A Brief Glossary of Film Terms
When you read a text (short stories, poems, novels, textbooks) you would refer to writers' use of unusual words (diction), sentence structure (syntax), or pattern of argument (paragraph logic). When you watch a film, you want to notice how the director positions the camera (the shot and the individual frame), how the set is lit (lighting), how successive shots relate to each other (cutting and splicing / montage). A number of terms from discussions of literature are easily transferred to discussion of films without imprecision or confusion. Both books and films may have characters, dialogue, narration, pacing (the speed with which events occur), scenes, introductions and conclusions. Click here for a brief list of scholarly journals, and scholarly/popular-scholarly online journals which may be of use for helping you understand how scholars write about film.
2008 Notes On Changing Technology:
Movies made since George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) routinely replace physical camera movements and actors or scenery with technologies called variously "computer graphic animation" (CGA) and computer graphic imaging (CGI). Films have largely retained their loyalty to the fundamental visual vocabulary of shot types, montage types, and sound types. For that reason, the terms below are still relevant even for the most recent films. Most movies today are shot with digital cameras, so the term "film" is largely a relic of the days when reels of actual photographic film were exposed to light to record images of actors. Most scholars continue to use the term. The standard 35-millimeter film technology used to create traditional cinema reached an extremely high degree of image fidelity which some directors still prefer to digital recordings. "Tape," similarly, remains a fossil term derived from 16-millimeter "videotape" which was first used by amateurs and professional news camera operators to record relatively low-quality images of contemporary events. Some contemporary films which imitate cinema verite effects can be digitally shot using CGI techniques to degrade the image quality to imitate the appearance of taped scenes. Click here for Wayne Carlson's timeline that maps the development of computing technology on the emergence of commercially successful films made with CGA and CGI technology. The link also can be "mined" for information from his Arts College 272 course, "A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation."
Accelerated Motion (the opposite of Slow Motion): When the shot seems to be moving extraordinarily fast, you probably are witnessing "accelerated motion," the effect of running the camera at an abnormally slow speed when the scene is shot. When this portion of the film is replayed at normal speed by the projector, the motion seems faster than normal. The jerky, rapid movements we commonly associate with silent films results from their being shot at a slower speed than modern films; if shown on a projector modified to synchronize with their film speed, they are no "faster" than any recent film. Digitally photographed films can be accelerated in editing, without any need for mechanical preparations at the time of the shot. Accelerated motion often is used to speed up awkward moments in fight and crash scenes in made-for-TV movies, many of whose directors haven't the time or skill to stage these scenes so they will be properly effective at regular speed. Disaster movies (e.g. Dante's Peak, Asteroid) use decelerated or slow motion to draw out explosions, crashes, and other action sequences. This allows the audience to develop suspenseful anticipations about outcomes (e.g., "will the Terminator survive?"). It also appeals to what has been called an "aesthetic of violence." As you would expect, decelerated motion is produced by filming the scene at a faster than normal speed so it seems slower when projected at the proper speed.
Actual Sound: When you can see on the screen the source of the sounds you're hearing on the soundtrack, that's "actual sound." This includes words spoken by a character on the screen, and words spoken by a character you know is in the movie but who does not happen to be on-screen at the moment (outside the door, on the other end of the phone, under the bed, etc.). Off-screen sound can be important to interpreting what we see on-screen (e.g., shot of character's face while off-screen voice says "It's alive!"). In horror films, the "creepy music" that announces the arrival of the evil Whatever is a good example of "commentative" sound, sound added to the soundtrack that "comments on" the visual content of the film. Hitchcock's The Birds used an unusual mixture of actual and commentative sound. The soundtrack during the bird attacks was a combination of real bird sounds made by the creatures on the screen and other sounds (electronic and natural) altered by audio synthesizer and blended with the actual sound to create an unusually disorienting and chilling effect. Synthesized sound became commonly used in the 1980s.
