Filmmaking Vocabulary: Guide for Beginner Filmmakers (2023)
Filmmaking and the film industry have many specialist words and phrases, and it is important for anyone interested in a career within film to familiarise themselves with some of the most commonly used terminology.
Below is a glossary of film production terms, as well as words associated with film and movies within the English language.
Filmmaking vocabulary & terminology: sorted alphabetically from A to Z
Table of Contents
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Terms Starting With A
Abby Singer Shot
An Abby Singer shot is the name for the second-to-last shot of the day. It is named after Abby Singer, a famous assistant film director and production manager.
An aerial shot is a shot filmed from high above. The shot is typically obtained from a plane, drone, or other aerial device. When an aerial shot opens a film, it is referred to as an 'establishing shot'.
Ambient light is natural light or pre-existing light in a location before any additional lighting is added. Ambient light is typically soft.
Anamorphic format is the cinematography technique of shooting a widescreen picture on standard 35 mm film or other visual recording media with a non-widescreen native aspect ratio. It also refers to the projection format in which a distorted image is "stretched" by an anamorphic projection lens to recreate the original aspect ratio on the viewing screen.
'Angle' refers to the position of the camera in relation to the subject. This could be a high-angle looking down, a low-angle shot looking up, or even a 'Dutch' angle where the camera is tilted on the y-axis.
Animation is a type of filmmaking in which individual drawings of inanimate objects are filmed one frame at a time. This creates the illusion of movement. Famous animated films include The Lion King and Finding Nemo.
An aperture is the opening of a camera lens that controls the amount of light allowed to pass through and actually contact the film.
Apple boxes are wooden boxes or crates of varying sizes with holes on each end that are primarily used within film production. These boxes are specialized pieces of equipment belonging to the grip department.
If you’re planning on filming for several hours, the natural light will change as the sun moves. Artificial lighting gives filmmakers control over the source of light.
An Art Director is generally responsible for the feel, look, construction, and design of the set. This includes determining the placement for props.
An aside is when a film character breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience. Examples of this can be seen in Fight Club and in TV series House of Cards.
Aspect ratio is the relative length and width of an image. Early cinema used more of a square shape (4:3), whereas today's movies and television are more of a rectangle.
An assembly is the first step in editing. All the shots are arranged by their order in the script.
On a movie, an Assistant Director essentially manages the production. They are integral to keeping the film schedule on track, and tasks can include creating storyboards and shot lists, preparing the call sheet and tracking daily progress against the overall schedule.
Terms Starting With B
A backdrop is to a huge photographic painting or backing seen in the background of a scene. It typically portrays a landscape, such as mountains. Backdrops were more commonly used before film studios either shot on set or used green screens.
Background is anything within the rear plane of action. Anything occurring in the front plane of action is referred to as the foreground. It is often abbreviated as “b.g.”
Background music is the score or music heard in the background of a scene. Generally, this music helps set the tone or mood of the scene.
Backlighting is the lighting placed behind the subject so that it faces the camera and helps to separate the subject from the background.
Back projection (aka rear projection) is a photographic technique in which a live action scene is filmed in front of a transparent screen where a background is added later. It was commonly used to portray actors driving in a car.
Balance is an overarching term about how the light, movement, and sound all work together within a single scene.
A Best Boy is the aide, assistant, or technical assistant for the key grip or gaffer. The best boy is responsible for coiling and routing all of the power cables needed to run the lights. The best boy may also schedule what people and equipment are needed on a given day of a shoot.
A biopic is a biographical film about a real-life subject. It is often seen as a sub-genre of dramas and epics. Examples of biopics include Frida (about Frida Kahlo) and Walk the Line (about Johnny Cash)
A blue screen (also known as green screen) is an evenly-lit, monochromatic background that actors perform in front of. The blue (or green) is then replaced with the desired background through chroma-keying. Many films made today heavily utilize blue or green screens.
Bookends are when the opening and end scenes of a film complement one another. It can help tie a film together, much like a framing device.
A bounce board is a device used to reflect light during filming. It is typically a solid white surface constructed out of poster board or foam. It helps add soft light to a scene.
Bracketing is the process of shooting the same scene multiple times using F-stops resulting in different exposures. An F-stop is the ratio of the focal length of a lens to the entrance pupil’s diameter.
Terms Starting With C
A call sheet is a schedule given to crew members over the course of the film’s production. It lets every department member know when they are to arrive on set. It also lists which actors are necessary for which scenes.
