Think of the shot list as your cheat sheet. It will save you time later when you’re editing, because you won’t have to hunt for your coverage. You’ll know that you got the wide shot, medium shot, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, and whatever other shots you need to tell your story.
Like a cheat sheet, your list of shots needs to be scannable. “A common mistake — and one I’ve made plenty of times — is to over-detail it,” writer and director David Andrew Stoler says. “If you have too much on your shot list, it stops being useful.” If you’re making a short film without the time or money to rehearse the blocking, you have to make on-set adjustments. In that case, your shot list should be a simple blueprint. Don’t plan for more than four or five shots per scene.
Don’t forget to take notes on your shot list while you’re on set to help you in the editing room.
What belongs on a shot list?
- Shot number and scene number.
Numbering your shots and scenes is essential to planning your shoot, organizing your footage, and staying on schedule.
Knowing every shot you need at any given place ensures you get what you need before moving on to the next location.
Make sure the director of photography, gaffer, set decorator, and prop master (or friends you’ve enlisted as crew members) know what they’ll need to set up the shot.
Planning the camera angle in advance lets the crew know how and where to position the camera, as well as the people and things the camera will capture.
Is the camera fixed or panning? Tilting or zooming? Moving on a dolly, pedestal, crane? Do you need a Steadicam or drone operator? Everyone needs to know ahead of time, especially if you’re shooting outdoors.
It’s easy to get confused if your film contains hundreds of shots, so a short scene description can help you stay organized.
If the scene contains dialogue, your sound mixer has to be prepared to capture it.
Should you always make a shot list?
“If you don’t have a shot list, you haven’t thought about this film and you’re in for a headache,” documentary filmmaker Dominic Duchesneau says. “You’re going to shoot way too much footage before realizing you don’t have the footage you need to tell a good story.” Especially in documentary filmmaking, Duchesneau says, “The last thing you want is to show up and have no clue what you want. You don’t want to throw it on your subject and make them feel like they’re the director.”
Even small indie sets are busy places, and everyone comes to the director with questions. That’s why, especially for beginning directors, the shot list is so important. It tells you what you need for minimal coverage and helps you stick to your shooting schedule.