Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Are You Doing, Movie? Glossary

It's helpful to know some of our shorthand, especially for new listeners. Many of these terms are culled (or paraphrased) from existing screenwriting jargon, and many are of our own invention. If you have questions, ideas for additions, or comments, here's the ongoing glossary discussion in the forums.

"Footprint in the Snow" Moment

Introducing a visual element in association with an action, object, or sound; this visual may not ever be shown again but will be assumed, by the audience.

The term is named for an apocryphal story about “The Empire Strikes Back.” The story goes that when they created the stop motion animation for the AT-ATs, it would have been impossible to create a puff of snow every time the machines took a step. Instead, the first show we see of an AT-AT is its foot coming down in the snow and puffing up snow. From that point on, no further footprints actually produce puffs of snow, but the audience assumes that they are there and may even remember them later.

As it turns out, the initial shot of the walker’s food does NOT produce a puff of snow, but the term is still useful and applicable.

For example, the transformations in the “Transformers” films are always accompanied by a particular kind of sound effect. When, later, the audience hears this sound effect without seeing a transforming robot, it is understood that a transformation has taken place off-screen without having to be shown, allowing the filmmakers to save money and time by simply cutting to a car instead of showing the transition.

Magic Beans, One Piece of Magic

The aspect of the world of the film, different from the world we live in, which we as the audience are asked to accept -- generally without justification -- for the purpose of being told the story. Or as Trey says, "You're allowed one thing in your story that doesn't make any damn sense."

Example: In “Liar Liar,” Jim Carrey's character is incapable of telling a lie for 24 hours, because his son makes a birthday wish. This would never happen, but because the movie is funny and engaging, no one cares.

It is worth noting that this does not necessarily refer to actual “magic;” the magic bean of “Jaws” is the existence of an unusually large, unusually vicious great white shark hunting in the shallows of an island resort. Sharks do not generally behave as the shark in the film does, but it’s scary and effective and no one cares.

The general rule of thumb is that a story functions best with only one “piece of magic," and that it is likely to fall apart when more than one is introduced. (See "Up," where Carl creates a house that magically floats away on balloons, and later encounters a group of dogs with technology that magically allows them to speak.) A film which violates this rule is said to contain multiple pieces of magic, or in Save the Cat terminology, to be engaged in Double Hocus Pocus.


A specific subset of the “piece of magic” concept, in which the piece of magic we are asked to accept is an entire new “world” in which the story takes place; individual divergences from how our world works are not additional pieces of magic, but rather expressions of the primary piece of magic (the world they inhabit).

Examples: Alice in Wonderland, obviously. Harry Potter. Avatar.

It is still theoretically possible to wind up with multiple pieces of magic if a new element violates the established rules of the Wonderland (if, for example, space aliens invaded Hogwarts in the last Potter movie), but the rules can be established so broadly up front that it’s very rare.

Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

When it comes to non-franchise movies, an audience typically comes in cold, not knowing who to root for and who to root against. A “Save the Cat” moment is an opportunity for a character -- typically the scene in which s/he is introduced or very soon after -- to do a good deed and cue the audience that this person is the one we should root for.

Example: In “Dark City,” John Murdoch saves a goldfish right after we meet him, cueing the audience to his goodness and getting us to like him, despite the other characters referring to him as a murderer. (Inspector Bumstead has a related moment: when he sees the goldfish in the tub he questions what kind of murderer would have stopped to save it. We now know he is smart, that he is seeking the truth and not relying on preconceptions like all his colleagues. We like him, too.)

Kill the Cat

The inverse of a Save the Cat moment, an opportunity for a character to do something evil and announce him/herself as the villain.

Example: Darth Vader chokes a bitch and we know what's up.

Sometimes also utilized in the introduction of an anti-hero. The difference is typically that the villainous characters are actively malicious or cruel, whereas the antihero’s actions are self-serving or morally indifferent.

Example: In “Book of Eli,” the titular character literally kills a cat -- for sustenance -- in the opening scene.


An informal metric for measuring acting performance, indicating over-acting. From the notion that Jeff Goldblum represents a constant, known-quantity of line delivery.

Usage: "This actor is running at about two Goldblums right now."


As in "Goldblum," informally taken to mean the quantity of Goldblum squared.

Usage: "This actor is approaching Mach Walken."

Drew Barrymore Syndrome

A Hollywood star, who has taken perhaps a month of kung fu lessons, trying to come off as a credible, highly skilled ass-kicker.

Primary Example: Drew Barrymore in "Charlie's Angels"

Shark Brain
An audio/visual element that is there because the average audience member expects it to be there, not because it ought to be - otherwise, something that is done wrong for illustrative purposes.

Example: Teague once had a supervisor who was instructed to add a disembodied human brain to a graphic of a shark on the Discovery Channel, so the audience could see "where the shark's brain is." The brain of a shark is more of a loose grouping of nerve clusters that looks nothing at all like the tightly-packed human brain, but the audience would not understand that if shown, and Discovery Channel apparently had no interest in explaining.

The tendency of science fiction movies to have sound in space is also an example of a “shark brain.”

Hero's Journey / Monomyth

The archetypical story of a hero's rise from obscurity to action, conflict, and conquest. Popularized by the comparative mythology work of Joseph Campbell.

Example: Just about everything, according to Campbell. Wikipedia article on Monomyth.

