Dictionary of Film Terms

The Aesthetic Companion to Film Art – Fifth Edition

by Frank Beaver (Author)
©2015 Textbook XVIII, 344 Pages


Now in its fifth edition, Frank Beaver’s Dictionary of Film Terms has become an indispensable reference tool for the study of films and filmmaking. This trusted and practical handbook clearly and concisely defines the essential terms of film analysis and film art, with a special focus on the aesthetic parameters and values of filmmaking.
The updated and expanded edition includes new definitions ranging from «bullet-time» optical effects, to the coming-of-age narrative, and LED lighting technology in science fiction films such as Gravity. More than 200 film title references not cited in previous editions have been added. Many classic and contemporary photo stills are included to illustrate terms. Extensive cross-referencing among individual definitions ensures easy access to interrelated terms, and a comprehensive topical index relates to larger concepts of film art.
This up-to-date and comprehensive resource is a useful companion for film students and filmgoers, who will find it illuminating in its range and clarity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Praise of the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • H
  • I
  • J
  • K
  • L
  • M
  • N
  • O
  • P
  • Q
  • R
  • S
  • T
  • U
  • V
  • W
  • Z
  • Term Index
  • Movie Index
  • Topical Index
  • Artist Index

← viii | ix → Foreword

Throughout his academic career, Professor Frank Beaver has opened the world of film for countless people through his reverence, enthusiasm, and affection for the cinema. Not long after I entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, I heard the student buzz about Professor Beaver’s courses. It was the general consensus that his classes were unofficially mandatory regardless of your major field of study. This was not about the usual lure for undergraduates who discover that they can earn college credit for watching movies; rather, Professor Beaver had the reputation for expanding students’ cultural awareness and worldview. In his courses one discovered, and studied with substantial rigor, the masterworks of world cinema new and old, and came to understand filmmaking as a universal art form linking us across cultures and to our own history. Yes, he had a vast knowledge of film history, theory, and practice, but Professor Beaver’s real magic was in his talent and dedication as a teacher. He had a rare ability to truly connect people to cinema, fostering an understanding of the art form and a deeper engagement with films no matter where or how they are produced—from Hollywood to India, from commercial movies to auteur films, from experimental shorts to widescreen epics.

← ix | x → This same spirit jumps off every page of Frank Beaver’s excellent dictionary. This volume is more than an extended glossary or a dry list of key terms and their definitions. As cinema’s Samuel Johnson, Frank Beaver has thoroughly catalogued, with precision and nuance, the essential terms used in the world of film production and scholarship. He has also expanded many of these definitions with an extensive range of examples and references informed by his historical and cultural acuity. Looking up the word “archetype” yields no fewer than five film references, each serving as an example for a different facet of the term. The entry for the common editing term “outtake” doesn’t merely define the word, but discusses four films that vividly illustrate what outtakes are and even reveals their creative potential—including their popular use as end credit material. And the ten film examples cited for “suspense film (thriller)” trace the historic heart of the genre from the classic models such as Rear Window (1954) to the most contemporary manifestations, such as the political suspense thriller Argo (2012). Each entry conveys the astute observations of a film historian and scholar and also demonstrates the touch of a master teacher passionate to share his knowledge of film.

To be sure, compiling a dictionary of film terms requires a passion for the topic, but maintaining and updating a dictionary require superhuman vigilance. The cinematic universe contains not one, but multiple languages: the visual language of storytelling, the slang of directors, grips, and gaffers on a set, the language of critical study, the parlance of popular discourse, and the jargon of industry insiders. In addition, this is a field that changes often, shedding and developing new technical practices, aesthetic concepts, and fresh scholarly perspectives at a frenetic rate. Who better to author such a lexicon than a professor emeritus who has made the study of film, with its unremitting evolution, his life’s work? The many new entries in this edition, such as “epistolary film/narrative,” “bullet time,” “gender-bender,” “wire fu,” and updated film references such as Blue Jasmine, All Is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lego Movie, ensure that yet again The Dictionary of Film Terms accurately reflects the state of the art. For decades, ← x | xi → Frank Beaver has been a trusted guide and companion, helping us to fluently negotiate the many tongues of the motion picture medium. And just as the languages in cinema are multiple, the people who can use this dictionary are many: the practitioner, the scholar, the student, and the film buff will all find this text an essential reference. Even the casual moviegoer should keep this book nearby, as words and expressions from film production and scholarship frequently move from specialized terminology to common usage, becoming essential vocabulary for basic media literacy. It is no wonder that this reference text has remained in print for over twenty years and continues to be distributed internationally. It’s all in here.

