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A 16 mm spring-wound Bolex H16 Reflex camera, a popular introductory camera in film schools

Film is a term that encompasses individual motion pictures, the field of film as an art form, and the motion picture industry. Films are produced by recording images from the world with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or special effects.

Films are cultural artifacts created by specific cultures, which reflect those cultures, and, in turn, affect them. Film is considered to be an important art form, a source of popular entertainment and a powerful method for educating — or indoctrinating — citizens. The visual elements of cinema gives motion pictures a universal power of communication. Some films have become popular worldwide attractions by using dubbing or subtitles that translate the dialogue.

Traditional films are made up of a series of individual images called frames. When these images are shown rapidly in succession, a viewer has the illusion that motion is occurring. The viewer cannot see the flickering between frames due to an effect known as persistence of vision, whereby the eye retains a visual image for a fraction of a second after the source has been removed. Viewers perceive motion due to a psychological effect called beta movement.

The origin of the name "film" comes from the fact that photographic film (also called film stock) had historically been the primary medium for recording and displaying motion pictures. Many other terms exist for an individual motion picture, including picture, picture show, photo-play, flick, and most commonly, movie. Additional terms for the field in general include the big screen, the silver screen, the cinema, and the movies.


In the 1860s, mechanisms for producing artificially created, two-dimensional images in motion were demonstrated with devices such as the zoetrope and the praxinoscope. These machines were outgrowths of simple optical devices (such as magic lanterns) and would display sequences of still pictures at sufficient speed for the images on the pictures to appear to be moving, a phenomenon called persistence of vision. Naturally the images needed to be carefully designed to achieve the desired effect, and the underlying principle became the basis for the development of film animation.

A frame from Roundhay Garden Scene, the world's earliest film, by Louis Le Prince, 1888

With the development of celluloid film for still photography, it became possible to directly capture objects in motion in real time. Early versions of the technology sometimes required a person to look into a viewing machine to see the pictures which were separate paper prints attached to a drum turned by a handcrank. The pictures were shown at a variable speed of about 5 to 10 pictures per second, depending on how rapidly the crank was turned. Some of these machines were coin operated. By the 1880s the development of the motion picture camera allowed the individual component images to be captured and stored on a single reel, and led quickly to the development of a motion picture projector to shine light through the processed and printed film and magnify these "moving picture shows" onto a screen for an entire audience. These reels, so exhibited, came to be known as "motion pictures". Early motion pictures were static shots that showed an event or action with no editing or other cinematic techniques.

Ignoring Dickson's early sound experiments (1894), commercial motion pictures were purely visual art through the late 19th century, but these innovative silent films had gained a hold on the public imagination. Around the turn of the twentieth century, films began developing a narrative structure by stringing scenes together to tell narratives. The scenes were later broken up into multiple shots of varying sizes and angles. Other techniques such as camera movement were realized as effective ways to portray a story on film. Rather than leave the audience in silence, theatre owners would hire a pianist or organist or a full orchestra to play music fitting the mood of the film at any given moment. By the early 1920s, most films came with a prepared list of sheet music for this purpose, with complete film scores being composed for major productions.

A shot from Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), an early narrative film.

The rise of European cinema was interrupted by the breakout of World War I while the film industry in United States flourished with the rise of Hollywood. However in the 1920s, European filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, along with American innovator D. W. Griffith and the contributions of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and others, continued to advance the medium. In the 1920s, new technology allowed filmmakers to attach to each film a soundtrack of speech, music and sound effects synchronized with the action on the screen. These sound films were initially distinguished by calling them "talking pictures", or talkies.

The next major step in the development of cinema was the introduction of so-called "natural" colour. While the addition of sound quickly eclipsed silent film and theater musicians, color was adopted more gradually as methods evolved making it more practical and cost effective to produce "natural color" films. The public was relatively indifferent to color photography as opposed to black-and-white, but as colour processes improved and became as affordable as black-and-white film, more and more movies were filmed in colour after the end of World War II, as the industry in America came to view color as essential to attracting audiences in its competition with television, which remained a black-and-white medium until the mid-1960s. By the end of the 1960s, colour had become the norm for film makers.

