Understanding Cinema: Guide to Film Terminology & Techniques
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 12 min read


  1. Film Genres
  2. Film Narrative Structures
  3. Film Shots and Angles
  4. Camera Movements
  5. Film Editing
  6. Sound in Film
  7. Film Lighting
  8. Color in Film
  9. Film Mise-en-Scène
  10. Film Special Effects

Unravel the mysteries of storytelling on screen with this simple guide to the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. This blog will walk you through the basics of cinema, from the types of film genres to the art of film editing, making you a pro at decoding the magic that unfolds on the silver screen.

Film Genres

Just like books, films come in an array of genres, each with its own unique style, themes, and characteristics. Understanding film genres is one of the first steps in learning the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques.


Life in the fast lane—that's what action films are all about. Think high-speed chases, nail-biting fight scenes, and daring stunts. Some may even say action films are like adrenaline in cinematic form. Notable examples include the "James Bond" series and the "Fast & Furious" franchise.


Drama films are all about emotional depth. They dig deep into the human experience, exploring complex relationships, personal struggles, and thought-provoking themes. Classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and modern masterpieces like "The Pursuit of Happyness" fall into this genre.


A chuckle, a giggle, or a full-on belly laugh—that's what comedy films aim for. They use humor to lighten the mood and entertain, often through hilarious situations, funny dialogue, or comedic characters. Films like "Superbad" and "Bridesmaids" are great examples of this genre.


Do you like a good scare? Then horror films might be up your alley. These films aim to frighten and shock viewers through suspense, terror, and the supernatural. Famous horror films include "The Exorcist" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street".

Science Fiction

Imagine a world of advanced science, technology, and extraterrestrial life—that's the realm of science fiction films. They explore futuristic concepts, space travel, and parallel universes. Notable examples include "Star Wars" and "The Matrix".

Now that you have a good grasp of the different film genres, you're one step closer to fluency in the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. In the next section, we'll dive into film narrative structures, another key component of cinematic language.

Film Narrative Structures

If a film genre is the flavor, then the narrative structure is the recipe. The narrative structure is how the story unfolds in a film. It's one of the key elements in the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Let's take a look at some common narrative structures.

Linear Narrative

Remember reading storybooks as a child? "Once upon a time... and they lived happily ever after." That's your typical linear narrative. It follows a clear path from beginning to end, in chronological order. Movies like "Forrest Gump" and "The Shawshank Redemption" are examples of this structure.

Non-linear Narrative

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle. You have all the pieces but they're not in order. That's a non-linear narrative. The story may jump back and forth in time, or even start at the end. "Pulp Fiction" and "Memento" are famous for their non-linear storytelling.

Parallel Narrative

Parallel narrative is like a multi-lane highway. It tells multiple stories at the same time, often intersecting at crucial points. This structure can add depth and complexity to a film. "Crash" and "Love Actually" are good examples of this narrative style.

Frame Narrative

A frame narrative is a story within a story, like a Russian nesting doll. It begins and ends in the present, but most of the film takes place in a story told by a character. "The Princess Bride" and "Titanic" use this kind of structure.

Interactive Narrative

The newest kid on the block is the interactive narrative. This structure allows viewers to make decisions that change the outcome of the story. "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" is a popular example of this innovative narrative structure.

Understanding film narrative structures can truly enhance your appreciation of cinema. It's an essential part of the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Next up, we'll explore the different types of film shots and angles, another key element of cinematic language.

Film Shots and Angles

When you watch a movie, have you ever noticed that not all shots are the same? Sometimes, the camera zooms in to capture the slightest expression on an actor’s face. At other times, it pulls back to show you the entire landscape. These variations, known as film shots and angles, play a crucial role in the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Let’s delve into the common types.

Extreme Wide Shot

Picture the opening scene of "The Sound of Music," with Julie Andrews twirling on a vast, green mountain. That's an extreme wide shot for you. It's used to show the setting or the environment in which the action is taking place.

Medium Shot

Movies like "The Social Network" often use medium shots during dialogue scenes. This shot usually captures the actor from the waist up, giving you a clear view of their gestures and expressions, while still showing some of the surroundings.

Close-Up Shot

Remember the famous scene from "Psycho" where Janet Leigh screams in the shower? That's a classic example of a close-up shot. This shot zooms in on a character or an object to emphasize detail or create intensity.

Over-the-Shoulder Shot

When two characters are having a conversation, and the camera is placed over the shoulder of one character to focus on the other, that's an over-the-shoulder shot. It’s often used in movies to create the feeling of eavesdropping on a conversation. A good example is the diner scene in "Heat" between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Low Angle and High Angle Shots

Low angle shots are taken from below eye level, looking up at a subject. This can make the subject seem powerful or intimidating, like Darth Vader in "Star Wars." High angle shots are taken from above eye level, looking down on a subject. This can make the subject seem small, weak, or vulnerable, like Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs.

