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January 04, 2008

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

From the Kinoeye Reference Section


Aleatory techniques. Aleatory technique is when the element of chance is incorporated into the film making process. Action and sound may not have been planned or scripted. The British film maker Humphrey Jennings was renowned for this.  Even in fiction films this technique has been used. Jean-Luc Godard used improvisational interview techniques with his actors which questioned the distinction between acting and being and also the division between documentary and fiction.

Cinema Verite. A type of observational film which uses available light, fast film stock, handheld lightweight cameras, portable sound recording and a minimum of other equipment to record profilmic events. Aleatory techniques are very important to this style. The style became widely known after being introduced by the anthropologist / filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch saw the camera as a participant in the unfolding of events which makes cinema verite quite different in approach to Direct Cinema. Rouch believed that the camera functioned as a psychological stimulant which although it altered behaviour in front of the camera arguably revealed deeper underlying truths about personalities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) can be understood as a precursor of this approach. The camera did boast of its own presence and influence upon the profilmic events. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) by Marcel Ophuls can be seen as another example.

cover_of_man_with_a_movie_camera.jpg


City Symphony film. This developed as a sub-genre of documentary film. They are often abstract films loosely structured around the theme of the day in the life of a city. The use of montage provides a sense of rhythm and movement. Rien que les heures (1926) Alberto Cavalcanti was shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. Man With a Movie Camera: Dziga Vertov (1929) is far more than just an impressionistic view of the city. The film is an optimistic perspective on the importance of industrialisation and modernisation. Vertov also brings in a strong element of reflexivity in which the film is shown as being made as well as showing the audience and the place of exhibition.

Crown Film Unit. In August 1940 the GPO Film Unit was remaned the Crown film Unit directly under the Ministry of information thus becoming a directly propaganda organisation. Many of the films were made by Humphrey Jennings as well as Watt and Jackson. After the war documentaries were stil made but the energy, belief by government and and social consciousness had dissipated. The Unit was closed in 1951.

Direct Cinema. A type of observational documentary practice which developed in the USA during the 1960s. Profilmic events were recorded as they happened without rehearsal or reconstruction. Unlike cinema verite the practivce sought to be as unobtrusive as possible giving rise to the term ‘Fly on the wall’ coined by the film-maker Richard Leacock. Stylistically they feature long takes and minimal editing and try to keep a chronological structure to preserve profilmic events as effectively as possible. Subjects are allowed to speak for themselves and the camera observes ho0ping to record a privileged moment which will display the truth of the person behind the words.

Documentary. The term was invented by John Grierson when reviewing of Flaherty’s Moanna (1926). Any film practice that has as its subject persons events or situations that exist outside the film in the real world also referred to as non-fiction film. The first films ever shown to the public were documentaries exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. They were very popular for some some with travelogues being especially popular. As editing techniques developed fictional narrative films gradually eclipsed documentaries. Documentary then survived inside the institution of cinema as newsreels. Pathe News began these in 1910 and soon other major companies began making them. Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922) was the first ever full length feature documentary. It demonstrated that fictional techniques could be used in a documentary.

Nanook of the North DVD Cover


Few full length documentaries have ever been made. Woodstock : Michael Wadleigh (1970) was one that managed to be distributed in mainstream cinemas. Documentaries differ from fiction because they refer to the historical real. The documentary theorist Bill Nichols describes the pleasure derived from watching documentary as ‘epistephilia’ or knowing about the real world. Fiction film cannot substitute for the hooror of an on-screen assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle challenger or the planes flying into the world trade centre. There is no need to suspend disbelief. Initially for many the fact that real events were caught on camera meant that documentaries were somehow unbiased. Nowadays it is widely accepted that documentaries are biased, as a result those seeking more objectivity take more concern with how the subjects of the documentary represent themselves. Blandford, Grant and Hillier (2001) argue that documentary isn’t a genre citing Nichols who comments that:

Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilises no finite inventory of techniques, adresses no completly known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes’.

Nevertheless on the arguments that Neale uses to describe 'Art Cinema' as a 'genre' by virtue of its exhibitionary and distribution target audience, documentary with all the sub-generic forms has a more powerful case to be described as a genre. Interestingly Bill Nichols himself has included two articles on documentary including one by himself under 'Genre Criticism' in his seminal Movies and Methods Vol 2 (1985).


Empire Marketing Board (Film Unit). Existed to market the British Empire. John grierson headed the film unit between 1928 - 1933 when the whole board was wound up. It produced nearly 100 short films including The Drifters (1929) by Grierson himself and also Industrial Britain 1932) by Robert Flaherty. The Public Relations head Tallents went to the GPO and took Grierson and the film unit with him.


