Skip to main content
Lux Online Home Themes Artists Work Histories Education Tours Help Search
Screen Online
Learning Tours



The standard film gauge for films intended for television, though it is often used by low-budget and amateur filmmakers because of lower film and processing costs. The smaller negative area means that the film's picture resolution is lower, though this can be exploited to artistic effect (for instance, by intentionally shooting a grainy picture).


The standard film gauge for films intended to be shown in cinemas. Depending on the film stock being used, 35mm film is capable of producing an image of sufficient detail to fill even a large cinema screen.


The largest film gauge for films intended to be shown in conventional (i.e. not IMAX or other specialist) cinemas, 70mm offers potentially far greater picture definition and multi-channel surround sound. If the film was shot on high-resolution 65mm negative (the remaining 5mm on the resulting print being used for up to six soundtracks), the result is an extraordinarily sharp and detailed picture - few who have seen Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm have ever forgotten the experience. Though comparatively few films were shot in 65mm, 70mm presentations were once very common in larger showcase cinemas - although there was no significant picture improvement if the film was shot on 35mm, the six-channel surround sound was far superior to anything else on offer at the time. However, due to the expense of creating 70mm prints, when digital surround sound formats such as Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS were introduced in cinemas in the early 1990s, 70mm presentations rapidly died out - rare exceptions included Kenneth Branagh's shot-on-65mm Hamlet (1996) and Titanic (US, 1997).

8mm; Super 8

Just as 16mm is roughly half the size of 35mm, so 8mm formats are half the size again. Although the cheapest method of shooting on film, the picture definition makes it unsuitable for professional work, though independent filmmakers such as Derek Jarman have found it an ideal medium for more personal projects.


Art Cinema

A term coined to describe films made more for artistic reasons than commercial ones, often as a personal statement by the filmmaker.

Aspect Ratio

A term used to define the shape of the screen, presented in the form width:height. Virtually all pre-1950s films and all standard (non-widescreen) televisions have an aspect ratio of 4:3 (also described as 1.33:1 or Academy ratio), British and many European widescreen films have an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, US and some European widescreen films have an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphic widescreen films are usually 2.35:1. Widescreen televisions have an aspect ratio of 16:9 or 1.77:1, roughly halfway between the two standard widescreen ratios. Other aspect ratios are also occasionally used, though the ones cited above are the most common.

Auteur, auteurism

French for 'author'. The term has a specific cultural and political history, beginning with the politique des auteurs, a manifesto drafted in the 1950s by a group of French film directors and critics which celebrated the role of the director as the 'author' of a film, particularly in what was then the 'Hollywood studio system'.


Back projection

The use of filmed images as a backdrop to the action, typically to represent scenery as seen from the rear window of a moving vehicle (which in reality is stationery in a film studio). Back projection can seem laughably crude and clumsy today, but was routinely used until at least the 1970s, since filming in moving vehicles was awkward or impossible. The technique was also commonly used for special effects, combining live actors with a filmed background (e.g. a monster, an erupting volcano), or stop-motion model animation with filmed actors. The development of 'blue (or green) screen' technology enabled more sophisticated effects but was often only slightly more convincing. Huge advances in computer post-production effects in the 1990s and 2000s have made it possible to attain near-flawless integration of foreground and background.


Domestic videotape system introduced by Sony in 1975. Despite numerous advantages over its main rival VHS (a three-year head start, better picture quality, more compact tape cassettes), it rapidly lost ground thanks to Sony's decision not to licence the technology to other manufacturers - which its then chairman Akio Morita later admitted was his single biggest business mistake. Although Sony would continue to manufacture Betamax products until 2002, the format was largely obsolete by 1986, when British video distributors decided to produce retail videocassettes in the VHS format only.


