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 measurement of the opening in a camera lens that regulates the amount of light passing through and contacting the film.

The red highlighted portion of the lens above is the aperture, which can be adjusted to either let in more or less light
a character, place, or thing, that is repeatedly presented in films with a particular style or characterization; an archetype usually applies to a specific genre or type classification.

Examples: the whore with a heart of gold and the many other disparate characters on the trip to Lordsburg in Stagecoach (1939), the thug, the redneck sheriff in In the Heat of the Night (1967), the B-horror film, the small southern town, the western, the journey or quest (as in Apocalypse Now (1979)), etc.

arc shot
a shot in which the subject(s) is photographed by an encircling or moving camera. Example: the dizzying camera shot during the Carrie (1976) prom scene (pictured), or the reunion scene and embrace at the airport in Obsession (1976)
French word meaning 'halt' or 'stop'; refers to the in-camera trick technique of stopping the camera, then removing or inserting an object, then restarting the camera to have an object magically disappear or appear; one of the earliest techniques of silent film Examples: Georges Melies' The Vanishing Lady (1896) (pictured), or Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) - throwing a person/dummy off a train
art director
refers to the individual responsible for the design, look, and feel of a film's set, including the number and type of props, furniture, windows, floors, ceilings dressings, and all other set materials; a member of the film's art department (responsible for set construction, interior design, and prop placement).
Example: the dark, goth moodiness and oppressive look of the set for Tim Burton's Batman (1989), created by art director Anton Furst.
a motion picture theater that shows foreign or non-mainstream independent films, often considered high-brow or 'art' films.  
art-house film
films, often low budget or 'art' films, that are acknowledged as having artistic merit or aesthetic pretensions, and are shown in an arthouse theatre; films shown usually include foreign-language films, independent films, non-mainstream (sometimes anti-Hollywood) films, shorts, documentaries, explicitly-erotic films, and other under-appreciated cinema of low mass appeal; began to appear in the 1950s and provided a distinct contrast to commercial films. Examples: La Cage Aux Folles (1978), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Dancer in the Dark (2000), All About My Mother (1999).
occurs when a character in a film breaks the 'fourth wall' and directly addresses the audience with a comment. Examples: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) speaking toward the camera a few times at the conclusion of GoodFellas (1991); also the running gag of King Louis XVI (Mel Brooks) addressing the camera every time he wantonly sexually pleased himself, saying: "It's good to be the King!" in History of the World, Part I (1981)
aspect ratio
in general, a term for how the image appears on the screen based on how it was shot; refers to the ratio of width (horizontal or top) to height (vertical or side) of a film frame, image or screen; the most common or standard aspect ratio in early films to the 1950s was called Academy Aperture (or ratio), at a ratio of 1.33:1 (the same as 4:3 on a TV screen); normal 35mm films are shot at a ratio of 1.85:1; new widescreen formats and aspect ratios were introduced in the 1950s, from 1.65:1 and higher; CinemaScope (a trade name for a widescreen movie format used in the US from 1953 to 1967) and other anamorphic systems (such as Panavision) have a 2.35:1 AR, while 70mm formats have an AR of 2.2:1; Cinerama had a 2.77:1 aspect ratio; letterboxed videos for widescreen TV's are frequently in 16:9 (or 1.77:1) AR.

An example of an aspect ratio of 16:9 (or 1.77:1). Any number of films to the 1950s could be examples.
the first stage of editing, in which all the shots are arranged in script order.  
asynchronous (sound)
refers to audio-track sounds that are mismatched or out of conjunction or unison with the images in the visual frame (or screen); sometimes accidental, but sometimes intentional; aka non-synchronized  
refers to any concrete or nebulous quality or feeling that contributes a dimensional tone to a film's action. Examples: spookiness, howling wind, searing heat, blinding light, a rain downpour, etc.
refers to spectators, viewers, participants - those who serve as a measure of a film's success; although usually audiences are viewed in universal terms, they can also be segmented or categorized (e.g., 'art-film' audiences, 'chick film' audiences, etc.).

