The Film Buff’s Dictionary

It’s not always easy to keep up with film buffs. If you don’t devote your life to watching movies, it’s easy to get lost in discussions of classic films and great directors. Beyond that, there’s the simple problem of not understanding the lingo. Like every other industry, the world of film has its own jargon, much of it incomprehensible to outsiders. This is why we feature the Film Buff’s Dictionary on All Movie Talk, a recurring segment that defines many of these terms. On this page you will find a compilation of the terms we have already featured, along with their definitions.

While this page provides a good overview of each term, we recommend that you listen to each episode of the show for a more complete understanding. We devote several minutes to explaining each term and providing better examples, as compared to the few paragraphs per term on this page.

Jump To: [Editing Terms] [Camera Moves] [Cinematography Terms] [Misc. Terms]

Editing Terms

Cut

Cut functions as both a verb (to cut a movie is to edit it; refers to the days when editors literally cut pieces of film and pasted them together) and a noun (a cut is the abrupt change in scene or camera shot that comes from editing two different shots together).

The very earliest films of the 1890s consisted of unbroken shots that were very short. Around the time films started telling slightly more complex stories in the early 1900s, filmmakers began cutting together different shots and cutting out extraneous pieces of story.

The early director D. W. Griffith pioneered cutting as a visceral part of filmed narratives. His 1915 film The Birth of a Nation famously used cross-cutting — showing one group of people under attack, cutting to a different group of people riding to the rescue (unfortunately these rescuers were members of the Ku Klux Klan), and then cutting back to the group under siege — and it remains a textbook example of how to create action by cutting.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Soviet filmmakers including Sergei Eisenstein would study editing and the psychological impacts of cutting on an audience, developing a comprehensive theory of film editing (see montage below).

Many film scholars dislike too many cuts in a film, as they can be disruptive to the flow of a film. On the other hand, modern action directors like Michael Bay use this disruptive nature of cuts to inject a sense of excitement and chaos into fast-paced scenes.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 4.

Montage

Montage is the French term for editing, but it has come to mean quite a bit more than its English synonym.

Its use in English really comes from the work of early Soviet filmmakers who worked on defining a theory of editing, which they called montage. The most famous of these directors is Sergei Eisenstein, whose 1925 work Battleship Potemkin is considered a milestone in film editing. This historical use of montage survives primarily in film theory circles.

The most common use today of montage is to mean a series of short scenes cut together without much or any dialogue in them. Often the montage is used to show progression quickly. In modern Hollywood films, these almost always feature pop songs over the soundtrack.

Perhaps the most famous of this sort of montage is in the training sequences in Rocky (1976). The 2004 film Team America: World Police has a song called Montage that parodies this.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 6.

Jump Cut

The jump cut is ridiculously hard to describe without seeing it in action. It’s a jarring edit where the middle part of a continuous action is cut out. As with so many editing techniques, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein helped define the jump cut. It was brought to prominence in modern film with the start of the French New Wave with the release of Breathless (1960) by director Jean-Luc Godard.

It is used in television a lot, especially in police dramas (those scenes where the cops are roughing somebody up in the interrogation room and everything looks choppy are achieved through jump cuts), and in reality TV shows to show progression, often with the added help of time-lapse photography.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 8.

Smash Cut

A smash cut is a cut whose purpose is to be startling to the viewer. The transition between shots is abrupt, drawing attention to the cut and shaking things up. The German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl helped pioneer its use.

Some famous examples include the abrupt cuts to black in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and any scene where a knife is about to stab somebody and then the film cuts to a kitchen knife chopping meat.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 9.

Match Cut

A match cut is a cut that joins two unrelated shots together in a way that makes them seem related. Often this means cutting between two moving objects with similar trajectories — famously, a spinning bone cuts to a spinning space station at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — or between two objects with similar shapes, or between shots with similar composition.

The match cut is useful as an editing tool because it asks the audience to directly compare two images that may or may not have any direct narrative connection. Match cuts can also be used to cut between similar sounds, such as between a scream and a rumbling subway car.

