A camera shot refers to a continuous sequence of frames that go on without breaking away from the action, or without cutting away to another instance. Shots are the essence of filmmaking and they toy with film lovers often in more ways than they know.
Conscious decisions are made by cinematographers in terms of camera shots, angles, and lens choices. All these aspects affect the way audiences perceive film and influence the general tone and theme of a movie. Careful planning inspires what type of shots are important in what instances to ensure a choice of framing that achieves a certain objective.
The director of photography isn’t the only one who guides camera shots or angles. Often, the technical requirements of a scene stem write from the inception of the screenplay.
The writer may suggest the selection of camera shots to reveal things about a character, to foreshadow, to capture beautiful scenery in one sweep, among other things. Sometimes, the technical finesse of shots may also come from the director who may believe certain shots add a little something extra to scenes. Many things affect what shot you’re going to get, most notably the type of camera, its angle, and movement.
There are three basic camera shots in film:
All others are a derivative or a play on these three primary building blocks. We shall be diving into the basics of what makes up each shot, the complexities of lens choices, and the cinematic goals they achieve with a movie example.
Making camera shot decisions is like painting. The cinematographer carefully thinks about what elements blend with what backdrops or characters, and how to layer each over scenes to ignite emotion, among other purposes.
Any shot that frames a character from the waist upwards is referred to as a medium shot. It goes by other sobriquets such as the waist shot. It gets approximately half of the character in the frame and also offers a moderate peek at the environs from the audience’s perspective.
Here’s an example of a classic medium shot from our TEDx production:
For this reason, some refer to the medium shot as the “sweet spot” spot.
It is quite an intimate or personal shot because it gives viewers the impression of having a conversation with the character. Also, it’s used in instances where the director would like to capture body language and facial expressions as well.
Mostly, a lens somewhere in the range between 50 mm and 35 mm makes for excellent medium shots. This choice of lens ensures the compression isn’t all that unmanageable but more importantly, avails that eye-like perspective or imitation.
What that means is that the shot mirrors how we normally perceive conversations in real life. When talking to others, whether we’re seated or standing, we typically see the other person upside of the waist. You really won’t be watching their legs or feet unless there’s a new pair of sneaks they’d like to rub in your face. Hence the medium shot is the go-to conversational framing shot in cinema across all types of genres.
The medium shot isn’t always cut off exactly at the waist level as that would create a disturbing image. It’s common for it to start somewhere at the belly button region, as you can see in the image above..
The DoP steers clear of the actor’s joints while the shot also gets in just the edges of the elbow for better aesthetic appeal. The frame gets better composition from it as well but also keeps the important background in view. In this case, the medium shot shows a vital character shot but also vitally keeps us in the loop of the ongoing chaos behind the sheriff.
Adding to the theme of giving important backdrop information to heighten the emotional sparks in a scene is this shot example from Shawshank Redemption. Here, the warden, a security guard, and inmate Ellis have discovered that Andy has escaped from prison via a tunnel he had been digging for about 27 years using two rock hammers.
The closest to the lens is the warden, who’s visibly confused and puzzled by the tedious escape route. He is flanked by two similarly bemused characters, and the medium shot lets them get in on the action as well. Their facial expressions and body language compound the disbelief in the scene. The shrug of shoulders and shock on their faces wouldn’t have been captured if the DoP went with a closeup. But because he didn’t, the shot is much better for it.
A close-up is taken at a much closer range and usually covers the face with a little glimpse of the shoulders. The character’s face dominates the frame, leaving little room for much else.
Close-up shots have been a staple of cinema from the onset of the 20th century. Given the simplistic camera equipment of the day, they were harder to pull off back then than they are now. However, that didn’t get in the way of the popularity of the close-up shot.
They especially became famous at the turn of the 1950s with talented directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, and later on, Steve Spielberg popularizing the close-up shot as a means of adding dramatic tension to film. Close-up shots are now common across all niches from horror to comedy and for many reasons.
