Who creates meaning in a film

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Who creates meaning in a film – the director or the spectator? With reference to critical texts and using examples, discuss the notion that the film spectator is as important as the film author in the creation of meaning. Choose a recent animated film, or body of films, and make a case study analysis of the creation of meaning within that film/s.


In An Introduction to Film Studies (2001), Jill Nelmes talks about the different types of spectator, the first being the ‘passive spectator’, the Linguistic Theory suggests that “we can only think outside the terms that language provides us with; indeed language does our thinking for us, it speaks us” (Nelmes, 2001: 105), and that neither the film-maker or the spectator can “speak” outside of these structures. The work of psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan “encouraged a comparison to be made between the act of spectatorship and a specific period in the development of the young child” (Nelmes, 2001:106), Which further goes on to state that a child is born wanting to be complete and the child will “console itself with imaginary solutions, especially idealised version of its self”(Nelmes, 2001: 106). What this means is that when the spectator views the images within a film they are looking for a link between their own situations no matter how unrealistic through the desire for completeness. Marxists views can be derived from both of these views on spectatorship and that film exploits the viewers desires to make them irresistible. But also the idea of ‘interpellation’ and ‘cinema apparatus’, where the subject (spectator) is being controlled by the whole system which implies that the spectator has no control over the film itself (Nelmes, 2001). Through the ability to hold the viewer in place comes greater control over the viewer’s interpretation and ability to find meaning. Although today’s film goers have the option to watch within the comfort of their own home, this then adds the possibility of receiving a different interpretation. Then there is the active spectator, where the viewer learns to read the films, looking for familiar aspects of narrative and genre conventions. “When we are confronted with a new experience, we look for familiar patterns that allow us to orient ourselves and make sense of what is in front of us” (Nelmes, 2001:108), through this gradual understanding we learn how to recognise things like genre and narrative and also meaning from within the films. Because our brain does this on a day to day basis with almost every situation we encounter it can be described “as a ‘realist’ approach to spectatorship and response”Nelmes108. From both of these points it suggests that we all carry out the same cognitive processes while watching a film and the ‘determinacy of effect’ which reduces the ‘openness of meaning’ for the spectator. “As an alert perceiver, the spectator is constantly testing the work for larger significance, for what it says or suggests. The sort of meanings that the spectator attributes to a film may vary considerably.” (Bordwell & Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction 6th Edition 2001: 60).

Also the definition of genre can alter the spectator’s response entirely, for example “if an actor grimaces in agony, the emotion of pain is presented in the film. On the other hand, the viewer who sees the painful expression laughs (as the viewer of a comedy might)” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2001: 44), this difference has formal implications upon what the viewer sees. It is the power of the director himself to interpret the meaning within this context but it is the content of the film determines what meanings can be created by either the director or the spectator.

The importance of the writer can also be overlooked as taken from the ideas of “we can only think outside the terms that language provides us with; indeed language does our thinking for us, it speaks us” (Nelmes, 2001: 105), and that neither the film-maker or the spectator can “speak “outside of these structures. This job of the writer, to tell the story and through only his choose of words can an interpretation is made which “means that the spectators ‘passive’ role is even pronounced – not only unable to intervene in the work of the film, but unable to think outside the language-like structures it employs” (Nelmes, 2001: 106).

As cinema is constantly changing and evolving it’s becoming increasingly hard to define not only genres but also the jobs of those within the whole creative process. As mentioned before the job of the writer is to write a script and set out the scene but what is becoming more and more apparent within films today is that directors can have a greater input into the story. But it’s not only the directors that could have a say on how the film should turn out, because of the heavy visual affects involved in many of today’s film it is appropriate that that these studios start the project as early as possible due to their importance within the films. As an example many directors like Christopher Nolan work very closely with double negative and other studios throughout the production of their films and in a way these studios help to create visual meaning within films but only as a tool of the director.

Over time the power and role of the director has changed significantly, today’s film-goers are shown from beginning to end the name of the directors, one the best examples would be James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) was plastered across magazines and TV screens months before its realise and also Steven Spielberg, both of these names seem to add more profitability and expectation from the audiences. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, the producer on the pay roll was the only person to see the picture from beginning to end. Directors on salary were there to make sure actors hit their cues while the cameras were still running. They soon left the entire production once the shooting period was over. It was the money moguls at the top of the chain that told the producers what shots they wanted, it was then the producer would direct the director to what shots he should be making each day. The studios were still churning out formulaic genre pictures, an endless stream of Doris day and rock Hudson movies, with big budgets like Tora! Tora! Tora! Hawaii, the bible, Krakatau and D-Day the sixth of June. The 60’s did manage to produce a few expensive musicals like my fair lady and the sound of music, which spawned a huge amount of imitations like Camelot, doctor do little, and song of Norway which budgets spiralled out of control. In the half decade that followed, the war in Vietnam grew from a blip on the map somewhere in Southeast Asia to a reality that might easily claim the life of the boy next door. When the studios cut back in the 50’s, these men, often veterans from the second and First World War, were the last to be hired and the first to be fired. This meant the day to day operations of the studios were still being run by the pre-war generation of producers, director, studio heads, and crews who were in there fifty’s, sixty’s and seventy’s. Norman Taurus, Hollywood veteran best known for boy’s town with Spencer Tracey in 1938, spent his last few years directing with one blind eye and then having to retire after losing his eyesight entirely. (Biskind,1999)

