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Representations of Villains

Representations of Villains

All media texts – whether they’re documentaries, television news segments or newspaper articles – are constructed. Films are no exception and, when it comes to crafting a story, filmmakers carefully consider how they will use the language of film to establish characters and engage the audience. In this unit, we’re going to take a look at how villains are established and developed in films. We will describe how codes and conventions are used to establish these characters in a variety of films and think about some of the values that might influence their characterisation.

For this activity, you are going to be randomly assigned with a villain. Randomly pick a line from each column to generate your villain.

A janitor who…
…has anger management issues.
An ice-cream vendor who…
…stalks someone.
A teacher who…
…is a criminal mastermind.
An apiarist who…
…is just plain creepy.
A journalist who…
…is an assassin.
A millionaire who…
…mugs people.
An accountant who…
…is a nasty piece of work.
A farmer who…
…returned from the dead.
A baker who…
…haunts a graveyard.
A cartographer who…
…becomes a vampire.
A driving instructor who…
…transforms into a werewolf.
An electrician who…
…terrorises people in their dreams.
A grave-digger who…
…haunts an old house.
A musician who…
…is out for revenge.
A photographer who…
…seeks world domination.
A truck driver who…
…terrorises the elderly.
An architect who…
…has a split personality.
An astronomer who…
…controls a horde of zombies.
A pharmacist who…
…summons an evil tentacled god.

Activity 1: Movie poster mock-up

We’re going to start thinking about the representation of villains by tackling the problem backwards. For this activity, you are going to imagine that you’re a filmmaker who is about to release a film about your randomly assigned villain. With a partner, draw a mock-up for your film poster. Annotate the mock-up explaining how you have used the following to represent your villain: typography, colour, body language, lighting, costume, composition, props.

Activity 2: Planning a scene

Now that we’ve thought about how we might represent this character in print media, let’s make things a little more complicated. Imagine that you’re a filmmaker creating a film about this villain. Plan a sequence of six shots to introduce your villain. The storyboards will be annotated, showing a clear sense of how you will use the following techniques to represent this character:

  • Camera techniques. Camera angle: overshot, high angle, eye level, low angle, undershot. Shot size: extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, medium shot, medium close up, close up, extreme close up. Camera movement: crane, dolly. dolly in, dolly out, handheld, pan, pedestal, point-of-view shot, snorricam, static, steadicam. tilt, tracking, vertigo effect, whip pan, zoom. Focus: deep focus, depth of field, pull focus, shallow depth of field.
  • Acting. Movement, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice.
  • Mise en scene. Set, make up, props, costume, colour, composition.
  • Editing. Audio match cut, continuity editing. cut away. cut in, dissolve, fade in. fade out, fast motion, jump cut. match on action, montage, parallel editing, shot reverse shot, slow motion, smash cut, speed ramping, superimposition, time-lapse, visual match cut, wipe, wipe by cut.
  • Lighting. Source: Key light, fill light, three point lighting, reflected, spot, flood, incandescent, fluorescent, daylight, ambient. Direction: Front light, back light, hair light, side light, rim light, under light. Quality: Hard, soft, diffuse. Temperature: Warm, cozy, yellow, white, cool, cold, blue. Shadows.
  • Sound. On screen, off screen, transitional, pre-lap, post-lap, audio match cut, inner voice, remembered sound, distorted sound, spoken writing, personal narration, impersonal narration, diegetic, non-diegetic, music, score, song, contrapuntal, ambience, sound effects.

Pitch the storyboards you create to the class, explaining how you are going to represent this villain.

Sample storyboards

Here are some sample storyboards that might inspire you!

Activity 3: Describing villains in film

Describe four representations of villains from the selected clips in class. You may also choose to write about another villain assuming you can bring this clip into class for analysis. This essay will be approximately 800 words long.

Filmmakers can use a number of techniques to establish and develop characters. Their choice of camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound all contribute to the representation of a character. When you’re writing about the representation of a character in film, it is useful to watch the scene a number of times, noting how the use of these techniques have been used to develop the character.