Match cuts can also be smash cuts at the same time if their effect is to startle. The famous smash cut cliche of cutting between a knife about to enter flesh and a kitchen knife chopping meat is an example of a match cut and a smash cut, because both scenes are linked through visual and audio similarities.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 10.

Fade, Dissolve, Wipe

All three of these editing techniques are slow transitions between shots, less abrupt than a cut. A fade comes in two varieties: a fade-in and a fade-out. A fade-in starts from a solid color screen (usually black, but sometimes white and rarely other colors) and slowly transitions to a shot in the movie, as the shot is superimposed over the solid screen. A fade-out starts with a shot and transitions to a solid color. The term “fade to black” denotes the traditional way of ending a movie.

In addition to opening and closing films, fades are often used within a movie to denote the passage of time. If several fades are used to transition between short scenes, it creates a very dreamlike atomsphere. A great extra on the Fight Club (1999) DVD offers an example of how fades can affect the way we view sequences.

A dissolve is similar to a fade, but instead of moving between a shot and a solid color, it moves between two images. Even more than the fade, it can be used to show the passage of time. The film Paris When It Sizzles contains an explicit illustration of this.

The screen wipe is the least-used of these techniques, and is thus the most obvious. Probably best known today from the Star Wars movies (though when George Lucas used this technique it was mainly an homage to Akira Kurosawa), the wipe has one image replace another through some sort of movement. For instance, in a horizantal wipe the new image may just slide over from the left and appear to cover up the old shot entirely. Wipes are particularly abused by home movie makers with easy access to video editing software but little sense of style.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 11.

Cold Open

The cold open is a simple but effective way to start a story: just start telling it without any other fanfare. A movie is said to have a cold open if we begin seeing the story before the opening credits. Almost unheard of since the earliest days of films — when movies had no credits, period — George Lucas opened Star Wars (1977) with a mostly cold open. That film opens with a title screen, but no credits, and launches right into the story. Lucas’ decision to open The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in the same way over the protests of the writers’ and directors’ unions led to his resignation from those organizations.

Since then, the move has become increasingly common, though generally films still have some kind of credit scene at the beginning. For instance, the James Bond movies begin with an action sequence before the credits. Almost every modern American television show eschews opening credits together, starting with a cold open and then a short title scene.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 13.

Camera Moves

Tracking Shot

A tracking shot is a camera movement where the entire camera is mounted to a cart of some sort and the cart runs on tracks laid on the ground. The cart and the camera are pushed along the track, creating a very smooth movement (contrast it to the much less smooth handheld shot).

The term “dolly shot” is often used as a synonym for tracking shot, as the cart the camera is placed on is a dolly. If you read screenplays or hang around film geeks, you will find references to camera movements such as “dolly in” or “push out,” and these generally refer to a tracking shot that moves the camera toward or away from the subject of the shot.

Tracking shots are generally expensive to set up. Laying track takes time and whenever you move the camera around in an unbroken shot everything about shooting a scene is more complicated. Thus, generally directors like to reserve them for fancy moves. Often tracking shots are quite long, and many of the most celebrated shots in the movies are extended tracking shots.

Combining the tracking shot with a zoom is a very famous effect that Alfred Hitchcock brought to prominence in Vertigo, where he used it to illustrate the fear of heights exhibited by the story’s protagonist. By zooming out as the camera is pushed in, the perspective of a shot changes in a very noticable and unnatural fashion, causing a sense of strong disorientation for the viewer. Many filmmakers since have used this type of shot; recently, Peter Jackson used it in The Fellowship of the Ring to suggest the menace posed by the Ringwraiths.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 14.

Crane, Handheld

A crane shot is a camera movement achieved by putting the camera on a platform mounted to a crane. It allows the camera to swoop up and down and in and out, achieving fantastic points of view that would never be possible were the camera stuck on the ground. Crane shots are very flashy and can be combined with tracking shots to create unbroken shots that are as dazzling as they are impossible-seeming.

The Stunt Man (1980), a great movie about the movies, includes several fun scenes demonstrating the use of cranes during filming.

