Film Study Glossary

Terms we use in our film commentary and discussions.

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Table of Contents



A narrative or description in which the characters, places, and other items are symbols — they convey meaning beyond the story. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a familiar allegorical work in literature. In film, Network (1976), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Avatar (2009) are allegories.


An antagonist is in conflict with an opposing character or characters in a story. The antagonist may be a villain, but not always; it may also be a natural disaster or an institution or government. The true antagonist in all stories is the primary cause of the conflict.

Auteur theory

In film criticism, the 1950s-era auteur theory holds that a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision as the primary “auteur” (French for “author”). Further, when the film production is part of an industrial process, the author’s creative voice may still be distinct enough to shine through studio complexities. In some cases, producers exert a similar auteur influence.


Black and white

Black and white films are without color and are composed of shades of black, white, and grey

Black humor

Topics and events that are usually treated seriously are treated in a humorous or satirical way.


Character analysis

An investigation or study of a character in the film, h/er role, traits, personality, conflicts, etc. The character can be described as main, minor, antagonist, round, dynamic, etc. (Davis, 2008).


Used as a synonym for “movie,” “movie making”, or “movie theater”. In the technology of film and lens-based methods exclusively, opening the shutter and rolling the film records what is in front of the lens to create a movie. Over the history of cinema, specific techniques (use of lighting, film arts, film stocks, different lenses, editing, etc.) have been developed that alter the basic record obtained by filming equipment.
See Cinematography; The Cutting Edge.

Cinéma vérité

Concerned with truth and reality in film, cinéma vérité is a method of using a camera to document life. The filmmaker’s intention is to represent the truth in what he/she is seeing as objectively as possible, freeing viewers from deceptions in how life is presented to them. The camera and filmmaker are always acknowledged as they record objects, people, and events in a confrontational way.


Cinematography is an art form that is unique to motion pictures. The American Society of Cinematographers defines cinematography as a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art, and not the simple photographic recording of a physical event.
Examples for discussion—Girl with a Pearl Earring, Visions of Light

Cognitive dissonance

A theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how the human brain strives for internal consistency. A person experiencing inconsistency in thought or belief systems may become psychologically uncomfortable. Thus, that person is motivated to lessen the cognitive dissonance occurring, and actively avoids situations and information likely to increase the discomfort.

Comic climate

The comic climate, in contrast to verisimilitude, often requires the audience to suspend belief.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias refers to seeking or interpreting evidence that is partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand. Also known as the theory of selective exposure, confirmation bias refers usually to unwitting selectivity in the acquisition and use of evidence, not intentional mistreatment of evidence (Nickerson, 1998).

Continuity editing

Continuity editing is a film-making process, where related shots, or different components cut from a single shot, are placed in a sequence that condenses space and time and maintains a consistent story. A staple of film editors, continuity editing, or “cutting to continuity,” contrasts with montage editing, which aims to generate in the mind of the viewer new associations among various shots.


Day for Night

“Day for night” refers to technologies designed to simulate a night scene while filming in daylight.


Dialectic is a way of thinking where contradiction is considered a starting point and not a possible anomaly in arriving at the “truth,” a beginning, not an end to discussion or contemplation. In contrast to a logic of “proof” through empirical observation, “dialectic is the medium to help us comprehend a world that is racked by paradox” (O’Connor, 2003).

However, along the way subjective fallacies may emerge through such thinking, such as the opposing views of Marx, who focused on material forces as the driving force in the universe, and Hegel in his assumption of rationality.


The director is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the making of a film.


In the post-production process of film and video editing, a dissolve is a gradual transition from one image to the next.


A docudrama film conforms to historical facts. It is distinguished from a film that is “based on true events,” which implies a greater degree of dramatic license. The “historical drama” is an even broader category that may encompass largely fictionalized action taking place in historical settings or against the backdrop of historical events (Wikipedia).


Documentary film is an evolving concept, but the genre encompasses those media texts that can be generally classified as non-fiction. One online dictionary defines the adjective “documentary” as “presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film” (“film”, 2020).

For most viewers and critics, cinema (movies, films) is storytelling, historically relying on lens-based recordings of reality. Cinema’s basic motion is to open the shutter and start the film rolling, recording whatever happens to be in front of the lens. During cinema’s history, a whole repertoire of techniques (lighting, art direction, using different film stocks and lens, etc.) have been developed to change the basic record obtained by a film apparatus.


Emotional engagement

Philosophic discussion of emotional engagement with fictional films begins with a question that also applies to other art forms: Why do we care what happens to fictional characters? After all, since they are fictional, their fates should not matter to us in the way that the circumstances of real people do. Nevertheless, we do get involved with these characters. Moreover, because so many films that attract our interest are fictional, film theorists have pondered this question.

