How to Shoot your Establishing Shot

Check out how to prepare every scene with these quick tips on the establishing shot.

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Establishing Shots

Video via Who is Matt

An establishing shot is one of the most crucial instruments to give your audience the situation. It provides context. It’s the when, where and how of the scene. It’s a powerful tool and if done well, can elevate each scene, and your film in total, to be a richer spectacle. How do you make sure you’re on the right track and have all the boxes checked? This article is going to show you how.

 

First, let’s define what an establishing shot is. If we just analyze the title, it’s to establish where, when or what is in the scene. And in film and video, it’s to establish context. How do you do it?

 

The Wide Shot

Photo by Slava Keyzman on Unsplash

 

Establishing shots are usually done with a wide-angle lens. It must provide the viewer with enough relevant information, to add to the overall story. It can be an aerial shot and done with a drone, or it can be captured with a 10mm to 27mm lens when shooting on a full-frame DSLR.

 

On a technical note, when shooting, make sure to have your aperture set to make sure what you want in focus is in focus, and what you don’t want in focus isn’t. This will vary depending on the mood of the scene you’re shooting to convey. The camera can be mounted on a tripod and tilted up or down, panned from one side to the other or it can zoom into a certain area to show the importance of that area or to create tension.

 

If your story is about a driver or racer, maybe a wide shot of their car can give context too.

 

The Classic Shot

The infamous New York City diner – Tom’s Restaurant in Seinfeld (1989-1998).

There are times when a wide shot doesn’t fit the story and it’s best suited to shoot a particular building or place. An example would be shooting a building or city, rather than the whole city, or a house in a village rather than the whole valley. It can also be inside a building, like a lobby of a hotel if this gives context to your story.

 

Although, these establishing shots mainly appear in older films and it can cause the visual pace of your edit to be slowed down,  there are certain scenes where it works perfectly.

Incorporating the story

The establishing shot can often be complemented with a cut to the person inside a building, or if it’s a cityscape, kids walking along the streets talking. Once again, it’s whatever is important in your story, and what works the best to convey the relevant information of the film.

When location isn’t needed

Screenshot from the Grand Budapest Hotel on Youtube

 

Sometimes it’s not needed to establish where the actors in the film are. In this instance, it’s already known to the audience. In an establishing shot of a scene in The Royal Budapest Hotel, there are three members in an elevator. The name of the film already indicates they are in a hotel, and geographically, in Budapest.

Time

Screenshot from the Grand Budapest Hotel on Youtube

 

Sometimes you need to convey the time period of the film. The shot of the steam-powered train shows that the story is set in the past when steam trains were more common.  It’s possible to indicate time with the clothing the actors are wearing, the equipment the actors might be using in the scene, or the cityscape that indicates the past.

 

If you need to show that time has passed, you could shoot the establishing shot in different times of the day, or in a different season and have it cross-fade from one to the other instead of writing “6 months later”.

You can also shoot a time-lapse as establishing shot to indicate time has passed from morning to night.

 

How to add another level

See the process of shooting as one layer, and adding the audio and sound design as another layer. To do this, you can sign up to the www.amazingmusictracks.com mailing list to find out about awesome tracks that will give your film project that extra richness.

 

Conclusion

The establishing shot is a very exciting part of your story. Furthermore, it’s imperative to shoot with the aim to give the audience the ability to establish context. If you plan it correctly, it’s possible to give beautiful establishing shots that can put you on the same level as Hollywood directors.

 

Please comment below with any experiences you’ve had with establishing shots!

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