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Film Terms Glossary



archive footage

Audiovisual archive footage constitutes a substantial part of the heritage of cinema. An overwhelming majority of this heritage is preserved on celluloid film strip. The development of digital technologies brings up the question of how to make the celluloid heritage accessible and preserve it at the same time and how to retain its identity in the process of its transcription to another medium (the problem of digitization). Archive audiovisual footage is kept in public and private collections. Its creative use in other audiovisual works is subject to copyright; the original authors can be represented by collective administrators and heirs. Audiovisual archive footage is mostly used to recall the past events, reveal their historical background as well as for educational purposes and research of still unknown phenomena captured by film cameras.

auteur film

The term of auteur film was coined in the 1950s to help the French film critics embrace the new specifics of emerging films whose understanding of the film medium was radically different from that of standard Hollywood cinema. The success of the French New Wave in the 1960s helped spread the term to other countries as well. Auteur film came to denote films exploring the possibilities of the film medium, made in a style that was significantly different from commercial production. The creative vision of the director came to the fore while other professions contributing to film production and the distribution industry were overshadowed to a certain extent. As a result of the development of other subject fields (psychoanalysis, anthropology, neurosciences, sociology etc.), the content of the term was revised in the following decades. In this respect, “authorial gesture” denotes the unique character of the author’s approach; a moment of his distinctive expression.


camera angle

In the dramaturgy of a film sequence, the camera angle plays an important role; it is the angle the camera forms with the recorded phenomena. The most frequent camera angles include: the eye-level shot, corresponding to our everyday perception when facing a person; the low-angle shot is taken from below the objects and subjects and can make them look different (as a hero, a star or a powerful person). By means of the low-angle shot, with the contribution of other corresponding elements, such as lighting, the mise en scène etc., one can also achieve a threatening impression. An extreme case of a low-angle shot is the worm’s eye view. The high-angle shot shows the objects and subjects from above and can make them look smaller, more vulnerable, lonely or powerless. An extreme form of this camera angle is called bird’s eye view.


documentary film

In the broadest sense, the term denotes non-fiction films which portray a certain aspect of reality based on footage which is drawn from this reality. John Grierson originally coined the term, using it to denote an attempt to create a real yet dramatized version of reality using a camera; he argued that documentary film makers should approach reality creatively. In general, documentaries are meant to be authentic, truthful and to contain a socially critical impulse, and often, mistakenly, also taken to be objective. In recent years a trend can be seen of the fusion of differing elements of documentary and fiction through hybrid forms of cinema (the docu-drama, mockumentary or performative documentary) and the increased blurring of lines between genres.

depth of focus

Different lenses depict reality in different ways. The angle of the shot, i.e. the area covered by a given lens, has a specific depth of field, where objects within the shot are either in or out of focus. Wide-angle lenses have a short focal length, shorter than 50mm. This type of lens is thus best-suited to long shots where most of the objects in frame are seen in focus. Standard lenses (50mm) roughly correspond to the angle of the human eye.  So-called telephoto lenses have a focal length longer than 50mm, and are capable of zooming in on distant objects, while their shooting angle is smaller. 


experimental film

The term of experimental film denotes a wide array of films that are unrelated both in terms of form and content. However, what they do share is a sense of narrative that is different from that of standard cinema. It is closely connected with an interest in form and formal approaches revealing the film medium or the film language as such. An equivalent of this term can also be found in the term of avant-garde film. The latter reveals the historical roots of the different kind of narrative, embracing the European avant-gardes of the 1920s: Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. At its beginnings, experimental film was part of the avant-garde movements in visual arts and photography. Another common attribute of experimental films is that of independent production. The distribution of these films is usually dependent on the filmmakers. Since experimental film has a long-standing tradition, just like classic cinema, it has established certain processes according to which it can be labelled as structural film (the narrative of the film is determined by a predefined structure, rhythm) or hand-made film (the celluloid film strip is used for purely visual processes).

expository documentary film

This approach was at the birth of documentary tradition, as it emphasizes the spoken word, a commentary (voice-over) in which the filmmakers communicate their attitude to what is discussed in the film. Their voice speaks directly to the viewers, which makes the film more comprehensible and stimulates its overall message.