A call time (or calltime) is the time the cast and crew of a production needs to be on the set, ready to work. The crew usually has an earlier calltime than the actors because they need to get everything ready for shooting.
A cameo is brief appearance by a famous actor, director, or celebrity in a film.
A camera is the most basic, essential machine necessary for filmmaking. The camera captures images using the lens, aperture, magazine, viewfinder, and other quintessential components. They range in size from immense IMAX cameras to modern smartphones.
A camera angle refers to the point of view the camera operator chooses to photograph a subject. Some of the most basic camera angles include high angles, low angles, 'Dutch' angles, and eye-level shots.
Camera movement is the act of moving the camera to capture various angles and perspectives. Some examples of common camera movements include pan, track, tilt, and zoom.
A Camera operator is the person responsible for operating the camera. The camera operator works under the supervision of the director as well as the director of photography.
Cannes Film Festival
The Cannes Festival, until 2003 called the International Film Festival and known in English as the Cannes Film Festival, is an annual film festival held in Cannes, France, which previews new films of all genres, including documentaries, from all around the world.
'Cast' is a collective term for the actors in a film. A cast is generally divided into two categories: the leads and the supporting characters.
Casting directors are responsible for finding actors who best match the roles in a film.
A cel is an individual hand-drawn sheet for a cartoon. It represents a single animation frame that allows for multiple layers of composition. Several character cels will be placed against the same background cel to show movement.
CGI is computer-generated imagery used in filmmaking to create special effects and the illusion of motion. It can be used to create giant, fantastical creatures or create crowd scenes without having to use extras.
A clapperboard is the black-and-white board or slate with a hinged top traditionally used to display information of the shot on the screen. It typically contains information about the director, title of the movie, and take being filmed.
Claymation is a style of animation where the characters are made out of clay, plasticine, or putty. The characters are then filmed, generally through stop motion animation.
A close-up is the shot taken from a very close distance to the subject. A single object or part of an actor’s body will appear in the frame. This is to ensure the audience focuses on a specific item.
Composition is the way in which different elements of a scene are arranged on the frame. This refers to the lighting, movement of the actors, props, lines, and other figures.
Contrast is the difference in light and shadow in a scene. A frame with high contrast has a sharp delineation between the bright and dark elements. The opposite of this is known as low contrast.
Coverage is the term to describe all of the shots, including reverse angles and close-ups, a director obtains in addition to the master shot. Having “proper coverage” means to have all of the necessary shots to put together a complete film.
A crane shot is the camera shot taken from a huge camera dolly or another electronic device, such as a crane, resembling an extendable arm or boom. It can raise the camera high above the ground, allowing the camera to move in practically any direction. They provide a form of overhead view of the scene.
The term 'crew' refers to the collective of individuals involved with the technical side of making a film.
A cue is the signal for an actor to start performing. Typically, a cue will be one actor’s last line of dialogue, signaling to the other person in the scene to start. However, a cue can also come from the director or from within the script.
Terms Starting With D
Dailies are copies of the footage shot on the previous day and reviewed. Directors will review this footage at the end of the day (or start of the next day) to see what they have so far. Dailies are vital for making sure continuity is correct and sound quality is good.
Deep focus shot
A deep focus shot is a cinematography technique portraying great depth of field. Wide angle lenses are used with small lens apertures to create a sharp focus in both distant and nearby planes within the same shot.
Depth of field
Depth of field is the depth of a shot’s focus in relation to the foreground, middle-ground and background. Shallow depth of field might keep only one of those planes in focus, while deep depth of field would keep all of them in focus.
Depth of focus
Depth of focus is directly related to depth of field. It refers to making an adjustment so that a camera shot keeps its deep focus throughout all of the various planes.
Diffusion is the softening or reduction of a light’s intensity. This is achieved through a translucent sheet, made from silk or lace, or through a diffuser in front of the light source to cut down on shadows.
A film's director has overall artistic control during all stages of a film's production. The director makes day-to-day decisions about acting, lighting, sound, casting, and editing.
A dissolve is a transitional edit between two scenes, shots, or sequences in which the image of one shot is slowly replaced, blended, or superimposed with a different image. It’s usually done to suggest a passage of time.
A dolly shot is the movie shot where the perspective of the background and subject is altered. A camera will be mounted onto a tripod or wheeled camera platform, pushed on rails, and moved slowly during the filming while the camera runs. When combined with a zoom, the background stretches behind the subject and is called a dolly zoom.
Double exposure is the process of exposing one frame twice so that elements of the two images are visible within the final product. It results in an effect similar to superimposition. It is commonly used to create a “ghostly” effect.
