Standard Lesson

Lights, Camera, Action...Music: Critiquing Films Using Sight and Sound

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Six 60-minute class sessions
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Films can be much more than entertainment; they can also help students better understand themselves, their culture, and other forms of media. In this lesson, students view a scene from Good Morning, Vietnam in which the visuals and the music contradict each other. They then use a scene analysis framework to explore why the director chose the setting, camera angles, and music and what these choices do to create the scene's tone. Students reflect on the scene individually and in groups and then create their own scene to be presented to the rest of the class.

From Theory to Practice

  • The ubiquity of various kinds of media-including film, television, and recorded music-and the need for students to be able to interpret and decode them mean that educators should reconsider their definitions of literacy to include nontraditional forms of "reading."

  • To help students "read" films, teachers must help them develop the tools to deconstruct them, looking at colors, camera angles, lighting, and music. They must also encourage students to think critically and independently about the films they watch.

  • Studying films helps students develop a variety of skills that affect their learning in other areas including synthesis and evaluation, proficiency in media literacy, and real-life critical thinking.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Good Morning, Vietnam, directed by Barry Levinson (1988)

  • DVD player or VCR

  • Chart paper

  • Student journals




1. Familiarize yourself with the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. Set in 1965, this film tells the story of an Air Force disc jockey who has been flown in from another assignment to a post at the center of the conflict in Saigon. Soldiers who listen to his program love it, but one of his superior officers would prefer that the radio show be censored.

The segment chosen for this lesson is the one in which the disc jockey, played by Robin Williams, plays the song "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong on his radio show while images of everyday life in wartime Vietnam, many of them violent, play across the screen.

2. Obtain a copy of the film and a VCR or DVD player for your classroom. You'll want to set up the film at the beginning of the scene, which ends when the song finishes.

3. Make copies of Camera Angles: Close-Ups and Long Shots, Script Guidelines, Presentation Guidelines, and the lyrics of "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong for the students to use during the lesson. Make two copies of the Scene Analysis Framework for each student in the class.

4. Make sure that students have permission to use the Internet, following your school policy. If you need to, reserve a session in your school's computer lab. (See Session 3.)

5. Familiarize yourself with An Introduction to Film Sound and Designing a Movie for Sound. Bookmark these websites on your classroom or lab computers.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Use their critical thinking skills to develop a new vocabulary for discussing and critiquing films

  • Develop evaluative and analytic skills by applying this new terminology to a scene in both classroom discussions and writing

  • Become more media literate by exploring how film texts are constructed and how camera angles and music impact a viewer's experience

  • Synthesize what they have learned by outlining a scene of their own and presenting it to the class

  • Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical persons in respectful dialogue with one another during class discussions and while working in cooperative groups

Session 1

1. Begin the session by activating students' prior knowledge about films. Questions for discussion might include:

  • What is the last film you saw?

  • What impressed you the most about it? Why?

  • What is the best film you have ever seen? What about it makes it the best?
You might choose to have these questions written on chart paper or the board and to record student responses.

2. Introduce the term cinematography. Ask students for a definition working towards the following: The art of using a camera to record visual images on film for the cinema. Cinematography is an art form because it involves making decisions about how a shot is framed and how long it lasts. Other aspects of cinematography include sound, lighting, camera angles, and the scenery and costumes.

3. Talk a little bit about the significance of cinematography. Ask students what cinematographic techniques were used in their favorite film that they think made it appealing.

4. Distribute the copies of Camera Angles: Close-Ups and Long Shots and give students time to read it.

5. After 15 minutes, reorganize the class into groups of 3 or 4 and ask students to answer the following questions, based on what they have just read:

  • How would they place the camera if they were filming the class right now?

  • What effect would they like to create? Why?
6. Ask students to sketch the scenes they have just described, providing them with paper and pencils if necessary. They can refer to the Camera Angles sheet while they are working. Ask them to keep their sketches for later use.

Session 2

1. Have students get into their groups from Session 1. Explain that you will show them a short segment of the film Good Morning, Vietnam, providing a brief plot synopsis of the movie for students who have not seen it. Explain that they will watch the segment without the sound, which will give them the opportunity to first focus on the visuals (i.e., the setting, objects, characters, mood of the scene, and camera angles).

2. Distribute copies of the Scene Analysis Framework, which students will complete in their groups after they have watched the segment.

3. Have students watch the segment without sound. After this, ask them to work on the Scene Analysis Framework in their groups. Students should discuss the questions and then collaboratively write the answers to the questions. Replay the scene if students request it as they are working.

4. After students have completed the Scene Analysis Framework, ask them to assign a speaker to report their answers to the questions to the rest of the class. Students should listen as each presenter reads the group responses, but can then question the group about their answers. After each group has had a chance to respond, ask students to compare the answers; record similarities and differences on the board or a piece of chart paper.

