The Shots: Building Blocks of a Scene – Beginners Guide For Cinematography

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A good Cinematographer (or Director of Photography/DOP/DP) knows how important it is to shoot a good scene by using the perfect shot and shooting methods to create a good final output.

We all need a perfect shot and should know how to use the best shooting method for a particular shot to create an eye catching scene, when combined together, a number of eye catching scenes will make your movie, videos, television show, short film, etc. a good final output for the audience to watch and understand what it is about.

In simple words, having a perfect shot with using the best shooting method for your scene will make it interesting and more entertaining for the audience and help you make your audience understand what it is about.

So, here I will try my best to make you understand the different types of shots and how or when to use it. Stay tuned for the next post for detailed information on Shooting Methods.

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It is useful to think of “building” a scene. Since we make scenes one shot at a time, we can consider that we are assembling the elements that will make the scene. If we think of a language of cinema, these shots are the vocabulary; how we edit them together would be the syntax of this language. These are the visual aspects of the language of film; there are, of course, other properties of this language that relate more to plot structure and narrative, but here we are con- cerned only with the visual side of this subject.

There are a number of shots that are basic building blocks of film grammar. In a by no means exhaustive list, they are:

  • Wide Shot (or long Shot)
  • Establishing Shots
  • Full Shots
  • Cowboy
  • Two Shot
  • Medium
  • Close-Ups
  • Clean Single
  • Dirty Single
  • ECU
  • Over-the-shoulder
  • Cutaway
  • Insert
  • Connection Shot
  • Transitional Shot
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With a few exceptions, most of these shots apply to the human form, but the terminology carries over to any subject. As they appear in the script they are called stage directions. Let’s look at them indi- vidually. As with many film terms, the definitions are somewhat loose and different people have slight variations in how they apply them, particularly as you travel from city to city or work in another country; they are just general guidelines. It is only when you are lining it up through the lens that the exact frame can be decided on and all the factors that go into a shot can be fully assessed.

Wide Shot (Long Shot)

The wide shot is any frame that encompasses the entire scene. This makes it all relative to the subject. For example, if the script says “Wide shot – the English Countryside” we are clearly talking about a big panoramic scene done with a short focal length lens taking in all the eye can see. On the other hand, if the description is “Wide shot – Leo’s room” this is clearly a much smaller shot but it still encompasses all or most of the room.

Establishing Shots

The establishing shot is usually a wide shot. It is the opening shot of a scene that tells us where we are. A typical one might be “Establishing shot – Helen’s office.” This might consist of a wide shot of an office building, so when we cut to a shot of Helen at her desk, we know where we are: in her office building. We’ve seen that it is a big, modern building, very upscale and expensive and that it is located in midtown Manhattan, and the bustling activity of streets indicate it’s another hectic workday in New York. The establishing shot has given us a great deal of information.

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Character Shots:

There are a number of terms for different shots of a single character. Most movies and short films are about people, so shots of people are one of the fundamental building blocks of cinema. The same applies to most commercials and even many music videos.

Full Shot

Full shot example: Still from movie Thor

Full shot indicates that we see the character from head to toe. It can refer to objects as well: a full shot of a car includes all of the car. A shot that only includes the door and the driver would be more of a medium shot. A variation on this is the cowboy, which is from the top of the head to midthigh, originally in order to see the six-guns on his belt. In non-English speaking countries, terms such as plán americain or plano americano refers to a shot framed from mid-leg up.

Two Shot

Example Two Shot: From Shawshank Redemption

The two shot is any frame that includes two characters. The interaction between two characters in a scene is one of the most fundamental pieces of storytelling; thus the two shot is one you will use frequently. The two characters don’t have to be arranged symmetrically in the frame. They might be facing each other, both facing forward, both facing away from the camera, and so on, but the methods you use for dealing with this type of scene will be the same in any case. You might also occasionally hear the term three shot for a shot of three characters.

