Film Terms


The following terms are fundamental to film theory, and you are responsible for knowing them and using them properly.


a shot:  that which is recorded between the time the camera starts and the time it stops.


a scene: a group of related shots, usually limited to one setting and group of characters.


a sequence: a group of related scenes—like a chapter in a book.


continuity editing: a range of shooting and editing procedures for creating apparent continuity of space, time, and action so that there is a smooth, logical flow of action from shot to shot within a scene.


extreme long shot:  a shot with a very broad field of view.  A person or object might be visible, but the setting clearly dominates.


long shot:  also called an establishing shot, this shot shows a main object or character and the general surroundings.


medium shot:  shows a main object or character and the immediate surroundings.


close-up:   shows only a main object or character or some part of him/her /it.


extreme close-up:  a shot with a very narrow field of view.  In terms of the human figure, a small part of the face, such as the lips or an eye, may fill the frame.


eye-level shot:  a shot in which the camera is pointed directly at a subject.


reaction shot:  a shot of a person who is listening or otherwise reacting non-verbally to a speaker.


two-shot:  commonly used to photograph a conversation, the two shot shows two parties at once.


selective focus:  directs the viewer’s attention to an object or character that is in focus while the rest of the scene is blurred.


pan:  the movement of the camera on a fixed base (turn, tilt, or swivel).


high-angle shot:  the camera is higher than the subject and looks down upon it.


low-angle shot: the camera is lower than the subject and looks up to it.


film stock:  the type of film used—the basic choice is between black and white or color.


editing: the process of connecting pieces of film together to make a movie.  Editing involves selecting and organizing the shots, selecting the transitional devices, intercutting, crosscutting, setting-up contrasting shots, symbols, and leitmotifs (repetition of shots to establish a theme).  The timing, or pace of the film, is also done during editing by controlling the physical length of the pieces of film.


cut:  literally cutting the film and reconnecting it in order to put scenes in order and build the film.  The cut makes an abrupt transition from shot to shot and is the primary tool of the film editor.


intercutting:   cutting from within a scene to a shot of another location, object, or person (usually done to make some kind of point or comment).


crosscutting: results from frequent intercutting and is done to show two or more convergent or parallel actions occurring at different times and/or locations.


fade-in, fade-out, dissolve, iris-in iris-out, wipe:  various transitional devices established long ago as conventions, some no longer used unless a director wants to make a deliberate reference to an older film technique.


montage:  a French word from Russian film theory that expresses the idea that shots, when placed together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.  In other words, a single shot acquires more meaning when placed in the context of other shots.


mise en scčne:  literally, “what is put into the scene”—anything in view of the camera and filmed in a scene.


chiaroscuro:  the moody interplay of light and shadow.


projection speed:  film is normally projected at 24 frames per second (fps).




The following questions and observations are intended to help you probe the nature of cinematic art.


(1) Early films were made with a fixed camera that photographed a group of actors performing a play.  Obviously, today’s films employ vastly different techniques, yet some similarities between plays and films remain.  What are they?  In what important ways are films different from plays?


(2) “A screenplay is a story told in pictures, and there will always be some kind of problem when you tell a story through words, and not pictures” (screenwriter Syd Field).


The plays we most highly value are literature: the word dominates.  Film, however, is more a matter of pictures than words” (drama professor and documentary writer Stephen Gray-Lewis)


Just how are such non-verbal communications managed?  What is the “grammar” of film that makes it possible to tell a story in pictures?


(3) “Some of the greatest sequences in cinema have no dialogue.”  Can you think of an example from a film favorite of yours?


(4) A camera, like a novelist’s point of view, comments on a story while telling it.  What are some of the comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between point of view in the novel and the filmmaker’s use of the camera?


(5) How might a film communicate the unspoken thoughts, dreams, and feelings of a character?  How, for example, might a filmmaker handle one of Hamlet’s soliloquies?


(6) Films, like books, range in quality from good to bad, worthwhile to worthless.  What makes a good film good?  What different needs do films of various types appeal to?


(7) What is the nature of photographic truth?  Is it accurate to say “the camera never lies”?  If that’s the case, which of an infinite number of pictures that can be taken of a single object at any moment in time is the most “true”?  How does the director’s choice of a shot color or comment on the thing being photographed?


(8) Editing is the basis of film art.