5 Shot Types Every Filmmaker Should Know

For over a decade, Film Riot has been dedicated to helping aspiring filmmakers learn about all the tips and tricks that make Hollywood movies “tick.” But as every good filmmaker knows, understanding the foundational basics is paramount if you want to be successful at telling stories with the moving image. That includes understanding shot types in filmmaking.

The next few episodes of Film Riot will cover some of those basics. First up is: Shot Types.

The 5 Shot Types in Filmmaking

In this series, Ryan uses the metaphor of writing a sentence to describe filmmaking. Shots are the words, coverage would be the collection of words to form that sentence, and editing is the arrangement of those words to form your sentence. In this episode, Ryan covers five shot types:

  1. Shot Size
  2. Angle
  3. Framing
  4. Movement
  5. Focal Length

Shot Size

The shot types Ryan covers are not entirely exhaustive, but they cover the basics.

Extreme Wide Shot (EWS): a shot far from the subject that takes in the entirety of the area. Think of shots like a spaceship arriving to a planet; or the entirety of a castle and the large army arriving to sack it.

Extreme Wide Shot - Blade Runner 2049

Wide Shot (WS): the subject is now in focus but they’re not filling the frame..

Wide Shot - Blade Runner 2049

Full Shot (FS): a wide shot where your subject fills the frame, head to toe.

Full Shot - Western

Medium Wide Shot (MWS): a “full shot” that is a bit closer such that the subject’s head and/or feet are cut off.

Medium Wide Shot - Bobby De Niro

The “Cowboy Shot”: this is a version of the MWS that is called “the Cowboy” because the shot is cut off right where the person’s gun and holster would be.

Cowboy Shot - Clint Eastwood

Medium Shot (MS): the subject is framed from the hips up.

Medium Shot - Tom Cruise

Medium Close-up (MCU): the framing is chest up. At this distance we can see the eyes more clearly, making the shot a lot more intimate. Many dialog scenes are shot with MCUs.

Medium Close Up

Close-up (CU): the subject fills the frame top to bottom. It is used sparingly and is often on people’s faces, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be that of a hand or prop.

Close-up - Gone Girl

Extreme Close-up (ECU): an even closer (tighter) shot, often of a subject’s eyes or mouth. One of Ryan’s faves is this shot from “Se7en” where you can see Morgan Freeman’s eyes, as well as the reflection of the paper in his glasses.

Extreme Close-up - "Seven"

Angle

This is the position of your camera relative to the subject in question.

Bird’s Eye View. Usually done as some form of wide shot, this is where the camera is directly over the subject. The shot below from David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is one of Ryan’s favorites.

Bird's Eye View - Zodiac

Overhead. The camera is directly above the subject (essentially a tighter version of the Bird’s Eye View).

Overhead Shot - Requiem for a Dream

High angle. Just above eye level, but not directly above the subject. Usually used thematically to make the subject seem lesser or weaker.

High Angle - Inglorious Basterds

Low angle. Often used to make the subject seem dominant and powerful.

Low Angle - Knives Out

Dutch angle. Shots where the camera is off-center and titled. Ryan loves how the director Brian De Palma.

Dutch Angle - De Palma

Point of View (POV). There are two versions of this angle: the implied and the literal. The implied POV is when a character looks in a direction, then you show what they’re looking at.

Jurassic Park - POV Implied

Jurassic Park - POV Implied

The literal POV is when the camera is in place of the subject and you are literally seeing what they’re seeing. It’s often used in horror films. Another good example is ET peering through his costume as he walks down the street with the kids.

POV Shot - ET

Framing

Everything that goes into how you compose a shot.

Clean or Dirty. Clean framing is when there’s nothing between the camera and the subject. Dirty is when there are people and/or objects between you and some key subject in the frame.

Dirty Framing - Godzilla

Over the Shoulder (OTS). Framing the camera so that you’re looking over the shoulder of one character to another.

OTS - Zodiac

Single and Two-shots. A “single” is when you just have one character in frame, and a two-shot is when you have (you guessed it) two characters in frame.

Single Shot - Inglorious Basterds

2 Shot - Inglorious Basterds

Movement

These are just the basic movement shots. Be sure to check out this episode if you want a full run-down.

  • The Pan. The camera angle is changing, but the camera itself is not moving laterally.
  • The Tilt. Moving the camera on a vertical access from up to down or vice versa.
  • The Dolly. When the camera is placed on a dolly and moves towards or away from the subject, or laterally.
  • Zoom. The subject becomes closer or farther away by changing the focal length. The background stays static.
  • Tracking. This is where the camera tracks along with the subject, used during “walk and talk” scenes. The movie “1917” is essentially one long “tracking” shot.
  • Crane or Boom shot. Movement of the camera when placed on a crane or boom arm.