Auteur: This word (literally "author" in French) describes a director who is more than a mere executive who arranges to have everybody on the set at the same time. The auteur has been described as the poet of the cinema, a director who controls consciously everything you see on the screen just as a poet may control precisely the multiple effects of the words in a poem. The auteur also is a bit of a myth--as you can well imagine, it's hard to tell just how much a director is controlling and many directors would like to take credit for effects that are quite accidental or that their actors created. The term was created by the critics of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, an influential source of reviews, interviews, and critical essays which flourished during the early 1950's. The popular taste for such directors as Orson Welles, John Ford, Jean-Luc Goddard, Ingmar Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock was to some extent the creation of the Cahierist critics (Goddard, himself, began as a critic and went on to make films to illustrate and to express his ideas--sort of like a literary critic becoming a poet, dramatist, or novelist). Modern film criticism has changed a lot since the period 1950-1970 when the Cahierist critics were profoundly influential in many major American film markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago etc.), but we still owe them a great debt. They taught audiences to look at films as something different from texts, to care for lighting, camera angles, juxtaposition of shots, and a host of other phenomena peculiar to films.
Back Projection: This technique, now largely replaced by digital image manipulation, creates the illusion of background in scenes shot in the studio by projecting a still or moving picture on a screen behind the actors. It still can be seen in cheap early cowboy movies when the actors are clearly riding mechanical "horses" with a wind machine blowing back their hair. Behind them, you often can see the same mountains going by again and again as the back projection loops around. More sophisticated uses of digital image manipulation produce special effects of more modern movies like Star Wars. The image is digitized and edited, bit by bit, to produce the explosions etc. that cannot be done as well using miniatures or back projections.
Boom: Long, hinged mechanical arms which hold microphones, cameras, props, and people on the set Most of you have seen boom cameras in TV studios--the camera operator rides with the camera at the end of the boom arm. Although most boom shots are filmed outdoors to provide an aerial view of action scenes, an impressive indoor boom shot occurs in The Third Man when the camera moves through an ivy-covered window to look outside at a mysterious figure approaching Anna Schmidt's apartment building on the street below. Boom shots can magnify the voyeuristic quality of movies when they penetrate door and windows to pry into actions hidden from actors in the set. (Also see "tracking shot.")
Camera Angle: The angle from which the camera photographs the scene. Camera angle is usually described as "high" or "low," depending upon where the camera seems to be placed. Thus, much of the shooting in Spielberg's E.T. was low-angle, because it followed the world from the point of view of the central actors who happened to be children and a 4-foot gnome from outer space. An common example of extremely high camera angle is the frequently reproduced shot of the people on a city street as seen from a tall building--we see only their heads, their swinging arms, and the tips of their shoes alternately peeping out ahead of them. Under ordinary circumstances, it also is useful to discuss "eye-level" camera angle in which the camera scans the world at the same height above the ground as the people in the scene. Of course this becomes problematic when the people on the screen are crawling through tunnels, floating in water or outer space, or hanging upside down. Generally eye-level camera work tends to involve the audience more intensely with the actors on the screen, Low-angle camera work increases confusion in crowd scenes and makes people look impressive (impressively evil like Godzilla or impressively noble like Abe Lincoln). High-angle views, like the one in The Third Man's famous "Prater wheel scene," tend to diminish the importance of the actors (the cliché is "they look just like ants," though of course they don't).
Camera angle is an extremely subtle way of manipulating the audience's response to a scene, and this brief discussion by no means exhausts the subject. Consider a lovers' quarrel shot from a continuously changing camera angle so that first one actor, and then the other, seems more prominent. As the camera angle interacts with the action and dialogue, the effects can become wonderfully complex.
Cant: a canted shot views the subject with the camera rotated around the axis of the lens so the resulting image will seem off-center, tilted. The effect usually is unsettling and often is used in horror films or to convey disordered mental states via "subjective camera" shot design. German Expressionist cinema contains many examples of canted shots.