The close-up shot serves several purposes in film. Most importantly, it casts a microscope on character emotions (internal conflict) that may otherwise pass by unnoticed or not play out as powerfully in wider or longer shots. It shines a spotlight on facial expressions when they are the most important element at the point in time. A close-up shot can be implemented to compound a character’s grief, happiness, discomfort, disorientation, etc., making the audience go through the moment with him or her more intensely.
It may also be used to highlight a moment of immense emotional significance or just overall importance to the plot. Other times, it can hint at a suspicious character who may be a threat to other unknowing characters in the shot. It’s setting up the inevitable external conflict between two characters or multiple characters.
Alternatively, a close-up may simply offer expositional hints about the importance of a prop or character to later events in the plot.
In the “Here’s Johnny!” scene from The Shining, after Jack breaks down the door with an ax, much to the shrieking horror of Wendy, we get a close-up shot of his face soon after. He peeks in through the damaged door and his face fills the frame momentarily.
The close-up is uncomfortably poised to show the contrasting emotions between victim and attacker. Wendy is screaming her heart out, shaking like a leaf, knife-in hand in a corner by the door. The killer meanwhile, is exhilarated and savoring his next kill, his goal now only an arm’s length away. The close shot shows his mental deterioration and further adds to the tension and suspense of what’s about to happen next.
Whiplash bears an abundance of close-up shots all through to make the audience a part of the happenings in an intimate way. It is a common element of the film and one that threatens to suffocate the audience. But it works to subconsciously make us part of Andrew’s tough musical journey and what he constantly endures under the physically and emotionally intense training of his no-nonsense mentor.
The extreme close-up shot, or simply ECU, zooms in a little further than your contemporary close-up, taking things a notch higher. It magnifies a character’s face with a specific focus on facial features such as eyes, lips, etc.
The ECU stretches and even defies the limitations of intimacy and personal space to tell us something more about the shot.
Because they are so glaring and imposing, the general rule of thumb advocates that filmmakers use extreme close-up shots sparingly and with purpose. With the right timing, extreme close-ups can blow up emotion to unimaginable scales or create a strong bond between character and audience. Or simply build climatic suspense to tipping point. ECUs constitute macro photography and the appropriate focal length is recommended to be between 90 to 105 mm.
ECUs are not only for amplifying facial features or emotions though. They can also reveal crucial subtext by focusing on another part of the body to reveal finer subtext details, such as a concealed logo or weapon, etc., which give off the impression that a character is not what he appears to be. The extreme close-up may also tell us more about inanimate objects or props with deeper meaning on the set.
A steaming and bellowing tea-pot, for example, has always been an ominous motif for danger or escalating tension in cinema. A closing in zoom shot, ultimately settling in with an extreme close-up of the fluttering lid may just hint at the calm right before the storm. It gives the audience an expectation of danger, right before something bad happens.
In The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, an extreme close-up shot, or rather montage, is implored in the tense finale showdown between the three main characters. The plot boils down to a climactic three-way Mexican stand-off as the elusive gold the trio has been chasing all the film’s while is finally within grasp.
With the stage set, the desert sun piercing right through their hats, and the brown sand feverish with anticipation, the audience is treated to multiple ECUs in quick succession. The camera quickly shifts from the characters’ eyes to their hands hanging above their guns. We see the perspiration on their faces and the full depths of emotion in light of what is to come. The montage of ECUs keeps viewers glued to their seats for the better part of a very gripping 20 seconds. It escalates and builds tension toward the film’s most important scene or conflict.
Extreme close-up shots may also be used to show us the inner workings of certain objects in film such as a machine or clock, which may provide exposition about an accident or generally why something happened. Extreme close-up shots can communicate important information that might be too tiny to notice. In modern filmmaking, the ECU may also provide a window into what the character is seeing literally from the reflection in his eyes.
