Movie Terms
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Technical Terms Used in Films

In order to fully enjoy any hobby a person should become familiar  with the terminology used. Below are some useful terms for those interested in movies. Why is this on a home theater page? Most people that have spent the time and money involved with the hobby of home theater do so to watch movies, usually more than regular TV programming. Well, here are some terms. Please feel free to write me with some terms you think should be listed here.

180 Degree Rule

The 180-degree rule is a very important aspect of being a director. It is basically a line drawn through the center of the screen (actually the camera viewplate) from left to right that cuts the screen in half. It establishes the perspective of the viewer when the film is shown.

 It is used to set up a shot for the director. For example if you have a two shot and need to flip between a closeup of one character then the other using the 180 axis helps to keep the actors facing the correct direction. You don't want both coming across as if they are looking off to nowhere. The 180 axis helps the actors focus their gaze on the proper spot.

 If a scene is shot close to the 180 axis then the audience will feel as if they are part of the action. You are literally on their eye level. This increases the intimacy of the shot. If the camera is moved above the 180 axis then the audience feels above the action, a more voyeuristic viewpoint. Spielberg used the reverse in ET, he always had the camera set below the axis, more on the eye level of a child, permitting the audience to identification with the children that where central to the plot.

 For examples you can look to many of the old school dramas, especially some of the film noir flicks like The Maltese Falcon. Look at the scene in his office where his client and he are speaking. Notice the way the camera keeps close to the axis as it shifts between each character.

Associated Actors and Artistes of America. An AFL-CIO affiliated organization that was established in 1919 and  incorporates major unions and guilds which represent actors and entertainers in the US, such as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the Screen Extras Guild (SEG).

Academy Leader
An un-projected identification and timing countdown film leader created to specifications of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and placed at the head end of a print reel. The countdown cuing information is related to "feet" which in the silent days, meant projection at 16 frames per second, or 1 foot per second.

Acetate-base Film
Film with a support that contains cellulose triacetate; also known as Safety Film.

Answer Print

The first combined sound and picture print that is sent by the lab to a film producer for approval. Also known as "approval print" or "first-trial print," it is screened for close examination of light grading, color balance, fades, dissolves, and other printing standards. The lab makes any corrections required by the producer, and often several answer prints are made before the final approval is given. When the quality is accepted, the answer print then serves as the standard by which the subsequent release prints are prepared. See also release print.

Arc Light

A high intensity light used to supply very bright illumination—provided by an electric flow (or "arc") crossing the gap between two electrodes. Used primarily for studio lighting, to create artificial daylight from the outside of interior sets, or to enhance or simulate sunlight for exterior scenes.

"Brute" arcs are large, high intensity spotlight arcs used primarily in the shooting of color films. Also nicknamed "10K's" because they require 10,000 watts of power.

Associate Producer

Nominally a producer's second-in-command, he often shares both creative and business responsibilities with the producer. Sometimes he is the actual producer of a film with the credited producer functioning only as a figurehead.

Best Boy

In film-set jargon, an assistant or apprentice, such as the assistant to the gaffer or the key grip.

Black Comedy

Obsessed with death, darkness, morbidity and macabre wit, black comedy looks into the void and returns with a devilish grin. Using laughter as a formidable defense against the absurd complexities of modern life, black comedy is essentially entertainment as survival tactic, injecting humor into situations that might otherwise be unbearable. Nothing is sacred in a genre that dares to poke fun at the unthinkable, and black comedy gleefully violates taboos with abandon.

Although grim humor has been a part of movies since the early silent era (when mischievous skeletons wreaked havoc in magical shorts by Melies), the genre didn't begin to define itself until the late 1940s and 1950s, when British comedies—in what would become a continuing and popular tradition—used elegant style and literate writing to cross previously well-guarded moral boundaries.

Body Makeup Artist

According to Hollywood union regulations, the ordinary makeup artist, usually a man, is allowed to apply cosmetics only from the top of the head to the apex of the breastbone and from the tips of the fingers to the elbows. All other areas of the body are the province of the body makeup artist.


A technique of film editors where two different aspects of the story or locations are interwoven together. Usually this is used to contrast two sets of characters or situations. Often it is used to show the audience parallel events taking place at the same time.