Cinema-verite (see'-nay-mah vay-ree-tay'): Every night on the evening news you see countless examples of cinema-verite, (Fr., literally "film-truth") in correspondents' film footage of the day's triumphs and disasters. Lightweight cameras and sound recorders have made it possible to photograph events as they happen in the street with nearly the same film quality available through the Hollywood sound stage. Since even local TV stations have been able to afford "mini-cam" videotape systems, we have grown accustomed to seeing both live and taped footage of news events that only ten years ago would have been represented by still photography. In filmmaking, the style called cinema-verite stresses the self-consciousness of the director and camera crew, their awareness of their intrusion into the scene they are shooting (it hardly can be avoided). The illusion of "reality" that we're used to believing in when we watch a studio film is continually being undercut by the unplanned shift of the camera, the sudden and surprising development, the sound of the mike striking the soundman's clothes or a table. Since this awkwardness is largely unavoidable, many filmmakers make it a virtue by using it to stress the freedom and flexibility of the cinema-verite camera. It is an eye on the world, ready for anything, and a constant reminder of the importance of fortuitous events in all our lives.
For instance, the documentary footage of the Altamont concert shown in Gimme Shelter was the inadvertent record of a murder and was subpoenaed by the lawyers in the trial of the Hell's Angels members accused of the crime. The film becomes an extremely sensitive reflector of the lives of those who survived because members of the Rolling Stones are photographed in the editing room watching segments of the film we have just seen, commenting on the sudden appearance of "the man with the gun" and its bloody aftermath. Cinema-verite is one of the most demanding methods of film shooting because it requires continuous and spontaneous creativity in camera work and lighting. Early experiments in cinema-verite often were described as "candid" photography--consider the antonym of candid and you'll have some idea of how refreshing this technique can be. Of course, Andy Warhol could be said to have demonstrated just the opposite quality in the same medium in Empire (1964), hours of static footage from a camera focused on the Empire State Building. It's not enough to turn on the camera and wait for something film-worthy to happen.
Close-up: a shot in which the camera is extremely close to its subject, often resulting in the "clipping" of the whole subject as the camera frames only a part to fill the entire screen. (e.g. a "full-face" close-up lets us see the subject's eyes, mouth etc. with extraordinary detail, but it also effectively decapitates the subject, whence the phrase "talking heads" to describe government spokespersons in TV news reportage.).
Continuity: the sense of logical or thematic relationship between the shots of a film. Films, like essays, depend upon coordination between their parts for all important effects. Discontinuous or fragmented cutting is confusing and disorienting because the viewer is hard put to tell hat to make of the entire series of shots even though each shot may be perfectly understandable on its own. Successful directors (and authors) use chaos only with great care lest they be mistaken for idiots out of control. German expressionist cinema (1920s-30s) used discontinuity symbolically to communicate social alienation. Also, the task of making sure actors' clothing, jewelry, makeup, and features of the set do not change between shots which might be filmed hours, days, or even weeks apart, but which will be edited into a continuous sequence of shots in the final film.
Crane shot: a shot taken from a camera suspended on a crane (see under "Boom"). Crane shots provide unusual camera angles (e.g. through a skyscraper window) and flight-like motion. Orson Welles was a master of the long, swooping crane shot, and Renoir's Grand Illusion contains one especially famous one.
Cross-cutting: cutting between one shot or scene and another. (e.g. cuts between the faces of opponents in a prize fight or debaters; cutting between two separate scenes, each important to the plot but removed in time and/or space--the outlaws in the hideout and the posse tracking them through the hills).
Cut: the act of ending one shot and connecting it with another by means of film splicing (basically a razor blade and tape). Cutting can be called "smooth" or continuous if the transition is easily understandable. Deliberately jarring cuts are called "jump cuts" (e.g. from the nursery to the grave). See "Continuity".
Cut-away: a cut that takes us from the central action to some scene that compares with, explains, connects with, or contrasts with it. The cut-away we're most used to seeing is the jump-cut (see "Cut") from a plan being explained to its dramatic consequences. This device speeds up plot development by relying upon the clarity of the implicit logical connection between the shots and the sophistication of the cut's audience.