The entirety of a subject (head to toe) is visible in a long shot, which usually features a lot more background than there are characters. Unlike the extreme long shot though, the majority of the focus is on the characters but the backdrop is also elevated to a point of important significance unlike the case with the medium shot.
Here’s a long shot to feature the TEDx logo from our film production:
Otherwise referred to as the wide shot, the long shot tells viewers that the environment or surroundings are an important part of the shot. It holds a special relationship with the character and impacts him in some way.
In the case above, the angle/shot had a purpose. It was meant to feature the logo with the speaker. TEDx has strict requirements for filming. They require the logo as well as the event name/location featured on a long, wide shot.
The long shot also sparks our curiosity with conclusions about what the backdrop means.
Most commonly, the long shot works to overwhelm the character and, by extent, the audience as well. It is executed by a wide-angle lens, that being a focal length of about 35 mm or lower. The shot can sometimes capture the sense of space needed for the scene or the beauty of the landscapes around the characters. It explores the vastness of a sweltering desert or the endless snowscape for a lost character, reeling us into his disoriented world with feelings of overwhelming space. The long shot may also be used to establish the time or mood/feel of the surrounding, especially if that is an important detail in the film.
Furthermore, the long shot also allows actors to impose their physicality, according to the requirements of the director’s vision for the character. In The Dark Knight, for example, Director Christopher Nolan uses wide shots to establish the physicality of the antagonist, Bane. Comic book-famed for his huge frame and strength, Nolan makes sure the audience grasps just how big the villain is. He is constantly shown alongside dwarfed minions with regular everyday props in the frames giving viewers perception of his enormous size.
Additionally, long shots enable directors to show us who the character’s with and to depict power dynamics between those he’s with. In The Dark Knight, where Bane squares up to Batman, he is a lot closer to the frame and the latter is much further away. Batman seems a lot smaller than his usual self because of it, and Bane dominates both the scene and him. Bane eventually goes on to win this fight.
Long shots are a staple in epics like hero movies, especially with an ensemble like the Avengers. In this trailer, you can see the movie flip between long shot and really long shot/wide shot to portray an epic struggle:
The wide shot and strategic character placement were probably fore boarding the outcome of the tussle. We also catch a good glimpse of the backdrop, which seems rather dark and desolate, in line with our hero losing.
The wide shot can be a succinct exposition tool in the arsenal of directors. When there is a lot to be said about a place or a character and why he is where he is, a wide shot can capture all that. It sums up a thousand words into a single image.
In an extreme long shot or ELS, the backdrop dwarfs the character in a compelling way. It captures the characters from a larger distance than a long shot and tells us more about the surroundings than the subject. It is often the case that the characters are not even viewable or distinguishable in some extreme long shots. In terms of camera selections, some professionals recommend the fisheye lens in certain circumstances.
It excels at extremely wide angles, up to 180 degrees, making it perfect for architectural overheads and outdoor cinematography in film. The fisheye is also great for capturing surfing shots, or skateboarding when you need to amplify the surroundings to offer a feeling of drowning space by placing viewers in the character’s shoes. The lens imitates the view from a peephole or security footage. In film, it’s especially popular for illustrating a dazed character regaining consciousness.
Generally though, you’ll need a super wide-angle lens in the region of 23 mm focal focus or below. An extreme long shot is necessary when the backdrop is a more prevalent part of the script or plot, and when it has a huge say on how the characters feel and what they do.
The right incorporation of scenery with the ELS can make your backdrop stand out in a mesmerizing way, impacting your audience to the deepest level of their subconscious.
Here is a Vienna Philharmonic video, where they play the epic Imperial March song. Combined with powerful music, a really wide shot engenders a sense of foreboding on a high level:
The extreme wide shot can also double up as an establishing shot, but more on that in a moment.
