What is Film Studies A level about?
Many modern films open with a scene without dialogue and yet, without being explained who is doing what and why, we understand a lot of what is going on. Having watched many different films we have unconsciously developed an understanding of film language. A level Film Studies is really about studying and understanding that process. It works at all levels: in a scene, the director's choice of lighting and camera angles, for example, determines our perception of characters. In the film as a whole, we make guesses about characters' motivations and actions based on our knowledge of other films in the same genre. At the level of the film industry as a whole, we have different expectations about a mainstream Hollywood film or an independent British production.
Film Studies is a fast-growing subject, both at AS/A level and in universities. Working on the kind of films they are probably already familiar with, students go beyond passive watching and achieve a deep understanding of the film industry.
What does the course consist of?
The structure of the course reflects the different layers of meaning mentioned above. In the first AS unit, we work at film level. We study film technique (mise en scene, cinematography, sound, editing) and different genres. We look at how filmmakers use technique to create meaning, and students apply it to design a scene from their own, imaginary film. This unit is assessed through coursework, which means students can individually choose the films they work on.
The second unit explores film industries and audiences. If you want to make a film, you don't go about it in the same way in Hollywood and in Britain. As a spectator, you don't necessarily want to see the same kind of films when you are sixteen or sixty, if you are male or female etc. These are the kind of issues we look at. The exam paper here takes the form of case studies.
In this unit, we also study films from Britain and Hollywood – this part of the course is very similar to studying literature, ie we consider characters, narration, themes, etc. Assessment is also very similar to literature, writing essays about those elements.
In the second year, we study the same aspects more in depth, and widening the scope to include world cinema. As part of their coursework, students research the work of a director and eventually produce their own short film.
The other unit looks at foreign films and includes topics such as empowering women. In the industry section we consider issues such as audiences' emotional response. We also study one film in depth, bringing together all the aspects covered elsewhere in the course throughout the two years. Assessment is essay-based.
In a typical question for the 'industry' paper, students would be asked to discuss the advantages and disadvantages for the British film industry of seeking to produce more commercial, internationally distributed films like ‘the King’s Speech’.
Whom does the subject suit?
Obviously, Film Studies suits students who enjoy watching films. However, it should be stressed at this point that Film Studies is not a film club but an academic approach to film-making. Students should therefore be interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes. Moreover, a large part of the assessment consists of essay-writing, so to do well in Film Studies you should have proved yourself in GCSE subjects such as English Literature.
How is Film Studies taught at d'Overbroeck's?
At first, some of our students are surprised at how seriously we take Film Studies. However, they quickly recover and enjoy the mix of approaches – technical, business, literary – and the variety of activities in class – film-watching, discussion, structured note-taking, experimenting with filming and editing.
In recent years, we have organised trips to local cinemas and to the British Film Institute in London, and we once had the opportunity of visiting two London film studios.
As we practise exam questions throughout the course, a common side-effect is for students to improve their essay-writing skills in a fairly painless way!
What books can I read to get a sense of the subject?
Most books about cinema are either very superficial or very specialised, and could give a wrong idea of the subject. In a way, a critical, questioning reading of popular magazines such as Empire might provide a more useful introduction to Film Studies.
What websites are useful to look at?
For more academic information, the WJEC website is the obvious starting point and it also has links to other useful sites.
Who will teach me?
Christophe Brinster has taught French at d'Overbroeck's for over 20 years, including the French cinema topic. His MA dissertation focused on American cinema and he followed courses about Stanley Kubrick and Psychoanalysis in films at the University of Massachussets.
Emma Tinker graduated from Oxford University with a first class degree in English, and her MA study at University College London encompassed a broad range of twentieth century cultural media, including film and television. Her PhD thesis focused on representations of identity in comics and graphic novels.
What might the subject lead onto?
Universities offer an increasing number of Film Studies courses, ranging from very practical to very theoretical. There are also many courses in the media/communication area.
However, for students who want to apply for a degree in a different area, Film Studies is considered as a good middle of the range A level – universities are aware that students who did well must have good essay-writing skills.
Film Studies can also be an interesting fourth AS level in Year 12.