Depth of field: Depth of field is the spacious visual quality of a shot produced in "pan-focus." Such shots have depth of field because objects far from the camera are focused as sharply as those near it. This effect generally is not used in made-for-TV movies. For depth of field in a shot on a large stage, this effect requires an enormously expensive lens that budget-conscious filmmakers rarely used. (E.g., the sledding scene early in Welles' Citizen Kane where we can see from the interior of the boarding house out the window and fifty to seventy-five feet "into" the frame.) The Third Man uses "depth of field" in the early and closing shots of Anna Schmidt walking down the driveway of the Viennese cemetery. The first funeral scene offers viewers a shot of the grave site, observed by the mourners surrounding it, who are observed by an undercover policeman, who watches as Holly Martins walks past him, through the graves, to stand just out of the view of the mourners and catches his first glimpse of Anna Schmidt, who almost immediately becomes the confused object of his infatuation and his grief for the death of his friend, Harry Lime.
Director: the director is a technician responsible for shooting the film. For an auteur director this means choosing personnel on both sides of the camera, planning camera angles, shot length, cutting, lighting, set design, makeup, etc. etc. These responsibilities may be usurped by producers (q.v.) or they may be delegated by the director to talented specialists like cameramen like Lazlo Kovacs or Greg Toland, or to an assistant director or editor who is as knowledgeable as the director him-/herself. In the 1950s the general opinion among critics was that directors who delegated authority or whose authority was usurped were weak, and that their films were necessarily flawed. Even today it is hard to argue with the distaste most critics have for committee-ridden products that seem to have no clear point of view. A film with a strong director is "authored," for better or worse; it bears the message of one hand. It is also useful for writers to be mindful of the struggle for control over the originality of their product, to resist the laziness and the need to conform with the pack that makes some writers sound like mere clones. (See "Producer.")
Dissolve: Also called a "fade," the dissolve subtly ends a scene by allowing the image to diminish in intensity. The "fade to black" ends in darkness, often symbolically (end of film, death or unconsciousness of character). The next scene can emerge from the darkened screen after a dissolve to black, but it also can "fade in" just as the previous scene is "fading out." Older movies (and some intentionally "artful" movies) use "lap-dissolves," in which the screen is swept by a line which controls the onset of the dissolve, as a sweeping "second hand" or in a straight line which sweeps diagonally, horizontally, or vertically across the scene.
Dolly: a wheeled cart (sometimes running on tracks) which holds the moving camera in a tracking shot.
Dolly shot: also, a "tracking shot," a shot in which the camera moves on a cart, either following moving actors or moving around within a setting.
Dubbing: adding sound to a scene, as in the American release of The Third Man which adds a sudden screech of a car's brakes just as "Baron" Kurtz shows Holly Martins where Harry Lime was "killed," following the actual sound dialogue line, "It was right about here." Viewers of the British and Swedish releases heard only the dubbed miscellaneous traffic noises which provided the illusion of a typical daytime city. Overdubbing replaces one sound with another, most typically the voice of an on-screen actor with another sound, perhaps a better-performed version of the lines by the same actor or the voice of a voice-over artist hired to do the lines (frequently singers when the actors can't sing). (Also called "post-synchronization," an ancestor of the popular music and music-video techniques of "sampling," and "lip-synching.")
Editing: cutting and rearranging the exposed film and soundtrack to create the final visual event the audience will experience. Editors (usually with the director) consider factors such as visual beauty, thematic association of images, dramatic impact, and the basic problems of telling a clear story with images and sound.
Establishing shot: often a distant or long shot used at the beginning of a movie or a sequence of scenes to orient the viewer to the context within which events take place. Re-establishing shots are worked into long or complex actions for the same reason.
Flashback / flashforward: breaks in chronological continuity which "remember" or "forecast" events, usually events significantly related to those which just occurred in the film's chronology. (Also see "jump cut.")
Frame: an individual picture in a strip of film, or the projected image of such a picture, used in film analysis to discuss what the director and cameraman have chosen to include in the image and to exclude from it, what objects from off-screen penetrate the frame or extend from the frame into the off-screen space, etc. Frames are held together by the perforated outside edges of the film which contain the sprocket holes punched at intervals precisely timed to intersect with the gears in standard projectors. (See "persistence of vision.")
