Film Terms


Film Terms Glossary - Index
(alphabetical and illustrated)
Introduction | A1 | A2-B1 | B2 | B3-C1 | C2 | C3 | C4-D1 | D2-E1 | F1 | F2-I1
I2-L1 | L2-M1 | M2-O1 | O2-P1 | P2-S1 | S2 | S3 | S4 | S5-T1 | T2-Z

Film Terms Glossary
Cinematic Terms
Definition and Explanation
Example (if applicable)
(or following shot)
a shot with framing that shifts to follow and keep a moving figure or subject onscreen; also known as a type of tracking shot  

refers to a cinematic work that comes after, regardless of whether it is a sequel or a prequel; contrast to a prequel, serial, series, sequel, spin-off or remake

Examples: Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999) was a follow-up to the sequel, Star Wars: Episode 6 - Return of the Jedi (1983), as was Toy Story 2 (1999) to Toy Story (1995)
any length, portion or sequence of film (either shot or to be shot) measured in feet; also refers to a particular sequence of events depicted in a motion picture
(abbreviated as f.g.)
objects or action closest to the camera; contrast to background (abbreviated as b.g.) Example: From Here to Eternity (1953), with Montgomery Clift in the foreground and Burt Lancaster in the background
foreign film
a feature-length motion picture produced outside the US with a predominantly non-English dialogue track Example: La Dolce Vita (1960) - an Italian film
to supply hints (in the form of symbols, images, motifs, repetition, dialogue or mood) within a film about the outcome of the plot, or about an upcoming action that will take place, in order to prepare the viewer for later events, revelations, or plot developments; also, ominous music often foreshadows danger or builds suspense Example: the possibility of danger/murder, signaled and foreshadowed by the playing of ominous music, in Halloween (1978); or the death of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) was foreshadowed in his opening voice-over monologue in American Beauty (1999)
"for your consideration"
a phrase often used in special trade advertisements (in publications such as Variety) that are paid for by studios to promote "Oscar-worthy" films (and their actors) and create Oscar buzz for Academy Award nominations, especially for borderline films and/or lesser known indie efforts and lesser-known performers that would probably be overlooked without the additional publicity, aka FYC Example: A typical "For Your Consideration" ad by Warner Bros. touted Sandra Bullock's Best Supporting Actress-worthy performance in Infamous (2006)
the size or aspect ratio of a film frame  
fourth wall
refers to the imaginary, illusory invisible plane through which the film viewer or audience is thought to look through toward the action; the fourth wall that separates the audience from the characters is 'broken through' when the barrier between the fictional world of the film's story and the "real world" of the audience is shattered - when an actor speaks directly to the viewers by making an aside Examples: the conclusion of The Great Train Robbery (1903) when the gunman fires directly at the audience, Woody Allen's asides in Annie Hall (1977), the end of GoodFellas (1990), and all throughout Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
refers to a single image, the smallest compositional unit of a film's structure, captured by the camera on a strip of motion picture film - similar to an individual slide in still photography; a series of frames juxtaposed and shown in rapid succession make up a motion (or moving) picture; also refers to the rectangular area within which the film image is composed by the film-maker - in other words, a frame is what we see (within the screen); see fps and framing below.

A strip of film negative, showing a single rectangular frame or box that contains the image that is projected.
There are 16 frames per foot of 35mm film.


