Media Theory Codes

Media codes.



Codes and conventions are the visual, temporal, aural language of a media production. When we read a novel, an author may describe a scene or event at length over several sentences, paragraphs or even pages. Gradually we build a ‘picture’ and gain a full understanding. However, in film, we don’t have that kind of time. We need to know where we are, who we are with, how we should feel and what to expect immediately as if we are on site together with the actors. If they are to feel happy, we need to feel happy. If they are to feel scared, we need to be scared – for real. How is this done? And furthermore, how is it done instantly?


Technical, written and symbolic tools used to construct or suggest meaning in media forms and products. Media codes include the use of camera, acting, setting, mise en scene, editing, lighting, sound, special effects, typography, colour, visual composition, text and graphics

MEDIA conventions

Rules or generally accepted ways of constructing form and informing meaning in media products including story principles, form and structure, generic structures, character and story arcs, cause and effect, point of view, the structuring of time, elements of page layout, paper stock for print, titles and credits sequences, hyperlinking and mounting and framing of images.

From the VCAA Media Study Design 2018 – 22

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A still from 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' Directed by Stanley Kramer, 1967.

Camera, lighting, set and acting work together to create this formal meeting between three characters.


What makes media?

This section explores the components that work together to make up media products. We will need to deconstruct media products in a variety of forms to find out how they are made and communicate meaning.

Secret Code

What is a code? A code is a method to transmit ideas in a language. When you write you encode ideas into English language. When a reader who understands that language reads it they understand your ideas. Simple.

Film makers, photographers and designers all use the same idea when they communicate ideas in media products.

The question is, how do you make  happy, contented  horror movie-goer, full of anticipation with their supersize Coke and popcorn scared to their bones? Not with reality. Media producers can't actually scare them with real shocks. But ideas representing horror can be encoded and transmitted through film and sound to make them scared like it was real.

Consider the image below. How does it depict the process of encoding and decoding?

We will examine a range of codes in media forms to understand the process of encoding and decoding.

Codes and media


How could we explain how many bottles are on a tray without showing the bottles? We put the number into code. A code is a language. Capiche?

tasks 1

1.1 Encode/ decode

Consider the image above. There is a process of communication going on from left to right. Explain what the written terms mean and how they are at work, communicating an idea to another person.

1.2 other examples

Can you think of any other examples in life where a process of encoding and decoding exists? Write one down.


Codes communicating


This section explores media codes that communicate through the use of techniques, processes and equipment. These are sometimes referred to as 'written codes'.

Codes communicating through techniques, processes and use of equipment



Camera refers to the way a camera has been used to record visual sequences for photography, video or cinematography.

Camera and film techniques include:

  • Shot sizes
  • Camera angles
  • Camera movement
  • Tripod, hand-held
  • Zooms and pans
  • Focus/depth of field
  • Film stock, grain, ISO Exposure


  • The camera angle
  • Camera movement
  • Are different techniques combined?
  • Why does it used this way?
Hear from Wes Anderson's DOP on camera techniques.



Acting refers to the art of human representation or interpretation of a character within a media production.

Acting can be:

  • Naturalistic
  • Exaggerated


  • The visual aspects of the performance
  • Appearance
  • Gesture
  • Facial expressions
  • Mannerisms

*Even non-acting or playing one’s self is acting. Consider the way Michael Moore ‘acts’ in his documentaries.

A brief discussion of one of the world's best actors - Marlon Brando.



Setting refers to the time and/ or place that the narrative occurs in. Setting is related to the code 'mise en scene'.


How does the setting contribute to the narrative?

Is the setting integral to the narrative itself?

Could the film be set in a different time or place?

How does the setting function symbolically?

A top 10 list of movie sets in Hollywood. Consider how colour, architectural style, materials, space and void contribute to the communication of ideas in each movie.

Mise en scene


Mise en scene refers to everything in a frame that has been placed to create a representation. Aspects of mise en scene include;

  • set,
  • costume,
  • makeup, hair styles,
  • props,
  • lighing,
  • colour.

Mise en scene also works in symbolic ways as it often includes objects that represent something else or other ideas.


  • Setting
  • Props
  • Colours
  • Costumes
  • Lighting
  • Character blocking
An amazing analysis of the mise en scene created in Wes Anderson films.



Editing refers to the cutting and combining of sequences of vision to create a narrative. As a narrative is rarely filmed and presented to the audience in real time, editing is the method by which sequences are assembled together to create a meaningful product.

Editing may refer to;

Visual: The way separate shots are combined/ arranged to make meaning,

Sound: The way sound is layered together to create meaning or emotion.

  • Editing is used to:
  • Tell a long story in a limited amount of time (screen time vs real time)
  • To engage the audience
  • Emphasise information about certain characters or events


  • The types of edits (fades, dissolves, jump cuts)
  • The sequence of shots
  • The rhythm of the edits
  • The pace of the editing

*Consider particular Directors and whether they favour particular editing techniques.

*Terms for editing include; jump cuts, pace editing, cross-cutting, continuity editing.

A great simple summary of basic editing techniques.



