Most people who have been directing for a while have a shorthand way of communicating with their DP. For example, you will typically hear a director say “We’ll start Wide then move into an OTS and then a CU.” Film crews have most likely done these setups a few hundred times and know how to work efficiently to give you what you want. Despite what a lot of people think about the process, you’re not inventing the wheel. Most work on set isn’t creative, it’s functional. Like a well oiled military operation. Film sets need to run quickly, so before you ever get on set, you need to have thought out each and every shot you will need to get. In this post I have put together some of the more essential shots filmmakers can use to quickly and effectively communicate with their crew and tell their story.
1. Establishing Shot
Normally the first shot the audience sees, establishing shots can take on many forms. In most of the examples in the video, we are looking at aerial shots. Just think of how many films start with an aerial shot going over water, or flying over a city. The main purpose of the establishing shot is to give us a sense of place or tone.
Establishing shots don’t necesarily have to be at the beginning of a film, as we see in this classic aerial shot from Shawshank Redemption.
Another type of establishing shot has become more en vogue in recent years. The title sequence from Fight Club is a perfect example. To show that it’s not just about coming from the outside in, this establishing shot starts in and moves out of Edward Norton’s brain.
2. Extreme Wide Shot (EWS)
Extreme Wide Shots are typically used to show a character in his environment, often very small. There are many different uses for the extreme wide shot, but mostly it is about context. Where is our character? It can be used to comic effect, for example, showing an extreme close-up and then suddenly going to an extreme wide shot to show just how insignificant a character is. Or how powerless he is. It can also be a purely functional way to show size, for example the Millenium Falcon beside the Death Star.
3. Long Shot (LS) or Wide Shot (WS)
A shot in which the full body of a character or object is seen. Closer than an establishing shot.
4. Medium Shot (MS)
Halfway between a long shot and a close-up, the Medium Shot is probably the most common framing for dialog.
5. Close-Up (CU)
There is no hiding in a close-up shot of a character. We feel their naked emotion. Unlike a medium shot, a close-up normally fills the frame with one actor without anything between them and the camera. A close-up allows the viewer to really focus on a characters actions and responses in a scene.
6. Extreme Close Up (ECU)
Extreme close-ups are a great way to create stylized transitions or to give an extreme hyper focus to something. Jonathan Demme uses close-up shots of flashes in The Silence of the Lambs to jar the viewer. This technique has also been used a lot by Edgar Wright and P.T. Anderson to create kinetic transitions as seen below.
A pan gives us the feeling that we are simply turning around and capturing all of the information in a scene in real time. One way to effectively use the pan is if things change state as we pan. For example, a scene might change from night to day, or a character or characters may suddenly appear. A great use of panning was done recently in The Revenant when, as we pan around we can see in real time as Native Americans attack in the distance. Then we pan around again to the boat being hit with arrows. It also builds suspense of not knowing what is on the other end of the pan. (Yes, I know this was a steadicam shot, but it’s also a pan while moving through the scene)
In this scene from blowout, Brian De Palma masterfully uses the pan as a way to show the passage of time.
“Never ever ever use the zoom!” This was something my early cinematography teacher told me. Of course, it’s ok the use the zoom, but only when you should. It should definitely not be used as a substitute for a dolly. It just looks cheap. But zooming definitely has its place. I mean, if it’s good enough for Kubrick, what can I say. There are many different ways to zoom. One technique you see a lot lately is zooming in visual effects. You know, that show of the Millenium falcon where the virtual camera suddenly zooms in a little. You see that all over the place now and Avatar does it during nearly every shot of a ship or flying creature.
Zooms do feel kind of B-Movie, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Check out some of Stanley Kubrick’s zooms from The Shining.
And then of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the zoom to give a sense of voyeurism.