A 'Dutch' angle is a shot where the camera is tilted to one side, along the horizontal axis, producing a diagonal angle. It is typically done to create a sense of unease within the viewer.
Terms Starting With E
An establishing shot is a long shot that shows the location from a distance. It is often an aerial shot, and it informs the audience of the time and locale of the setting.
An Extra is an actor who appears in a film in a non-speaking role, such as part of a crowd. Extras generally do not receive a screen credit.
An extreme close-up is a close-up shot that films the subject very closely. Extreme close-ups are typically done on actors to showcase their eyes, mouth, or another singular part of the body.
Terms Starting With F
A fade is a transitional tool that consists of a slow change in intensity of a sound or image. A normally-lit scene will transition to black (fade out, fade-to-black) or vice versa. This also applies to sound and how it fades in and out of a scene.
Film noir is a French word meaning “black film.” It was a popular genre in the 1940s that involved dark themes and low-key lighting. Often, the protagonist was an anti-hero or private detective.
A filter is a plastic, glass, or gelatinous substance placed behind or before a camera lens. This changes the character and effect of the lighting within the frame of the film.
Film editing is both a creative and a technical part of the post-production process of filmmaking. The term is derived from the traditional process of working with film which increasingly involves the use of digital technology.
A fish-eye lens is an extreme type of lens that films subjects at very wide angles. It also has an incredibly short focal point, in addition to a practically infinite depth of field, that distorts the linear dimensions of the image. This results in a more curved image.
A flashback is a technique used in filmmaking where the natural order of the narrative is interrupted to show what happened in the past. Often, this flashback has occurred prior to the first frame in the film. It provides backstory on the events and actions presently taking place.
A flash-forward is the opposite of a flashback. It interrupts the natural order of the story to show what will happen in the future.
Focus is the degree of distinctness or sharpness in an image. You can have shallow, deep, or soft focus.
A frame is a single image. It is the smallest compositional unit you can have in a film’s structure. A series of frames will be shown in rapid succession to make up the moving picture.
Terms Starting With G
A word that features within film set terminology, a 'gaffer 'is the head electrician in the film crew on a movie set. This individual is responsible for the design and final execution of the production’s lighting on the set.
Genre is a French word meaning “type” or “kind.” It refers to a specific class of film, such as science-fiction or musical. All films in a given genre share common, distinctive thematic or artistic elements.
A grip is a crew member who sets up dolly tracks, moving props, camera cranes, and other pieces of equipment. The key grip is the head grip who coordinates all of the duties with the other grips in the crew. The head grip receives direction from the gaffer.
Terms Starting With H
A handheld shot is captured through a handheld camera deliberately designed to look wobbly, shaky, or unstable. It’s often used in documentary films.
A head-on shot is where the action comes directly to the camera. It works to increase the audience’s feeling of participating in the film. It works particularly well for 3D movies.
A helicopter shot is a moving shot, often used as an establishing shot taken from a bird’s eye view. It is generally taken from a helicopter, allowing it to weave through a landscape.
High angle shot
A high angle shot is where the scene or subject is filmed from above. The camera looks down upon the action, making the subject appear small or vulnerable. It is the opposite of a low angle shot.
A HMI is a powerful hard light that can be used in place of sunlight.
Terms Starting With I
In-camera editing is used for filming in the precise order needed for the final product. It eliminates much of the need for post-production editing. It is a quick, but unprofessional, way to create a film, often used by amateur filmmakers or students.
An insert shot is a shot occurring in the middle of a larger shot, typically a close-up of another object or some otherwise minor detail. It draws the audience’s attention to the item, providing more information. It is filmed at a different focal length or angle from the rest of the scene.
An interlude is a short, intervening film sequence or scene that appears in a movie. It does not necessarily have to be tied to the plot.
Terms Starting With J
A jump cut is an abrupt transitional device that breaks up a continuous shot. When the shot returns, time has jumped between the two scenes. This can be done to create an artistic effect showcasing discontinuity.
Juxtaposition in film, it is the contiguous positions of two scenes, objects, characters, or images in a sequence to contrast and compare them. It can also establish a relationship between two disparate ideas.
Terms Starting With K
A key light is the primary light on a subject. It is generally off-center and angeled. It is designed to selectively illuminate prominent features on the subject to create shadows or depth.
Terms Starting With L
A lavalier is a small microphone that is clipped or taped to an actor to record dialogue. It is generally wireless.