A handheld shot is a camera move that is nowhere near as fluid as a tracking shot or a crane shot. Instead, handheld shots are shots where the camera is held by a camera operator. This allows the camera to move anywhere a cameraman can carry it, but without anything to stabilize the camera the shot becomes very jerky.

Despite technology that allows directors to achieve the freedom of handheld shots without the shakiness, many directors enjoy handheld shots for their immediate feel. Documentaries have long used handheld shots, and so directors of narrative films employ handheld shooting to achieve a documentary feel. In particular, action movies that want to pull the audience into the chaos of a battle use handheld shots.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 15.

Pan, Tilt

A pan is a camera movement that involves the camera moving along a horizontal axis, i.e., it moves sideways. If you have a camera on a tripod and you swivel the camera from left to right, you have panned it. A tilt is the same idea, but vertically (so up and down).

These are very common moves that are significantly easier to shoot than shots where the camera actually moves around, and they also have a more distant feel to them. While a complicated travelling shot makes us feel like we’re actually part of the action, pans and tilts allow directors to capture moving action at a distance.

These camera moves are often used in subtle ways, to give a sense of motion and fluidity to otherwise static shots. They can also be used in very attention-grabbing ways, such as a 360-degree pan shot. And of course pans and tilts can be combined with other camera movements, such as handheld travelling shots, to produce a large array of effects.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 18.

Zoom

The zoom is a type of lens that can go from wide to long, allowing film shots to make distant objects suddenly look closer (or vice versa). To zoom in is to make distant objects look closer; to zoom out is to do the opposite. This is not technically a camera movement; it’s a method of changing the audience’s point-of-view without actually moving the camera or cutting. Zoom lenses were around in some fashion for much of cinema history, but it wasn’t really until the 1960s that they were of a quality to be used regularly in film productions.

Zooming tends to change the depth of field, allowing more objects to be in focus at once while wide and fewer objects in focus while long (though there are ways this can be manipulated so that long shots still have a large of depth of field).

The zoom is a very showy move that has a documentary feel to it, because filmers of documentaries have to zoom in order to capture unexpected events. The 1970s made the zoom a staple of American filmmaking, and directors like Robert Altman love the zoom for its ability to hold a long shot but to suddenly focus in on a single character or object. Stanley Kubrick loved to zoom in on the faces of his actors such that they almost overpowered the entire frame.

A classic sort of zoom involves starting with a crowd of people and then zooming in on a small group; we start with an establishing shot to understand the environment and then seamlessly move in. This has a subtly different effect than pushing in on an object, because the unique way zoom lenses work distorts things in a way that seems vaguely unnatural to the human eye.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 19.

Cinematography Terms

Aspect Ratio, Anamorphic, Open Matte

The aspect ratio is the ratio of an image’s width to its height. The larger this ratio is, the wider the image is. For example, a standard television has an aspect ratio of 4:3, as it is 4 inches wide for every 3 inches it is tall (1.33 times as wide as tall). A widescreen television is 16:9, meaning it is 1.78 times as wide as it is tall.

This is important to consider, because the width of a movie image determines a lot about how shots will be composed. In particular it is interesting because humans tend to prefer more rectangular images as they are more akin to our natural vision than square images.

In the early part of movie history, movies were roughly 1.33:1, the same as standard television. This ratio (or one extremely close to it) was commonly referred to as “Academy Ratio,” the standard width used by Hollywood as it reflects the natural ratio of 35mm film, with some space on one side being used for a sound track. When widescreen was introduced in the 1950s, aspect ratios were all over the map. 1.33:1 films continued to be made for some time, but there were also aspect ratios ranging from about 1.6:1 all the way up to 3:1 on certain 3-screen projection systems.

But because 35mm film is still ultimately a fairly square medium, filmmakers had to find new ways of recording widescreen images. The most simple method is what is called matting, in which the top and bottom of a print (or sometimes a negative) is covered. Think of a letterboxed movie on a standard TV: by shrinking the available space, you can reshape the remaining space, giving you a wider canvas. Alternatively, consider cropping a photo: if you discard information, you can resize what remains.

