Whether creating your own content or acting in a major studio production, understanding the filmmakers’ craft will improve your performance and make you the crew’s best friend. Dipping your toe into film and television? Here are nine basic shots types that all on-camera actors should know!
The Establishing Shot
Remember the outside of Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite diner or the house on the hill in “Psycho”? Frequently used in ’90s sitcoms and classic films, the establishing shot is an extremely wide view—often an exterior—used to the indicate the place, time, or concept of the scene that follows. While it may not contain any actors, placement of characters within the establishing shot can be a great tool for indicating relationship before the start of the scene.
The Master Shot
The master differs from the establishing shot in that it covers all of the action of the scene, providing a wide view that will later be cut with tighter angles and close ups. Since it is often the first shot to be filmed, actors help the director out by choosing a physical action that can be repeated take after take without hindering the creative process.
The Tracking Shot (or Dolly Shot)
This complicated shot follows the movement of actors, objects, or vehicles in the frame by mounting the camera on a dolly or using a skilled Steadicam operator. Frequently used in action movies and episodic television—think gurneys wheeling through an ER or swift walks through the White House hallway—tracking shots require focus, precision, and patience from crew and actors alike.
The Wide Shot (or Long Shot)
The wide shot gives the audience a sense of environment by showing an actor or actors from far away, generally framed from the top of their heads to the bottom of their feet. There is some room for movement within the frame, though wide shots are used sparingly and (usually) for only a small part of the scene.
The two-shot is just what it sounds like: two subjects together in a semi-tight frame. It can take several forms, from a mostly still shot used to establish the relationship between two characters to an action shot with two actors in frame.
The Over-the-Shoulder Shot
This popular method for shooting two characters tightly focuses on one actor while framing the shot over the other actor’s back and shoulder. This helps the audience focus on one speaker at a time while framing them in the context of their conversation. Since the second actor is only seen from behind, major film and television sets occasionally substitute a stand-in or photo double for over-the-shoulder shots.
The Medium Shot
Generally defined as a semi-close shot that shows actors from the hips up, this shot is used to capture subtle facial expressions while still depicting body language and environment that might be lost with a tighter frame.
There’s a reason Norma Desmond croons, “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!” The close-up shot is arguably the actor’s most important moment on set, and requires a high level of focus and skillful subtlety. Close-ups are usually framed from the shoulders up, and capture even the tiniest facial variations. Pro-tip: Actors can save their editors a major headache by avoiding overlapping dialogue in close-up scenes. It’s easy to manually add overlap when cutting close-ups together, but near impossible to remove it; for this reason, most directors prefer “clean dialogue” with a small space between each line.
The Extreme Close-Up
The extreme close-up depicts intense emotion or fear by focusing very tightly on one small part of the actors face, such as a roving eye or tightening lip. Artistic, dramatic, and bold, this shot is used sparingly but effectively in high-tension films and television shows!
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