A Leitmotif is a recurring, intentionally-repeated theme or element in a movie. This motif can be a person, sound, action, or idea. It helps unify the film by reminding the audience of its earlier appearance.
A lens is an optical glass placed in a camera through which light can pass through. The image is focused before it makes contact with the film stock. There are numerous types of lenses out there, including normal, telephoto, and wide-angle.
Letterboxing is the process of shrinking a film image so that it can appear on a television screen with black spaces below and above the image. This emulates the widescreen format typically used on older, box-shaped TV screens.
A library shot is a term used to describe a stock shot. It can also refer to a commonplace or unimaginative shot.
Lip sync in film is the process of synchronizing the movement of the mouth with the words on the soundtrack.
A location is the places or properties used to film. A location can either be exterior or interior, and it can take place in a real location or on a studio lot. Interiors are abbreviated as “Int.” while exteriors are abbreviated as “Ext.”
A long shot is a camera view of a character or object from a vast distance away. This makes the subject appear small in the frame. You can also have a medium or extreme long shot.
Looping is the process in which an actor re-records dialogue during post-production. This helps match the dialogue with the actor’s lip movements on screen. It is also known as Automated Dialogue Replacement (or ADR).
Low angle shot
A low angle shot is when the subject is filmed from below. The camera tilts up to capture the character or action, making the subject seem larger than life or more formidable.
Terms Starting With M
Magic Hour is the optimal time of day for filming magical or romantic scenes with the soft and warm lighting conditions naturally present. Also known as Golden Hour, it is characterized by golden-orange hues and soft shadows, which takes place 30 minutes around sunset and 30 minutes around sunrise. It is one of many different lighting techniques.
'Martini shot' is a Hollywood term for the final shot set-up of the day.
A mask is the act of blocking out or covering up part of the camera frame with darkness or opaqueness. Most masks will be black. A mask would be necessary when portraying a character looking through binoculars.
A master shot is a long take or continuous shot that shows the setting or main action of a whole scene. Many scenes will have one or two master shots with the rest of the scene comprised of smaller, tighter angles.
A medium shot is a conventional camera shot filmed from a medium-length distance. It typically captures the actor from the waist up, while a medium close-up is from the chest up. It’s abbreviated as “m.s.”
Mise-en-scène is a French phrase for “putting into the scene or shot.” It refers to the sum total of all elements that exist within the frame. It relates to the complete artistic feel and look of the shot, including the visual composition and arrangement.
A money shot is any climactic moment, revelation, or image that gives the audience “their money’s worth” even if it cost more money to create.
A montage is a French term meaning “assembling shots” or “putting together.” It’s a film technique for putting together a series of short shots that create a composite picture.
Terms Starting With N
Narration is telling of a story by providing supplemental information given to the audience by a voice offscreen. The narrator can either be a character in the movie or an omniscient presence.
Terms Starting With O
Overcranking is a technique when a camera’s frame rate exceeds 24 frames per second. As a result, the image on screen appears to be in slow-motion. This is a common technique for shooting miniatures.
An overhead shot is when the camera is placed over the actors. It is also known as a bird’s eye view shot.
Terms Starting With P
A pan is an abbreviation for a panorama shot, referring to the rotation, scan, or horizontal movement of the camera in one direction.
A P.O.V. shot (point of view shot) is a shot taken from the perspective of one character to show what the scene would look like through his or her eyes. It is generally coupled with a reaction shot to establish the point of view.
A production assistant works on television, movie or theater sets to support the producer or director. Tasks can include hiring studio facilities and equipment, attending production meetings, copying and distributing scripts, creating and circulating production schedules ('call sheets') and dealing with accounts and expenses.
Terms Starting With R
Realism is a style of filmmaking that aims to present the film as realistically as possible. Realism is further attained through deep focus shots and long, uninterrupted takes.
Rear screen projection
Rear screen projection is a photographic technique in which a live action scene is filmed in front of a transparent screen where a background is added later. It was commonly used to portray actors driving in a car.
A reel is the metal or plastic spool for winding film. Older movies would be measured in reels since one reel would equal about 10 minutes of running time. More contemporary connotations refer to reels as highlights of an actor or director's work used to get more work.
A rigger is one of the production workers on a film set who hangs, sets up, and focuses all of the lighting equipment. It is also the rigger’s job to construct the scaffolding.
A rough cut is a term used for the early edited cut of a film. All of the main pieces have been assembled in sequential order, but it may not contain all of the finer details, such as finished CGI. Rough cuts are often used during focus group screenings.