Similar to rushes where the director, producers and other members of the crew can see the footage filmed that day. It shows whether a scene needs to be reshot and gives the editor an idea of how the scene will work in the film as a whole.


Generally considered the most important person on a set. The director usually, but not always, has the clearest vision of the final product, is in charge of the actors and technicians, and often has a say in both the pre- and post-production aspects of filmmaking.

Dogme 95

A collective of film directors founded in Denmark in 1995 led by Lars von Trier, with a distinctive philosophy that rejected special effects and contrived lighting/staging and camera work, and espoused returning to more "truthful" and honest form of cinema. Only props found on site and music natural to the environment are used.  One such example is Harmony Korine's Gummo.

Dutch Tilt

A technique where the camera is tilted to one side to disorient the audience.

Jump Cut

An abrupt, disorienting transitional device in the middle of a continuous shot in which the action is noticeably advanced in time and/or cut between two similar scenes, either done accidentally (a technical flaw or the result of bad editing) or purposefully (to create discontinuity for artistic effect).


In motion picture production, the person responsible for editing a film. Working behind the scenes, away from the glare of publicity and the glamorous surroundings of the film set, the film editor is an unsung member of a motion picture's creative team. Yet the success or failure of a production may hinge on the quality of his work. Sharp film editing can make a mediocre production look good and a good production look even better. Conversely, sloppy editing can undo a solid script and even negate fine efforts by the director, the actors, and technical crews.

Focus Puller

The person in the camera crew that is responsible to keep the scene in focus. Contrary to popular belief most film cameras are not auto-focus. The Focus Puller works to keep the proper focus as the actors and camera moves about.


The chief electrician on a film unit, responsible for the lighting of a set under instructions from the director of photography. Under his supervision the electrical crew positions the appropriate lamps before and during a shooting session.


The all important money, the business in show business. This is another term for the box office or ticket sales a film makes, usually in the first weekend of theatrical showing. A good rule of thumb is a film is a success if it makes a substantial portion of its cost the first week of release. Tops in gate all time include Titanic, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man. Films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding cost a few million to produce and earned hundreds of millions which makes it a Gate King.


A general-purpose handyman, the movie set's counterpart of the theater's stagehand. His duties include laying dolly tracks, moving flats, setting up parallels, building platforms, placing reflectors and gobos, doing light carpentry, and generally performing tasks that require brawn.

Key Grip

The head grip on a film set, in charge of a group of men, usually numbering from five to fifteen.


A print or video tape that is reviewed on the set to see how the scene is progressing and how it was blocked and lit.

Second Unit Director

This job is usually held by the Director of Photography. It consists of shots made that do not have the featured actors in them. Usually, this includes scenery, highways, buildings etc. The scenes made by the second unit are then cut into the film to provide keys to the location, mood or the transition of time or distance.

Practical Site

The use of a real world set such as a house, office building, street etc. rather than a set built expressly for the film. While faster to get up and running a practical set imposes many constraints on the production company such as increased difficulty in blocking and lighting a scene.


Immediate prints of a single day's shooting that can be examined before the next day's shooting. See dailies and answer print.

Milo Camera

An automated camera set on a track that can be programmed to move a small distance and take a single frame. When played back at 24 frames per second the result is a manic and static movement of the actors. A type of time lapse photography.


A term invented by Alfred Hitchcock for something, usually a prop, that drives and motivates the characters but means little or nothing to the viewers. Examples would include the $40,000 in Psycho or the brief case in Pulp Fiction. Both objects are vitally important to the characters within the story but actually do little to advance the plot as far as the audience is concerned.


A small camera mounted to a harness attached to an actor. Provides a dynamic point of view from the actor's perspective. Named after two Icelandic brothers who invented it.


Point of view. A camera technique where the camera man using a hand held camera is in the middle of the scene filming from the point of view of one of the characters. This technique highlights the first person feel of a film.

Lens Speed

The relative capacity of a lens to admit light. The speed of a lens is related to the size of its aperture. The larger the aperture, the faster the lens. A fast lens is capable of capturing images on film in relatively poor lighting conditions and at relatively high shutter speeds.

Lens Turret

A rotating disc in front of a camera on which are mounted several (usually four) lenses. By rotating the turret any of the lenses can be quickly brought into position before the camera aperture. When a lens is correctly shifted, the turret locks firmly.

