A Short List of Film Terms for Beginning Students in Film Courses
By David T. Johnson, Salisbury University
Part of being a good film student is knowing the language of film. Here is a very brief introduction to some of the most common terms you will run across in the classroom. It is by no means comprehensive; nonetheless, it should give you some basic terms to use when speaking and writing about film. For many of you, this list will be review, but in everyone’s case, be sure to clarify any terms that you find confusing, as you will be expected to use terms, when appropriate, in your film courses here at Salisbury. A few of these terms come from literary analysis and from the theater, but most are specific to film.
narrative - An adjective describing a film as being primarily a work of fiction, or a noun that loosely means a fictional story.
documentary - Also an adjective or noun category used to describe a work of nonfiction.
plot - refers to all aspects of the narrative that we see on screen. For example, in the film Jaws, Chief Brody’s talking to the town council on screen would be part of the plot.
story - refers to all aspects of the narrative that we do not see on screen; these aspects may include events before, during, or even after the plot of the film. In Jaws, for instance, Chief Brody had been a police officer in the city prior to the film’s beginning; this information is part of the story but not part of the plot.
diegesis - refers to the narrative that we see on screen. This term is much more specific to film, however, and refers to the world that the characters inhabit as much as the plot of the film. The adjectivediegetic, for instance, refers to something the characters in the film could perceive, whereas nondiegetic refers to something they could not (see diegetic and nondiegetic sound below).
point of view - Most people assume film always has a third-person perspective, but even when it does not use a POV shot (see below), film often has a more subjective perspective through the use of camera placement, voiceover, and other cinema techniques.
mise-en-scène - refers to everything in the frame of the film, which would include lighting, set, props, and the staging and movement of actors. The term derives from the theater, where it is used in a similar way. In the 1950s, a group of French critics at the journal Cahiers du Cinéma used this term in a different way. For them, mise-en-scène meant a special aspect of cinema associated with certain directors. Eventually, you will want to understand both meanings of the term, since this secondary meaning is closely connected to the idea of auteurism in cinema.. Initially, however, use mise-en-scène in the first sense.
setting - like the literary term, this word refers to the time and place of the film. The setting for The Usual Suspects, for instance, is New York and Los Angeles at a time contemporary with the film’s year of release (in this case, 1995).
set - This term refers to the actual construction in which the actors are filmed. In The Usual Suspects, for instance, a set might be the interrogation room in the film. Sets are usually built for a film, as opposed to shooting on location, where a scene is shot in the actual place in which it occurs in the film. If a film crew shot on location in Venice, Italy, for instance, they might actually be shooting the scene in gondolas on the canals. Set is also used generally, however, as a designation for the place where a film is being shot. (So even in location shooting, the director would be “on the set” of his or her film every time he or she went to the place where the crew was shooting for that day.)
prop - another term borrowed from theater. A prop is generally any object on a set, though clearly the objects that characters will touch become more important. A trumpet, for instance, might be part of the backdrop in a music store scene, but if a character is going to play the trumpet, the prop takes on more importance.
costumes - what the characters are wearing. Bear in mind that even if a character is wearing contemporary clothing (in some cases, the actors’ own clothing), that clothing is still considered a costume.
lighting - This term refers to the way in which lights are used for a given film. Lighting, in conjunction with the camera, sets the visual look for a film. The key light is the main light used for a scene; back light refers to a secondary source, usually placed behind the actors; and fill refers to a light placed to the side of the actors. This system is called three-point lighting and was very common in classical Hollywood films. You may also run across the term low-key lighting, which means that the film was shot often using only the key light at a very low setting. This low level of lighting creates dark shadows on the faces of actors and is particularly moody when used with black-and-white film. It is most often associated with film noir but is not exclusive to that genre.
shot (and close-up v. long shot) - generally, the smallest unit of unbroken film. The camera can move within a shot, but the second that the film makes a transition (see below) to another shot, the previous shot has ended. Alternatively, when used with certain adjectives, shot also refers to the distance from the camera to the subject, almost always the actor. In a long shot (or a wide shot), one can see the entire body of the actor; in a medium shot, one can see the actor from the waist up; in a close-up, one can see only the actor’s face (there is no such term as the “short shot”). You might also see an extreme close-upin a film, where you can only see part of the actor’s face (just the eyes, for example). Also, another common term is the two-shot, which is generally a medium to medium-long shot of two actors; two-shots were very common in the classical Hollywood era and continue to be used today.
pan - the movement of a stationary camera on a horizontal axis. A camera on a tripod that moves from left to right (following a parade, for instance), would be panning.
tilt - the movement of a stationary camera on a vertical axis. A camera on a tripod that moves up and down (following a plane landing, for instance), would be performing a tilt.
