Eiland's Online English Materials

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Janet Parke, FrActivity

Film as Literature ... Cinematic Terms

  • 3-D or three dimensional: a type of filming using two cameras offset from one another and using different color values to create a single image that, when viewed through special glasses or a specialized film projector arrangement, adds depth as if the two dimensional screen image had a third, depth-based dimension. Can cause nausea and dizziness in some viewers with balance sensitivity.
  • A-film: in American cinema, a major production with well-known stars and a big-budget.
  • aesthetic distance: the audience is understanding that fiction and fictionalized material such as cinema is not real.
  • aleatory techniques: used often in documentary filmmaking, it is the use of chance rather than planned out elements in order to create cinema.
  • angle: in filmmaking, it is the camera's position relative to the subject in terms of placement... a high angle shot is taken from above and a low angle shot is taken from below the subject.
  • animation: filming still objects or images in individual cells with minute changes in each cell which when replayed in rapid succession create movement.
  • archetype: the ideal or original occurrence or example from which other copies are drawn. Many genres of cinema are archetypal, including Westerns and horror films, as are the characters in them, including heroes and villains and damsels in distress for example.
  • auteur theory: the belief that a work is essentially the product of the director and his or her themes and perspectives.
  • avant-garde: in the front ranks, it is a description of breakthrough and unconventional cinema.
  • B-film: in American cinema, a low-budget film that is often genre based, such as the Western, the horror film or the surf/beach film.
  • blocking: the placement and movements of characters within the set.
  • blue screen: see green screen.
  • buddy film: a popular genre, usually geared toward men, which teams two protagonists (usually men) together at odds against all other antagonists.
  • camp/campy: a cinematic style overreaching in its scope that usually comically mocks the straight world and uses God he and theatrical devices, commonly seen in the works of John Waters.
  • cel/cell: transparent plastic sheets used by animators create layers of images in order to produce action. Commonly, background layers maintain position while characters upfront move or the characters are shown with various backgrounds indicate movement.
  • chrominance or chroma key: see green screen.
  • cinema verite: direct cinema is a stripped down documentary style filmmaking that often uses hand-held camera and little or no formal scripting and no manipulation of the environment... see Aleatory.
  • classical cinema: the classical movie has a strong plot, unidentifiable star and strong production values and uses conventional classical cutting. Visual style is functional and rarely distraction the characters in action. The plot includes a clearly defined conflict rising to a protectable climax and some kind of formal resolution.
  • closed form: within the shot of a movie, a closed form will include all of the information necessary and will look staged and often harmonious and appealing.
  • close-up: a detailed view at a person or object. A close-up of an actor usually includes only his or her head.
  • computer generated imagery (CGI): graphics and images created by computer to be projected onto, behind or around actors and props, through the use of blue screeen technology. Has replaced green screen to a large extent to create complex environmenst and fantastical characters using live actors, such as Avatar.
  • deep focus shot: a shot in which all depths of field are in focus, from close-up to infinity.
  • dominant contrast/dominant: in a film image, the most important and intrinsically interesting portion of that shot, it usually achieved through visual contrast.
  • editing: the process by which individual filmed segments are connected to one another in a film.
  • epic: a genre of movie that is often grand in sweeping in its intention... is designed to embody the life experience and often uses very specific characteristics of a culture or nation or religion with traditional heroic protagonists and other commercial elements.
  • expressionism: a cinematic style which sacrifices realism for artistic expression, incorporating elements designed to create extreme emotion, reflect artistic ideals and distort reality.
  • faithful adaptation: a film based on a literary work that follows the plot and other elements of the original work.
  • film noir: black cinema, a dark, brooding style of American cinema that emphasizes a fatalistic and depressing perspective on life, usually set in a dark inner city. Stylistically, this type of filmmaking uses extreme contrast, little color and heavy use of shadow.
  • focus: the relative sharpness or blurriness of a film image... focus is often used to create a fact and can also specifically create a sharp image in an otherwise blurry frame in order to create interest or draw the observer's eye.
  • formalism/formalist: a style of filmmaking in which the artistic forms are more important than the subject matter as content. Symbolic characteristics of objects and people, not necessarily their literal meanings, are often obvious, self-consciously heightening the director's style style to call attention to it as a value for its own sake.
  • green screen: also now called blue screen and chroma keying, a technique of filming in which actors and props are placed in front of a green screen, upon which an image, often moving, is projected later in editing to give the impression of movement or a location, such as driving in a vehicle or flying through clouds. A color (such as green) is chosen to remove from the film's color spectrum, and as a result another image can replace it by being projected onto the main image, with the projected image only showing through where the green areas are. If any character is wearing the background color, that portion of themselves will be invisible, a technique used in films to remove limbs (Sgt. Dan's legs in Forrest Gump) or even hide prop actors holding object that seem to float. Your local weather forecaster is standing in front of a green screen. She cannot see anything on the screen. She is looking at herself and the projected image on an off stage monitor.
  • genre: a type of movie that is easily recognized by its thematic elements. Common genres include horror movies, science-fiction movies, musicals and 1950's car culture movies.
  • hand-held shot: moving camera work that is held by hand, often used by documentarians or to create a documentary-type feel.
