Establishing shot in film for beginners.

An establishing shot introduces new scenes and tells the viewer where and when the action is happening. Establishing shots can also set up a point of view or help develop a character.

Establishing shot photograph looking down on a city from above.

What is an establishing shot?

Establishing shots are typically wide or extreme wide shots of buildings or landscapes. These shots might include signage, landmarks, or other obvious signals of place and time. They can help convince your audience that your film’s action is taking place in a cafe in Paris or a cantina on Tatooine instead of a soundstage in L.A.

 

What makes an establishing shot successful?.

For an establishing shot to work it needs to:
 

  • Make it clear where the action takes place.
  • Show the scene’s geography.
  • Establish the mood.
     

These photographic elements combine to place your viewer in the film, providing them with context to understand what’s happening – sometimes without any dialogue required. Whether you’re working on a film, TV series, documentary or animation, a successful establishing shot is key to keeping the audience’s attention.

It’s similar to how the first few pages of a book need to be gripping to avoid the reader putting it down. The establishing shot must engage the audience from the start.

 

How long should an establishing shot be?

Establishing shots are usually only a few seconds long. As their purpose is to show the film’s setting for context, they don’t usually include characters, dialogue or emotion – therefore, establishing shots of more than a few seconds might seem tedious to viewers.”
 

Give your audience context.

Establishing shots don’t have to be the most artful shots in your film. “The easiest thing to do in Hollywood movies is a helicopter shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. ‘Oh, we’re in San Francisco, I get it,’” says graphic designer and independent film producer Nick Escobar. “It establishes where you are, lets you know what’s going on, and can clue you in to the time period, based on the way the city is shot and colour graded.”

Shot of the Golden Gate Bridge which establishes you are in or near San Francisco.

Examples of establishing shots.

The opening to The Shawshank Redemption is an epic example of an establishing shot. It quickly makes it clear the film will be set in a prison, gives an idea of the era and introduces some of the main characters.

 

 

Establishing shots can be used throughout a film or TV programme to show when the action is moving around. The Harry Potter film series uses them time and time again as the action returns to Hogwarts, with the weather highlighting both the season and mood, while conveying the passing of time.

 

 

Many establishing shots from a film are used in the trailer as well. This is an effective technique as it quickly conveys where the film is set and outlines the general themes in around two or three minutes. Dunkirk is a good example of this – with an opening shot of soldiers in an empty street, then lined up by the sea waiting to be evacuated.

 

 

An establishing shot with drones makes setting a scene more accessible.

One of the most memorable establishing shot sequences in film history opens Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining. The camera glides over forests and mountains before revealing the mountaintop hotel where the film’s action takes place. When this film was made, only a big-budget production could afford the helicopter and crew to capture that footage. These types of shots are now accessible at a lower price point with drones

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Two drone-related caveats: 

Filming an establishing shot with a drone allows beginner filmmakers to easily capture strong aerial scenes. There are two key aspects of drone filming to be aware of:
 

  1. Point of view. “Whenever the camera is moving, that implies to the viewer a point of view,” writer and filmmaker David Andrew Stoler says. “If you’re moving in your establishing shot, the question is: ‘Who’s seeing this? Whose point of view am I in?’"

  2. Drone noise. Director and writer Van Jensen adds: “You have to be shooting something where you don’t need to be capturing sound, because drones are extremely loud.”
Taking aerial establishing shots with a drone.

Get creative and skip the traditional wide shots.

You don’t always have to go for the epic view of the New York City skyline. You can prepare your audience for the scene with set design and props. For example, a therapist’s office might have diplomas on the wall and a couch with a chair next to it. Those details tell your viewers exactly where they are or what they need to know.
 

Jensen recalls making a music video that takes place at a house party. “The specific opening shot is a tight shot of a beer being poured into a glass. I thought of it as the establishing shot even though it’s atypical,” he says.
 

There’s room for artistry even in these transitional shots. You can experiment with framing, camera position, or angle and create something beautiful instead of something that simply conveys necessary information.

 

Other tips for getting the most out of establishing shots.

 

 

 

Other tips for getting the most out of establishing shots.

 

Establishing shot image of an old, collapsing building.

Focus on the story.

Never forget that you’re a storyteller, and every shot should serve your story. “If you’re bouncing around locations quickly, like in Law and Order, it can be helpful to use establishing shots,” Stoler says. “But if you’re doing something short, you can set that information up more quickly.”

View of a small village from across a small lake.

Consider space.

Pay attention to your location and build your story around that. “Work the angles,” Jensen says. “Work the space to find the most beautiful shots within it.” If you’re going for a wide or long shot, make sure you have the room. “Beginners tend to shoot very flat, without much in the background. So don’t get too close,” Stoler says. “You have to get back far enough to get good depth.”

Aerial shot of a girl on a pier establishes she is alone and surrounded by water.

Experiment.

Get your necessary wide, medium, and close-up shots, but be open to other possibilities. “You want to go into the editing room with a grab bag of extra footage,” says Dominic Duchesneau, a documentary filmmaker and editor. “The editor might see the story differently than the director or cinematographer, so if you’re on location and you have time, try for something that might serve the story better.” You can always test out unusual establishing shots by using Adobe Premiere Pro to create a rough cut

Using lighting to help establish where, in the shot, a viewer's eyes should focus.

Watch and learn.

Watch the films you love, paying close attention to the shot at the beginning of each scene. Find ones you like, and try to put your own spin on them. Remember that these shots have to tell us where we are, but they can also:
 

  • Help develop character.
  • Establish relationships between characters.
  • Add to the mood you’re trying to create.

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