Film Terms
Glossary

Illustrated

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)
trilogy
a group of three films that together compose a larger narrative and are related in subject or theme Examples: Coppola's three Godfather films, the Terminator films trilogy, Terry Gilliam's 'Age of Reason' trilogy, Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ingmar Bergman's trilogy, the Qatsi trilogy, Spielberg's 'Indiana Jones' films, the original Star Wars trilogy, and Kieslowski's 'Three Colors' films
triple threat
refers to an actor or actress who can sing, dance and act skillfully and equally well on a consistent basis; usually applicable to performers in the musicals genre; it also could refer to a person who can act, direct, and screenwrite! Examples: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, James Cagney (pictured, from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)), Deborah Kerr; also Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Robert Redford, etc.
tubthump
a term that denotes to promote or draw attention to; usually conducted by publicists, advertisers, and agents; from the ancient show business custom of actors wandering the streets banging on tubs and drums to draw an audience together  
turnaround
refers to a film or project that has been abandoned by a studio and is no longer active (and now available for being shopped to another studio)  
twist ending
a film that is marketed as having a surprise ending that shouldn't be revealed (as a spoiler) to those who haven't seen the picture Examples: Citizen Kane (1941), Psycho (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), Soylent Green (1973), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Angel Heart (1987), No Way Out (1987), The Crying Game (1992), Se7en (1995), The Usual Suspects (1995) (pictured), Primal Fear (1996), Arlington Road (1999), The Sixth Sense (1999), Fight Club (1999), The Others (2001), and Shrek (2001)
two-fer
slang for coupons that discount an film's admission price to "two for" the price of one  
two-hander
refers to a film with only two characters Example: Sleuth (1972), with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier
two-reeler
in the silent era, this referred to a film lasting a little over 20 minutes Example: Silent era Edgar Kennedy's many two-reelers of comedy shorts (with Mack Sennett and Hal Roach)
two-shot
a medium or close-up camera shot of two people (often in dialogue with each other), framed from the chest up; often used to provide a contrast between the two characters; compare to three-shot

