The Moving Image: Body Language and Media Context

Every day we are presented with bodily expressions in audiovisual media – by anchors, journalists and characters in films for instance. This article explores how body language in the moving image has been and can be approached in a scholarly manner.


Højbjerg, Lennard (2014): The Moving Image: Body Language and Media Context. Kosmorama #258 (

Every day, in fiction, TV news, documentaries, and sports we are presented with bodily expressions – by anchors, journalists, and various other participants – as well as characters in film. How do we approach this important topic – body language in the moving image – in a scholarly manner?

The media in which body language is expressed have an influence on how it appears on the big screen and on the flat screen. Mediation is the name of the concept having to do with the way that the media form body language in accordance with the purpose of presentation. Body language is a tool formed in fiction film and television series, which is used to convey meaning in a narrative context. In news and documentaries, body language is mediated in accordance with a standard for presenting news and background reports. The basic questions are these: How can we distinguish between different forms of body expressions? How are they related to the media context in which they appear?

This article consists of two parts. The first part is a presentation of the research on, and the theory of, body language. The second is a categorization of body language in the moving image and how different body expressions appear in different media contexts.

Research and theory of Body Language

First of all, we have to distinguish between the long tradition of theorizing bodily expressions within the fields of psychology and sociology, and the way that film and media scholars have analyzed non-verbal language in the moving image. This first section will deal with the psychological and sociological approach, while the second will present various film scholars’ reflections on facial expressions and acting style.

The definition of body language has evolved through the years: from the focus in the 1950’s on proxemics and kinesics, to the last 20 years which have encompassed the concept of non-verbal communication dealing with all bodily expressions (Argyle 1975, Rosenthal 1998):

  • Kinesics encompasses body expression, facial expressions, gestures etc.
  • Proxemics pertains to body distance, the body in space (territorial borders).
  • Prosodics (non-language aspects of voice and tone) is about articulation, accent, mumbling, sighing, grumbling, etc.
  • Accessories are all the artifacts that a body uses: dress, make-up, jewels, bags, hair cut, shoes, etc.

In many works and articles, body language is dealt with as an anthropological/sociological and psychological phenomenon. Birdwhistell (1970), Argyle (1975), and Pease and Pease (2004) represent a selection of approaches. Many other researchers (i.e. Cashdan 1998, Cundiff 1972, and Hall 1959) deserve mention, but the three selected represent a broad spectrum of research and theory.

In Kinesics and Context (1970), Birdwhistell summarizes many studies from the 1950's and 60's. His main focus is on how researchers are able to obtain data about body communication, specifically the relation between kinesics and social context. He relies on a linguistic approach in the understanding and interpretation of photos, films, and observations.

Michael Argyle: Bodily Communication (1988, (1975)) describes the study of body language as guided by social psychology. Like Birdwhistell, he considers body language (non-verbal communication) a communicative phenomenon. He states that, bodily communication encompasses the following: kinesics, proxemics, prosodics and other appearances (such as clothes, make up, accessories etc.)

Allan and Barbara Pease (2004): The Definitive Book of Body Language is based on their own research as well as the many books by Birdwhistell and Argyle. Therefore their concept of observation and observation of film and images is the same as in the aforementioned books.

These scholars and works have a number of points in common: First, that we are able through media, observation and interaction to detect the meaning and intention behind different bodily expressions. The premise for all the theories mentioned is that they rely on the transparency hypothesis – or at least on an unreflected theory of media transparency. Kendall Walton (1984 and 1990) claims that photographs are transparent because through them we see exactly the things they show – a position rejected by many other theorists. A detailed line of counter-arguments is made by Gregory Currie in Image and Mind (1999: 48-60). This article posits that, to a certain degree, any kind of visual representation shapes the image and therefore also the body expression presented. Thus, a fully transparent presentation of bodily expression in visual media is not possible. Second, it is a widespread notion that bodily expressions appear because someone wants to send a message, and that there is an intention behind the communicative act, a meaning in the message and a message for the receiver to decode. 

As the three above-mentioned writers all state – in reality we are not especially good at reading body language, and we often send out physical signals without knowing that we are expressing a state of mind, an attitude or a feeling. So sometimes it can be a bit difficult to see the intention behind our bodily performance. Body expression is a behavior having many aspects, which cannot, therefore, taken as a whole, be described as communication. Although one can see that body language is a kind of expression, it might not be a communicative act in which one individual is trying to send a message to another, expecting it to be comprehended as one would with classic dialogue.