These are just a handful of the shots and angles that filmmakers use to tell their stories. Understanding them can deepen your appreciation of the art of cinema. Up next, we'll look at how filmmakers use camera movements to bring their stories to life. It's all part of the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques.

Camera Movements

Did you know the camera in films isn’t always stationary? It moves around a lot, and each movement tells a unique part of the story. Let's decode the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques as it relates to camera movements.


Panning is when the camera rotates on its vertical axis. It's like when you turn your head from side to side. Filmmakers use this to reveal a scene or follow a character. Think of the scene in "Jurassic Park" where we first see the dinosaurs; that's a pan.


A tilt is similar to a pan, but instead of going side to side, the camera moves up or down. It's used to reveal vertical elements of a scene. Imagine the camera moving up to show the height of the Empire State Building in "King Kong".


A dolly is when the entire camera moves forward or backward. It's often used to follow characters, like in "Goodfellas", where the camera follows Henry Hill through the back entrance of the Copacabana.


Crane shots are when the camera moves above ground level, giving a bird's eye view of the action. It's used to show a large area or a group of people. A classic example is the overhead shot of the maze in "The Shining".


Zooming involves changing the focal length of the lens to make the subject appear closer or further away. This technique is often used to focus on a detail or to shift the audience's attention. Remember the zoom in on Chief Brody's face in "Jaws" when he first spots the shark? That's a zoom.

These camera movements are a key part of the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. They help filmmakers tell their stories in a visually engaging way. Next, we'll explore how film editing can change the way a story is told.

Film Editing

When you're watching a movie, have you ever noticed how the scenes shift from one to another? That's the magic of film editing. It's another part of the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Let's look at some of the terms used in film editing.


A cut is the most basic form of transition in film editing. It's when one scene instantly changes to another. Cuts are used all the time, like when a character opens a door in one scene and enters a room in the next.

Jump Cut

A jump cut is a type of cut where the action jumps forward in time. It's often used to show the passage of time or to speed up slow events. Remember that montage in "Rocky" where he's training for the big fight? Those are jump cuts.

Cross Cut

A cross cut is when the film alternates between two different scenes. This is usually used to show events happening simultaneously. A classic example is in "The Godfather", where the baptism scene is cross cut with the murders of the rival gang leaders.

Match Cut

A match cut is when the end of one scene and the beginning of another are matched by the action or subject. This technique is used to create a visual continuity from one scene to the next. Think of that famous scene in "2001: A Space Odyssey" where a bone thrown in the air match cuts to a spaceship.


A fade is when a scene gradually goes dark (fade out) or a new scene gradually emerges from darkness (fade in). Fades are often used to indicate the passage of time or the end of a major section of the film. You've probably seen this in many films, like at the end of "Gone with the Wind".

Film editing is a powerful tool in the language of cinema. By understanding these film terminology and techniques, you'll be able to appreciate the storytelling craft even more. Next up, we'll discuss sound in films and how it enhances our viewing experience.

Sound in Film

Ever watched a horror movie on mute? Not as scary, right? That's because sound is an integral part of the language of cinema. It's just as vital as visuals in creating the mood and telling the story. So let's discuss some key terms related to sound in film.

Diegetic Sound

Diegetic sound is any sound that the characters can hear. It includes things like dialogue, sound made by objects in the scene, or music that's playing within the scene. For instance, if a character is playing guitar, the sound of that guitar is diegetic.

Non-Diegetic Sound

Non-diegetic sound, on the other hand, is any sound that the characters can't hear. This includes the film's score and any sound effects added in post-production. For example, the ominous music that plays when a villain appears is non-diegetic.

Sound Bridge

A sound bridge is a type of transition where a sound from the next scene is heard before the visual cuts to that scene. This technique can be used to link scenes together and create a smooth transition. You might remember the ringing phone in "The Matrix" that is heard before the scene actually shifts to the phone booth.


A soundtrack is the music that accompanies a film. It can include both diegetic and non-diegetic music. The soundtrack often sets the mood for the film. Think about the iconic "Star Wars" soundtrack and how it elevates every scene.

By understanding the role of sound in film, you're diving deeper into the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Sound can truly make or break a scene, and a film as a whole. Next, we'll explore how lighting contributes to the artistry of cinema.

Film Lighting

Have you ever noticed how some scenes in a movie can make you feel cheerful and others can make you feel tense? That's not just because of the plot. The way a scene is lit plays a big part in creating the mood. This is a key aspect of the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Let's shed some light (pun intended) on the terminology related to film lighting.

Three-Point Lighting

Three-point lighting is a common lighting setup in film. It consists of three types of lights: the key light, the fill light, and the back light. The key light is the main light, usually placed to one side of the subject. The fill light softens the shadows cast by the key light. And the back light separates the subject from the background. This setup is often used in interviews and portraits.

