Full Shots: How to Capture Your Characters From Head to Toe

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Sure, a close-up brings you eye-to-eye with the action, but sometimes you need to see the whole picture. Enter the full shot, a way for filmmakers to focus on their subject from top to bottom. 

Cue the classic “walking in slow-mo toward the camera” montage—we’re diving into full shots and how to capture them correctly, with iconic examples from movie history.

What is a full shot?

Full shots show the subject’s entire body in the frame from head to toe. Also referred to as an “extreme longshot,” a full shot is an effective way to establish a character and their actions—what they’re wearing, how they’re dressed, and the way they exist within a space. The technique can also be used to contextualize (or contrast) a subject with the setting. 

Full shot examples

“Rocky” (1976)

During this scene from the iconic sports drama, director John G. Avildsen combines a full with a two-shot. This way, we can see the evolving body language of both Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adrian (Talia Shire) on their first date, as well as notice Stallone is actually jogging on ice without skates. 

“Star Wars” (1977)

An iconic villain needs a memorable entrance. In “Star Wars,” George Lucas frames our first look at Darth Vader in a full shot. With the camera at a slight low angle, Vader’s imposing nature—especially contrasted with the underlings and corpses surrounding him—is obvious without explanation.

“Wonder Woman” (2017) 

Patty Jenkins’ comic book blockbuster utilizes a full shot as Diana (Gal Gadot) heroically steps onto the battlefield. The moment captures everything you want in a superhero moment, top to bottom: Diana’s determined gaze, the ripped-from-the-pages costume, her confident stride, and just enough of the environment to understand the danger she’s in. 

“If [they] did a wide or extreme wide [shot], it would provoke a different feeling,” says director Cat Hostick (“The Haunted Museum," “Eli Roth Presents: A Ghost Ruined My Life”). “We may not be able to see confidence and fierceness in her face. And she would look smaller in the frame, which may make her feel more powerless in her environment, which doesn’t feel hero-esque.”

Full shot vs. wide shot

In filmmaking, the full shot is similar to a wide shot—but there’s a subtle difference. It all comes down to intention. 

In a wide shot, you will often see the subject from head to toe, but it’s not entirely about the subject. Wides encompass a broader view of the scene, conveying context, scale, location, and atmosphere. Take this example from George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Yes, you see Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky in full, but the purpose of the shot is to place him against the vast emptiness of the wasteland. 

Once you understand the difference, you can get even more specific with shots such as the extreme wide—which reduces the subject to a miniscule part of the frame—or a medium wide (also called a cowboy shot), which captures the subject from head to knees.

“Knowing the terminology saves you time and money—medium wide, extreme wide, or full shot [are] all different,” says Hostick. “If you said, ‘I want a wide,’ to your director of photography and first assistant director [and] the team mistakenly interprets your direction as an ‘extreme wide’ because you said ‘wide,’ they will spend half an hour clearing vehicles and gear when they don’t need to. If you said [more specifically] a full shot or medium wide, that would never happen. Know your lingo!”

Tips for effectively capturing full shots

Plan ahead. Before you even step onto set, create a comprehensive shot list that breaks down the specific angle and lens you’re using, any movement, and lighting details. Don’t just think logistics—understand how all of these details help illuminate and add to the overall story or scene. If a full is going on the shot list, there should be a reason why.

Be meticulous about details. Once you know the intention behind your full shot, drill down into the details of it. Is there something specific you want to convey about a character’s relationship to their environment or scene partner? What does the way they’re standing and/or moving tell us about them? On set, check your monitors to ensure every element is in place. (Hostick recommends the viewfinder app Artemis if you can’t afford a multi-monitor setup.)

“I like to have a mini monitor on set along with my bigger monitors so I can see what details those audiences are seeing on both,” Hostick says. “If you choose a full shot and the emotion on their faces are important in that shot, check the mini monitor to make sure you can see their emotions clearly enough.”

Consider the background. Ensure that the backdrop is helping to add depth to your image. Consider any ways your setting can complement your subject. Are they a fish out of water in a place they don’t belong? Do their surroundings imply danger or comfort? 

Collaborate with actors. Even with all these details in your head, it’s important to remember that actors aren’t just props. Discuss the objective of the shot. Stay open-minded to any creative suggestions that spring from these discussions.

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