The film theoretical approach to body expressions in the moving image

A similar position is taken by film scholars such as Carl Plantinga and James Naremore. In his article “The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film” (1999), Plantinga presupposes that body expressions are always presented in mediated transparency. On the basis of Paul Ekmann’s groundbreaking work, Emotions in the Human Face (1982), Plantinga states that, typically, a close-up of a face in the moving image communicates emotions (1999: 242), and what is even more important, close-ups communicate emotions which elicit emotions in the viewer. The viewer’s sympathy and empathy are related to the way a close-up is contagious. In one of the last shots in Stella Dallas (King Vidor, US, 1937), Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) is watching her daughter’s wedding – from the street, through a window and into the mansion where the wedding takes place. The close-up shot is only 15 seconds, but it is a part of a scene more than two minutes long. Stella’s face is in the frame for most of the scene. The duration of the close-up is an important condition for increasing communication about emotions, but Plantinga stresses the point that the viewers’ empathy has to be built up by the narrative context, specifically how the character is made familiar to and appreciated by the viewers.

James Naremore, in Acting in the Cinema (1988), considers facial expression as part of the approach to acting style. He focuses on all kinds of expressions found in the moving image. He describes Chaplin as an actor who “... mimes, mimics or somehow imitates “real persons”.” In its simple form, however, acting is nothing more than transposition of everyday behavior into a theatrical realm. (1988: 21). On the other hand, the technology of film sets constraints for acting, which Naremore calls “the gestureless” form of cinema (1988: 40). For example, actors in shot-reverse-shot often have to stand closer to one another than in real life, preventing them from vivid gesticulations or moving around. An emotional reaction commonly seen on a face in real life can absolutely ruin a scene. Realistic acting implies that a character, while talking, also gesticulates with his hands, even though film facilitates a more intimate acting style – less ostentatious than the one seen in theaters. The opposite of this is the expressive style (i.e. Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (1964)) found in its most exaggerated form in comedies and farces, in which bodily incoherence often results in expressive anarchy (1988: 76). Perhaps it is in James Naremore’s portrait of Cary Grant’s acting performance in North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1959) that we find all the nuances of the way bodily expression constitutes a complex performance. Cary Grant keeps an ironic distance to his persona in the way he spits out his lines, the way he very briefly looks to camera (and the viewer), and his ability to climb, walk, run and execute smaller everyday actions. He has “technical control over degrees of expression, so that he could produce a series of distinctly shaded reactions in close-up...” (1988: 225). But he also sometimes “...resorts to exaggerated facial gymnastics...” (1988: 232). Naremore sees this as reminiscent of farcical expressions and calls this type of facial expression pantomime. Grant presents a complex acting style with both over-exaggerated and understated bodily expressions and a specific way of talking, which in many cases (but not all), is determined by the narrative context. Naremore casts attention on the wide span of body expression available to an actor in fiction film, and also labels the different presentations.

Even though acting style is a complex phenomenon, the distinction between realism and expressive acting and balanced vs. exaggerated expression calls for a discussion of the possibility of making a classification system of bodily expression in the moving image.

We must take into account two positions – the viewer and the performer. Both Plantinga and Naremore maintain that we never see fully transparent body language in the moving image. Body expressions of any kind will always be mediated. From the position of the viewer, however, body expressions are comprehended as if they were performed in reality, meaning that the viewer uses the schemas he or she uses to understand body expression in reality, to comprehend body expressions in the moving image. This amounts to a mix of cultural conventions (learned by growing up in a social environment) and a universal comprehension of facial expressions, etc. From the point of view of the producer, actor, and director, many other considerations are entangled in creating the final result.

In part 2, I will describe the different categories of body expressions in the moving image. The four concepts – proxemics, kinesics, prosodics and accessories are important ways of analyzing body expressions in reality as well as in the moving image, but it is Plantinga’s point about the relationship between facial expression (taken as body expression in general) and narrative context and Naremore’s concept about degrees of expression, which will provide the basis for my categorization of body language in the moving image.

Classification of Body Language in the moving image

I am going to suggest a typology of categories to describe how we deal with this topic in the hope of providing a framework for the many different approaches which we have seen in the past years and to serve as a guide to further research.