Audience members
refers to the sound portion of a film. Audio clip: Sample of Film Audio Soundtrack (73 k), from Young Frankenstein (1974)
audio bridge
refers to an outgoing sound (either dialogue or sound effects) in one scene that continues over into a new image or shot - in this case, the soundtrack, not a visual image, connects the two shots or scenes; aka lightning mix Examples: many examples in Citizen Kane (1941) and also in Apocalypse Now (1979) - the sound of helicopter blades are linked to the next scene of the spinning blades of an overhead fan
the process whereby an actor-performer seeks a role by presenting to a director or casting director a prepared reading or by 'reading cold' from the film script, or performing a choreographed dance; after the initial audition, a performer may be called back for additional readings or run-throughs. Example: Ruby Keeler (as hopeful stage star Bea Thorn) auditions for producer (James Cagney as Chester Kent) in Footlight Parade (1933)
(or auteur theory)

literally the French word for "author"; in film criticism, used in the terms auteurism or auteur theory, denoting a critical theory (originally known as la politique des auteurs or "the policy of authors") popular in France in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was introduced by Francois Truffaut and the editors (including legendary film critic and theorist Andre Bazin) of the celebrated French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (literally 'cinema notebooks'), arguably the most influential film magazine in film history; their ideas were subsequently enlarged upon in the 1960s by American critic Andrew Sarris, among others; the theory ascribed overall responsibility for the creation of a film and its personal vision, identifiable style, thematic aspects and techniques to its film-maker or director, rather than to the collaborative efforts of all involved (actors, producer, production designer, special effects supervisor, etc); the theory posited that directors should be considered the 'true' authors of film (rather than the screenwriters) because they exercise a great deal of control over all facets of film making and impart a distinctive, personal style to their films; simply stated, an auteur can refer to a director with a recognizable or signature style.

Cover from early edition of the French film review journal Cahiers du Cinema.

(From auteur Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960, Fr.))
available light
the naturally-existing light in an off-set location; a film's realism is enhanced by using available or natural light rather than having artificial light.  
refers to an experimental, abstract, or highly independent, non-independent film that is often the forerunner of a new artistic genre or art form; avant-garde films self-consciously emphasize technique over substance; also loosely applies to a group of French and German filmmakers in the early 20th century and to some modern American experimental filmmakers (e.g., Andy Warhol), and their film movement that challenged conventional film-making; see also cinema verite, surrealism, and abstract form Example: American pop artist Andy Warhol produced/directed Sleep (1963), The Chelsea Girls (1967), Flesh (1968), Lonesome Cowboys (1968), Trash (1972), and Women in Revolt (1971).
(or B-Movie,
an off-beat, low-budget, second-tier film, usually from an independent producer; they were predominant from the 1920s to the late 1940s; they were shot quickly with little-known, second rate actors, short run times, and low production values; often the second film (or the 'lower half') of a double-feature, and paired with an A-feature; the vintage B-movie began to decrease in the 50s, or morphed into inferior TV series; sometimes B-films were exclusively shown in a grindhouse, especially in the 50s and 1960s; as code restrictions waned in the late 60s, B-films often became exploitation films, which added sensational and catchy titles, campy acting, cheesy special effects, and gratuitous violence and sexuality (nudity); contrast to A-pictures (first-class, big-budget films with high-level production values and star-power); not to be confused with cult films, although some B-films attained cult status
Examples: John Wayne (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, B-westerns, B-movie serials, Fox's Charlie Chan mysteries, Monogram's Bowery Boys comedies, and Universal's Ma and Pa Kettle and Sherlock Holmes, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), a typical low-budget, sci-fi B-movies of the 50s - The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1955), and Teenagers From Outer Space (1959); also Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945).
refers to a large photographic backing or painting for the background of a scene (e.g., a view seen outside a window, a landscape scene, mountains, etc.), usually painted on flats (composed of plywood or cloth); a large curved backdrop (often representing the sky) is known as a cyclorama; backdrops were more commonly used before the current trend toward on-location shooting and the use of bluescreens. Example: although filmed on location in Mexico, most of the night scenes in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) were filmed on a studio set, with backdrops or flats.
background music
refers to part of the score that accompanies a scene or action in a film, usually to establish a specific mood or enhance the emotion.  
this phenomenon occurs when the lighting for the shot is directed at the camera from behind the subject(s), causing the figure(s) in the foreground to appear in semi-darkness or as silhouettes, or highlighted; with backlighting, the subject is separated from the background.