Ethnographic Film. Anthropological documentary that seeks to present and describe other cultures with a minimum of interpretation and ideological distortion. The first feature film usually considered as a foundational ethnographic film was Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922). However it romanticised the Inuit people. This type of approach to documentary film making can often be seen as condescending by representing indigenous people as ‘exotic others’.

Fast Film Stock. This describes how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Fast film stock is more sensitive to light and is rated at 400 ASA and above. Slower film stock can start as low as 50 ASA. Fast film was very useful in low light conditions and shooting could take place without artificial lighting. The disadvantage of this was that the film would look grainy compared to slower speed films.

Free Cinema Movement. This was a short lived movement in the late 1950s in Britain which tried to develop a different approvoach to documentary cinema. It had a powerful effect upon the British New Wave feature films which emereged soon afterwards. It was founded by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The term was used to designate a number of documentary films they made during the 1950s. The ideals held in common were that documentary films should be made free of all commercial pressures. That they should be inflected with a humanistic and poetic approach. This gave the work of Humphrey Jennings over that of John Grierson. Both anderson and Reisz were critics for the film magazine Sequence . The magazine criticisd British documentary for being conformist and feature filmmaking for its lack of aesthetic innovation. They also criticised the monopoly practices of British cinema. They also criticised the predominant genres of war films -which seemed to glorify war and avoid the horrors - and weak comedies. Their own shorts were largely self-funded although some grant money from the BFI was forthcoming. Ford UK was also a significant source of funding. Ford commissioned a series of documentaries ‘Look at Britain’. Free Cinema was responsible for Every Day Except Christmas : Anderson (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). These filmmakers believed in representing working class culture as it was lived. The editing was very rhythmic dliberately connoting Jazz which had become an important part of working class subculture. Stylistically these 3 directors were smilar and 4 out of the 6 films they made had Walter Lasally as the cinematographer. The directors they were influenced by included John Ford, Marcel Carne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Gremillon, Humprey Jennings, Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica and Jean Vigo.

GPO Film Unit. This started under Grierson in 1933 after the Empire Marketing Board was wound up. It became the main institution to be associated with documentary film in the 1930s. It had a wide brief only some being linked directly to the Post Office. The films were heavily influenced by montage alongside a committment to representing ordinary people. It was propagandist in so far as it existed to serve the needs and purposes of the state. After Cavalcanti joined the unit there was also experiment with sound montage. Tensions arose between exponents of developing new forms and those who emphasised a more straightforward aproach. Later 1930s films tend to be less experimental than the earlier ones. There was also the development of drama documentaries. Many of the Unit’s conceptions were based around a similar public service principle to the BBC. In 1937 Cavalcanti took over the unit. In 1940 the unit was renamed the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.

Handheld Camera. Rather than using a tripod, dolly or crane the camera operator had far more flexibility and mobility. Images produced handheld weren't stable before the development of the steadicam. This created a certain look and feel usually associated with cinema verite and Direct Cinema both of which sought to follow profilmic events as they happened.




Woman with Steadicam System

This Steadicam system allows film makers to significantly reduce the unstable feeling of handheld cinematography. Handheld photography can now be used as an artistic device to impart a feeling of reality for the viewer. A good example of this is the sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American troops are pinned down on the beach by Nazi gunfire as they launch the invasion of France.









Observational Cinema. This is a type of cinema in which the camera follows the profilmic events as they happen intending to reveal truths about these events. Ethnographic film, cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are all types of observational cinema. The question of whether and how much the film exploits, manipulates or documents the social actors are central. The films are seen as relatively truthful as they aren’t constrained by the technological limitations of older equipment which required dramatic reconstruction and a voice of god narrator.

Portable Sound Recording. Sound recording of location sound remained a problem until the 1950s when the break through in electronics which saw the development of the transistor meant that locational synchronised sound and filming was possible. This encoured styles such as cinema verite and Direct Cinema. The Swiss Nagra sound recorder was very popular with the French New Wave.

Profilmic Event. This is a theoretical term for the reality in front of the camera which is photographed. In observational documentary such as Direct Cinema / Ethnographic Cinema / Cinema Verite film makers aim to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of these events (what is filmed) as much as possible

Voice of God Narration. The term has developed to describe the use of voice-over in documentary films. It is often used to describe the voice-over style used in Grierson produced documentaries. The voice is usually male, disembodied and omniscient. This style has been rejected by documentary makers in recent times as it is considered as being patriarchal, ethnocentric and manipulative. Personal voice-over is often used as in Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989)




Other Kinoeye glossaries include:


European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E

European Cinema and Media Glossary  Ed-Mo




Glossary of New Media Technologies (A-N)

Glossary of New Media Technologies (O-Z)





