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 editing technique of alternating, interweaving, or interspersing one narrative action (scene, sequence, or event) with another - usually in different locations or places, thus combining the two; this editing method suggests parallel action (that takes place simultaneously); often used to dramatically build tension and suspense in chase scenes, or to compare two different scenes; also known as inter-cutting or parallel editing. Examples: Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the finale of Griffith's Intolerance (1916), where the chase to save the pardoned hero from execution in the modern story is cross cut with Christ's procession to Calgary; also the scene in The Godfather (1972), where the baptism of Michael Corleone's godson is cross cut with the violent elimination of Corleone's multiple underworld rivals.
cross-over appeal
a film or production that is made for one audience, but may easily 'cross-over' to another unexpected audience; also refers to a film, actor, or production that appeals to different demographic groups or age groups and can move between two or more distinct franchises; see also hybrid Examples: Cross-over films include Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001) - basically a film with Indian-oriented content that had wide international appeal and crossed multi-cultural barriers, and the same was true for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Y Tu Mamá También (2001, Mex.) and Barbershop (2002). Similarly, the animated smash Finding Nemo (2003) appealed to both children and adult audiences, for different reasons. Cross-over stars include Humphrey Bogart as a romantic lead and as a hard-boiled detective, or James Cagney as a song-and-dance man and as a tough guy.
crowd shot
a shot or image of a large group of people (often extras) in a film; CGI is now often used to film large crowd shots, to avoid huge costs associated with hiring extras Example: A crowd shot on the streets of NY from King Vidor's silent classic The Crowd (1928)
a signal or sign for an actor to begin performing, from either another performer, from the director, or from within the script; a cue is often the last word of one character's line(s) of dialogue, when another performer is expected to 'pick up their cue' to speak.  
cue cards
a device (cards, scrolling screen, teleprompter, or other mechanism) printed with dialogue provided to help an actor recite his/her lines; an electronic cue card is called a (tele)-prompter; derogatively called idiot cards or idiot sheets.  
cult film(s)
usually a non-mainstream film that attracts a small, but loyally-obsessed group of fans, and remains popular and worshipped over many years; cult films have limited but special appeal, and often have unusual or subversive elements or subject matter; they are often replayed for repeat viewings and audience participation (and group identification) as midnight movies; not to be confused with B-films (not all cult films are B-films) Examples: most cult films are from the horror and sci-fi genres, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978), Repo Man (1984); also Harold and Maude (1971), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), the films of Roger Corman or David Lynch, etc.
(or cutting)
an abrupt or sudden change or jump in camera angle, location, placement, or time, from one shot to another; consists of a transition from one scene to another (a visual cut) or from one soundtrack to another (a sound cut); cutting refers to the selection, splicing and assembly by the film editor of the various shots or sequences for a reel of film, and the process of shortening a scene; also refers to the instructional word 'cut' said at the end of a take by the director to stop the action in front of the camera; cut to refers to the point at which one shot or scene is changed immediately to another; also refers to a complete edited version of a film (e.g., rough cut); also see director's cut; various types of cuts include invisible cut, smooth cut, jump cut (an abrupt cut from one scene or shot to the next), shock cut (the abrupt replacement of one image by another), etc.

Director yelling cut!
cutaway shot
a brief shot that momentarily interrupts a continuously-filmed action, by briefly inserting another related action, object, or person (sometimes not part of the principal scene or main action), followed by a cutback to the original shot; often filmed from the POV of the character and used to break up a sequence and provide some visual relief, or to ease the transition from one shot to the next, or to provide additional information, or to hint at an impending change; reaction shots are usually cutaways; cross-cutting is a series of cutaways and cutbacks indicating concurrent action; a cutaway is different from an insert shot.

Examples: a quick cutaway shot of a newspaper headline in North by Northwest (1959) - after the famous crop-dusting scene