Ensemble cast

An ensemble cast is made up of actors and performers that are assigned roughly equal amounts of importance and screen time in a dramatic production, different from productions that develop some characters more than they do others.
Example for discussion: Gosford Park



Fictional or narrative film

A fictional film tells a fictional or fictionalized story, where believable narratives and characters help convince the audience that the unfolding fiction is real. If simulating reality (see: verisimilitude) is the goal, actors must deliver dialogue and action in a believable way to engage the audience.


A film is produced with cameras either by recording images that exist in the world naturally—or by recording images created using animation techniques or special effects. Its visual elements give movies and videos a universal power of communication. A film is considered an important art form, a source of popular entertainment, and a powerful method for educating—or indoctrinating—people.

In the broader context of cinema (apart from a physical medium), a film is a text—a cultural artifact—created by a specific social group, i.e., a society with specific cultural symbols that reflect that group and, in turn, affect it and others outside. A film study group, different from a book club or Bible study group, is interested in looking at film as an object of study—as a cultural artifact.
Example for discussion: Luther.

Film criticism

Film criticism is the analysis and evaluation of films, individually and collectively. The goal of the critic is not to attempt to reconstruct the intentions of the author, but to show the different contexts and elements that help to explain both the film and its limitations. We may conceptualize film criticism as two types of activity:

  1. journalistic criticism, that which appears in newspapers and other popular media outlets; and,
  2. academic criticism, the work of film scholars that journals publish. Film theory informs academic criticism.

French New Wave

Filmmaking in France in the 1950s and 1960s began a movement that became known as “New Wave,” considered one of the most influential moments in the history of cinema. Rejecting of traditional movie styles, the innovator group experimented with technologies of editing, visual style, and narrative, as well as with social cultural and political topics. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer were important contributors.


A frame in a movie amounts to a single photograph or graphic image.


Golden Age of Hollywood

The Golden Age is a name given to the period between 1930, when sound was added to film, and 1960 when the studio system ended.


A term derived from George Orwell’s 1984, groupthink causes each member of a group to unquestioningly follow the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus. This occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.


Herd mentality

Also known as “mass psychology” and “group-” or “crowd psychology,” “humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals” (“Sheep in human clothing – scientists reveal our flock mentality,” 2008, Feb 14).

First put forward by 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon, herd behavior in humans was also studied by Freud and Trotter, whose book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1921) is a classic in the field of social psychology.


Identification theory

Identification theory relates to emotional engagement with a film and proposes that we identify with its fictional characters.  As we identify with a character, we perceive a connection to her; then, we see ourselves in her stories. Her fate matters to us.

However, film philosophers have argued that identification theory cannot completely explain our emotional engagement with characters, because we have such a variety of attitudes and feelings toward the fictional characters we see on the screen. Even if we do identify with some of the characters, this theory does not explain why we have emotional reactions to other characters with whom we do not identify.

Imagination theory

Imagination theory relates to emotional engagement and proposes that the film helps us to imagine that character’s situation. Further, someone has suggested that emotional engagement begins with curiosity about something we have never experienced. For example, what would that feel like to have this actually happen? Because we can imagine the outcome we prefer, and this outcome affects us emotionally, fictional films have an emotional impact.

Sub-categories of imagination theory

  • Simulation theory

    Simulation theory proposes that imagining the situations and people in film brings about typical emotional responses, only the emotions are running off-line. This means that when I respond emotionally to an imagined situation, I feel the same way I would feel in a similar real situation. The difference is that I am not typically inclined to act on the emotion (e.g., anger) by yelling or otherwise responding as I would if the emotion were fully experienced.The most obvious example of this is horror films. However, in a horror film we may enjoy watching something on the screen that we would hate to see in real life. For example, watching a rampaging giant ape on-screen is something most people would not like to actually experience. Simulation theory would say that when we have an emotional experience off-line, which would be distressing in real life, we might actually enjoy having that emotion in the safety of an off-line context. While this is an intriguing metaphor, it is not clear that the simulation theorist can provide an adequate account of what off-line emotion means.

  • Thought theory

    Thought theory proposes that our thoughts as we watch a film affect our emotions. Our thoughts bring about emotional responses. For example, when I hear that a colleague was denied reappointment unjustly, the thought of this injustice makes me angry. Thought theory rejects the “off-line emotion” idea because we know that thinking can bring about real emotion. When we see the dastardly villain tying the heroine to the tracks, we are both concerned about her and outraged by the villain’s actions that put her in danger. Yet, all the time we are aware that this is a fictional situation, so there is no temptation to try to save her. We are always aware that no one is really in danger. This theory is limited, however, as thought theory doesn’t fully account for our emotional engagement either. Why should a mere thought (as opposed to a belief) be something that occasions an emotional response from us? If I believe that a fictional character has been abused, that is a moral issue. The thought of the character being abused may carry no particular emotion without a belief system. Would this be better described as moral outrage?