I suggest three categories, delineated on degrees of body expression:

  1. Some body expressions seem transparent and the audience perceives the character's body language as if seeing them in reality, even though they know that it is a performance.
  2. Very exaggerated or downplayed body language is often seen in fiction, especially in comedies, where typically exaggerated body expressions are employed to create laughs.
  3. There are body expressions which never appear in reality, but are constructed for purely fictional purposes. We see these in farces or animated films. Classics like Donald Duck and Japanese anime illustrate this category – body language constructed solely for fiction.

As previously stated, it is the media context that determines the way the viewer comprehends body expressions. Different contexts create different perceptions. Narrative films and TV series are both built up around story structures, but even though they both use many of the same genres, there are of course differences between them. The TV series format creates a different sort of familiarity with its characters than film. Characters have to be built from scratch in every film, whereas in TV series, the characters are contextualized in the pilot or during the first few episodes. Fiction puts the viewer in a ‘dramatic mood’, anticipating dramatic events, and this influences the way a viewer ‘reads’ the body language. In non-fiction, such as television news, another set of institutionalized contexts determines the body’s onscreen appearance. Typically, in TV news, there is a dress code, a set of norms as to how to present the news, a set of norms as to how to address the audience, etc. Taken together, these create a very narrow set of guidelines for managing an anchor’s or speaker’s onscreen body performance. The viewer expects a presentation of the news to be about facts, to describe events that have actually happened. Thus the viewer sees the journalist’s or anchor’s body expression in this overall institutionalized context.

In film and TV-series, the narrative purpose determines the way in which the acting style is formed, and the way body expressions are used. Body language works within a narrative context, modified by style and in accordance with the narrative purpose of the story. The moving image is a synthesis of narrative strategy, style and bodily expressions. Several body expressions can be utilized in the same situation, and the one selected has to fit the narrative strategy of the story. The overall purpose is to guide the viewer to comprehension (Bordwell 1985) while at the same time to distribute knowledge or to withhold knowledge, creating an effect (suspense, thrills, laughter etc.). Here, media context is essentially a question of genre. Whether we are dealing with comedies, crime, action, or science fiction, there is a basic core of body language being applied, but also body expressions which differ from genre to genre.

Mediated transparency: category one

Here are two examples of the first category: body language in fiction film and TV – mediated transparency.

The first example is from the crime series Numb3rs (US, 2005-2010: season 2/episode 20, "Guns and Roses", 2006) and deals with the way that body language is used in a larger narrative strategy. It illustrates body expressions easily comprehended by the viewer as part of the viewers’ schemas for how specific body expressions convey meaning.

We see the main character Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz), professor in mathematics, meeting his ex-girlfriend in the doorway. He is talking to her and kissing her, while his ph.d.-student Amita (Nawi Rawat) is in the classroom watching. Her reaction to what she sees and hears is to look the other way, tilting her head downward.




Clip from Numb3rs, episode 20/season 2, "Guns and Roses", 2006.

The shot of Charles kissing his ex-girlfriend and telling colleague Professor Larry Fleinhart (Peter MacNicol)) that he will meet his ex-girlfriend later this evening is followed by a shot to Amita so the viewer is forced to focus on her reaction. The reaction can only be understood as disappointment that Charlie and his ex-girlfriend are making a date. Obviously she has some high hopes for Charlie and herself, but so far in the series, they have no private relationship. Eventually they will become emotionally involved and get married. Therefore, her emotional reaction is a set-up, which the attentive viewer sees, expecting a later pay-off, but a pay-off that is still unfocused – it can be all or nothing.

This example provides us with two separate sets of information. The first one deals with the comprehension of Amita’s disapproval of Charlie’s date with his ex girl friend, and the second one deals with how this disapproval can be comprehended as if she has higher hopes for her and Charlie and therefore the viewer sees it as a set-up in a larger narrative strategy. In the fiction context, the same body expression can convey different layers of meaning.

The second example is in the same category. Here we see characters in full figure and prosodics (tone of voice) and body distance (proxemics) illustrate a dramatic point – the power in the relationship between men. It could be from any number of scenes from the preamble section of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, US, 1962). US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the small western town, Shinbone, where they met many years ago, and where Stoddard became a legend for shooting the bandit gunfighter Liberty Valance. They are back to attend the funeral of their friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard is meeting with reporters from the local press, who want to inform the readers why an esteemed senator has travelled all the way from Washington to attend the funeral of an unknown farmer like Doniphon. Stoddard decides to tell the story of the past, explaining his and Hallie’s presence at the funeral.