An extreme wide shot serves several purposes in film. First, it sets the scenery or setting of the action and what’s happening in the surroundings, which may be relevant to the storyline then. It also works to build drama or tension by overwhelming viewers with a vastness of place. The ELS or EWS may also be used as a tool to pick at the mind of a character.
A showing of immense landscapes may offer hints at the character’s feelings or state of being at that moment. Other times, the extreme long shot may not even feature characters and may include views of skylines among other aerial perspectives.
In 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the post-apocalyptic desert was a huge part of the mise en scene. The film features countless extreme wide shots to seize the endless hopelessness and the devastating cruelty of the elements in the vast ocean of brown, such as the chase scene near the end of the trailer:
The image illustrates as well another important purpose of the extreme wide shot in film, and that is to pack a lot of ongoing action into a single frame.
The above EWS sums up the entirety of what’s going on, including the entire fleet of the chasing pack. Also, the extreme long shot works to overwhelm the screen with orange, which gives the feeling of heat or high temperatures.
It’s often the case that the establishing shot is an extreme wide shot or a long shot, though not always. A lot of the time it is taken from an aerial vantage point to provide a scenery overview and establish a place and time for the action to come.
An establishing shot is meant to establish the location of a scene to orient the viewer for a particular scene.
Sometimes it could be as simple and iconic as Tom’s Diner in the TV sitcom Seinfeld. The establishing shot of this restaurant gained cult status for the frequent scenes, played in this NYC restaurant. Here’s a fan’s take:
However, not all wide shots or extreme wide shots are establishing shots. With the definition of an EWS in mind, it’s important to note that the major point of distinction is that the establishing shot is a technique and doesn’t necessarily allude to the size of the shot. With most of the types we’ve looked at so far, the point of definition or emphasis has been the distance from the lens. That’s not the case with an establishing shot.
An establishing shot usually precedes a scene and it comes at the start to settle viewers into a new place or character. It offers location and time orientation to the audience, providing visual exposition to propel the story along while steering clear of more tedious alternatives of explanation.
They are mostly shot from a distance so viewers can feel out the place for themselves. Aside from providing geographical hints or communicating a certain lapse of period, it facilitates the deciphering of narrative aspects by providing an important perspective. The establishing shot is usually succeeded by tighter frames, which complete the equation in terms of context. That entails who’s in the scene, where it is, and other crucial elements. Each key scene is typically kicked off by an establishing shot.
Due to copyright, I can’t post the actual scene. But feel free to rent the DVD or watch clips on YouTube. It’s a classic horror, thriller movie.
Stanley Kubrick uses a series of long, yet intelligent and beautifully worked, establishing shots to set the mood for his 1980 horror, The Shining. For the better part of three minutes, we are taken through a weave of rivers and mountain scenery, with inauspicious music trying to warn us of the danger ahead. The aerial views cautiously trail the car as it meanders along winding roads, leading us to the movie’s location in the Rocky Mountains.
Finally, the action stops and stares at the remote hotel which is going to host Jack Torrance’s brutal murdering spree. Kubrick made the shot with a big-budget helicopter crew. The advance of technology has meant present-day directors can pull off extravagant establishing shots like his with cheaper alternatives such as drones.
The scenic establishing shots, first of all, teleport us to this isolated haven in the ranges. We’re taken along the trip with the characters, and it genuinely feels that way when the camera endlessly goes past scenery after scenery. It gets us curious to see where we’re going and the arrival at the hotel offers satisfaction after a lot of teasing. We now have an idea of where the film’s taking place and even the when, as the icy accents and snow-capped mountains hint at winter even before anything is said. That opening also cements the cold and dark mood for the movie.
The cowboy shot earns its name from old westerns. Filmmakers back then would typically want to get the gunslinger’s holster and weapons in the frame as his ammunition and accessories (a fancy belt, for example) were an important part of the identity and personality of the cowboy.