Head shot:: An image in which a character is filmed from the neck up, the face filling the screen. Head shots are widely used to reflect and magnify a character's reaction to events (see "close-up" and "reaction shot").
Jump cut: a deliberately disruptive cut from one scene to another, usually designed to make a surprising or revealing association. A famous shot sequence ending in a jump cut gave its name to "the Bus," a way of using sound and suddenly intrusive images, jump-cut together with a tension-building previous shot sequence, to shock audiences by a suggestion that is not (yet) materialized in the film. The classic Hollywood example of the jump cut is from Val Lewton's The Cat People (1942) where a woman who fears she may be followed by someone who can turn into a vicious jungle cat receives a surprise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkrsymAhI0U Once the dialogue stops, turn up the sound so that the dubbed, off-screen sound is loud enough for you to hear what theater audiences would have heard.
Lighting (natural, artificial, back-, fill-in): Light for a scene may originate from natural sources (sun, on-screen candle or light bulb, etc.) but, until the 1980s, camera lenses didn't have enough "light gathering capacity" and films were not sensitive enough to store images lit by sources much dimmer than full sunlight. Even outdoor scenes commonly are lit by powerful artificial lights which stand just outside the camera's field of view. Indoor shots are more difficult to light, since shadows are important to the mood but their presence in unlikely places (because of the off-screen light sources) may give away the location of the true light source, destroying the illusion of reality. "Back-lighting" is used to throw the foreground into relative darkness, creating a silhouette-like effect if intense, or drawing attention to events in the background if more subtle. "Fill-in" lighting is used to eliminate unwanted shadows and to draw the viewer's attention to some crucial object in the frame.
Perhaps the most famous cinematic use of artificial light in an unexpected circumstance occurs in the Hitchcock film, Suspicion (1941). Cary Grant, playing a mysterious man whose wife (played by Joan Fontaine) gradually comes to believe he wants to kill her, walks up a dimly lit spiral staircase carrying a glass of milk he will offer to his horrified wife "to help her sleep." She, of course, suspects the milk is poisoned. Hitchcock later revealed that the uncanny luminosity of the glowing white milk was enhanced by a small light bulb wired to a battery pack hidden in Grant's sleeve: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk8FW9atXuw
Long shot: the opposite of a close-up. A shot in which the subject is far from the camera.
Mise-en-scene: (Fr. literally, "placing or setting [of something] on stage) the organization of the visual images within a frame before a shot, a major counterpart of "montage," arrangement of frames already shot. Cahierist critics use the term to signify a director's entire style, the manner in which the film is put together.
Montage (Hollywood, Caherist): Older uses of "montage" relate to the Hollywood studio films' convention of using rapidly intercut images to compress time and to suggest rapid action, often with a vast number of participants. Examples include a calendar whose pages ruffle past, signifying the passing of months, or successive shots of the same scene in different seasons, intercut shots of soldiers running to their positions and being shipped to various locations ("war breaks out"), road signs flashing past announcing Pittsburgh, Detroit, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City (crossing the country on the way West). The Caherist critics emphasized that all film depended on montage in the sense that it was assembled, spliced together, from separate strips of film shot at different times. The Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, proclaimed that the essence of film was montage--see his Battleship Potemkin, the "Odessa steps" sequence (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps-v-kZzfec), for an excellent and oft-cited example of artful juxtaposition of film images. Sometimes montage is used to suggest emotional relationships between images, as in the famous image of a screeching parrot which immediately precedes Charlie Kane's rage when his wife leaves him in Welles' Citizen Kane (1940-1).
Overlap / Overlapping sound: sound, including dialogue, which overlaps from the scene in which it begins into the next scene. This frequently occurs when a comment eliciting a reaction overlaps the following reaction shot. Overlapping sound offers rich opportunities for irony if the succeeding shot denies the truth or wisdom of what is being said. It also is a chance for the director to compress cause-effect relations (gunshot echoes over scene of casket being closed).