Variously 'Brechtian alienation' or 'Brechtian distanciation'. After radical playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who left his native Germany during the Nazi era and was subsequently forced to leave the US in the wake of the MacCarthy witchhunts. Brecht used a number of techniques, including songs and direct addresses to the audience, in order to prevent the audience from empathising with the characters or abandoning themselves to the narrative and thereby missing the political content of the drama. Brecht's methods were embraced by filmmakers, notably French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard, as part of their efforts to shake up conventional narrative approaches, often, but not always, to political ends. In the UK, such approaches have been a feature of self-consciously progressive filmmaking, for example Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968), which mixes colour and black and white film stock and punctuates the narrative with unsettling surreal episodes. A Brechtian sensibility arguably lies behind much, if not all, of the 'reflexive' documentary filmmaking associated with Nick Broomfield and others, which seeks to challenge notions of objective truth by putting on display the process of documentary making.


Child pornography

A work that depicts sexual activity involving children. Filmmakers have to be extremely careful when tackling these issues, as the law regards a film featuring unsimulated child sexual activity as the recording of a crime, making the producers liable for prosecution. There are also considerable problems with social and cultural taboos, which have led to controversy over even critically acclaimed films such as Lolita (1961 and 1997) and television programmes like No Child of Mine (1997), even though their makers went to considerable lengths to avoid accusations of exploiting children.


A term coined by the Film Policy Review Group reporting to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 1998, to denote understanding and appreciation of moving image texts.


The person whose job it is to set up both camera and lighting for each shot in a moving image text. The cinematographer has perhaps paramount influence over the look or tone of a shot or scene, and is often held in as high esteem as the director. Cinematography is therefore the art of positioning a camera and lighting a scene.


Deep focus

The ability of a camera to focus equally on elements in the shot both very close to and a great distance away from the camera. This allows action to be photographed throughout the fore-, middle, and background of a frame, within the same shot.

Diegesis, diegetic

The 'world' of a moving image text, as indicated not only by what can be seen, or by sounds generated from on-screen actions and objects (e.g. footsteps, explosions), but also by off-screen sounds that belong to the world being depicted (e.g. birdsong, church bells). Non-diegetic sound is typically music or sound effects not generated in the filmic world but added to indicate characters' state of mind or to generate audience response.

Digital technologies

Refers to any system for recording and reading information - images, sounds - in computer-based numerical codes rather than in the older 'analogue' systems where information is directly stored on film or tape, and copies are of lower quality than originals. Besides being easier to access, manipulate and store than analogue copies, digital versions of texts are all of equal quality.


The person responsible for the physical creation of a film or television programme, who is often the final decision-maker with regard to creative matters. The controversial 'auteur theory' claims that the director should be considered the sole 'author' of a film, but this is not necessarily (or even commonly) the case.


The middle section of the chain of production-distribution-exhibition in the film industry. The distributor buys, then re-sells or rents a film property. They are crucially responsible for marketing individual films or videos.


Not so much a single genre as an umbrella of related programme types, each seeking to represent versions of reality. Documentary forms have evolved from the beginnings of cinema to contemporary so-called docu-soaps, which some people might not see as being 'documentary' at all. They are characterised by relatively 'high modality.

Dolby Stereo

Although a small number of films had been presented with stereo sound since the 1930s, the Dolby Stereo system (created by Dolby Laboratories) was the first to be adopted on a large scale. The process involved encoding up to four separate soundtracks - left, centre, right and rear - onto the film print in optical form, which could be decoded by suitably equipped projection equipment, but which could also be read as a monophonic soundtrack by older projectors that had yet to be converted. This backwards compatibility meant that Dolby Stereo succeeded where earlier stereo formats (70mm, magnetic stereo) had failed, with the result that by the mid-1980s a clear majority of mainstream films were being released in the format. In the early 1990s, Dolby Stereo was superseded by more advanced digital systems (Dolby Digital, DTS, SDDS) that offered a greater number of higher-quality soundtracks, but it remains in widespread use in cinemas. The first Dolby Stereo film was Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975), but it was the success of Star Wars two years later that ensured that it had a long-term future, when distributors and cinemas realised that the film was making noticeably more money in Dolby Stereo-equipped venues.

DV, Mini-DV

A digital video format introduced in the mid-1990s that quickly became the dominant standard for amateur video-makers thanks to the way it combined both the small size and low cost of earlier formats such as Video 8 with the possibility of keeping the image digital throughout the entire editing process (if edited on a suitably powerful home computer), meaning that the final version suffered none of the degradation of picture and sound quality that bedevilled earlier home video formats. Although not officially up to broadcast standards, Mini-DV also became popular with news cameramen and even professional feature film-makers, as it dramatically reduced filming costs while still producing an acceptable image, and the tiny cameras offered new possibilities in terms of filming in difficult or dangerous areas.