tracking shot - the movement of the shot when the camera is no longer stationary. The term refers to the tracks that cameras were once rolled on when creating one of these shots. Although tracks are still often used with a tracking shot, the term might also refer more generally to a moving shot that appears stable, such as a steadicam shot, which uses a gyroscope to avoid the shaky effects associated with hand-held shots. You may also run across the term dolly shot, which refers to what the camera rests on (a platform with wheels) while the camera moves in certain kinds of shots. Dolly shot is sometimes used interchangeably with tracking shot, since dollies very often use tracks.
handheld shot - refers to a shot where the camera is held by the camera operator. Hand-held shots are often associated with a certain look, which is shaky, and most people associate the hand-held shot with a kind of documentary realism. Narrative films and television often use the hand-held for this reason, as they are able to create a sense of gritty realism. The television show Law and Order, for instance, often uses hand-held shots when the detectives are questioning suspects on the streets, giving the viewer the sense that the scene is more real. Bear in mind, however, that no one technique ever has the same meaning in every film (a handheld shot might be used to decrease the sense of realism).
crane shot - A shot taken from a crane. You often see these shots at the beginning of a scene (using it as an establishing shot) or the end of a scene. The end of a movie, in fact, often uses a crane shot (though sometimes is even more extreme).
POV shot - stands for “Point of View” shot. This type of shot does not refer to the technology used so much as the way we interpret it. In this kind of shot, we are looking through the eyes of a character; you have probably seen a POV shot when a character who has been rendered unconscious is waking (the other characters look directly into the camera, in a low-angle shot (see below), and say “Are you okay?” as the edges of the frame are blurred and the speech has an echo effect).
high-angle shot, low-angle shot - These terms refer to camera placement. If a camera is looking down on an actor from a high vantage, it is a high-angle shot; if a camera is placed very low to the ground and looks “up” at actors, it is a low-angle shot. High-angle shots might emphasize that characters are being overwhelmed by their circumstances, while low-angle shots might emphasize that characters are somehow larger than life. Be very careful, however, when attaching a certain cinema technique to a recurring plot device or tone. There are always exceptions, and you need to evaluate every scene individually.
take (and short v. long take) - generally, a take refers to the time a shot is begun to the time it stops. On a film set, a director might have to go through several takes before settling on the shot he or she wants (you have probably seen this in films before, with the clapboard and someone shouting “Take 12”--meaning they have done this shot eleven times before this one). Alternatively, like shot, take also takes on a secondary meaning when combined with certain adjectives (in this case, long and short), except that a long or short take refers to time, whereas a long shot or close-up refers to distance. A short take, for instance, might be one or two seconds long, although contemporary films continue to use shorter and shorter takes of less than a single second (making two or three seconds, which sounds like a short amount of time, not very short at all). A long take would refer to a single unbroken shot that lasts for a larger amount of time--thirty seconds, for instance. One extreme recent example of a long take would be Russian Ark, a film shot on digital video and using a single, very long take for the entire film. Another more extreme example would be Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, where the director used long takes of several minutes apiece and attempted to hide the cuts by tracking behind characters’ backs or pieces of furniture. Some directors are also famous for the use of long takes, such as Jean Renoir and Orson Welles.
frame – Literally, a frame of film refers to the smallest unit of film possible. Film frames appear on a film strip, which, when projected, creates the illusion of motion. Film is shown at 24 frames per second (or f.p.s., a common abbreviation). In a much looser sense, scholars sometimes talk about the frame to mean the four sides of the film as it is being projected, and they also often use it as a verb (e.g. “The film framesthe action in such a way that we can see both characters at once.”)
screen - often used with on or off to refer to what we see within the frame. On-screen action, for instance, is something we can see, whereas off-screen action might be something we hear but which takes place outside the frame. Screen also refers to the actual physical screen on which we project a film.
shallow/soft focus - refers to how much of the shot is in focus. With shallow or soft focus, generally we can only see the actor’s face in focus. The background appears blurry. This kind of focus was common in Classic Hollywood and is still common, because if the viewer cannot see the background, then the director does not need to light the background, for instance, or make sure the background is perfectly ordered. Also, a blurry background focuses our attention all the more on what is in focus, which is generally the actor’s face. Shallow focus is achieved with a long lens (this can be confusing, since one would assume a shallow focus would require a short lens).