Editing, or also montage, is a term denoting the organization and arrangement of individual visual elements of film, scenes and sequences. During the editing process, the individual film scenes are arranged to form a narrative, a film text. The term of film editing, however, is actually misleading, since the art of editing does not consist in masterful cutting but rather in the interpretation of the footage and interconnection of the individual elements into the big narrative. In the field of documentary film, editing is at least as important as screenwriting from the perspective of film dramaturgy, since in both cases, the film story is built.

essay film

Film essay pproaches the theme from various points of view, including the personal perspective of the filmmaker and reflects on the theme in a complex and multi-layered way. It analyses the theme or issue to be explored while the analysis has an argumentative structure at the same time, producing synthetic and general conclusions. Essay film emphasis the choice of means of expression and aesthetic strategies. Classification by Timothy Corrigan: besides characterizing history’s most typical essay ­– (self)portrait essay, Corrigan further differentiates between travel essay, which follows the variability of subjectivity in new geographic contexts, or else thematizes the self as a “foreign environment”; diary essay, which follows the variability of the self across various temporalities, including the cinematic ones; and editorial essay, which is thematically linked to investigative documentary – as both are interested in the latest events, news, world events – however, unlike investigative documentary, editorial essay is interested in how the “cut-out of reality” is perceived, reflected and, last but not least, documented; how it is informed by the one who is looking. 


field size

In the filmmaking practice, there are several field sizes based on the cut-out of the person seen in the shot. An extreme close-up only shows certain parts of the body, such as eyes or hands; a close-up shows the whole head or a major part of it; a medium close-up shows the body roughly from the chest up (passport photo). A special case is the American plan, first used in westerns; it shows the figure from the colt up, i.e. from the hips up and is very similar to the medium shot, which shows roughly two thirds of the body. The long shot frames the whole body with its surroundings and the extreme long shot represents the maximum size of the image including all its subjects. It is often used as the establishing shot or for orientation. A panoramic shot shows the landscape in such a wide shot that a person is only infinitesimally small in it.

fade and dissolve

A specific type of transition achieved by making use of a specific effect. With a fade, the image slowly disappears. We can distinguish three essential types of using a fade: the dissolve (a gradual transition between two shots, where one shot is gradually replaced by the next), the “fade-out” (where the image becomes darker until the screen is completely black), and “fade to white” (where the image brightens until the screen is entirely white). Sometimes the use of a fade takes place only on the soundtrack. A fade can also be used to help smooth a transition between shots or frames or to create a temporal ellipsis.


180-degree axis

The rule of the 180 degree axis ensures that the viewer finds their bearing within the given situation, especially with dialogue of two or more protagonists, by ensuring continuity in editing, and a unity of scene, time and space. If two or more characters are present, where one is placed on the left and the other on the right, we can draw an imaginary axis between them and the line of their eye contact, which the perspective which the camera must respect and not cross, i.e., it should film one or the other character by turning the camera by 180° from a spot that remains fixed from the point of view of the axis. Thus protagonist A always looks from left to right and protagonist B in the opposite direction. If the camera crosses the line, the eyes of the protagonists lose this contact with each other.



A set of choices made by the director, who makes decisions regarding the composition of the image and soundtrack, e. g. framing, set design, type of shot, lighting, etc.


non-diegetic music

Music which is added to the film during the editing process; its function is to achieve a certain effect, while not being present directly within the image. The opposite of non-diegetic music is diegetic music: for example, a shot of an orchestra seen in the image, a radio playing, or a character singing a song. This kind of “film music” can be created especially for the film, or make use of existing musical compositions.


observational mode

This way of film narration is related to the post-war technological development in Europe, Canada and the United States. The technological development introduced light, hand-held 16mm cameras along with the possibility to record synchronized sound. The spoken word was thus synchronized already during the shooting process and the spontaneous situation in front of the camera appeared in the centre of attention. That gave rise to films without an explanatory voice-over, music score and sound effects, as well as without interviews conducted by the filmmakers. People and situations literally represented a live record of what was happening in front of the camera. The observational mode in its pure form represents a way of film narration in which the filmmakers rather observe the situations through the camera, without intervening in them and staging them, and try to retain this approach also in the film’s editing. The observational mode thus implies an impression of an absent camera, with the film protagonists living their lives as if the camera wasn’t even there. That leads to a certain degree of authenticity of the recorded phenomena.



pan and tilt

Camera movements which indicate a change of point of view by moving from one object or spot to another.