Ransom Stoddard speaking to the reporters. Framegrab from the film.
Framegrab from the film.

In the first shot the senator’s stature is upright and proud, his voice is clear, and he dominates the reporters, all with their hats in their hands as tokens of respect (Cashdan 1998). His body position is a matter of space and dominance – his proxemic distance to the other men illustrates his power and integrity. He is taller than all the reporters and, occupying the whole right side of the frame, he is in charge, which is emphasized by the oven in the middle of the frame delimiting the reporters to a more cramped space on the left side of the frame. In the second shot (a few seconds later) he is alone in the frame, towering as seen slightly from below, with his hands in his pockets, a clear sign of being superior (Pease and Pease 2004), a little bit condescending with an authoritarian tone of voice that puts the reporters in a place below him – the legend who shot Liberty Valance.

Together, body language and style create an impression of the deeply respected senator. He does not fail to play the power game with the reporters – but this is also part of the narrative strategy. The reporters have to listen to his story of how he shot Liberty Valance, the story behind his career as a successful senator and his marriage to Hallie. He is well respected and he is a legend; but what he is going to tell the reporters is that the legend is built on lies – that Tom Doniphon was the man who really shot Liberty Valance. Back then, Tom realized that Hallie loved Stoddard, so out of love for Hallie Tom saves Stoddard by shooting Liberty Valance with his rifle, tucked into a hide nobody else (other than the camera) can see, letting Stoddard believe that it was he with his pistol who had done it. So far, the viewers know that he is well respected, but they slowly get to know the real story. The narrative strategy seeks to distribute knowledge in a very restricted manner. We only know that Tom and Hallie fall in love, even though Hallie and Doniphon are engaged to be married. In the last part of the film, the viewer finally realizes that Stoddard was not capable of taking out the gunman Valance. So Doniphon shoots Valance, and promotes Stoddard as the best man to represent the territory in the forthcoming Senate election. Doniphon’s farm house burns down and he ends up a drunkard. Stoddard is elected senator, but is living a lie and both he and Hallie know it. Hearing the real story, the reporters refuse to print it – they will not kill the legend.

The strategy of the restricted distribution of knowledge of the story determines some of the relevant choices made in the beginning of the film. The esteemed senator has to behave as a man of stature, tall, proud and formally dressed; the body expressions are selected (directed) in accordance with the overall narrative purpose, reinforced by the visual style. These body expressions are selected because – at the start of the film – it is important to keep the western myth, of strong men who with their guns enforced the law in an uncivilized wilderness. But in reality, one of these men who did use his gun ends up a drunkard. Those who benefited from their efforts became legends. The tragedy – and John Ford’s bitter point – is that the western myth is preserved even though it is built on a lie. In the beginning of the film we still have to believe the myth to be true.

Exaggerated or downplayed body language: category two

Next, there are two examples of the second category: body language in the moving image – exaggerated or downplayed body language.

The first example is from Danish Television News. It illustrates how exaggerated body expression is uncalled for in the context of TV news. The second example is from a film comedy where exaggerated body expression is in accordance with genre norms.

It is rather obvious that in news, sports, and documentaries, a certain set of institutionalized contexts determines onscreen body appearance. As mentioned above, in TV news there is a set of norms as to how to present the news, a set of norms as to how to address the audience, etc. Taken together, these provide a very narrow set of guidelines for managing the anchor’s or the speaker’s onscreen body performance. Often those guidelines are set by the institution as a kind of codex, but looking at it worldwide, it seems that almost the same basic set of rules applies to news everywhere. The anchors wear makeup, they dress up, and they are rather formal but polite when addressing the audience, in some cases shifting to critically interviewing the guests. Body language in news is determined by media rules. Within this framework, there is a small space for variation of bodily expressions. In most cases, one could say that the body language is, clearly, mediated transparency. In fact, it is a constructed norm for presenting. A classic news flash fits the norm. We are aware of the “constructed” aspect of presenting news, but sometimes body language sticks out as a more exaggerated expression.

In the following clip we see the Danish anchor Divia Das on TV2 interviewing the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, about a special law for the long-time unemployed (they are both speaking Danish, but never mind, it’s all about body language).