Since the decline of the studio system in the 1960s, the succeeding decades saw changes in the production and style of film. New Hollywood, French New Wave and the rise of film school educated independent filmmakers were all part of the changes the medium experienced in the latter half of the 20th century. Digital technology has been the driving force in change throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.


Film theory seeks to develop concise and systematic concepts that apply to the study of film as art. It was started by Ricciotto Canudo's The Birth of the Sixth Art. Formalist film theory, led by Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs, and Siegfried Kracauer, emphasized how film differed from reality, and thus could be considered a valid fine art. André Bazin reacted against this theory by arguing that film's artistic essence lay in its ability to mechanically reproduce reality not in its differences from reality, and this gave rise to realist theory. More recent analysis spurred by Lacan's psychoanalysis and Ferdinand de Saussure's semiotics among other things has given rise to psychoanalytical film theory, structuralist film theory, feminist film theory and others.


Film criticism is the analysis and evaluation of films. In general, these works can be divided into two categories: academic criticism by film scholars and journalistic film criticism that appears regularly in newspapers and other media.

Film critics working for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media mainly review new releases. Normally they only see any given film once and have only a day or two to formulate opinions. Despite this, critics have an important impact on films, especially those of certain genres. Mass marketed action, horror, and comedy films tend not to be greatly affected by a critic's overall judgment of a film. The plot summary and description of a film that makes up the majority of any film review can still have an important impact on whether people decide to see a film. For prestige films such as most dramas, the influence of reviews is extremely important. Poor reviews will often doom a film to obscurity and financial loss.

The impact of a reviewer on a given film's box office performance is a matter of debate. Some claim that movie marketing is now so intense and well financed that reviewers cannot make an impact against it. However, the cataclysmic failure of some heavily-promoted movies which were harshly reviewed, as well as the unexpected success of critically praised independent movies indicates that extreme critical reactions can have considerable influence. Others note that positive film reviews have been shown to spark interest in little-known films. Conversely, there have been several films in which film companies have so little confidence that they refuse to give reviewers an advanced viewing to avoid widespread panning of the film. However, this usually backfires as reviewers are wise to the tactic and warn the public that the film may not be worth seeing and the films often do poorly as a result.

It is argued that journalist film critics should only be known as film reviewers, and true film critics are those who take a more academic approach to films. This line of work is more often known as film theory or film studies. These film critics attempt to come to understand how film and filming techniques work, and what effect they have on people. Rather than having their works published in newspapers or appear on television, their articles are published in scholarly journals, or sometimes in up-market magazines. They also tend to be affiliated with colleges or universities.


The making and showing of motion pictures became a source of profit almost as soon as the process was invented. Upon seeing how successful their new invention, and its product, was in their native France, the Lumières quickly set about touring the Continent to exhibit the first films privately to royalty and publicly to the masses. In each country, they would normally add new, local scenes to their catalogue and, quickly enough, found local entrepreneurs in the various countries of Europe to buy their equipment and photograph, export, import and screen additional product commercially. The Oberammergau Passion Play of 1898 was the first commercial motion picture ever produced. Other pictures soon followed, and motion pictures became a separate industry that overshadowed the vaudeville world. Dedicated theaters and companies formed specifically to produce and distribute films, while motion picture actors became major celebrities and commanded huge fees for their performances. Already by 1917, Charlie Chaplin had a contract that called for an annual salary of one million dollars.

In the United States today, much of the film industry is centered around Hollywood. Other regional centers exist in many parts of the world, such as Mumbai-centered Bollywood, the Indian film industry's Hindi cinema which produces the largest number of films in the world. Whether the ten thousand-plus feature length films a year produced by the Valley pornographic film industry should qualify for this title is the source of some debate. Though the expense involved in making movies has led cinema production to concentrate under the auspices of movie studios, recent advances in affordable film making equipment have allowed independent film productions to flourish.

Profit is a key force in the industry, due to the costly and risky nature of filmmaking; many films have large cost overruns, a notorious example being Kevin Costner's Waterworld. Yet many filmmakers strive to create works of lasting social significance. The Academy Awards (also known as "the Oscars") are the most prominent film awards in the United States, providing recognition each year to films, ostensibly based on their artistic merits.

There is also a large industry for educational and instructional films made in lieu of or in addition to lectures and texts.


