of voice emphasis to express love, anger,
or other human emotions.
(c.) Delivery is the style which the dialogue is delivered. George
Burns was an excellent comic straight man because he knew whether
to pause after one of Gracie Allen's statements or repeat it.
British stage actors (Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Sir Lawrence
Olivia, Anthony Hopkins) had the delivery of classical stage training.
(d.) Accent is the regional way words are spoken, identifying
for us the person's heritage. In The Clinic, the producers selected
a boy with a rural Tennessee accent (harsh and uneducated) because
that was supposed to be the boy's background.
- (2.) Sound effects are background
noises heard (breaking glass to jet engines) to add realism.
(3.) Music is sometimes played within a scene. Probably no example
is more famous than the "Play it again Sam" scene in Casablanca.
The music sets the mood and reflects the conflict between Greta Garbo
and Humphrey Bogart.
(4.) Non-diagetic sound is heard by the audience, but not the actors.
- (a.) Voice over is usually
done by a narrator, who is a main character telling a story about
the past. The Waltons is a good example as John Boy told us his
childhood story and then used voice over at the end to explain
the lessons he learned.
- (b.) Laugh track is an
audience cue to be amused at what the situation comedy writers
think is funny.
- (c.) Music can be violins
that alert us there is romance, drums that build suspense, or
an orchestra playing as the climax builds. The music is a cue
to how to interpret the action on the screen.
(4.) Props and setting are cues that
tell the audience how to interpret context.
A Winchester rifle belongs to the Western,
an Uzi to Miami Vice. Similarly, the setting presents context. Seinfeld would
be a different program if it was set in Peoria instead of New York City.
(5.) Attire is a short cut, particularly
in television, to informing the viewers about a character.
Bad guys wear black hats has evolved
into The Natural putting Barbara Hershey in black since she is the evil woman,
Glen Close in white because she is the angel that saves the hero, and Kim
Basinger in revealing attire because she is the woman without virtue.
(6.) Make up, like attire, cues us
to the virtue of the character.
Julia Roberts not only changes clothing
in Pretty Woman, but her makeup becomes much more basic and less colorful
as she evolves from hooker into wife.
(7.) Verisimilitude (degree of reality)
is the extent to which the producers want the film or video to appear to
mirror real life.
Roseanne appears to be right out of someone's
living room while the original Star Trek series kept using the same Styrofoam
rocks in episode after episode, reminding the audience that this was a television
(8.) Body language refers to physical
movements that convey information to the audience.
(A.) Proximity usually
means that the closer two characters are to each other, the more intimate
- (B.) Gaze has two conventions associated
with it. When two people's eyes meet, a relationship is presumed to exist.
Also, we have the camera gaze, usually an erotic voyeur gaze of a body
with the camera lens representing the view of the audience.
- (C.) Touch indicates the nature
of a relationship from a punch in the mouth to the caress.
(9.) Reel time versus real time is the relationship between the time that passes within the film when compared to the amount of time that passes in reality.Reel time can be a flashback that supposedly occurs mentally in a few seconds to a millennium as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Real time for most television programs is one-half to one hour.
(10.) Tone of the film refers to the
density of the film as in film noire, a film style mostly of the 1950s.
Film noire genre motion pictures were
over exposed so that the images would appear to be dark, even sinister when
(11.) Motion refers to any movement
on the screen.
(A.) Mise-en-scene is
often associated with "auteurism" or the concept that the film is the product
of its director, reflecting his or her style of production.
- (B.) Primary motion is movement
of people or objects within the frame.
- (C.) Secondary motion is camera
movement, such as pans, tilts, dollies, or trucks.
A pan is moving
the camera head on a stationary tripod on the horizontal plane; a tilt
is on the vertical plane. A dolly is moving the camera and tripod on a
horizontal plane and a truck on the vertical plane.
