How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part one)

I think we could all use a little break from the fine arts, don’t you? I enjoyed last week’s sojourn into low brow art, I though discussing a more pop culture centered art form could be fun. I also want to get into discussing contemporary sculpture in the near future soonish, which is starting to have some curious overlaps with film (or film elements, if you will).

Film has a wonderful mess of jargon associated with it, much of it highly technical and directly related to film production rather than viewership. I’m here to help you wade through that morass and come out on the other side with a impressive new vocabulary and the ability to sound really smart when you talk about films. This week I’m tackling some big macro elements, but in the following weeks I’ll delve into some more intricate issues.

Perhaps the first distinction that should be made is that between film and video. From a strictly technical point of view, this is a question of recording format. Film is a purely analog medium which uses light reactive chemicals on a strip of transparent plastic to capture images. Video captures the image digitally and records it, traditionally to magnetic tape, but these days mostly to an SD card or DVD. Now back in the day, film indicated a far higher production quality. With modern technological advances, that no longer strictly holds true. Also film is still pretty much the default term for a feature length movie or a short film intended for theatrical release, regardless of how the cameras used to shoot it recorded their imagery. Film also carries with it a far more artsy fartsy connotation. This has to do with it not being the most accessible of mediums. Even finding a place to process film these days it something of a trick while computers are increasingly coming preloaded with video editing software. And of course you may still hear the term “shot on shiteo” to refer to low production quality works that look like they were made with a consumer grade camera.

Diagram comparison of small format films: Super 8, 8mm, Super 16, 16mm, and 35mm
To give you an idea of how the sizes of film compare. Each is about half the size of the next.

Another point of clarification is the difference between formats. Film formats are simply a question of the physical size of the film. The bigger the film stock, the tighter the grain will look when enlarged, and the higher the quality of the image. 70mm is used for IMAX, 35mm for theatrical films, 16mm for low grade theatrical films and television (the first Evil Dead movie was shot on 16mm for instance), 8mm and Super8 for home movies. All formats of film have a frame rate of 24 frames per second (or fps).

Video, on the other hand, is a positive mess when it comes to formats. Because there is no physical medium to constrain you, you can make your video file as big as you please, with whatever frame rate you want (there are limits, but the range is broad). There has been some standardization, but the standards are not universal. Two of the big ones are PAL and NTSC. These are technically television broadcast methods, but they have bleed over into digital video formatting due to the way they effect file output. Without getting into too many technical details, PAL has more vertical pixels (576i) and a slower frame rate (25 fps) than NTSC (480i and 30 fps). PAL is more common in Europe while NTSC is the most common North American format.

The other big difference you will run across is the standard definition vs. high definition. There is a whole mess of technical crap involved in this arena as well, but I’ll try to keep it to what is relevant to you as a viewer. The first thing you’ll see in a definition description is the number of vertical pixels. This is comparable to film size. The more you have, the more detail you can capture. The second part is a lowercase i or p. These indicate if the format is interlaced or progressive scan. Interlacing is something done to help speed up the transmittance of video imagery and it lowers quality, so progressive scan will give you a better picture.

Moving away from some highly technical back-end info, let’s clarify who gets credit (or blame) for what. There are three main credits outside of the actors that people typically notice about a film project: the producer, the writer, and the director. The producer is the one who gets all the money together to make the project. The producer has some creative control, but only insofar as they are the ones that pick projects, hold the purse strings, and often are the ones that hire the director. If people are getting excited over a producer, it’s usually because they are known to have good taste and the projects they have produced in the past have been quality.  The writer is the one who writes the script that the film follows. This contains all the dialogue and some screen direction. It’s really only the skeleton of the film though, and two directors could take the same script and make vastly different movies based on it. The director has the most control over the finished project of the film out of the three. They give the actors instructions on how they want the lines read, they tell the cameramen how they want scenes framed, and they tell the editors how they want the shots linked together. They typically hold the final vote on all the creative decisions in the film. This is why best director is considered a bigger award then best screenplay. Typically the film as a whole is credited as the director’s creative work, while dialogue and story are given to the writer.

So that was all some real ground floor stuff. Next week, I’ll cover some of the terms film people use to describe a scene (or is it a shot?).

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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