What Is a Master Shot? Here’s How to Use This Filmmaking Tool

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Photo Source: “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Learning the ins and outs of a master shot is key if you’re aiming to bring your projects to the next level, both technically and narratively. We’ll show you how to put together your master shots, some tips to help you elevate them, and some examples of the best ones out there.


What is a master shot?

Lawrence of Arabia“Lawrence of Arabia” Courtesy Columbia Pictures

A master shot captures all the essential action and elements of a scene—relevant characters, setting, props, lighting, and movement—without pause from beginning to end. 

Historically speaking, master shots were one of the most essential and fundamental varieties of camera work. The majority of early films were shot in unbroken master shots with very little coverage. While the language of cinema has evolved over time, the tradition of master shots is still alive.    

But what is a master shot in practical terms? How will it help you as a creator? According to cinematographer Simon Dennis, BSC (“Peaky Blinders,” “Pose”), the main benefit of a master shot is to create a bedrock for the visuals of each scene. 

“It’s the major foundation for what shots take place in a scene,” says Dennis. “It lets things breathe and it informs you where you need to go thereafter.”

Master shot vs. establishing shot

The Last of Us

“The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Master shots are often shot wide because it lets the audience immediately see everything in the frame. If you have a lot of characters and moving parts in your scene, you’ll have to pull back to capture it all. Although going wide is a common way to film a master shot, it’s not a strict rule. You should consider what works best for each scene. 

People also confuse master shots with establishing shots, and it’s easy to see why. But if we’re talking establishing shot versus master shot, it should be clear that one does not equal the other. There’s overlap between them—both types of shots establish the setting of a scene. But while that’s the only function of an establishing shot, master shots also capture the action within that setting from beginning to end. 

While wide and establishing shots are often “purely for a geographical setting and an architectural statement of some kind,” master shots have “an intended purpose to drive the story,” says Dennis.

When do filmmakers use master shots?

Creed III

“Creed III” Credit: Eli Ade

You might be itching to get those dramatic close-ups, but focusing on your master shots first and foremost will be a huge asset to your production. Here are the instances when using master shots will directly help you.

During rehearsals

Final rehearsals and first takes are typically recorded as master shots. This way, the director and crew will see what works and doesn’t and make adjustments as needed. They’ll work through and explore the pacing, staging, and tone of the actors’ performances.

Getting the lighting on a set right requires precision, as well—otherwise, you risk under- or overexposing the footage. Your master shot will show you if your lighting is right or wrong, which is crucial to know from the jump.

To keep continuity

Keeping track of every prop and character position can get tricky after you’ve done multiple takes from different camera angles. Your master shots will be a base to refer to whenever continuity comes into question.

Master shots are also the backbone of continuity during the editing process. When you have a solid master shot of a scene, you’ll always have something to fall back on. This way, you and your editor can plug in those insert shots, close-ups, and two shots, but if there’s ever a flubbed line, errant prop, or anything else that might break continuity, you simply cut back to the master shot.  

To begin a scene

A master shot answers the questions of who, what, and where, which makes it an effective way to start a scene. Not every scene should begin this way, but it’s a reliable option. 

To build suspense

When the camera is locked down and not moving, master shots inherently keep the viewer at a distance from the action. Carefully crafted master shots can build tension by showing the audience lurking danger or a building threat that the main character remains unaware of.

Different kinds of master shots

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“John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum” Courtesy Lionsgate

In general, there are two different varieties of master shots. Although this seems limiting at first, there are tons of possibilities to get creative with your framing and composition. 

Locked-off master shot

Just set up your lighting and staging, find the optimal angle to film the action, and start rolling. When you want more coverage and angles, you’ll have to rearrange your set as needed.

This type of shot is typically wide in order to capture everything in the frame at once. It’s a good failsafe when it comes time to edit, as there are fewer variables to account for. Plus, if you opt not to cut to other angles or coverage, a locked-off master shot can give your scene a theatrical quality—your actors are essentially delivering the scene beginning to end without interruption as they would live. 

Complex/moving master shots

In contrast to locked-off shots, some filmmakers and cinematographers weave different angles together—such as going from a wide shot to a medium or close-up—to make their master shots more dynamic. Although this variety isn’t as reliable when it comes to being a postproduction failsafe, the potential rewards are also higher. 

“It’s risky. But that’s what filmmaking is, isn’t it? Risks,” says Dennis.

