In the world of filmmakers, serious moviegoers, and critics, there’s an entire lexicon of terms that help with sounding pretentious—and, every once in a while, with furthering the mission of filmmaking. Here are some of the terms that we have found particularly interesting. (Please note: it’s rumored saying these terms in precise order will gain you free backstage access at Sundance, while saying them backwards will bring Ed Wood back to life.)

The MacGuffin (or McGuffin): We all know what a plot is, but what about the physical object that influences a plot throughout the entirety of a film? That object would be the MacGuffin, and it has taken the form of R2-D2 in Star Wars, archeological treasure in Indiana Jones, briefcases in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and everything from marble rye to parking spaces in Seinfeld. Along with trains, “the wrong man” dilemma, and blonde women, Hitchcock relied heavily on MacGuffins to give his suspense films a continued point of reference. Meanwhile, audiences rely on them as inciting motives for action. More often than not, the MacGuffin gets central focus in the first scene and becomes less prominent, though still highly important behind the scenes, as the plot moves forward.

The Wilhelm Scream: Way, way back in 1951, in a western called Distant Drums, a man was bitten by an alligator; that man’s screams have echoed throughout cinema ever since. While recording the sound effect, the actor was given the now legendary inspiration of “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” The rest is history, and the scream effect has since ended up in countless films and television shows both as a serious effect and an inside joke for movie geeks. The legendary shout can be heard in blockbuster movies and budget-conscious films alike.

The J-Cut / L-Cut: Coined by film editors to describe the letter-shaped notches made during the editing process, these cuts describe the break in synchronization between audio and visuals. The most common occurrence is probably during conversations, where directors will often elect to focus on a single character to avoid volleying back and forth between speakers (the J-Cut) or cut to a flashback or simultaneous event before the speech is finished (the L-Cut). Both cuts are common in virtually every type of production piece, including films, commercials, and television shows—to such a degree that it’s easier to look for the places where the cuts aren’t used. The next time you sit down in front of a moving picture, ask yourself how often the audio and visuals change at the exact same moment. More often than not, you’ll find one trails behind the other.
Film Terms you Ought to Know
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The Red Herring: Think Law and OrderScooby-Doo, and anything else involving vans and mysteries. The guy with the slick black hair has to be the bad guy, right? He’s got the evil grin, the black clothing, and the clear motive—guilty all the way. But wait, he has an alibi? He was seen on tape across town? He’s been dead for ten years? Maybe he’s not so red handed, but only a red herring—a misleading clue (named for a pungent fish, in theory capable of distracting hunting dogs) meant to throw audiences, and protagonists, off the scent of the actual bad guys. Look for these in every detective caper and mystery or suspense film.

The C47: The term “clothespin” isn’t sexy enough for Hollywood, nor is it sufficient to pull wool over the eyes of production companies. For these reasons, when someone in the lighting department needs a clothespin in order to attach a gel, he or she might ask for a “C47.” According to legend, sly crewmembers also used the term in budgets in much the same way the CIA spends millions of dollars on things like toilet lids. If rumors are true, many a 1980s cocaine dealer was paid in cash cryptically attributed to “C47” purchases—and accountants were none the wiser (or, perhaps, just happy to look the other way).

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Brian Platt writes about film trends, film terms, and pretentious jargon for VideoBlocks.