Language of Moving Image


In this post I will look at some of the conventions and key terminology associated with moving image. It would be useful to look at this post together with my post on Narrative. In this post moving image refers to Film, TV, adverts, animations, installations and other moving image products.

Moving Image Conventions

Different MEDIA FORMS have different MEDIA LANGUAGES as an introduction it is worth looking overall at what constitutes the LANGUAGE OF MOVING IMAGE – in other words, key terminology – which also suggests that there is a GRAMMAR or CONVENTION or set of rules

The following recognised conventions should help students to deconstruct key moving image media texts and will also help students to create their own moving image products, working within or against these conventions. Remember the key is to know what the rules are before trying to break them. It is also worth pointing out that when students make their own products, they often struggle with aesthetic concepts of SPACE, SIZE and SCALE and I have another post which looks at this in more detail.

As alluded to, when looking at moving image products, it is useful to make a link to NARRATIVE THEORY as most often the key ideas, codes and conventions that are put to use for moving image products, are usually put together to serve ideas around NARRATIVE. For example, character, theme, motivation, empathy, ideology and so on.

The first and most distinctive tool of a moving image product is the camera. The camera is used to create images and although I write about photography and a more detailed use of the camera in another post, I would just like to re-cap some of the key features of the camera in terms of creating a moving image product.


The most important tool in a camera is the focus and depth of field (ie how much is in focus). The focus is used to direct and prioritise elements in a shot and therefore prioritise certain information. For example, it will determine who the audience should look at (even if we are not listening to them). It may switch our focus (known technically as a pull focus / rack focus / follow focus) between one element and another. Remember that the elements may not be people, but could be objects, spaces, shapes or colours, which may represent an idea, theme, belief etc (see the post on Semiotics)

Shot sizes, angles and movements

  • High angle / Low angle / bulls-eye / birds eye / canted angle
  • Tracking / Panning / Craning / Tilting / Hand held / Steadicam
  • Establishing Shot / Long Shot / Medium Shot / Close-up / Big Close-Up / Extreme Close Up (students often struggle with the first and the last again issues with SCALE, SIZE & SPACE, so practice is really important)
  • Insert Shot

The Edit

Moving image products (like other media products: print, radio, on-line) are clearly constructed around the concept of putting one thing next to another. This is editing. Editing is the process of manipulating separate images into a continuous piece of moving image which develops characters, themes, spaces and ideas through a series of events, interactions and occurrences. As such, it is (usually) LINEAR and SEQUENTIAL, although, it must be remembered that moving image products often parachute the audience into a particular moment and usually leave them at an equally unresolved moment. As such BACK STORY, FORESHADOWING, REPETITION, ELLIPSIS, DEVELOPMENT, ENIGMA, DRAMATIC IRONY and other concepts are really important to always bear in mind. Again NARRATIVE THEORY is really important to an understanding of moving image products.

Moving from Camera to Edit, would be to look at the way camera can frame and position characters and thereby the audience by creating ‘subjectivity‘ and empathy in the way they are constructed. This can be used to deliberately ‘stitch‘ the audience into the text in a deliberate and particular way.

This idea of sewing / stitching the audience into the text was developed by theoreticians of the “Screen theory” approach — Colin MacCabeStephen Heath and Laura Mulvey, so follow this link to find out a little bit more. Although, thinking about moving image products from this perspective is considered in more detail in my posts on Audience.

However, for now, get students to think about POV shots, or even direct address to the camera, as well as over the shoulder shots, close-ups, reaction shots, internal and external reverses etc. All of which are deliberately used to create a range of subjective / objective positions for the audience as they engage with characters in the moving image products.

SHOT SEQUENCING 1: Shot / Reverse Shot

The Shot / Reverse Shot a really good starting point for students to both think about and produce moving image products. The basic sequence runs from a wide angle master shot that is at a 90′ angle to (usually) two characters. This sets up the visual space and allows the film-maker to to then shoot separate close-ups, that if connected through an eye-line match are able to give the impression that they are opposite each other talking. The shots are usually over the shoulder. Firstly, they include both characters – which are called EXTERNAL REVERSES. As the drama increases, the framing of each shot then excludes the back of the head of the other character and moves in to a much closer over the shoulder shot – which are called INTERNAL REVERSES. Remember that these shots are not creating a direct look to camera. To look directly at the camera creates a very different relationship between the characters and the audience and is a technique that is only used for specific techniques / genres / film-makers.

The basic edit: cut/fade/dissolve

SHOT SEQUENCING 2: Shot progression

Shot progression usually involves the following shots (although not always in the same order). The use of these shots allow the audience to understand SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS between locations, people, movements etc. The length of shot will determine the drama, empathy, theme etc. The choice of how to sequence each shot will determine the AESTHETIC QUALITY of the product. The next sequence will then follow a similar pattern, which again allows the audience to understand concepts such as SPACE, TIME, DISTANCE, MOVEMENT, MOTIVATION, PLOT, THEME etc.

  • establishing shot / ES, moving to
  • wide shot / WS,
  • to medium shot / MS,
  • to close up / CU,
  • to big close up / BCU;
  • and then back out again

The use of sequential editing (editing one clip to another) allows for a number of key concepts to be produced:

  • parallel editing: two events editing together – so that they may be happening at the same time, or not?
  • flashback / flash-forward – allowing time to shift
  • montage – a series of independent and perhaps unconnected shots to be edited together


Continuity editing can be seen as the opposite of montage editing as the main aim is to create a sense of realism or ‘believability’ known as verisimilitude and has it’s own structure of rules where shots are edited together at particular times or on particular shots. For example:

  • match on action
  • eye-line match
  • graphic match
  • sound bridge
  • 30′ rule
  • 180′ rule

Editing is the process of putting one element / idea next to another. It is known as the Kuleshov effect, in that adding one element / idea to another actually produces a third idea / element, which if constructed well can produce in the audience an idea that isn’t actually present! If this sounds confusing, the basic rule in editing is you don’t show everything literally, you need to use just enough information to provide ideas and suggestions for your audience to develop EMPATHY and INVOLVEMENT with characters, themes, setting, plot. As such, what you leave out known as ELLIPSIS is just as important as what you put in. Again the ideas of SPACE, SIZE & SCALE are really important, because you need to frame your shots with appropriate SIZE AND SCALE and trim your shots so that they are not too long ie creating the appropriate SPACE for ideas, characters, themes, the plot etc to develop.


Moving image depends on sound for much of its’ meaning. However, it is quite significant so this will appear in another post soon.

Key Words

Finally, in this introduction, it is worth noting that as with all creative work, although there may be a grammar, a set of rules or series of conventions to follow. The key is to somehow recognise the orthodox way (of ‘doing things’)  while at the same time recognising the way in which creative producers: filmmakers, animators, directors, producers and so on, adapt, adjust, challenge or introduce new ways of ‘doing things’. This is something that we might recognise as CREATIVITY.

  • enigma
  • dramatic irony
  • foreshadowing
  • repetition / reiteration
  • back story
  • exposition of theme / character / setting / plot
  • development of theme / character / setting / plot
  • pay off or resolution of theme / character / plot
  • denouement
  • dramatic arc
  • climax / resolution
  • interior monologue
  • cause and effect
  • resolution
  • non sequitur
  • ellipsis
  • cliff-hanger

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