Hence, they chose a shot that started somewhere at the knees, all the way to the hat that completed the look. The name has persisted and refers basically to any shot that elevates a character from the knee region upwards. It usually captures the rest of the upper body in its entirety and bears a lot of resemblance to the medium shot in the way it also brings the background into the action. However, they are noticeably bigger than medium shots.
Sometimes the cowboy shot is referred to as the “American shot” because the cowboy is popularly considered as an aspect of American history or culture. Cowboys were known for their heroism and bravery, and, commonly, these types of shots are used to illustrate these traits. Hence American shots are popularly implored to demonstrate a moment of newfound courage, to set up a superhero entrance, or to hail a character’s heroic actions. In a superhero flick, cowboy shots capture the extent of a hero’s power, swagger, and costume.
Here’s the Mandalorian at (0:47) with the cowboy shot:
The cowboy shot may also be used to establish the differences between two characters in a side-by-side comparison. Directors use it to illustrate two different senses of style or appearance for drama or comedic purposes. Fundamentally, a cowboy shot may just be for emphasis for action that focuses around the hip region.
This iconic cowboy shot is taken from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The 2011 film is set in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as the main heroine works to help find the perpetrators. The shot is taken toward the end of the film after Maya successfully assists to locate the terrorist, and his forces, and the man himself is now dead.
An American flag flutters in the wind behind her, strategically placed to emphasize what she has been fighting for all this while i.e. her country.
We get a good view of where she is and the frame captures her from somewhere above the knees in heroic fashion. She’s just helped take down the planet’s most dangerous terrorist, and the shot captures her emotional triumph. She is the modern-day cowboy, and the shot pays homage to her bravery. The light overhead illuminates sharply against the contrast of the darkness to signify the light at the end of the tunnel. In other words, that the threat is now behind her.
The full shot just about captures the entire frame of the character, but not as far off as your traditional long/wide shot. It can be thought of as the middle ground between a long and a cowboy shot.
The frame starts somewhere at the base of the shoe and goes all the way up to clear just enough of the head as well. Some people use the wide or long shot interchangeably with the full shot but there are a few significant differences. A full shot, for instance, packs more information or detail to the frame in comparison. In other words, it takes a little bit more focus on the character, and how he’s dressed, moving, or talking.
It’s also mostly associated with people while the wide shot is linked to both people and places. The latter doesn’t have to necessarily focus on a person while the full shot is mostly defined by a character’s physical frame.
A full shot is also more specific in terms of size. If a cinematographer is under instructions to frame a character in a wide shot, he may still have follow-up questions about the exact width. However, if a director says he wants a character in a full shoot, the DoP knows exactly what to do. The full shot is a lot more constricted but it still leaves enough room for the setting, other characters in the scene, and an important backdrop.
Simultaneously grasping facial emotion or expressions, body language, and other important movements, the full shot speaks to the audience on multiple levels. How characters interact with each other, in addition to how they walk and what they wear, tells us a lot about personality and relationships in film. The entire body typically fills the height of the frame from top to bottom, communicating to us on these various sublevels.
This full shot from the Star Wars spin-off, The Mandalorian, is purposefully executed to show us the full range of the hero’s glorious armor. Basically, the mandalorians are a clan of warriors who take great pride in their armor. As the hero completes missions, more beskar is added to his attire, kind of like completing a puzzle. He feels worthier of the title each time.
In this behind the scenes look, you can see how the crew setup the full shots, employed in the Disney show:
The full shot captures the entire pride of the armor, showing us all its details, including his cape swaying in the wind, communicating what it means to him. When he gets into a room, the mandalorian turns heads and he is the center of attention because of his unique dressing. FSs are synonymous with him especially when he is meeting new people or making a grand entrance.
Keep in mind these are just the most common camera shots found in film. There are countless others, like Tarantino’s “trunk shot” (which is a version of a POV shot, which could be a subset of a medium shot).
Point is 👉
As a cinematographer or director, you can be creative. Mix and match your shots. Play with various cinematic elements to get the look you want in making your film.
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