Making movies requires creativity, hard work, and a bit of magic. With filmmakers bringing their stories to life on location or custom film sets in studio lots, all that magic is useless unless audiences understand the story’s world. It all starts with an establishing shot.
An establishing shot is the first shot of a scene that shows the audience the story’s setting and helps the audience interpret the time frame, geography, and tone of the film.
What Exactly is an establishing shot
Establishing shots typically set the world and demonstrate how the world ties into the character or group of characters. They are essential to setting up the mood of a scene and showing us the time of day or passage of time.
Aerial shots or wide shots can show the audience specific geographic cues about the story.
Additionally, establishing shots can provide clues to the audience about details we’ll revisit, show foreshadowing and help move the story from place to place without confusion.
Often, establishing shots and master shots get mixed up with one another. While a master shot shows the entire scene with all the action and dialogue, establishing shots are only a few seconds long, merely setting the world of the characters.
An indie filmmaker myself, I filmed many short films without the use of establishing shots. Due to budget restraints, I jumped right into the world of my characters. Looking back on my work, several of my stories would have benefited from dynamic establishing shots. The advent of affordable stock footage and drones has allowed me to level up my productions.
What are establishing shots best used for
Establishing shots show audiences the first glimpse of the world they are about to enter. Especially important for science fiction or fantasy-based films, entire worlds with intricate details are created, and viewers must quickly learn the unique geography and culture.
Establishing shots can be used to set the context of the time in the film. Sunrises and sunsets are common ways of establishing time, while time lapses are common to express the passage of time. This could show the passage of time between seasons or the time of day.
A film series that does this creatively well is Harry Potter. Different establishing shots of Hogwarts Castle demonstrate the passage of time through the seasons.
Examples of establishing shots in film
For films set in large cities, it’s not uncommon to see recognizable buildings or landmarks to set the stage for the story. One fun example is from an animated film, Finding Nemo. The setting is immediately identifiable from the Sydney Opera House.
The Batman (2022)
The Batman (2022) opens with elaborate city shots to introduce audiences to the idea of the vastness of this city, the significance of one character to this city, and the town of Gotham.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) immediately sets the film’s tone by starting in a stressful, chaotic environment. With Evelyn surrounded by clutter, you immediately sense how overwhelmed her character is. While foreshadowing elements exist in this scene, the audience can sympathize with this character based on the cues in this establishing shot.
Here is the trailer to Everything Everywhere All At Once which has this exact scene right within the trailer.
Another excellent example of an establishing shot that sets the film’s tone is “Citizen Kane.” We start on an extremely wide image of the mansion, slowly zooming in and aided with fades into closer zooms of the mansion. It captures the essence of the isolation and mystery to come.
For sci-fi films, creating the world for the audience is essential. Blade Runner is iconic for its elaborate world-building, showing Deckard’s car flying through a city of futuristic landscapes, emphasizing the vastness of this world.
Lord Of The Rings
In fantasy films, it’s also equally important to build the world. Lord Of The Rings (2001) starts in The Shire, helping the audience understand where our characters live and the simplicity of their lives.
In horror films, showing the picturesque vastness of nature can add to the characters’ panic. Midsommar (2019) excelled at establishing shots to demonstrate the characters’ isolation in what seems like it should be a utopia.
Black Swan is one of my favorite examples of establishing shots introducing foreshadowing. From lighting to the vastness of the dance, this establishing shot sets an ominous foreshadowing tone for the film.
Wonder Woman 1984
In Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), this scene opens on a wide, high-angle shot to establish the expanse and importance of this battle. It is commonly used in superhero films to show the scale and size of the world our superhero is in; it often demonstrates the stakes of the fight.
My expert tips on establishing shots
Establishing shots typically don’t include any of your main characters. In the case of a busy cafe, consider showing an exterior of the cafe, bustling with people, but not your characters entering or exiting.
For the sake of editing and moving a story forward, some filmmakers elect to add dialogue over establishing shots, but your establishing shot should not include dialogue. They should also not evoke specific emotions and merely set the stage for the audience to understand the story’s world.
Considering it can be costly to rent a helicopter or illegal to fly a drone over central locations, use stock footage. With more options, stock footage can reduce your budget and improve your film production quality.
Finally, be careful about how long your establishing shots are. You should aim for only a few seconds.
Establishing shots is beneficial and essential for filmmakers regardless of your budget level. While not every film and story calls for an establishing shot, understanding what they are and when to use them is necessary.
Establishing shots brings your audience into your carefully crafted and created world. Your audience wants to know as many details as possible, including geography, tone, and time cues. Watch and learn from the films that inspire you, and don’t be afraid to experiment with establishing shots.
What are some of your favorite establishing shots in a film? I’m excited to explore storytelling with more tricks and tips. Please share tips for filmmakers seeking to get creative with their establishing shots.