or the view of the roulette number being bet upon in Casablanca (1942)
a sub-genre of science fiction, derived from combining the terms cybernetics and punk, and related to the digital or information technology society (referring to the proliferation of computers, the online world, cyberspace, and 'hacking'); this sub-genre also incorporates classic film-noirish characteristics into its style - traits include alienation, dehumanization, the presence of counter-cultural anti-heroes, darkness, dystopia, and corruption; heavily influenced by the novels of Raymond Chandler; also associated with the work of writer William Gibson and his 1984 novel Neuromancer Examples: TRON (1982), Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999).
the curved backdrop used to represent the sky when outdoor scenes are shot in the studio  
the immediately processed, rough cuts, exposed film, or first prints of a film (w/o special effects or edits) for the director (producer, cinematographer, or editor) to review, to see how the film came out after the day's (or previous day's) shooting; more commonly in the form of videotape or digital dailies nowadays; aka rushes (referring to the haste taken to make them available); used to determine if continuity is correct, if props are missing or out of place, or if sound is poor, etc., to help decide whether to re-shoot  
dark horse
in film terms, a little-known, unlikely movie (often a sleeper, a low-budget film, indie, or a foreign film) that is, surprisingly, nominated for a major award (i.e., Academy Award or Golden Globe) Examples: Marty (1955), The Accidental Tourist (1988), The Full Monty (1997), and The Pianist (2002)
day-for-night shot
a cinematographic technique for using shots filmed during the day to appear as moonlit night shots on the screen, by using different lenses, filters, special lighting and underexposure; very common during the 50s and in the 60s, but rarely used in present-day films.

Example: Alluded to in Francois Truffaut's film about film-making, La Nuit Americaine - Day for Night (1973),

or frequently used in the classic noir film Out of the Past (1947) (pictured above)

a specific type of comedic device in which the performer assumes an expressionless (deadpan) quality to her/his face demonstrating absolutely no emotion or feeling.

Example: a trademark of Buster Keaton's comedic form, seen here in The Navigator (1924).
a French term referring to the design of a film - the arrangement of its shots  
a style or technique of cinematography and staging with great depth of field, preferred by realists, that uses lighting, relatively wide angle lenses and small lens apertures to simultaneously render in sharp focus both close and distant planes (including the three levels of foreground, middle-ground, and extreme background objects) in the same shot; contrast to shallow focus (in which only one plane is in sharp focus)

Examples: Gregg Toland's pioneering cinematography in many deep-focus images in Citizen Kane (1941) such as in this image of young Kane in the far distance and other foreground action - all in focus; also in other 1940s films of Welles and Wyler (such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)), including this famous deep focus scene from The Little Foxes (1941)