Examples: Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) shower scene, with the killer backlit to obscure identity

also backlighting of Kate Hudson from Almost Famous (2000)

and "the lady in the white dress" scene (Glenn Close) in The Natural (1984)

back lot
an area, on studio property, in an open-air, outdoor space away from the studio stages, where real-life situations with backgrounds are filmed; contrasted to on-location shoots that are more expensive; various studios in the Los Angeles area offer back lot tours.
Examples: big-city intersections, western streets are often filmed on back lots; above is the backlot of Universal Studios where some scenes were shot for Back to the Future (1985)
back projection
a photographic technique whereby live action is filmed in front of a transparent screen onto which background action is projected. Back projection was often used to provide the special effect of motion in vehicles during dialogue scenes, but has become outmoded and replaced by bluescreen (or greenscreen) processing and traveling mattes; also known as rear projection or process photography (or shot); contrast to matte shot.
Examples: Any film with a moving vehicle and back-projected street scenes viewed through the back or side windows, such as in To Catch a Thief (1955).
back story
refers to the events that directly happened prior to the beginning of the story, or lead to the story; composed of information that helps fill out the skeletal story of a screenplay or a character's background, often to help actors (or the audience) understand motivation. Example: the beginning of Casablanca (1942) provides back story about the war, the locale of the film, etc.; a reversal of back story is found in Memento (2000)
within a film's visual frame, refers to the composition, aesthetic quality, or working together of the figures, light, sound, and movement. Example: from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a beautifully balanced and composed frame
the blocking of a film's release (in a theatre showing or on video) by either the government or an official movie classification board, for political, religious, sexual, or social reasons; see also censorship.
Examples: director Stanley Kubrick voluntarily banned his own film A Clockwork Orange (1971) in Britain for almost 30 years because of copy-cat violence. And recently, the Academy award-winning film The Tin Drum (1979) was seized and declared obscene by state law in Oklahoma.
barn doors
the black metal folding doors an all four sides of a light that can be bent back and forth on their hinges to control where the light is directed.
Lighting with Barn Doors
a blanket placed over the film camera to reduce the noise of the moving mechanisms inside; see also blimp.  
based on a true story
films that consist of a story line that has at least some basis in real historical events, and may actually contain only a few factual elements. These films, loosely based on various biographies, stories, or events, may/may not significantly alter the characters or situations for greater dramatic effect; inspired by a true story indicates the film is even looser with the factual basis of the events.
Examples: Braveheart (1995) (an account of the life of medieval Scottish patriot William Wallace), Raging Bull (1980) (based on the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta), and Erin Brockovich (2000) (with Julia Roberts as the crusading single mother) shown here.
refers to an actor's term for how long to wait before doing an action; a beat is usually about one second.  
behind the scenes
the off-camera events or circumstances during filmmaking. Example: The documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) chronicled the sensational, behind-the scenes circumstances during the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).
below the line
Opposite of above the line.  
best boy
the term for any technical assistant, apprentice or aide (regardless of sex) for the gaffer or the (key) grip on a set, responsible for the routing and coiling of power cables necessary to run the lights for a shot; a gender-neutral term that came from whaling.  
1/2 inch videotape that was originally called Betamax.

Betamax cassette tape box
the placement or display of names of actors, directors, and producers for a movie in publicity materials, opening (or closing) film credits, and on theatre marquees. A person's status is indicated by the size, relative position, and placement of their name. Generally, higher positions closer to the top with larger and more prominent letters designate higher importance and greater box-office draw, and precede people of lesser importance; the most prominent actor that appears first is said to have top billing, followed by second billing, and so forth. Example: Notice top billing given to Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes (1962).

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