Category Archives: What is…?

What is… Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound?

This edition of the ‘what is…?‘ feature is a bit of a two-parter, as I don’t see much point in describing diegetic sound without describing non-diegetic sound at the same time.

Diegetic sound

Diegetic sound, also known as actual sound, is any sound whose source physically exists in the world of the film. This could be in the form of pretty much anything: characters talking, a gunshot, a dog barking, a radio, musical instruments. Diegetic sound may be on-screen or off-screen, but must emanate from action within the film.

Non-diegetic sound

Non-diegetic sound, also known as commentary sound, is sound whose source is not a part of the film’s world, in that it doesn’t comes from anything on screen or implied to come from somewhere off screen. Non-diegetic sound is added to film in post-production. Examples of non-diegetic sound include voiceovers and narration, mood music and soundtrack/score, and sound effects added for dramatic effect.

Diegetic and non-diegetic sound are often used together, as shown in this brilliant scene from The Shawshank Redemption.


The clip starts with the shuffling of records, a dripping tap, a prison guard talking – all diegetic sound. Then Andy puts on the Mozart record which plays out of the PA system. This is still diegetic sound, as even when the shot changes and the record player itself isn’t in shot, it still exists within the world of the film.

Then, at around the 2 minute mark, we hear one of Red’s voiceovers, an example of non-diegetic sound whilst the diegetic sound of the record continues in the background.

Now look at what can happen when the non-diegetic sound is taken out of a scene, as shown in this clip made by Paul Olohan from Zombieland…

Switching it up

Filmmakers may segue from diegetic to non-diegetic sound or vice-versa. For example, a character may be listening to the radio, an example of diegetic sound, but the music from the radio may then continue into the following scene and can no longer be heard by the character, thus becoming non-diegetic. This is sometimes known as trans-diegetic.

Filmmakers may also have a bit of fun with sound, leading us to believe it’s either diegetic or non-diegetic, but then revealing it to be the other. See the following clip from Blazing Saddles for instance…

Similarly, in this clip of Stranger Than Fiction, we hear a voiceover narration, which would ordinarily be considered non-diegetic. However, we soon discover that Will Ferrell’s character can actually hear the voiceover, suggesting that it is, in fact, diegetic.

Do you have any favourite uses or sound in film, either diegetic or non-diegetic? If so, let me know in the comments below.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… Scenery Chewing?

Scenery chewing or scene chewing is a phrase used to describe overacting. It comes from the thought that those who are so wrapped up in their own acting performance leave teeth marks in the scenery and props.

Scenery chewing can be unintentional, which is often down to bad acting, or can be intentional when a role calls for an exaggerated performance.

Here are some examples of actors chewing the scenery, both in a good way and a bad way…

Intentional scenery chewing

This scene from The Shining is a classic example of scenery chewing but one that is totally required for the role, and has since become an iconic piece of cinema. Madness and insanity is a common source of scenery chewing, but most of the time it’s essential to get those emotions across.

Jim Carey is one of the most obvious examples of overacting, and this example from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective sums him up. No doubt the role calls for this kind of overacting but many would no doubt also argue it’s Carey’s dodgy acting as well.

Sir Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his role as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs despite only being on screen for about 16 minutes. His twisted portrayal of the serial killer is another example of how scenery chewing can help show mentally unstable characterisation.

Unintentional scene chewing

Hayden Christianson is just one of many things wrong with the Star Wars prequels and this clip shows why as he delivers his lines with the emotional weight of a beach ball.

Not only is Jon Voight incredibly pervy and creepy in this scene but it’s so over the top it makes J-Lo look like Cate Blanchett.

The Ultimate Scenery Chew. Nic Cage in the remake of The Wicker Man is truly a sight to behold and is well worth a watch just for how unbelievably laughable it is.

Are there any examples of scenery chewing that stick in your memory? If so, drop a comment below…

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… a dénouement?

The dénouement is the last part of the film’s narrative structure, often also known as the conclusion. It is usually the final part of a five act structure – introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. Its primary function is to wrap up the story following the main events of the film, solving conflicts and offering a release of tension for the viewer.

The term, which is unsurprisingly French, comes from the Old French desnouer, meaning “to untie”, which itself comes from nodus, the Latin for “knot”. This quite nicely gives the image of the film’s plot becoming unravelled as it concludes.

Most films have a dénouement and it’s not too difficult to identify it, although sometimes it may be very brief. Red leaving for the island where he meets Andy in The Shawkshank Redemption is a good example of dénouement, nicely tying the story up, as seen below. Other examples include the Simba reclaiming Pride Rock in The Lion King and Ripley putting herself and her cat into stasis in Alien.

Not all films have a dénouement, however. Some films simply cut to the credits as soon as the climax finishes, an example of which is The Blair Witch Project. This can either have excellent dramatic effect, possibly leaving the ending and following events ambiguous or it can leave the film feeling cut short and incomplete. Films may also dispense with any kind of dénouement (or have a very short one) if they are part of a series of films, with a longer dénouement likely at the end of the last film. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example has become known for having an incredibly long dénouement at the end of The Return of the King.