In my own career as a filmmaker, screenwriter, and film professor I have used Frank Beaver’s dictionary often. It’s one of those indispensable and trustworthy reference books that I reach for. But beware: in flipping through these pages, it’s easy to get lost in the book, to be drawn into the lively, timely, and endlessly fascinating discussion about motion pictures. This is a discussion that Frank Beaver has been engaged in throughout his career—with students in classrooms, with colleagues at conferences, and with the readers of his books. It is that same enlightening and vital discussion that inspired me to dedicate my own education and career to the study of film immediately after my first film course with Professor Beaver, and it is a discussion that will prove irresistible to anyone who picks up this wonderful dictionary.

Mick Hurbis-Cherrier

Professor of Film

Hunter College—CUNY New York, 2014 ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii → Preface

In updating Dictionary of Film Terms to a Fifth Edition, I have included several dozen new and expanded definitions that provide for a comprehensive overview of the cinematic techniques, aesthetic concepts, structural elements, genres, and styles that have evolved as vital components of motion picture art and motion picture criticism.

New terms include, among many others: brocom/bromantic, bullet time, epistolary film, gender bender, LED lighting, reunion film, and wire fu. Among those definitions that have been expanded to incorporate new commentary and their meanings within contemporary film art are, to cite a few: back story, computer-generated imagery (CGI), psychosexual (analysis), queer cinema, gross-out film, and running gag. In addition, there are more than 150 new film references within term definitions that were not cited in previous editions.

Altogether this Fifth Edition comprises an up-to-date, concise handbook on the methods and unique multifaceted and constantly changing medium of motion picture storytelling and creative expression. Through definition, explanation, and select photographic illustrations, the Dictionary offers both the commonly used and the not-so-familiar terms that have been employed in describing cinema in all its aspects.

← xiii | xiv →In an attempt to provide a thorough overview of film aesthetics, Dictionary of Film Terms includes definitions that are relevant to the formative development of the motion picture, such as actualité, last-minute rescue, and Russian montage (see montage); as well as those that are applicable to contemporary cinema, such as animatronics, bluescreen/greenscreen process, digital cinema/projection, neo-noir film, synthespian, franchise film, and wire fu. Many film terms have both historical and contemporary value. When this is the case I have noted the historical continuity by citing earlier as well as more recent films for which the concept or technique has relevance. For example, in the definition of multi-tasking narrative, reference is made to D.W. Griffith’s four-story epic Intolerance (1916), as well as to the innovative I’m Not There (2007), a multi-story treatment of facets of singer Bob Dylan’s life.

Technical terminology has been incorporated freely into the Dictionary, but in each entry involving a technological concept, an effort has been made to expand the definition so that it encompasses and suggests the term’s value as an aesthetic variant of film expression. The term “grain,” for example, carries both a chemical and an aesthetic meaning. Similarly, the term “vertigo effect” refers not only to a camera lens procedure, but also to a technique with unusual expressive possibilities.

I have made an attempt to define each term so that it stands on its own. For easy referencing, however, a term that is used in defining a concept and that appears elsewhere in the Dictionary as a separate definition is indicated in boldface type. Other relevant terms to which the reader might want to refer are listed at the end of the definitions.

For further referencing and study, a topical index is included at the end of the Dictionary. This special index lists groups of terms that relate to umbrella concepts of film art such as editing, cinematography, lighting, sound, composition, and so on.

My goal has been to provide a dictionary of film terms that the filmgoer and film student will find illuminating in the range and clarity of its entries.

Frank E. Beaver

← xiv | xv →Acknowledgments

I am deeply indebted to the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to the evolution of this 5th edition of Dictionary of Film Terms. First to Mary Savigar of Peter Lang Publishing for her advice on new, contemporary terms that would bring the dictionary into the present, and for her astute and precise editing of the final manuscript. It was again a great benefit and pleasure to have Mary’s editorial skills at hand. I also must again acknowledge Daniel Madaj for his impeccable preparation of the manuscript and for the arduous creation of the four concluding index entries, which help increase the dictionary’s referential value. Thank you to Phil Hallman, Film Studies Field Librarian at the University of Michigan, for his assistance in selecting new photographs that would bring the dictionary’s film entries up-to-date. For their ongoing encouragement I offer gratitude to Prof. Mick Hurbis-Cherrier of Hunter University, to Prof. Michael Frierson of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and to Sultan Sharrief, award-winning filmmaker and media educator. All three were former students of mine at the University of Michigan. The staff of the British Film Institute Library in London provided gracious research assistance. Also ← xv | xvi → in London I profited from the good advice of Eleanor, Abigail, and Charles Smith, ages 19, 16, and 11, who told me about films they had seen that they thought fit well as new entries in existing definitions. I might have been surprised by their insights, but then they are my grandchildren, and they seem to love film as much as their “Bompa.” Thank you to one and all.