  • Camera techniques. Think carefully about the director’s use of camera techniques. What does this help to tell us about the character? The use of a close up might help to accentuate an actor’s facial expression. Likewise a high angle show might make them appear weak and powerless. When writing about the use of camera techniques, think about how the following techniques have been used:
    • Camera movement. Crane, dolly, dolly in, dolly out, handheld, pan, pedestal, point-of-view shot, snorricam, static, steadicam, tilt, tracking, whip pan, zoom.
    • Shot size. Extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up.
    • Camera angle. Overshot, high angle, eye level, low angle, undershot, canting.
    • Focus. Deep focus, depth of field, pull focus, shallow depth of field.
  • Acting. Everything an actor does is part of a scripted performance which has been directed. Writing about acting can sometimes be difficult because it requires focusing on the small details of a performance. A simple glance or gesture actors can convey a great deal about the inner lives of their characters. How does an actor move? What sort of facial expressions do they use? What tone of voice do they employ? How do these small details contribute to the development of a character? Always remember that actors have been directed, their performances is as deliberate and purposeful as the lighting or camera movement in a scene.
  • Mise en scene. Mis en scene refers to everything that’s put in the scene. It includes colour, costume, make up and the placement of props. What does the selection of costume tell us about a character? Does the composition of the shot convey information to the audience about character? How does the use of colour in the frame contribute to the representation of character?
  • Editing. Films are edited. Filmmakers think carefully about how the sequence of shots, pace of editing and use of editing techniques contribute to the narrative, development of characters and audience engagement. Every scene has been painstakingly constructed. There is nothing normal or natural about the way a scene unfolds. Filmmakers agonize over every cut. Watch the scene that you’re studying carefully and think about how editing contributes to character development. Consider the pace of editing and whether it changes. Do the filmmakers choose to linger on a particular shot instead of cutting away. If so, why? Are there any particular editing techniques that stand out? What do they tell the audience about character? Does the scene you’re analysing use any of the following editing techniques? Audio match cut, continuity editing, cut away, cut in, dissolve, fade in, fade out, fast motion, jump cut, match on action, montage, parallel editing, shot reverse shot, slow motion, speed ramping, superimposition, time-lapse, visual match cut, wipe, wipe by cut.
  • Lighting. It’s important to remember that in most feature films, although the lighting might look normal and natural, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to achieve a particular lighting effect. Lighting always makes a significant and meaningful contribution to the narrative. Filmmakers think carefully about how the quality and placement of lights contributes to the narrative, character development and audience engagement. When you’re watching a scene, think carefully about the use of lighting and what it tells the audience about a character. What type of light is used? Natural, fluorescent, incandescent? Is it diffuse or hard light? Where is the key light placed in the scene? What sort of shadows are cast by the key light? What do these choices tell you about the representation of a character?
  • Sound. Just as filmmakers think carefully about the visual editing of the film, what you hear has also been carefully constructed. In consultation with the director, sound editors and foley artists work tirelessly to construct the soundtrack. Every decision they make about the quality and placement of sound effects and music contributes to narrative, character development and audience engagement. When you’re watching a scene, think about how sound contributes to character development. What do the characters say? What type of music has been used throughout the scene and how does it contribute to the representation of characters? Are there any prolonged silences? What sort of sound effects and ambient sounds have been used? Are some sounds more prominent than others? Are they faded in and out?

Activity 3: Describing the representation of characters

When you’re describing the representation of characters in a film, it is important to make specific and detailed reference to how production elements – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound – contribute to character development.

Whether you’re writing about how teenagers are represented in films like The Breakfast Club or how The Joker is established as a villain in The Dark Knight, your description of this representation will follow the same sort of structure.

It’s a good idea to start off with a topic sentence which identifies how the character is represented and explains which aspects of the representation you will be discussing.

Here is an example of how you might write about the establishment of The Joker as a villain in The Dark Knight:

In the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan uses a number of techniques to establish The Joker as particularly villainous. In the early part of this sequence, dialogue is used to establish The Joker before he appears onscreen. “I heard he wears make-up,” says one of the goons, hacking his way into a switchboard. “To scare people. You know…war paint.” One of the men reveals that they’re robbing a mafia bank: “I guess the Joker’s as crazy as they say.” After shooting the bank manager, The Joker kneels down and removes his latex clown mask. Christopher Nolan uses a tight close-up of Heath Ledger’s face, accentuating the scars and grotesque make-up. The key light in this scene comes from a large window over his right shoulder. While one side of his face is clearly illuminated, the rest is in shadow. Ledger’s voice is low and sinister as he delivers his response: “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” Ledger shoves a grenade into the mouth of the terrified bank manager and leers at the camera, revealing a set of yellow teeth. This shot is also filmed from the perspective of the bank manager, making The Joker seem all the more sinister to the audience. James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer collaborated on the scores for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Their leitmotif for The Joker – a single note played on the violin which increases in intensity and pans rapidly from left to right, gradually joined by other discordant and distorted electronic instruments – is also used to establish the character as particularly villainous. Throughout this sequence a combination of camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, lighting and sound are all used to establish The Joker as a villain.