frames per second or fps
present-day films are usually run through a camera or projector at a frame rate (running speed or camera speed) of 24 fps (frames per second); older films, made at 18 fps, appear jerky and sped-up when played back at 24 fps - this technique is referred to as undercranking; overcranking refers to changing the frame rate (i.e., shooting at 48 or 96 fps), thereby producing slow-motion action when viewed at 24 fps. Examples: Action films often film explosions with overcranking, so that the action is prolonged; also, the William Tell Overture sequence in A Clockwork Orange (1971) is an example of undercranking
(or framed shot)
refers to the way a shot is composed, and the manner in which subjects and objects are surrounded ('framed') by the boundaries or perimeter of the film image, or by the use of a rectangle or enclosing shape (such as a shadow, mirror, door or hallway) within the film image; also, camera angles such as low-angle and high-angle shots contribute to the framing; reframing refers to short panning or tilting movements of the camera to adjust to the character's movements and keep them onscreen, centered, and in the frame. Example: in The Godfather: Part II (1974), the sequence of young Don Vito Corleone scampering over rooftops following Fanucci
(or freeze-frame)
an optical printing effect in which a single frame image is identically repeated, reprinted or replicated over several frames; when projected, a freeze frame gives the illusion of a still photograph in which the action has ceased; often used at the end of a film to indicate death or ambiguity, and to provide an iconic lasting image Example: in the opening of All About Eve (1950) - the freeze frame on the character of Eve (Anne Baxter) as she reached for the Sarah Siddons Award as Best Actress; also the final freeze-frame image of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) (pictured) as they were gunned down, the ending of Gallipoli (1981) (pictured also), and the conclusion of the remake Breathless (1983)
front projection
a film process developed in the 1950s in which actors and foreground objects were filmed in front of a projection screen, with a previously-filmed background projected onto it Example: the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
the scale measurement of the size of the opening of the iris (the opening that lets light in) on a lens; common f-stops are 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22; the smaller the number, the larger the opening, and the more light that is allowed  
abbreviation for special (or visual) effects  
abbreviation for 'For Your Consideration' (see above)  
the chief or head electrician or supervisory lighting technician in the film/photography crew on a movie set, responsible for the design and execution of a production's lighting on the set; the gaffer's right-hand assistant is known as the best boy; gaffer tape refers to multi-purpose, sticky and wide black cloth tape, used to mark studio floors, to hold things together, etc.  
gag-based comedies
these are comedy films that are often non-sensical and literally filled with multiple gags (i.e., jokes, one-liners, pratfalls, slapstick, etc.), are designed to produce laughter in any way possible, and often with comic or spoofing references to other films
Examples: Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), the "Road movies" of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Hot Shots! (1991), The Naked Gun films, the Austin Powers series, and the Scary Movie series.
the aperture assembly of a camera, printer, or projector at which the film is exposed  
a transparent, tinted colored sheet of plastic used as a filter for a movie light to create a colored glow over a scene, usually to evoke a desired mood. Black-and-white silent films would often physically tint film stock to achieve the same effect (see tint) Example: The hellish blood-red glow seen during the infamous strip club scene in Mean Streets (1973)
gender-bending role
usually, a cross-dressing role in which a male or female plays a character of the opposite sex
Examples: Some Like It Hot (1959), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Tootsie (1982) (pictured) - Dustin Hoffman, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) - Linda Hunt, Victor/Victoria (1982) - Julie Andrews, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) - Robin Williams, The Crying Game (1992) - Jaye Davidson, Boys Don't Cry (1999) - Hilary Swank
gender twist
a role traditionally played by a male or female that is switched and played by a member of the opposite sex; see also non-traditional casting Examples: Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson (originally a male role) in His Girl Friday (1940), Judi Dench as M in the Bond series
general release
refers to the widespread simultaneous exhibition of a film  
usually refers to the number of times a videotape has been copied; third generation means three steps away from the original media master  
originally a French word meaning "kind", "sort" or "type"; refers to a class or type of film (i.e., westerns, sci-fi, etc.) that shares common, predictable or distinctive artistic and thematic elements or iconography (e.g., bad guys in Westerns wear black hats), narrative content, plot, and subject matter, mood and milieu (or setting) or characters. Film genres are distinct from film styles (a recognizable group of conventions used by filmmakers to add visual appeal, meaning, or depth to their work) that can be applied to any genre; also see hybrid; anti-genre films present an apparent genre stereotype and then subvert or challenge it - see revisionistic films
Note: See write-up of descriptions of all types of genre films (action, adventure, gangster, sci-fi, westerns, horror, thriller, musicals, comedy, etc.). Pictured is an example of a musical, Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Revisionistic genre films: (e.g., Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Long Goodbye (1973); Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990))
a literary or film style characterized by dark and dreary influences, such as ghouls, the supernatural, the grotesque, deathly forces, and the mysterious. Settings include old mansions, castles, and a threatened heroine. Often used in reference to horror films with these characteristics, to increase the film's prestige Examples: archetypal gothic romances include Wuthering Heights (1939) and David Lean's Great Expectations (1946); Dracula (1931) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) are archetypal gothic horror films
Grand Guignol
literally meaning 'large puppet' in French; originally a reference to the famous classic shock Parisian theatre (during the 1900s) which specialized in gruesome melodramas with gory special effects; the term now refers to a play/film with sensational, macabre, horrifying, dramatic, and gothic content Examples: Mad Love (1935), The Devil Doll (1936), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Theatre of Death (1967), Interview with the Vampire (1994)
or "greenlighting"
a term denoting the 'go-ahead' for a film to be made; contrasted to being redlighted; shouldn't be confused with green-screening  
grindhouse film
a grindhouse originally signified a burlesque, strip-tease theatre (for "bumps and grinds") in a red-light district, or a blue-collar downtown cinema-house that featured racy films, chopsocky films, or other marginal fare; as a film, it first referred to a cheap, low-budget, non-mainstream, sleazy, hard-core film that played in an 'adults-only' venue, scruffy downtown area or drive-in in the 60s or 70s; early topics included nudist pictures, kung-fu flicks, and cheesy/sexy potboilers, but then branched out to refer to any genre of film with little plot, but with lots of action, sex and nudity, violence, taboo drug-use, lewdness, atrocities, Hong Kong martial arts content, or just plain weirdness; see also B-movies, exploitation or trash films, slasher films, blaxploitation films