Also, gratitude must be paid to Tom Bechtle and Bernadette Shade at Peter Lang for their invaluable copy editing.

Also I want to acknowledge Bob Goodrich and his staff at Quality 16 Theaters for allowing me to watch films the way they are best seen: on a wide screen in a darkened movie house.

← xvi | 1 → A

Absolute film Another term used to define abstract, non-representational expression in cinema that developed as part of the avant-garde, experimental film movement in Europe in the 1920s. Form in the absolute film is derived from graphic and rhythmic emphases rather than from any narrative or logical ordering of the images.

Abstract film A type of film that expresses, through its rhythms and visual design, intentions that are essentially non-narrative. Abstraction emphasizes form over content. In an abstract film that employs recognizable objects, the images are used not to suggest their usual meanings but for effects that are created by the film’s editing, visual techniques, sound qualities, and rhythmic design—that is, form. The rhythmical and mechanical motion of common objects in Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) represents a type of abstract film. Many contemporary animated films, in which colors and shapes are the principal interest of the artist, can also be described as abstract in quality. The animated computer films of John and James Whitney, for example, represent a type of abstract film: Permutations (1968), Lapis (1963–66). These films consist of abstract configurations that are computer generated. The images are enhanced ← 1 | 2 → by optical techniques such as filter coloring and dissolves to give the works a feeling of totally free, non-associative form. Stan Brakhage in Mothlight (1963) created an abstract design in motion by attaching moth wings to Mylar tape and then printing the images on film without an accompanying sound track. See Experimental film, Avant-garde.

Academic editing (see Invisible cutting)

Accelerated montage (see Montage)

Acting (for film) The film actor has been defined in many ways: as a nonactor, as a mannequin, as a “maker of faces.” These descriptive labels result in part from the mosaic, edited nature of film construction. A film performance, like a film scene, is often “built” rather than shot. It has also been said that the screen actor is more dependent on physical characteristics than the stage actor and that physique and facial features often determine the kinds of roles a film actor plays throughout an entire career. A good example of this can be seen in Clint Eastwood’s performance as an aging boxer-trainer in Million Dollar Baby (2004), a film he also directed. Eastwood’s familiar screen image has remained virtually unchanged from his 1960s “spaghetti westerns” through the rogue-cop Dirty Harry series and into individual character roles, e.g., The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Whatever the role, Eastwood’s face on screen has been locked in a perpetual squint with the mouth slightly agape. Yet in the final thirty minutes of Million Dollar Baby, the filmgoer experiences the magic of contextual editing’s impact on screen performance. In spite of the familiar visage, Eastwood’s face seems to harbor and convey a complex range of psychological emotions. The effect, achieved ← 2 | 3 → by intercutting close-ups of Eastwood with other characters and various inanimate objects, is unforgettably powerful (see Montage of attraction).


Acting. Cate Blanchett as a troubled ex-New York socialite in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) exhibited nuanced acting skills and psychological intensity in a screen performance that earned her critical accolades and several acting awards.

Because of the possibility for candid, natural acting and because the screen performance does not always demand refined theatrical skills, the film actor has often been described by theorists as an individual whose art is that of effective behaving. “Behaving” in motion-picture acting implies concessions to the piecemeal process of filmmaking. Unlike the stage actor, who enjoys the benefit of a continuous performance, the film actor must usually develop a character in bits and pieces and usually out of story-line sequence. The director guides the actors from scene to scene, often giving them on the spot the emotions and actions required in a given situation. Rehearsal time is often kept to a minimum because of both the shooting process and the economics of filmmaking.


XVIII, 344
ISBN (Softcover)
Film Aesthetics Motion Pictures Dictionary Cinematography Film Wörterbuch film art film analysis film aesthetic movie Filmgoers Film title

Biographical notes

Frank Beaver (Author)

Frank Eugene Beaver is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. For more than fifty years he has been a film teacher, film historian and film critic, and currently writes the monthly column «Talking About Movies» for MICHIGAN-TODAY, a world-wide on-line magazine.


Title: Dictionary of Film Terms
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364 pages