Lesson Plan: Basic Terms of Cinema Studies + Their Relevance for Avant-Garde Cinema


Ian here—

I suspect that every cinema studies teacher has their own favorite examples to use when teaching key vocabulary terms, and I would not be so presumptuous as to prescribe my own favorites! Nevertheless, though, it’s an important part of the job, so I wanted to share my own approach here.

Over the past couple of years, I have gotten used to teaching these terms in a very specific context. At the School of the Art Institute, I teach first-year seminar courses. They are courses designed so that all students have some basis in college-level writing as they go through their time at SAIC. Instructors are given enormous freedom to teach whatever they like. This makes it a great venue for testing out new and interesting course ideas, but the flip side of that is that your courses never have prerequisites, and there’s no telling the level of expertise students who enroll will actually have.

What I do, then, is devote one day early on in the semester to a quick-and-dirty Intro to Film in a single lecture. I take a lot of the examples and explanations I first started using when I taught Intro to Film at U Chicago in 2015, but I condense them down into something that can fit into an hour or so. It’s potent stuff.

You can access my go-to presentation here. I’ve set the privacy and sharing settings to their most open, so if you’re a Prezi user you should feel free to copy it if you like it, subbing in your own preferred definitions and clips as you feel necessary! I’m here to share, and not here to impose.

When teaching the basic vocabulary of shot and cut, I emphasize that it’s easiest to conceptualize these terms if we stick close to the original technology of cinema. Contemporary filmmakers working with modern digital video formats still use these terms—they are completely baked in to how we think about moving images at this point—but the way hardware actually handles these ideas is radically different. Sometimes, it’s just best to go back to the source.

To do this, I unspool some 35mm film I have, snaking it around the classroom as if my students were the sprockets and rollers of an enormous projector. I find that trailers are ideal for doing this. They’re just a hundred feet or so of film wrapped around a core, so they transport easily, and are easy to distribute, roll up, and tape back up again. I was lucky enough to get ahold of one a few years ago when theaters converting to purely digital projection setups were cleaning out all the crazy crap they had been accumulating for years. They might be a little more difficult to get ahold of these days. Ask any projectionists you know!

The first time I taught Intro to Film, I was surprised by how few students were comfortable with the vocabulary of “shot” and “cut.” (I feel like I had been using it since I was seven or eight years old, but then again I was an obsessed nerd, and that’s why I’ve become an educator.) With a strip of 35mm film in hand, the confusion quickly dissipates. Students understand that a shot is the continuous-looking stream of images, representing a chunk of time when the camera was continuously rolling. They can clearly see the difference between intra-shot frames, with their minute differences that lead to the impression of movement when projected in quick succession, and the radically different side-by-side frames that mark the instance of a cut.

So, two terms down. Next up: mise-en-scene. The exact boundaries of this umbrella term differ depending on which directors, critics, or theorists you’re examining. I go with a definition that includes costumingdecor/set designmakeuplighting/color, and staging.


I have some favorite examples I use here. I use Teshigahara Hiroshi’s The Face of Another (1966) to discuss set design and decor, getting students to describe in their own words how radically different approaches to set design uphold the distinction between “grounded” reality versus the “surreal” space of Dr. Hira’s lab. Doing all of this in one day, I don’t have time to go into a wide array of lighting terms, but I do at least sketch out the difference between high-key lighting and low-key lighting. I’m especially fond of the opening of Tarr Bela’s The Man from London (2007) as an example of the latter:

Here, I explain to students that the film is a mystery. (Well, sort of. More of a noir-inflected elliptical art film, as one would expect from Tarr, but I don’t get into that….) Mysteries are all about missing information. In this case, the missing information has to do with the fate of the titular man from London, seen in this opening scene tossing a briefcase full of cash over the side of a boat to avoid customs, the fate of that briefcase, and the fate its intended recipient. Already in this first shot, Tarr is riffing on this theme, purposefully subtracting visual information from the scene, making to struggle to see certain things. The parallax occlusion of the window muntins, which cover up different aspects of the scene as the camera moves, contributes to this, as does the silhouette of the railway worker (who will become our main character). Aside from occlusion, Tarr also uses deep pools of inky darkness to hide certain things from us. (Just look at how abstract and incomplete the space is when the man tosses the briefcase overboard!) Low-key lighting at work.


I mesh the issues of staging together with issues of the optical properties of photographic lenses. When discussing the difference between the optical distortions of wide-angle lenses versus telephoto lenses, I place a clip from Soy Cuba (Mikhail Kalazotov, 1964) next to a clip from Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokoruv, 1996). (Yes, The Graduate works well, too. Yes, Mother and Son introduces some complications that The Graduate doesn’t, since some of its optical effects are achieved through achieved through a refusal to re-stretch an anamorphic image, and not just through extreme telephoto lenses. But I love placing two extreme Russian stylists next to each other, damn it.)

