Film: Developing a critical vocabulary

Towards a visual literacy...

As already mentioned, this option is not about film analysis per se, nor does it depend on a a highly developed critical understanding of the way film works. The choice of one or more texts in this option has more to do with the idea of using film adaptation or transformation as a means to cast light on the original text, but exploring its presentation in a different format.

In order to achieve this, however, at least some familiarity with the more obvious terms used to describe, analyse and interpret film technique will provide students with a useful currency.


The language associated with film analysis will inevitably cross-refer in some respects with the way in which we talk about exclusively literary works. Elements of content such as character, setting, action and theme will present themselves just as forcibly. Equally, discussion of form and structure, use of dialogue, plot and story, motif, imagery and symbolism, can be said to important to the examination of film as of literature. However, there are obviously a range of important terms that are exclusive to the analysis of film, with which it would be helpful for your students to become familiar.

Some of the more important references, perhaps, are as follows:

Camera Distance
Extreme Long shot Image of e.g. a view of scenery or a large group of people
Long shot Image of a complete character or characters in a particular setting
Medium shot Image of a a person or several people e.g. from the waist up
Two person shot Image of two people, usually from the waist up
Close up Image of a person's face
Extreme close up Image of e.g. an eye, hand or other object in significant detail
Point of view
Establishing shot Often used at the beginning of a scene to identify a particular place or setting
Point of view shot Shows the scene from the perspective of a particular character
Reaction shot Short shot that details the reaction of a particular character
Camera Movement
Panning shot remaining fixed, the camera moves horizontally from left to right, or vice versa
Tracking shot the camera moves alongside the subject, e.g. a running race
Zoom the camera moves in towards its subject, or out and away from it
Camera angle
Overhead shot long or extreme long shot from the air looking downwards
High angle shot shows people or objects from above, e.g. higher than eye level
Low angle shot shows people or objects from below eye level
Eye level shot shows people from the level of a person's eyes
Punctuation
Cut a switch from one image or shot to another
Fade-in an image or shot appears gradually, becoming increasingly brighter
Fade-out an image or shot gradually fades from light to dark
Dissolve the end of one image or shot moves seamlessly into another
Sound/Misc
Voiceover commentary is heard but the speaker is not in-shot
Ambient sound background music or noise within a particular scene
Diegtic sound music or sound that is produced visibly, on screen
Nondiegetic sound music or sound that does not occur within the screen space
Montage dissimilar shots edited together, making obvious their discontinuity

Click here to download this table as a resouce


There are plenty of online materials for helping students to develop critical sensitivity to the craft of film making, for instance:

These are just a few, more or less random sites out of hundreds, perhaps thousands, you can find.  

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