As visual mediums, film and television use an assortment of camera movements, angles, and shots to bring a story to the screen. One of the most essential of these? The two shot. While the basics of this cinematic mainstay are straightforward, there’s a lot that goes into this simple composition. Read on for the rules and purpose of the two shot, as well as some examples.
“Creed III” Credit: Eli Ade
The two shot camera angle captures two actors in the frame. Just as the name suggests, a two shot differs from a three shot in the number of people in the frame: a three shot features three actors in-frame; a four shot features four actors in-frame, etc. This basic composition establishes character relationships and propels the story.
According to director Jeremiah Kipp (“Slapface,” “Black Wake”), the two shot “is equality between two actors. Both of them have 50/50 status in the frame. It’s generous to [both] as they share the moment—the story beat—together.”
The two shot is most commonly used during a scene of heavy dialogue between two characters. While the primary focus is the dialogue, the angle is also useful in showcasing the subjects’ relationship, location, and physical proximity.
“An actor chose to overshoot his mark on the floor,” recalls Kipp about a time on set. “By stepping over his mark, he turned [what was supposed to be] a two shot—where both characters were equally important—into an over-the-shoulder shot that favored him. I called ‘cut’ and reminded the actor that this was a two shot where both of them mattered [and that] in the space between them, we saw the room where they worked, so the shot [also provided] a sense of place.
“Alas, we did this dance many times, and I kept calling ‘cut’ until he begrudgingly landed in the two shot. [It was] the right shot in that narrative sequence where two characters meet and mutually share information serving the story.”
“Ambulance” Credit: Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures
The fundament of a two shot is that it involves two characters, but the composition is where that extra layer of artistry comes in. When framing a two shot, keep in mind the other factors that impact the look and feel of your shot; spatial relationship, lighting, focal length, camera movement, and body movement all add depth and tone to the scene through visual storytelling.
When it comes to camera angles, director Jeff Ryan (“Mean Spirited,” “Mass Hysteria”) suggests considering the emotional stakes of where you are in the story. “Practically, it’s important to note the distance between your characters and the camera and their eye line,” he says. “The relationship between character and camera helps convey the emotional stakes to your audience: Looking down on your characters traditionally portrays them as weak or at a low point; looking up traditionally empowers them. But like all filmmaking, knowing the traditional way things work makes breaking these rules fun and exciting. Putting thought behind your frames helps your visual style stand out amidst the crowd.”
Angles are also particularly effective when combined with blocking. “An effective two shot can help tremendously when it comes to blocking and allowing room for actors to move in the space without breaking up their performance with a cutaway,” explains director Mason Greer (“Through the Night,” “Shout”). “Reblocking actors can also eliminate the need for ‘coverage’ as you position each actor into a new and effective frame throughout the scene. It can also help deliver information: Cutting away to something much tighter can help cue the audience that there’s new information being presented they should pay attention to.”
“Renfield” Credit: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures
Setting up an effective two shot goes beyond placing two actors in a single shot. Using dynamic, engaging angles allows the cinematographer to deliver an original vision.
Positioning the two subjects so they’re both visible in the frame—with an appropriate distance between them—is critical. Also a storytelling technique, the space between subjects affects the shot’s meaning and significance. Closeness could indicate intimacy, while a more substantial space may suggest friction.
The subjects should be stable within the frame so neither dominates the other. This can be achieved with the rule of thirds: characters align with one of the imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds.
Tilting, panning, or shooting a tracking shot adds visual flair to the scene.
Shooting from low and high angles provides a more dynamic and engaging shot, which can be achieved in several ways, including waist-up, over-the-shoulder, and full-body shots.
Unless the scene calls for complete stillness, intentional body movements add a sense of nuance to the shot.
“I always want to fully capture the best take,” says director Ben Tomson (“As I Lie Awake,” “False Awakening”). “Pick two angles and point both shots where the drama is. If that isn’t clear, the scene may need a rewrite.”
From two hitmen discussing foot massages to America’s No. 1 sitcom, here are examples of how two shots appear onscreen.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
This scene in Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime film isn’t driven solely by brilliant dialogue. As Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) talk in the elevator, the camera stays centered between them. There’s a touch of dominance added as the camera is slightly lowered. When the conversation continues in the hallway, the two shot aspect remains—but Tarantino and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula incorporate a tracking shot before stopping the camera’s movement and shooting through a doorway. The dialogue, intertwined with the techniques used to execute the shot, makes ”Pulp Fiction” cinema gold.
An extremely basic but highly effective example involves Jerry’s couch in “Seinfeld.” Because the sitcom was famously “about nothing,” so much of the humor came from seeing two characters react to each other in real time.
“Lost in Translation” (2003)
Two shots are used frequently in Sofia Coppola’s beautiful and poignant “Lost in Translation.” Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) appear in the same frame to emphasize their emotional closeness in the vastness of Tokyo.
Courtesy Focus Features
“The Matrix Reloaded” (2003)
As in many scenes involving Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), these archenemies are in profile within the frame, facing each other and engaging in conversation or combat. Full-body shots and a quiet atmosphere underscore the power dynamic at play and calm before the fight creates tension and anticipation.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures