Glossary of Film Terms


ACCELERATED MOTION – movement in a shot is represented at greater speed than in reality. This can be achieved by filming at 18 frames per second rather than the standard 24, so that when the film is played back at 24 fps the motion appears faster. This technique was used as early as Chaplin but is today more often associated with the action film. It is the opposite of SLOW MOTION

ACTUAL SOUND – sound arising from within the action itself such as dialogue or other natural sounds. This is also called DIEGETIC SOUND.

BACK LIGHTING – The main source of light is directed towards the camera – thus throwing the subject into silhouette – a technique that was pioneered in early German Expression such as Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau 1922), it has been adopted by a wide variety of other genres, most notably film noir. Welles experimented with this technique in Citizen Kane (1941.)

BACK PROJECTION (rear projection)  – projection of film onto a translucent screen to create the impression that the action is taking place somewhere other than a studio. Used to great creative effect by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers (1994) to paint a psychological landscape for the protagonists.

BIG CLOSE UP – B.C.U. – more tightly framed than a close up – for example focusing only on the protagonist’s eyes. Used by Sergio Leone to excellent effect in his spaghetti western trilogy.

BRIDGING SHOT – used to cover a jump in time or some other continuity break.

CHEAT SHOT – shot in which part of the action or subject is deliberately excluded. Often used to add mystery, tension, suspense or even shock. In addition it is used to achieve certain effects, such as our hero falling from the top of a very tall building into a safety net (which, obviously, the camera does not reveal.) CGI has made the cheat shot all but redundant for technical purposes.

CLOSE MEDIUM SHOT (C.M.S.) – precisely half way between a close up and a medium shot. Typically we would see the subject from about the knees up.

CLOSE UP (C.U.) – Shot taken with the camera very close to the subject, for example focusing on the hands or the face.

NB – we use the terms BIG CLOSE UP, CLOSE MEDIUM SHOT, CLOSE UP, MEDIUM SHOT and LONG SHOT with Human subjects; with all other subjects we simply use the terms Close Up, Medium Shot and Long shot.

COMMENTATIVE SOUND – added sound which is not actual sound and therefore does not arise from the action, these can be special sound effects, orchestral score, soundtrack or narration. Also called NON-DIEGETIC SOUND

CRANE SHOTallows smooth camera movement and high angle shots by fixing the camera to a specially constructed crane. Often used for establishing shots.

DEPTH OF FIELD – Distance between the nearest and the furthest points of focus in a shot. Emphasis can be added by playing with the depth of field, for example the shot of the hat blowing away in the Coen brother’s Miller’s Crossing (1990) using a technique known as FOCUS PULL.

DISSOLVE/CROSS DISSOLVE – ­transition between shots using fade out and fade in of equal length superimposed upon one another. Think of the candle in Once Upon A Time in America (1984) which dissolves into a street light. The magic of cinema transports us from one time and place to another with a single dissolve.

DOLLY/DOLLY SHOT – a rail like piece of equipment on which the camera can be wheeled about

ESTABLISHING SHOT a shot (usually a long shot) used near the beginning of a scene to introduce objects subjects settings and interrelationships. Often used to disruptive effect in order to play with audience expectations and hypotheses.

FADE-IN –self explanatory, but note that it applies to sound as well as visuals.

FADE-OUT – the opposite of FADE-IN

FLASHBACK – sequence in a film which denotes an earlier time frame, often somewhere before the film has ‘begun’ – often used to disrupt linear editing and mix parallel narratives – e.g. Pulp Fiction (1994) or Once Upon A Time In America, (1984) Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) ingeniously premises the whole narrative on flashbacks.

FREEZE FRAME –  At a chosen point in a scene a particular frame is repeatedly printed to last for a few seconds (or more) to give emphasis. Scorsese uses freeze-frames to brilliant effect in Goodfellas (1990.)

FULL SHOT the subject or the object is the only thing present in the frame. Used to deliver significance or emphasis.

JUMP-CUT  – Separate intervals of time stitched together in a one frame jump. Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) from the dawn of man to the stars in a single jump cut. Genius. Also used by Jean Luc Godard in his celluloid masterpiece A Bout De Souffle and homaged by Scorsese in the “Last Day as a Wiseguy” sequence in Goodfellas (1990.)

HIGH KEY LIGHTING / LOW KEY LIGHTING – creates mood through the lighting.

LONG SHOT – a shot in which the whole of the subject is visible.

MEDIUM SHOT –  closer the subject than a long shot, such that the subject appears half framed.

MONTAGE – a technique variously ascribed to D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein in which two separate pieces of action occurring simultaneously are edited together. Broken Blossoms, (1922) Strike! (1924), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Godfather  (1972) use montage to excellent effect.

PAN – rotating the camera on its vertical axis to follow the action or to focus on something away from the action.

SLOW-MOTION – means by which movement in a shot is represented as taking place more slowly than it did.

TRACKING SHOT – shot taken with a tracking camera – similar to a dolly, but with no weaving

NB. This glossary of terms is highly selective and designed only as an introduction to film terms.

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