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Film Language

Film Vocabulary, Punctuation and Grammar

Screen texts can be watched by anyone. Although films might seem transparent and obvious – simple almost – and although they do not use letter icons like books, they nevertheless have many other key attributes of a language: a very definite and highly evolved language. They have:

  • a defined 'vocabulary' of shots and angles;
  • 'punctuation' in the form of camera movements and edits; and
  • a codified audio-visual 'grammar' that imparts specific meaning to particular shot sequences.

This vocabulary, punctuation and grammar can be just as complex and nuanced as in verbal language, and just as rewarding to unpack.

This language is used to build and define audience's relationship to the characters, action, objects and emotions depicted – and to progress the audio-visual narrative in an emotionally engaging and apparently seamless fashion.

This codified language development happened most rapidly between the years of 1895 to 1930, but changes and refinements continue to be made to the present day as new types of screen media are introduced and developed (e.g. new TV programme genres, computer games, interactive screen narratives, 3D film...)

Types of Film Language

In this section we will look at the basic choices available to filmmakers in constructing the complex meanings of their narratives, choices that students should be aware of when reading a film.

It is important to note that we can only look at these areas briefly and in isolation here. When reading a film, the student needs to look both at the individual use of these elements as well as their total effect. For instance, a reaction could be shot in medium close-up, close-up or extreme close-up to varying effect; similarly, the meaning of a cut may be significantly changed by a subsequent camera movement such as a pull-back to reveal.

It's worth noting too, that the shots, cuts and angles that filmmakers don’t use can also be significant.

Camera Placement

Choice of lens

Camera Movements

Special Shots

Edits and transitions (punctuating the film)

Sound and Music

Needless to say this is only a basic introductory guide to film language and interested readers would be strongly advised to seek out more detailed definitions and explanations of each term at Moving Image Education

They should also familiarise themselves with visual composition, lighting and the arrangement of subjects within the frame.