(D.) Shot pacing is how much
movement occurs within the shot. Action films will usually vary the
pace to give the audience a rest.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example,
opens with lots of action in the opening scene when Indiana Jones finds
the temple god statute and then the pace slows when he returns to the
(12.) Color has become a science in
itself with certain colors reportedly inducing tranquility and others purchasing
Frequently color is associated with attire,
such as a woman in red is very sexual while a woman in pastilles controls
her passions. Men in blue-striped suits are businessmen, while men in brown
sweaters are conservative.
(A.) Filters placed either on the light
source or on the lens can influence the color balance.
A flesh-toned filter can make a person
appear to be warmer and friendlier while blue lights are a convention
for evil. Sometimes an actress' eye color will be deepened by having her
wear colored contact lens.
(13.) Lighting is a discussion of how light
sources are used to create a mood.
(A.) Three-point is the standard
lighting for film and television.
Generally, one side of a person's
face is lit slightly brighter than the other to create a soft shadow that
will present depth when broadcast on a two dimensional screen.
(B.) Backlighting can create several
effects: silhouette, background illumination, or background separation.
A silhouette is when the background
light is brighter than the foreground light, creating a silhouette. A
halo effect can be created if the backlight can shine through the object
being lit. Glen Close in The Natural stands up at the ballpark as the
setting sun backlights her. The light penetrates through her hat, hair,
and the edges of the material of her dress, giving her an unearthly sense.
This fits with her role as the angel that saves the hero.
Background illumination can create a deep background, making possible
z axis shooting and deep focus. Background separation allows the talent
or an object to be separated from a background that would make it difficult
to clearly see the subject. Talent on camera usually have a backlight
falling across head and shoulders to create separation.
(c.) Chiaroscuro is strong,
one-directional lighting, creating deep shadows with heavy contrast against
the lit areas.
- (D.) Flat lighting means turning
on enough lights to essentially eliminate shadows. Usually done
on game shows and news broadcasts since this "neutral" lighting does not
provide for subjective interpretation.
(14.) Point of View is the perspective
from which the story is told.
(A.) First person is
a story told from the I/We position.
- (B.) Third person is a story told
from an objective point of view.
- (C.) Omniscient viewpoint is from
the camera's and audience's viewpoint. We know things going on that
the characters don't. We know there's a bomb in the room, but they don't.
(15.) Speed of recording is the speed
at which the film or video is shot and/or played.
(A.) Slow motion gives
the audience the opportunity to focus on an event and see how it was accomplished.
- (B.) Rapid motion is undercranking
the camera or putting fewer frames through the camera per second (8 fps
for example) than is normal (24 fps). Used in silent movies, particularly
Buster Keaton and Keystone Cops films. The characters appear to be running
(16.) Animation is creating motion through
Traditionally, a stationary camera shot
two frames of a drawing. Slight drawing changes were made and then the revised
drawing was shot. The slight differences would appear to be "movement" when
projected on the screen.
Today, movement is accomplished by writing a computer program that moves objects
and then recording it. Films like Star Wars and Star Trek are made by moving
space ship models one frame at a time. Animation gives film and video creators
the opportunity to think about their craft in new ways, permitting the filming
of that which can't be done in reality.
Most of us are experts are decoding
the array of visual communication presented to us on television and film.
The average American watches TV seven hours a day. If you are average, by
the time you reach 20, you have watched 51,100 hours of television. Either
you spend a lot of time being confused by what you are watching or you have
learned how to decode visual signifiers. In turn, those signifiers are part
of the way that you think. They are your signifieds arranged in your mental
Since each of these potential signifying languages reflect an arbitrary
choice, and in this context ignorance or ignoring conventions is a choice,
film and television offer plenty of opportunity to study the encoding process
and its ideological signification by deconstructing the visual texts along
these lines of arbitrary selection. Since television and film are primary
presenters of information in our culture, the presentation of visual images
has tremendous potential influence on our culture. In the next chapter,
we will see how these signifiers can be used to encode a text with ideology,
which may be the most powerful influence of mass media on our society.