Example of a medium closeup (two-shot)
from Pulp Fiction (1994)
typecasting
when an actor or actress is commonly (but unfairly) identified, associated with, or 'stereotyped' by a particular character role; casting against type is the reverse of typecasting; typage refers to director Eisenstein's theory of casting that shunned professional actors in favor of 'types' or representative characters Example: Edward G. Robinson - well-known as a 'tough guy', snarling gangster, such as in Key Largo (1948) or Little Caesar (1930)
U-matic
refers to 3/4 inch magnetic tape, originally a professional cassette tape format now being supplanted by new digital formats; a competing tape format was the inferior 1/2" VHS or beta  
unbilled role
a 'supporting' role for a major (sometimes minor) star that is officially credited (usually in the end credits), but no mention (or billing) is made in the film's advertisements or the opening credits; contrast with cameo and uncredited role. Examples: Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Bill Murray in Tootsie (1982), Jack Nicholson in Broadcast News (1987), Gene Hackman in The Firm (1993)
uncredited role
a role that a major (or minor) star plays that is not credited in the credits or in the film's poster; contrast with cameo and unbilled role. Examples: Tim Robbins' screen debut in the role of Peter Finch’s assassin in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976); Elsa Lanchester, credited as Mary Shelley, but uncredited for the role of the Bride ("the Monster's Mate") in Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Mildred Dunnock as the wheelchair bound old lady in Kiss of Death (1947) pushed down a flight of stairs by Richard Widmark
underacting
refers to an understated, neutral and muted acting performance; contrast with overacting Example: Bruce Willis in Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000)
undercranking
refers to the slowing down of a camera, by shooting at less than the standard 24 fps, so that the image, when normally projected, will appear in fast motion; often used to produce a comic effect   
underexposed
refers to a film shot that has less light than normal, causing an indistinct, dimly-lit, unclear image; the opposite of overexposed  
underground film
a low-budget, non-commercial film, usually independently-made, without the traditional sources of funding or distribution  
unions
organizations that represent professionals in the motion picture industry (e.g., directors, actors, writers, etc.), and help those individuals negotiate contracts, receive recognition, pursue rights, protect interests, etc.; aka guilds Examples: DGA (Directors Guild of America), WGA (Writers Guild of America), SAG (Screen Actors Guild), ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), etc.
unreliable narrator
A literary term meaning a protagonist or narrator whose perspective is skewed to their own perspective, producing a portrayal of events that may or may not be accurate or truthful; the lack of credibility may be deliberate or due to a lack of knowledge Examples: Rashomon (1950, Jp.) - four protagonists communicated completely different perspectives on the same incident; in the twist ending of The Usual Suspects (1995), Verbal Kint's (Kevin Spacey) description of events was revealed to be deliberately misleading; in Memento (2000), the lead character, suffering from severe amnesia, provided a very unreliable narrative
unspool
a slang term meaning to screen or show a film  
utopia(n)
refers to an imaginary, ideal (or mythical), perfect state or place (especially in its laws, government, social and moral conditions), often with magical healing, restorative properties; see also its opposite - dystopia Example: Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1937)
vamp
a femme fatale or woman with a bad reputation, usually seductive and scheming in nature or behavior.
Examples: the temptress (Margaret Livingston) from the City in Sunrise (1927); Theda Bara was the first to be labeled a vamp in A Fool There Was (1914)
Variety
a respected, oft-quoted show-biz periodical or trade paper (or one of the trades) that reports and provides coverage on the entertainment industry (including the film industry), and best known for its goofy, shorthand 'Varietyese' headlines, using made-up words, e.g. 'dee jay' (disc jockey), or 'B.O.' (box office or boffo) Examples: Two infamous, jargon-filled Variety headlines: (1) "Wall Street Lays an Egg", referring to the Stock Market crash, and (2) "Hix Nix Stix Pix" - referring to inhabitants of the Heartland criticizing films depicting rural American life and rural themes
vaudeville
a stage variety entertainment show, featuring a series of short acts - songs, dancing, acrobatics, comedy skits, and animal acts; it was highly popular in America from the late 1880s to the 1920s, when it became overtaken by sound films and radio; most of the early film, radio and TV comedians found their start on the vaudeville circuit.
Examples: vaudeville performers included W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Edgar Bergen and The Three Stooges. Abbott and Costello's vaudeville act 'Who's on First?' was adapted from stage to screen. The Catskill Mountains in New York and the Poconos in Pennsylvania were holdovers from the vaudeville era late into the 70's
VCR
literally, 'Video-Cassette Recorder'; aka VTR (video tape recorder); a consumer-level machine for home entertainment that plays-back and records images and sounds from TV on magnetized tape in a videotape cassette; VHS stands for 'Video Home System' or the 1/2 inch video cassette tape format; see also U-matic or beta   
video
literally, "to see," in other words, the visual or pictured image (either projected, taped, etc.), as opposed to the audio aspect of film; also refers to the visual component of television; digital video refers to a video signal represented by a series of binary numbers that are readable by computer - compare with analog video; aka vid (for short)   
video nasty
a British term from the 1980s that refers to a select group of ultra-violent videos (low-budget films produced in Italy and the US) that were considered highly objectionable and to be regulated Examples: 72 separate films appeared on the classified list of "video nasties," 39 of which were successfully prosecuted. Films included Blood Feast (1963), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Faces of Death (1980), I Spit On Your Grave (1978), The Last House on the Left (1972), and Tenebrae (1982).
vigilante film
usually a type of action film in which the protagonist takes the law into his/her own hands as a self-appointed doer of justice, revenge, and payback. Examples: Billy Jack (1971), Walking Tall (1973), Death Wish (1974), Foxy Brown (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), The Road Warrior (1981), Falling Down (1993), Kill Bill, Vol. 1-2 (2003-04)
vignette
a scene in a film that can stand on its own; also refers to a masking device, often with soft edges.
Example: the "Tara" scene from Gone With the Wind (1939) in which Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) declares: "I'll never be hungry again...", or Sally's 'orgasm' scene in a deli in When Harry Met Sally...(1989)
visual effects
considered a sub-category of special effects; refers to anything added to the final picture that was not in the original shot; visual effects can be accomplished in-camera (like stop motion, double exposures and rear/front projection) or via a number of different optical or digital post-production processes (CGI, for example), usually with a computer   
voice-over
(or v.o.)
refers to recorded dialogue, usually narration, that comes from an unseen, off-screen voice, character or narrator (abbreviated as o.s. meaning beyond camera range), that can be heard by the audience but not by the film characters themselves; narration is a type of voice-over; v.o. often conveys the character's thoughts, either as a 'voice' heard within one's head, or as other narrative information and commentary to explain the action or plot; often a technique in film noirs; the abbreviation is used as an annotation in a script Examples: Capt. Willard's voice-overs in Apocalypse Now (1979), Deckard's v.o. in Hollywood's version of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), the mortally wounded hero's flashback narration in Double Indemnity (1944), or the voice-over narrated by the dead man floating in a pool in the opening of Sunset Boulevard (1950) (pictured here)
vorkapich
this film term was named after Serbian-American film director/editor Slavko Vorkapich; the term 'vorkapich' was popularized in screenplays of the 1930s and 1940s - it meant a montage sequence, that Vorkapich himself called "symphonies of visual movement" Examples: Vorkapich's own montage sequences were seen in the Mexican Revolution outbreak in Viva Villa! (1934), the earthquake montage in San Francisco (1936), the famine disaster in The Good Earth (1937), and in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in the ultra-patriotic montage of the whirlwind sightseeing bus tour of Washington DC including the Lincoln Memorial, and Meet John Doe (1941)
walk-on
a minor role consisting of a single, brief appearance on the screen, usually not appearing in the credits and without dialogue; contrast with extras, bit parts, and non-speaking roles.   
walk-through
the first rehearsal on the set, to figure out lighting, sound, camera positioning, etc.  
walla walla
refers to the atmospheric, background sound effect for the indistinct murmurings and buzz of voices in a crowd; extras in crowd scenes, in older films (or in radio), would be asked to murmur a phrase ('walla walla,' 'rhubarb,' 'peas and carrots,' or 'watermelon,' etc.) to create the sound of the crowd and to pretend that they were talking; see also foley artist, dubbing, and non-synchronized sound   
wardrobe
the general name for the costume department, or the costumes (and their accessories) themselves; see also costume  
weenie
refers to the object that motivates the main action in a serial (e.g., a lost city, buried treasure, or missing plans, etc)   
white (or color) balance
refers to electronically setting or 'color-correcting' a camera's white balance - or the true color of white, since white doesn't appear 'white' with all lighting conditions   
whodunit
refers to a mystery/detective film Example: The major or lead character in a whodunit is a crime-solving detective, such as in the Sherlock Holmes series of films
whoop-whoops
in sound effects, this refers to the extra noises added to a sound, e.g., bells, horns, or whistles to an explosion, to make it more interesting or exciting   
wide-angle shot
a shot (often abbreviated WS) taken with a lens that is able to take in a wider field or range of view (to capture more of the scene's elements or objects) than a regular or normal lens; a wide-angle shot exaggerates the distance, depth or disparity between foreground and background planes, thereby creating greater depth-of-field and keeping all objects in focus and in perspective; an extreme or ultra-wide-angle lens giving a 180 degree view is called a 'fish-eye' lens Example: In Citizen Kane (1941), the famous wide-angle scene in Mrs. Kane's boardinghouse that kept all objects in the shot in sharp focus
widescreen
refers to projection systems in which the aspect ratio is wider than the 1.33:1 ratio that dominated sound film before the 1950s; in the 1950s, many widescreen processes were introduced (to combat the growing popularity of television), such as CinemaScope (an anamorphic system), VistaVision (a non-anamorphic production technique in which the film is run horizontally through the camera instead of vertically), and Todd-AO and Super Panavision (that both used wider-gauge film); also known as letterboxing Examples: Oklahoma! (1955), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
wipe
a transitional technique or optical effect/device in which one shot appears to be "pushed off" or "wiped off" the screen by another shot replacing it and moving across the existing image; also called a push-over; a flip-over (or flip) wipe is when one scene rotates or flips-over to the new scene; wipes were very commonly used in the 30s