There’s a moving master shot in the opening of “Skyfall.” Pay attention to how it starts as a POV, becomes a close-up of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, and then shifts to a medium shot—all while giving the audience the most essential information. 

A moving master is tricky, to say the least. It requires extensive planning and is difficult to get just right. According to Dennis, the key is to do your homework with the script. “You’ve got to work from within the foundation of the characters and what’s happening, and then it informs you where your camera’s going to be placed, whether it’s going to move or not going to move,” he says. “There’s no formula to any scene until you can understand the scene.”

Master shot examples

Here are a few examples of how veteran filmmakers elevated their movies with master shots. 

“Citizen Kane” (1941): How to run a newspaper

The majority of this scene is shown in a master shot that orbits around Orson Welles’ character, Charles Foster Kane, as the other characters move in and out of the frame. Narratively, this is fitting since Welles’ character is the object that all other parts of the film gravitate toward. As the intensity of the scene rises, the camera closes in on Welles and then retreats as the moment cools off.

“Jaws” (1975): The ferry scene

Steven Spielberg often makes efficient use of master shots in his film, but, unlike other directors, doesn’t draw attention to them. For example, this scene uses unfancy, motivated camera work to tell the story of the scene. 

As the conversation between Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and Brody (Roy Scheider) grows more intense, they move toward the camera. In this instance, Spielberg uses the blocking of the scene to change the composition of the shot while the camera stays in one place. 

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014): The tanning bed fight 

You can pull virtually any scene from this movie as an excellent example of a master shot since it’s designed to look like an uncut take. This scene in particular shows off the acting chops of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in a rough-and-tumble exchange.

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971): Opening scene

In contrast to our previous examples, the beginning of this Stanley Kubrick film has almost no movement within the scene whatsoever. 

The characters are arranged deliberately in a hallway-like set, and the shot begins with a close-up of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and gradually dollies back to reveal the rest of the set as he narrates the scene. Contrary to the common conception of a master shot, this one ends in a wide instead of beginning as one. 

Things to consider when framing and composing master shots

North by Northwest

“North by Northwest” Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When you’re creating a master shot, there’s a lot you have to keep in mind. On top of the core elements—characters, lighting, etc.—there are some points you should remember. 

  • Make the most of your long takes: If you’re planning on using master shots as long takes without any other coverage, then pay close attention to when and how you’re moving the camera and the other elements of each scene. Since this will be your only coverage option in editing, every angle and action counts. Remember the basics of shot composition, show off your actors and set, and use the fluidity of a complex master shot to immerse the audience in your story. 
  • Not everything has to be in the frame at all times: You don’t necessarily have to keep every character, extra, and prop in your shot, either. It’s perfectly fine to move elements of the scene around and out of the shot, so long as the important information is clearly captured.
  • Consider the big picture: As you construct your master shots, consider these questions: What is the importance of each scene? How do they advance the plot and add to the story? What absolutely cannot be removed for each to function? Those pieces to your movie puzzle are what you need to capture in your master shots. 

“I think it’s finding the soul of a scene, the soul of the film. Every scene has a different soul. It has a point of view. You have to really read into what you’re about to make,” says Dennis.

Tips (both practical and story-related) for effectively capturing master shots

Beau is Afraid

“Beau is Afraid” Courtesy A24

Now that we’ve discussed everything you should keep in mind when constructing your master shots, let’s talk about how you can perfect the craft.  

Be aware of blocking: The way actors are placed in a scene and how they move around will affect the pacing and tone, so it should be a key concern as you plan your shots.

Decide on motivated vs. unmotivated: Motivated shots actively track elements of the scene, mainly characters, as the action progresses. By contrast, unmotivated shots move freely around a scene and don’t stay glued to any one thing. Put some thought into the form you want your master shot to take and how it’ll affect the flow of visual information.  

Plan in advance: Coordinate with your production designer, actors, lighting crew, and cinematographers to make sure everyone is on the same page. If it’s possible, use storyboarding to visually represent how your master shots will play out before you get to set. 

Carefully planning your shooting schedule will also ease up on any anxiety. Master shots, especially complex master shots, take time to get right.

Use it as a storytelling tool: Before you start rolling, think carefully about what a master shot’s point of view says about the scene. Does it fit in line with the themes and tone of your film? Like any other camera work in your film, it should serve a narrative purpose.

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