Annotating Film Clips

This post is written by Tim Barnard, Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies.

For my rich media grant project, I am hoping to develop a more robust and technologically sophisticated way to work with students on performing close formal analyses of film texts.  As I explained in my proposal, I – and Film Studies colleagues with whom I have commiserated – have been generally dissatisfied with the process of testing students on their formal film analysis skills.  This has involved showing film clips that I pick out from the films we’ve been studying. I show these clips in class and/ or during in-class exams and then ask students to respond in writing, providing both a formal descriptive outline or breakdown of exactly what they see and hear and then a more interpretative essay that makes a point about all that they see and hear.  The frustration comes with the fact that students almost always fail to see or talk about all of the things I hope they will when I pick the clip.  I’ve realized, however, that this is not necessarily their fault, since I am able to go over the clips much more thoroughly than they can in class.

This situation got me fantasizing about some better way to do this kind of assignment and assessment.  I once tried, unsuccessfully, to embed clips in blackboard and have been wondering about some way to make a clip available to students for a set period of time and running the assignment as a kind of take-home test:  Watch this clip as many times as you want, freeze it, rewind it, play it over and over, as much as you want within a time from of one hour, a half hour or whatever….and generate as detailed a “segmentation” or outline of formal components of the clip as you can; then write up an analytical interpretive essay and post that too.  Even doing this, I think, could significantly improve the quality of their experience of practicing formal close analysis and the quality of what they turn in to me to be assessed.

But my fantasies didn’t stop there; I started to wonder if there might not be some cool way to have students actually annotate a film clip “on the clip” so to speak.  Wouldn’t it be cool (and pedagogically awesome) if they could actually mark moments in time or spaces within the frame when and where something significant happens in the clip? Wouldn’t it be cool if some kind of clip analysis setup could have multiple tabs, each one dedicated to a different formal component of the clip (e.g. one tab would be for sound, another for editing, another for acting, another for costume, another for camera movement, another for camera angles, etc. etc.)?  I could then require students to go through each tab and fill in observations on each of those aspects of the clip.

Wouldn’t it also be cool if once students completed all that, there was some streamlined way for me to sit down and assess them..? My fantasy includes a scenario where I can quickly discern who really excelled on the assignment, who did an okay but fairly standard job, and who clearly half-assed it.  I’m picturing a scenario where it becomes really clear really fast what were the ‘standard’ things that everyone or most everyone ‘got’ and then what were the unique insights.  ALSO, I might be able to quickly be able to discern general problems (e.g. okay, nobody saw that cross dissolve, we clearly need to talk that over in class… or everyone is misunderstanding a camera craning in calling it instead a zooming in: note to self: explain that in the next class).

Other things that could come out of some digital version of this retool of the assignment could be maybe sharing with the students the aggregate of their completed analyses… students who underperformed could see what an exemplary analysis looks like…

In some ways, I feel like the nugget of my proposal seems sort of  puny… this one assignment and fixing it.  My hope, however, is that exploring what kinds of resources are out there for retooling this one assignment can and will wind up exposing me to all kinds of opportunities for retooling the way I teach film (and research it for that matter).


  1. There seems to be a lot of interest in this type of work at various digital centers around the country. Stanford’s Rural West Initiative has used a javascript library to build a fantastic presentation of video/annotation: . While this application might be beyond the scope of what you want to do, it might be worth checking out for other purposes?