DVD stands for 'Digital Versatile Disc'. Physically, a DVD is virtually indistinguishable from a compact disc (CDs) - appropriately enough, as both media are very similar. The crucial difference is that while a CD can only store a maximum of 650 megabytes of data, a basic DVD can store 4.7 gigabytes as a minimum, and possibly up to four times that amount. This much greater capacity makes the format much better suited to storing high quality video and multi-channel audio, with the DVD-Video standard also including provision for multiple soundtracks and subtitles, meaning that the same disc can be sold in several countries. Other DVD standards include DVD-Audio (exceptionally high-quality multi-channel audio) and DVD-ROM (high-capacity computer software, ideal for multi-media encyclopaedias and games that rely on large amounts of video footage).



The process by which shots are put together into sequences or scenes. Usually described according to rhythm or pace (ie the varying lengths of the shots in the sequence) and type of transition (e.g. cut, fade, dissolve or mix, wipe). A montage sequence is a series of shots which summarise an action or build a mood, rather than playing it out in the equivalent of real time.


A general term referring to an organisation responsible for showing films or video. It is used, together with 'producer' and 'distributor', as a way of describing the major functions and structure of the film industry.

Expressionist; Expressionism

The name given to a particularly stylised form of cinema, in which the elements of shot and editing are mobilised primarily to evoke powerful feeling in an audience. Originating in Germany in the 1920s - the first major example being The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) - the trademarks are high contrast of light and dark (and later, colour), extreme camera angles and shot composition, and powerful music. The melodrama in the 1940s and '50s, right up to contemporary horror films and even some soap operas, all are indebted to Expressionism.



The practice of ending a shot by progressively darkening the image until it becomes pure black. This is usually, though not exclusively, used as a kind of visual 'full stop', signifying that the scene in question has finished. Some filmmakers have experimented with fade-outs into colours other than black for artistic effect, but these are comparatively rare.

Film noir

Term originally applied (after the French term for a Gothic novel, roman noir) to a series of notably dark and cynical Hollywood films mostly made during the 1940s and 50s. Arguments continue as to whether film noir constitutes a genre or a style, but the established features of the form include a crime or underworld milieu; a troubled hero, often haunted or tormented by mistakes in his past; a bleak urban setting, typically at night; a sense of the inevitability of fate. Femmes fatales also feature heavily. Stylistically, films noirs tend to be characterised by high-contrast black and white photography, with heavy use of shadows to expressionist effect and the employment of unusual or distorted camera angles to emphasise the psychological disturbance of their characters. Although film noir is primarily an American form, its influence can be found in filmmaking as diverse as the French New Wave and Japanese yakuza movies.

Foley track; Foley artist

The construction or approximation of sound effects using sources other than those represented on screen. Examples would include a knife piercing a watermelon to approximate a stabbing sound, or the use of coconut shells to approximate the sound of horses' hooves. The Foley artist is the person responsible for sourcing and making these sounds.

Free Cinema

Term coined by Lindsay Anderson, taken from a poem by Dylan Thomas, to name a short season of films shown at the National Film Theatre in May 1956, and which came to represent an informal movement of (mostly) documentary filmmakers. The three films in the first Free Cinema season - Anderson's O Dreamland, Lorenza Mazzetti's Together and Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz's Momma Don't Allow - were accompanied by a 'manifesto', which suggested that they constituted a coherent movement, although the films had been made independently over a period of four years. The Free Cinema 'style' was characterised by a low-budget aesthetic, using cheap, handheld 16mm cameras and non-synch sound, usually without narration, and a focus on ordinary, often working-class subjects, in an attempt to convey what Anderson called the 'poetry of everyday life'. The filmmakers rejected the documentary orthodoxy associated with John Grierson and the British documentary movement of the 1930s and 40s - although Humphrey Jennings was an acknowledged influence. Five further programmes - including three of foreign work - followed before 1959, incorporating work by other young filmmakers, including Michael Grigsby, Robert Vas, Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. By that time the founders, with the exception of Mazzetti (who returned to Italy), had moved into feature film production, each becoming leading lights in the 'British New Wave' of the late 1950s and early '60s.



