The Importance and Not-So-Importance of Film Terminology

I start this article with a conviction to rail against the arrogance on display from Sticklers for Terminology. But as I work through the case in my head, I find that the truth with this topic, as with all topics, lies in the delicate balance between two extremes.

Terminology is not a game

Let’s back up… Film like all technical mediums has a very rich lexicon of terms – it is important that you as a filmmaker are familiar and understand these terms and the concepts behind them.

However we should not put all our faith in what sometimes can be arbitrary language differences. Furthermore we have to be careful about rushing to judgement on people for their use (or perceived improper use) of terminology. What results from this is verbal tribalism: “You’re not a filmmaker if you don’t call XYZ what I call it.”

As someone who produces film educational materials, I know this quagmire all too well. In a quick video I did a long time ago, I mistakenly said the phrase “pan down”. Panning describes the rotational movement of the camera from side to side – “Tilt Down” would have been the correct term. In the heat of the moment, I let the wrong term slip.

Pan Tilt

But would you argue with a superior on a set if he/she told you to “pan down”? I once worked for a filmmaker from Iran, he was well spoken in English for someone whose native tongue is Farsi – but when he called directions during a live multi-cam shoot, he always had a hard time explaining the what he wanted. On numerous occasions the instruction would simply be to move the camera so I would “get the guy”.

Which guy? ”

The guy, THE GUY!

If he ever told to “pan down a little” I would not start in with a terminology debate… I would just tilt the camera down a bit and never think of it again. So in the case of “pan down” – I was clearly in the wrong – But there have been several cases where I have been called wrong on much more arbitrary uses of the language.


One such example came from a channel that used a puppet to explain filmmaking – they insisted that the term for the line from the 180 degree rule was the “stage line” and I was wrong to use the term “action line”. Now my “action line” may be a bastardization of the term “line of action” and may confuse Google with the “action line” used in drawing - but I think it’s perfectly apt description of the concept – and actually far better than “stage line” because “stage line” conveys a grounding in the physical set when in fact the line of action can be mobile and fluid depending on the camera movement with no regards to the actual stage. Either way, the concept is easily conveyed. But in his “25 years of Hollywood Experience” he has never heard of “action line” so therefor everything I had to say on the subject was invalidated… oh well.

But the one big terminology debate I think will never leave me is the discussion I had about 3 years ago when I first released our video: “Hollywood’s History of Faking It: the Evolution of Greenscreen Compositing“. I received a message from someone that I had respected (but never met) telling me he thought it was a good video but I made a mistake by saying the term “keying” was now a blanket statement pretty much applied to all greenscreen composition. He added that he couldn’t share the video because he’d be laughed out of the industry by his friends who were real “legitimate” film special effects artists.

Okay, here’s some of the background on this subject: the technical name for greenscreen (or bluescreen) is “Traveling Matte” – but the problem is no one who would benefit from this video would know what a Traveling Matte is – which is why it doesn’t appear in the title.

This is a Traveling Matt

This is a Traveling Matt

The term “chromakey” originally came from analog video switchers and they were pretty horrendous. So my friend is correct… up to a certain point in history.

After finding himself out of work when the studio he was at downsized, Petro Vlahos, the man who perfected blue screen Travelling Matte – turned his attention to video – eventually changing the television world with what would be called the Ultimatte. Notice how Vlahos stayed away from the word “Keyer” because of it’s implication with that crappy old technology… but that didn’t stop the rest of the industry. Ultimatte did what a Keyer does but better – so eventually the process of getting rid of a greenscreen and replacing it with something else took on the word “Chromakey” EVEN though originally it was ONLY applied to a blunt tool on an analog switcher.

One of dozens of modern products labeled as "Keyers"

One of dozens of modern products labeled as “Keyers”

I tried to argue with industry examples like the plugins “Keylight” that come bundled with After Effects, “Ultra Key” – the loads of industry material that utilize the term “chromakeying” as part of the modern lexicon of filmmaking… but my friend was sure I was making a fatal career mistake by saying the term “chromakey” had blossomed to mean more than it originally did.

Well now the video has been seen 2.2 million times with over 1,000 comments and I have yet had ANYONE take issue with that terminology (although that might change if some people read this article and decide to mess up my record).

So those a few examples of I’ve been slapped around for using the wrong terminology – seems pedantic looking back at it, but people still want to put the armor on and go to battle. That’s the one extreme I wanted to talk about… But if we have vastly different definitions on basic terms, then we have a problem.

For some reason, talking lenses always brings up experts in the field that don’t have a clue. I had one guy who needed to correct me by saying that Field of View is not the viewing  angle but the area covered with the lens when focused at it’s nearest focusable point. This value was always listed on Zeiss’s website. Okay… a quick look at Zeiss’s page and I did find “coverage at close range” but that is not field of view.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, terminology is important. We need a common set of words to express what we want to do. But on flip side, let’s recognize the fluidity of language and not use words as dividers to separate artist from artist. Instead, let’s use terms to educate and share our filmmaking culture, knowledge and history.

And forgive me if I should ever tell you to “pan down”