Are there any dénouements that stand out in your opinion? Let me know in the comments below.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… Film à Clef?

Film à clef, or film à clé, is a type of film based on real life but played out as fiction. The term is French for ‘film with a key’, with the ‘key’ referring to the process of swapping out real names with fictional ones. It is the film version of roman à clef, which is the literary, and presumably original, equivalent.

This type of film is different from biopics, whether they’re based on a real person or not, as they’re not played as fact; it’s told solely as fiction. A common type of film à clef is when a fiction film is based on the writer’s personal experiences.

There are countless examples of film à clef, but some of the more notable ones include:

  • Citizen Kane – Kane was based on American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
  • Magnolia – apparently loosely inspired by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s experience of dealing with the death of his father from cancer.
  • Lost In Translation – Scarlett Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi’s characters are believed to be based on writer/director Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband Spike Jonze.
  • Saving Private Ryan – Loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers.

Do you have any others that spring to mind? Is there a film of type that’s a favourite of yours? Drop a comment below and let me know.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… a Dolly Zoom?

A dolly zoom is a camera effect that distorts an audience’s regular sense of visual perception. It is created by zooming in or out whilst the camera physically moves (dollies) in the opposite direction. For example, the camera would zoom in whilst dollying away. This keeps the subject of the frame roughly the same size throughout the effect, whilst the background moves closer or further away, depending on the direction of the zoom/dolly.

The invention of the effect has been credited to Irmin Roberts, a second-unit cameraman at Paramount, and was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Most film fans will be aware of the moment in Vertigo in which a dolly zoom is used and the effect it creates…

A dolly zoom creates a feeling of disorientation for the viewer. It is not an effect that the human visual system is used to seeing and can therefore be jarring and unsettling. It might be used to create a sense of height, as in Vertigo, unease, a sense of urgency or danger, or may show a sense of dawning realisation in a character. An example of this is in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where Brody realises that they do indeed have a shark munching on swimmers. See below…

Just some of the alternative names for a dolly zoom include:

  • The “Hitchcock zoom” or the “Vertigo effect”
  • “Hitchcock shot” or “Vertigo shot
  • Triple Reverse Zoom
  • Reverse Tracking Shot
  • Back Zoom Travelling
  • Telescoping
  • Trombone shot
  • Stretch shot
  • Reverse Pull
  • Contra-zoom

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… a Jump Cut?

A jump cut is an edit whereby the camera position of a shot varies only slightly or not at all from the preceding shot.

In continuity editing, filmmakers should adhere to the ’30 degree rule’, a principle whereby the camera in consecutive shots should move position by at least 30 degrees. This makes it clear to the audience that a cut has been made and that they are now looking at a totally different shot. If the camera moves less than 30 degrees between shots, then the cut will be abrupt and jarring for the audience, thus creating a jump cut. They can be created either by editing together two separately-filmed shots (spatial jump cut) or by editing out the middle part of a single shot (temporal jump cut).

A jump cut may be used to show the passage of time in a scene and also to add a sense of speed. A jump cut may also be used as a Brectian-esque device to draw your attention to the fact you’re watching a constructed medium made of up separate shots. George Méliès, of Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) fame, is widely thought of to be one of the first to use jump cuts, having discovered them accidentally. He would use them to create on-screen illusions, although he would try and disguise the cut to make the illusion seem more authentic.

One film that has become famous for its use of jump cuts is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 French New Wave classic À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). The film’s producer apparently asked Godard to reduce the length of the film, and one way he did so was during some of the conversations. Godard explained: “Instead of slightly shortening one and then slightly shortening the other, and winding up with short little shots of both of them, we’re going to cut out four minutes by eliminating one or the other altogether, and then we will simply join the [remaining] shots, like that, as though it were a single shot.”

Here’s a video showing jump cuts in À Bout de Souffle

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… the 180° rule?

The 180° rule is a principle of film making that allows the viewer to better understand spatial relationships between characters and their surroundings. Obviously, there are very few proper ‘rules’ in film making, and as such the 180° rule is more of a basic guideline.

Here’s a (hopefully) simple explanation: A line (imaginary, of course) connects characters, and by keeping the camera on one side of that line throughout the scene, the viewer will better understand the characters’ spatial relationships, even if they don’t always appear on screen or we don’t see a wide shot of the scene. It is probably most helpful during conversations between two characters; it will keep one person talking from what appears the left side of the room and the other from the right.

If this rule is not adhered to and the camera doesn’t stay on one side of the line, it is known as jumping or crossing the line. Using the conversation example again, jumping the line would result in both characters appearing to be talking from the same side rather than looking at each other. Here’s a delightful little diagram to illustrate the idea…

Screen-Shot-2012-08-28-at-11.29.00-PM

The 180° rule is essential for a style of editing called continuity editing, making a smooth series of events from what is essentially a collection of separate shots. However, it is not uncommon for directors to jump the line, and there are various reasons why they might do this. They might jump the line to create a sense of disorientation and confusion in the audience, perhaps in a dream sequence or to show someone going insane. It could also simply be a purposeful disregard for standard cinematic practice, such as during Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic À bout de souffle.