Clip from TV2 Nyhederne.

The Prime Minister is composed and patiently repeats her points several times. She is a politician trained in body language, with the appearance expected from the head of government. But the interesting part is the interviewer. She asks the same questions – aggressively – over and over, getting a variation of blurry answers; so she keeps asking, accompanied by very aggressive body language. Her right hand pumps up and down and she bares her teeth. Although her voice is not specifically aggressive, her body expressions say it all. One might think that she is not aware that the camera is on. The point is that this anchor is showing exaggerated body language in a way that usually would be out place because it doesn’t fit the norm. As a thought experiment, if we take out the mediated context – news on television – would this be the anchor’s behavior in reality? Well, she would probably behave in the same way in an engaged discussion in real life, but in the context of TV news, it transgresses established norms for bodily behavior, and the viewer may wonder if the journalist has lost her professional impartiality to pursue a hidden personal agenda.

Another example in the second category, but from fiction film, is from the comedy The Naked Gun 2 ½ - The Smell of Fear (David Zucker, US, 1991) in which the purpose of the exaggerated body expression is to create a specific effect – laughter – and where the body expression is in accordance with the genre. Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) has bumped into his former wife, Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), with whom he is still in love. Depressed, he goes to a blues bar and here Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) finds him sitting alone at a table.




Clip from The Naked Gun 2½.

Drebin describes his desire for an ordinary love, just like Ed and his wife have. Ed, listening to him, gets more and more depressed and traumatized. Drebin goes on about wanting a mature relationship, not one with some 20 year old who wants sex, sex, sex. Ed Hocken apparently finds this exciting – but he is stuck with his wife and nods depressingly to Drebin’s every sentence, finally ending up foaming at the mouth. Here, the body expression is so exaggerated that it creates a humorous effect. This type of bodily expression is typical of farce and comedy.

Also, in many other series, a marked nod, a gaze out of frame, or a specific gesture can serve as body-cues for narrational purposes. Many of these bodily expressions are specifically developed for fiction in the moving image, although they are developed on the basis of real bodily expressions.

Body expressions never to be seen in reality: category three

In this category we find complex constructions of human features and features from non-human creatures, machines, car, planes etc. In cartoons and animations we usually see characters fitting this profile. They are composed of human-like features as well as non-human features, which together create a figure or character showing body expressions never seen in reality.

In Straight Shooters (Jack Hannah, US, 1947) Donald Duck is managing a shooting gallery where his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie are cheating. Donald chases them, accelerating faster and faster until he finally catches them.




Clip from Donald Duck Straight Shooters (1947).

Of course cartoon characters perform in many aspects like real human beings. Donald Duck walks, talks and acts like a human being. But there are aspects of his performance, like when his legs look like spinning wheels, which are never seen in reality. Likewise, Japanese anime-characters may fight by jumping from cloud to cloud, but in many aspects they act like humans. With Donald Duck, a large part of the humor and fascination derives from the combination of the characteristics of a car (braking noise, sliding and spinning wheels). His action is metaphoric – he accelerates like a car, visually and sound-wise.

Categorization and context

It seems easy to make the classification fit into three broad categories and it also seems easy to place different examples in the three categories according to Naremore’s concept of degree of expression. But it is far more complicated when we discuss the meaning conveyed by the utilized body language in specific sequences.

The attempt to find examples of the different degrees of body expressions reveals a striking insight into body expressions that fall into the same category of body language: they have to be assessed differently according to media context. Exaggerated body language can be in accordance with the genre in the film comedy, while exaggerated body expression in TV News transgresses established norms and the specific media context.

The important thing here is that we have to establish the viewer’s context of reception before we can analyze body language in the moving image. The narrative context is the dominant context in fiction film and TV series, even though there are differences due to differences in format – series versus film. Within the narrative realm, genre lies as an embedded context. The same phenomenon goes for non-fiction – contexts are embedded in other contexts.

Therefore, to understand body language in the moving image, we have to detect and describe the different contexts which determine the specific meaning of body expressions. The goals of the forthcoming research consist of describing how body expressions are used in the moving image, and detecting and describing the different contexts, which have an important influence on how body expressions are comprehended.



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Kildeangivelse: Højbjerg, Lennard (2014): The Moving Image: Body Language and Media Context. Kosmorama #258 (

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