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Film language: how films work

What makes a good film? It’s a film that does what the filmmaker wanted it to do. One where the audience stays interested, understands the story, and feels what the filmmaker intended them to feel.

To make a good film, you need to plan the effect it will have on the audience. So you need to know what will happen if you frame a shot in a particular way; how you can use sound to help them understand the story, and how to edit your shots together in sequences that build tension or emotion.

So you need to know the basics of film language before you can start making a film.

Shots (the picture)

When you plan the pictures you can think about shot size (how big things are), composition (how things are arranged in the picture), position (where the camera is), how you use or show movement, what kind of lens setting you use, and how the scene is lit.


Shot size

Shot size is one of the basics of filmmaking. It means how big things are in the picture. An extreme long shot just shows the setting; long shots and mid shots show people in the setting, and closeups show details of faces and objects. More on shot size



Think about exactly what to put in the shot, what to leave out, and how to arrange things in the shot. To make things look natural, put lines, edges or faces about a third of the way across, up or down the picture ‘frame’. To make them look formal, put them in the middle; and to make things seem uncomfortable, make the shot unbalanced or put it at on a slant. More on composition


Camera position and angle

As well as shooting different shot sizes, you should film from different places. Get closer or move further away. See what the shot looks like if you move round to the side. Crouch down or use a ladder to get unusual angles. More on camera position



Most shots need some kind of movement to give them film life. Keep the camera still to show subtle movements;  pantrack or tilt to follow action or move through a space. More on movement


The lens

Use wide angle (zoomed out) shots to get up close or make things dramatic, and telephoto (zoomed out) shots to make things bigger if you can’t get close. With bigger cameras, you can change the focus to pick out the important parts of the shot. More on using the lens


Light and colour

Light doesn’t just show what’s going on. You can make the mood happy, sad, romantic or scary just by using daylight or room lights and basic reflectors. More on light and colour


Sound is a really powerful tool for telling your story and helping make an impact. Your soundtrack can include all kinds of different sounds: natural sounds which you record live (or fake with sound effects), dialogue, voiceovers and music. More on sound


Film-making is a bit like a magic trick. You can film a lot of different shots, add some sounds and music, and put it together so everything seems to flow naturally. You can shoot with one camera and make it look as if you have ten. You need to follow some tricks and rules to make this work. More on continuity


You should be thinking about how your shots will edit together as you’re filming them. Each shot should show something new: either a different thing, or the same thing with a different shot size or camera position. More on editing

Learn more

You can learn a lot more about film language by watching films, TV programmes and ads. Watch a short film (or part of a long film) and try to work out the reasons for the decisions the director made. Why did they put the camera there? Why did they include that in the shot? Why did they use that sound? Try watching some of the films in the Inspirations section.

Learn about film