Example of a wipe right, often used in various Star Wars films.
word of mouth
a term referring to the public discussion or buzz that a film can acquire, fueled by sneak previews and advance advertising; word of mouth is an important marketing element in a film's success or failure - positive word of mouth gives a film legs, while negative word of mouth may prematurely close it down Examples: The Hulk (2003) opened with $62 million but fell 69.7% by its second weekend, due in part, to negative word of mouth, whereas Disney's Finding Nemo (2003) had incredible word-of-mouth and staying power over many weeks; A Fish Called Wanda (1988) also had a prolonged period of positive word-of-mouth during its initial opening
wrap
refers to the completion of film shooting (either for the day or for the entire production or project); in the early days of cinema, the cameraman would say after filming: "Wind, Reel, And Print' - abbreviated as WRAP; a entirely completed film is termed in the can   
writer
refers to the individual who authors the content of the piece from pre-existing material or uses an entirely new idea; usually there are many writers involved with re-writes, adaptations, character development, etc.; aka screenwriter   
yawner
a slang term, meaning a boring film  
Z-film or
Z-movie
refers to a very low-budgeted, independently-made, non-union, less than B-film grade movie, usually with first-time director and actors; often quickly-made for the teenaged youth market and amateurish-looking, but with campy appeal; with exploitational subject matter that includes surfing films, motorcycle flicks, cheap horror films, etc.; Z-films become prime candidates for cult film status

