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Film Study

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Exploring Language

Moving Images


"Moving images" are literally images that move. The term "moving images" refers to the images that move in drama performance, and on the film, television, and computer screen.

A movie (or motion picture) consists of thousands of frames. When a film runs through a camera, each frame is exposed for a twenty-fourth of a second and records a fractional moment of movement. When the edited and completed film is projected at the same speed, our eyes are unable to distinguish between each frame, and so the individual frames or photographs appear to us as one continuous, uninterrupted movement. The terms "motion picture", "movie", and, to some extent, "moving images" reflect this phenomenon.

The more recent technology used to record and screen video or television is different from film, but many of the terms - such as "frame" as in "freeze-frame"- and production techniques and skills are common to both film and video or television. The language used to describe the processes of making film, video, or television is therefore very similar.

In the same way as we acquire and use spoken and written language without describing its individual parts, so we come to understand the visual language of moving images without being able to describe the particular elements that make a film or television programme and that enable it to communicate meaning. We interpret and make meaning from close-ups, high-angle shots, and fade-outs before learning their names. However, our understanding is enhanced by learning how the language of film and television works, by making our implicit knowledge and understanding explicit, and by acquiring the terminology that enables us to describe, discuss, analyse, and evaluate film or television.

There are a lot of what are sometimes called filmic terms, but they are not all peculiar to film. For example, some of the following terms are specific to film, but others are used elsewhere: narrative, characters, setting, production design, composition, shape, texture, space, depth, make-up, costume, music, sound effects, frame, shot, scene, sequence, movement, lighting, colour, script, animation, editing, and cutting. .


The "Grammar" of Film and Television

Grammar provides us with the knowledge and understanding to analyse and describe how both written and oral language work. Similarly, by knowing the "grammar" of film, we can explore, identify, learn about, describe, and use features of visual language that create particular meanings and effects in moving images in film and television.

Film is not a language in exactly the same way that English is a language. In a movie, there is nothing that corresponds precisely to a word, for instance, or a question. Nor is the order of events in a film the same, or as strictly regulated, as the order of words in a grammatical sentence. However, it is possible and sometimes helpful to argue that written language and film are similar in the following ways.

Letters are the smallest distinct forms of written language.


A film's smallest unit is a frame, which is like a still photograph.

Letters make up words in written language.


Several frames make up shots in films.

Words make up sentences in written language.


Shots make up scenes.

Sentences make up paragraphs in written language.


Scenes make up sequences.

Paragraphs make up stories.


Sequences make up a film.

The nature and length of sequences in television programmes are often different from those in feature films because they are segmented for ad breaks. We discuss segments on page 178 under Conventions of Narrative.

Writing is often made more interesting and suitable for its purpose by using a variety of letter forms, words, sentence and paragraph lengths, and structures. Similarly, variety in the use of frames, shots, scenes, and sequences usually results in a more interesting and appealing film.

Summary of Terms

filmic terms










Composition is a term used not only in static images but also in film and television. It includes all the elements that contribute to the appearance of a frame - the way people and other objects appear and are related within the frame for dramatic effect in much the same way as in a still photograph or static image. All the following elements contribute to the composition of the frames that make up a film.

Different kinds of shot

Shot is a very important ingredient of composition. The term "shot" refers to the appearance of what is in each frame. This is determined by how far the camera is placed from the subject or by using an adjustable lens to achieve the effect of distance. The shot is also determined by the camera's angle and movement relative to the subject shown in the frame.

Each shot, like each word in a written text, has a purpose. The choice of shots is determined by purpose and, therefore, by genre, topic, and audience. A feature film, for example, uses different shots and also uses the shots differently from those in a television talk-show.

A wide shot or WS, called a long shot or LS in the American film industry, shows a comprehensive view from a distance. This might be similar to what we would see if we looked out over, say, a field. If a person is in such a shot, their whole body is visible from head to foot, and they may even look small and far away.

A WS or LS is most commonly used as an establishing shot. An establishing shot provides important information about the setting, environment, or context in which subsequent events will take place. It is often the first in a scene or sequence.

The size of the images on a television screen is considerably smaller than film projected onto a movie screen. Wide shots featuring broad landscapes or large crowds are generally less effective on a television screen than on a movie screen.

A medium shot or MS is midway between a WS (or LS) and a close-up. An MS of a person is usually shot from the waist up.

A medium close-up or MCU is closer still. An MCU of a person shows from mid-chest to head.

A close-up or CU of a person shows head and shoulders. A big close-up or BCU, sometimes known as an extreme close-up or ECU, of a person shows the head, usually from the bottom of the chin to the mid-forehead.

Close-ups are not simply complements to medium and wide or long shots. Their power of emphasis gives them a special place in film. They can show whatever is most significant at any given moment and focus our attention on it. A CU or BCU may reveal human emotions, such as sadness as revealed through signs like tears, or anxiety as shown by constant wringing of the hands. They may reveal private information, as in a BCU of a letter, emphasise such other symbols as police identification, or increase tension by focusing on a door handle turning.