A way of categorising different types of moving image texts. As it has a particular usage in Film Studies it can often sound clumsy or inappropriate when applied to other media forms, like video or television. It is more common to talk of television formats, like the gameshow or the chatshow, for example. Genres are typically studied via reference to narratives, iconography, themes, and characters which crop up relatively predictably within individual examples of a particular genre. However, it is important to bear in mind the role of the audience when studying genre. It is commonly agreed that audiences enjoy both the repetition of what is familiar in any example of a genre, but also expect to see something new.


Heritage cinema

Generally dismissive term applied to a kind of British costume drama particularly associated with the 1980s and '90s, typically adaptations of classic literary texts, as in Merchant-Ivory's series of adaptations of E.M. Forster and Henry James and the '90s craze for Jane Austen. Critics of such films complained that the films were overwhelmingly nostalgic, offering a mythical vision of England's past for a largely foreign audience, and that they suffered from a sterile devotion to 'good taste'. Nevertheless many such films found a sizeable audience at home as well as abroad.


As S-VHS is to VHS, so Hi-8 is to Video 8 - it's a higher quality variant of the format that achieves better picture quality by keeping the chrominance and luminance signals separate. Because of its compact size, Hi-8 was a popular camcorder tape format in the early-to-mid 1990s, before being superseded by digital video formats such as Mini-DV.


A collective term used to describe the output of the mainstream US film industry, which was originally established in the town of Hollywood, California. Since then, Hollywood has effectively become a suburb of Los Angeles, and many studios are no longer based there, but the term remains widely used.



Refers to single visual elements of a shot which resonate beyond their literal meaning or representation. Thus a particular kind of motor cycle in films like Easy Rider (US, 1969) has come to signify a whole counter-cultural movement. Iconography refers to a whole system of icons with the same range of reference - what in English would be called a 'semantic field'. Thus Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet (US/Canada, 1996) features iconography - boots, guns, cars, clothes - associated with specific groups of young men in contemporary Los Angeles.


Titles that appear on screen between moving image material. Intertitles are most commonly seen in silent films, where they act as substitutes for dialogue, though they can also be used as a kind of 'chapter heading' - for example, in A Room With A View (1985).


A film format that uses a giant negative (many times the size of 35mm and even 70mm) to project images of far greater sharpness and definition than can be shown in conventional cinemas, usually on a gigantic screen several storeys high. The format was invented in 1969, but only really took off in the 1990s. Partly because the format lends itself better to spectacular location shots than conventional dramatic editing, and partly because many IMAX cinemas can be found in or alongside museums, the vast majority of IMAX films are documentaries.



A domestic video system based around 12-inch discs roughly the size of a traditional LP. Despite offering appreciably higher quality pictures and sound than tape-based systems, laserdiscs never caught on in Britain - they were considered to be too expensive, they couldn't record, and it was impossible to fit an entire feature film onto one side, necessitating regular breaks. Although laserdiscs became a popular niche format with well-heeled collectors, particularly in the US and Japan, the introduction of the cheaper and vastly more convenient DVD system rendered them obsolete by the late 1990s.

Live TV

Television that is broadcast at the time of filming, without relying on an in-between recording stage. Before the invention of video recording in 1957, all non-film-based television had to be broadcast live, which is why much of it no longer survives today. Although pre-recording is much more common these days, live broadcasts are still widely used, particularly for news and major sporting events, and technological improvements, particularly in the field of satellite broadcasting, have made it possible to deliver live broadcasts from the most inhospitable surroundings. Some live broadcasts are delayed by a few seconds to allow for situations where censorship may be required - for instance, an interview with someone known to be prone to swearing.

Low-angle shot

A shot taken from a low position looking upwards, often using a wide-angle lens to exaggerate perspective.