In class, we used the following scenes as well as others that students selected:

  • The Joker (Heath Ledger) from The Dark Knight.
  • The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) from Batman Begins. 
  • Zod (Michael Shannon) from Man of Steel.
  • Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) from No Country for Old Men. 
  • Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
  • Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) from Skyfall.
  • Death (Julian Richings) from Supernatural.
  • Bane (Tom Hardy) from The Dark Knight Rises. 
  • Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) from The Matrix. 
  • Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

Activity 3: Assessment

This task is marked out of 20. You will receive up to 5 marks per paragraph according to the descriptors below:

  • 5 marks. An insightful description of how a villain is represented in a film. Perceptive and detailed reference to how cinematic techniques – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and/or sound – have been used to construct this representation. A range of insightful and effective examples support the discussion. Highly effective use of terminology.
  • 4 marks. An informed description of how a villain is represented in a film. A thorough understanding of how cinematic techniques – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and/or sound – have been used to construct this representation. A range of effective examples support the discussion. Clear and effective use of terminology.
  • 3 marks. A clear description of how a villain is represented in a film. An understanding of how cinematic techniques – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and/or sound – have been used to construct this representation. Some examples support the discussion. Accurate use of terminology.
  • 2 marks. A general description of how a villain is represented in a film. Some understanding of how cinematic techniques – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and/or sound – have been used to construct this representation. Some examples support the discussion but needs to make more specific, more detailed reference to the scene. May make generalisations about the scene or character. Limited use of terminology.
  • 1 mark. A limited description of how a villain is represented in a film. A limited understanding of how cinematic techniques – including camera techniques, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and/or sound – have been used to construct this representation. Mostly general discussion of the scene or film with few specific examples. Limited and/or inaccurate use of terminology.

Sample Essay

Villains are represented in many different ways throughout the art form of film. Although there is a defined convention that we use for the purpose of identifying villains for what they are which can be interpreted as cliché or stereotypical, they are still represented in many different ways.

The Way Way Back is a film about a social introvert Duncan (Liam James), who goes on a family holiday to the beach with his mother, her new boyfriend and her boyfriend’s daughter. The ‘villain’ in this film, Trent (Steve Carell), is represented as a power hungry, control freak who is just generally mean to everyone around him. In the opening sequence, directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash establish Trent as the antagonist, a caricature of an overbearing step father figure. Framed in the rear view mirror of the car, all that the audience can see of Trent’s face are his eyes and nose. This particular method of frame within a frame induces a feeling of isolation and has an almost claustrophobic effect upon the audience, due to the tight frame and closeness of the character. Trent’s eyes flick from the road to the mirror, where he stares directly into the audience as though he were speaking through them to Duncan. This acting reinforces the feeling of intimidation that radiates from Trent’s character. The next shot has Duncan slightly right of the centre of frame, with Trent in the top left corner. The particular placement of this shot demonstrates how Trent is always in the back of Duncan’s mind, a constant pestering that won’t leave him alone. The final shot in the opening scene is triggered by Duncan turning around to answer Trent’s condescending question. As he turns around, it is revealed that there are two other people in the car, which are shown in two different shots from where Duncan would be sitting, to replicate his perspective. The silence apart from the road noise only adds to the tension of the car, which enhances the intimidation of Trent’s sarcasm. This is only increased by his pestering of Duncan, who clearly doesn’t want to speak, asking him how we rates himself out of ten. Trent then promptly informs Duncan that he is a ‘three’. The dialogue in this scene demonstrates the personalities of those in the car. Duncan squirms painfully in front of the audience and Duncan’s mother and would-be step sister lie asleep in the car, unwilling to be involved. The unwillingness to do anything about Trent’s passive bullying of Duncan is what allows Trent to get away with what he does.

