film crew on set in africa

Introduction to Textual Analysis

By reading this week’s reading, one can denote that it is a chapter out of a Media Studies book written by a man named Nick Lacey.  You can further denote that it is in fact a chapter out of a textbook, whose audience would mainly consist of Media Studies students at school or university. The chapter extract happens to be the very first chapter in the book and so it is appropriately titled: Introduction to Textual Analysis. The chapter introduces and explains many facets of textual analysis including camera angles, lighting, medium, context and meaning.

I am of course beginning my analysis of this week’s reading like this because Lacey (2009, p. 7) suggests that ‘in the initial stages of textual analysis it is helpful simply to describe what we see, using terms as neutral as possible’, if you were to consider the text to be an onion for example, then you would first describe the onion’s appearance before peeling off the layers and looking at its core. Lacey (2009, p. 7) calls this form of basic analysis ‘the level of denotation’.

The author asserts his contention that texts, whether they be written, verbal, visual or a combination of the three, are created with the purpose of communicating a message to an audience. He also contends that any text will be interpreted in many different ways, and sometimes the intended message will be lost in translation, which is due to the fact that everyone interprets the world differently based ‘on who we are and our previous experiences in life’ (Lacey 2009, p. 8).

Considering that body language is used to convey 60-80% of what we are either consciously or unconsciously trying to communicate it makes sense to learn how to analyse it effectively when interpreting texts. Lacey gives examples of the eight aspects of non-verbal-communication (NVC): facial expression, gaze, gestures, posture and body contact. Interestingly he describes clothes and appearance as a form of non-verbal-communication; seeing as clothing has the ability to make statements about who we are or at least who we want you to think we are, it’s safe to say that the clothes we wear do a lot of the talking for us.

And considering ‘we spend every second of our waking lives unconsciously interpreting the information our senses receive from our environment’ (Lacey 2009, p. 10) if we were to hypothetically see two identical people, wearing different clothes, we will interpret them both in a very different way. Directors of films and plays in particular take advantage of this to help the audience correctly interpret their characters. If for example Mel Gibson’s character in Mad Max (1979) wore glasses and a shirt with every button done up, the audience wouldn’t perceive him to be the bad-ass that he was. Or if the Prozorov sisters in Anton Chekov’s play The Three Sisters (1900) wore sexually suggestive or revealing clothes, the audience wouldn’t interpret them to be the alienated and suppressed girls that they were intended to be.

Lacey also explains how a low angle camera shot (camera looking up at the subject) is used to portray a level of power while a high angle shot (camera looking down at the subject) often suggests the subject is in a position of inferiority. Many examples of these camera techniques being used in film spring to mind, however I recall one scene in particular which uses both angles to great effect. The scene is towards the end of the Matrix (1999), when Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus, who judging by his non-verbal-language (he doesn’t have any dialogue in the scene), is broken and defeated.

The camera reveals that Morpheus is not his usual confident self as it zooms in on his face to reveal droplets of sweat forming at his brow. Agent Smith, however, is looking very confident and the camera angles fortify this superior appearance – when he is shown on screen the camera uses a low angle to make him appear tall and powerful but when the screen cuts to Morpheus the camera shifts to a high angle shot making it look as though Agent Smith is looking down on him in disgust.

Lacey also discusses the seven types of moving images: pan, tilt, cant, dolly, crane, handheld and zoom. Martin Scorsese makes excellent use of the dolly shot (camera moves on tracks) in the final scene of Taxi Driver (1976). In this scene the dolly shot is overhead, looking down at and following the trail of carnage that De Niro’s character Travis Bickle left behind, occasionally zooming in to examine the stains of blood and the assortment of guns left on the floor.

Lacey (2009, p 30.) stresses that ‘texts are intended, by the producer, to convey meaning to the audience’ but that the meaning is not always concrete and can be interpreted in many different ways.

Steven Skaggs for example does an essay analysis on the aesthetics of the Grateful Dead song ‘Dark Star, he opens the essay by saying ‘if Jerry Garcia inhabited a grave, he’d be spinning in it. Seeing such a cold analysis of what was for him, no doubt, just plain fun with sound would be torture’ (Skaggs, 2003). Music is a text that is constantly being analysed, much like film and literature, even though the music’s ultimate meaning is often to simply be enjoyed. Skaggs (2003) justifies his ‘cold analysis’ of the song by comparing it to someone admiring a car; some people appreciate the shape and look of the car, while others are more interested in ‘opening the hood to see what’s going on’ inside.

The novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974) goes into great detail about the differences between people who simply admire form and those that admire function, while directly relating it to the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance. There’s one particular scene in the novel where the protagonist is helping his friend fix his motorcycle’s handlebars and during the process he thinks to himself ‘we were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension’ (Pirsig 1974, p. 55), this quote perfectly colours the essence of what Lacey’s article is trying to make known to the reader, or perhaps I just misinterpreted the text.


  • Barthes, R., 1977, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Image, Music, Text, transl. Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, London, pp. 32-51.
  • Chekhov, A 1901, Three Sisters, Penguin Classics, England.
  • Lacey, N., 2009, ‘Introduction to textual Analysis’, Image and Representation: key concepts in media studies, 2nd Edition, MacMillan, London, pp. 6-33.
  • McKee, A., 2009, ‘Textual Analysis’ Cunningham, S. & Turner, G. (eds) The Media and Communications in Australia, 3rd Edition, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, pp. 62-71.
  • Miller, G 1979, Mad Max [DVD], Director G Miller, Village Roadshow Pictures, Australia
  • Pirsig, R 1974, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, HarperCollins Publishing, New York.
  • Schirato, T. & Yell, S., 2000, ‘Texts and Contexts’ Communication and Cultural Literacy: an introduction, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, pp. 106-112.
  • Scorcese, M 1976, Taxi Driver [DVD], Director M Scorcese, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Unites States
  • Skaggs, S., 2003, ‘Dark Star as an Example of Transcendental Aesthetics’, viewed 11 March 2011, <>.
  • Wachowski, L & Wachowski, A 1999, The Matrix [DVD], Director L Wachowski & A Wachowski, Warner Bros. Pictures, United States