A preview performance refers to a showing of a movie to a select audience, usually for the purposes of corporate promotions, before the public film premiere itself. Previews are sometimes used to judge audience reaction, which if unexpectedly negative, may result in recutting or even refilming certain sections. (cf Audience response.)


Trailers or previews are film advertisements for films that will be exhibited in the future at a cinema, on whose screen they are shown. The term "trailer" comes from their having originally been shown at the end of a film programme. That practice did not last long, because patrons tended to leave the theatre after the films ended, but the name has stuck. Trailers are now shown before the film (or the A movie in a double feature program) begins.


The nature of the film determines the size and type of crew required during filmmaking. Many Hollywood adventure films need computer generated imagery (CGI), created by dozens of 3D modellers, animators, rotoscopers and compositors. However, a low-budget, independent film may be made with a skeleton crew, often paid very little. Also, an open source film may be produced through open, collaborative processes. Filmmaking takes place all over the world using different technologies, styles of acting and genre, and is produced in a variety of economic contexts that range from state-sponsored documentary in China to profit-oriented movie making within the American studio system.

A typical Hollywood-style filmmaking Production cycle is comprised of five main stages:

  1. Development
  2. Pre-production
  3. Production
  4. Post-production
  5. Distribution

This production cycle typically takes three years. The first year is taken up with development. The second year comprises preproduction and production. The third year, post-production and distribution.


A film crew is a group of people hired by a film company, employed during the "production" or "photography" phase, for the purpose of producing a film or motion picture. Crew are distinguished from cast, the actors who appear in front of the camera or provide voices for characters in the film. The crew interacts with but is also distinct from the production staff, consisting of producers, managers, company representatives, their assistants, and those whose primary responsibility falls in pre-production or post-production phases, such as writers and editors. Communication between production and crew generally passes through the director and his/her staff of assistants. Medium-to-large crews are generally divided into departments with well defined hierarchies and standards for interaction and cooperation between the departments. Other than acting, the crew handles everything in the photography phase: props and costumes, shooting, sound, electrics (i.e., lights), sets, and production special effects. Caterers (known in the film industry as "craft services") are usually not considered part of the crew.


Film stock consists of transparent celluloid, acetate, or polyester base coated with an emulsion containing light-sensitive chemicals. Cellulose nitrate was the first type of film base used to record motion pictures, but due to its flammability was eventually replaced by safer materials. Stock widths and the film format for images on the reel have had a rich history, though most large commercial films are still shot on (and distributed to theaters) as 35 mm prints.

Originally moving picture film was shot and projected at various speeds using hand-cranked cameras and projectors; though 1000 frames per minute (16⅔ frame/s) is generally cited as a standard silent speed, research indicates most films were shot between 16 frame/s and 23 frame/s and projected from 18 frame/s on up (often reels included instructions on how fast each scene should be shown). When sound film was introduced in the late 1920s, a constant speed was required for the sound head. 24 frames per second was chosen because it was the slowest (and thus cheapest) speed which allowed for sufficient sound quality. Improvements since the late 19th century include the mechanization of cameras — allowing them to record at a consistent speed, quiet camera design — allowing sound recorded on-set to be usable without requiring large "blimps" to encase the camera, the invention of more sophisticated filmstocks and lenses, allowing directors to film in increasingly dim conditions, and the development of synchronized sound, allowing sound to be recorded at exactly the same speed as its corresponding action. The soundtrack can be recorded separately from shooting the film, but for live-action pictures many parts of the soundtrack are usually recorded simultaneously.

As a medium, film is not limited to motion pictures, since the technology developed as the basis for photography. It can be used to present a progressive sequence of still images in the form of a slideshow. Film has also been incorporated into multimedia presentations, and often has importance as primary historical documentation. However, historic films have problems in terms of preservation and storage, and the motion picture industry is exploring many alternatives. Most movies on cellulose nitrate base have been copied onto modern safety films. Some studios save colour films through the use of separation masters — three B&W negatives each exposed through red, green, or blue filters (essentially a reverse of the Technicolor process). Digital methods have also been used to restore films, although their continued obsolescence cycle makes them (as of 2006) a poor choice for long-term preservation. Film preservation of decaying film stock is a matter of concern to both film historians and archivists, and to companies interested in preserving their existing products in order to make them available to future generations (and thereby increase revenue). Preservation is generally a higher-concern for nitrate and single-strip color films, due to their high decay rates; black and white films on safety bases and colour films preserved on Technicolor imbibition prints tend to keep up much better, assuming proper handling and storage.

