Film semiotics

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Film semiotics is the semiotics of film; the study of signs as they pertain to film on a variety of levels.

Early semioticians of film[edit]

Ricciotto Canudo – Italian writer working in the 1920s, identified “language-like character of cinema”.[1]

Louis Delluc – French writer, working in the 1920s, wrote of the ability of film to transcend national language.[1]

Vachel Lindsay – referred to film as “hieroglyphic language”.[1]

Bela Balazs – Hungarian film theorist who wrote about language-like nature of film from the 1920s to the 1940s.[1]

Russian formalism (1910s–1930s)[edit]

Yury Tynyanov was a Russian writer and literary critic. Boris Eichenbaum outlined principles of syntagmatic construction. (see: syntagmatic analysis) Syntagmatic analysis deals with sequence and structure, as opposed to the paradigm emphasis of paradigmatic analysis. The cinema, for Eichenbaum, is a “particular of figurative language,” the stylistics of which would treat filmic “syntax,” the linkage of shots in “phrases” and “sentences.”” [1]

Eichenbaum and Tynyanov had different approaches to interpreting the signs of film. "Tynyanov spoke of the cinema as offering the visible world in the form of semantic signs engendered by cinematic procedures such as lighting and montage, while Eichenbaum saw film in relation to “inner speech” and “image translations of linguistic tropes.”" [1]

Structuralism and post-structuralism (1950s–present)[edit]

The film-language concept was explored more deeply in the 1960’s when post-structuralist thinkers started to criticize structuralism. Also, semiotics became popular in academia. Early work in this field dealt with “contrasting arbitrary signs of natural language with the motivated, iconic signs of the cinema”.[1]

Umberto Eco – Italian novelist and semiotician

Pier Paolo Pasolini – Italian director and writer

Christian Metz – French film theorist

Roland Barthes – French literary theorist

Important and notable works[edit]

Umberto Eco’s Articulations of The Cinematic Code (1976)

Cited 52 times,[2] important early work.

Umberto Eco’s research dealt with the semiology of visual codes using the work of Metz and Pasolini as a starting point. Eco viewed the task of semiology as important and radical. “Semiology shows us the universe of ideologies, arranged in codes and sub-codes, within the universe of signs, and these ideologies are reflected in our preconstituted ways of using the language.[3]

Triple articulation codes consist of figures, signs and elements. Eco assumed that the cinematic codes are the only ones using triple articulation. Where current liguistic conventions might use two axes, the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic, the triple articulation can use kinesics to identify discrete units of time.[3] Articulations are introduced into a code to communicate the maximum number of combinable elements. Because we normally experience non-articulated and double-articulated codes, running across a code with triple articulation can be overwhelming. “The contextual wealth of this combination makes the cinema a richer form of communication than speech.[3]

Summary of codes[3]

1. Perceptive codes

2. Codes of recognition

3. Codes of transmission

4. Tonal Codes

5. Iconic Codes (Figures, signs and semes)

6. Iconographic codes

7. Codes of taste and sensibility

8. Rhetorical codes

9. Stylistic codes

10. Codes of the unconscious

Christian Metz’s Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema (1974)

Cited 877 times[4]

This collection of Metz’s writings on cinematographic problems was informed by insights from structural linguistics. “The study of the cinema as an art – the study of cinematographic expressiveness – can therefore be conducted according to methods derived from linguistics...through its procedures of denotation, the cinema is a specific language[5]

Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’s New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-structuralism, and Beyond (1992)

Cited 422 times[6]

This work highlighted film semiotics as a new tool in art criticism. The book provided an overview of previous thinkers and defined terms critical to semiotic film theory. “This book is intended as a didactic introduction to the vocabulary of the field, not as a series of interventions in film theory[1]

Part One The Origins of Semiotics

Semiotics must be viewed through the broader context of the linguistic nature of contemporary thought.

"The overarching meta-discipline of semiotics...can be seen as a local manifestation of a more widespread "linguistic turn," an attempt to reconceptualize the world "through" linguistics."[1]

Part Two Cine-semiology

Dealt with the cinematic sign, The Grand Syntagmatic, textual systems and analysis, semiotics of filmic sound, language in the cinema.

Part Three Film-narratology

Taking cues from structuralism and Russian Formalism, film narrative theory attempts to "designate the basic structures of story processes and to define the aesthetic languages unique to film narrative discourse."[1]

Part Four Psychoanalysis

The relationship between human psyche and cinematic representation is explored. "One of the aims, therefore, of psychoanalytic film theory is a systematic comparison of the cinema as a specific kind of spectacle and the structure of the socially and psychically constituted individual."[1]

Part Five From realism to intertextuality

Describes the evolution from an emphasis on realism in the 1950s to the intertextuality of the 1970s.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Stam, R., Burgoyne, R., & Lewis, S. (1992). New vocabularies in film semiotics: structuralism, post-structuralism, and beyond. London: Routledge.
  2. ^ Google Scholar
  3. ^ a b c d Eco, U. (1970). Articulations of the Cinematic Code. Cinematics, 1(1), 590-605.
  4. ^ Google Scholar
  5. ^ Metz, C. (1974). Film language; a semiotics of the cinema.. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Google Scholar