Lip Sync

Accurate synchronization of filmed lip movements with recorded speech sounds. In a broader sense, the term is used to describe simultaneous recording of voice and picture rather than shooting with no sound at all or with wild sound.


The use of a reoccurring theme, either visually or with the soundtrack. This is used to tie together aspects of the film to stress an important point in the plot. In Scarface (1932) an 'X' is seen in some form to denote a murder.


When the conditions of filming are such that there is a lot of 'wild' or ambient sounds the dialogue is often difficult or impossible to understand. When this happens the actors are brought into a recording studio to re-record the lines. This is referred to as looping. It is a common practice to create an alternate dialogue track to replace offensive words with those that are more acceptable for television viewing.

Wild Sound

Motion picture industry colloquial term for sound recorded without an accompanying picture or along with filming but not in synchronization with the footage being shot. Wild sound is often recorded on location by the sound engineer to capture available natural sounds and sound effects. These are later synchronized with the picture in the cutting room.


A single continuous take, filmed in a single session from one camera setup. The basic grammatical unit of the language of film, a shot may range from a single frame taken from a fixed position to a setup involving complex camera movement. See also scene, sequence.


French term—literally, the placing of a scene—for the act of staging or directing a play or a film. Derived from the terminology of the theater, the term has acquired in recent years an additional meaning in its application to the cinema. André Bazin, and subsequently other theoreticians and critics, have used it to describe a style of film directing basically distinct from that known as montage. Whereas montage derives its meaning from the relationship between one frame to the next through editing, mise-en-scène emphasizes the content of the individual frame. Its proponents see montage as disruptive to the psychological unity of man with his environment and cite such films as Orson Welles's CITIZEN KANE with its deep-focus camera compositions (by Gregg Toland) and the films of Murnau and Ophüls as examples to support their argument. The schism between mise-en-scène and montage is deeper in theory than in practice; most filmmakers employ both in directing their films. A very unique form of the mise-en-scène is used in the 1948 Hitchcock classic, The Rope. Here Hitchcock restricts each scene to one film magazine of eight minutes. When a mistake occurred during the shooting of one scene, the whole magazine was discarded and the scene was reshot with a fresh magazine. A such, the movie is a collection of mise-en-scènes. Hitchcock also used an unusual mise-en-scène in Frenzy  (1972) where the camera follows the murder to his apartment with his victim and then backs out to the street after they pass through the door. The continuity provided by this technique adds to the realism and dramatic presence the the work.


A term derived from the French word for hoisting, setting up, mounting, or assembling—hence, staging in theater usage and editing in film terminology. In the US, the term has been used in a sense akin to that of photomontage in still photography—that is, the combining of several images on one frame by superimposition. As applied to motion pictures, this came to specifically describe a sequence made up of a quick succession of brief shots blending and dissolving into one another, created to compress action and convey the passage of time. The technique, typically featuring linked images of such items as calendar pages, newspaper headlines, place names, and train wheels, was particularly popular in Hollywood films of the '30s.

The term montage as it is generally understood today is associated with the work and theory of Sergei Eisenstein, in which it came to represent the rhetorical arrangement of shots in juxtaposition so that the clash between two adjoining images creates a third, independent entity and a whole new meaning. Eisenstein's ideas of montage were inspired by the editing techniques of D.W. Griffith and the laboratory experiments of Lev Kuleshov. Eisenstein saw montage as a means of eliciting emotional responses from the audience. He identified five types, or levels, of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual, the latter capable of expressing abstract ideas visually.


A number of scenes linked together by time, location, or narrative continuity to form a unified episode in a motion picture. It is often likened to a chapter in a book, the scene being the equivalent of a paragraph and the shot the equivalent of a sentence. Traditionally, but not necessarily, a sequence begins with a fade-in and ends with a fade-out or some other optical transitional device. See fade.