Focal Length

Focal length refers to the lens. Lenses can have wide, medium, or long focal lengths. You can mix and match focal lengths with shot sizes to create different feels. This is more subjective and will change, depending on what you want your audience to feel.

For instance, a close-up of a subject’s face on a long focal length (i.e. you’re zoomed in) will feel very different than a close-up using a wide-angle lens.

CU - Zoom
Close Up – long focal length (zoomed in)
CU - Wide angle
CU with a wide-angle lens.

The background is also greatly affected when you have a close-up on a wide vs long. Like this shot of Josh below. The close-up on the long throws everything completely out of focus. Whereas the CU with the wide-angle lens keeps more of the background more from completely blurring out.

CU Wide vs. CU Zoomed

Aspect Ratio

It’s worth pointing out that the aspect ratio you choose for your film will affect which types of shots you use and how they are rendered on screen.

Aspect ratios

So there you have it. The basic “words” you need to construct your “sentence.” In case you missed it, here’s the episode that breaks down all of these shots.

YouTube video

What NOT to Say to an Actor

Something I am constantly thinking about and trying to improve is understanding how to be a good partner to my cast. As a director, how can I help them arrive at the best performance possible? Part of the challenge (and fun) is learning each performer’s process—since every actor is different, some may hate a certain thing while others will benefit from it.

Chatting with your cast before ever stepping on set is paramount to getting on the same page and understanding what makes them tick. To that end, something I’ve always done is, debrief with my cast after each day, or at the end of production, to find out what worked for them and what didn’t. This helps me to constantly evolve my approach. It’s that thought process that led us to this latest episode! Hearing directly from experienced actors on what does and doesn’t help is invaluable in our pursuit to be great partners for them in production.

The Episode

Things that don't help

  • Saying Nothing
      • Actors love notes, even if that note is something small. Saying nothing will leave your actor uncertain. That uncertainty may allow some insecurity to creep in that will make it harder for them to do their job; or it could lead to them losing confidence in you as it shows you don’t understand the actor’s process.
  • Vague Feedback
      • When you are giving those notes, don’t be too vague or cryptic. Make your note specific and concise. Similar to saying nothing, being vague will likely leave your actor feeling as though you don’t know what you want. If that is the case, just tell them. If you are stuck, let them know—they are your partner in this. If you hide this from them, they will only lose trust in you. Bring them into your process, it’s why you hired them in the first place.
  • “What’s with your Face?” (Unconstructive criticism)
      • A general lack of empathy toward the actor’s position is a major problem with a lot of new directors. Without a good understanding of what it’s like to be under all the lights, in front of the lens, and stared at by everyone in the room, the odds are high that you will only make your cast’s job harder. The best way to stay away from horrible and insensitive notes like “what’s going on with your face?” is to get in front of the camera yourself. Do some acting, find out first hand what it feels like to be in those shoes. I guarantee that it will change the way you direct forever.
  • Bad attitude
      • A bad attitude from the director will trickle down to the entire cast/crew and make set-life miserable. The tone of the set starts at the top, heavily built by the director and lead cast. This is yet another way you are in partnership with them. Start on the right foot by taking the time to create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to do their best work.

Never Do This!

  • Line reads
      • UNLESS your actor asks for them (which is rare), never try to impose YOUR performance onto your actor. You hired them to embody that role, make it their own, and bring their voice to it. They can’t do that if you are trying to give them yours. Of course, as always, there are exceptions to this, but be very cautious and make sure it is what your actor wants.
  • Being an A-Hole
      • Don’t be this. Never be this. It shouldn’t have to be said. To really be a good leader, you have to create a safe atmosphere for everyone to thrive in. Your job is to make sure you’ve constructed a working environment where each cast and crew member feels heard, seen, and able to do their best work. If you do this, they will charge into battle with you every single day!
  • Huffing and puffing
      • Actors are humans too. They aren’t your robots that perform seamlessly on command. Having empathy and realizing that there could be something in their life creating a block in that moment will allow you to be a good partner and help them get back on track and into the scene. Communication is key!
  • SEXIER!
      • Subjective notes that can be interpreted differently depending on who is reading them, will only cause problems. Once again, you could start losing your cast’s trust and leave them wondering “what does that mean?” Instead, do what the great John Badham suggests‚—instead of an adjective that could be lost in translation, give them something to play to, like an action or objective. Don’t tell them the end result—give them something they can use to get there through their own process.

Other Episodes on Acting