Basic Film Terminology From John Stuart Katz, A Curriculum in Film (Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1972), pp. 107-13 comes this glossary of basic terms:


Animation. In its most common form animation consists of photographing a sequence of still drawings, each slightly different from the previous one. When the entire sequence is viewed in rapid succession, an illusion of motion is produced. This is the means by which the popular animated cartoons are created. It is also possible to use puppets or other solid objects instead of drawings, in which case the object is moved or rearranged slightly between successive exposures to produce the desired movement in the film. Animated films can also be computer generated.

Camera. The camera is the basic tool of the film maker. It is, essentially, a light-tight box equipped with a shutter to admit light through the aperture of the lens for a precisely controlled length of time. A motion picture camera also houses a mechanism to move the film one [frame at a time into a position where it can be exposed.

Camera angle. The point of view from which the camera photographs its subject. A "high" angle means that the camera is looking down at the subject; a "medium" or "flat" angle means that the camera is in the same plane as the subject, i.e. looking straight on at the subject; and a "low" angle means that the camera is looking up at the subject.

Close-up. A shot taken with the camera close to the subject so that only the subject, which is often the actor's face, fills the field of vision on the screen. Abbreviated: CU, or CS (for close shot).

Continuity. The impression that the action on the screen flows smoothly without interruption requires continuity with respect to both time and space. Continuous time and space may be conveyed by continuity of action, direction, and setting. For example, if from a medium shot of an actor lighting a cigarette we cut to a close-up, his hands and facial expression must be the same in both shots or the flow of action is interrupted. If the cavalry is chasing Indians from the left to the right on the screen and suddenly we are shown a shot of the Indians going from right to left, it will seem that they have turned and are rushing to attack. If a medium shot shows a side view of a hurdler jumping with his left foot forward, the next shot from the front should show his left foot forward. In documentaries continuity of action is often sacrificed, though continuity of direction is maintained -- for the sake of clarity -- by manipulation of the original footage. Thus a BBC program on World War II showed the Allies advancing from left to right to meet the Germans, who first advanced from right to left and later retreated from left to right. This continuity, felt to be necessary to clarify the story, was achieved by printing certain pictures backwards.

Credits. The list of names and the functions of those involved in the production of a film. It usually appears at the beginning of the film.

Cut. An editing effect in which the instantaneous change from one shot to another is accomplished by joining the two shots together, so that one image replaces another instantly on the screen.

Depth of field. The extent of the scene in front of the lens that is in sharp focus is defined by two distances along the axis of the lens; the space between these two distances is the depth of field. For example, assume an object to be photographed is twenty feet from the lens when the lens is focused on it, then, other objects from fifteen to fifty feet away may also be in acceptably sharp focus; the depth of field extends from fifteen to fifty feet. Depth of field is inversely proportional to the lens opening (aperture) and the focal length. That is, the smaller the aperture and the shorter the focal length of the lens, the greater the depth of field.

Dissolve. If one image is faded out while another is faded in, this transitional device is called a dissolve. As the old image disappears, the new image appears, and for a short time, the two images are superimposed on the screen.

Documentary. Usually a documentary film depicts events that (1) actually took place; (2) would presumably have taken place had the camera not been present; (3) were not rehearsed, and involved no paid actors. It is a record of real-life events involving real people. It differs from news film in that the film maker is less concerned with a totally objective record of events than with the influence of certain events -- even the most commonplace ones -- on the behavior and emotions of people. For that reason, documentary films almost always reflect a journalistic "angle." Although there are many exceptions, documentaries are usually made by small crews numbering two or three, are frequently less than an hour in length, and are almost always shot with simple, portable 16mm equipment.

Dolly or Dolly shot. A dolly is a small, wheeled cart on which the camera is mounted for portability and for making a dolly shot. Also called a tracking shot or trucking shot, a dolly shot results when the dolly is moved while filming is taking place. The dolly may be fitted with an apparatus for raising and lowering the camera, called, suitably, a crane˙ A crane shot results from the elevation or descent of the camera while it is running˙

Double exposure. Two images occurring on the screen at the same time, one image superimposed on the other.

Editing. Film editing (or "cutting") is the process of selecting and arranging shots to form a cohesive whole˙ By assembling shots in a particular order, trimming or extending them, the film editor composes a scene, contracts or expands time, creates or interrupts motion, and establishes connections in the mind of the audience. His is a synergistic act: by his work the whole film becomes more than the sum of its component parts˙ Note that editing is not the same as censorship˙

Establishing shot. Usually a medium or long shot (see below) that sets the time and place for a film sequence, or that introduces an important element or character in the story.

Exposure. Process of subjecting a photo-sensitive surface to light. An increase in the intensity of illumination or in the length of time during which the light strikes the photo-sensitive surface yields a greater exposure. Control of exposure and of subsequent processing gives control to the cinematographer of the tonal values of the picture, and hence control of the visual texture of the film.

Extreme close-up. Abbreviated ECU or ECS, this is an extreme example of the close-up shot. Such a shot may contain only the eyes or mouth of the actor.

Fade-out/Fade-in. The gradual disappearance of an image into darkness on the screen is termed a fade-out. The converse effect of an image gradually emerging from darkness onto the screen is a fade-in. These effects may be accomplished by manipulating the exposure in the camera, or during the printing of the film in the laboratory.

Fast motion. If an event occupying, say, ten seconds is filmed at 24 frames per second (normal sound speed) and later projected at the same rate, it will appear on the screen at normal speed. If it is filmed at half the normal speed (i.e. 12 frames per second) and projected at normal speed, it will occupy only five seconds of screen time. Thus, the action filmed appears speeded up. This effect is termed fast motion.