9. Static Shot
Locking off a camera and not allowing it to move can cause some filmmakers to start sweating. One of the biggest traps we can fall into as directors is the idea that we have to show all the cool tricks we know. But just like some of the best actors know when doing nothing works best, the best directors know when simply putting a camera on a tripod will work best. Static shots can have immense power. In many ways similar to the dolly shot, the static shot forces us to really pay attention to what is going on in a scene. We are no longer participants in the world. We are watching through a direct window into another world. Actors might come in and out of frame, but the camera sits still. This creates a hyper realism which is similar in tone to the over used security cam footage you see in a lot of movies. With the knowledge that something worth watching was caught on tape, you work harder to figure out what is happening in the frame, rather than being told.
Yorgos Lanthimos is the master of the locked off camera as shown in his film Kynodontas.
10. Crane Shot
The one place I see crane shots now all the time are on shows like The Tonight Show, where they want to create a sense of excitement and energy. Using a crane or a jib is a very fast way to make your film look more professional. Jibs are now pretty common on film sets because it allows you a freedom to move the camera that you don’t have with a simple dolley. Another way to use a crane shot is to start a scene close on a subject and then pull back to see what they are reacting to. One of the best examples of this was Gone With The Wind. We start with a close up of Scarlet, and then move slowly upward and back to an extreme wide shot of the thousands of soldiers lying on the ground.
Cranes can also be used simply to move the camera around a set without cutting as is done with the Max Ophüls classic Le Plaisir.
11. Dutch Angle
The Dutch Angle is a very stylized way to show that something in scene is just a little off.
12. Point of View (POV)
Typically showing the exact visual perspective of a character. In the case of Halloween, seeing from the perspective of the killer builds tension in the scene. This is also used in Terminator to show the way his mechanical brain processes information.
As many of you know, the film Hardcore Henry is shot completely as a POV shot. Here’s the trailer. It’s a bit violent so you’ve been warned.
13. Tracking Shots and Long Takes
This kind of shot can take many forms. The linking factor is that the camera catches events in real time without any cuts. This is often in the form of a tracking shot, but has taken on many different forms. One of the most famous films in recent memory Birdman, which is an entire film that takes place over what seems to be one long take.
14. Whip Pan
15. Low Angle Shot
Citizen Kane is really a film school unto itself, but one thing that is striking about Welles’ use of camera angles is how far he would go to get these amazing low angles. In many cases he would have to dig out the floors to get the camera low enough. So, the big question is Why? Why was it so important to shoot these scenes looking up at the actors. Many have speculated that it was to give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia. Although you would think the ceiling would make characters appear big, in this scene it definitely feels like the ceiling is closing in on the two actors.
On the other hand, it is clear in Star Wars that the low angle that is always on Darth Vader is meant to show his power in the scene. In almost every scene he is shot from below making his 6’4 frame that much more intimidating.
16. High Angle Shot
The opposite of the low angle shot. It should kind of go without saying, but this makes your actor seem very small. Or possibly that their up against a very difficult obstacle.
17. Over the Shoulder (OTS)
18. Cutaway Shots
Cutaway shots are used to show different parts of a full 360 degree scene. These scenes are used by the editor for a variety of reasons. A cut in can be used to show what a character is responding to. Or simply to focus the eye on various aspects within a scene, like someone that is so subtle it wouldn’t necessarily register with a medium shot. Cutaway shots are also a good way to hide an edit. Dov Simens used to joke that in every film there was a cutaway shot of a dog in order to hide a cut. So always have a cute dog somewhere in the scene you can cover a bad line.
19. Aerial Shot
A few years ago, shooting an aerial shot would have cost thousands. But now, with the advent of drone cinematography, you can have extremely professional results for very little. For just a few thousand bucks you can shoot amazing aerial photography of your scene that stands up to any of the latest blockbusters. Of course, if you need to do anything more complicated that just flying through the air, you will most likely need to find an experienced drone operator.
20. The Floating Dolly Shot
I know this shot wasn’t invented by Spike Lee, but he has certainly made it famous. Watch the video below to see what I mean. In this shot, a character is on the same dolly with the camera and appears to float through the scene. It’s a very effective way capture a moment in the film where the characters are daydreaming or floating through a moment. I always remember the moment in Malcolm X when he is slowly floating down the street with the camera, aware of his possible fate getting closer.
Now, lets review…