Low-Key Lighting

Low-key lighting refers to a style of lighting that uses lots of shadows and contrast. This technique is often used in horror or thriller films to create a sense of mystery and suspense. Think about those dark, shadowy scenes in "The Exorcist" or "Psycho."

High-Key Lighting

High-key lighting, in contrast to low-key lighting, uses very little shadow and contrast. It results in a brighter, more evenly lit scene. This type of lighting is often used in comedies, romantic films, or musicals. Think of the bright, cheerful scenes in "La La Land" or "The Sound of Music."

And there you have it. A brief introduction to the role of lighting in the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Next up, we'll delve into the world of color in film. Can't wait to see you there!

Color in Film

Now that we've explored the role of lighting in the language of cinema, let's move on to something equally fascinating: color. The use of color in film is a powerful tool that can tell a story in its own right. Just as painters use different colors to evoke certain emotions, filmmakers use color to help tell their story.

Color Palette

The color palette of a film refers to the range of colors that are used throughout the film. This isn't just about making the film visually appealing—it's also about setting the mood and tone of the story. A film like "The Grand Budapest Hotel" uses a vibrant and pastel color palette that complements its quirky and whimsical tone.

Color Symbolism

Colors can also have symbolic meanings in films. For example, red is often used to symbolize love or danger, while blue might represent sadness or tranquility. Filmmakers can use these symbolic colors to add a deeper layer of meaning to their films. Think about the use of green in "The Matrix" to create a sense of an artificial, digital world.

Color Grading

Color grading is a post-production process where the colors in the film are adjusted and enhanced. This can be used to create a certain look or mood for the film. A film like "Mad Max: Fury Road" uses intense color grading to give the film its distinctive, desaturated look.

And that's a wrap on color in film! Understanding how color is used can help you appreciate the language of cinema in a whole new way. Now, let's move on to the next topic—mise-en-scène. Stay tuned!

Film Mise-en-Scène

After exploring the vibrant world of color in film, let's shift our focus to a term you might not be familiar with—mise-en-scène. In the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques, "mise-en-scène" is a French term that basically means "placing on stage". It involves everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—costumes, props, actors, lighting, and the composition of these elements in the frame.

The Role of Props and Costumes

Props are objects used by actors in a film. They can be as simple as a pen or as significant as a magic wand in a fantasy film. Costumes, on the other hand, are the clothes worn by the characters. They often give us clues about the character's personality, occupation, or historical period of the film. For example, the glass slipper in "Cinderella" or Indiana Jones' signature hat and whip.

Set Design and Location

The location and the set design contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the film. Whether it's the creepy mansion in a horror film or the futuristic cityscape in a sci-fi movie, the setting plays a crucial role in making the film's world believable and immersive.

Composition of the Frame

This refers to how the elements of the scene are arranged in the frame. The composition can suggest relationships between characters, emphasize details, and guide the audience's focus. Remember the famous shot from "The Shining" where the two creepy twins are standing side by side at the end of the hallway? That's a great example of composition.

Understanding mise-en-scène can truly deepen our appreciation for the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques. Next up, we'll be diving into the world of special effects. Are you ready?

Film Special Effects

Continuing our journey into the language of cinema: understanding film terminology and techniques, let's now step into the dramatic and awe-inspiring world of special effects. These are tricks filmmakers use to create illusions or visual tricks that make the impossible seem real on screen. They can be as simple as fake blood or as complex as creating lifelike dinosaurs for a movie like "Jurassic Park".

Practical Effects

Practical effects are effects that are created on set during production. This could involve using make-up to age a character, creating miniature models for epic battle scenes, or even using controlled explosions for action sequences. Remember the scene in "Inception" where the cityscape folds onto itself? That's the magic of practical effects!

Digital Effects

Digital effects, on the other hand, are added to the film in post-production using computer software. This can range from removing a green screen and replacing it with an exotic location, to creating fantastical creatures that don't exist in real life. The Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" series? That's digital wizardry for you.

Mix of Both

Some films use a mix of both practical and digital effects to create a more realistic and believable result. For instance, in the "Harry Potter" series, they used real broomsticks suspended on wires for the Quidditch scenes, but the players and the balls were added in digitally later.

Understanding special effects is like getting a sneak peek into the magic box of filmmakers. It makes you appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into creating the mind-blowing visuals we see on screen. So the next time you watch a film with impressive effects, you'll know there's more than meets the eye.

If you're passionate about diving deeper into the world of cinema and expanding your knowledge of film terminology and techniques, be sure to check out Jessy Moussallem's workshop, "13 Film Movements That Shaped Cinema." This workshop offers an in-depth exploration of the different film movements that have influenced cinema throughout history, giving you a greater understanding and appreciation of the art form.