Visual Literacy
How do I make meaning


The greater part of this glossary was kindly supplied by Karen Stapleton of the AIS.

Back Lighting
The main light source comes from behind the character.

An extendable arm used for holding a microphone above the actors and outside the frame.

Camera angles
The position of the camera in relation to the subject being shown. The angle from which the camera takes the shot has an important effect on what the viewers see and on the effect of the shot. The camera angle, or where the camera is placed, is important as it indicates point of view, i.e. from whose perspective we are seeing the action, such as the character, audience or director. The five basic angles are overhead, high angle, eye level, low angle and undershot.

Camera movement
As the camera moves, the way things appear changes, so different meanings are created; thus camera movement is important in defining and creating meaning in shots. The main camera movements are zooming, tracking, panning and tilting.

Camera speed
The speed of the camera’s movement can be used to create special effects and enhance meaning, such as slow or fast motion, and the use of freeze-frames (a still image created by stopping the film in the middle of the action).

The control and design of the camera work: the operation of the camera and the control of the shot and characters.

A shot of a person’s head from above the head to the top of the upper chest which fills the whole screen. It can also be used to frame an object at close range.

The composition of film shots is the control of all the elements in a single frame of film; the arrangements and relationship of the visual elements within a frame. Consider how the camera seems to place a frame around the view it has in front of it. The way the elements are placed within this frame is the composition of the shot. The composition of this isolated view or frame is dependent upon the choice of lens, and the placement of items within the frame. The composition also includes the camera angle and movement.

The person in charge of making sure that all the relevant details from each scene match each other so as not to disrupt the narrative flow.

A cut has both utilitarian and aesthetic value in film editing and is the most direct and immediate editing device for introducing new screen information.. A cut allows the use of different types of shots without disrupting the action. The direct cut is the most immediate editing device for introducing new screen information. One shot is followed immediately by a cut to another shot. A cut is the splicing together of two pieces of film to:

  • maintain continuity (continuous action)
  • change scenes (transition)
  • insert other relevant material into the film flow

The use of cuts as transitions, rather than the use of dissolves, fades and wipes, can affect the pace of the film.

A gradual transition, or overlap, in which one scene fades out as the other fades in. Both the end of the outgoing shot and the beginning of the incoming shot are briefly seen on the screen simultaneously. In traditional film making the dissolve came to be the accepted technique for indicating substantial geographic leaps, passage of time, a flashback or a dream, or to show what the character is thinking. Dissolves are used to suggest a special relationship between the scenes that dissolve into one another; a relationship closer than one that would be suggested by a fade or cut.

Dolly Shot
The camera moves along with the actors or the acting. The camera is usually on wheels.

Editing uses
The process of joining shots and sequences of film and using special effects to create a single continuous film. It is the arrangement of time, parallel movements and cuts to scenes, transitions of shots. Common transitional devices are fade, dissolve, washout and wipe.

Establishing shot
In popular or ‘dominant’ cinema, the opening sequence is traditionally regarded as an ‘establishing’ shot: a long, wide angle view of an area or open space is given before the camera goes in closer to establish/identify the more specific location of a film story or scene. Later in the film establishing shots may be used to establish the settings for the action to come.

Extreme Long Shot
This shows the landscape of the film or a barely visible character in the distance of a background.

Eye level
This shot occurs when the camera is level with the object or figure; like a normal eye-view of the scene, and suggests reality.

A transition device for moving from one scene or sequence to another in a film. Fades can suggest a passage of time, or a journey, or a new location. The scenes each side of a fade have a special relationship that would not be conveyed by a simple cut. A fade-out occurs when the image on the screen fades to black to end the scene. The scene that follows may suddenly appear, termed a fade-out or cut in transition, giving the feeling of finality and separation to the scene just ending and introducing the new action in a dynamic, attention-getting way. Alternatively, it may gradually fade-in from black, termed a fade-out/ fade-in transition giving a slower, more contemplative movement.

A single picture in a strip of film.

A still image created by stopping the film in the middle of the action so that it appears like a photographic still.

Final Cut
The final edited version of the film.

Key Lighting
The main source of lighting in a film. This is usually combined with fill lighting and backlighting.

High angle
This shot is taken when the camera is above and looking down on the scene or object but not directly overhead. The main effect is to make the object or character look small and lacking in power.

How the shot is lit for filming. High-key and low-key lighting are terms used for describing the quality of illumination and the intensity of the lighting in the frame. Usually high-key lighting is used to highlight the central subject. High-key lighting has bright, intense illumination. Low-key lighting has the opposite quality. It is more diffuse and shadowy. There is less general illumination in the shot, heavier shadows and a more atmospheric quality. Other effects can be created through use of back lighting where the light source is placed behind the subject to create a darkened effect on the subject, fill lighting where the lights are used to create or remove shadows, spot or pencil lighting which focuses on the subject or side lighting where only half the character’s face or object is lit and the other half is in shadow.

