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Writing About Film: Terminology and Starting Prompts

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Writing about what makes a film good or bad involves a similar analytical skillset as writing about literature. However, because film is a medium that is newer and more collaborative than literature, and because film production involves very different technologies, film writing requires its own unique vocabulary. The following terminology guide is not comprehensive, but it provides a strong foundation for making sense of what you see on the screen. 

Types of Shots

shot is any continuous stretch of film occurring between cuts or edits. 

The camera’s point of view automatically tells you something about how a film’s creators intend viewers to perceive a setting or subject. Below are terms to describe a subject’s spatial relationship to the camera.  

  • Close-up: The camera is a very short distance away from the subject. This is used to depict detail. Close-ups of faces are common (usually to show an important expression or reaction), but the term also applies when the camera is very close to any body part or object. 
  • Medium Shot: The camera is a middle distance away from the subject, focusing on the subject while still conveying contextual or background information. If the subject is a person, the shot typically encompasses their head and shoulders. This is often used in dialogue scenes. 
  • Long Shot: The camera is a long distance from any identifiable subject, or is encompassing an overall view of a setting or scene. Long shots are often used at the beginning of new scenes as establishing shots that orient the viewer in a new setting. If the subject of the shot is a person, their whole body is usually visible.
  • High-Angle Shot: The camera looks down on a subject. Often used to make the subject appear powerless, vulnerable, or overwhelmed by their surroundings.
  • Low-Angle Shot: The camera looks up at a subject. Often used to make the subject appear powerful or threatening, or otherwise increase their sense of importance. 
  • Reverse Shot: The camera cuts from one shot to show the opposite view of the previous shot. This is often used in dialogue sequences to track who is speaking and put the viewer in the place of the interlocutor. 
  • Point of View Shot: The camera sees what a particular character sees.
  • Static Shot: The camera is stationary for the entire length of the shot, performing none of the movements discussed in the next section.
  • Dynamic Shot: At some point in the course of the shot, the camera performs one of the movements discussed in the next section.  

Camera Movement 

Dynamic shots can make use of several different types of camera movement. Below is a short list of the most common moves.

  • Zoom: The camera stays stationary, but the lens adjusts to move the viewer closer to or farther away from the initial shot
  • Pan: The camera stays stationary but rotates horizontally
  • Tilt: The camera stays stationary but rotates vertically
  • Dolly Shot: The entire camera moves to change the initial shot
  • Tracking Shot: The camera follows a single subject or object as they/it move(s) out of the initial shot

Shot Composition

Many decisions go into the construction of a shot beyond the camera’s position and movement.

  • Mise-en-scène: This theory, which literally means “placing on stage,” assumes that everything that is placed before the camera was intentionally put there and can be read for meaning. Analyzing a shot for its mise-en-scéne involves looking at the background setting, acting style, lighting, props, costuming, and choreography of the scene. 
  • Focus: Refers to the depth of field of a shot, or how many layers of a shot the viewer can easily perceive. 
    • Deep focus shots make use of wide angle lenses so that the foreground, middle ground, and background of a shot can all be easily seen.
    • Shallow focus shots make use of narrow lenses so that only one layer of the shot can be made out. Other layers remain blurry.
    • Linear Composition: Shots composed largely of horizontal and vertical lines generally give the impression of stability. Shots composed largely of diagonal lines give the impression of stress, tension, or uncertainty.

Cuts & Other Postproduction Transitions

cut is a break between two shots. After filmmakers have gathered sufficient raw film, in postproduction they choose which shots will make up the finished product, and how to best transition between them. The term “cutting” comes from the old process of physically slicing rolls of film. Much of this editing process happens digitally today, but we still use the same terminology. Below is a short list of some common types of postproduction edits. 

  • Jump Cut: A sudden or otherwise startling cut that provides a strong contrast to the previous shot; this cut violates the 30 degree rule, thereby dirupting the viewers' orientation and the shot's continuity.  
  • Fade In / Out: A shot gradually appears from a blank screen, or a shot gradually disappears into a blank screen
  • Dissolve Edit: A transition in which the old shot fades out while the new shot fades in. 
  • Montage: Several disparate shots are overlapped in editing so that they appear on-screen at the same time or in sequence.
  • Pacing: If a sequence makes use of a lot of cuts in a short span of time, it’s considered fast-paced and usually conveys the feeling that there’s a lot of action happening. On the other hand, if a shot is not broken by a cut for a long stretch of time, this can slowly build tension as the audience anxiously waits for a cut. A shift between fast- and slow-paced sequences often marks an important narrative or tonal shift. 

Starting Places for Writing on Film

  • Describe a shot, sequence, or scene that stands out to you. Sometimes just writing a good, detailed description will indicate an argument about how the filmmakers wanted us to see something in the world. 
  • Who are the filmmakers, and how does the film you’re analyzing fit into their career? Think of the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, musical score composers—everyone involved in the making of this film, and choose the career of one to contextualize the film in. Is it typical of their other work, or a notable break in some way?
  • Is the film often considered to be part of a wider historical or filmic movement? How does it film illustrate or complicate a certain theory, style, or genre?
  • When was the film made? How did that historical moment influence the production of the film? Were the filmmakers responding to a specific historic event? How does their depiction of that event encourage viewers to think of that event, and in turn of their present historical moment?
  • What technology was used to create this film? Does the film innovate any new uses of camera or editing technology? If so, how did this innovation influence future filmmakers