Shots and Composition: A Breakdown

A film is made up of a series of photographic images and each image in the film is commonly referred to as a frame.

Each frame contains objects and shapes arranged in a composition. A sequence of frames together is commonly referred to as a shot. Visual productions, whether they are movies, television shows, music videos, commercials, video or stills, are all made up of shots. Different shots are used for different purposes and the selection of what shots to use illustrates the creative choices of the people making the production. It is critical to get the right shots which will be needed in order for the scene to play correctly and make sense to the viewer.

As a Camera Assistant you need to have a basic understanding of the various types of shots and what lens you should use to get the shot, so that you can properly perform the duties of your job. As Second Assistant you will be placing marks and slating the scene, so you need to understand focal lengths and shot names so the marks are not seen and the slate is placed properly in the frame. As the First Assistant you need to know the shot and lens to get that shot so you can calculate your depth of field and know how much room you have for error in any given shooting situation.

There are so many names and types of shots and you should have an understanding of the basic ones used on a daily basis. There is a standard set of terms used to indicate the basic shots, and you should know these. It is also important to know what the person you are working with is referring to when they ask for a specific shot. One person may ask for a choker, another may ask for a tight shot and another may say an extreme close-up, and for many these will all give you the same basic shot. Also your interpretation of a medium shot or medium close-up may not be the same as another person’s interpretation so you should fully understand what they want when asking for a shot. I once worked as a Camera Operator on a small educational project and the Director/DP was constantly changing the framing of my shots. I soon figured out that his interpretation of a particular shot name was just slightly tighter than mine. Once I had it figured out I was always able to give him the shot he asked for without worrying that he would change it. Once you understand the basic terminology, the rest should come fairly easily.

For a basic sequence you will start with a wide shot of the entire scene and then move in for what is referred to as coverage for the remainder of the scene. Coverage can be defined as getting all of the various shots needed to tell the story. We have all watched television or been to the movies, so you know that as a scene progresses the camera gets closer to the actors so that you can see the emotion on their faces. You may then cut back to a wider shot or a medium wide shot and then back in to the close-up until you have everything needed for the scene. Each scene is going to be different based on the needs of the story and the artistic vision of the Director.

Some other shot names that you may hear on set include the following:

Dutch Angle—A shot where the camera is tilted laterally so that it is not level with the horizon.

Establishing Shot—A long shot or full shot that gives the audience an initial representation of the location or setting of the scene.

High Angle—The camera is placed above the subject or object looking down at them

Insert—Usually a close-up of an object used to emphasize a particular point in the scene. It may be a shot of a key in a door, a clock on the wall, a gun being pulled out of a desk drawer, etc.

Low Angle—The opposite of the high angle in that the camera is placed below the subject or object, looking up at them.

OTS (Over-the-shoulder)—Usually when two actors are facing each other and the camera is placed behind one actor, looking over their shoulder towards the other.

Two additional shot names that you will most often hear on a film set are the Abby Singer shot and the Martini shot. The Abby Singer is the second to the last shot of the day and the Martini is the last shot of the day.

The previous names are just a small sampling of the names of shots you will hear on a typical film set. You’ll probably hear many others as you start to work. Knowing and understanding what these are will help you to do your job better.

Rather than try to explain every possible shot here, I will mention some of the basic ones that you will use regularly. Figures below show illustrations of six of the most basic shots, starting wide and moving in to a very tight shot. Those shot names are listed below.

Full Shot—A shot that shows an actor from head to toe; it may also be called a wide shot.

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Cowboy or Western—A shot derived from the early westerns, the cowboy or western shot is one in which shows an actor from just above the knees to the top of the head. Its name comes from the fact that we want to see the holster hanging down from the gun belt.

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Medium Shot—A shot which shows roughly half the actor’s body, from just above the waist to the top of the head.

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Medium Close-up—As we get closer to the actor we want to start to see more detail. This shot shows them from approximately mid chest to the top of the head.

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Close-up—This is a shot that shows a person from the top of the shoulders to the top of the head.

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Extreme Close-up—This is a shot which shows a great amount of detail, such as the actor’s eyes, nose and mouth, but can be even closer if you wish.

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