Examples: any of the early gore, slasher, or splatter films (Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), I Spit On Your Grave (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)), cheesy spaghetti westerns, biker films, blaxploitation films (Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973), Dolemite (1975)), revenge melodramas, early exploitation films such as the shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962), kung fu (The Street Fighter (1974)), smutty soft-core sex films (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), Therese and Isabelle (1968)), women in prison films (Caged Heat (1974)), and the films of Ed Wood, Jr.; a modern-day example: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996); Tarantino has claimed his recent opus Kill Bill, Vols. I and II (2003-4) is sort of a mega-grindhouse epic, as is Grindhouse (2007) by Robert Rodriguez

the crew member responsible for setting up dolly tracks and camera cranes, erecting scaffolding, moving props or scenery, or the adjustment or maintenance of any other production equipment on the set - a physically demanding job; the key grip is the head grip who coordinates all of the other grips in the crew, and receives direction from the gaffer or head lighting technician; the key grip's right-hand assistant is known as the best boy grip  
refers to the box-office take - the total amount of money taken in during theatrical release, not including earnings from film rentals or sales, or the entire profit made by a film  
a term originally coined by Federico Fellini to describe the bizarre-looking or deformed background characters in his films; a grotesque is a live-action caricature with exaggerated features, but not necessarily to be viewed as frightening or sinister
Examples: Most of Fellini's films have an eye for the "grotesque", such as Fellini - Satyricon (1970), Fellini's Roma (1972), Amarcord (1973), and City of Women (1981)
guerrilla film
a low-budget film usually shot without seeking location permits, using non-SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors, etc. Example: Student films
'guilty pleasure' films
an escapist film that engenders low expectations (usually an awful B-movie or a critically-lambasted film) that the public enjoys despite or, more likely, because of its flaws; these are often quite personal film choices that are sometimes embarrassing to admit. Universally-loved 'guilty pleasure' films become cult films. See also flop and B-movie Examples: Teen movies, various horror films, sappy romances, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), Supergirl (1984), Cocktail (1988), Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (1995), Showgirls (1996), William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), Anaconda (1997), Wild Things (1998), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
handheld shot
a shot taken with a handheld camera or deliberately made to appear unstable, shaky or wobbly; often used to suggest either documentary footage, 'realism,' news reporting, cinema verite, or amateur cinematography; contrast with Steadicam Frequently exaggerated and currently overused, such as in The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Hays Code
named after Will Hays, a series of rigid censorship restrictions imposed on films by the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) beginning in mid-1934, and enforced/administered by Joseph Breen (in the Breen Office); the code had existed since the late 1920s but wasn't vigorously enforced, and it basically lasted until the late 1960s; the Code explicitly prescribed what couldn't be shown in films, i.e., "nakedness and suggestive dances," "methods of crime," "alleged sex perversion," "illegal drug use," "scenes of passion," "excessive and lustful kissing...", "miscegenation," "pointed profanity," etc.

Examples: Film that were among the first to be censored for their alleged objectionable material included any of Mae West's works (I'm No Angel (1933)), Baby Face (1933), and the early Weissmuller/Maureen O'Sullivan film Tarzan and His Mate (1934) - which had its nude swimming scene cut; in later installments of the Tarzan/Weissmuller films, Jane's scanty clothing and nudity, and rampant sexuality with Tarzan, would disappear.

Before (1934)

and After (1941)
head-on shot
a shot in which the action moves or comes directly toward or at the camera, to enhance the audience's feelings of participation; works well with 3-D films; also may refer to a head shot  
helicopter shot
a moving shot, often breathtaking; an establishing shot from a bird's eye view or from overhead, usually taken from a helicopter - due to its maneuverability, the shot may pan, arc, or sweep through a landscape; many films open with a helicopter shot (often under the credits) Examples: the final shot from a Wonkavator high above the city's rooftops in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), or in The Shining (1980) the trailing of a lone car driving through the Rockies to the Overlook Hotel; or in Working Girl (1988) the opening credits' long arcing shot around the Statue of Liberty before trailing the Staten Island Ferry
terms used to refer to the director (aka helmer) of a film  
refers to the major male and female protagonists in a film with whom the audience identifies and sympathizes. Character traits often include being young, virtuous, handsome, pretty, etc.; contrast with the antagonist or heavy (the villain or evil force).