Long shot
A film shot which includes the whole human figure and part of the surrounding environment.

Low angle
This shot is taken when the camera is below or looking up at the object or character; suggesting power or dominance. It can also be used for caricature.

Medium shot
A film shot which includes half the body and a small part of the background.

Every visible element in the frame, how these elements are related to each other and how you see these elements, i.e. how they are filmed. This term refers to all that appears before the camera, including performers, setting, lighting and décor; also includes camera movement and action. The term means “placed in the scene” or “put in the scene” and refers to what is put into the frame, the modification of space. The term encompasses the overall “design” of the film and the mise-en-scene can help the viewer identify a film’s genre and context. When analysing mise-en-scene consider elements such as:

  • Setting/the set
  • Props
  • Costumes, make up and hairstyles
  • Coding of colours
  • Actors, body language and position in frame (viewer ‘reads’ left to right across the screen)
  • Lighting

A French word meaning ‘mounting’ used generally to describe the assemblage of a film through editing or the changing of one image to another. More specifically it is a number of shots edited quickly together in order to form a brief impression of a character, time or place. The term is used to describe a particular method of editing in which images, objects and figures are linked or overlaid in a variety of creative or unexpected ways in order to generate certain affects or ideas. Such a montage sequence in a film summarises a topic or compresses a passage of time into brief symbolic or typical images. Frequently dissolves, fades, superimpositions and wipes are used to link the images.

Overhead angle
This shot is achieved when the camera is overhead or directly above the object or scene; shot is taken with the camera facing down. A number of effects can be created: objects or characters looking small, vulnerable, moving scenes look mechanical/predictable; city looks like a maze or ants’ nest and character can appear lost; can follow character or object at different speed/pace.

A shot in which the camera follows the action from one side of the screen to the other; the camera moves from side to side on its tripod; gives a sense of a wider perspective or shot, the sense of our eyes ‘panning’ across a large scene (hence ‘panorama’).

Point of view
In film, the position from which an action or subject is seen.

A space within which a narrative action takes place; it is composed of one or more shots.

A series of scenes or shots unified by a shared action or motif; the putting together of a series of shots to form a continuous scene or piece of action. A series of shots can create a particular sequence of the narrative in film. The sequence, or order and presentation of shots, can be used for added effect for meaning, especially the use of flashback, dream sequences, time variations as well as juxtaposition of shots.

A continuously exposed and unedited image of any length. The shot is all that is recorded on film from the point at which the camera begins (“action”) until it stops rolling (“cut”). The choice of lens fitted to the camera determines the shot size or the amount of the scene which is included in the frame. A shot can be filmed from a variety of camera angles, and single frames can be selected and sequenced to create the most meaning.

Side Lighting
The main light source comes from one side of the screen.

The soundtrack is basically what we hear in the film. This is an element that cannot be neglected when studying film as it is an audio-visual medium. Sound effects are commonly used to set a scene or support a visual image. The following audio elements are part of the soundtrack of a film:

  • dialogue
  • silence/no dialogue or sounds
  • voices – volume, pitch, pace
  • sound cues - how sound can take you over the cut into the next scene (drags shot into the next)
  • sound effects
  • music
  • diegetic or synchronous sound (what we can see/hear that characters can also; sound whose source is identified by the film image)
  • non-diegetic or asynchronous sound (sound the characters cannot hear/put in for the audience only; sound that does not have its source in the film image)

A series of framed sketches which are used to outline a sequence. A tool used in planning film production, consisting of comic-strip-like drawings of individual shots or sequences, with descriptions written for each drawing or frame.

The camera moves up or down to follow moving objects to reveal a scene or object which is too big to fit in one frame.

Top Lighting
The main light source comes from above the character.

The camera moves forward or backward through space, or parallel to the action. This is often done by placing the camera on tracks (“dolly tracks”). The camera seems to flow with the action, has similar movement, or gets ahead or behind the action.

Under Lighting
The main light source comes from below the character

This shot is taken when the camera is directly beneath the object or figure; suggesting extreme power or danger (e.g. undershot of stampeding cattle, undershot of a train, etc).

An optical transition similar to the fade; but unlike the fade-in, which the image fades to black, in a washout the image suddenly starts to bleach out or to colour, until the screen becomes a frame of white or coloured light. A new scene then follows.

A transitional device that occurs when one shot moves across the screen from left to right or from right to left and appears to wipe away the preceding shot; usually used to effect a change of scene without a slowing of dramatic pace. A wipe that is achieved by using objects or characters to wipe out a shot or scene is known as a natural wipe.

The camera is moved towards or away from a particular object; a means of making objects appear closer or further away by use of a lens which enlarges objects. A zoom can sometimes be used for similar effect to a tracking shot.