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)
refers to the outdoor background in a set (represented by either a backdrop or a natural view).  
usually refers to a character (or group of characters), usually subsidiary, whose appearance, actions and/or dialogue draws more attention than other actors in the same scene; similar to the term 'chewing up the scenery.' Examples: Tim Curry as Darkness in Legend (1985); William Bendix as Jeff in The Glass Key (1942); John Gielgud as Hobson the butler in Arthur (1981)
schlock film
from the Yiddish expression for 'inferior' - refers to a forgettable, cheaply-made, low-budget, luridly-advertised B-film (or lower Z-film) with little or non-existent quality - often unintentionally hilarious; designed to take in profitable box-office in opening week; usually films found in the horror, comedy and science-fiction genres of the 50s and 60s. Examples: Films from AIP (American International Pictures); also Robot Monster (1953) and The Giant Claw (1957), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)
(film) score
the musical component of a movie's soundtrack, usually composed specifically for the film by a film composer; the background music in a film, usually specially composed for the film; may be orchestral, synthesized, or performed by a small group of musicians; also refers to the act of writing music for a film
Examples: Bernard Herrmann's memorable score with screeching violins for Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) or the score for The Wizard of Oz (1939)
screen direction
refers to the direction that characters or objects are moving in a film's scene or visual frame; common screen directions include "camera left" (movement to the left) or "camera right" (movement to the right); a neutral shot is a head-on shot of a subject with no evident screen direction; a jump-cut often indicates a change in screen direction  
the term for a promotional DVD (or video) version of a film that is sent to voters (and film critics) by the movie studios for their convenience during the awards season, before the movie is officially available to the public through video rental chains  
the exhibition or display of a movie, typically at a cinema house/theatre; to screen (or unspool) a film means to show or project a film; types of screenings include a critical screening (a pre-release viewing for film critics), a pre-screening, or a focus-group screening (to test audience reactions to a film's rough cut); cinema is another term for a movie theatre.  
a script or text for a film production written by a scripter or screenwriter(s) (or scribe), written (scribbled, scripted, or penned) in the prescribed form as a series of master scenes, with all the dialogue provided and the essential actions and character movements described; screenplays are often adaptations of other works; known archaically as a photoplay during the silent era.

Ernest Lehman's handwritten screenplay for "cropduster scene" in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). Also, a portion of the typed and formatted screenplay from The Matrix (1999).

