Technical Terminology for Film Criticism



Basic Terms



Shot                An unedited strip of film, recording continuous images from the time a camera starts until the time the camera stops.  The shot is the basic structural unit of a finished motion picture.


Take                Any variation of a specific shot made during the filming of a movie.  The final shot is usually selected from a number of takes—most of which do not appear in the finished movie.


Sequence       A number of shots put together to show a single event or to show some thematic connection.


Frame             A single photograph on a strip of film.



Shots defined by camera placement



Long or           A shot made from sufficient distance to show a landscape, a building, a

Extreme          large interior, etc.



Medium          A relatively close shot—showing, for example, most of a human figure within one of its frames.


Close-up or    A detailed view of a person or object.  In standard narrative film, the close-

Extreme          up of a person consists of a view of the actor’s head.



Low-angle      A shot in which the subject is photographed from below.


High-angle    A shot in which the subject is photographed from above.


Bird’s eye      A shot photographed from directly overhead


Eye-level        a relatively neutral shot


Oblique-angle involving a lateral tilt, implies a point of view or disorientation



Shots defined by camera movement or lens operation



Pan                 The camera moves from side to side on a fixed horizontal axis.


Swish (or        A rapid pan that sometimes even blurs images

Flash) Pan     


Tracking         linear movement of the camera along side a moving subject or along

                        an extended background


Tilt                  The camera aims up or down from its fixed position.


Dolly               A smooth rolling movement into or out of the field of vision, created by a small wheeled dolly or hand truck


Boom              The camera, attached to a telescoping pole, is moved through space vertically or horizontally (or both).  This is sometimes called a crane shot.


Zoom              A shot in which the change of focal length in a camera’s lens gives the impression of approaching or moving away from the subject.


Rack Focus     The focus is shifted so that one part of the image becomes blurred while another part becomes sharp.


Deep Focus     Photography that uses special lenses permitting all objects within a frame to remain in focus.



Shots defined by subject matter



Establishing   Usually, a long shot at the beginning of a sequence to establish the context

Shot                for all subsequent shots.


One-shot        A shot with one person in it.


Two-shot         A shot featuring two persons.



Editing terminology



Editing            The joining of one shot (hence one strip of film) with another.


Cut                 The break in the film where one shot ends and the next one begins.


Continuity     The kind of logic implied between edited shots, their principle of coherence.  Editing generally aims to minimize the potential disruption of a cut.  Cutting to continuity emphasizes smooth transitions between shots in which time and space are unobtrusively condensed.


Jump Cut       An abrupt transition between shots, violating standard continuity cutting.


Long take       A lengthy shot unbroken by editing. (Also called a lengthy take.)


Fade                A laboratory process causing film images to darken (fade out) or brighten (fade in).  A fade out/fade in is frequently used to mark moments of transition in film narrative.


Dissolve          One image gradually fades, lingering on the screen while another replaces it; the two images are superimposed midway through a dissolve.



Lighting, sound, and design



High Key        Style of lighting emphasizing bright, even illumination, with few conspicuous shadows.


Low Key         Style of lighting emphasizing diffused shadows and atmospheric pools of light.


Synchronous Correspondence between image and sound, which are recorded

Sound             simultaneously, or seem to have been simultaneous in the finished print.  Synchronous sounds seem to derive from an obvious source in the visuals.      


Voice-over      A nonsynchronous spoken commentary in a movie.


Aspect Ratio  The ratio between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the screened image.  Most feature films were shot in Academy ratio (1.33:1) prior to the 1950s.  Standard ratios are now 1.66:1 (European) and 1.85: 1 (American), though some formats range much higher.


Frame             The dividing line between the edges of the screen image and the enclosing darkness of the theater.  (Compare this design usage to an earlier definition under “Basic Terms.”)


Closed Form  Visual style that inclines toward self-conscious designs and carefully harmonized compositions.  The frame is exploited to suggest a self-sufficient universe that encloses all the necessary visual information, usually in an aesthetically pleasing manner.


Open Form    Style emphasizing informal composition and apparently haphazard designs.  The frame is exploited to suggest a temporary masking, a window that arbitrarily cuts off part of the action. It usually results in an image that seems more realistic than one in closed form.


Mise en scene   the composition of a scene, including


                                    -tight or loose framing (amount of space in frame)

-areas of dominant and subsidiary contrast (drawing the viewer’s


                        -set up: full front, 1/4 turn, profile, 3/4 turn, back to camera







Conventions for writing about film



Š    Full-length movie titles should be italicized or underscored: Macbeth.


Š    The first reference to a film’s title should represent the title in its entirety and should be followed by the film’s release date in parentheses: The Taming of the Shrew (1967).  For subsequent mention you may elect to abbreviate long titles into a less cumbersome reference, and you need not repeat the date: Shrew.


Š    In your initial reference to a film you may wish to acknowledge the director.  This can be done either by including the director’s name in the parenthetical information or by mentioning the director in the surrounding text: Macbeth (dir. Polanski, 1971) or Roman Polanski’s Macbeth  (1971).


Š    Following are the MLA methods of bibliographical citation for references to film in scholarly papers.  The first entry would refer to the theatrical version of a film (for example, if you were referring to a movie seen in a theater or studied in its theatrical release at an archive such as the George Eastman House.  The second and third entries cite films seen on a VHS videocassette or DVD re-release (as in the films we view in class this semester).


Macbeth.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf.  Jon Finch.  Francesca Annis.  Columbia Pictures, 1971.


Macbeth.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf.  Jon Finch.  Francesca Annis.  1971.  DVD.  Columbia Tristar Horn, 2002.


Macbeth.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Jon Finch. Francesca Annis. 1971. VHS.  Columbia Tristar, 1992.