Some films in recent decades have been recorded using analog video technology similar to that used in television production. Modern digital video cameras and digital projectors are gaining ground as well. These approaches are extremely beneficial to moviemakers, especially because footage can be evaluated and edited without waiting for the film stock to be processed. Yet the migration is gradual, and as of 2005 most major motion pictures are still recorded on film.


The Lumière Brothers

Independent filmmaking often takes place outside of Hollywood, or other major studio systems. An independent film (or indie film) is a film initially produced without financing or distribution from a major movie studio. Creative, business, and technological reasons have all contributed to the growth of the indie film scene in the late 20th and early 21st century.

On the business side, the costs of big-budget studio films also leads to conservative choices in cast and crew. There is a trend in Hollywood towards co-financing (over two-thirds of the films put out by Warner Bros. in 2000 were joint ventures, up from 10% in 1987). A hopeful director is almost never given the opportunity to get a job on a big-budget studio film unless he or she has significant industry experience in film or television. Also, the studios rarely produce films with unknown actors, particularly in lead roles.

Before the advent of digital alternatives, the cost of professional film equipment and stock was also a hurdle to being able to produce, direct, or star in a traditional studio film.

But the advent of consumer camcorders in 1985, and more importantly, the arrival of high-resolution digital video in the early 1990s, have lowered the technology barrier to movie production significantly. Both production and post-production costs have been significantly lowered; today, the hardware and software for post-production can be installed in a commodity-based personal computer. Technologies such as DVDs, FireWire connections and non-linear editing system pro-level software like Adobe Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas and Apple's Final Cut Pro, and consumer level software such as Apple's Final Cut Express and iMovie make movie-making relatively inexpensive.

Since the introduction of DV technology, the means of production have become more democratized. Filmmakers can conceivably shoot and edit a movie, create and edit the sound and music, and mix the final cut on a home computer. However, while the means of production may be democratized, financing, distribution, and marketing remain difficult to accomplish outside the traditional system. Most independent filmmakers rely on film festivals to get their films noticed and sold for distribution. The arrival of internet-based video outlets such as YouTube and Veoh has further changed the film making landscape in ways that are still to be determined.

Open content film

An open content film is much like an independent film, but it is produced through open collaborations; its source material is available under a license which is permissive enough to allow other parties to create fan fiction or derivative works, than a traditional copyright. Like independent filmmaking, open source filmmaking takes place outside of Hollywood, or other major studio systems.

Fan film

A fan film is a film or video inspired by a film, television program, comic book or a similar source, created by fans rather than by the source's copyright holders or creators. Fan filmmakers have traditionally been amateurs, but some of the more notable films have actually been produced by professional filmmakers as film school class projects or as demonstration reels. Fan films vary tremendously in length, from short faux-teaser trailers for non-existent motion pictures to rarer full-length motion pictures.


Animation is the technique in which each frame of a film is produced individually, whether generated as a computer graphic, or by photographing a drawn image, or by repeatedly making small changes to a model unit (see claymation and stop motion), and then photographing the result with a special animation camera. When the frames are strung together and the resulting film is viewed at a speed of 16 or more frames per second, there is an illusion of continuous movement (due to the persistence of vision). Generating such a film is very labour intensive and tedious, though the development of computer animation has greatly sped up the process.

File formats like GIF, QuickTime, Shockwave and Flash allow animation to be viewed on a computer or over the Internet.

Because animation is very time-consuming and often very expensive to produce, the majority of animation for TV and movies comes from professional animation studios. However, the field of independent animation has existed at least since the 1950s, with animation being produced by independent studios (and sometimes by a single person). Several independent animation producers have gone on to enter the professional animation industry.

Limited animation is a way of increasing production and decreasing costs of animation by using "short cuts" in the animation process. This method was pioneered by UPA and popularized by Hanna-Barbera, and adapted by other studios as cartoons moved from movie theaters to television.