Lighting refers to the manner in which a scene or frame is illuminated.  Video and filming are forms of photography so inherently rely on the capture of light and shade to render characters, actions and settings. However, lighting is not a given and must be constructed in the way that best creates meaning for a representation desired in a media product.

Lighting can be:

  • Naturalistic
  • Expressive
  • Chiaroscuro (dramatic and 3 dimensional)
  • Low key (dark)
  • High key (light)

Different effects can be achieved by:

  • Changing the direction of light
  • Changing the number of light sources
  • Changing the quality of the light
  • Changing the colour of light
  • Framing with light
  • Using shadows


The lighting style

  • Naturalistic lighting – Helps the audience to accept the film’s fictional world is real.
  • Expressive lighting -  Can be used for emphasis of to create a mood or atmosphere

The direction of light. Front, back lit.

The kind of light; candle, spot, daylight, chiaroscuro.

A brief introduction to lighting. Lighting direction and colour.



Sound refers to the audio (heard) component of a media production. In the case of a podcast or radio production this sound may be the entire component.

Sound is used to provide mood and/ or continuity in visual sequences. it is also often used to given an audience an insight into a character's feelings.

Sounds in a film are classified into two types:

Diegetic sounds: Sounds that originate from events in the film (within the world of the narrative).

  • Character voices
  • Sounds from objects
  • Character turns on a radio and sings along to a song

Non-diegetic sounds: Sounds that do originate from events in the film, are not heard by characters in the story and are only heard by the audience

  • Voice-over narration
  • Incidental music


  • Sound editing – cutting and placing of sound
  • Sound effects – Sound effects are diegetic if it what a character would hear even if it is a sound effect.
A nice introduction into how sound is used to develop narratives.

Special effects (SFX)


Special effects (SFX) refers to methods of achieving difficult or impossible  actions or sequences that cannot be filmed economically, easily, safely or naturally. Special Effects began as simple double exposures, tricks in editing, animation, models, and now usually employ digital production, digital sets, matte painting, stunts, visual illusions and/ or post production work.


How does the SFX add to the meaning of the media production?

How does the SFX add to the audience engagement?

How does the SFX relate to the genre of the media production?

How do SFX relate to a production schedule, location, degree of difficulty of the shoot or budget?

What are the techniques used?

  • SFX may involve; green screen, (digital) matte painting, models, stunt work, digital sets.
Seven films shown before and after special effects.

tasks 2

2.1 Identify codes

Using an example clip from a film or TV show, identify the dominant codes that have been used to create meaning.

2.2 Describe codes

As an extension to Task 2.1, use Media language (examples above) to describe exactly how each code you identified is used in the clip you chose.


Codes communicating


This section explores media codes that communicate through the use of signs. These are sometimes referred to as 'symbolic codes'.

Codes communicating through symbols

Media is a visual language that relies on visual literacy for effective communication of ideas.

One branch of this literacy is the use of signs. The name for this study is semiotics. This page will very briefly explore two main facets of semiotics to see how it applies to media products.

When we create representations of characters, events and places we do so by using actors, sounds and settings to stand in or take the place of real people and places.

Happiness in a movie isn't real happiness for an actor but a representation of it for the audience.

Therefore the tools of representation are signs that make audiences experience this re-presented reality.

Culture and symbol

One thing to note in this section of the study is that symbols gain their meaning through use and associations. Therefore, correct interpretation of their meanings maybe culture specific. This means that people in different cultures may understand different meanings for symbols. This is especially true for the meanings of colours.


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) were the founders of a study called semiotics. It is a study of communication and how it works. To understand codes we need a very basic understanding of this field. 

The main principle of communication through both literate and visual means is to understand that there are really two parts to communication.

Signifier and signified

  • The signifier is a sign that stands for an idea or person or thing.
  • The signified is the actual idea, person or thing.

An example of a signifier is a red light. The light itself has no meaning whatsoever. It is just a light. However, it signifies the idea that we must stop and wait.

The light is a sign. A sign is something that stands for or represents something else.


There are three kinds of signs: Icon, index and symbol. In our study we are concerned with icon and symbol.


An icon is a sign which looks physically similar to the idea is is signifying.
( Smoking_ban#/media/File: No_Smoking.svg)


An index is something that has a direct connection to the signified. Smoke is an index of fire. It is not a representation (as is an icon) but evidence that fire exists.

( live-tobacco-free/tobacco-free-public-places/)


A symbol is a somewhat arbitrary sign that communicates ideas through learned conventions or associations. A red light or stop sign is a symbol for the idea 'stop'.


denotation, connotation

All this talk of icons, indexes and symbols can be a bit daunting. In media we really focus on symbols.

But before we do, we should be aware in creating representations, that we will be using colours and objects to represent ideas.

  • Denotation refers to an actual object or visual effect. For example a person's shadow on a wall is just darkness created by shining a light towards someone at an angle.
  • The connotation, however is very different. Consider what that shadow might mean in a mystery film? It would almost certainly represent another, hidden person, perhaps a stalking character. It's a foreboding sign, telling of imminent danger.

A code used symbolically will connote meaning in a media production. The use of techniques, processes, equipment, colour, objects, type and layout strategies all connote ideas for your audience.




