The “shot” is the basic unit of most films, and least in the classical, pre-digital-effects era. A “shot” is a continuous run of the camera; it can also be referred to as a “take.” Shots are linked by transitions, or “edits,” the most frequently used of which is a “cut.” With a cut, one shot is immediately replaced by another. The next most common types of transitions are dissolves, in which one shot becomes another via a superimposition in which one grows darker while the next grows brighter, and a fade out, usually to black, typically followed by a fade in on the next shot.
Please do not refer to “shots” as “cuts” or to “cuts” as “shots,” a common mistake. To repeat, a cut is an instantaneous transition between shots.
A “long take” is a shot that lasts a long time relative to a film’s pace. In some films, a half-minute shot can be a “long take.” In a film in which most of the shots are a half-minute, you might not want to use the term unless a take is two or three minutes. Rapid cutting means just what it suggests, cutting between shots of very brief duration. “Montage” refers to sequences, or whole films, in which many shots are cut together, and in which the editing is a key organizing principle.
A cut is one of the filmmaker’s most powerful tools, because you can take the viewer from one image to a different one instantly, creating a mood, making a statement. Cuts can be used in many ways. “Matched” cuts pair two shots with characters or other elements in similar positions, creating a flow of action that tends to make the cuts relatively invisible. Disjunctive or otherwise harsh cuts tend to call more attention to themselves. “Shot-counter shot” or “reverse angle” cutting usually involves a conversation between two people in which the editing alternates between shots in which one character is seen speaking while the other is seen from the rear. This technique is often used to appear to welcome the viewer into the conversation, as an invisible observer.
Dissolves, and fade outs followed by fade ins, are often used to represent the passage of time, or a movement across time, as when a dissolve introduces a flashback. A “wipe” is an optical effect in which one image visibly replaces the previous one in a few seconds, often with sharp-edged lines or other patterns briefly separating them.
A point of view or POV shot purports to show things from a single person's point of view, or in a few cases the point of view of several people who are near each other. If a character is seen looking out a second story window, and we cut to a shot of the street seen in a high angle from approximately their perspective, this could be a point of view shot, while in that scene, an image of the street from street level would not be. Strictly speaking, you are sure an image is a point of view shot if it is part of a three-shot sequence, in which the first shows the face of the character looking, the second gives an image of what the character is seeing from their approximate position, and the third returns to the character looking. If, for example, the character is walking toward what he or she is looking at, the middle shot should also be moving forward at about the same speed. A point of view shot could show a distant object in close-up, to represent the way one's attention can isolate and concentrate on a single object. If the first or last of the three-shot sequence is missing, we probably still have a point of view shot. But a moving shot can also begin as an apparent POV shot and then transform to include the character who was looking, or begin by including a character and then seem to become a shot from their point of view.
“Jump cut” is a widely misused term. Many assume that any cut that seems to “jump,” such as a cut to a new location, is a “jump cut.” This is completely wrong. In a jump cut, the camera angle changes either not at all or only a little, but time has passed, though sometimes only seconds, between the two shots being cut between, so that the position of a character appears to “jump” at the point of the cut. In classical filmmaking, in which transitions are typically smooth, this type of cut was considered a mistake to be avoided, as jump cuts tend to call attention to themselves. They were often used unintentionally in very low-budget Hollywood films, when there was no money for retakes to fix a mistake. Jean-Luc Godard famously used jump cuts intentionally in his film Breathless, inspired by their use in those earlier Hollywood films.
The camera’s distance from the principal subject is expressed in terms such as close-up, medium shot, and long shot, terms that should be self-explanatory. There are no clear rules about when a close-up becomes a medium shot. If a face fills at least half the height of the frame in a shot, that shot is probably a close-up if the image focuses on a single character. There are also phrases such as “extreme close-up,” “medium close-up,” “extreme long shot.” A “two-shot” is a shot, fairly close, of two characters.
The camera’s relationship to the subject is expressed in terms of camera angles. In a high shot or high-angle shot, the camera is above the principal subject, which could be a character, an object, or a landscape or streetscape. In a low shot or low-angle shot, the camera is below, for example looking up at a character. Typically, in shots including people the main character’s face or eyes are what determines the angle; hence a shot neither high or low angle can be called an “eye-level” shot. An overhead shot of characters can be called just that, or nearly overhead could be called an extreme high angle. In a tilted shot the camera is titled with respect to the ground, or the subject; these are sometimes called “Dutch angles,” but I would very much like to avoid that unnecessarily silly term, which etymologically results from a mistake anyway. (I’ve been to Holland, a wonderful country, and the mostly flat landscape does not feature many tilted views.) In fact, the term is based on a linguistic confusion with “Deutsch,” which means “German,” and the original reference is to German expressionist filmmaking.