Film. Motion picture film is a thin flexible ribbon of transparent material having perforations at regular intervals along one or both edges and bearing a sensitized coating capable of producing photographic images. International standards for motion picture film define several sets of dimensions, ranging from 8mm width to 65mm and 70mm width, with different configurations of picture area and perforations.

Filter. A transparent or translucent device placed in front of the lens to pass light having only specified characteristics. With color film, for example, a red filter passes only red light, giving the appearance in the final picture of an unnatural redness.

Frame. A single picture on a strip of film.

Grain. A photographic image does not exist as infinitely divisible shadings of dark and light; the picture, on close inspection, can be seen to consist of dots. Because there are so many of these dots -- called grain -- the picture, viewed from a normal distance, appears to be composed of continuous shadings. When the grain becomes sufficiently large to be visible under normal circumstances, the picture is said to be "grainy." This condition may be due either to excessive enlargement of a small area of picture (in which case each particle of "grain" becomes correspondingly enlarged) or to the excessively grainy characteristic of the film used.

Lens. A lens is an assembly of transparent elements, usually glass, so configured that light entering the front of the lens is focused on a plane behind the rearmost element. When mounted on a camera, the light passing through the lens records the picture, as seen on the screen, on the surface of the film. The lens may accept light that enters it from a variety of angles. The angle of acceptance can be either wide or narrow. A wide-angle lens admits light from a relatively wide angle -- 35 degrees or more. The film, then, records a broad field of view. A telephoto lens accepts light from only a narrow field of view. As recorded on the film, distant objects appear near. A "normal" lens falls somewhere between the two extremes of wide-angle and telephoto lenses˙ The focal length of the normal lens is usually chosen to provide a pictorial perspective similar to that seen with the unaided eye. It must be remembered that the focal length necessary to achieve this varies with the film size used.

Long shot. The opposite of the close-up. Here the object of main interest is, or appears to be, far removed from the camera. This shot can also be one that covers a landscape or large interior. Abbreviated: LS.

Medium shot. Between the extremes of the long shot and the close-up, the medium shot usually shows a person or persons from the knees up, or views a scene at a "normal" viewing distance. Abbreviated: MS.

Montage. The French word montage means editing. The word is sometimes used to describe a style of films made by Eisenstein and other Russians in the 1920s and '30s. Their philosophy held that editing was the essential ingredient of film, and they practiced it often very intellectually and abstractly -- cutting from a vain politician to a strutting peacock, or from troops shooting crowds to a bull being butchered. The juxtaposition or conflict of such images was intended to give rise to a new idea (however obvious) in the mind of the viewer. The practice resulted in films that are visually and emotionally stunning. Only rarely did they descend to the crude level of the examples given. Hollywood also uses montage or montage sequence to refer to a portion of a film in which the editing is rapid (though the effect may be slowed by repeated dissolves) and the action elliptical. Sometimes such sequences are used to bridge long time spans or a rapid succession of events; more recently they have been used for decorative or emotional effect.

Motion. It is useful to recognize that there are only three possible kinds of motion in a moving picture: 1. Motion of the subject. 2. Motion of the camera. 3. Motion conveyed by the cut. The cut is fundamental to motion in film. It carries with it a sensation of motion and can give a film rhythm, lyricism, suspense, or shock, solely from the editing. The same footage poorly edited could be dull, boring, or lifeless. Some of the finest editing makes use of elaborate and elegant relationships of all three kinds of motion.

Negative. For technical reasons it is common for the film used in the camera to be negative; that is, for black objects to appear white, and vice versa. Shadows become bright areas and well lit areas become shadows. If a negative is rephotographed with another negative film, the result is a positive, which restores normalcy to the picture. Some movies include sequences in negative (either black and white or color) as a special effect.

Pan. Pivoting of the camera from left to right (or vice versa) while shooting.

Scene. A term used imprecisely in film. Few shooting scripts are divided into "scenes." Scene can refer to a tableau (e.g. a sunset), a place, or an action; preferred terms are shot and sequence, though one still speaks of a "love scene."

Screenplay. The content of a film written in detail and separated into numbered sequences by the screenwriter. A screenplay may be original or adapted from a novel, play, or short story.

Sequence. In the completed film a number of shots which together present some unified action -- such as a conversation, a fight, a chase, a journey -- are usually referred to as a sequence.

Shot. The basic division of a film. Generally, composed of a single run of the camera as it appears in the finished film. A shot can vary in length anywhere from one frame upwards.

Slow motion. If an event is filmed at a rate faster than normal and later projected at normal speed, the event will take longer to occur on the screen than it did in reality. This phenomenon is slow motion.

Sound track.

Splice. The joint between two strips of film; also the act of joining two pieces of film.

Take. A single run of the camera during shooting. (Not necessarily what appears in the finished [edited] film as a shot. )

Tilt. Result of a camera pivoting vertically while shooting, causing the horizon in the picture to rise or fall.

Wipe. An editing effect between two shots. The first shot is gradually edged off the screen by the second shot along a visible line, which may run from top to bottom, from side to side, or in almost any other pattern.

Zoom lens. A zoom lens is continually adjustable between "wide-angle" and "telephoto,'' with a "normal" characteristic about midway in its adjustment. A zoom lens can replace a number of lenses of fixed characteristic, and so is more versatile, although more expensive. In addition, "zooming" the lens (that is, adjusting its focal length from telephoto to wide angle or vice versa) can provide an impression somewhat similar to that achieved by moving a camera with a fixed lens closer to and further from the subject. These operations are termed "zooming out" and "zooming in."