White indicates innocence, honesty, enlightenment, divinity, truth, cleanliness.


Black indicates evil, foreboding, the unknown, fear.


Yellow and orange indicate health, happiness, warmth, sweetness.


Blue indicates cold and sterile environments. Sickness, stress, tiredness, isolation.


Green is used to represent fertility, growth, health, taking care of the earth.

Objects, events

Sharp knife

A sharp knife connotes danger.

book or library

Books and libraries represent knowledge, learning and wisdom.


A cocktail refers to sophisticated recklessness.

sunny day

A bright sunny day conjures up hope, honesty, playful times and a new beginning.

Rainy day

A rainy grey day represents loss of hope, depression, death and times of difficulty.

tasks 3

3.1 Colour as symbol

Choose three colours. Investigate the meaning of the three colours in two different cultures. Make a colour swatch and then collect a picture of that colour to demonstrate the meaning in both cultures.

3.2 Secret meanings

Make a search for a list of symbols used in paintings. Take a look through the list and write down three symbols that are new to you. Consider and explain the how or why the symbols have become associated with their present meanings.

3.3 Symbolism in acting

Consider the various components in acting. Gesture, body language, facial expressions, etc. Choose two different ones and find a screen shot to illustrate how they are used to communicate ideas symbolically.

3.4 Icon or symbol

Identify two signs in one of your favorite TV shows. Explain if they are used as icons or as symbols. Give reasons for your answers making reference to how they are used in the show.

3.5 Denote or connote

Choose one symbol used in a media product. Explain what this object, sound or technique is and what it connotes. In other words, describe what it literally is and what it expresses in the media product.


Codes communicating

with writing

This section explores media codes that communicate through type and writing. These are sometimes referred to as 'written codes'.

Codes communicating through writing and type

Writing communicates through the meaning of words and through the aesthetics of type forms. Type is an expressive code. The choice of type face and the way it is type-set, both contribute to the way it speaks.

This examination rests on our ability to determine how this code communicates ideas to an audience.

There are several factors typographers use that influence the construction of meaning through type.

Category of type form

Serif, sans serif, display, decorative

Type can be classified by the type forms. Serif, Sans serif, display and  decorative.

Serif and sans serif fonts have been used through history at different periods and for different purposes. They have formed symbolic associations.

  • Serif types = old world, established ideas, traditional, authoritative, editorial, subjective.
  • Sans serif types = new, ideas from Europe, impartial, corporate, factual, objective.
  • Display and decorative types are for headlines and come in many different styles.

But wait a minute...

Just because serif and sans serif type faces have been used for the purposes listed above doesn't mean that they are always used in these ways. What is important, is you consider what is the meaning being communicated? Ask yourself, What is the tone of the communication? and how has the type form been chosen to support the communication?

Type setting practices

After the designer selects a typeface best suited to communicate the intended message consideration needs to be given to how the font will be typeset. This involves making choices such as;

  • Type weight (where the type form resides in a type family [bold, regular, italic, light, extra light])
  • Type width (condensed, regular, extended)
  • The size
  • The colour
  • The case (use of upper and lower case)
  • Alignment
  • Tracking (space between letters)
  • Leading (space between lines)

Written code

Below are some examples of written code and variations in all of the type setting practices listed above.

Serif fonts have little wedges at the ends of the terminals on each letter. This is a result of the way letters were carved from stone in Roman times.
Sans Serif font means without serifs. The terminals finish without decoration. Sans serif type faces are also know an Gothic as the lack of decoration was considered ugly during the 19th Century.
There is a huge range of decorative display fonts. Display font means the type is reserved for headings as it would be unsuitable for body type.
Professional type faces come in a range of weights. The range is known as a type family. Here is a small selection of Helvetica Neue.
Professional type faces also come in a range of type widths. The words to describe them are condensed for thin faces and extended for elongated ones.
Size of type creates hierarchy. There are conventions for relative sizes of type in print media.
The colour of type is an expressive component of this written code and works alongside case.
You will be so familiar with case as way to set type differently that you may almost miss it as an expressive component. Case helps to set the tone of the communication.
Alignment is another characteristic of type setting that can be taken for granted. Different alignments are also expressive.
The space between letters influences the tone of the communication. The space between one pair of letters is known as kerning and is done when two letters don't seem quite right when automatic tracking is set.
Leading needs to be adjusted, usually tightened when type setting display type. Tight leading creates more impact for a message.

tasks 4

4.1 Just my type

Choose three teachers in your school. Write their names in a Word processing app. Based on your knowledge of how type forms express ideas, set their names in appropriate type faces to suit their personality.

4.2 Type history

Find out the names of two famous serif and sans serif fonts. (4 fonts). Collect or make an example of each and find out where, when, by whom and possibly why they were designed.

4.3 Old or new

Locate three examples of type in real print media. Find these examples where;

  • serif type = old, authoritative ideas
  • sans serif type = new, progressive ideas
  • serif type = new, progressive ideas ironically
4.4 Type adjustments

Locate and collect one example of professional type setting in print media. Explain how it communicates ideas in harmony with the literal meaning of the words by referring to three of the type setting adjustments shown above.