Documentary Glossary

To search for a specific documentary film related term within this page, press command+f (Mac) or control+f (PC). Terms in italics are found elsewhere in this glossary. Are we missing a term that you’d like defined? This glossary is updated frequently, so it may be added soon. Alternatively, you can email us and request an addition.

A

archival: (n) refers to any audio-visual material not created by team creating the documentary (i.e. old photos from a subject, or the Zapruder film).

aspect ratio: (n) the ratio of how wide an image is, as opposed to how tall an image is. For instance, a full screen aspect ratio is 4×3, meaning that for every 4 pixels wide the image is, there are 3 pixels of height (for contrast, the most popular widescreen aspect ratio is 16×9).

B

bars and tone: (n) SMPTE color bars, used for color calibration.

b-roll: (n) video or images that are shown underneath a voice over. Often these will illustrate what the voice over is talking about, but not necessarily. A common use for b-roll is to lay it over interview footage to make watching that part of the film more visually interesting.

budget: (n) that thing you’re beholden to (unfortunately). often times when funding is provided by third parties, checks are cut in a series upon progress, as opposed to in one big chunk at the beginning of the project.

C

cutaway: (n) a clip of video used in editing, usually to conceal an edit or shorten the length of a sequence. For example, in order to connect two parts of video that don’t quite fit together, an editor could cut from the first piece of video to an clip of something else, and then cut back to the second piece of video.

D

doc (n) common abbreviation for documentary.

documentary: (n, adj) “the creative treatment of actuality,” according to early documentary pioneer Jon Grierson.

double system: (adj) refers to a setup where the video camera or film camera being used to capture images does not record sound. For instance, images might be captured on a PD150, whereas the sound is captured by a microphone on a boom pole attached to a a Sound Devices 744T, which is not attached to the camera. The opposite of single system.

dvcam: (n) one of Sony’s digital video formats. Small format DVCAM tapes are the same size as normal MiniDV tapes and when recorded in DVCAM mode will last for 40 minutes. DVCAM also comes in larger DV tape varieties which last for longer periods of time but are more expensive and only fit in larger format cameras such as the DSR-200, 250 or 300 etc. Sony’s DVCAM tapes also are made of a higher quality stock and more durable than normal MiniDV tapes and can be used more times, though they are more expensive.

dvcpro: (n) Panasonic’s version of DVCAM.

E

e&o: (n) short for errors and omissions insurance.

errors and omissions insurance: (n) insurance bought from an insurance company which protects filmmakers and television networks or distribution companies from mistakes not caught in the fact-checking process.

F

full screen: (adj) refers to an image whose aspect ratio is 4×3.

G

H

head room: (n) the space between the top of somebody’s head and the top of the frame, often in an interview situation. Too much head room in documentaries generally looks “weird.” The amount of headroom deemed acceptable over the past 50 years of documentaries has decreased.

I

J

K

kino-pravda: (n) in Russian, literally “film truth.” Coined by Russian documentary forefather Dziga Vertov who sought to reveal deeper societal truths by capturing ordinary life.

L

lapel mic: (n) slang for lavaliere microphone

lav: (n) abbreviation for lavaliere microphone

lavaliere microphone: (n) a small microphone, either wired or wireless, which clips directly on to a subject’s body. Often used in interview situations, or situations where the subject will be moving around doing some activity.

legal brief: (n) a document detailing the potential legal pitfalls in a proposed documentary project.

M

materials release: (n) the release used for archival materials. Viva Doc has a copy of this release on our documentary release forms page.

mixer: (n) the word “mixer” can refer to either a piece of equipment used for preliminary level adjustments to audio tracks while they is being recorded on location, or a crew member who operates sound mixing equipment.

money shot: (n) a particularly compelling piece of visual evidence.

N

nd filter: see neutral density filter

neutral density filter: (n) an on-camera filter that reduces the amount of light passing through the lens while maintaining color temperature. ND filters are usually placed on the front for the lens but can also be used between the lens and the film plane, as is the case with the built-in ND filters on pro-sumer cameras. ND filters close down the equivalent of .01 (1/3 stop), .03 (one stop) and .09 (3 stops).