deleted scene
refers to a scene that was edited out of a film's final cut, for several possible reasons: the scene was poorly done, the scene was unnecessary, the film's running time needed truncation, the film was avoiding an R or NC-17 rating, the film's studio disapproved of it, etc. Deleted scenes are now commonly included on DVDs, either re-edited into a director's cut or as a separate feature Example: In Alien (1979), its most famous deleted scene was the one of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovering the alien's nest and the bodies of Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), restored in the Director's Cut release of the film in 2003
the point immediately following the climax when everything comes into place or is resolved; often the final scene in a motion picture; aka tag; see resolution  
depth of field
the depth of composition of a shot, i.e., where there are several planes (vertical spaces in a frame): (1) a foreground, (2) a middle-ground, and (3) a background; depth of field specifically refers to the area, range of distance, or field (between the closest and farthest planes) in which the elements captured in a camera image appear in sharp or acceptable focus; as a rule of thumb, the area 1/3 in front of and 2/3 behind the subject is the actual distance in focus; depth of field is directly connected, but not to be confused with focus Example: Extreme depth-of-field in many shots in Citizen Kane (1941) to heighten dramatic value, achieved by using very bright lighting and a slightly wide-angled lens by cinematographer Gregg Toland, causing objects or characters close in the frame's foreground to appear massive, while other objects appear smaller in the background; other scenes with extreme depth-of-field include the early snowball scene, the 'Crash of '29' scene, and Susan's overdose scene
depth of focus
related to depth of field - refers to an adjustment made technically to insure that a camera shot retains its deep focus throughout all the various planes (fore, middle, and back) Example: Citizen Kane (1941) has many examples of deep-focus shots in which the foreground and background are in focus
deus ex machina
literally, the resolution of the plot by the device of a god ("deus") arriving onstage by means of a piece of equipment ("machina") and solving all the characters' problems; usually refers to an unlikely, improbable, contrived, illogical, or clumsy ending or suddenly-appearing plot device that alleviates a difficult situation or brings about a denouement - just in the nick of time; can sometimes refer to an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character Examples: when a poor protagonist unexpectedly receives an inheritance, or when the cavalry arrives at just the right time to save a beleaguered wagon train; the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) in which Moses - a black custodian, fixes the Hollywood firm's clock and predicts the outcome of events, and the narrator stops the film midstream - during a suicidal leap - (pictured) and directly addresses the audience; or the ending of Demons (1985); or the resolution of the plot by Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998)
any spoken lines in a film by an actor/actress; may be considered overlapping if two or more characters speak simultaneously; in film-making, recording dialogue to match lip movements on previously-recorded film is called dubbing or looping See this site's "Greatest Film Quotes, One-Liners, Movie Speeches or Dialogues" of all time
simply means realistic or logically existing, such as the music that plays on a character's radio in a scene; more generally, it refers to the narrative elements of a film (such as spoken dialogue, other sounds, action) that appear in, are shown, or naturally originate within the content of the film frame; the opposite is non-diegetic elements, such as sounds (e.g., background music, the musical score, a voice-over, or other sounds) w/o an origin within the film frame itself; in an objective shot, the most common camera shot, it simply presents what is before the camera in the diegesis of the narrative
Example: in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), diegetic sounds are heard of the 'keys' men (who drive trucks with glaring headlights) as they approach E.T.'s spaceship, to suggest danger
the reduction or softening of the harshness or intensity of light achieved by using a diffuser or translucent sheet (lace or silk) in front of the light to cut down shadows; materials include screen, glass, filters, gauze, wire mesh, or smoke; also see soft-focus.  
digital production
refers to filming on digital video using digital high-resolution cameras, rather than on traditional 35mm film Example: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first major live-action feature film ever to be shot using digital cinematography - it was a complete digital production from start to finish
directing the eye
in cinematographic terms, using light and dark lighting and frame composition to emphasize what is important  
direct sound
the technique of recording sound simultaneously with the image  
(and directing)
the creative artist responsible for complete artistic control of all phases of a film's production (such as making day-to-day determinations about sound, lighting, action, casting, even editing), for translating/interpreting a script into a film, for guiding the performances of the actors in a particular role and/or scene, and for supervising the cinematography and film crew. The director is usually the single person most responsible for the finished product, although he/she couldn't make a film without support from many other artists and technicians; often the director is called a helmer (at-the-helm); the assistant director is known as the a.d. ; the director of photography (or cinematographer), responsible for the mechanics of camera placement, movements, and lighting, is known as the d.p.
Example: director Ernst Lubitsch on the set - see this site's write-up on the "Greatest Directors"
director's cut
a rough cut (the first completely-edited version) of a film without studio interference as the director would like it to be viewed, before the final cut (the last version of the film that is released) is made by the studio.
Example: the director's cut version of Ridley Scott's futuristic adventure, Blade Runner (1982).
discovery shot
in a film scene, when the moving or panning camera unexpectedly comes upon or 'discovers' an object or person previously undisclosed to the viewer Example: the revelation of cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter in his prison cell in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
refers to the making of an adapted, sanitized, 'family-friendly' version of a book or play, by removing objectionable elements (such as crude language, sexuality, or violence) and modifying plot elements to make the tale more acceptable, entertaining, predictable and popular for mass consumption by audiences, as first exercised by the Disney studios in the 50s; now used as a derogatory term for how popular culture has been homogenized and cultural diversity has been minimized; see also bowdlerize(d) Examples: Disney's Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), and recently Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996); the dark Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade as a light musical Oliver! (1968)
(or lap dissolve)
a transitional editing technique between two sequences, shots or scenes, in which the visible image of one shot or scene is gradually replaced, superimposed or blended (by an overlapping fade out or fade in and dissolve) with the image from another shot or scene; often used to suggest the passage of time and to transform one scene to the next; lap dissolve is shorthand for 'over'lap dissolve; also known as a soft transition or dissolve to
Example: the many dissolves in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane (1941) as the camera approaches Kane's Xanadu estate; also in Metropolis (1927) the dissolves that transform the face of the heroine Maria into the face of an evil robot; and the transformational dissolves in The Wolf Man (1941) and The Invisible Man (1933) (pictured);
a non-fiction (factual), narrative film with real people (not performers or actors); typically, a documentary is a low-budget, journalistic record of an event, person, or place; a documentary film-maker should be an unobtrusive observer - like a fly-on-the-wall, capturing reality as it happens; aka doc or docu; also called direct cinema; one type is termed docudrama; contrast with cinema verite and mockumentary Examples: a term first coined by John Grierson when describing Robert Flaherty's (the 'father of the documentary') 'objective' film about the daily life of a Polynesian youth, Moana (1926); Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1989) and Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me (2004): examples of independent documentaries; 'subjective', propagandistic documentaries also exist, such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935)

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