Film Studies Terms
Content by Carter Staub and Savannah Gillespie, Site by Megan Venable. Some terms have been defined by Dr. Joe Essid for use in his courses.
(printable version here)
When writing for film you must be able to differentiate between types of film writing assignments, and it is helpful to know film-specific vocabulary.
Various Types of Film Writing:
When writing for film, there are several different formats through which you can convey your ideas. Below are the basic definitions for three of the most common assignments you may encounter.
- Analytical Paper: In an analytical paper, you want to make sure to not just summarize the film, but to make an argument about what the author of the film was trying to communicate. A strong analytical paper focuses on both the visual and narrative components of a film. Some things to focus on within this style of paper are: what is the overall message of the film, what choices did the director make, the script, mis en scene, lighting, sound, color, point of view, editing and cinematography.
- Critique: In a critique, you will not only be discussing the choices a particular actor, director, or cinematographer may have made in a film, but you will also be contributing your opinion to the piece. A critique often is less technical than some of the other writing assignments.
- Screening Report: In a screening report, you are often demonstrating your understanding of a particular film or a director's technique. In a screening report, it helps to focus in on one scene or a few very related scenes that speak for the film overall. This style of writing is usually more successful when technically specific.
Mis en Scene: unlike montage, this is physically what is in a shot or scene and does not involve editing. It can involve camera movement and focus, lighting, scenery, placement of people or objects, and other elements a director can make happen on the set rather than later on in the editing process. (examples)
Montage: how directors connect ideas in a film. The shots are put together deliberately with transitions and by theme so that "elements should follow a particular system, and these juxtapositions should play a key role in how the work establishes its meaning, and its emotional and aesthetic effects" (Manovich 158). Montage certainly includes editing, the process that begins when the film has been shot and work on the project moves from set and actors to computers and post-production.
Shot vs. Scene: a shot is part of a film presented without any editing, as seen from a single camera's perspective. A shot can include close-ups, panoramic shots, camera movement and other techniques. Put shots together and one has a scene, a series of connected shots that establish location and continuity. The scene ends by cutting (often using a visible transition) to another location, time, or person. A "car-chase scene" is a rather common example where several cameras follow the action from different perspectives. The footage later gets edited to make one long scene.
Transition: the type of editing technique used to connect shots. Sometimes there is no transition, and others can be quick complicated. Fading to black is a popular transition, as are wipes and dissolves.
Types of Shots: The entire camera can move or the focus of the lens can change.
Camera Movement: cameras can remain stationary and move side to side (a pan), up and down (a tilt). They can move along on a vehicle or set of tracks straight backward or forward (a track or tracking shot). The camera can be carried for a wobbly (but often powerful) handheld shot. Other shots (some with the camera remaining stationary) include:
- Bird's-eye View: Most disorienting because it shows something from being filmed directly overhead. The subject matter becomes unrecognizable and abstract. The viewer becomes like an all-powerful god.
- Deep-focus Shot: Is usually a long shot consisting of a number of focal distances and photographed in depth.
- Extreme Long Shot/ Establishing Shot: Is a shot taken from a great distance, serves as reference for the location and is often shown at the beginning of a sequence.
- Eye-level Shots: The normal angle in which camera shots are filmed.
- High-angle Shots: Less dramatic, reduces the height of the objects and the importance of the setting or environment is increased. A person seems harmless and insignificant when photographed from above; useful in conveying a character’s self-contempt. (example)
- Low-angle Shots: Have the opposite effect as they increase height and thus suggest verticality. They also heighten the importance of a subject. The figure looms threateningly over the spectator who is made to feel insecure and dominated. A person photographed from below inspires fear and awe. (example)
- Matte Shot: The end shot of the 1968 Planet of the Apes provides a perfect example. When Taylor falls to his knees in front of the Statue of Liberty, our actors were (I'm fairly certain) facing a blank background. A painted background was added--a matte painting--of the ruined statue.
- Medium Shot: Contains a figure from the knees or waist up.
- Oblique Angle: Lateral tilt of the camera, the horizon is skewed.
- Backlighting: When it is as if an aura is around the characters, often done in romantic scenes.
- High Contrast Light: Often done for tragedies and melodramas with the harsh shafts of light and dramatic steaks of blackness.
- Low Key: Mysteries and thrillers use shadows and pools of light.
Elements of Framing a Shot:
- Bottom of the Frame: Vulnerability and powerlessness, objects placed in this area are in danger of slipping out of the frame completely. (example)
- Character with His or Her Back to the Camera: Suggests a character’s alienation from the world, it is useful in conveying a sense of concealment.
- Full-Front Position: The most intimate, the character is looking in our direction, inviting out complicity. This allows the audience to be privileged and observe them with their defenses down, vulnerability exposed.
- Left and Right Edges of the Frame: Suggests insignificance because the characters are the farthest away from the center. Often are shot with darker light, suggesting the unknown.
- Three-Quarter Turn: Character seems unfriendly or anti-social, rejecting out interest.
- Top of the Frame: Sometimes suggests ideas dealing with power, dominance, authority and aspiration.
- Quarter Turn: Most commonly occurs when characters are lost in their own thoughts.
- Upper Part of the Composition: It is heavier than the lower, therefore objects likes sky scrapers seem more top heavy, so if the sky dominates and looks more heavy, it can make the inhabitants seem overwhelmed from above.
Thematic Elements in Film:
Anti-hero: A central figure in a work that repels us by his or her actions or morality, yet who is not a villain. The Anti-hero accomplishes a useful purpose or even does heroic deeds. Max of The Road Warrior and many Clint Eastwood characters epitomize the 1970-80s anit-hero. (example)
- Black Comedy: a subgenre of humor that uses cruelty or terrible situations to make the reader or viewer laugh, sometimes uncomfortably. Horror comedies such as Zombieland exemplify black comedy in film.
- Hard-boiled: a tone of writing for fiction and film often associated with American detective fiction by Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Dashiell Hammett. Often film noir (example) (which has several specific themes and even recurring images, such as spiral staircases and femmes fatales) adopts a hard-boiled tone. Hard-boiled narrators are usually men, world-weary "tough guys" who speak like this "it was always dark on Skid Row, but it got darker the night that Joe Palooka took his final dive. He was a down-on-his-heels prize fighter with nothing left to lose but twenty-five bucks and his life. Some Fresno punk took both, when Joe went down with four .38 slugs in his back."
- Homage: a French term pronounced that way, this is "a nod of the head" in a film to a past director or actor. Directors watch lots of good and bad films, so many engage in this practice. Directors of mysteries or suspense films often include an homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Look for one of these moments in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, when Bruce Willis' character Butch sees Ving Rhames' character Marsellus crossing the street in front of Butch's car. This shot honors a famous shot from Hitchcock's Psycho.
- MacGuffin: Alfred Hitchcock coined this term; he meant plot device that makes the action happen without being important in and of itself. For instance, the act of two strangers sitting next to each other, and one finding and returning the other's car keys might lead to a murder or a love affair. The keys are the MacGuffin. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction are famous MacGuffins.
- Protagonist: Central figure(s) in a text or film.
- Tension: often called "dramatic tension." In most texts and films we study, several tensions may exist. These are dramatic or even melodramatic elements of plot, setting, or character that serve to "move things along" well. Unlike a MacGuffin, however, the tension is significant. A love triangle might not be the subject of a film, for instance, but it would certainly be one of the tensions.
Manovich, L. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
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