Behind every successful movie is a great director—and behind every great director is a carefully thought-out shot list. From cinematic classics such as “The Godfather” to contemporary television such as “The Bear,” these projects all relied on a specific type of angle, a predetermined list of locations, and special camera movements to help captivate their audience.
A shot list is a production guideline created by both the director and cinematographer (and occasionally with help from the first assistant director). It is composed of details and practical information necessary to capture every shot within a given scene.
What a shot includes
- Scene number: This number corresponds to the specific section of the script you are filming. For example, if a script’s kitchen exterior scene is labeled “Kitchen 1.2,” you will use “1.2” on your shot list as a reference point for the cast and crew.
- Shot number: This indicates where a specific scene falls in the order of shots you plan to capture for each scene.
- Location: A shot list should first be organized by filming location, as grouping shots in the same location makes it easier to film everything you need at once. For example, if you’re going to shoot a scene in a library at the beginning and at the end of a film, your shot list should be organized to show that both shots are needed in that location. (Note: It’s okay for the locations to not correspond with shot numbers; it’s very rare that things are filmed in sequential order.)
- Shot type: Describe the shot size you want to use on your subjects in the frame. Varying shots create different effects onscreen to help aid your visual story. For example, a scene might start with a wide shot to establish where something is taking place, before moving to a mid-shot of the subjects, and then a close-up of the action. It’s good to note that camera shots are often abbreviated on shot lists, for example: extreme close-up (ECU), wide shot (WS), and medium close-up (MCU). You can also add camera lens types such as 24 mm or 50 mm to help the cinematographer better understand your vision of the scene.
- Camera angle: Describe the specific angle you want to use in relation to the subject on camera. For example, if you are filming a poker table and want to get the character’s deck of cards, you might want to use a high angle or a wide angle to get the whole casino floor into frame. Use this section to list what type of camera you’re using for this angle.
- Camera movement: Take note of which movement technique you want to use to captivate your audience throughout various scenes. In other words, explain how the camera will move when it’s not static. For example, you might want to use the disorienting handheld camera effect in a horror movie as opposed to a smooth tracking shot in a heist film.
- Actor, prop, and action description: This is crucial to the shot list preparation. Use this section to briefly explain which actor, group of actors, or prop is involved with the scenes you are filming. It should also describe any action taking place and what the camera should capture. This helps the assistant director, cinematographer, and producers to all be on the same page.
Some shot lists go the extra mile of adding an estimate of how long each shot will take to set up, as well as a rough idea of how long that shooting day will take.
1. Color coordinate
It’s important to think about the most effective way to keep everyone on the same page when setting up your shot list. Director Peter Atencio (“Keanu,” “The Twilight Zone”) says color coordination and storyboarding is a great organizational tool that he learned in the early stages of his career.
“While you’re reading a script, there’s so much information that you’re processing while breaking it down into a shot list,” he says. “And this is where you really get the initial pictures in your head of how to tell [your] story and what sort of imagery or needs of the story are. So I jot down notes and doodles because it helps me visualize something that speaks to me. [Color coding] is helpful because so much of directing, in addition to the shot-listing process, is meeting with various department heads and communicating to all the people that you work with. So when I’m in a meeting, I know that blue means something I need to talk to the DP about, or green means that it’s a prop or art department thing. It’s a great visual shorthand to have.”
2. Think about your angles
A shot list (and its accompanying film or TV show) is only as good as its angles. To best convey horror elements to the audience, Atencio had to think about which angles produced the most discomforting effect. “[In my episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’], we had to use recurring imagery because the root of the story centered around the idea of when this guy looks at people, he jumps into their bodies and inhabits them. So a lot of what we were working with, in particular, was extreme close-ups of eyes and figuring out a way to show that transformation process,” Atencio says. “I was thinking it would be great to have extreme close-ups of eyes and low angles that make people [feel] on edge or nervous. Those emotions are something that [the DP and I] wanted to embrace in this episode.”
Courtesy Peter Atencio
3. Study structure in other forms of media
While studying at Columbia University, director Olivia Newman (“Where the Crawdads Sing”) learned two effective preparation techniques for building a cohesive shot list. The first is an unconventional method: Read a book. “[I learned] how to construct the scene visually based on shot progression. My professor used to read us ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and showed us how [the author] actually used the illustrations and images to tell this story,” Newman says. “We looked at how the frame gets bigger and bigger over the course of the book to kind of get across how the environment is growing around the boy and becoming more and more all-encompassing.”
Second, watch a film in silence. “Another teacher showed us a scene from a film that was well written and well performed, and it had this riveting scene and we all discussed this great scene afterward. And then [the teacher] said, ‘OK now I’m going to show it to you with the sound off.’ We watched the shots that the director used to tell this story in silence and realized that the shots made no sense,” Newman says. “It was a lot of odd angles, and essentially you felt nothing while watching this scene without the sound.”
4. Plan everything, but expect changes
Even a perfect shot list isn’t immune to last-minute on-set changes. Collaborate with your cast and crew about what feels authentic for your project at the moment.
“Flexibility is key,” Newman adds. “Especially when it comes to planning how you’re going to block the actors in a scene before the actual shoot begins. Actors might not like the choices you made for blocking, or they might chime in with other ideas, and now you have to be ready to change your [shot list] on the fly. So it’s best to think of your shot lists as a blueprint for how you’re going to shoot a scene, but also be ready to completely throw them out or alter them slightly based on what the actors give you. Sometimes you can get to set and realize that a [different] angle that you planned might be much better. So having all that prior planning with your shot list does come in handy and helps you feel confident.”
If you’re making documentaries or reality television, where the environment has even less control than a standard film set, intuition is certainly going to be your best asset when creating an impromptu shot list.
Director Nneka Onuorah (“Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls”) shares her unique approach to filming Lizzo’s reality dance competition. “I do use specific angles and close-ups that help romanticize the curves of the [women] on the show. But because the show is about dancing, and dancing is intuitive, you can write a shot list—but if there’s a dance sequence, you have to move with them, and shot list structure [isn’t always going to be followed]. It’s important to let your scenes unfold in a natural way,” Onuorah says. “Instead of making the actual shot list, your shoot should focus on how to capture a very specific technique or something unique about the person you are documenting and follow that through until the end of the sequence. Allow for freedom of movement and your shots will allow for a more immersive experience when the audience watches it.”
Not all shot lists look the same. Some directors prefer a more basic, grids-and-columns kind of layout.
Others, like Atencio, use a system of bullet points and storyboarding to best help their cast and crew understand their specific vision for a project. Here are Atencio’s shot list templates for a Season 2 episode of “The Twilight Zone” titled “The Who of You.”