A shot framed from a particular character's point of view is called a subjective shot. In a subjective shot, the audience sees almost exactly what the character sees. Subjective shots can also reveal how a character is seeing, as in an out-of-focus shot from the point of view of a character who is injured, just waking up, or drugged.

Another kind of subjective shot is when a character looks directly into the camera and talks to the viewer, who, no longer an unacknowledged observer, is drawn into the action. This technique is sometimes used for comic effect in feature films, and it serves a particular purpose in television commercials, where the second person pronoun "you" is used in conjunction with a subjective shot to address the viewer personally and individually.

Similar to the subjective shot is the over-the shoulder shot, filmed over the character's shoulder from behind. This shot often looks towards another character and is usually followed by a reverse-angle shot showing the face of the person whose back was to the camera.

A shot that shows two people, very common in film drama, is sometimes called a two-shot.

Different camera angles

Another important element of composition is camera angle. Normal shots are taken from eye level. In a high-angle shot, the camera looks down at the subject. Such a shot can make a person seem small, insignificant, unlikely to win, vulnerable, or helpless. A low-angle shot, which looks up at the subject, can have the opposite effect, making the character seem large, important, likely to win, powerful, and in control.

Different lenses

Composition is also affected by the lens and focus used. A wide-angle lens provides great depth of field and can capture wider spaces than a normal lens from the same distance. Foreground and background details may be separated by considerable distances, yet all the objects within the frame appear in sharp focus, although a wide-angle lens can distort the image of subjects very close to the camera. The wide-angle lens can capture action in the foreground and related or unrelated action in the background, both of which might be important.

Generally, though, the closer the subject is to the camera, the shallower the depth of field is. The long lens usually shows objects in the foreground clearly, but objects in the background are less sharply defined and may be blurred. Within a shot, the focus may be altered to reconcentrate the viewer's eyes on what is in focus by pulling or racking focus.

A telephoto lens shot has little depth, but the use of a such a long lens can bring the subject very close. This lens enables a photographer to capture easily frightened or dangerous wildlife in its natural habitat or the detail of sporting action in a way otherwise impossible.

A zoom lens or zoom combines the optical properties of normal lenses with those of wide-angle and long lenses, enabling movement from wide-angle to telephoto, or the opposite, within the same shot. The zoom can easily be overused and often is by amateur, student, or inexperienced film or video camera operators.


It is sometimes helpful to consider a shot in terms of movement, which occurs within a frame when the subject of the shot moves. The frame itself moves when the camera is fixed but pans by moving on its horizontal axis, for instance, as it pans across the horizon of a countryside location or follows a character walking across a playground. The frame also moves when the camera tilts up or down on its vertical axis or when the lens zooms in or out.

The camera itself moves when the camera tracks the subject. Sometimes, actual tracks are laid on the ground - hence the term tracking - or the camera may be mounted on a vehicle or trolley called a dolly, from which we get the term dolly shots. The camera may be hand held to follow the subject. Cameras may also move up or down while attached to a crane, producing crane shots, or they may produce aerial shots from an aircraft or helicopter.

Summary of Terms


reverse-angle shot

zoom lens




wide shot (WS)

camera angle


long shot (LS)

high-angle shot


establishing shot

low-angle shot


medium shot (MS)



medium close-up (MCU)



close-up (CU)

wide-angle lens


big close-up (BCU)

long lens

dolly shots

extreme close-up (ECU)

pulling or racking focus

crane shots

subjective shot

telephoto lens

aerial shots

over-the-shoulder shot





Let There Be Lights!

Lighting, contrast, and colour all contribute to the impact of the composition within the frame. Lighting enables directors to show people or objects in the way in which they want them to be seen, highlighting particular people, emotions, moods, or objects.

Every shot is lit by either natural or artificial light or a combination of both. Sometimes, one of the sources of light is visible in the shots and may be part of the action, such as car headlights, searchlights, a torch, or fire. However, it is more usual for the source of light to be off-frame.

Amateur video cameras have a key light on the camera to help illuminate the subject and prevent unwanted facial shadow, but this may cause the subject's face to look flat and untextured. Depending on the purpose and context of the shot, and how the shot should be lit to achieve appropriate emphasis, the scene may need to be lit from several different angles at the same time.

A silhouette or halo effect is achieved by lighting the shot from behind the subject. Silhouettes can make characters seem more mysterious and actions more dramatic. Shadows may increase the sense of depth in a shot, heighten suspense, obscure a character's identity, or make a shot look more abstract.

Underlighting or lowlighting, in which the light shines up from below the subject, can make people or things appear gloomy, grotesque, or unworldly. Sidelighting emphasises shadows, making people or objects appear gaunt or sinister.

Too much light on the film may lead to the shot being overexposed. Overexposure can be used deliberately to create an unreal or dreamlike effect. Underexposure can also be intentionally used to create the effect of darkness.


Colour is widely used in film and television for purposes similar to those on the stage. The lighting may be selected to emphasise a particular colour range in order to convey a mood or meaning. Blue light in film, in television, or on the stage might symbolise a mood of anxiety or depression, whereas bright white light may indicate happiness or innocence. Red light might be used to indicate danger or to enhance violent or bloodthirsty action.