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Medium Shot

Medium Shot Example: Still from Wonder Woman Movie Series

The medium shot, like the wide shot, is relative to the subject. Obviously, it is closer than a full shot. Medium shots might be people at a table in a restaurant, or someone buying a soda, shown from the waist up. By being closer in to the action, we can see people’s expressions, details of how they are dressed, and so on. We thus become more involved in what they are saying and doing, without focusing on one specific character or any particular detail.

Close-ups

Example Close-ups: Still From The Revenant

Close-ups are one of the most important shots in the vocabulary. There are a number of variations: a medium close-up would generally be considered as something like from top of head to waist or something in that area.

A close-up (CU) would generally be from the top of the head to somewhere just below the shirt pockets. If the shot is cut just above the shirt pocket area, it is often called a head and shoulders. A choker would be from the top of the head down to just below the chin. A tight close-up would be slightly less: losing some of the forehead and perhaps some of the chin, framing the eyes, nose, and mouth. An extreme close-up or ECU might include the eyes only; this is sometimes called a Sergio Leone after the Italian director who used it frequently. Just as often, an ECU is an object: perhaps just a ring lying on a desktop, a watch, and so on. Any shot that includes only one character is called a single. Terminology for close-ups includes:

• Medium CU. Midchest up.
• Choker: from the throat up.
• Big Head CU or “tight CU”: from just under the chin and
giving a bit of “haircut.” That is cutting off just a little bit of
the head.
• ECU: Varies, but usually just mouth and eyes.

A close-up, medium or full shot might also be called a clean single whenever it’s a shot of one actor alone. If we are shooting someone’s CU and don’t include any piece of the other actor, this is called a clean single. If we do include a little bit of the actor in front, it’s often called a dirty single. This is not to be confused with an over-the-shoulder, which includes more of the foreground actor.

Dirty single from the Master
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Over-the-shoulder

OTS Example

A variation of the close-up is the over-the-shoulder or OTS, looking over the shoulder of one actor to a medium or CU of the other actor. It ties the two characters together and helps put us in the position of the person being addressed. The OTS is a useful part of the vocabulary of narrative filmmaking. Even when we are in close shot of the person talking, the OTS keeps the other actor in the scene. An OTS contains more of the foreground actor than a dirty single and their position in the frame is more deliberate.

Cutaways

A cutaway is any shot of some person or thing in the scene other than the main characters we are covering but that is still related to the scene. The definition of a cutaway is that it is something we did not see previously in the scene, particularly in the master or any wide shots. Examples would be a cutaway to a view out the window or to the cat sleeping on the floor. Cutaways may emphasize some action in the scene, provide additional information, or be something that the character looks at or points to. If it is a shot of an entirely different location or something unrelated to the scene, then it is not a cutaway, but is a different scene and should have its own scene number in the script. An important use of cutaways is as safeties for the editor. If the editor is somehow having trouble cutting the scene, a cutaway to something else can be used to solve the problem. A good rule of thumb is in almost every scene you shoot, get some cut- aways as editorial safety, even if they are not called for in the script or essential to the scene a cutaway might save the scene in editing.

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Reaction Shots

A specific type of close-up or medium is the reaction shot. Something happens or a character says something and we cut to another person reacting to what happened or what was said; it can be the other person in the dialog or someone elsewhere in the scene. Generally, the term refers to a facial expression or body language, not dialog. A reaction shot is a good way to get a safety cutaway for the editor. Sometimes the term just refers to the other side of the dialog, which is part of our normal coverage. Reaction shots are very important and many beginning filmmakers fail to shoot enough of them. Silent films were the apex of reaction shots as a method: you can only watch so much of someone talking without hearing them; even with title cards, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It is when you see the facial and body language reactions of the listener that you get the entire emotional content of the scene. Reaction shots may not seem important when you are shooting the scene, but they are invaluable in editing.