While the director can visualise meaning and interpretation in different ways and his script set out the course of the story and film from the start. Recently it seem that many more directors have become involved in some way with scripts, whether it be “to get the foot in the door” of the industry or maybe to help them visualise and create meaning from their own perspective. For example, Pixar, they only consider film ideas and scripts from people within the company itself and do not work with any directors outside of their own studio. By doing this, it has given Pixar undoubted one of the best reputations in animated filmmaking for any prospective animation student because of its openness and opportunity.

As the target audiences from the studios become larger to create more revenue the films themselves become harder to define within a certain genre. Genres have a great affect on creation of meaning within a film for both the director and the spectator. A more relevant example would be the animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir (2008), which tells the story of real life events within the Israeli – Lebanon War. Because there is no real footage and it’s completely animated but is based on real events, it challenges the spectator to look at animation in a different way to what many are used to. The meaning is immediate, describing the horror of war and the consequences not only during but after on the soldiers. What documentaries offer is a real insight into a situation and the aim is to open the eyes of the viewer but also the interpretation of different points of view within give the viewer the opportunity to make their minds up and create their own meaning. But with any piece of film making the director has the choice of what to show on the screen and as an animation, Ari Folman had complete control, being able to create the characters, scenarios and the world in which it all takes place. So because of this it weakens the validity of it being a documentary because as mentioned before documentary are supposed to offer a real incite into a situation.

With any narrative plot, the meaning can be seen within the script. With less narrative it becomes more about the actor or the animators, as they physical become the characters. To understand it better silent films play a great role, through the comedies of 1920 silent era can be seen to create meaning. Using no narrative at all the spectators can understand, maybe with some visual prompts can see how funny or scary something is. Today’s film animation demonstrates this very well, with very little narrative the viewer can find several meanings within the film WALL-E (2008). One being a direct link with the character of WALL-E, his naivety and lack of ability to communicate provides a link with those who have also felt lonely at some time. Another meaning within the films context is that our own impact on our environment could cause us to flee earth and also the enormity and power of corporations within the future. Within these meanings created in the film, it is difficult to point the finger at who creates it, with the first, the meaning of loneliness and wanting to find love could be seen to have been created by the viewer because it would have some link to he or she’s past or current life experiences and with the film having very little narrative it helps to push it towards the spectator creating the meaning but in fact the animators themselves create the whole character. As an animator it is their job to bring a character to life and Pixar have been at the forefront of this for many years and the best example of this can be seen in Luxo Jr (1986), with no plot or narrative there is no meaning at all other than watching a lamp chase a ball yet you can forget that and still smile. So without great animators, WALL-E would have had no chance of connecting in as meaningful a way as it did. So within the second meaning of film being our impact on our environment and consumerism. This comes from within the context of the film which in turn is the writer and the director which happens to be the same person, Andrew Stanton. It is through his decision to show earth as a baron and deescalate landscape and then to show the current human population far away within the comfort of their own armchairs seemingly without a care in the universe. Through his visions of the two contrasting settings he helps create the idea of the human being thoughtless and uncaring towards ourselves and others. What he also manages to do is create such a discomfort for the spectator viewing the humans, making it difficult to connect with them while a lonely robot that struggles to speak as the main character which the audience can directly relate to.

In conclusion I think it comes down to the intent of the director and/or the writer as the spectator can only create meaning from what they are shown on the screen. They have the choice of what is on the screen and have complete control over the viewer’s perception. Genre is instrumental in defining meaning with in a film, it pigeon holes it for the studios and the public so they know what to expect from the film and the director can only act within the boundaries of the script which is always within the boundaries of the genre its aiming for. Experimental film and animation could be the only genre where the viewer solely creates meaning but because the average spectator is constantly looking for meaning and many are used to reading films with narrative and context, experimental film has become an acquired taste and difficult to relate to because of its openness.

By Marc Cullen


Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind. (1999) Bloomsbury. London. Pg 13 – 52.

Film Art: An Introduction. Bordwell & Thompson. 6th Edition (2001) McGraw – Hill. New York. Pg 39 -59.

Theory of film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Kracauer (1965). Oxford University Press. Oxford. Pg 157 – 171.

A Companion to Film Theory. Miller & Stam. (2004) Blackwell. Oxford. Pg 123 – 165.

An Introduction to film Studies. Nelmes. 3rd Edition (2001) Routledge. London. Pg 91 – 128.


WALL – E (2008) Directed by Andrew Stanton. (DVD). USA. Disney Pixar.

Waltz with Bashir (2008) Directed By Ari Folman. Isreal. (DVD) SONY PICTURE CLASSICS.

Luxo Jr. (1986) Directed By John Lasseter. (DVD) Disney Pixar.

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