January 05, 2007

European Film Glossary: From Ed–Mo

Film Glossary Continued

Editing. See also Film Editing. Editing is essential to the creation of a wide range of media products. It can mean the process of choice of articles and changing articles in print journalism. It means putting together a particular choice of shots in film and TV as well as the way in which sound is used. It is an essential part of the whole process in creating preferred readings of a media product as well as ensuring that it as coherent as possible. Susan Hayward (1996) identifies four categories of editing:
  • Chronological editing
  • Cross-cutting or parallel editing
    Deep Focus.
  • Montage. The first principle of montage editing is a rapid alteration betwen sets of shots. They become significant when they collide. Fast edting and unusual camera angles denaturalise Classic narrative cinema. Image becomes privileged over narrative and characterisation. Originally used mainly in avante-garde and art cinema mainstream cinema has incorporated the technique and the principle appears to have become the fundamental aspect of Film and TV advertising. See also Kuleshov.

Emergent genres. In Britain it is possible to discern an emergent genre of British-Asian films. The most recent addition is Bend it Like Beckham (2002) by a British-Asian woman director. At the time of writing it was the top selling British film for 2 weeks. This is the latest in a line stretching back to My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammie & Rosie Get Laid (1987), Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Wild West (1992), East is East(1998),Anita & Me (2002) . Only the last of these became known within mainstream cinema. These tend to be marketed as being comic or comedy. The comic side works through a wide range of issues including inter-ethnic relations, inter-generational relations, cross-cultural relationships and sexual identity issues. This genre can be usefully seen as intertextual as it relates to successful TV comedies such as Goodness Gracious and more recently The Kumars.

Establishing shot. This shot uses a distant framing and enables the spectator to understand and map the spatial relationships between the characters and the set.

Exhibitionary Context. This term sums up the conditions of viewing of a film which can be highly variable. This is not just physical conditions. In Nazi Germany Jews were not allowed into cinemas and people were not allowed to enter a film late to ensure they saw the more propagandistic newsreels and documentaries.

Eye-line match. Another Hollywood editing convention designed to encourage identification with the protagonists. Here the audience sees the action from the characters eye-line or viewpoint.

Female revenge film. Thelma and Louise is often interpreted (incorrectly) as a ‘female revenge film’. This genre construction could be seen as misogynistic. These films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction (1987) , Body Heat (198), Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noir.

Flashback. (See also intra-diegetic)

Genre as a vehicle for a star. Genre can be a vehicle for the development of a star. John Wayne was developed as a star by director John Ford who used him in many very famous westerns such as Stagecoach. Clint Eastwood came from a relatively minor role in the TV western series Bonanza to become famous through his role in ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, directed by the Italian director Sergio Leone.

Genre Cycle. Genres emerge ( see Emergent Genres) and evolve. The first film or films which are thematically connected are not a genre. Once certain themes become common in certain settings then a genre can be seen to emerge. The Western is a classic example. Once the most popular type of film in the US very few westerns are now produced. Genre stars such as Clint Eastwood make the occasional western. A film such as The Unforgiven in its deconstruction of the natural manly virtues of the gunfighter by depicting paralysing fear and in its criticism of the legal system and the treatment of women it is responding to very different social concerns from the heroic establishing of the values of the US on ‘savage’ or ‘Indians’ i.e. displaced and exploited Native Americans , which was commonplace in the early part of the genre cycle.

Genre Hybridity. A film where the codes and conventions from a range of established genres are used. Singing cowboys making a western musical or a musical western for example. The higher the production values of a film the more likely it is to be a hybrid genre film in order to attract the widest possible audience. Titanic is both a disaster-movie, quasi-historical movie, and a romance. It may be that one of the genres is predominant but this requires a close reading to establish.

Genre Text. A term developed by Stephen Neale to try and differentiate between individual films (the genre text) and the generic norms of the genre as a whole.

Hegemony. In relation to ideology it is a more sophisticated idea than the ‘hypodermic’ model of ideology. Hegemony, or ideology, is the process by which certain paradigms or ways of thinking become so self-evident as to relegate alternatives to the spaces of the nonsensical and the unthinkable. The term originally taken from the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argues that hegemony is not repressive in the way that armies or the police can be used to repress opposition . Instead, hegemony means that control is maintained through a consensus maintained through the dominance of its “forms” of how society is conceptualised. This renders other forms and other imaginaries, unreadable, inaudible and incomprehensible. For example, films which explore a corrupt government official in the United States don’t see this as a fault of the system but as a fault within the individual. These films, usually through the medium of a self-sacrificing hero , ensure that the system is restored ‘to normal’. The possibility that corruption is the ‘normal state of affairs’ is not considered. See The Insider and Erin Brockovich for examples of this. This position can tend to ignore certain state cultural policies such as censorship laws as having a strong effect on what is shown and when. British cinema between the two World Wars was not allowed to show or make films which were critical of the British Empire for example.