A film whose production cost is considered to be lower than the industry average. Although low-budget films usually have to make sacrifices in terms of production values, the best of them more than match this with the kind of verve, imagination and artistic risk-taking that more expensive ventures shy away from due to their need for commercial success to cover their costs. Because of the greater artistic freedom, some filmmakers work almost exclusively with low budgets, even after their reputation has become sufficient to attract larger ones: Derek Jarman is a particularly good example.


Major; Majors, The

A term referring to the largest and most powerful companies in the industry at any particular time. It is most often applied to Hollywood companies, but British organisations such as Rank and EMI have merited the 'major' tag at some point in their existence.


A form of drama relying on an unrealistic, exaggerated style, often involving heightened emotion. Melodrama is often despised by critics for its deliberate avoidance of realism, but it can be immensely popular - Titanic (1997), for instance, is pure melodrama, and the so-called Gainsborough melodramas were amongst British cinema's biggest box-office successes in the 1940s.

Metteur en scene

French term for a film director. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the critics of French journal Cahiers du Cinema used the term somewhat disparagingly to describe directors whose work was neither distinguished nor thematically consistent enough to make them worthy of being considered auteurs.


Although mime is a theatrical tradition that goes back centuries if not millennia, in a specifically film and television context the term refers to the practice of pretending to be producing a sound that is in fact being generated elsewhere. Good examples of miming can be seen in most music videos, where bands pretend to be performing what are in fact pre-recorded versions of their music.

Mise en scene

French term from the theatre which literally means 'what's put in the scene'. in the cinema it refers to the elements of a shot - the set, the props, the actors, the use of colour and light - and the way these elements are composed or choreographed.


A term coined to unpack the notion of 'realism'. Modality refers to how close to reality the producer intends a particular text to be. For example, the makers of Tom and Jerry obviously intended their animation to be some distance from realistic - to have 'low modality'. Some documentary makers, on the other hand especially observational documentaries - would like to persuade us that they are capturing a version of reality ie 'high modality'. Each text will include clues as to how high or low the modality is. 'Modality markers' might include whether there is music on a soundtrack, whether the editing is stylised, or shots are long and static.

Moving image

(sometimes referenced here as Film, Video, Television) A portmanteau term covering film, video or television texts. While not attempting to obscure differences between these forms, it should be noted that they share in common the element of duration - that is, they are time-based media. This has implications for the study of these media; traditionally, it had been possible under the rubric of 'media studies' to focus only on print and still image texts. Moving image study has been foregrounded in its own right to distinguish the important difference that duration makes.



As the term suggests, an alternative to 'broadcast', in which a particular text, or whole channel is targeted at a narrow niche audience.

New Wave

Originally coined in the 1950s (French: nouvelle vague )to describe a group of French critics-turned-directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. When British filmmakers such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson started to take a similar path, the British New Wave was born. Their films differed from the mainstream by being unafraid to take risks with subject matter and technical experimentation, while still remaining thoroughly accessible and even on occasion immensely popular. Key titles include Room at the Top (1958), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), This Sporting Life (1963) and Billy Liar (1963).



Alongside the BBC's Ceefax, this was the original name for ITV's service, which ran from 1973 to 1993. It is now simply known as Teletext, following a change of operating company, and also covers the teletext services of Channel 4 and Channel 5.


A popular nickname for the awards given annually by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Its origins are disputed but the most popular rumour is that Academy staff member Margaret Herrick declared that the gold statuette resembled her uncle Oscar. Whatever the source, the term was in common use by the mid-1930s, and by 1939 even the Academy had started using it.

OB (Outside broadcast)

A broadcast made from outside a television studio, often live, usually by means of portable cameras linked to an Outside Broadcast van, which contains the necessary equipment for broadcasting them back to the production company. Typical OBs include sporting events and news reporting, but some of the most ambitious have been state occasions such as the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (BBC, 1953), which is generally credited as the beginning of mass audience television, and The State Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (BBC and ITV, 1965), for which broadcasters employed dozens of cameras. The term is not used to describe location shooting for drama or comedy.



A type of camera movement,. when the camera swivels horizontally on the camera tripod in order to follow an action or reveal a scene.