A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.


Kuleshov effect

The Kuleshov effect is a film editing (montage) effect demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s. It is a mental phenomenon by which viewers derive more meaning from two sequential shots that interact, than from a single shot in isolation.



Mass delusion

Mass delusion (collective delusion or mass hysteria) is typified as the spontaneous, rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population, temporarily affecting a particular region, culture, or country.


Mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and how it is arranged—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting (Wikipedia). The mise-en-scène along with the cinematography and editing of a film influence the verisimilitude of a film in the eyes of its viewers. (Bordwell & Thompson, 2003).


Montage is an editing technique in filmmaking developed by Sergei Eisenstein during the era of silent film. The term, used by early Soviet directors as a synonym for creative editing, refers to placing various camera shots in sequence in such a way as to generate new associations in the mind of a viewer. The camera shots can be less-closely related than required for the continuity approach. In French the word “montage” applied to cinema simply denotes editing.

Soviet montage theory

Montage is the principal contribution of Soviet film theorists to global cinema, and brought formalism to filmmaking. Eisenstein described montage as a system in contrast to continuity editing. He argued that “Montage is conflict” (dialectical), where new ideas may emerge from a collision between images in the montage sequence (synthesis), and where the new emerging ideas are not innate in any of the single images used in the edited sequence. His new concept illustrates Marxist dialectics. Films were produced to create symbolic meaning and focused on the masses and not individuals for the most part.

Eisenstein viewed art form as inherently political. To him the danger lies in claiming that art is neutral until a story or interpretation is attached. While earlier theories of montage sought political mobilization, dramaturgy took montage beyond the cinema and implicated film form in a broader Marxist struggle.


“A motif is a repeated narrative element that supports the theme of a story. A motif in film can be presented in a number of ways like physical items, sound design, lines of dialogue, music, colors, events, and symbols. Any motif used will vastly improve your story if it has narrative significance” (Lannom, 2019).

Motion picture

Motion picture seems like a strange term, but undoubtedly carries with it the early history of the cinema. In any event, we all understand it—just as we understand the terms “picture show” and “film.”

Multiple exposure

In photography and cinematography, multiple exposure is a filming technique in which the camera shutter is opened more than once to expose the same film frame.
The resulting image has the later image(s) superimposed over the original. Sometimes the technique is used as an artistic visual effect and can be used to create ghostly images or to add people and objects to a scene that were not originally there.



The primary purpose of narrative writing is to describe an experience, event, or sequence of events in the form of a story. Communication through both non-fiction and fiction films is in narrative form, similar to that in novels and in some history books.


Neorealism is an Italian national film movement characterized by stories set among the poor and the working class, filmed on site, and often using non-professional actors.

New wave

See French New Wave.




A parody is a comedy film that makes fun of and/or re-creates another original work – a humorous imitation. Characters or settings belonging to the original are used in a comic or ironic way in another. The US Supreme Court stated that parody “is the use of some elements of a prior author’s composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author’s works.” Airplane! (1980) is a parody of popular disaster films.


Persuasion relates to the power, intention, and/or ability to influence or direct (origin from Medieval Latin 1580-90). Persuasive communication affects emotions, therefore our subjective mental processes.

What is it about communication or a particular text that persuades us and how? I suggest that we are more or less persuaded depending on the level of knowledge, experience, imagination, intelligence, awareness, and/or belief system that we use when receiving the communication.

In a record of historical events, what is it that persuades you to believe it is or is not accurate or invented (revisionist)? Is a work memorable because on some level it is persuasive? Think of a memorable text and think about why it has endured in your memory. “I’m going to Carolina in my mind . . . ,” “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong . . .”

Further, are we concerned if the persuasion in a movie carries negative consequences—either for the viewer or for society?

Religious and political leaders, film critics, studio executives, and most ominously, many consumers agree, too many movies are excessively violent and mean-spirited, gratuitously sexual and profane, and mindlessly similar and formulaic.
—O’Donnell, Pierce (1992, p. 102)

Examples for discussion—Inside Job, Compulsion, Avatar, Enchanted April, My Best Enemy, Notes on a Scandal, . . .

Philosophy of film

Within film studies—itself an institutionalized area of academic study—film theory is a sub-field that has significant overlap with philosophy of film, even though most of its practitioners work on different philosophical assumptions than [Anglo-American] philosophers of film. This topic needs elaboration—more about this later.