Although most animation studios are now using digital technologies in their productions, there is a specific style of animation that depends on film. Cameraless animation, made famous by moviemakers like Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Stan Brakhage, is painted and drawn directly onto pieces of film, and then run through a projector.


When it is initially produced, a feature film is often shown to audiences in a movie theater or cinema. The first theatre designed exclusively for cinema opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905. Thousands of such theaters were built or converted from existing facilities within a few years. In the United States, these theaters came to be known as nickelodeons, because admission typically cost a nickel (five cents).

Typically, one film is the featured presentation (or feature film). Before the 1970s, there were "double features"; typically, a high quality "A picture" rented by an independent theatre for a lump sum, and a "B picture" of lower quality rented for a percentage of the gross receipts. Today, the bulk of the material shown before the feature film consists of previews for upcoming movies and paid advertisements (also known as trailers or " The Twenty").

Historically, all mass marketed feature films were made to be shown in movie theaters. The development of television has allowed films to be broadcast to larger audiences, usually after the film is no longer being shown in theaters. Recording technology has also enabled consumers to rent or buy copies of films on VHS or DVD (and the older formats of laserdisc, VCD and SelectaVision — see also videodisc), and Internet downloads may be available and have started to become revenue sources for the film companies. Some films are now made specifically for these other venues, being released as made-for-TV movies or direct-to-video movies. The production values on these films are often considered to be of inferior quality compared to theatrical releases in similar genres, and indeed, some films that are rejected by their own studios upon completion are distributed through these markets.

The movie theatre pays an average of about 50-55% of its ticket sales to the movie studio, as film rental fees. The actual percentage starts with a number higher than that, and decreases as the duration of a film's showing continues, as an incentive to theaters to keep movies in the theater longer. However, today's barrage of highly marketed movies ensures that most movies are shown in first-run theaters for less than 8 weeks. There are a few movies every year that defy this rule, often limited-release movies that start in only a few theaters and actually grow their theatre count through good word-of-mouth and reviews. According to a 2000 study by ABN AMRO, about 26% of Hollywood movie studios' worldwide income came from box office ticket sales; 46% came from VHS and DVD sales to consumers; and 28% came from television (broadcast, cable, and pay-per-view).

Future state

While motion picture films have been around for more than a century, film is still a relative newcomer in the pantheon of fine arts. In the 1950s, when television became widely available, industry analysts predicted the demise of local movie theaters. Despite competition from television's increasing technological sophistication over the 1960s and 1970s, such as the development of colour television and large screens, motion picture cinemas continued. In fact with the rise of television's predominance, film began to become more respected as an artistic medium by contrast due the low general opinion of the quality of average television content. In the 1980s, when the widespread availability of inexpensive videocassette recorders enabled people to select films for home viewing, industry analysts again wrongly predicted the death of the local cinemas.

In the 1990s and 2000s the development of digital DVD players, home theatre amplification systems with surround sound and subwoofers, and large LCD or plasma screens enabled people to select and view films at home with greatly improved audio and visual reproduction. These new technologies provided audio and visual that in the past only local cinemas had been able to provide: a large, clear widescreen presentation of a film with a full-range, high-quality multi-speaker sound system. Once again industry analysts predicted the demise of the local cinema. Local cinemas will be changing in the 2000s and moving towards digital screens, a new approach which will allow for easier and quicker distribution of films (via satellite or hard disks), a development which may give local theaters a reprieve from their predicted demise.

The cinema now faces a new challenge from home video by the likes of a new DVD format Blu-ray, which can provide full HD 1080p video playback at near cinema quality. Video formats are gradually catching up with the resolutions and quality that film offers, 1080p in Blu-ray offers a pixel resolution of 1920×1080 a leap from the DVD offering of 720×480 and the paltry 330×480 offered by the first home video standard VHS. The maximum resolutions that film currently offers are 2485×2970 or 1420×3390, UHD, a future digital video format, will offer a massive resolution of 7680×4320, surpassing all current film resolutions. The only viable competitor to these new innovations is IMAX which can play film content at an extreme 10000×7000 resolution.

Despite the rise of all new technologies, the development of the home video market and a surge of online copyright infringement, 2007 was a record year in film that showed the highest ever box-office grosses. Many expected film to suffer as a result of the effects listed above but it has flourished, strengthening film studio expectations for the future.

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