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)
locked-down shot
refers to a camera shot in which the camera remains immobile, while something happens off-screen (e.g., an off-screen death) - a technique to create suspense  
a short, introductory summary of a film, usually found on the first page of the screenplay, to be read by executives, judges, agents, producers and script-readers; all screenwriters use loglines to sell their scripts; also known as premise; see also high concept hook Example: The logline of Some Like It Hot (1959) - two broke male musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentines' Day massacre must elude the mobsters who pursue them; they dress in drag and join an all-girl band traveling to Florida. Complications arise when one of them falls for a sexy singer and poses as a rich playboy so he can woo her; he convinces his partner to dodge the amorous advances of the elderly millionaire he is impersonating. Love conquers all -- till the mobsters show up at the same beachside resort for a convention.
a camera view of an object or character from a considerable distance so that it appears relatively small in the frame, e.g., a person standing in a crowd of people or a horse in a vast landscape; variations are the medium long-shot (or mid-shot) (MS) and the extreme long-shot (ELS or XLS); also called a wide shot; a long shot often serves as an establishing shot; contrast to close-up (CU); a full-shot is a type of long shot that includes a subject's entire body (head to feet).
Example: an extreme long-shot, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arriving on horseback, in John Ford's The Searchers (1958)
long take
(or lengthy take)
a shot of lengthy duration; see also mise-en-scene Example: Hitchcock's Rope (1948), composed of a series of continuous, 8-minute takes; or the opening of Robert Altman's The Player (1992)
refers to the process in which dialogue is re-recorded by actors in the studio during post-production, matching the actor's voice to lip movements on screen; aka ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement); contrast with dubbing; loop refers to a length of film joined from beginning to end for repeated continuous running  
low-angle shot
a shot in which the subject is filmed directly from below and the camera tilts up at the action or character, to make the subject appear larger than life, more formidable, taller and more menacing; contrast to a high-angle shot

Examples: a low-angle camera angle from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978);



also the low-angle shot of the menacing vampirish Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in Nosferatu (1922, Germ.)
madcap comedy
a fast-paced, wild, and reckless humorous work, usually with plenty of slapstick humor, goofy and farcical action, and crazy characters; also see screwball comedy Examples: Cannonball Run (1981), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), The Nutty Professor (1963) (pictured), All of Me (1985).
made for TV
short for feature-length movies filmed or specifically made-for-television, often mid-way in style between a short drama and a cinematic release; aka telefilm or telepic  
magic hour
the optimum time for filming romantic or magical scenes due to 'warm' and 'soft' lighting conditions, characterized by a golden-orange hue color and softened shadows; occurs for about 30 minutes around the time of sunset and sunrise; aka golden hour Example: Nestor Almendros' cinematography in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978); and Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams (1989)
a Hollywood-made film with major stars, big budgets, and big hype; compare to independents; its extreme opposite is termed counter-cinema (forms of alternative cinema, such as avant-garde, art films, Third World cinema, etc.)
refers to the major Hollywood motion picture producer/distributor studios at the present time (i.e., DreamWorks SKG, MGM/UA, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Sony (Columbia/TriStar), Warner Bros, Universal, and Disney); contrast to the smaller, mini-major production-distribution companies (i.e., Miramax, New Line Cinema, and Polygram) that compete directly with the bigger studios

