Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Using Online Photo Albums for Sequence Analysis


The online photo album is not a complicated tool. But it can be used to do more than share pictures of junior’s first trip to the zoo.
While prose writing is still a crucial skill our students can acquire, our students often need to analyze visual materials or to present analytical material in some visual form. Online photo albums are a simple way to do this. The photo album doesn’t do the work for you; you still need to know:
  • what you’re saying,
  • what the tool does,
  • what your options are–tool-wise, and more basically.
A familiar assignment in film studies is: the sequence analysis or shot breakdown.
  • The student analyzes a short clip.
  • She makes a table representing formal features–e.g.,
    • how many close-up’s vs. long shot’s,
    • how many still vs. moving camera shots,
    • etc.
  • Then the student typically writes a prose essay summarizing the results.
An online photo album can make a good alternative or additional assignment.
  • A visual presentation can be an intermediary assignment leading towards a prose essay.
  • Or it can represent a visual summary, an expression of some of the same ideas in a different form.
Trailer Shot Breakdown Analysis
A photo album will not capture all the nuance of prose: but reducing one’s arguments to a few points, or focusing on developing only a small compass of ideas can have a wonderfully clarifying effect. It’s like writing an abstract with pictures.
Ideas can be expressed in a photo set verbally or through the arrangement of images.
  • In the case of a verbal commentary or analysis, that can be put:
    • in the caption of each image;
    • or it can be inserted through explanatory slides created in Powerpoint or Keynote (or similar).
  • In the case of the visual elements, even changing the sequence of the images allows students to explore different ways of creating meaning. The images can be sorted:
    • sequentially, as when representing the shots of a scene in the order in which they appear in the film; or the images may be sorted
    • logically into types or kinds. In this case, they kinds represent the argument.
To show these options, I have grabbed still frames from the first two minutes or so of The Maltese Falcon.

  • This is a familiar movie, and the opening is (or used to be) used to demonstrate editing and its analysis in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art textbook.
  • Normally, a student would analyze a scene or other more-organic unit of a feature film. In this case, I’ve studied only a fragment, as that simplifies the demonstration.


Captions May Supply the Verbal Content.

This Google Plus Photo album adds captions to screenshots to call out important dimensions of the clip (like framing and duration), while other important elements of storytelling are previewed and narrated.
  • Clicking on an image brings up the image on one side of the screen and the caption on the other.
  • Adjusting the browser’s degree of zooming allows the caption to take up more space on the screen, thus making a good balance of image and analysis.
  • As an added bonus, a ‘backdoor’ lets you create an embeddable Flash-based slideshow you can put in Classes*v2, WordPress, etc.

    • The annotation obscures the image, but it’s an interesting option.
    • N.B. To do this, the photo album must be set to public.

Slides May Supply the Verbal Content.

The verbal analytical dimension may be added by generating text slides in Keynote or Powerpoint to create a ‘visual essay’ which analyzes the clips using brief text slides interspersed between frames representing the shots.
  • This example analyzes the shots in order.
    • The text slides preview key things to look for in the subsequent few slides.
      • This approach suggests the viewer will go back and forth to connect the argument and the evidence.
  • A different approach is to organize the shots by type or kind in some way.
    • This album counts how many shots of specific types and then labels and sorts them.
    • By labeling, sorting and re-arranging the elements one is analyzing, patterns emerge that may not have been apparent in the un-remixed text.
      • This could be called the basis of much analytical thinking: re-sorting experiences to compare them and find non-apparent patterns and resemblances.
    • What counts as a ‘type’ can be motivated by one’s curiosities or observations.
      • In this case, the symmetries and asymmetries of gender become revealed in neat ways by sorting the shots by various formal and other criteria--I.e., an idiomatic folksonomy rather than a scientific taxonomy.


In this case, the album with the captions was made first and then the photos copied to new albums.
  • Hence these images all bear captions, though in practice that would likely not happen.
An additional challenge is how to represent movement or duration.
  • Long takes or camera movement could be represented by multiple frame grabs.
  • The one-frame-per-shot ratio has the virtue of visualizing the shot count.
  • Whichever choice the author makes, clearly labeling the result helps orient the end-user.
–Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.