Film Terminology

Abby Singer: The penultimate shot of the day. Named after production manager Abby Singer, who would frequently call “last shot of the day” or “this shot, and just one more,” only to have the director ask for more takes. Also called ‘martini shot’.

Alan Smithee: A notorious pseudonym used by directors unwilling to have their own name mentioned in the credits of a film when they weren’t happy with the final cut. Its use was discontinued by the Directors Guild of America after the 1998 satire Burn Hollywood Burn about the practice – a huge box office failure starring Eric Idle – revealed the alias to the public.

“Alan Smithee is the name used when directors disown a film, either because they’ve lost control of the final cut, or because it’s simply too awful to admit to. Smithee’s oeuvre include such classics as Hobgoblins II, Boggy Creek III, Hellraiser IV, and most famously, Dune, where he co-directed with David Lynch.” – Stephen Fry, QI series A

Best boy: The chief assistant in charge of people, equipment, and scheduling the required quantities for each day’s work. The origin of the term is from ‘pre-union’ times when the line between the Grip (mechanical) and Electric departments was less rigid. When the head of either department needed another body temporarily, he would go to the head of the other department and ask him to “lend me your best boy”. By default the second in charge of either department came to be known as best boy. Female chief assistants are also called ‘best boys’.

Blacklist: This originally referred to actors and directors shunned by Hollywood during the 1950s for alleged ties to Communism. It now refers to the annual ‘blacklist’, an insider survey that compiles the year’s best unproduced screenplays.

Champagne roll: Usually at 100 film rolls, or sometimes 100 hard-drive downloads on a digital shoot, the cast and crew get a celebratory glass of champagne.

Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This quote by Russian writer Anton Chekhov gave birth to the principle requiring that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplacable, and that everything else be removed.

Chyron: Text graphics which appear at the bottom of a screen used to describe time, place, or name of person on screen.

Cowboy shot: A shot framed from mid-thigh up. Earned its name during the filming of many westerns, when this was a common framing used.

Dolly: A small platform for the camera, designed to roll along special tracks. Although Steadicams have reduced their use, dollies have certain unique strengths. In particular, they are still used for the so-called Vertigo shot, where the camera zoom in while the dolly moves backwards, severely altering the perspective.

Dope sheet: A list of scenes from the script that have already been filmed. An accurate dope sheet is the responsibility of the assistant cameraman.

Dutch tilt: A shot composed with the horizon not parallel with the bottom of the frame. Used frequently by Orson Welles and in Batman movies.

Giraffe: A mechanically extendible and manipulated boom microphone.

Honeywagons: Portaloos.

Hot set: A set where set dressers and prop persons have finalised placing furniture and props for filming a scene and on which a scene is in the process of being shot; labelled thus to indicate that it should not be changed or disturbed.

Jib: The arm of a mechanical crane.

Macguffin: A term used by Alfred Hitchcock to refer to an item, event, or piece of knowledge that the characters in a film consider extremely important, but which the audience either doesn’t know of or doesn’t care about. A notable example is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Magic hour: The short time before sunset when light levels change dramatically and very quickly.

Matte shot: A shooting technique where painted artwork (ordinarily on glass) is combined in-shot with live action, to create the illusion of a grand backdrop. Although old-fashioned, it’s still used by Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and King Kong (2005).

Off-book: When an actor has completely memorised their lines and cues, they are described as being off-book – no longer in need of their script.

“I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day; I’m dreaming for living.” — Steven Spielberg

Ozoner: Slang for a drive-in theatre.

Pick-ups: Footage filmed after shooting wraps, usually of minor shots. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, however, pick-up shots were major and essential. Peter Jackson even went so far as to film several pick-ups for the extended edition of The Return of the King after the film had won eleven Oscars.

Quota quickies: Low budget films made in the UK in the 1930s. The Cinematographic Films Bill passed in April 1927 stipulated that all UK cinemas would have to include a proportion of British films in their programmes. The percentage varied, rising to 20% at one time. The ‘quota quickies’ were generally of a quite low quality, although some have turned out quite good.

Scene chewing: An extreme, over-the-top performance that dominates the screen. ‘Chewing the scene’ (or: ‘chewing the scenery’) suggests that actors are so engaged in their histrionic portrayals that furniture pieces and backdrops are left with big dental impressions.

Shemp: Named after Shemp Howard, the third stooge in The Three Stooges. Howard died in 1955 while still working on a film. A stand-in was used, but the director made sure his face could not be seen. Nowadays, anyone appearing on screen whose face is not seen and who has no lines is called a (fake) Shemp.

Sleeper hit: An unpromising or unpublicised movie that suddenly attains prominence and success.

Sprockets: The tiny square holes on both edges of a piece of film that fit onto the notches of a film projector.

Squib: A small explosive device that simulates a bullet hit or very small explosion.

Sword-and-sandal-epic: A colloquial term for an epic film set in Roman times or any other period, real or imagined, in which characters use swords and wear sandals.

Red herring: In a way, the opposite of Chekhov’s gun. A red herring draws attention to a certain element in a narrative in order to mislead.

Rhubarb: Background conversation by extras. So-called because extras were often asked to mutter the word ‘rhubarb’ to produce the effect of genuine conversation, with their mouths moving convincingly. Also known as ‘walla’.

Rotoscoping: Little used nowadays, this was once an invaluable technique for producing high quality animation and was a favourite method in Soviet cartoons. It refers to the time-consuming process of shooting scenes with actors in live-action, and then tracing over those images to produce an animation.

Whip-pan: When the camera pans particularly quickly, resulting in motion blur. This is often used to sneak in a hidden cut.

Wilhelm scream: Originally recorded as a sound effect for the film Distant Drums in 1951 and named after the character who yelped it out, this distinctive scream was archived in the Warner Brothers sound effects library, and was subsequently used in countless films, first simply as a generic stock scream, and later because sound supervisors and directors used it in their films as a sort of touchstone or homage to earlier films.

Winnebago: The giant trailers that stars occupy when not required on set.

Zoopraxis: An early movie process developed in the 1870s, which involves a disc that includes serial pictures being rotated in front of a light source, to create a sense that the objects projected were moving.

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”
― Martin Scorsese