Iconography. Buscombe came closest to arguing the position that a genre’s visual conventions can be thought of as one of the defining features of a genre such as guns, cars, clothes in the gangster film . It is hard to argue this with any great consistency because the possible connections between the items or icons is unclear. More importantly it is actually very difficult to list the defining characteristics of more than a handful of genres, for the simple reason that many genres – among them the social problem film, the biopic, the romantic drama and the psychological horror film – lack a specific iconography. The genres of the western and gangsters discussed by critics McArthur and Buscombe happen to fit the concept of generic iconography very well. Others that fit well are the gothic horror film, and the biblical epic. Neale argues that the failure to apply the concept productively to other genres suggests that the defining features of Hollywood’s genres may be heterogeneous.

Ideology. In media terms this thinking argues that there is a form of ‘false consciousness’ which hides a deeper underlying social reality. This has given rise to the model that people can simply be injected (Hypodermic syringe model) with a certain view of the world particularly via media output. Critics of this model in the media field argue that this hypodermic syringe model is very patronising as it doesn’t give people the credit for being able to develop alternative ideas. Rather they see ideology as a hegemonic process. There is a commonly held belief that Adorno and Horkheimer were behind the so-called ‘hypodermic syringe’ model of ideology. This is a serious misrepresentation of their position which will be dealt with in a separate article in due course. In the meantime students should ask lecturers who put forward this view exactly where Adorno and Horkheimer have supported this reductionist model. The model rather better describes the idea espoused by the Stalinist Communist parties.

IDHEC. Instituit des hautes etudes cinematographique. The leading French film school which was first started in the Second World War and renamed after the war.

Indexical sign. From CS Pierce the American founder of semiotics. This sign is associated with what it is a sign of, such as smoke with fire or spots with measles.

Intertextual. Intertextuality is a relation between two or more texts which influences the making of and/ or the reading of the text (film) being consumed. By using references to other texts the critic or director can be seen to be constructing the knowledge about the film based on other films.
  • Intertextual Relay. Neale uses the term ‘inter-textual relay’ to refer to the discourses of publicity, promotion and reception that surround Hollywood’s films, and includes both trade and press reviews. It is argued that this role of relay is a crucial one. ( Neale , 2000: 3 ). The cinema industry’s marketing campaigns were first described as ‘inter-textual relay’ by Lukow and Ricci in 1984. Neale considers that cinemas, cinema programming and cinema specialisation can all be considered as components in the relay especially when broader conceptions of genre such as newsreel and shorts are taken into account.

Institutional mode of representation. A term used to describe mainstream cinema and its system of representation. There is strong identification with a character and the world is usually seen through this characters experiences. The origins of this were in the 19th century novel which focused on the psychology of one or two characters.

Jump cut. This cut demonstrates a jump in time and disrupts the ‘normal’ continuity editing. It was used as a device by several internationally famous directors during the 1920s and then dropped out of fashion. The development of sound played a major contribution in overwhelming a more diverse range of styles. Malle, Truffaut and most famously Godard used this editing style. Godard’s first feature film Breathless is best known for this. The jump cut ‘calls attention to the constructed reality of the filmic text, to the spectator’s ongoing labour of generating a fictional world out of often contradictory stylistic cues, and to Godard’s own expressive, auteur presence’. (Neupert, 2002 p 216).

Kuleshov effect. The Soviet filmmaker Kuleshov showed that through good editing that it was possible to create alternative readings of the same facial expression. Through this Kuleshov was attempting to show that the meaning or preferred reading of shots could be changed by altering the juxtaposition of the shots.

Lighting. In the early years of Hollywood lighting wasn’t meant to draw attention to itself. In some countries such as Germany lighting was used very early on to create dramatic effects. Low angle , low key lighting was used in German Expressionist cinema . There are three main aspects to lighting:
  • key lighting – hard light, used to highlight focused on a particular subject
  • fill lighting – used to illuminate the framed space overall
  • backlighting – this can distort and brings out silhouettes ( horror / film noir / expressionism).

The Hollywood cinema system had strict rules about lighting not wishing to allow the lighting to supersede the actual narrative. This could make audiences uneasy. See also mise-en-scene.

Meaning. It is now recognised that meaning is made from the active process of reading a cinematic text. Audiences bring a range of individual experiences to the cinema and these are intermingled with wider socio-cultural responses as well. Sometimes filmmakers could use allegories to allow audiences to derive alternative meanings other than the officially preferred reading of a text. This happened in Eastern European cinema during the Soviet times for example. See also audience work.

Mise en scene. Please see under separate entry.

Modernist device. This is a way of using editing or other cinematic convention in a way which draws attention to the film as a construction. The opening credits of Godard’s Mepris and the very content of the narrative itself ensure that the spectator is always considering the process of making a film.


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