Note: Ask students to hold onto their Scene Analysis Framework sheets as they will use them during the next session.

Homework: Ask students to reflect on the following questions in their journals:

  • What have you learned today?

  • What do you think is the effect of music in a movie?

  • Think of a movie where the music played an important role. Why was it important? What did music do in this film?

Session 3

Note: Students will use computers for part of this session so, if necessary, you should conduct it in the computer lab.

1. Use the questions students answered in their journals as a starting point to begin a discussion about music in movies. You might want to write the questions on a piece of chart paper or on the board and record student responses, including a list of movies where music played an important role.

2. Explain that sound is another important aspect of cinematography, which can be used to give a story a certain mood or feeling. You might want to have some examples (such as the theme from Jaws, Psycho, or Out of Africa and the way they are used in these films) ready to share with students.

3. Ask students to visit the Designing a Movie for Sound and An Introduction to Film Sound and take notes about the new information they have learned.

4. Have students get into their groups and ask them to discuss the following questions:

  • You recently watched a segment from Good Morning, Vietnam without sound to help you concentrate on the visuals. Now, according to what you have just read, what sounds do you think will be used to accompany the scene?

  • If you were going to choose a song or type of instrumental music to play during the scene, what would you choose?
Ask students who have seen the movie to refrain from revealing what is played during this scene. Tell each group that they should come to a consensus about the song or music they think should be used.

5. After about 10 minutes, ask each group to share the song or type of instrumental music they have chosen to accompany the scene. Then show the segment with the sound. When students have finished watching, distribute copies of "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong. Let them read the lyrics and think for a moment. Then ask students to compare the song with the songs and music they chose for the scene. How is it different or the same?

6. Explain to students that the director of Good Morning, Vietnam made a conscious choice when he selected this song-he could have picked any number of Vietnam-era protest songs that angrily decried the war. He could have chosen folk music. Or he could have chosen somber instrumental music. Ask students to consider why the director chose this song instead. Questions for discussion include:

  • What is the theme of the song?

  • What is the theme or mood of the scene it accompanies?

  • How would their reaction to the scene be different with a different song or instrumental music?
If students don't mention the word irony during this discussion, you might want to introduce the term and explain how the director is using it (i.e., the words of the song convey the opposite sentiment of the images that appear while it is played). Students may be interested to see that a term they are familiar with in literature can also be applied in a critical discussion about film.

7. Ask students to go back to their groups and work again on the Scene Analysis Framework, changing or adding to their answers now that they have seen the segment with sound. They might also add some questions about music.

Session 4 and 5


1. Ask students to get into their groups and explain that they will use the sketches they created during Session 1 to write a segment of a film. Distribute the Script Guidelines and review them, explaining that these are what you will use to assess their completed scenes. Students should use these guidelines to write a scene description, which should include:

  • An outline of the movie that the scene is an excerpt from (i.e., Is it a "day-in-the-life" documentary film about the school? A horror film where students are decimated by a monster? A romance? A comedy?)

  • A synopsis of the scene explaining what is happening

  • The overall mood they are trying to achieve in the scene

  • The objects or characters that will be included in the scene and what they are doing

  • Their proposed camera angles and why they choose to use them (they should revise their sketches and include them with the description)

  • The songs or instrumental music that will accompany the scenes
2. Distribute the Presentation Guidelines, which students will use to present their scenes to the entire class and which you will use to evaluate their presentations.

3. Students should work on their scenes for the remainder of this session and Session 5.

Session 6

Students will present their work to the class during this session. At the end of each presentation, ask students to analyze the scene using the Scene Analysis Framework as a guide. Collect the scene outlines at the end of this session.


  • If you have access to film equipment, have students film their scenes.

  • There are a number of images in the scene from Good Morning, Vietnam that contradict the lyrics of the song; ask students to identify them using the interactive Venn diagram.

  • Have students visit MRQE (The Movie Review Query Engine), which allows them to enter film names and access numerous reviews. Ask them to look at various reviews and analyze how they are written before they write their own review of the film they selected as their favorite during Session 1.

  • Have students choose a movie or a movie segment and write an essay analyzing it using the Essay Map as a prewriting tool.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Informally assess student comprehension of camera angles and the use of music in film, their ability to use new terminology, and their evaluative skills during presentations and classroom discussions in Sessions 1, 2, and 3.

  • Use the Script Guidelines to assess the scene outlines; students should have answered all of the questions in their outlines and should offer a rationale for their responses.

  • Use the Presentation Guidelines to assess the presentations.

  • Ask students to reflect on what they have learned from the lesson in their journals. They can do this freely or using the following prompts:

    • List at least one way you view films differently as a result of this lesson.

    • Have you enjoyed sharing your opinions and ideas with your classmates? Why or why not?

    • How did creating your own film segment help you to understand movies better?

  • You might then choose to collect student journals or use these prompts to conduct a class discussion about the lesson.

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