The underdog hero, Rocky Balboa in Rocky (1976)
high-angle shot
a shot in which the subject or scene is filmed from above and the camera points down on the action, often to make the subject(s) small, weak and vulnerable; contrast to low-angle shot Example: in the opening of Force of Evil (1948), a high-angle (overhead) camera view of towering skyscrapers surrounding St. Andrew's Church near Wall Street

refers to the saleable or marketable elements of a film; a high concept (actually low-concept in practice) refers to a film's main premise expressed as a simple formula in just a few words (as a one-liner) that can be easily understood by all; this idea portrays a shallow, condescending attitude toward undiscriminating film audiences by Hollywood's marketers and often results in having film content controlled by what appeals to the lowest common denominator type market; see also logline (also known as premise)

Example: A successful lawyer cheats on his wife with a beautiful psychopath, in Fatal Attraction (1987); or fish-out-of-water Detroit cop in Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills Cop (1984); or a blue-collar welder during the day passionately aspires to be a dancer at night, in Flashdance (1983) (above); or the "gimmicky" pairing of improbable twins Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins (1988); or Braveheart (1995) - an epic love story and swashbuckler on the Scottish battle plain
an on screen television image that will appear in a ratio of 16:9 compared to today's analog signal ratio of 4:3; the image will be 'high-def' due to increased lines of resolution (e.g., 1080 lines rather than the 525 of analog)  
the use of thin beams of light to illuminate selected or limited parts of the subject (e.g., an actress' eyes)  
slang term for the following verbs, meaning "to increase", "to raise" or "to promote"  
hitting a mark
an actor's term for moving to the correct, predetermined position during rehearsals and during camera takes so that the camera can smoothly record the action; 'mark' refers to pieces of crossed tape on the floor to signify positions  
hold over
the term used by a director for an actor used for an extra day
usually a respectful tribute to someone or something; this often occurs within one movie when a reference is made to another film's scene, image, etc.

Examples: Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog (1991) pays tribute to German Expressionism and classic b/w horror films, including Cat People (1942) and Freaks (1932); also the final shot of The Grifters (1990), paying homage to The Maltese Falcon (1941)

a slang term denoting a dancer Examples: 'hoofers' in Busby Berkeley's dance production numbers
horror (films)
a popular film genre designed to frighten and thrill with familiar elements (monsters, killers, vampires, zombies, aliens, mad scientists, the devil or demons, etc.), gothic qualities or settings (e.g., castles), psychological terror, etc.; initially influenced by German expressionism; subgenre types include slasher films, occult films, and gore-fests; often combined with the sci-fi genre Examples: the Universal horror classics: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933)
horse opera
general slang for a western film, not for a "singing cowboy" film; also known as an oater (for the food that horses eat)  Examples: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Dances With Wolves (1990)
hybrid (film)
a film or production that combines or intersects two or more distinct genre types, and cannot be categorized by a single genre type; see also cross-over Examples: Little Shop of Horrors (1986) (musical plus horror); Westworld (1973) (sci-fi plus western); Blade Runner (1982) (sci-fi plus film noir); Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (animation plus film noir);
the abbreviation for hyperbole; refers to manufactured promotional buzz and excessive advertising/marketing for a film or project, including celebrity appearances, radio and TV spots or interviews, and other ploys; a similar word - hypo - means to increase or boost  
(or icon)
the use of a well-known symbol or icon; a means to analyze the themes and various styles in a film Example: in films, a star's persona can be iconographic; or this still photo of Marilyn Monroe in an iconographic pose from The Seven Year Itch (1955)
generally refers to the picture that is the result of the photographic process  
a specialized, big-screen film format about ten times larger than the traditional cinema format (35mm) and three times larger than the standard 70 mm widescreen format; debuted in Osaka Japan at the 1970 Exposition; IMAX films, often short documentaries, 'educational,' travelogue or nature films, are shot and projected on 15 perforation/70mm gauge film - "15/70", the largest film format in existence, which produces incredible high-definition sharpness in films projected on up to eight-story high screens in theatres equipped with advanced digital surround-sound systems; IMAX projection onto a domed screen is called Omnimax

Examples: Catch the Sun (1973), Volcano (1973), To Fly (1976), Living Planet (1979), Hail Columbia (1982), Behold Hawaii (1982), The Dream is Alive (1985), and many more.

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