Panning: horizontal motion in a shot produced by turning a fixed camera upon the axis of its body--sometimes accompanied by tilting, and by motion of the camera, itself, if the camera is mounted on a tracking dolly or boom (a "panning and tracking shot" following the gaze of a walking investigator).
Persistence of vision: the 1/10th of a second for which the eye's retina retains an image, a biological phenomenon which makes cinema possible. As long as the eye sees enough consistent images of a thing or event in motion, the retina does not transmit to the brain the black bars which separate individual frames, but instead it appears to transmit a continuous stream of images. For smooth sound film images, the camera and projector are set to record and reproduce twenty-four frames per second. In digital images on a video screen, the persistence of vision is exploited by the video monitor's "refresh rate," expressed in the rate per second at which the electron gun at the back of the screen sweeps the pixels (from "picture cells"). If the gun sweeps too slowly, you first will note a "flicker" in the image out of the corner of your eye when it is viewed in florescent light, which is cycling on and off at a relatively slow 60 cycles per second and interferes with slow refresh rate monitors. Very slow monitors, which you can see "rolling" on TV images of old NASA control room footage, etc., can flicker so badly that you can detect it face-on with the naked eye. (Our peripheral vision is more sensitive to minute variations in light and shadow, an evolutionary adaptation of considerable value to species likely to be hunted.)
Producer: Producers manage the film's production in various ways, but they usually do not affect the day- to-day operations on the set. Powerful producers, like David O. Selznick (The Third Man), sometimes intervene in the writing or shooting of the film when they believe the changes will affect the film's profitability (e.g., insisting on a "happy ending," excising a nude scene to avoid an NC-17 rating, etc.).
Reaction shot: An image of a character's reaction to an event which has just happened, including news delivered, sometimes by off-screen sound. Reaction shots may include the whole body to emphasize the physical situation in which the reaction takes place, or they may be limited to a "head shot" (see below) to emphasize the emotional impact or some psychological nuance about the character (e.g., no reaction, character was expecting the event/news).
Shot: any piece of a finished film which appears uninterrupted when the film is running. Also, any episode of filming from the moment the camera is turned on until the film stops running. Shots often are repeated to adjust and develop details, and such repeated shots are called takes (e.g., take one, take two, take three). A finished film "shot" may actually be composed of images from many "takes" that have been edited together.
Subjective Camera: When the image is distorted in some way to simulate seeing through a character's eyes, the shot is said to be "subjective." Of course all camera shots are "subjective" in that they create in the audience the illusion of an additional presence in the scene, an "unseen seer" from whose vantage point the events are observed and whose gaze usually is not acknowledge by characters in the scene. More typical "subjective camera" work represents the wobbly view of a character recently unconscious, the blurred vision of a drunk, or the fading vision of a dying character. (See "fade to black.")
Tracking shot: (also, "dolly shot"), A sequence of uninterrupted images which follow events in movement, produced by mounting the camera on a vehicle equipped with a stabilizing platform to produce the illusion we are "floating" beside the events. Tracking shots may use literal "tracks" laid down to support a "dolly" or cart carrying the camera along a path. Tracking shots allow characters to walk while talking to each other in continuous footage, or they allow the director to vary the audience's point of view of a scene in order to bring out new relationships among characters, to emphasize characters at different points in the dialogue or action, or to create psychological effects (e.g., intimacy, alienation, irony, complexity).
Two shot: An image in which two characters occupy the cinematic frame, often face-to-face. Sometimes, two-shots are intensified by combining them with "head shots," that is, shooting both characters from the neck up, face-to-face (arguments, seductions, interrogations, etc.).
Voice-over: a narrator or commentator not present in a shot who comments knowledgeably about the shot.
Writer: Writers can range from "idea men," who peddle outlines of films or inspiration to major authors like Grahame Greene or William Faulkner, who created whole film scripts, or so-called re-write experts who revise another writer's script.
Zoom: use of a variable-focus lens to focus in toward a distant object ("zoom in") or out from that object to something in the foreground ("zoom out"). Zoom lenses have little depth of field, so a zoom in leaves the foreground blurred and a zoom out leaves the background blurred.