O

offline edit: (n) a preliminary edit during which the in and out points have been nailed down but the full quality of the audio-visual assets are not used or rendered.

online edit: (n) an edit in which the full quality versions of the sound and picture tracks are used. This happens after picture lock has been reached.

P

perpetuity: (adj) a legal term which refers to something that lasts forever. For example, if you have worldwide perpetuity rights to all materials included in your documentary (including all music and archival materials), you would have the right to broadcast and distribute your doc all over the world until the end of time.

picture lock: (adj) the point at which an edited version of a film is at its final stage: the cuts will no longer be changed. However, the images might change (i.e. for an online edit).

pre-roll: (n) 10, 15, 30 or 60 seconds of video (usually bars and tone) recorded at the beginning of a tape in order to give the editor time to cue their deck up in order to capture video later on in the tape.

pre-stripe: (v) the process of recording bars and tone or a blue VCR screen on an entire tape before it is used in the field. Pre-striping ensures that there will be no timecode breaks on the tape, because timecode will have already been laid down.

Q

R

rights bible: (n) the 3-ring binder which contains all the producer’s releases and legal documentation showing that they have the right to use all archival materials and interview footage used in the film. For productions that end up on television, this gets sent to the network along with the final film and the line-by-line documentation of all the facts and claims made in the film.

rights window: (n) the period of time for which the filmmakers or the distribution outlet has the legal right to broadcast or display materials contained in the documentary (i.e. the rights window for the archival footage of a plane used in a documentary, bought from ABC News, might be 10 years).

resolution: (n) the quality of video. The higher the resolution (which is measured in pixels), the better the quality the video.

S

scratch track: (n) a temporary piece of V/O, layered over an edit which provides a sense of how a sequence will feel. For example, a narration scratch track might be used before a doc has reached picture lock, or a piece of cheap or free sample music might be layered over an sequence to give a sense of the emotion a scene is supposed to evoke.

sfx: (n) abbreviation for sound effects.

single system: (adj) refers to a setup where the video camera being used records the sound as well as the picture. The opposite of double system.

sound effects: (n) any non-voice sound not present in the original video recording (i.e. the addition of gunshots to historical recreation footage).

T

tapestock: (n) videotapes or audiotapes used to record images or sound on. Tapestock could refer to small format MiniDV, large format DV Cam, DAT, VHS, and everything in between.

timecode: (n) a sequence of numbers that corresponds to individual frames in video. Timecode is structured in the following way; Hours:Minutes:Seconds:Frames (ex, 00:24:39:01).

timecode break: (n) an interruption in timecode on a tape which can cause problems when the tape is captured to a computer. Timecode breaks most often occur when the camera person watches video he or she has just shot in the camera’s VCR mode and then proceeds to record more video on the same tape without queuing the tape up to exactly the spot where the previous recording finished. Most professional and prosumer cameras have an “end search” capability which will queue the tape up to the exact spot where previous recordings end.

U

V

v/o: (n) abbreviation for voiceover.

visual evidence: (n) footage you have that documents something happening as it happens. For instance, in a film that claims that sweat shop labor is used to make kids’ toys, the visual evidence would be footage that actually shows sweat shop workers physically assembling the toys.

voiceover: (n) any voice that is heard over a video track where the source of the voice is not visible (i.e. a narrator telling the viewer that the earth is getting hotter while the viewer sees a chart of temperature increases).

vox pop (n) a man-on-the-street interview, usually consisting of a random person expressing an opinion about the question they’re asked. You see this a lot on local news programming.

W

widescreen: (adj) refers to an image whose aspect ratio is 16×9.

windowprint dub: (n) a copy of a video which has timecode burned into it, usually at the bottom or in the top right-hand corner.

X

Y

Z

zebra-stripes: (n) an on-camera setting to show which parts of the frame are at a given exposure. A PD-150 has zebra stripe settings of 70 and 100 (100 being white, 0 being black). In other words, enabling zebra stripes will show the highlights and areas of your frame that are peaking.

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