Interstellar is a science fiction film about the depleted Earth that is incapable of growing food, and will soon run out of oxygen. The villain in this film is not conveyed in a conventional way. Dr Mann (Matt Damon) is only introduced three fifths of the way through the film, and is at first seen to be a hero. The first time we see Dr Mann, he is encased in a hibernation pod, having just been pulled from cryo-sleep. The sequence of Dr Mann climbing out of the sleeping pod almost resembles a resurrection and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – of whom is portrayed to be as a Jesus character, the saviour of mankind in the film – likens him to Lazarus, back from the dead. In this introduction of Dr Mann he is wearing all black, a sign of villainy. This colour scheme is of stark contrast to what Brand, Cooper and Romily, who are all wearing their bright white NASA uniforms, white being a colour of sainthood and purity. The next scene shows Dr Mann clutching a reflective blanket around him to conserve his body heat. These blankets are two sided, reflective on the inside and outside. This could be a reference to Dr Mann’s fatal, two faced personality that he displays later on in the film. Even Dr Mann’s spacesuit is different to that of Brand, Cooper and Romily. The colours have faded to become a grey instead of white, grey being a colour representing a detachment to emotion and neutrality. This portrays Mann’s personality precisely as he later betrays the team, detaching his emotional connection to them to fulfil the mission. Interstellar is a film rife with biblical references, and Dr Mann is yet another of them. His perfidious actions portray him as a caricature of Judas, willing to betray his fellow scientists to save his own life. The casting of Matt Damon for this role was a genius move by director Christopher Nolan because he is typically seen as a hero figure. Matt Damon’s acting skills help to portray the unexpected evil of his character, and the surprise that Matt Damon is even in the film is as much as surprise as when Dr Mann turns out to be evil.

Javier Bardem in his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is one of the most mentally terrifying villains of them all. In the where Anton strolls into the petrol station, even from this snippet of film (which isn’t the first time we see Anton) the audience knows that this man is horrifying. The first sign that notifies the audience of the approaching villain are his carefully weighted, echoing footsteps that seem so deep and heavy in such a small, homely room. When Anton steps into frame we see that he is dressed all in black, just like most villains. Next, we hear his voice, a low, unforgiving, rumbling voice that intimidates the audience as much as the poor shopkeeper. When the next shot appears we see the shopkeeper, contrasty coloured to Anton. Through the back window, which uses the method of frame within a frame to make the shopkeeper appear even more isolated and vulnerable, we can see a farm apparatus of some sort that sheds light on the character of the shopkeeper. Also we see in this scene a packet of smiley face stickers in the left hand of the windowsill which, is ironic considering that this shopkeeper is feeling everything apart from smiley. The long pauses that Javier Bardem manipulates create a sense of uncertainty in the audience of whom strain to hear what he is going to say next. The silences, punctuated only by the cracking of some sort of crunchy snack, indicate that Anton Chigurh is extremely confident with his ability to mentally dominate a situation. As the scene progresses the shots get closer and the frame is tighter. This is used to instil a sensation of claustrophobia in the audience, as Anton’s terrifying demeanour fills the entire screen, and the expressions of the shopkeeper are even more apparent. When Anton screws up the snack wrapper and places it in on the table, the frame is filled with a creepily, slowly unfolding wrapper. The sound echoes around the room, the crackling sound as it attempts to straighten itself is probably the most horrifying noise that an inanimate food wrapper could make as it appears to be writhing on the desk in agony. This shot is a representation of what Anton is thinking about doing to the shopkeeper. The significance of the coin toss is that life and death are two sides of the same coin. It is not certain what would have happened if the shopkeeper had lost, but the audience would be able to make a pretty good guess. Most likely the shopkeeper would end up resembling the snack wrapper, slowly writhing on the ground. The coin also represents Anton’s behaviour, and his ability to suddenly snap and kill someone. It’s a fifty fifty chance whether you are going to walk away when you come face to face with Anton Chigurh.