Another possible use is to show an integral link between two characters, suggesting that as they appear to be talking to and from both sides of a room, that they are similar or the same. This would support the jumping the line in the bathroom scene in The Shining with Jack Torrence and Delbert Grady, and also during Batman’s interrogation of The Joker in The Dark Knight. However, one of the most obvious examples is during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Gollum shows his dual personality by talking to ‘himself’. This example is essentially done by jumping the line, giving the impression that there are actually two Gollums. Watch the video below for a little reminder…

Of course, a director may have myriad reasons for jumping the line, and it is only really a ‘rule’ in certain circumstances. It helps to create the shot reverses shot of a conversation but it’s probably not necessary in situations such as people sitting in a car as it’s abundantly clear the spatial relationships between the characters and their surroundings.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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What is… a Dutch Angle?

A Dutch angle is a shot whereby the camera is tilted in relation to the scene. The shot then appears to be leaning to one side. To get slightly more technical, the usual vertical lines of the shot will be at an angle to the side of the frame. Dutch angles are also referred to as canted angles, oblique angles, German angles or even sometimes Batman angles. A rarely used type of Dutch angle is the Bavarian angle, whereby the shot is tilted a full 90° so that horizontals become verticals and vice versa.

Dutch angles got their name from their conception in German expressionist cinema where they were known as ‘Deutsch’ angles – hence why they are still also known as German angles – with ‘Dutch’ being a malformed evolution of this. Dutch angles were allegedly first used in the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to show a sense of madness, disorientation and unrest, and it’s these kind of states of mind that the technique has come to represent. It is still a widely used technique and gives a slightly ethereal quality that often gives the viewer the feeling something isn’t quite right in some respect. For example, Sam Raimi uses Dutch angles in his Evil Dead trilogy to show when someone has become possessed.

As is often the case when discussing camera techniques and the like, it’s better to see them in action, so here’s a few notable examples…

Die Hard

Die Hard

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What is… HFR (High Frame Rate)?

Peter jackson & Martin Freeman on set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe ‘What is…?’ feature has been away for a little longer than intended, but it’s back and will be taking a little look at the rather hot topic of high frame rate (HFR).

A lot of the buzz surrounding Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not about Bilbo or a massive dragon, but rather about the fact that it marked the first time a mainstream movie was filmed and projected in HFR of 48 frames per second rather than the industry standard 24 frames per second (fps).

First, a little background regarding frame rate.

Films are technically still how made how they were over 100 years ago when cinema was invented. They are a series of still images played quickly in a sequence to fool us into thinking they are moving. Each one of those images is a frame and the frame rate (measured as frames per second) is how quickly they are filmed and projected to be seen by our eager faces (if I have this drastically wrong, then please someone point it out!). There was much playing around with frame rates until it was decided that 24 fps would be the industry standard as it was the lowest possible frame rate to produce smooth motion without having to use the longer reels of film needed for higher frame rates. Anything filmed and projected higher than 24 fps is considered HFR.

Shooting at a higher frame rate reduces the motion blur and adds a greater sharpness to the images, allegedly giving a more accurate representation of real life, compared to the cinematic ‘look’ of 24 fps. This is because the viewer is seeing twice as many frames per second, meaning the eyes and brain have fewer gaps to fill in in between frames. This is also the case when watching a HFR film in 3D, producing clearer images and reducing the blur and strobing that can occur.

Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is considered the first film to be filmed in HFR, this isn’t the case. Films Oklahoma (1955) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) are technically considered HFR, being filmed and projected at 30 fps. The first IMAX HD film, Momentum, was shot and projected at 48 fps, whilst special effects experts Douglas Trumbull devised a new film format called Showscan which operated 60 fps.

However, it was indeed Peter Jackson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released in December 2012, that brought HFR into mainstream cinema. Jackson has been very vocal in his support for HFR, suggesting that this is where the future of cinema is heading, stating: “HFR 3D is “different” — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records. We live in an age when cinemas are competing with iPads and home entertainment systems. I think it’s critical that filmmakers employ current technology to increase the immersive, spectacular experience that cinema should provide. It’s an exciting time to be going to the movies.

Despite Jackson’s enthusiasm, reaction to HFR has been mixed. Whilst some have said it allows for a much more immersive experience, many have countered by saying it removes their suspension of disbelief and that everything looks too ‘real’. Some have complained it looks like on-set behind-the-scenes footage or a TV production. Other filmmakers clearly believe in its worth, with James Cameron apparently intending to use it for his Avatar sequels, whilst Andy Serkis will use it for his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

This has merely been an overview of HFR; the topic is incredibly detailed and way beyond my brain power. You can go into minute detail about light levels and the ins and outs of the cameras used, but I’d be lying to you (and myself) if I said I understood any of that. There are couple of interesting pieces of further reading here and here, though, should you fancy delving deeper into the HFR rabbit hole.

What are your thoughts on HFR? Is it the future of cinema or is Peter Jackson flogging a dead hobbit?

More entries in the ‘What is…?’ series can be found here.

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