Panning and scanning

A process that enables widescreen films to be converted for showing on television so that the image completely fills the screen. It does this by only showing part of the original film image, with the pan-and-scan operator constantly reframing to make sure that important details are always visible. Panning and scanning is a highly controversial process from an artistic point of view - not only does it involve making often substantial alterations to the original picture composition (films shot in a process such as CinemaScope or Panavision may lose up to 43% of the original image), but it can also introduce additional elements not intended by the original filmmakers - extra camera movements or cuts, for instance. Widescreen films from the 1950s and 1960s are most likely to be damaged by panning and scanning as it was common practice back then to use the entire width of the frame for important dramatic action. As television screenings became more of an issue from the 1970s onwards, widescreen films would be increasingly composed to allow for convenient cropping to 4:3.


A television or radio programme, usually broadcast live, which invites contributions from the audience by telephone, the number being advertised repeatedly throughout. The audience might telephone for various reasons: they might wish to take part in an interview (either as subject or questioner) or register their opinion in a vote or survey.

Pop promo

A promotional film, usually lasting less than five minutes, made to promote a particular pop song or similar piece of music.

Portmanteau film

A compendium of several distinct stories - sometimes, but not always, with a connecting narrative - within a single film. British examples include Dead of Night (d. Alberto Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945) and Quartet (d. Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, Ken Annakin, 1948). Now unfashionable, although one recent example is The Acid House (d. Paul McGuigan, 1998), based on three short stories by Irvine Welsh.


Anything that has already been recorded on film or videotape prior to broadcast. The term is most often used in the context of live transmissions that make use of pre-recorded material alongside the live elements.


The person ultimately responsible for the creation of a film or programme. Usually involved right from the start, the producer will either devise or purchase the original idea, calculate the likely budget, pitch the idea to financiers to raise the money, hire the necessary creative personnel, supervise all stages of production and marketing, negotiate deals with prospective distributors or broadcasters and be the first point of contact for anyone interested in the production in question. Although often disparaged as being purely a business role, the best producers have considerable creative input as well, and highly regarded producers such as Alexander Korda and David Puttnam have a body of work as distinctive and artistically consistent as that of any of the directors they worked with.


A means of disseminating information to convey a particular message with the aim of influencing people's opinions. Propaganda can take many forms, from party political broadcasts openly advertising their allegiance to dramas with more subtle, coded messages. Propaganda is particularly common in times of crisis: World War II saw the creation of a huge amount of propaganda that ranged from explicitly pro-British and anti-Nazi newsreels to films such as Millions Like Us (1943) which showed women working for the war effort and made it clear which characters the audience was supposed to identify with.


Quota quickie

A term coined in the late 1920s and used throughout the 1930s to describe an extremely low-budget film that was made solely to help cinemas maintain their compulsory quota of British films, as defined in the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. Most 'quota quickies' were of little or no artistic interest, though major directors such as Michael Powell and Victor Saville made a few in the early stages of their career, and said that it was a very useful way of learning their directorial craft.


Repertory ('rep') cinema

A cinema whose programme is based on screenings of older films that have finished their commercial runs. Although British repertory cinemas go back as far as the opening of Hampstead's Everyman Cinema in 1933, their golden age was from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, where audiences put up with all manner of technical and presentational shortcomings in order to catch rarely-screened titles in bargain-priced double and triple bills. Sadly, repertory cinemas were decimated in the 1980s and 1990s by competition from video, DVD and satellite and cable TV, and only a handful remain in existence today - the best-known being London's National Film Theatre.

Repertory ('rep') cinema

A cinema whose programme is based on screenings of older films that have finished their commercial runs. Although British repertory cinemas go back as far as the opening of Hampstead's Everyman Cinema in 1933, their golden age was from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, where audiences put up with all manner of technical and presentational shortcomings in order to catch rarely-screened titles in bargain-priced double and triple bills. Sadly, repertory cinemas were decimated in the 1980s and 1990s by competition from video, DVD and satellite and cable TV, and only a handful remain in existence today - the best-known being London's National Film Theatre.