My quick-and-dirty explanation of depth of field is that it is the “slice of space” extending in front of the camera that is in sharp focus. Deep versus shallow depth of field can be illustrated by adjusting the brackets I use on the graphic below to demarcate the slice of space that’s in focus.


For illustrating shallow depth of field, I am particular fond of this early scene in Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990):

Here, I ask students to describe the emotional and storytelling effects that proceed from the optical effects used in the filming of this scene. Students are generally quick to point out that the shallows focus gives us a greater feeling of intimacy with these characters. I like to point out how the depth of field is so shallow that not only is Maggie Cheung’s face consistently out-of-focus, but most of the time only a small sliver of Leslie Cheung’s face is in sharp focus. At certain points, we get a sharp view of only his cheekbone or the ridge of his noes. Everything else rapidly falls into blurriness. I like to follow this up with an even more extreme example of some macro lens photography in the opening moments of Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009).

When discussing deep depth of field, I return to issues of staging, expanding on the possibilities of the deep depth of field/deep staging style. I suppose I’m unimaginative here, but I show a clip from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) at this point. The historical detail about Gregg Toland’s technological advances in deep focus allowing for the film’s pioneering style give something fun and substantial for students to grasp onto, and the storytelling implications of character positioning in this early scene are on-the-nose and very easy for students to immediately grasp:

Finally, camera movement. By this point, I’ve thrown a lot at students, and I’m cognizant of the fact that they’re probably getting tired of terms.


I try to liven things up with a call-and-response section, asking students to shout out pans they spot versus tilts they spot in a clip from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986). And when discussing dollying, I like to show not just what the action looks like, but also how it’s accomplished (emphasizing the technological distinction between dolly-based camera movement and handheld camera movement). A special feature from Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) proves useful here:

A twist: the relevance of these terms for avant-garde cinema

Now, here’s the thing: About half the time I’ve taught this speedy intro to film terms, it has been positioned at the beginning of a course on avant-garde film and video art. This raises the obvious question: Just how useful are these terms, anyway? So much of the vocabulary of film studies is carried over from the vocabulary of the mainstream commercial film industry. Am I teaching students a vocabulary early on in the course that they’ll never actually need?

Well, there are certainly limitations to where this vocabulary can get us when we examine the history of experimental moving-image-making. To take a classic example, Stan Brakhage’s camera-less film Mothlight (1963) certainly bypasses most of the concepts listed above, all the way down to “shot.”

But I also like to point out that many experimental filmmakers are very interested in the basic vocabulary of cinema that has been developed in commercial filmmaking. This gets into issues of the influence of Greenbergian Modernism on avant-garde filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s. Greenberg’s emphasis on modernist artist’s gestures toward purity, toward finding the exclusive and irreducible properties of their medium and thereby “narrowing the competence” of an art form was everywhere in this era. Jonas Mekas, praising early work by George Landow/Owen Land, comes across as an acolyte of Greenberg (although I doubt he was, especially at the time of this review’s publication in 1965):

In Landow’s loop you can see and feel the film sprockets, the splices, and even the running of film through the projector—really, it is a particular characteristic of this new film form that it pulls you into a total film experience, all its aspects included. … Film loop is a form—and Landow’s loop is a supreme illustration of it—in which nothing superfluous can be tolerated; whatever is on film, including the splicing glue, should be made to be seen and felt as a part of the whole.[i]

During this period, there were different “pure film” advocates making films that addressed different levels of the physical material of cinematic technology. Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) is about the flickering of the shutter that makes our perception of cinematic moving images possible (minus the representational imagery). Ernie Gehr’s History (1970) is about film grain. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) is about the projector beam and the social space of film spectatorship.

But then there’s someone like Michael Snow, who is less interested in issues of pure material substrate, and more interested in “pure” examples of the vocabulary of moving imagesSnow’s output from 1967 through 1976 gives us Wavelength (1967), his film about a zoom

… ←→ [Back and Forth] (1969), his film about panning

… and Breakfast (Tabletop Dolly) (1976), his film about a forward dolly motion:

In fact, if one wanted to, one could probably teach an entire introduction to the basic terminology of cinema studies using only the films of Michael Snow, plus maybe a few films by filmmakers with a similar outlook, such as Morgan Fisher. I rest my case: it is entirely appropriate to reinforce this vocabulary when teaching a course on avant-garde moving-image practices.

[i]. Mekas, Jonas. “On George Landow and Film Loops.” In Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971. New York: Collier Books, 1972.

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