Fade (Fade In, Fade Out)

An optical effect that causes a scene to emerge gradually on the screen from complete blackness (fade in), or a bright image to dim gradually into blackness (fade out). The fade is a transitional device that usually signifies a distinct break in a film's continuity, indicating a change in time, location, or subject matter. Most films begin with a fade-in and end with a fade-out. The use of a fade-in/fade-out between sequences within a film is similar to the function of the beginning or end of a chapter in a book or of an act in a play. The length of the fade should be in keeping with the film's tempo and mood. Technically, a fade-in is achieved by a gradual increase of exposure for each frame until the image reaches full brightness; a fade-out is obtained by a gradual decrease of exposure for each frame with the last frame completely black. Normally, fades are made by the optical printer, but they can also be satisfactorily achieved by some cameras. Amateurs often use a fading solution to obtain fades chemically. The gradual increase or decrease in the level of sound in a film is similarly known as a fade-in or fade-out. Thus, typically, a motion picture script would start with the instruction "fade in" on the picture side and "fade in music" (or sound effects) on the sound side.

Independent Filmmaking (United States)

Although the motion picture pioneers who made the journey to Southern California in the early years of this century could arguably be viewed as "independents," the independent filmmaking scene in the United States cannot officially be said to have begun until the late 1940s, when court decisions forced Hollywood studios to divest their exhibition operations, thereby sharply restricting their profit ratio. Without a guaranteed outlet for exhibiting their product, Hollywood studios had to compete in the marketplace for screens on which to show their films. At the same time, the rising popularity of television was keeping viewers at home and away from movie theaters. The studio structure, once an all-powerful entity, began to collapse, allowing the emergence of a new brand of filmmaking outside the traditional Hollywood establishment. This term used to refer to rather low budget films but is undergoing a change in recent years. With the advent of films like 'Shakespear in Love' and the 150 million dollar epic 'Star Wars: Episode One' the definition is changing. While technically outside the studio system these films have a budget more than some Hollywood films.

Transitional Effects

Effects produced by a motion picture camera or added optically in the lab which allow a smooth flow of film narrative by providing a link between separate scenes. The most common transitional effects are the fade, the dissolve, and the wipe. Other variations include the swish pan, out-of-focus effects, and the moving of a body or an object toward or away from the camera lens.


The period after principal photography when the film undergoes editing, sound dubbing, and optical effects. The post-production time period is often equal to that of the initial shoot. See pre-production.


The period before photography begins when final script changes are made, the cast and crew are hired, locations are scouted, and other preliminary work is finished.


A substitute for a motion picture star during the tedious process of preparing scenes, setting up the camera, taking light-meter readings, adjusting lights, etc. The men or women in question are chosen for their physical resemblance to a particular star, in size, coloring, and facial features. The stand-in may occasionally be used to substitute for the star in long shots or crowd scenes that require no acting. When a stand-in is used as a substitute for the star in potentially hazardous situations or in stunts requiring specialized physical agility, he or she is better known as a double. See also stunt man.

Stunt man (Stunt person)

A highly trained person that performs potentially dangerous scenes in a film. While the Director is in control of most aspects of a film, the Stunt Coordinator or head Stunt Man has the final say on all stunts. Strict union regulations state that the Stunt Coordinator and the actual Stuntmen involved must sign off on any stunt before it is attempted. There is a current trend for younger actors to perform their own stunts. In these cases stunt men must work with the star and certify his or her readiness.

Process Body

A simulation car, train, or any other vehicle with removable sides and front to allow interior photography, usually in conjunction with a process shot.

Film Noir   

A term coined by French critics to describe a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood. Literally meaning "dark (or "black") film," the term is derived from roman noir, "black novel," which was used by French critics of the 18th and 19th centuries to describe the British Gothic novel. Specifically, film noir was coined to describe those Hollywood films of the '40s and early 50s which portrayed the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption, films whose heroes as well as villains are cynical, disillusioned, and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure or apathetic about the future. In terms of style and technique, the film noir characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism. The dark tones and the tense nervousness are further enhanced by the oblique choreography of the action and the doom-laden compositions and camera angles.  In order to be a true film noir there has to be several components present. First, no heroes or 'good guys'.  With few exceptions, everyone is corrupt. Next, there is a crime, usually of passion or lust. Next, the central character is just barely on the right side of the law and through circumstances, finds himself pushed into the crime. Lastly, there is a woman. This woman is usually the reason the man gives into temptation and breaks the law. Often she betrays the man and makes out to her own advantage.