When the matting is not done in the camera, the negative still captures a 1.33:1 image. Before it is shown theatrically, the projectionist applies a matte (a “soft matte”) to the projector, meaning that only a part of the film is projected, but what is projected is wide. For video releases or television showings intended for standard 4:3 televisions, directors and studios can choose to simply not matte the image. Showing it without mattes is called open matte. Audiences who watch films shown open matte on video actually see more of the image than those who see it in the theater.

The other popular way to capture widescreen images is the anamorphic system, which uses special lenses to compress an image along one axis — it distorts the filmed image, making people appear tall and skinny. Projectors then project the squeezed image through another anamorphic lens which stretches it out, making everything look normal. In this way directors can capture a very wide image while still using the entire 35mm frame.

Today, almost all Hollywood widescreen movies are filmed on 35mm film, using matting or anamorphic lenses (matting tends to be more common). Most modern matted films have an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (which is pretty close to that of widescreen televisions) while the standard anamorphic ratio is 2.35:1.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 28.

Misc. Terms

Auteur Theory

The auteur theory (from the French word for “author”) is a term that posits films can be said to have a single author, specifically the director. Because film is such a collaborative medium, critics of the auteur theory say that a film cannot be said to be “by” a specific person.

Screenwriters often take offense to the idea, since many films begin as directorless scripts. But directors, especially those working outside of rigid studio systems, have the greatest control over the finished product. Since film is primarily a visual medium, the proponents of auteur theory would argue that the person with the most control over a film’s visual style should be considered its primary author.

Film critic Andrew Sarris coined the term and popularized the idea in the English-speaking world. It has stuck to the point that it is usually only directors who are given the authorial credit in films (this is the “a film by” credit at the start of a movie).

Most proponents of the theory would not argue that every director is necessarily an auteur. It is easiest to cite directors who are take on multiple roles in the creation of a film. Orson Welles, for instance, was involved in almost every aspect of the production of Citizen Kane, and his fingerprints are all over it.

And yet a film like Casablanca does not have a clear directorial style to it. And while directors like Alfred Hitchcock have clear styles, great directors such as William Wyler do not have obvious directorial styles.

It should also be noted that not every auteur is a great director. Ed Wood, for instance, would probably qualify as an auteur (as would somebody like Michael Bay), but nobody would argue Wood was a great director.

The director is not the only candidate as the auteur. As mentioned above, one can make a strong case for the writer, but producers are also good candidates. As the person who often shepherds the film from its conception (frequently before a script is written) through its release, producers like David O. Selznick, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Joel Silver all have distinct and recognizable styles.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 27.

Wilhelm Scream

The Wilhelm Scream is a sound effects editing in-joke. The term refers to any of six takes of a particular scream first used in the 1951 film Distant Drums, then stowed away in the Warner Bros. sound library. The stock sound effect was used in a number of Warner Bros. films thereafter, most notably The Charge At Feather River (1953), where it is uttered by a character named Pvt. Wilhelm, after whom the sound effect was later named.

It became an in-joke, once sound designers Ben Burtt, Rick Mitchell, and Richard Anderson — all friends at USC — noticed that the scream appeared in a number of different titles. Years later, Burtt was hired to do the sound effects on Star Wars (1977), and he ran across a recording of the Wilhelm Scream, so he found a way to work it into the film. Since then, Burtt and Anderson have used it numerous times, and other sound editors, particularly those at Lucasfilm, Disney, Pixar, and more recently DreamWorks.

Today, roughly ten major films per year include the Wilhelm Scream. With it appearing in such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and many more, it’s a virtual certainty you’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream in a movie before.

Hollywood Lost and Found has probably the best online history of the Wilhelm Scream, and of course Wikipedia is useful to consult, too.

Here is a list of all the movies with the Wilhelm Scream. Finally, here is an absolutely fantastic video compilation of various uses of the Wilhelm Scream. Unfortunately it does not include the first use in Distant Drums, but it does have the one from The Charge At Feather River and a host of more modern uses.

This entry originally appeared in Episode 25.