The first time we see Moriarty (Jared Harris) in this scene he is sat down in the top left hand corner of the frame, over the left shoulder of Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr). Moriarty is clothed in a green robe, suitable for a professor to wear. The colour green is a representation of greed and sickness, the sickness is amplified by the shots following this sequence that displays a black-green whiteboard, the book ‘Domestic Horticulture’ which is green, and then a shot of a dead plant sitting on the windowsill. This sequence is ironic as horticulture is the art of growing fruits and plants. Green is present throughout the entire clip, as a lot of the items in the office are this colour. When the camera cuts to the shot of Sherlock on Moriarty’s left shoulder, the colour scheme does not change. There is a small green statue on Moriarty’s desk and some of his folders are green. This colour scheme that represents greed, sickness and deceit, is a reflection of Moriarty’s caricature. Throughout the scene Sherlock’s shadow is cast over Moriarty, making him appear sinister and deceitful, linking back to the presence of the colour scheme. There are several camera techniques that director Guy Ritchie manipulates to add to the suspense and uncertainty surrounding Moriarty’s character. When Sherlock walks around the desk, the camera follows him and then switches to a tracking shot of Moriarty who is seated in the left-centre of the frame. This tracking shot is supposed to represent Sherlock’s perspective, as though the audience can see through Sherlock’s eyes. The music picks up just after this shot, a distorted orchestral piece punctured with a low, deep rumbling sound, like an earthquake which adds to the suspense of the scene. Throughout this clip, Jared Harris squints his eyes slightly and manipulates a lot of small actions that add to the sinisterness of the character. When Moriarty says “two men stand a cross road” the camera positions itself so that Moriarty and Sherlock are standing facing each other, as though they are ready to draw pistols. However instead of trading bullets, they’re duelling with words. Moriarty then throws a bloodstained handkerchief onto a chess board, to represent the game that they are playing. This game is not one that can be won with pieces, it’s a psychological game. Moriarty then sits down and begins fondling the king piece, the most important piece in chess, representing that he is the one in charge. It also represents that he has Sherlock, who he himself believes to be the one holding all the cards, in his hands, able to be crushed at any time. As the scene concludes, the orchestral piece apexes to portray that the suspense has only just begun. The very last shot depicts Moriarty pushing the king forward. This is to show that he has made his move, its Sherlock’s turn to respond. But in terms of chess, using the king is a reckless move as it creates defensive structural weakness and places the king, who is already a vulnerable piece, in more danger.

Villains are generally what make or break a film. A good villain can carry a film, especially if they are in the form of an anti-hero that completely differentiates itself from the hero/ine of the story. Villains are depicted in lots of different ways, whether they be physical or psychological, and it is the villain who can be the deciding factor on whether or not the storyline is worth watching.

Planning your villain sequence

We’ve seen how Hollywood does it! Now you and a partner are going to create your own villain. This scene will be a maximum of two minutes long. It will involve a confrontation between a villain and a protagonist. Keep the scene simple.

1. Think about your villain.

With your partner, answer the following questions

  • What motivates the villain? Do they hate someone? Are they seeking revenge? Keep it lighthearted, we don’t want to create anything too disturbing!
  • Who will play the villain? Think outside the box. You don’t have to act in your own films.
  • Where will your scene be set? Try to come up with an interesting or unique location.
  • What will the villain wear? Costuming will be essential to making this scene effective.
  • What props will you use? Give your villain a creepy or iconic prop. Maybe they’ll be carrying a walking cane. Perhaps they’re peeling an orange throughout the scene.
  • What will the villain say? Villains love a monologue!
  • How will the villain act? It’s important to direct the performance of your actor. Think about any idiosyncrasies that your villain might have.

2. Write a shotlist.

We’re going to plan out the sequence using a shotlist. Why are we going to use a shotlist? Basically because it’s the quickest and easiest way to plan a scene like this. We’re going to put all of the dialogue for this scene into the description column of our shotlist which means we don’t have to write a script. When you are writing up your shotlist, consider the following:

  • Camera techniques. Think about what type of shot size, camera angle and camera movement you are going to use in the scene. When you’re thinking about shot composition, you might like to check out this post.
  • Acting. In each shot that features a character, you need to specifically describe how they will perform. This will help you when you are directing your actors. Make sure you keep the performance of your villain nice and understated.
  • Mise en scene. What will the villain wear? What sort of props will be used in the scene?
  • Editing. How will you cut the scene together. Are there any particular editing techniques you will use?
  • Lighting. Think carefully about how you might light the scene.
  • Sound. Identify the sound effects, ambient sounds and music that you will use in the scene. This is the most important code for creating an ominous atmosphere. If you haven’t studied Media before, you will need to check out this post.

Student work

Here is a shot list created by a previous student and his finished production.