The person exercising overall control over the production of a motion picture and holding ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. Ideally, a producer should be a combination of shrewd businessman, tough taskmaster, prudent cost accountant, flexible diplomat, and creative visionary. But producers vary widely in personality, in the extent of their authority, and in the degree of their involvement in the various phases of production. Typically, however, their job begins long before the start of production and does not end until long after the film is "in the can." Their involvement begins where all films begin, with an idea or the acquisition of a promising property.

Whether he himself has chosen the idea or the property or was assigned one by a studio's executive producer, his responsibility is the same: to guide the development of the property into a successful motion picture. He may be assigned a screenwriter or choose one or several from the studio roster or from the free-lance market or, if he happens to be one of the rarer breed of producer-writers (Nunnally Johnson, for example) assign himself to the project. If the screenwriter is someone else, the producer discusses the outlines of the story with him (there may be more than one), and together they work out a treatment, which is submitted to the studio heads or financial backers for approval. Given the go-ahead, the writer now begins the task of writing the screenplay. Normally he would submit portions of the screenplay to the producer, several pages at a time. They would hold frequent conferences, which might or might not result in rewriting.

Meanwhile, the producer proceeds with the selection of a director. Again, the director may be assigned to the project by studio management. Preferably, he would be selected by the producer, whose decision is usually influenced by the director's proven skill with the specific type of film at hand (action, drama, comedy, etc.). The producer who can also direct or the director who also produces (Hitchcock, Preminger, Hawks, etc.) is at a great advantage: he can maintain the fullest possible control over his films. When there is a separate producer and director, they confer on the various creative and technical aspects, from the general approach to the theme to such specifics as the desirability and extent of location shooting and the choice of film stock and technical crew. The uppermost factor in the producer's mind is the limitations of his budget, whether these are set by the studio or by himself if he is an independent producer. His goal is to achieve maximum quality at a minimum price tag. This budgetary concern governs his position regarding such important decisions as the selection of cast (stars, feature players, the number of extras), studio versus location shooting, the elaborateness of sets and costumes, and the duration of filming.

Once the actual shooting begins, the prudent producer removes himself from the set to allow the director freedom of action. But he must not let control leave his grasp. He keeps abreast of the daily progress in production and ascertains that the director and the crew are functioning smoothly in adherence to the timetable and within the boundaries of the budget. He must be available at all times as a troubleshooter, in case of personality or labor conflicts on the set, or if some unforeseeable technical problems arise during shooting. Once shooting is completed, the creative producer becomes involved in the post-production phase of filmmaking. His functions would normally include supervision of the editing, scoring, sound effects, dubbing, mixing, opticals, titles, and all other steps that must be taken before a film is ready for release.

When all is done and the film is "in the can," the producer may take his film on a trial run—a sneak preview, as it is known in the business—and depending on initial reaction, he may call for additional cutting and tightening of the film or even for the reshooting of sequences. He remains with the film through the exploitation stage, co-ordinating the distribution and participating in the planning and execution of the publicity campaign for the initial release and eventual reruns in theaters and on TV.

In the past, the majority of Hollywood producers were salaried studio employees who more often than not were assigned their projects, their budgets, their casts, and their crews. They were accountable, for every major decision, to an executive producer or the studio's vice president in charge of production. The truly creative producers (like Val Lewton with the RKO horror cycle of the '40s or Arthur Freed with the MGM musicals of the '40s and 50s) left a personal imprint on their productions which was often more distinct than that of the directors themselves.

A rarity in the traditional Hollywood studio setup was the independent producer of the stature of a Samuel Goldwyn, who put up his own money and exercised complete financial and creative control over his productions. Midway between the independent producer and the studio-salaried producer was the producer who set up his own independent unit, within the framework of a major studio, an arrangement that did not always work very well, as exemplified by the Stanley Kramer-Columbia Pictures arrangement of the early 50s.

Along with the gradual disintegration of the traditional studio structure, which has been evident since the early 50s, there has been a growing trend toward independent production. Today's typical producer is not a salaried studio employee but an active partner of a studio or a distributor or whoever else might have raised the money to finance his picture. He is a packager who invests in the acquisition of a property, persuades a director and stars to commit themselves to his project, then offers the entire package to a financial sponsor in return for a cut in the profits.

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