Film language

When you’re making a film you should use the camera and editing to help your audience know what’s happening and what your characters are doing, thinking and feeling.

You need to make sure that you have a variety of shots, usually including

* long shots
* mid shots
* closeups

Things you can use to help you plan are

* a script
* a storyboard
* a shot list

Camera movements

Camera movements should be used for a purpose, not just to avoid editing! If you do need movements, make sure the movement is smooth and goes in only one direction. Tracking shots ­ where the camera itself moves ­ usually look much better than zooms. For smooth tracking, mount the camera on a wheelchair, skateboard or trolley.

Shot duration

When you’re filming, each shot should last longer than you want it to appear in the finished film: editing longer shots down is much easier then refilming missing footage if the shots are too short to use. When you’re editing dialogue, you may think all you need to use is each character’s line, but significant pauses can add hugely to the tension and dramatic impact of a scene.

Continuity editing

In continuity editing everything is filmed so that the viewer thinks they are seeing continuous action. As well as following the rules below, you will need to ensure that characters’ appearance, the set and the lighting (colour and direction) remain consistent from shot to shot.


If you’re shooting two characters talking to each other, here’s how to do it.

* Film it once with a ‘master shot’, which shows both characters
* Film it again with the camera in closeup on one character
* Film it again with the camera in closeup on the second character.
* Film individual shots of each character in ‘big closeup’ when you need to show strong emotion.
* You can also include other shots, such as mid shots, if you need them.

You can film an interview in the same way with just one camera:

* Film the interviewee, while your ‘production assistant’ make notes of the questions
* Then film the interviewer asking the questions and nodding occasionally

Rules for continuity editing

180 degree rule

It’s important not to cross the ‘line of vision’ between two characters, unless the viewer actually sees the viewpoint move across the line. Otherwise the viewer may not be able to make sense of the scene. The same rule applies to a moving subject: keep to one side of the direction of motion.

Diagram illustrating shot reverse shot

30 degree rule

If the camera angle changes by less than 30 degrees (with the same framing) viewers may notice a visible jump cut.

Matching eyeline

You need to ensure that the direction of characters’ gazes stays the same ­ so if one character is taller than the other, the smaller character should be looking up and the taller looking down.


You can edit a shot reverse shot scene or single-camera interview by splitting a clip into subclips to divide up the clip into the lines you want, then putting the clips in order so they alternate between characters, then trimming the clips. It’s easier if you rename the clips so that you know which clip has which line of dialogue.

You can even include ‘split edits’ where the picture and sound change at different points.

You should edit movement (eg a character running) ‘on the action’ and make sure that the character has clearly moved forward between shots, rather than having the action appearing as if it’s repeated.


Fades and dissolves (or ‘cross-fades’) can add to the meaning of a sequence.

* Dissolves can be used to provide a slow, relaxed way of linking shots ­ eg in a ‘montage’ of different shots within an opening sequence.
* They can also be used in continuity editing to show that we have moved forward in time and/or space.
* Fades to black and back are usually used to show that a more significant period of time has elapsed between two sequences.
* Wipes and other unusual transitions are best avoided!

Thinking in shots

To start thinking in terms of individual shots, try planning and filming an action sequence while following the rules below:

* MORE CLOSE-UPS: Don’t go more than three shots without a closeup.
* NO ZOOMS: Don’t touch the zoom button when the camera is running ­ just use it to set the framing for the shot.
* NO CAMERA MOVEMENTS: Frame separate shots rather than scanning the scene.


Not all editing is continuity editing. Title sequences often use ‘montage’, where the combination of contrasting images builds up meaning.

The daydream

Here’s an exercise which will bring in continuity editing, consideration of shot sizes and camera angle.

Using one camera, film and edit a 40-second sequence as follows:

Person A is working at a desk. They start daydreaming.

In the daydream, they nervously walk along a corridor and approach a door. They don’t know what’s on the other side.

They walk through the door and see Person B, someone they hadn’t expected to see. The dialogue goes as follows:

Person B (in a sinister voice): Hello.
Person A (who’s just walked through the door): Oh no! What are you doing here?
Person B (the person in the room): I could ask the same thing about you.

Your sequence must last 30 seconds and include at least eight separate shots.

It must include at least one each of the following:

* long or wide shot
* mid shot
* close up
* big closeup or extreme closeup

You may not use zooms. You may use only one camera movement – in one direction – only.

Use a storyboard to help you plan your sequence. Recce the location to work out where the camera should be.

Think about how you can use framing, camera angle, lighting (if available) and editing to:

* show Person A’s nervousness
* show that it’s a daydream.
* make the action appear to be continuous
* show the power relationships between the characters

You can take the activity further by adding suitable music and sound effects.

You could also devise a 20-second montage title sequence, which could include text, images, transitions, effects and sound.

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