Road movie

Genre in which the narrative takes the form of a journey. Characters undergo a series of adventures or challenges en route, and the journey of self-discovery is at least as important as the physical destination. The road movie has its roots in one of literature's oldest forms, the quest, as exemplified by Homer's The Odyssey. The vastness of the United States makes this a particularly American genre - see for example Easy Rider (1968), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) or Thelma and Louise (1996) - which resonates with the epic story of the opening of the American West. However, European and even British examples do exist, including Radio On (1979), Soft Top, Hard Shoulder (1992) and Butterfly Kiss (1994).



The basic unit of meaning in a moving image text. It can be described according to its length, or duration, the way it is framed (i.e. the camera distance and angle), and the arrangement of elements within it (often referred to as the mise-en-scene).

Soap opera

A form of television drama that is designed to run over an extended (and potentially limitless) period, with multiple episodes shown per week. Because of the lack of a single overriding plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, soap operas rely on a consistent setting and regular characters for their appeal. Storylines are often based on current social issues - EastEnders was praised for raising awareness of HIV and schizophrenia in its sensitive handling of the subjects. The term 'soap opera' is American and refers to soap companies' sponsorship of 1930s radio series that pioneered the form. The two most-watched soap operas on British television are Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) and EastEnders (BBC, 1985-), while others include Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2003) and Emmerdale (ITV, 1972-), all of which have been broadcast continuously since their debuts. There are also a great many imported soap operas, especially from Australia (Neighbours, Home and Away) and the US (Dallas, Dynasty, Melrose Place, Sunset Beach)


A film or television programme that pokes fun at specific films, genres or people for comic or satirical effect. Harry Enfield's Norbert Smith: A Life (Channel 4, tx. 3/11/1989) is a perfect example - this spoof documentary about the life and work of a nonexistent actor (played by Enfield) allows him to parody a wide range of British acting styles from the 1930s to the present day, quite apart from the programme's very format being a spoof of overly reverential TV documentaries.


Often used as a derogatory term for a quickly drawn or 'stock' character, and criticised as lazy or deliberate misrepresentations of people or groups. Actually stereotypes have a specific function and force in any text, which it is often useful to explore in a reasonably unprejudicial way.


A form of animation that seeks to create the impression of moving three-dimensional objects by filming one or two frames, moving them, filming another one or two frames, and so on. Key British stop-motion animators include Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), and Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit). Oliver Postgate (Bagpuss, The Clangers) and the Brothers Quay.


A series of drawings illustrating the way that a director plans to visualise film sequences, showing how each shot will appear. They range in quality from rapidly scribbled sketches (sometimes by the director himself) to, in the case of big-budget films with large production teams, elaborate artworks produced by professional artists. Although some directors choose not to use them, storyboards can be a valuable accompaniment to the screenplay, especially if the film is visually ambitious.


The presentation of text in the lower part of the screen, usually one or two lines at a time. Subtitles can have a variety of functions, though they are most commonly used to translate foreign-language dialogue in such a way that permits audiences to hear the original as well (something not offered by a more destructive process such as dubbing), and to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people follow the film or programme by presenting a simultaneous written transcription. Teletext-compatible televisions offer optional subtitles on many programmes for just this purpose.


Although the term 'surreal' has (too) often been used merely as a synonym for 'weird', Surrealism is a fully-fledged philosophical movement created by French intellectuals in Paris in the 1920s, whose central feature was the exploration and championing of the workings of the unconscious mind. Key Surrealist artists include the writers Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, the painters Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Although Britain did not produce any high-profile Surrealist filmmakers as such, Humphrey Jennings and Lindsay Anderson have been cited, and it is not uncommon for films to show surrealist touches.


Also known as Super VHS, this was a variation on the VHS format that produced noticeably higher picture quality (roughly 400 lines of information) thanks to separating the luminance and chrominance signals.

Synch-sound/synchronised sound

A film or television soundtrack that is specifically timed to suit the images, so that dialogue fits the appropriate lip movements and sound effects match what can be seen on screen. In order to achieve this, the soundtrack is recorded at the same time as the images in such a way that picture and sound can easily be matched up during editing.



A colloquial term for a sound film featuring dialogue, used extensively in the late 1920s to distinguish them from silent films, which were still being produced and shown for a few years after the introduction of sound. Since virtually all films from the 1930s onwards are effectively 'talkies', the term has become largely obsolete.