Terms Starting With S
A screen test is filmed during Pre-Production to test various elements, from costumes and make-up and practical effects to auditioning actors.
A screenplay is the script for a movie production written by a screenwriter. The screenplay contains all of the dialogue, character movements, and essential actions.
A Screenwriter is the individual who creates a movie’s screenplay. A "scripter" can either create an original screenplay or adapt another's work, such as a book or news article, into a film.
A shot list is a list provided to the film crew often the day before shooting. It describes all of the shots the director wants to get done that day.
Slow motion is running film through a camera at a faster than typical rate. It is then projected at a standard speed, making the playback appear slower than in actuality.
Soft focus is an effect cinematographers use when applying a filter over the camera lens to reduce sharpness. It will blur the image, creating a hazy light. This effect can also be attained by merely shooting out of focus.
Technically, 'soundtrack' refers to the dialogue, sound effects, and musical score that accompanies a film. However, in popular culture, it refers to an assortment of songs heard through the film, which is then made available as an album.
Special effects is a broad term for audio and visual illusions that could not have been filmed by normal means. Special effects include in-camera effects, CGI, rear-camera projections, and stop-motion animation.
Steadicam is a hand-held camera technique using a stabilizing Steadicam (introduced in the late 70s), with a special, mechanical harness that allows the camera operator to take relatively smooth and steady shots, though hand-held, while moving along with the action.
A still is a single, stationary image. It can either be a frame still from a completed movie or a production image taken from an unfinished work. It can also be a publicity shot used to advertise the fact that a certain actor will be in the movie.
Stop motion is an animation technique using solid 3D models, figures, or puppets appear to move. One frame is shot at a time while the models are repositioned, giving the illusion of natural motion.
A storyboard is a sequential series of rough sketches or stills showing what will happen in the film. It captures what the camera lens will film so that the filmmakers can outline the various shots needed.
The storyline of a film is its plot.
Subtitles are the printed lines of text displayed at the bottom of the frame. Subtitles can be used to translate a phrase in a foreign language or to describe a place and time.
Terms Starting With T
A take is a single shot of a scene that is continuously recorded. Generally, a director will film various 'takes' of the same shot. Once the director is happy with the shot, the crew moves onto the next set-up.
Time lapse is a technique where frames are shot much slower than a normal rate. This allows the action to progress much faster than in reality. This is typical for example in nature documentaries to capture slow-time events such as plants growing or clouds moving.
A tracking shot is where the camera moves alongside the subject throughout a space. The camera is usually mounted on a dolly track, and it is best for side-to-side motions. It is also known as a follow shot.
Terms Starting With U
Underexposure is when an image is photographed with less light than what would be considered proper exposure. This results in a dimly-lit, indistinct image that lacks contrast.
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Terms Starting With V
Venice Film Festival
Shutterstock/ Denis Makarenko
The Venice Film Festival or Venice International Film Festival is the world's oldest film festival and one of the "Big Three" film festivals, alongside the Cannes Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. The Big Three are renowned for giving creators the artistic freedom to express themselves through their films.
A vignette is a short scene which expresses very clearly and neatly the typical characteristics of the film that it represents.
The term 'visual effects' is used to describe anything added to a film that was not in the original shot under the subcategory of special effects. They can either be achieved through CGI or through special techniques, such as rear projection.
Voice-over is recorded dialogue that comes from off-screen or is unseen in the frame. It is often done to convey a character’s thoughts or from a narrator.
Terms Starting With W
A walk-through is the first rehearsal done on a film’s set. It is necessary for the director to establish optimum camera positioning, sound, and lighting.
Wide angle shot
A wide angle shot is taken with a lens capable of capturing a wider field of view than a regular lens. It exaggerates the disparity, depth, and distance between the background and foreground.
A wrap is the completion of shooting either for the entire production or at the end of a single day. It's said that the term has its origins back when camera operators would say, “Wind, Reel, and Print (abbreviated as “WRAP.”)
Terms Starting With Z
A zoom shot is a camera shot taken with a lens with a variable focal length. This allows the cinematographer to alter the visual distance between the camera and the subject without physically moving the camera.
Zoptic special effects
Zoptic special effects is a pioneering 3D process that was invented by Zoran Perisic. It incorporated the camera system with the projector containing synchronized zoom lenses. This created the illusion of depth movement.
Learn about Filmmaking with Kings in Hollywood
Hopefully this article has helped you understand some of the key terms in filmmaking and production, and words related to film industry.
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