screen test
refers to a filmed audition in which an actor performs a particular role for a film production; casting often depends upon the photogenic (the projection of an attractive camera image) quality of the star.  
screwball comedy
a type of highly-verbal comedy prevalent in 1930's Hollywood, and typified by frenetic action, verbal wit and wisecracks (substituting or serving as a metaphoric euphemism for sex), a battle of the sexes with conflict that is ultimately resolved - all elements that serve as important plot points. Examples: Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) and Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940); My Man Godfrey (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Sturges' The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940).
(also shooting script)
refers to the written text of a film - a blueprint for producing a film detailing the story, setting, dialogue, movements and gestures of actors, and the shape and sequence of all events in the film; in various forms, such as a screenplay, shooting script, breakdown script (a very detailed, day-to-day listing of all requirements for shooting, used mostly by crew), lined script, continuity script, or a spec script (written to studio specifications); a screenplay writer is known as a screenwriter, scripter, scribbler, scribe or penner; a last-minute script re-writer is known as a script doctor; a scenario is a script that includes camera and set direction as well as dialogue and cast direction; a shooting script is a detailed final version of the screenplay with the separate scenes arranged in proper sequence, and used by the cast.
Example of shooting script, for The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
second banana
in general terms, an actor who plays a subordinate or secondary role; aka second fiddle; in comedies, it refers to a performer who acts as a sidekick, foil or stooge (straight man) to a lead comedian Examples: Dean Martin was a 'second banana' to Jerry Lewis when they were a comic duo; or Bud Abbott to Lou Costello; or Ralph Bellamy to Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940); also, Ward Bond as a secondary player in many westerns
second-unit photography
in larger film productions, this refers to the less important scenes (large crowd scenes, scenery, foreign location backgrounds, various inserts, etc.) that are filmed by a smaller, secondary or subordinate crew, usually headed by a second-unit director; contrast to principal photography   
segment (or seg)
a section or episode of a film; a series of sequences that comprise a major section of the plot; segmentation of a film often helps to further analysis  
an industry term meaning prerecorded videocassettes or DVDs priced lower, to encourage their sale rather than rental  
sepia tone
a black-and-white image that has been converted to a sepia tone or color (a brownish gray to a dark olive brown) in order to enhance the dramatic effect and/or create an "antique" appearance Example: the black and white print for Cabin in the Sky (1943) was reprocessed as sepia-toned to create a more flattering skin tone for the actors; also an opening sequence (pictured) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
a cinematic work that presents the continuation of characters, settings, and/or events of a story in a previously-made or preceding movie; contrast to a prequel, follow-up, serial, series, spin-off or remake. Examples: The Maltese Falcon (1941) followed by The Black Bird (1975); National Velvet (1944) followed by International Velvet (1978); A Man and a Woman (1966) followed by A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986); generally, sequels are inferior - with some exceptions, such as The Godfather, Part II (1974), Toy Story 2 (1999), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), X2: X-Men United (2003), etc.
a scene, or connected series of related scenes that are edited together and comprise a single, unified event, setting, or story within a film's narrative; also refers to scenes that structurally fit together in the plot; sequence usually refers to a longer segment of film than a scene; sequences are often grouped into acts (like a three-act play); a sequence shot refers to a long, normally complicated shot with complex camera movements and actions; see also shot and scene. Examples: the wedding sequence in The Godfather (1974), the drug-bust sequence in GoodFellas (1990)
a multi-part, 'short-subject' film that was usually screened a chapter/episode per week at a film theatre; the predominant style of the serial was melodrama; often, each chapter or episode, continually presented in installments over several weeks, would conclude with an unresolved cliffhanger to ensure that audience would return the following week to discover the resolution; popular until the early 1950s; contrast with series and sequels. Example: The Perils of Pauline (1914).
a string or sequence of films with shared situations, characters or themes and related titles, but with little other inter-dependence, especially with respect to plot or significant character development. Usually presented without cliffhangers; the term also applies to feature films with more than one sequel; contrast with serials and sequels. Examples of films made in series: The Thin Man (1934), Blondie (1938), Superman (1978), Rocky (1976), Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979), the James Bond 007 films, and Planet of the Apes (1968).
the environment (an exterior or interior locale) where the action takes place in a film; when used in contrast to location, it refers to an artificially-constructed time/place (a backdrop painting or a dusty Western street with a facade of storefronts); supervised by the film's art director; strike refers to the act of taking apart a set once filming has ended.
Example: the War Room set, production-designed for Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
usually a self-contained, elaborate scene or sequence that stands on its own (i.e., a helicopter chase, a dance number, a memorable fight, etc.), and serves as a key moment in the film; in terms of production, it may also refer to a scene with a large set Examples: the Death Star trench run in Star Wars (1977), the attack on a Vietnamese village by helicopters in Apocalypse Now (1979), the snake pit sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the musical duet-dance on a giant electronic keyboard in Big (1988), and the bullet-dodging sequence in The Matrix (1999).
the time (time period) and place in which the film's story occurs, including all of the other additional factors, including climate (season), landscape, people, social structures and economic factors, customs, moral attitudes, and codes of behavior; aka locale.  
the place or position where the director and the director of photography put the camera (and lighting) when shooting a scene; a scene is usually shot with multiple setups and with multiple takes from each setup; aka angle.  
in screenplay terms, set-up refers to the first act in which the characters, situation, and the setting are established. Example: the 'first act' of The Wizard of Oz (1939) before the Technicolor sequences in the Land of Oz
sex comedy
a humorous, light-hearted film with an improbable plot about sexual relationships and extra-marital affairs, with various pairings between numerous characters, often characterized by slamming doors; aka sex farce or bedroom farce. Examples: Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Hal Ashby's Shampoo (1976), the Italian film Casanova 70 (1965).
refers to non-pornographic, non-explicit, soft-core films that feature sexual themes or explicit sexual material and nudity often in an apparently crude, immature, leering way; these films exploited the concept of sex without violating long-standing cultural and legal taboos against showing it all on the screen; often with lurid titles; aka skin flick Examples: the films of Russ Meyers, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), Vixen (1968).
the process of filming or photographing any aspect of a motion picture with a camera; the plan for a shoot is termed a shooting schedule.
Example: a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the shooting of the "Yellow Brick Road" scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
short subject
(shorts or
short films)
a film that is shorter than around 30 or 45 minutes; in the silent film era, most films were shorts, such as those shown in nickelodeons; then, during the early film era, the price of a movie ticket included not only the weekly feature but also "selected short subjects," as they were usually billed; contrast to features. Examples: the 1930s talkie shorts of Our Gang or The Little Rascals from Hal Roach Studios; the Pete Smith Specialties short subject films (from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s); MGM's crime dramas and investigative exposes - Crime Does Not Pay shorts (from the mid-1930s to mid-1940s); Warners' popular Joe McDoakes series in the 1940s and 1950s; Robert Benchley's series of comedy shorts; MGM's one-reel Dogville comedies; also the Oscar-winning childhood fantasy short, The Red Balloon (1956, Fr.) (pictured)

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