How to Use Establishing Shots to Set Your Scene

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Photo Source: Alena Mozhjer/Shutterstock

Establishing shots are vital to any film or television show because they quite literally set the scene. Directors and cinematographers use establishing shots to not only tell the audience where and when they are, but also the mood and tone they can expect. If composed correctly, they can put the viewer in the right headspace before hearing a single word of dialogue. 

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What is an establishing shot?

The establishing shot sets up where the action of a scene takes place, whether that’s a city skyline, the outside of a building, or the bird’s-eye view of a busy train station. Just from that one shot, the audience also immediately understands a handful of other granular expository details: the time of day, a rough geological location, and the time period (think a castle entrance versus the front door of an Apple store). Because of this, the viewer stays grounded in the narrative from scene to scene without needing characters to explain their whereabouts. 

Establishing shots are also invaluable for setting the tone and mood of your story. A shot of an old creaky house in a raging thunderstorm is going to broadcast a different energy than a shot of the bustling line in front of a comedy club.

How to use an establishing shot

Typically, cinematographers utilize wide and/or high angles for establishing shots in order to capture all the visual information the audience needs. From there, you can either cut to a new, tighter shot that introduces your focal characters, or have your characters move through the establishing shot to give a quick sense of their physical relationship to their surroundings. Take, for example, this famous establishing shot from Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”—it immediately puts you in the time and place of 1918 New York while emphasizing the city’s vastness around the four main characters. 

Once Upon a Time in America“Once Upon a Time in America” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Using establishing shots can be as simple as signifying a change of location between scenes or the passage of time. You see this often in the “Harry Potter” franchise any time the films show the Hogwarts castle throughout the school season. 

Hogwarts“Harry Potter” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

When shooting your establishing shots, here are the main components to keep in mind: 

Keep it wide: The wider your lens, the more scenery and set dressing you’ll be able to frame. 

Keep it well lit: Remember, “well lit” doesn’t just mean bright. Directors and their cinematography department must work together to make sure an establishing shot’s lighting properly conveys the mood and tone without dialogue. 

Keep it short: Establishing shots should pack the necessary info into as brief a window as possible. This is also one of the biggest differentiators between an establishing shot and master shot.

Master shot vs. establishing shot

Master shots and establishing shots both work to set up the relationship between a scene’s subject and their location. However, that is all an establishing shot does, while a master shot also captures the action of that scene from beginning to end. 

For example, a long master shot of a fight scene in an action movie does not inherently establish the setting or place, but it does give the full scope of how the characters fit within the environment. Occasionally, establishing shots and master shots can blend together. In this scene from the first season of “Daredevil,” the camera both introduces you to the hallway’s geography and captures the entire fight inside that hallway. 

Establishing shot examples

“Joker” (2019)

Joker

In the film “Joker,” director Todd Phillips uses a five-second establishing shot to introduce his take on Gotham City. The busy, wide view shows the scale of the claustrophobic city and the color palette marks it as morally gray. The small pedestrians contrasted with the cityscape convey a feeling of unease and overwhelming fear. This puts us in the frame of mind of the lead character and sets the tone for the coming act.

“The Hurt Locker” (2008)

The Hurt Locker

In “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow instantly plants you in the disorientation of the Iraq War with a high establishing shot of a bomb disposal in motion. This shot simultaneously explains the setting while raising questions about the action itself. 

“The Godfather Part II” (1974)

The Godfather Part II

To introduce the flashback storyline in “The Godfather Part II,” Francis Ford Coppola pairs an establishing shot of scenery in Sicily, Italy, with a title card. This quickly gets the audience settled into a new setting, timeline, and story. 

“Blade Runner” (1982)

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” contains one of the most famous opening shots of all time. Set in the far future, this establishing shot shows Los Angeles from high above. The use of flying cars, dark imagery, and contrasting flames conveys to the audience that this isn’t a future we wanted or intended. It also sets the bleak tone for the noir detective story that follows.

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