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Inserts

An insert is an isolated, self-contained piece of a larger scene. To be an insert instead of a cutaway, it has to be something we saw in the wider shots. Example: she is reading a book. We could just shoot the book over her shoulder, but it is usually hard to read from that distance. A closer shot will make it easy to read. Unlike cutaways, many inserts will not be of any help to the editor. The reason for this is that since an insert is a closer shot of the larger scene, its continuity must match the overall action. For example, if we see a wide shot of the cowboy going for his gun, a tight insert of the gun coming out the holster must match the action and timing of the wider shot; this means it can be used only in one place in the scene and won’t help the editor if they need to solve a problem elsewhere in the scene.

There is no need to be specific about the terminology when setting up a shot; it’s enough to just say, “let’s get an insert of that” however, inserts tend to fit into a few general categories:

• Informational inserts. A shot of a clock on the wall is a practi- cal insert, as is reading the headlines on the newspaper or the name of the file being pulled from the drawer. These are mostly about giving the audience some essential piece of information we want them to know.
• Emphasis inserts: the tires skid to a halt. The coffee cup jolts as he pounds the table. The windows rattle in the wind. Emphasis inserts are usually closely connected to the main action but not absolutely essential to it.
• Atmosphere inserts: these are little touches that contribute to the mood, pacing, or tone of a scene.

Atmosphere inserts may have almost no connection to the scene other than mood, tone, or a sort of symbolism or visual allegory. They are generally reserved for more stylized filmmaking. They should be used with caution; such shots can easily be arch, heavy handed and obvious.

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Connecting Shots

Most scenes involving two people can be adequately edited with singles of each person; whether are talking to each other or one is viewing the other from a distance, such as a shot of a sniper taking aim at someone. This is sometimes called separation. There is always a danger, however, that it will seem a bit cheap and easy and the fact that it is an editing trick might somehow undermine the scene. Any time the scene includes people or objects that cannot be framed in the same shot at some point in the scene, a connecting shot is called for. This applies especially to point-of-view shots where the character looks at something, then in a separate shot, we see what she is looking at; but it also applies to any scene where two or more people are in the same general space, whether they are aware of each other or not. A connecting shot is one that shows both of the characters in one shot, often it is in the form of an over-the-shoulder or wide angle that includes both of them.

Connecting shots just make a scene feel more complete and whole. The fragmentation of doing it all with POVs and reaction shots is after all a cheat that calls upon movie magic to piece together the whole scene. It works, but may not be as involving or emotionally satisfying to the audience, especially if overused. A connecting shot is a way to tie things together in a way that clarifies and emphasizes the physical, which are usually story relationships as well clearly, one of the prime objectives of good directing and good shooting is to have the visual elements reinforce the narrative elements.

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Pickups

A pickup can be any type of shot, master or coverage, where you are starting in middle of the scene (different from previous takes where you started at the beginning as it is written in the script). You can pick it up only if you are sure you have coverage to cut to along the way. Usually a PU is added to the scene number on the slate so the editor will know why they don’t have a complete take of the shot.

Another use of the term is a pickup day. This is one or several days of shooting after the film is already in editing. At this point the director and editor may realize that there are just a few shots here and there that they have absolutely must have in order to make a good edit.

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Transitional Shots

Some shots are not parts of a scene themselves but instead serve to connect two scenes together. We can think of these as transitional shots. They might come at the end of a scene, at the beginning, or between scenes. Some are simple cutaways: a scene ends, cut to a shot of a sunset and then into the next scene. There are many other types of transitional shots as well, they are a sort of visual code to the audience that the scene is ending. Scenes of the city or landscape are frequently used as transitional devices as they also add to the mood or pace and are generically visual meaning they don’t need to make a specific point in order to be interesting.

Thanks for visiting. I hope you got what you were looking for. Stay tuned for next post on detailed information on shooting methods. Here is the link for reference book on this topic:

https://amzn.to/2W1LFXb

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