Sci-fi film released in 2009 that, based on its trailer, appeared to rip off literally every trope or moment from science fiction cinema and literature throughout history. Generally referenced ironically, by accusing other films (especially those made decades prior) of ripping off “Surrogates,” rather than the inverse. Such an accusation will often be made even if no similarity actually exists in “Surrogates.”

Example: "This scene in BLADE RUNNER, about tears in the rain? Totally ripping off SURROGATES.”

Hanging a Lantern

When a film openly acknowledges an unanswered question, apparent logistical error, or other potential “plot holes,” usually by having a character point it out. Generally done to prevent the audience from becoming distracted by the question. The question may not be answered, but the audience is reassured that the storyteller is aware of the issue and asking them to go with it, as opposed to simply incompetent.

Example: In “Terminator,” Sarah asks why the machines’ time portal works the way it does, to which Kyle replies impatiently “I didn’t build the damn thing!”

An extreme example occurs in “The Emperor’s New Groove;” when the heroes arrive at the villains’ lair, they discover the villains awaiting them, despite the fact that the heroes had a tremendous headstart and the villains at one point fell into a bottomless pit. When questioned, the villains can’t explain how they got there first, and openly acknowledge that “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”


Refers to a story in which an artificial intelligence or other construct embarks on a path to become more “human” (and often involves asking the question of what, precisely, that means).

Example: "A.I.".

Perfect Movie

A film that pays off every set-up that arises in the story and character development, leaving the audience with no questions, no loose ends, and usually a sense of satisfaction. Note that one does not need to like a movie, subjectively, to acknowledge that it objectively fulfills these criteria.

Example: "The Princess Bride."

"As You Know" Scene

Generally a hallmark of lazy screenwriting, in an "As You Know" scene characters exchange information which they already know, solely for the benefit of the audience.

Example: Characters in UNDERWORLD spend a great deal of time reminding each other about “the Covenant” and “our ways,” frequently beginning with some variation of “you know it’s forbidden to...” then explaining what they’ve just pointed out the other character already knows.

Note: a scene is not an as-you-know scene -- even if it actually begins with the phrase “As You Know” -- if the mutually known information leads to information which is new to one or more of the characters.

Example: “As you know, drug trafficking activity has spiked significantly in the last few months. We think we may have finally discovered why...”

"Going to the Mansion"

When a movie abruptly shifts its focus, tone, theme, or otherwise seems to take a sudden divergence from its setup, most frequently in the third act, almost always to the detriment of the film’s cohesion.

Example: “Sunshine,” when a contemplative, tense sci-fi abruptly becomes a slasher movie.

The term was originally coined in reference to another Danny Boyle film, “28 Days Later,” when an intense survival horror film becomes a social commentary about the military-industrial complex. For the history of this term, check out the Sunshine commentary, 00:03:30 in.

Going Back to the Hobo

Watching a new installment of a franchise, of which the previous film or films have been of questionable/declining quality or outright bad, possibly in the vain and irrational hope that maybe this one will be better. Much like an amusing hobo at the bus stop, you find it’s not as entertaining the second time around, and may even be depressing.

Example: “Transformers 2.”

Fridge Logic

A logical issue that the audience is unlikely to notice while watching the film play out, and will only realize on later reflection -- e.g., while getting a snack out of the fridge. Technically a plot hole, but one so well-concealed that it isn’t apparent until afterward, and therefore somewhat more acceptable for not taking the audience out of the film.

Examples: In “Star Trek (2009),” if a single drop of Red Matter is enough to create a planet-imploding black hole, what in the hell did Spock need SO MUCH of it for?

In “Independence Day,” why did the aliens hijack Earth’s satellite systems to coordinate their attack -- making interception of their signal possible -- rather than just “synchronizing their watches” at the mothership and simply attacking when the internal countdown ran down?

If the Terminators in “Terminator” are designed specifically to kill people, why don’t they have built-in weapons?

In “Transformers,” the Autobots learn English from the “world wide web.” But Megatron was frozen something like a thousand years ago, and he wakes up speaking English. How did HE learn it?

Et cetera. We could do this all day.

The Plinkett Test

From the RedLetterMedia review of The Phantom Menace, a test used to gauge the strength of a character by "describing the character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was." The more you can say under those restrictions, the stronger the character.

Examples: He provides several. For instance, Han Solo is a rogue, he is dashing, he's actually kind of a bad guy but he has a heart of gold and comes through when his friends need him to. Meanwhile, Qui Gon Jinn can only be described as "...stern?"

The Teague Law of Sympathy

Even if a character hasn't been established to you, if they're completely fucked, you like them.

Example: The spooning couple in 'Titanic,' Andy (the rooftop gun guy) in Dawn of the Dead (2004), etc..


Anonymous said...

Another one:

The buck stops with the director, as film is a director's medium (unlike theatre or TV).

Never blame the actor (e.g. Samuel Jackson or Natalie Portman for their lame performances in The Phantom Menace) as the responsibility is with the casting director and ultimately with the film's director.

A good director can extract an exceptional performance from an average actor (e.g. Sean Astin in The Return of the King) while a bad director can miscast and extract bland line deliveries.

Zarban said...

From the Terminator Salvation commentary...

"This is, in a sense, a cargo cult movie. It’s going thru all the motions that seemed to work last time, but it doesn’t really understand what they signify. … They don’t really understand the cause and effect involved."

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