deep focus - refers to a shot in which everything, including the background, is in focus. This type of shot is much more difficult to achieve, since the entire set must be adequately lit, designed, etc. Also, the danger is that the viewer’s attention will shift from subject to backdrop, but some directors use this “danger” to their advantage. William Wyler, for instance, in The Best Years of Our Lives, shows a man playing a piano in the foreground while another man in the background calls his girlfriend (the first man’s daughter) to break things off. Without deep focus, this shot would be impossible. Directors Jean Renoir and Orson Welles are most often associated with deep focus, which sometimes (but does not always) accompany long takes and a moving camera (since everything is lit, the camera is much more able to move fluidly and reposition itself among actors and props).
rack focus - Shifting the focus from one object to another within a single shot. Sometimes, directors will use a rack focus when two characters are on screen at once but are positioned at different distances from the camera.
editing - refers to the way that individual shots are connected to one another to make the film.
montage - this word has two meanings. First, montage can simply be another word for editing, which is often the way you will see it in film theory or when we study the Soviet filmmakers of the early twentieth century. Second, and more commonly in contemporary usage, montage refers to a series of shots edited together to show a longer activity evolving in a shorter amount of time or to show a series of related activities. A sports film, for instance, might have a training montage, where the character becomes much better at the sport (the film might condense three months of training, for instance, into a two-minute montage of jogging, lifting weights, etc.). Or a film might show a series of related activities through montage. For instance, a film about a news station might have a montage of the evening news preparing to air (with shots of make-up being applied to the anchors’ faces, cameras being moved into position, producers arguing over a story, and other images and sounds we might associate with this scene).
transition - refers to the way a shot moves from one to the next. Films use several different kinds of transitions, including:
scene - a series of shots that form a cohesive unit of narrative. For instance, in Rear Window, we might discuss the scene where Grace Kelly kids Jimmy Stewart about not marrying her yet. Films have both acts and scenes, like theater, although they are often less obvious because there are rarely intermissions or accompanying programs in film. Screenwriters typically use acts when writing a film. Scholars, however, almost never discuss an act of a film, whereas scene is used extensively.
continuity editing - also called invisible editing or Classic Hollywood editing. This system of editing is the system that Classic Hollywood established (though it had been in use before that period) and is essentially the system that exists today. Understanding this system is crucial to understanding cinema, since even those directors who break with this system are in a sense defining themselves against it. This system is associated with the following other terms:
zoom-in, zoom-out - using certain lenses, the camera can move more closely into a subject (the zoom-in) or pull back (the zoom-out). The zoom-in is sometimes called a push-in, and the zoom-out is sometimes called the pull-back.
sound - everything we hear from the audio track of the film.
music - any music that comes from the audio track. Music might be diegetic (a song on the radio of a car a character is driving) or nondiegetic (scary music when a villain appears on screen).
diegetic sound - sound that other characters would be able to hear. A song on a radio, for instance, as a character drives down the highway, would be a diegetic sound, as would someone coughing audibly during a scene. It is important to note that diegetic sound is a sound that characters could hear, even if they are not present when that sound occurs. The sound of a radio playing in an apartment, for instance, is a diegetic sound, even if no character is present in the apartment during the scene.
nondiegetic sound - sound that characters cannot hear. The two most common types of nondiegetic sound are voiceovers, which is a character’s narration that plays over any given scene, and nondiegetic music, which is music used to inflect the mood of a given scene. Creepy horror-movie music, for instance, that plays when a character is walking into an old house, is nondiegetic music, since that character cannot hear the music. Sometimes, this effect is parodied (with characters commenting on the scary music playing), and some directors will transition from a nondiegetic sound to a diegetic sound (or vice-versa), as when a song is playing on a radio that then becomes the nondiegetic music even as the characters move into a new scene without the radio in it.
ambient sound - This term generally refers to any sounds that are used to establish location. The ambient sound of a scene in a park, for instance, might include birds chirping, children laughing, or a dog barking. The ambient sound of a train station would include the whine of train brakes, the tinny sounds of arrival and departure announcements, and the general noise of people walking and talking.
Many books on film have a glossary that defines these terms and others at greater length. Here are some other sources, some of which are available at our library. Even if they are not, however, you should ask your librarian about interlibrary loans, which would allow you to procure most, if not all of these titles (if you are not already using them with a course you are currently enrolled in):
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. Bordwell and Thompson’s study is a classic book on formal aspects of film. See especially their explanations of continuity editing.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. If you are enrolled in a film history course at Salisbury University, you may already be using this book in your course. Cook’s book provides an insightful history of the cinema and also contains a glossary.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. Corrigan’s text is very useful for students who want to improve their writing about cinema. It also includes a glossary.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. Hayward’s book is centered less on technical vocabulary and more on theoretical and conceptual terms. It provides excellent explanations of those concepts, however, and supplements explanations with recommendations on further reading. It would be useful for students reading essays who run across theoretical jargon with which they are unfamiliar.
©2004 David T. Johnson