The camera can also move through space. This was traditionally done with the camera on wheeled vehicles called dollies, or on a vehicle mounted on tracks, and hence such shots have been called “dolly shots” or “tracking shots.” Either is fine, but I think “moving shot” is usually preferable. Typically, the camera will move in or out, or move laterally, often following the movement of characters, or combine several different movements in a single take. The camera can also move hand-held, and that has become common in recent decades as means were devised of stabilizing the vibrations inherent in hand-held movements.
In a panning shot the camera is fixed on a tripod, or hand held in a fixed position, and rotates from a static point in space. Similarly, a camera can execute a tilt, which is less common. Do not confuse panning shots and moving shots. Of course, sometimes both can be used at once, and it can be a little hard to analyze such combinations. The camera can also move up or down. In a “crane” shot, crane up or crane down, the camera is on a platform that is raised or lowered, so that an eye level shot can become a high angle shot in a single take.
Do not use the word “zoom” for any of these shots. Zooms are executed with the use of a zoom lens, which did not come into common use until 1958. Very occasionally short zooms were made earlier using an optical printer, a device used for special effects in the pre-digital age that allowed film to be rephotographed a frame at a time, but such examples are rare. It is common in daily speech to use the word “zoom” to refer to concentrating on something – “I just zoomed in on the fact that my rent is due.” But when writing about a film, use “zoom” only for shots made with a zoom lens. These look notably different from shots in which the camera moves through space. A zoom compresses or expands space, and feels rather mechanical; in a camera movement, you are going on a journey across space.
Sound can be synchronous or asynchronous. With sync sound, we hear the sound that some objects in the scene are emitting – most often a speaking character, or, often in recent years, an explosion. Asynchronous sound, rare in conventional filmmaking, pairs a completely different sound with an image: in Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise, a hat flies off a man’s head to the sound of a gunshot. In a “sound bridge,” the sound of the next scene may start earlier, or of a previous scene linger after. Off-screen sound is implied to come from a location outside of the frame, but is not meant to be understood as asynchronous. “Diegetic” sound, similar to synchronous sound in the case of narrative movies, comes from the space of the narrative we are observing; whether from on or off-screen, there is an identifiable source. Nondiegetic sound does not originate from a source we can see. Movie music is the most common type of non-diegetic sound in commercial films, though occasionally what we first thought was non-diegetic sound will later be revealed to be emanating from, for example, a radio within the scene.
The purpose of this little glossary is to help you use terms correctly, and to ensure that we all understand what we are talking about. Please raise any questions or objections.
It is imperative that you get movie titles, and the names of anyone who worked on a film, exactly right. In some cases, a film title may take more than one form. With “foreign” films, sometimes the title exists in the original language and in more than one translation. In French, “l’argent” means “money,” but the most common form of the title of the Robert Bresson film is L’Argent. It is also sometimes written “L'argent”; there are competing conventions when capitalizing French titles. But in English, all the words in a title are capitalized except for short conjunctions such as “to” and “at,” or articles such as “a” or “the,” unless one appears at the beginning of the title. I insist that you take care here; you will just make yourself look unprofessional, and even silly, if you write a paper on a film you call Searchers when you are writing about The Searchers. And in fact, there is a 2016 film called Searchers. You are an aspiring professional, and should behave that way. It is easy to check all these things on the Internet.
Style titles in Italics, preferably, or inside quote marks.
When writing about characters in a movie, use their character names, unless you are discussing the acting. Thus the character played by John Wayne in The Searchers is Ethan Edwards.Write, “We cut to a close-up of Ethan,” or, “John Wayne does an excellent job of portraying Ethan’s determined mood.”
In your first mention of a real rather than a character name, use both first and last names – “John Wayne,” “John Ford.” Subsequently, use only last names; even in the unlikely event that you were a personal friend of John Wayne’s, or John Ford’s, do not call either of them “John” in a paper. I was a friend of the late “experimental” filmmaker Stan Brakhage, but when writing about his films, I refer to him as “Brakhage.”
When you include a direct quote from another source in your paper, you must get that quote exactly right. So many times, students get the quote wrong by introducing bad grammatical errors. Learn to copy and paste. If you are using a source for which that is not possible, such as (I would hope!) a printed book, recheck your quote word by word against the source after you have typed it, looking back and forth between your screen and the source one word at a time.
Always run spell and grammar check just before turning your work in. These valuable tools will not catch every mistake, or course; common mistakes as “camera angel” make logical sense in English, and so they will pass through these tools. Also, recent versions of MS-Word are annoyingly fussy about suggesting writing improvements to sentences that are not grammatically incorrect. I find nothing wrong with “this type of cut was considered a mistake to be avoided,” as I wrote earlier, but Microsoft thinks I should drop “considered.” Word also thinks “rephotographed” is not a word. Just check a dictionary in such cases. (Those guys should stick to their coding!) But so many errors in papers would have been caught by spell and grammar check. In addition, proofread your papers carefully. Including errors such as missing words that anyone would recognize as mistakes just makes you look careless and, again, unprofessional. Every time you write something, think of it as training for that crucial job application letter that might make or break your career! And if you find proofreading or other errors in anything I write, please do email me!
Last revision August 24, 2018.