The use of reenactment in documentary film denotes staging a scene in front of the camera with an emphasis on its visual eloquence, as well as rehearsing (directing) the action of the protagonists and their utterances (as in literary screenplay development). Bill Nichols defines reenactment as a “more or less authentic reconstruction of past events”, which formed a staple of documentary representation before the 1960s and the emergence of the generation of the "vérité boys" (Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, David and Albert Maysles, Fred Wiseman and others), who were by contrast strong proponents of maximum authenticity and regarded any reenactment for the camera as an inauthentic construct. Reenactment, however, is currently being rehabilitated and used again in documentary cinema. This approach plays down the element of chance, and the necessity to readily respond to situations arising in front of the camera, using improvisation as well as direct documentation as guarantee of authenticity. On the contrary, it accentuates the (re)construction of reality and puts an emphasis on the work of the director.


socially engaged film

A socially engaged film is defined primarily by the clear stance of its makers. They are so engaged in the topic (whether political or social) that they become part of the film. That can take various forms, ranging from presence in front of the camera through clearly regulated interviews to presence at discussions after film screenings. By making the film, the filmmakers try to change the situation, stir debate, make life better, understand the causes of problems and seek remedy.

shooting ratio

The term of shooting ratio denotes the ratio between the filmed footage and that which is finally used in the film. The final shooting ratio very much differs based on the way the individual directors work. The more the director sticks to the script or screenplay, the lower the ratio. In case of feature films, the ratio is usually lower than in case of documentaries, since it is easier to plan the shots in the field of fiction. The lower the ratio, the less space there is for creative work during the editing process. Modern Hollywood productions usually have the shooting ratio of 20:1 while many documentary films can get to 60:1 and more.

16mm film

In terms of cinema history, the 16mm film format emerged in the 1920s as an alternative to classical 35mm film stock. It was used both by amateurs and documentary filmmakers and for reportage. Later, with the advent of television, it was also used for television news coverage. With 16mm film, sound can be recorded either optically or magnetically directly on the film print. Both soundtrack methods allow for only a limited quality of sound and as a result for professional use sound is often recorded separately and then synchronized with the image in post-production. 


Shot is the smallest narrative unit of the film, corresponding to an uninterrupted continuity recorded by the camera. In other words, a take between two cuts. A shot is defined by its value/field (inserted shot/ellipse, close-up, medium close-up, american plan etc.), by the movement of the camera (panoramic, travelling), static shot, and by the camera angle. 



In a script, a sequence is usually defined by the location and time (INT/EXT and DAY/NIGHT). It consists of several shots or sometimes just one (long-take, sequence-shot). Sequence represents a meaningful, closed unit. It may consist of multiple scenes and is often defined by the cinematographic means of expression – use of music, fade, fade-out, voice-over. 



Transition is a device used to connect individual shots in the editing process. A transition can be achieved simply by a cut, where shots are “pasted” one after another without any concrete formal connection. Sometimes, however, the continuity of two shots (or on the other hand, their opposition) can be accentuated by a specific form of transition, for example, a jump cut, a transition in movement, a transition in form, a transition in terms of color, a 180° reversal, establishing a connection through eye line, etc. Transitions are often devised before production, but in some cases are created only during the editing process.

technical script

The translation of the script or storyline (a more-or less detailed working tool that functions as a basic outline of the film) into shots and sequences; in other words, a set of directorial decisions regarding the rhythm of the film and manner of editing individual scenes.


tracking shot

Any shot using a mobile camera that follows (or moves toward or away from) the subject, usually by moving on tracks or by being mounted on a vehicle. 



The voice of the narrator on the soundtrack mediates information for a better understanding of the story and sometimes summarizes the events that happen off screen. In early documentary works, it was usual to provide the visual footage, mostly recorded without sound at the time, with very expressive commentaries. The use of such authoritative accompaniment was often opposed. When the development of new camera technology in the 1950s brought a chance to record documentary shots with sound, an increasing number of documentaries was produced whose makers deliberately omitted voice-over.