The Cowboy Shot: How to Frame Your Heroes Like a Pro

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Photo Source: “The Walking Dead” Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Film has been around for more than 120 years, a heck of a long time to experiment and play with the medium. Whether it’s twisting character and story mythology or breaking aesthetic conventions, filmmakers have spent a century figuring out innovative ways to tell stories through moving images. That includes new camera shots and angles, and then experimental takes on those camera shots and angles. Giddy up, because today we’re diving into one of the most specific—and specifically American—techniques in movie-making history: the cowboy shot.


What is a cowboy shot?

Also known as the “American shot,” the cowboy is a little tighter than a “medium full”—which frames the subject(s) from the knees to above their head—but bigger than just a “medium,” which shows characters from the waist up. Essentially, the cowboy shot goes from the mid-thigh to the top (or above) the head. French film critics originally coined the term “plan américain” to describe the shot being used extensively by Western directors such as Howard Hawks in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s to get their heroes’ holsters and faces in the frame at the same time. 

Really, it’s all in the name. Just picture John Wayne or Clint Eastwood standing with their six-shooters at the hip. That is the cowboy shot in a nutshell.

Why a filmmaker might use the cowboy shot

Though the cowboy shot has its origins in the Western, the technique has outlived the heyday of that genre. It’s still a go-to today because it gives filmmakers an opportunity to convey quite a bit of information without having to choose between a full shot or a close-up. The framing of the cowboy shot can highlight the emotion in a character’s face as well as any action necessary to the scene. So, in keeping with our Western reference, the shot can capture the cowboy drawing their gun and their steely reaction in a single, fluid (or stationary) take. 

Imagine you want an extreme close-up to showcase the emotion in an actor’s eyes. Great, but then you have to cut to another set-up to show what they’re doing. Or say you want a full shot showing the actor performing an important action. Cool, but now you’re sacrificing the audience’s ability to see what is going on emotionally on the actor’s face. The cowboy shot allows a filmmaker to split the difference.

Of course, there is another reason why filmmakers will use this shot: It is shorthand for “hero.” The squared shoulders, the fully framed face, the implied tension of the hands at holster-height—everything about the cowboy shot exudes confidence and capability. This is especially true when partnered with a low angle, which makes the audience look up at the larger-than-life hero. 

Watch this iconic standoff from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Director Sergio Leone’s trademark extreme close-ups put the three combatants—Blondie (Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach)—on equal footing. But look who gets the full cowboy shot when it comes time to draw.

Clint Eastwood

Tips for actors performing in a cowboy shot

The cowboy shot is a pretty daunting set-up for actors. Think about it: The audience gets a clear view of almost everything. The emotions must read and the action must feel natural. Here are three tips for actors to get it right. 

Have confidence: The main purpose of the cowboy is to show that a character is heroic, confident, or dominant. Rarely, if ever, is this shot intended to show a character at their weakest. With that in mind, remember to be confident. You’re more than likely to be framed this way during or right after a moment of kicking butt. Own that. 

Remember emotion: Treat the emotional aspect of the moment almost like you would a close-up. Remember, when it comes to on-camera acting, less is more. Start by imagining the emotion at its highest, most over-the-top level, then keep scaling it down until the camera can pick it up with the slightest gesture or indication. 

Use all of yourself: The upper half of your body will be in frame. You have your hands, arms, shoulders, and torso to emphasize character work. Heck, get dynamic—maybe your eyes and mouth are saying one thing, but the shoulders say another. Maybe the hero’s voice quivers, but the steadiness in their hand suggests otherwise.

Cowboy shot examples

“Wonder Woman” (2017)


For a modern example of the cowboy shot, look to Gal Gadot as Diana crossing No Man’s Land in 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” This version is slightly more fluid than stationary. However, notice in the shot—especially after she casts a bullet aside—how heroic she looks. Her hands are her “guns,” so to speak, and we watch her wield them with unflinching confidence. 

“Iron Man” (2008)

Starting in the early aughts, superheroes essentially claimed the space that cowboys occupied for audiences in the 1950s. One of the genres defining blockbusters, “Iron Man,” is packed with cowboy shots, especially as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes more proficient with his Iron Man suit. In this scene, in which the titular buckethead takes on a tank, you’ll notice the shot used twice, both to show Tony’s self-assuredness and bravado: First, as he dodges a missile and fires his own; then again as he walks away in full swagger mode.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Sometimes, the cowboy can subvert expectations, as perfectly exemplified in this moment from Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The shot is used a few times in this quick scene. First, as the crowd scatters, leaving Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) vulnerable, with whip in hand. Second, as the swordsman (Terry Richards) confidently swings his large, curved weapon. And finally, as Indy simply grabs his pistol and fires. 

The moment was originally envisioned as a complex fight scene, but Ford’s on-set illness and schedule delays forced Spielberg to pivot. Thus, we get this comedic spin on the cowboy shot. Indy is exhausted and beat, but he still walks away the hero.