Examples: American International Pictures specialized in Z-films, such as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Roger Corman's Gas-S-S-S! (1971) (aka (Gas! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It), and The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971); also Octaman (1971), Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), and The Curse of the Screaming Dead (1982). The best known Z-film, Manos, The Hands of Fate (1966) (pictured), was an extreme low-budget film made by fertilizer salesman Hal P. Warren, a film that became famous by the satirical TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000; also, director Ed Wood's films were Z-pictures, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), as was Vic Savage's The Creeping Terror (1964) and Fred Olen Ray's Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold (1995) and Bikini Cavegirl (2004) (aka Teenage Cavegirl)

zoom shot
a single shot taken with a lens that has a variable focal length, thereby permitting the cinematographer to change the distance between the camera and the object being filmed, and rapidly move from a wide-angle shot to a telephoto shot in one continuous movement; this camera technique makes an object in the frame appear larger; movement towards a subject to magnify it is known as zoom in or forward zoom, or reversed to reduce its size is known as zoom out/back or backward zoom
Example: Hitchcock's much-imitated, dizzying, and unsettling Hitchcock-zoom (or contra-zoom, or zolly) in Vertigo (1958) using a combination zoom in and dolly back or dolly-out, resulting in a dramatic change in perspective; the camera tracked in one direction while zooming in the opposite direction, causing an apparent "lengthening" of distance down the stairway
zoptic special effects
a revolutionary special effects, 3-D process invented by cameraman Zorian Perisic, incorporating a camera system and a projector with synchronized zoom lenses, to create the illusion of movement in depth Example: the unique flying sequences of the Man of Steel in the first two Superman movies and in Disney's Return to Oz (1985), in which a projected background scene remains constant while the camera zooms in on the foreground subject


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