Film Stock

The choice of film stock determines both the lighting and the colour of the final film. Some film-makers still choose to shoot mainly or completely in black and white, especially to show tense, realistic action in particular periods, as in Schindler's List. More commonly, colour film is used, and the qualities of different film stocks are combined with lighting to give particular effects.

In the classic western film, High Noon, for instance, the flat, washed-out lighting and the choice of a particular film stock together produced a grainy, newsreel quality, giving the film a realistic appearance. The sky's white, cloudless, burnt-out look helped emphasise the hardness of the townsfolk who refused to help their sheriff defend the town.

Summary of Terms




key light


film stock






Although we might be most immediately conscious of the visual aspects of what we see on a screen or a stage, the visual images and sound in film or television complement each other and work together to communicate meanings. A simple way of confirming this is to view a film or television sequence without sound or to view it with a different and inappropriate soundtrack.

The soundtrack should tell us something about a scene that the visual images themselves don't. Sirens wailing or dogs barking might indicate onscreen or offscreen criminal activity, danger, or death. A clock ticking may indicate the passage of time and raise suspense. The cry of a morepork may emphasise the eerie nature of the night.

Dialogue, sound effects, and music all contribute significantly to the story-telling process in film.

Dialogue is not just a matter of the words that are spoken but also of how they are said. Dialogue reveals a range of emotions and communicates the relationships among characters as well as contributing to the narrative. The Oral Language section includes a discussion of intonation and how it reflects speakers' attitudes. This information tells us that listeners are skilled at detecting shades of meaning from pitch and intonation. The skilled performer therefore ensures that dialogue is delivered so that it conveys the nuances that meet the purposes of the film.

During filming, the sound recordist records dialogue as well as natural sounds or sound effects. If a performer does not at first achieve the right emotion or emphasis in delivering the lines, the speech can be "post-synched": the performer will rerecord the lines in a sound studio while listening to the originally recorded lines on headphones. The newly recorded version is then synchronised with lip movement on the screen.

Sound effects include all onscreen and offscreen sound except dialogue and music. Such sound effects as footsteps or food being chewed may be made by the actions of onscreen characters, but they may need to be enhanced or even replaced with new prerecorded sounds. The sound heard when a baby dinosaur hatched in Jurassic Park was produced by a sound effects artist squeezing an open bottle of detergent and adding that to the soundtrack in post-production. Stroking a pineapple recreated the sound when Laura Dern petted a dinosaur in the same movie.

Atmos, as in atmospheres, refers to environmental sounds such as dogs barking, birds singing, the wind blowing, or rain falling.

Effects, known as FX, are all the other sounds not made by the characters, such as car horns blowing, tyres screeching, or aircraft engines roaring.

The function of music in a film is usually similar to the design elements of a set - not drawing attention to itself for its own sake but establishing or reinforcing the mood of the film or enhancing its meaning. Some older films use music quite obtrusively at almost all dramatic or poignant moments. This convention is now used infrequently, but it is sometimes used in deliberate parody of the genre. Music may also be integrated into the action of the film by such strategies as having a character turn on a radio or tape or play a musical instrument. The specially composed music for The Piano is one of many instances of music as an integral part of a film.

Silence can be the most powerful aspect of sound in a film. It can enhance suspense, fear, or horror. A voice, a sound effect, or music after a silence can surprise or shock the audience, either heightening or relieving their anxiety.

Summary of Terms





effects (FX)


sound effects





Special Effects

The visual language of film and television includes a wide range of special effects, or SFX. Increasingly sophisticated technologies enable producers to create a tremendous variety of effects that communicate mood, information, and meanings and can be integrated with the total composition to achieve the intentions of the film.

Computer technology, especially the rapidly developing digital computer technology, is one area of innovation that has greatly increased the available choices of special effects. This has made the management of many special effects and animation easier. It has revolutionised the special effects possibilities, and we see the results on our television or computer games screens.

Some of the most common special effects are optical effects achieved during editing and processing. These include dissolves, fades, and wipes between one shot and the next, which we define in the following pages. Other optical effects are the superimposition of one picture on another or of titles and credits and double or multiple exposures. Some effects are created within the camera itself by the use of different filters. Stunt people, make-up artists, and model makers also create special effects.

Ingenious special effects have been devised in the interests of time, money, safety, and imagination, such as miniature or model figures that are shot to look full size. Science fiction movies often have examples of this technique.

At the heart of many special effects is the technique of stop-motion photo-graphy, in which shooting is interrupted often while the scene is rearranged. Animation is created when a drawing or object is changed slightly between every shot - around twenty-four times for each second of completed film. When the film is screened, the drawings or objects seem to come alive, changing shape and moving. Animation is the technology used in many imaginative children's films, including retellings of legends and fairytales. Watership Down and the video, The Magical World of Margaret Mahy, which contains short animated films of five of Margaret Mahy's most well-known stories, are good examples.

Animation may be chosen as the most appropriate way of conveying meaning when the purpose is to heighten the sense of magic or to keep a distance between the narration and the viewer.

Summary of Terms

special effects (SFX)


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