Film & TV

What Is An Establishing Shot? How to Effectively Use Establishing Shots in Your Film

Written by MasterClass

Jun 27, 2019 • 3 min read

At the start of a scene, a director needs to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. They must set up the context for what the audience is about to watch. Establishing shots allow directors to achieve all of this and more in just a few short seconds.

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What Is an Establishing Shot?

In filmmaking and television, an establishing shot lets the audience know the setting for the scene they’re about to watch. Setting includes place and often time—both time of day and potentially time in history. (Are there horses and buggies rolling around the streets? Or are there spaceships flying around in the background?)

What’s the Difference Between an Establishing Shot and a Master Shot?

A master shot is a single shot, captured from a single position without moving, that encompasses the action of a scene from start to finish. It serves as a backup that the editor can go back to in case other footage didn’t capture all of the necessary shots and angles.

The big difference between an establishing shot and a master shot is the length. An establishing shot usually only lasts a few seconds, but a master shot can last a few minutes. As such, a master shot can be cut down and used as an establishing shot, but an establishing shot cannot be used as a master shot.

How Are Establishing Shots Different From Other Shots in a Movie?

Technically speaking, an establishing shot is usually a wide shot (also called a long shot), an extreme long shot, or an aerial shot that shows a lot of the setting for context. Establishing shots are unlike other shots in a movie for a few different reasons:

  • Establishing shots are usually only a few seconds long. Establishing shots set the stage for what’s about to happen. Thus, they don’t need to be longer than a few seconds.
  • Establishing shots usually don’t include the characters. Most establishing shots focus on the setting in which the action takes place, not the characters.
  • Establishing shots don’t include dialogue. Instead, they have accompanying music or sound effects.
  • Establishing shots don’t evoke a lot of emotion. They might set up what emotion or mood the audience is about to see, but they’re more functional than emotionally expressive.
  • Establishing shots might be stock footage. If a shot list calls for a basic establishing shot of contemporary Los Angeles, rather than tasking the crew with capturing aerial or skyline footage, stock footage could suffice.

What Purpose Do Establishing Shots Serve?

Establishing shots can serve multiple purposes in a film, and there’s no one “right” way to shoot them. Most establishing shots help a director achieve one or several of the following:

  • Transition to a new scene: An establishing shot sends a clear message that a new scene is starting.
  • Reveal or clarify the scene’s location: Showing a recognizable landmark tells the audience where the story or the next scene is set. For example, the Empire State Building indicates the next scene takes place in New York City, or Big Ben indicates that it takes place in London. Establishing shots are especially helpful if the story jumps around from city to city.
  • Ground the scene in time: Most establishing shots include a specific time of day. For example, a shot of the sun rising at the beach tells the audience that the next scene takes place on or near the ocean early in the morning.
  • Give supporting details: Use of an establishing shot can also give the audience supporting details they might not have known about a setting otherwise. For example, in the Star Wars films, establishing shots reveal what different planets look like, what futuristic cities look like, and the different aircraft on which people travel through space.
  • Underscore elements of the story. Establishing shots can be helpful if the details of the time or place are important to the story. In a movie about a star athlete, a training scene introduced by an establishing shot of the sun rise helps convey that the main character is committed to their training.
  • Introduce a concept: An establishing shot can also introduce a concept or overall theme. For example, an opening shot of ballerinas pirouetting in a dance studio establishes a ballet theme.

Establishing shots are not always necessary, but when used well, they can help the filmmaker tell a more complete and coherent story.

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