“movie” not “film”

I’m sometimes asked (by British people) why I use the “American” word movie instead of the word  film ...

There was a time when  film was always used in Britain, and it still tends to be the intellectual term: consider the National Film Theatre and its parent body, which nowadays calls itself by its initials345 “the BFI”, but is still officially the British Film Institute. Yet the top TV chat show hosts Michael Parkinson and Jonathan Ross (even when presenting the long-running BBC TV series renamed each year — and thus in 2008 called Film 2008 — refer to movies.

I have no problem at all with American usage per se — unlike some British people, whom I tend to dub “little Englanders” when they rail at words solely on the basis that they are “American”. On the choice of a term for works for the cinema, I think the Americans got it right: the essential thing about both the art form and the technology is that it is a recording (or, increasingly often, the creation by other means) of a sequence of pictures in such a way as to give the illusion of motion during playback. Therefore the official US term motion picture — long used by the academy that awards Oscars — and its short form “movie” are totally apt, as are (from Greek kinesis = motion) the terms cinematography, for the technique, and its shortening cinema for a movie theatre.

By the way, pedantic individuals sometimes comment that the phrase “moving picture” is inaccurate; well, of course it is: the individual pictures on a strip of cinema film, or in a cinematographic clip in any other form, do not move. It is the sequence of individual still frames that, when displayed in rapid succession, trick the human eye and give the illusion of movement. But the phrase “motion picture” is in no way misleading in this respect, and is an excellent description of any individual work considered as a product both of the technology and of the art form.

On the other hand the word film means, of course, a thin layer of material. In photography, this refers to the strips and reels of material, originally celluloid and later (in the 1970s to 1990s technology, anyway) transparent acetate, having on one surface a light-sensitive layer onto which conventional photographs are taken; and the word also applies to the transparent prints via which still photographic slides are viewed and motion pictures are traditionally projected. Today, however, digital photography (where no reel of film is involved) is commonplace. A live scene is captured as an image using a light-sensitive array of electronic cells, and stored as data in a digital form just like computer data. And although, until the 1990s, one might have argued that video recording tape is still a thin strip of plastic film (though it is never commonly so termed), since the year 2000 the commonest storage medium for video has become either the hard disk, using magnetic recording technology as used in computers since the 1980s, or indeed the compact disc, originally called a CD but now with higher data capacity called the DVD, using laser technology.

What is more, the manipulation, and indeed the creation from scratch, of digital images using computers has progressed to the point where studios can generate unreal motion picture sequences of better image quality (as well as more fantastic content) than those assembled using the older special effect techniques — shooting through scenes partially painted on glass, animation by stop-motion of miniature models, and so on. Anybody who has seen any recent movie involving special effects can only marvel at what is made to appear to happen in front of our eyes using computer animation, most of which was quite impossible until recently despite all the skills of a Ray Harryhausen.

Returning to my theme on this page, note that this technology is likely, in the not too distant future, to take over from acetate film even for the distribution and projection for audiences in cinemas, just as it has done for viewing pre-recorded movies bought or hired to watch at home. When the current large, thin video screens reach major cinemas, the distribution channels will be able to abandon reels of 35mm or 70mm wide acetate film with sprocket holes at the edges, in favour of the DVD (or the industrial equivalent); and ultimately the film technology that has made cinema possible since the end of the 19th century will probably become merely a historical curiosity, an implementation detail from another age — like the daguerreotype. Then, a photograph will still be a picture “written using light”; and a motion picture will still produce an image that appears to move; but to use the term “film” for new motion picture productions will be a totally obsolete and anachronistic metonymy.


First published in SEMantics issue 146 December 2002