Beneath the plot and action of any film, there are elements that subtly shape the way you feel about it. The establishing shot is one of them. As one of the most common and purposeful types of shots, establishing shots set the informational and tonal context at the top of a scene in order to orient the viewer inside the world of the film.
What is an establishing shot?
Establishing shots are a type of shot that helps inform the audience where and when the story is taking place. These can set up an entire film or just a scene and provide contextual clues about time, location, and tone. For example, a landscape shot that shows mountains with an old truck running along a distant road sets up a scene in a rural location, in the past, and suggests the pace of the film might be a bit slow. A film set in an urban environment, like Manhattan, could be a wide shot of the city skyline with the Empire State Building in the frame.
Establishing shots are usually the first shot in a sequence, and are often (but not always) wide shots, meaning that both the subject and their environment are included in the frame.
3 types of establishing shots
Establishing shots are vital for communicating basic information so the audience can orient themselves and follow the story to come. There are several types of establishing shots, all of which help set the location, time, and context of the film.
An aerial shot is a high-angle shot that overlooks a landscape or a vast distance. Because of its wide vistas, an aerial shot can very effectively communicate location and setting. These shots are often used towards the beginning of a film, when the audience doesn’t yet know where the story takes place and needs more contextual clues. For aerial shots, timing is everything: those big sweeping vistas that are great at the beginning of a film can sometimes halt plot momentum and take the audience out of the story if they’re used later on.
A well-known example of an establishing aerial shot is in the 1982 film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott. After the opening title card lets us know we’re in 2019 Los Angeles, an aerial shot reveals a hazy, dark, and menacing nighttime city vista where smokestacks billow colossal flames. This establishing shot gives the viewer context about this version of a sprawling Los Angeles that takes place in a different time — and maybe a different future — from the one the audience might know. With these vital pieces of information in place, the film can then proceed with the plot.
A time-lapse shot takes multiple, sequential images of a subject over a span of time and speeds them up to show the passage of time. As an establishing shot, the time-lapse is especially useful because it not only communicates location, often via a wide-angle, but it also shows time. A time-lapse establishing shot lets the audience know that the film takes place at the end of a period of days, months, or even years.
The 2007 movie Zodiac takes place over the course of about fourteen years, which is why director David Fincher uses a time-lapse as an establishing shot about halfway through the film. In a slow, upward tilt showing the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, we watch as the iconic building speeds through construction from start to finish — a feat that took about three years in real life, but only 30 seconds on film.
This establishing shot reorients the audience in terms of how much time is passing in the world of the film. The following sequence reiterates how much time passes in the film, as the characters express frustration at how long it’s taking to make progress on a years-old murder case.
Most establishing shots are wide shots that show an entire scene or landscape in order to orient the audience within the geographic and physical space of the film. Alternatively, using a close-up shot to establish a scene helps to set the tone of the film and give the audience clues about its themes. A close-up shot is one that is so tight that it only shows one body part, typically the actor’s eyes. From that close shot of eyes, the audience can get a sense of the character’s emotion or see a wider world reflected in the eyes themselves.
The first establishing shot for the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, uses a close-up that focuses only on the main character’s eyes, which we see through her glasses. We hear a television in the background announcing the winner of a Miss America contest, and we can see that television from the reflection in her large glasses. This establishing shot doesn’t tell the audience much about the location or the setting of the film. What it does tell them, though, is that the protagonist in the film is likely this quirky little girl with dreams to win a beauty pageant. This close-up establishing shot sets the stage for the film and gets right to the heart of the story: the comedy and heartbreak of being a dreamer.
What to consider when planning an establishing shot
Establishing shots help set a scene’s context and tone, but they can also take the audience out of the story if they’re done poorly. Here are 3 key things to consider when planning and framing the establishing shots in your film:
- Timing. Establishing shots are often used acquaint the audience with the setting of a film, so it’s important not to overuse them once the story gains momentum. This is especially true if the film generally takes place in the same location. Unless it’s absolutely essential to remind the audience that they’re in a certain location, it’s best not to overly rely on establishing shots. They’re powerful devices to convey information, but once you’ve done that, you can use other types of shots to help tell your story.
- Pacing. Establishing shots often encompass large landscapes and need to communicate several pieces of information to the viewer, like setting, time, and tone. This means that establishing shots may require several moments or different angles to build onscreen. You can’t quickly cut away from an establishing shot like you might with a traditional wide shot. However, having establishing shots linger for too long can also slow the pace of the story, especially if the following sequence is fast-paced or action-driven.
- Lighting. Lighting is essential to get right with establishing shots. If the lighting or coloring of your establishing shot is different than the scene it establishes, it sets off the tone and continuity of the film. Maintaining visual continuity this way also helps establish a sense of time within the story and makes it clear that the following events are taking place within moments of each other. Not only is this visually effective, but it also subconsciously sets the story’s tone and creates a seamless reality that an audience can get lost in.
Establishing shots work on multiple levels to provide the audience with the information they need to become immersed in a story. They may only be lasting moments on the screen, but establishing shots are essential tools in a filmmaker’s storytelling toolkit.
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