Political cinema

Political cinema presents social issues or events, and usually includes a meaning or biased message that the director (or writer) shares in order to inform or to agitate the audience.


The person responsible for all the business and production aspects of making and releasing a film.

Production studio

Different from an artist’s studio, a production studio serves as a center for film production or that of other artistic product. A production company is responsible for the development and filming of a specific production or media broadcast. A production studio may or may not have a financial interest in the film or broadcast beyond that of facilities and other required components. Film productions are often shot in secured studios, with limited to no public access, for both privacy and safety reasons.


Ritual Theory

The ritual view of communication contrasts with a view of communication as simply transmitting information. The ritual view conceptualizes communication as practice that shapes societies (Carey, 2009).


A royalty-free creative work requires no pay to copyright holders for the right to use it.



Selective exposure theory

Selective exposure theory is a concept in media and communication research that refers to an individual’s tendency to favor information that reinforces pre-existing views, while avoiding contradictory information. According to this theory, people tend to select specific aspects of exposed information based on their perspective, beliefs, attitudes, and prior decisions.

Social satire

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule in a text to expose and criticize social groups, often in the context of contemporary politics and popular trends.

Socialist realism

Socialist realism is a style of art that developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values.

Guidelines for identifying a “socialist realist” film

    1. Reality is depicted in terms of its “revolutionary development,” i.e., social life is depicted not as it is, but according to official ideology;
    2. The film must serve the explicit, immediate needs of socialist construction by fostering appropriate attitudes;
    3. The film must be didactic, clear, and relatively simple;
    4. The films’ assessment of situations, past or present, must be ultimately optimistic.

Studio system

In major motion picture studios, the studio system was a vertically integrated system of film production and distribution.


The term “subjective” relates to that which takes place inside a person’s mind—i.e., emotions, prejudices, ideas, philosophies, belief systems—rather than strictly from facts.

We communicate observations (facts) and ideas (subjective conceptions) similarly through many types of media, all of which have the power to inform an audience, to excite, motivate, and create fear; the list of responses and reactions is limitless and dependent upon the individual receiver and his/her cognitive and psycho-emotional processing.

While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.
—Sidney Lumet quoted in Berkvist (2011).

Substitution stop trick

A stop trick is a film special effect that occurs as follows. A camera shoots an object in a scene, and then the camera is turned off. The object is moved out of sight of the camera; the camera turned back on, and captures the scene again. When a viewer watches the film, the object seems to disappear.




Film study glossary - Monastic scribes
Monastic scribes

A text is a complete work of communication (a body of language — a body of symbols such as the substance or contents of a manuscript or book, or an anthology of books such as the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Bible, or a painting). A text can be a recording (as a document or movie) or live content (as a speech or a musical concert). It is a narrative — it has a sequence, i.e., a beginning, middle and an end.

However, a text may simply consist of a single symbol such as a cave painting or an image at a street crossing. It is a cultural product regarded as an object of critical analysis (who produced it, who created it, what message was sent, etc).

A typical connotation of a text relates to a form that is recorded. I have extended that concept to include other forms of communication. Communication takes place between a sender and receiver by way of five methods of perception — hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. In our critical analysis of a text, can we consider all senses as objects of study?
Example for discussion: Compulsion.

Time-lapse photography

In time-lapse photography, the frame rate at which the image is viewed is faster than when it was captured. The technique of time-lapse photography can be considered the opposite of slow motion.



Verisimilitude means that which appears to be true or real, believability.

Verisimilitude is a property that a film is said to display if it convincingly depicts a world that is congruent with the audience’s expectations about what that world is like (Kuhn & Westwell, 2012) . . . the illusion of reality (Reed, 2013).


A vignette is a short piece of writing, music, acting, etc. that clearly expresses the typical characteristics of something or someone.

Visual communication

Visual communication is more memorable, known to have higher importance thus a greater impact or influence on a receiver than words alone. The visual elements of cinema give “motion pictures” a universal power of communication. During the silent film era, Hugo Münsterberg (1916)

sought to understand what it was about film that made it conceptually distinct from theater. He concluded that the use of close-ups, flash-backs, and edits were unique to film and constituted its nature.

Visual rhetoric

According to Aristoteles [sic], rhetoric is concerned with ‘discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given situation’ either to instruct an audience (logos rational appeal), to please an audience and win it over (ethos ethical appeal), or to move it (pathos emotional appeal). (Andrews, 2008, p. 70)



A form of intelligent humor, the ability to say or write things that are clever and usually funny. A wit is a person skilled at making clever and funny remarks. Forms of wit include the pun and repartee or wordplay.



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