Cinema's Fundamental Shots
A New Way To Look At Cinema's Fundamental Shots
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
For us, creators, and admirers of cinema, one thing we love to do after viewing a movie, current or past, is revisiting it as still images. A practice that is also great for learning the importance and purpose of using a particular film shot. So, for this article, I would like to take a look back at some of the most impressive cinematography as a gateway to learning film’s most fundamental shots.
Extreme Wide Shot (Establishing Shot): The Deathly Hallows & There Will Be Blood
As some already know, shots are used to further express emotion, ideas, and movement in a film. When it comes to the extreme wide shot, its often used to establish the surroundings of the subject or the world they inhabit. The actor is barely visible in a shot like this. However, it is used to show how a character relates to their environment.
Moreover, some of the great things about this shot are its ability to evoke grandness and wonder instantly. Whether the frame is filled with dessert-like land, desolate, crowds of people, or in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows shot below where the foreground, mid-ground, and background is filled—the extreme wide shot can capture it all.
Additionally, there are sophisticated ways in which an extreme wide shot is used, as with There Will be Blood’s opening sequence. Paul Thomas Anderson begins the film with shots of miles of barren mountains, no people, or structures. Then, cuts to a secluded man hacking away at the earth in a hole, in which he later falls deeper into that very hole. Breaking his leg, Anderson films Daniel dragging his body miles through the New Mexico desert. Considering these shots in total, it forms who Daniel is as a person without any dialogue or exposition.
Those frames of the land allow us to comprehend the strength and extreme tenacity needed to survive and make it to a shop to sell the silver he mined—after a deadly fall in the middle of nowhere. In turn, it informs us that Daniel is a man with immeasurable resolve. That example is just one of the many that utilize extreme wide shots to do more than establish a location.
Wide Shot: Lord of the Rings & The Tree of Life
A staple used in almost every movie and television show, the wide shot, also called long or full shot is all about including the entire subject in the frame, head to toe. Plus, just enough “safety” room at the top and bottom. This shot can also be compared to watching a play on stage, in that it shows the complete picture of an actor and their surroundings.
When I think of breathtaking wide shots, Peter Jackson and Terrence Malick are the first filmmakers that come to mind. Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and The Lord of the Rings to be exact in these two shots below. In particular, the wide shot is excellent for directors as it gives them more space to work with, and for the actors, it allows them to utilize their physicality.
Medium Shot (mid-shot): American Psycho & Zero Dark Thirty
A traditional medium shot shows the actor approximately from the waist up and is often the visual glue of a movie. It is regularly used to accentuate both the actor and their surroundings by giving them an equal presence on screen and can be seen for most dialogue-heavy scenes or depicting body language. Other common types are the medium long shot (3/4 shot) or a medium close-up (from the shoulders up).
This shot is excellent for when a director wants to give more space for the subject’s facial expressions. These two examples below use the medium shot to inform us of the tone and their body language. American Psycho (2000) gives us a mysterious and evocative atmosphere. At the same time, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) forces us to feel dread and hopelessness as the actress is captured with a dramatic backlight and static body language.
Medium Close-up shot: Blakkklansman
The medium close-up involves showcasing the face of a subject with enough room for audiences to see small nuances of behavior and emotion to elicit a higher degree of empathy. Additionally, the slightly wider framing lets the body language suggest meaning by including a character’s shoulders and retaining some of the background. It is often used to convey an emotion without shocking the viewer.
On the other hand, we still have a filmmaker like Spike Lee that manipulates techniques and pushes for something more dynamic or new. The shot below from Blackkklansman (2018) displays his classic in-your-face style of camerawork and in a medium close-up mixed with an extreme close-up this time, which Spike Lee has a penchant for using the former in most his films.
Close-up: No Country for Old Men
The close-up is self-explanatory and easy to grasp, yet, it is one of the most important shots for both actors and directors to convey deep emotion. Tightly framed on the actor’s face or object, it is expressive, detailed, and immersive. Plus, for centuries, actors had to use every part of their body and movement to give the best performance. Now with shots like the close-up, directors have a new way to build an actor’s performance and add depth to their portrayals.
Nevertheless, traditionally focused on the subject’s face, I would like to highlight a novel use of this dramatic shot that is just as impactful to character development and the narrative. It is exemplified in the fantastic No Country for Old Men (2007) scene where Chigurh terrorizes an older man and the audience. Joel and Ethan Coen, some of the best directors working today, and this scene solidifies that sentiment furthermore. They created intensity, anxiety, and fear with the help of a single candy wrapper. It worked because of the masterful direction, screenplay, and arc built around Chigurh leading up to the films must-see moment: the coin toss.
No Country for Old Men (2007)