Tag Archives: film terminology

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… 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 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…

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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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