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)

the basic building block or unit of film narrative; refers to a single, constant take made by a motion picture camera uninterrupted by editing, interruptions or cuts, in which a length of film is exposed by turning the camera on, recording, and then turning the camera off; it can also refer to a single film frame (such as a still image); a follow-shot is when the camera moves to follow the action; a pull-back shot refers to a tracking shot or zoom that moves back from the subject to reveal the context of the scene; see also scene and sequence; shot analysis refers to the examination of individual shots; a one-shot, a two-shot, and a three-shot refers to common names for shooting just one, two, or three people in a shot

Example of a single film frame or shot, of Fay Wray rehearsing the moment of meeting Kong, from King Kong (1933).
shot, scene, and sequence
a shot, scene, and sequence together make up the larger dramatic narrative of film; scenes are composed of shots, sequences are composed of scenes, and films are composed of sequences.  
sight gag
aka visual gag; an image that conveys humor visually, usually non-verbally; often used in silent film comedy, or in films with very little dialogue. Example: all silent film comedies, Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967), the animated film The Triplets of Belleville (2003), or the scene of Cameron Diaz with semen as her hair-gel in There's Something About Mary (1998) (pictured), or numerous examples from James Bond films, such as Moonraker (1979) (pictured) - the death of a henchman propelled head-first into a billboard advertising British Airways claiming: "We'll Take More Care of You" - his head appeared consumed by the flight attendant's mouth
silent film
(or silents)
the term for motion pictures without sound (spoken dialogue or synchronized soundtrack), although they were often accompanied by live commentary, piano-music, sound effects, and/or orchestration; the period from about 1895 to 1927 (when "talkies" were introduced); contrast with talkies.
silver bullet
aka "magic bullet" - a solution that completely solves the complicated dramatic problem within a film; the term was derived from European folklore in which only a silver bullet could kill a werewolf. Example: the silver bullet was used in The Lone Ranger Show (on radio and TV, and later on film) as a symbol of the Lone Ranger's presence to solve various problems.
refers to a film element, used by the film-maker to indicate a character's or object's relative strength compared to other things or persons Example: in Citizen Kane (1941), Kane looks massive compared to wife Susan working on a puzzle and dwarfed in size by a gigantic fireplace
skip frame
the optical printing effect of skipping or cutting out certain frames of the original scene to speed up the action  
slapstick (comedy)
a broad form of comedy in which the humor comes from physical acts or pantomime, frequently harmless violence and pratfalls intended to produce laughter. The name was derived from a device called a slapstick, two boards that slapped together with a loud crack when used to strike something or someone; prevalent during the silent era and in early talkies, with its primary motif being pie-throwing.
Examples: Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin (here in the extended boxing sequence in City Lights (1931)), Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, and more recently, Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey.
slasher film
usually a cheaply-made sub-genre film (usually in the horror genre) designed for the teenage audience (teen movie), deliberately made to contain gory, blood-splattering, explicit deaths without any build-up, style or suspense, often committed by an unstoppable serial killer, with a sharp bladed weapon; most slasher films are created to generate sequels and repetitive boredom; aka splatter films; see also trash film, grindhouse film, schlock film, B-film and Z-film Examples: Three of the best known, classic slasher films that were commercially successful include Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Carpenter's Halloween (1978), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); also the films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento (i.e. Deep Red (1975)), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979), Sleepaway Camp (1983), the Friday the 13th franchise; also in the parodies beginning with Scream (1996).
slate (board)
refers to the digital board held in front of the camera that identifies shot number, director, camera-person, studio and title; the slate has the clap sticks on top and the scene number, take and production name or title usually written on it, and the person operating the slate will say "mark" and clap the sticks for picture and sound sync purposes; originally the data was written with chalk on a slate board; the footage of the slate at the beginning of each shot or take is used in the laboratory and editing room to identify the shot; see also clapboard
a movie that is released with little publicity or pre-release buzz, often directed by and starring relatively unknown people, that eventually becomes popular (as a cult film) or financially successful beyond expectations, usually due to positive word-of-mouth; the term is sometimes used incorrectly to describe unpopular movies that the critics love Examples: Marty (1955), and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
(or slo-motion)
refers to an effect resulting from running film through a camera at faster-than-normal speed (shooting faster than 24 frames per second), and then projecting it at standard speed; if a camera runs at 60 frames per second, and captures a one second-long event, a 24-frame playback will slow that event to two and a half seconds long; overcrank(ing) means to speed up the camera, thereby making the action appear slower when projected - the term dates back to the old days of physically hand-cranking film through a camera; this filmic technique is usually employed to fully capture a 'moment in time' or to produce a dramatic (or romantic feeling); contrast to fast-motion (or accelerated motion, achieved by undercranking) or time compression Example: often used in sports films in which the climactic winning catch or play is run in slow-motion
(or shock cut)
a cinematic term that refers to an abrupt, jarring and unexpected change in the scene or film's image (and the audio), in order to surprise the viewing audience; see also transition Example: often used in murder scenes or when a character is suddenly awakened from a nightmare; it also may be evidenced in a sudden cut to a black screen
any piece of projected footage during (usually prior to) a motion picture feature presentation that is not a trailer or film presentation, i.e., announcements and theatre promos for the concession stand, courtesy requests and prohibitions (such as turning off cell phones, curbing loud talking, etc.)  
during nominations or awards proceedings, when a prominent, leading, or favored performer/director/crew member or film is inexplicably excluded or denied an award or nomination Examples: See Academy Awards Mistakes and Omissions
a cinematographic effect in which a filter, vaseline or gauze-like substance placed over the camera lens reduces the clarity or sharpness of focus, blurs the image, and produces a diffused, hazy light; often used to enhance romantic or dreamy scenes, or to remove wrinkle lines from an actor's face Example: often used in the 1930s; also in the love scene at the French plantation in Apocalypse Now Redux (1979 and 2001)
a dramatic monologue delivered by a single actor with no one else onstage; sometimes expressed as a 'thinking aloud' dialogue of inner reflections; delivered by a character to him or herself, or directly to the audience; contrast to an aside. Examples: See this site's Best Speeches and Monologues section.
the audio portion of a film including dialogue, music, and effects; sound effects refers to all created sounds except dialogue or music  
(or stage)
a large, soundproof area/room in a studio used in film production, where elaborate sets are constructed, to allow film-makers greater control over climate, lighting, and sound, security, and spectators.
Example: The "You Were Meant For Me" scene deliberately shot on an empty sound stage, in Singin' in Rain (1951).
technically, this term refers to the audio component of a movie, including the dialogue, musical score, narration, and sound effects, that accompany the visual components. Popularly, it refers to a collection of songs heard during the movie, and often sold as an album. Example: Soundtrack from Easy Rider (1969)
spaghetti western
a western, low-budget B-movie filmed in Italy (or Spain) during the 60s, usually characterized by low production values, sparse dialogue. Examples: Sergio Leone's westerns, starring Clint Eastwood as an amoral drifter - the poncho-clad gunslinger Blondie.
special effects
(or F/X, SFX, SPFX, or EFX)
a broad, wide-ranging term used by the film industry meaning to create fantastic visual and audio illusions that cannot be accomplished by normal means, such as travel into space. Many visual (photographic) or mechanical (physical) filmic techniques or processes are used to produce special illusionary effects, such as optical and digital effects, CGI, in-camera effects, the use of miniatures/models, mattes, rear-camera projections, stop-motion animation, bluescreens, full-scale mockups, pyrotechnics (squibs (miniature explosions, i.e. a gunshot)), stunt men, animatronics (electronic puppets), rain/snow/wind machines, etc.; F/X are coordinated by the visual effects and the special effects supervisors; known negatively as trick photography; see also visual effects - a sub-category of special effects. See this site's Milestones in Special/Visual Effects in Film History.