  • homage: a reference, direct or indirect, to another movie, filmmaker or genre, often respectful.
  • iconography: in a similar manner to genre, iconography relies on the audience's understanding of established and common imagery to create a theme through symbolic representation. Iconography can be based on an established star's persona (John Wayne), a film genre (slasher flick), or the use of stereotypical/archetypal characters (hero on a quest for the damsel in distress).
  • intrinsic interest: an otherwise insignificant area of the frame that draws the audience's attention because of its dramatic or contextual importance.
  • linear plot: a plot within a book or movie that follows sequentually with no jumping forward or back. Most movies and books have some minor aspects of nonlinear plot elements (flashbacks etc.), but some movies especially use the nonlinear plot to effectively create tension and mystery in an otherwise simplistic plot.
  • literal adaptation: essentially, a movie based on a play in which the play is reenacted on cinema rather than rewritten as a film.
  • loose adaptation: a movie based on a book or play in which a few of the themes may be preserved but many aspects are altered.
  • loose framing: in longshots, the mise an scene is uncluttered, giving the observer the impression that the characters have freedom of movement.
  • luminance keying: using light intensity differences to project an image onto a white or black screen behind an actor and props in the foreground, usually a still shot such as a matte painting.
  • lyrical/lyricism: a cinematic style that exploits the artistic abilities of the medium rather than focusing on realism. This type of cinema is designed to reflect an illicit emotion rather than present a dry analytical observation of the characters.
  • Marxist: in cinema, refers to left-wing politics, usually against big business, the wealthy and capitalism, and usually in favor of the working class, shared work and loyalty to the group.
  • matte: in cinema, refers to filming a scene with a realistically painted scene projected onto a white or black backdrop (usually achieved through luminance keying or green screen) that looks like a setting that is otherwise expensive or unattainable, such as a national monument or even an alien planet. The UN interior scenes and the chase on the face of Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest are matte shots.
  • McGuffin: the overall controlling factor in a movie that drives the film, usually as an object or person of central focus, such as the statue in The Maltese Falcon, memory in Memento, or mistaken identity in North by Northwest.
  • metaphor: a figurative comparison between the two otherwise unlike elements.
  • minimalism: a cinematic style that is austere and restrained, using stripped-down sets adn unaffected portrayals, very much like the writing of Hemingway.
  • mise en scene: the director's choices of what appears within the frame of the film, including objects and movement and how it is photographed.
  • montage: a series of rapidly presented images to show passage of time or to give an overview of a developed theme, such as the burgeoning relationship, the passing of seasons, or the progress of some project.
  • negative space: the empty areas in mise en scene, designed to enhance or accentuate the busier elements in the shot.
  • neorealism: Italian movement (ca 1945-55) emphasising realistic portrayals of working class and its values, including non-professional actors, documentary style and mundane events.
  • nonsynchronous sound: sound that is not recorded with image, like voice-over or incedental music.
  • oeuvre: work, the complete works of an artist
  • omniscient point of view: a narrative style revealing thoughts and impressions of many characters through an all-knowing narrator, such as that in A Christmas Story or Princess Bride.
  • open form: within the shot of a movie, an open form will not include all the information necessary, will often imply elements offscreen as important to the shot, and will look random and even documentary.
  • pan: the movement of the camera horizontally across a scene, either to create movement or to encompass a very wide shot, such as a pan shot showing the vast expanse of the desert.
  • proscenium arch: the top structure above a stage that creates the top of the frame of what is viewed in a play.
  • realism/realistic: filmmaking that is designed to look documentary in style, and therefore unaffected by artistry or artifice. Realistic films tend to use authentic locations, long shots and few special effects for artistic purposes.
  • rear projection (process shot): moving image projected onto a screen behind actors to show, for example, the moving scenery for automobile scenes shot in a studio, to give the impression the actors are actually in a moving car. This technique in early films is quite obvious and clunky, replaced by green screen in later films for a more relaistic effect.
  • rite of passage: a film in which the protagonist moves from one life stage to the next, like adolescence to adulthood, as in Stand By Me.
  • set shot: in cinema, refers to a scene filmed on a movie set rather than out on location, with all of the elements, such as furniture and actors, all actually in the scene, rather than projected.
  • storyboarding: the mapping out of a movie by setting a series of drawings on the wall to show how the scenes will evolve.
  • surrealism: (ca. 1924-31) an avant garde film movement emphasizing unconscious thoughts and feelings, irrationalism and symbolic association of ideas. Dali's work on the dream sequences in Hitchcock's Spellbound and Disney's Destino (as well as Disney's Fantasia) are good examples.
  • symbolism: an object, person or action that has both literal and figurative meaning in a work (the journey as a symbol for a life experience). Symbols can have different translation depending on context and even audience.
  • theme: the overriding idea or concept in a work. There may be several themes in a work, and many times they are linked to a greater theme.
  • thematic montage: a series of shots that are linked symbolically, such as showing one character winning auto races while another develops a love relationship, the common theme being success, but success is clearly different for each character.
  • women's pictures: an archaic term that refers to a film focused on problems of women, such as child-bearing or women in the work place.

Works Cited

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 11th ed. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.
Lehman, Ernest. "Commentary on North by Northwest." Turner Entertainment. 2004.

© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: August 19, 2016