Getting Familiar with Some Essential Film Studies Terms

By James Cateridge

Part of Film Studies For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Being able to talk the talk is essential when comparing notes with other film buffs or when starting out on a film studies course. To that end, here’s a basic glossary of terms that are vital when analysing or researching films:

  • Classical cinema: Not only those films made at the height of the Hollywood studio system between about 1930 and 1960, but also a set of stylistic conventions (for example, soft-focus close-ups of glamourous stars) and storytelling techniques (including goal-oriented protagonists).

  • Continuity editing: How to make the relationship between time and space appear seamless, Hollywood-style.

  • Diegetic sound: Sound with an identifiable source on or off screen and which comes from the fictional world. Musical score is usually non-diegetic.

  • Film grammar: Rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling, which help you to make sense of the images passing on screen.

  • Film noir: Whether seen as a genre or a style, definitely dark, deadly and delicious.

  • Genre: Movie categories that the film industry uses to streamline production and market a film to its target audience. Or, how you organise your DVD collection.

  • Melodrama: Used by the film industry as a term for all kinds of films, tends to mean glossy, emotional women’s pictures in film studies.

  • Method acting: Not, as is commonly assumed, acting by losing yourself in your character. The method uses an actor’s own personal experiences as a memory bank to evoke emotional responses.

  • Mickey Mousing: When music or sound effects imitate on-screen movement. Most commonly found in cartoons, but often used in film for comedic effect.

  • Mise-en-scène: French for ‘stuff put into the frame’. In other words: sets, costumes, actors, props and decor, and how all these elements are organised within the frame.

  • Mode: An overarching type or style of film-making. For example: documentary or animated films.

  • Montage: Certain Russian film-makers’ radical theory of editing, which sticks images together not for coherence, but for some other intellectual reason.

  • Production cycle: Historically, specific instances of genres, such as 1970s teen-slasher films. Cycles tend to be sparked off by a surprise hit film, which leads to a host of imitators and eventually to market saturation.

  • Propaganda: Films that attempt to persuade their audience to believe a viewpoint, often a political one. Whether such films are considered to be morale-boosting patriotism or devious propaganda is a question of which side you’re on.

  • Realism: A style of fiction film-making that aims to feel like real life. Owing to its development from photography, people consider cinema to be more ‘real’ than other art forms. The ways in which cinema represents reality on screen change over time and between cultures.

  • Star image: Everything you know and enjoy about a star, including their performances on screen and how their characters function within film narratives, but also their publicity and private life.

  • Vertical integration: The powerful Hollywood majors employed production staff, made films, distributed them and showed them in their own cinemas ‒ a great system, but not terribly good for fair competition.