A system of broadcasting text and crude graphics to deliver various types of information, typically news reports, business data, sports updates, weather and travel information, programme listings, entertainment and subtitles, which can be presented against a black background or superimposed over the programme. Most modern televisions can receive teletext, which is a free service (in that it requires no further outlay beyond the cost of the licence fee). Ceefax and Oracle are the brand names of, respectively, the BBC's teletext service and its now-defunct ITV equivalent (now known simply as Teletext)

Tracking shot

When the camera physically moves along a track in order to follow an action or reveal a scene.



Professional videotape system based on 3/4" tape, introduced by Sony in the 1970s.



The most popular domestic videotape system in use between the late 1970s and the present day, Video Home System was invented by JVC and first sold in 1978. Although Sony's Betamax had a three-year head start, VHS rapidly became more popular as JVC were willing to licence the technology to rival manufacturers, and although the picture quality was considered inferior, the tapes were longer, permitting greater time-shifting. By the mid-1980s, VHS had definitively triumphed over all rival formats.


A more compact variation on VHS, with the same tape installed in a significantly smaller cassette. VHS-C was invented by JVC in the mid-1980s to get around the cumbersome size of standard VHS tapes, which made them unsuitable for use in camcorders. A VHS-C tape can be played in a normal VHS player by means of a suitable adapter.

Video 2000

A short-lived domestic videotape system introduced by Philips in 1980, that offered unprecedentedly long tape lengths achieved via an innovative double-sided system. It never caught on, as it was introduced too late to be more than an onlooker in the VHS-Betamax format war.

Video 8

A domestic videotape format introduced by Sony in the mid-1980s that was specifically designed for use in camcorders. The cassettes were unprecedentedly small for video media, being not much bigger than audio cassettes, but the picture quality was up to VHS standard and the digital stereo sound was noticeably better. The format was very popular until the early 1990s, when it was superseded by the superior-quality Hi-8 format (also created by Sony) and, shortly afterwards, digital video systems such as Mini-DV.


Short for vox populi (Latin: 'voice of the people'). Technique used typically in news and current affairs, but also in other types of non-fiction broadcasting, in which a sample of people are approached on the street, more or less at random, and asked their views on a given issue. The results are not intended to be statistically representative, but to give a flavour of popular opinion.



A film or television programme whose aspect ratio is wider than that of 4:3, the standard shape for pre-1950s films and non-widescreen television. Although experiments with widescreen formats date back to the 19th century, they first became popular in the 1950s, as cinemas attempted to stave off competition from television. Unfortunately, widescreen processes did not translate well to the small screen - until the late 1980s, they were converted via a process called 'panning and scanning', cutting off part of the original composition in order to fit a widescreen picture into a squarer frame. From the early 1990s, increasing numbers of video releases and TV programmes presented films in the original widescreen format, using black bars at the top and bottom of the image to preserve the shape. The introduction of widescreen televisions with a 16:9 aspect ratio and the widescreen-friendly DVD format in the late 1990s has made it far easier for film fans to be able to appreciate films as their directors and cinematographers intended.

SelectClick here to Print this



French for 'author'. The term has a specific cultural and political history, beginning with the politique des auteurs, a manifesto drafted in the 1950s by a group of French film directors and critics which celebrated the role of the director as the 'author' of a film, particularly in what was then the 'Hollywood studio system'.

Expressionism, Expressionist

The name given to a particularly stylised form of cinema, in which the elements of shot and editing are mobilised primarily to evoke powerful feeling in an audience. Originating in Germany in the 1920s - the first major example being The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) - the trademarks are high contrast of light and dark (and later, colour), extreme camera angles and shot composition, and powerful music. The melodrama in the 1940s and '50s, right up to contemporary horror films and even some soap operas, all are indebted to Expressionism.

8mm; Super 8

Just as 16mm is roughly half the size of 35mm, so 8mm formats are half the size again. Although the cheapest method of shooting on film, the picture definition makes it unsuitable for professional work, though independent filmmakers such as Derek Jarman have found it an ideal medium for more personal projects.

Home Themes Artists Work Histories Education Tours Help Search