The over-the-shoulder shot is a popular, important filmmaking angle. The shot can connect two characters in a scene, help situate the viewer, and establish critical emotional context. Learn about this foundational camera move, its use, and how to perfect your own take on it.
“Stranger Things” Courtesy of Netflix
The over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot, or third-person shot, is filmed from just behind one character facing another. The offscreen actor’s shoulder—and possibly the back of their head—is in the foreground, and the onscreen actor is fully in frame.
The OTS angle is often used in painting and photography to encourage viewers to share visual experiences with artistic subjects. With the advent of filmmaking, most camerawork initially mimicked viewers’ perspectives in a theatrical production. However, technological progression in filmmaking led to new techniques and practices, and by the early-to-mid 20th century, multiple shots and angles were regularly used to create many perspectives.
According to Filmmaking Lifestyle, French film critic André Bazin created the term “over-the-shoulder shot” to describe frames that show characters’ backs and points of view. The technique was used extensively by Alfred Hitchcock throughout his filmic corpus, and it is used in nearly every conversation scene in “Psycho.” One over-the-shoulder shot example takes place in the scene when Norman Bates claims he’s “not capable of being fooled.”
This exchange shows how uncomfortable Norman makes Detective Arbogast and Norman’s quickness to anger upon realizing Marion might have tricked him.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
The OTS shot may use different foregrounding, angles, and perspectives depending on the filmmaker’s purpose in the scene. These include:
- Dirty single: In the dirty single shot, viewers see an unfocused (“dirty”) glimpse of the offscreen character’s shot in the frame. The primary focus is the onscreen character.
- Clean over: The clean-over OTS shot is angled over the shoulder of the offscreen character, but they aren’t in the frame.
- Shot-reverse shot: The shot-reverse shot begins with the character in frame, then cuts to whom the character is talking to or what they’re looking at, and cuts back in time to catch their reaction. This is sometimes framed OTS and other times not.
“The Sandman” Courtesy of Netflix
The over-the-shoulder shot orients the viewer in terms of space and place, demonstrates a connection or understanding between two characters, and sets the overall mood. We not only experience the perspective of the offscreen character but we also get to see the scene as an all-knowing external witness, creating an experience that is both objective and subjective. The OTS shot is used to:
Situate the viewer
Unlike a direct POV shot, the OTS shot places the offscreen character in frame so that viewers can see their exact position in relation to the onscreen character. For example, in the opening scene of “The Godfather,” the camera shot over the shoulder of the titular Godfather ominously implies the extent of his domination. Even though we can’t see Don Corleone’s face, we witness how Bonasera and the other characters react to his presence and power.
Create a connection between characters
Framing characters together in one shot, even when one is offscreen, makes a connection between them. For example, consider the over-the-shoulder shot in “Casablanca” when Rick bids the iconic “Here’s looking at you, kid” farewell to Ilsa. Even though the romance must end, the camera shot highlights the feelings that the characters have for one another.
Establish emotional context
Alternatively, in this scene toward the beginning of “No Country for Old Men,” the OTS shot creates tension between the villainous Anton and a gas station owner. Viewers know Anton’s penchant for violence that the gas station owner does not, and this knowledge combines with the closeness of the shot to create a sense of danger and claustrophobia.
The OTS shot is often used alongside other shots, such as single or two-shots. These shots usually focus solely on a character or reveal two characters in the same frame. Moving between these and OTS shots creates a narrative about their emotions, evolving relationships, and the setting they inhabit.
“The Boys” Credit: Jasper Savage
- Provide context: Begin with a two-shot to establish the relationship between characters before shifting to the OTS. Alternatively, as with the OTS “The Godfather” shot, you can use the setting and other characters to create the same effect and use an OTS for context.
- Find the best camera angle: You should determine the over-the-shoulder camera angle that best captures the emotion you want to produce in the scene. Many over-the-shoulder shots match up characters’ eyelines to create a feeling of connection between them (matching eyelines no matter the angle is a good place to start). Avoid angles that put the offscreen character’s face in focus—particularly their nose, which can accidentally end up in some OTS shots.
- Stage the characters: Play around with different character positions until you find the shot that best captures the onscreen actor’s expressions. Place the offscreen actor in the foreground with part of their shoulder and/or the back of their head in the shot.
- Capture the shot and reverse shot: Finally, it’s time to capture your OTS shot. If also capturing a reverse shot, keep the shot parameters (style, distance between characters, perspective) aligned for continuity.
- Play around with other shots: The OTS shot is best used in conjunction with other shots. Each type provides different emotional cues and communicates new concepts to viewers. Try pairing the OTS shot with a diversity of other types to create the ideal narrative for your film.