King Kong (1933) and the use of models

Hitchcock's The Birds (1963)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
refers to a derivative work (film or TV), either a sequel or a prequel which includes characters from the previous original product; contrast to a prequel, follow-up, serial, series, sequel or remake Examples: The Scorpion King (2002) was a spin-off of The Mummy Returns (1999) with the character of the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson); or Alien vs. Predator (2004) - an obvious spin-off of previous hits; Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of the TV show Happy Days
split edit
an editing technique used to ease the transition from one scene to another, in which the audio starts before (or after) the picture cut; aka L-cut or J-cut  
in the silent era, refers to two different short-subject films (each too brief for a separate screening) that were joined together on one reel for movie-house exhibition  
the combination of two actions filmed separately by copying them onto the same negative and having them appear side-by-side within a single frame (without overlapping); a slight variation on split-screen is termed multiple image (different images are set alongside each other within a single frame); split-screen is usually intended to signify simultaneous action; also see bluescreen and matte shot

Examples include: phone conversations between Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959) (shown above); Woodstock (1970), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Napoleon (1927), and The Grifters (1990) (shown above); also in scenes between an actor and a wild animal on different sides of the frame, used in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Krull (1983).
information about the plot or ending of a film that may damage or impair the enjoyment of the film if known ahead of time; usually, critics or reviewers warn readers with a 'spoiler alert', or avoid revealing spoilers altogether. See Greatest Plot Twists and Spoilers

Examples: "Darth Vader is Luke's father," "Rosebud" is the name of the sled in Citizen Kane (1941), Norman's mother is alive in Norman Bates's psychotic imagination, or a film's plot twists (e.g., Shyamalan's films), etc.

usually a comedic film that pays tribute to an earlier film in a humorous way.

Examples: Airplane! (1980) and Airport (1970); Blazing Saddles (1974) and westerns; Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) and King Arthur legendary tales; Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) (see above) and Christ stories; Scream (1996) - a spoof of horror slasher films; and Top Secret! (1984);

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was spoofed as 'Raiders of a Lost Art' in MAD Magazine (Jan '82)
a substitute person who is physically similar (in size and appearance) to an actor and who takes the actor's place during often lengthy preparation of a scene (the taking of light meter readings, camera setup, light adjustment, etc.) but not during filming. Not to be confused with a stunt double or a body double.  
the name given to famous, talented, and popular actors or celebrities, often in lead character roles, who can draw an audience to a film with their photogenic appearance, inspirational acting, or some other quality. Historically, a starlet (or ingenue) was an attractive actress promoted by a film studio in a small role as an up-and-coming star during the 40s and the 50s; also used in the term star quality and star system
Example: Mel Gibson, director and star of Braveheart (1995)
star system
refers to the way in which studios "groomed" stars under contract, and sought star vehicles for them; studios served as protectorates for their stars  
star vehicle
a film expressly made to show off the talents of a performer, with all other aspects almost secondary; compare with tour de force Examples: Twentieth Century (1934) with John Barrymore; Victor/Victoria (1982) with Julie Andrews (whose husband Blake Edwards wrote and directed)
static shot
an unmoving camera shot that is stationary, due to the use of a tripod  

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