20th Century Fox logo
refers to the materials that are used to prepare the performer for his/her respective role(s) before the camera, anywhere from facial pancake to elaborate costuming, latex masks, and other ghastly transformations; the makeup department is headed by a makeup artist
making of...
a specialized documentary that focuses on the production of a specific film; most "making of..." documentaries are extended promotional advertisements before the release of the film, and almost all of them are shot while the film is in production; some specialized documentaries of classic films (called retrospectives), made years after the film was released, gather interviews and behind the scenes clips, etc. Examples: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) used Francis Ford Coppola's wife Eleanor's "home movie" footage shot during the torturous 34 weeks shoot of Apocalypse Now (1979) in the Philippines, and also included more recent interviews; Shadowing the Third Man (2004) was an astounding retrospective of the making of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949)
(1) the name for the clapping of the sticks to sync up the sound and the picture; and (2) something on the ground (tape, a stick, chalk, etc.) that lets the talent know where they should be for the shot  
(or blackout)
refers to covering up or blocking out a portion of the frame with blackness or opaqueness; most masks are black, but they could be white or some other color Example: in Chinatown (1974), the scene in which detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) uses binoculars to trace the activities of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling); also used for the effect of looking through a keyhole
master shot
a continuous shot or long take that shows the main action or setting of an entire scene (most scenes are shot with one or two master angles and then broken up into a series of smaller or tighter angles during editing (such as one-shots, two-shots, close-ups, and reaction shots)); a master refers to a positive print made especially for duplication purposes  
match cut
a transitional technique, in which there's a cut between two shots (outgoing and incoming) that are joined, matched, or linked by visual, aural, or metaphorical parallelism or similarities; there can be audio matches, segues (a segue refers to a smooth, uninterrupted transition), and visual match-cuts of various kinds; see also audio bridge and bridging shot
Examples: North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint up the cliff of Mt. Rushmore -- then a match cut to Grant pulling her up to a bunk in a train
matte shot
the optical process of combining (or compositing) separately-photographed shots (usually actors in the foreground and the setting in the background) onto one print through a double exposure that does not meld two images on top of each other, but masks off (or makes opaque and blank) part of the frame area for one exposure and the opposite area for another exposure; the second image is printed in the masked-off area; it is a photographic technique whereby a matte painting or artwork from a matte artist - usually painted on glass - is combined with live action footage to provide a convincing setting for the action; also sometimes known as split-screen.
Example: In Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), this complicated shot combined a real roof and a matted belfry in the background with an added silhouette in the foreground. Also used to combine a cartoon character with a human actor (e.g., Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)); the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
(or MacGuffin, or Maguffin)
Alfred Hitchcock's term for the device or plot element (an item, object, goal, event, or piece of knowledge) that catches the viewer's attention or drives the logic or action of the plot and appears extremely important to the film characters, but often turns out to be insignificant or is to be ignored after it has served its purpose; its derivation is Scottish, meaning a "lion trap" for trapping lions in the lion-less Scottish Highlands (i.e., a trap that means nothing, since it is for an animal where there is no such animal).
Examples: 'mistaken identity' at the beginning of North by Northwest (1959) and the 'government secrets', the uranium ore in champagne bottles in Notorious (1946) (seen here), or the stolen money - $40,000 in Psycho (1960), the 'Rosebud' sled in Citizen Kane (1941), the treasure under the 'W' in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994), the Rabbit's Foot in Mission Impossible III (2006); also the 'black bird' in The Maltese Falcon (1941) served as a McGuffin - before it was termed
medium shot
refers to a conventional camera shot filmed from a medium distance; although it is difficult to precisely define, it usually refers to a human figure from the waist (or knees) up; between a close shot and a long shot; abbreviated as m.s.
Example: a medium shot of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
both refer to movie chains (i.e., Loews, AMC Theatres) with movie theatres that screen more than one film at a time, as opposed to single-screen theatres. A multiplex has from 2 up to 16 screens, a megaplex has 16 or more screens; plex is the abbreviation for a multiplex theatre.
Example: A typical AMC multiplex 7-screen theatre in the greater Los Angeles area.
originally referred to "a drama accompanied by music"; a film characterized by expressive plots with strong and intensified emotion, often with elements of pathos, illness and hardship; called 'women's films' or 'weepies' (tearjerkers) during the 1940s; aka meller; sometimes used disparagingly to describe films that are manipulative and crudely appeal to emotions; see also 'chick flicks'
Examples: prominent "weepies" include Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) (shown above) and Mildred Pierce (1945), and any of director Douglas Sirk's lurid melodramas of the 50s, such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Imitation of Life (1959), and Written on the Wind (1956).
a filmic device in which a scene, character, object, and/or action may be associated, identified, or interpreted as an implied representation of something else (that is unrelated) Example: Hitchcock's use of the image of a train tunnel at the conclusion of North by Northwest (1959) to metaphorically signify sex, or the rain-drenched (like tears falling) sad farewell letter from Ilsa to Rick in Casablanca (1942)
method acting
a style of acting first expounded by Konstantine Stanislavsky in the early 1900s, and popularized by Lee Strasberg (1899-1982) in the US in his Actors Studio; refers to actors who gave realistic performances based upon and drawn from their own personal experiences and emotions; refers to not emoting in the traditional manner of stage conventions, but to speak and gesture in a manner used in private life.
Example: Marlon Brando was known as one of the main practitioners of method acting, seen here in the famous taxicab scene in On the Waterfront (1954); other proponents of method acting included James Dean and Montgomery Clift.
midnight movies
offbeat, often independent (non-Hollywood) counter-cultural cult films exhibited at theatres for late-night shows - sometimes involving audience participation; appealed to various small segments of niche audiences with different tastes; these films (originally sexual thrillers, slasher flicks, etc.) were often box-office bombs upon initial release, but then gained a faithful following; the phenomenon began in the early 70s, then mostly disappeared in the 80s, but has recently been revived.

Examples: Freaks (1932), Reefer Madness (1936), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Mondo Trasho (1969), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), El Topo (1970, Mex.), Harold and Maude (1971), The Harder They Come (1972), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the long-running The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Eraserhead (1977), and recently The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Office Space (1999) and Donnie Darko (2001)

(or pantomime)
acting without words, emphasizing facial expressions, body movements, and gestures; common during the silent film era. Example: the films of Charlie Chaplin; or Janet Gaynor's Oscar-winning performance in F.W. Murnau's classic Sunrise (1927) (shown here).
small-scale models photographed to give the illusion that they are full-scale objects; also known as model or miniature shots.

Examples: the space craft in Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
refers to an actor/actress who is completely wrong, untalented, or unbelievable for the role he or she has been cast in. Examples: John Wayne as Temujin (Genghis Khan) in The Conqueror (1956), Barbra Steisand as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (1969)
mise en scène

a French term for "staging," or "putting into the scene or shot"; in film theory, it refers to all the elements placed (by the director) before the camera and within the frame of the film -- including their visual arrangement and composition; elements include settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning; lengthy, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often cited as examples of mise-en-scene; contrast to montage

Examples: the harsh lighting or expressionistic angles used in classic film noirs (such as in Fritz Lang's work), in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) with the striking contrast between the marsh, rural life and the city; or in angular set designs of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Germ.); or in the visual magnificence of the sets in David Lean's epic films, such as the frozen dacha in Doctor Zhivago (1965) (pictured) or the searing desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or in the claustrophobic feel on-board the Orca searching for the Great White in Spielberg's Jaws (1975)
mix (mixing)
the electrical combination of different sounds, dialogue, music, and sound effects from microphones, tape, and other sources onto the film's master soundtrack during post-production; dubbing (or re-recording) refers to the mixing of all soundtracks into a single composite track; the soundtrack is blended by a mixer (chief sound recording technician)  

Previous Page Next Page