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Film Discussion: How Essential Is Establishing Shot?

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Like the title says, I wanted to get some DoPs opinions on the necessity of an establishing shot for storytelling. It's cheaper to get a high quality close-up as opposed to a high quality extra-wide so I feel like budget plays a huge role in picking what we show.

For instance when it comes to shooting miniatures for claymation... it's a lot more time and effort to get a fleshed out establishing of the environment. Also an establishing shot can also destroy the audience's suspension-of-disbelief for certain elements too.

Anyone have professional examples of DoPs choosing to not use an establishing shot?

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I don’t think it’s usually up to the DP whether to shoot an establishing shot or not. If the director wants one, then we have to shoot it.

That said, you’re right that in most cases it’s a lot more work to shoot a good looking wide shot than just close ups. And for very low budget projects where they may be no time and resources to build a set or dress the location up to a certain standard, you might be better off shooting tighter generally. 

But in narrative work, telling the story is usually more important than maintaining the illusion of high production value. Establishing shots are part of the basic language of film - without it you would have very little context for screen geography, locations, time of day, etc. Unless your story somehow can work through a disjointed series of close ups, it’s going to be very obvious to the viewer that you’re hiding something. That’s something you might get away with for one quick scene, but not for a whole movie.

Some of the best advice for producing on a small budget is to use locations that you already have access to, and to play them for what they are within reason. Don’t try to make a biblical epic if you have no money and have to frame out lawn mowers and telephone poles in all of your locations - believe me, I’ve had to do it...

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Problem I run into is that if an establishing shot isn't scripted with a scene number, it's not scheduled, so what happens is that in editing, they decide they need an establishing shot and send out a small second unit crew with hardly any resources to pull it off when they could have shot it better with the regular full crew working on it, particularly if it is a night exterior establishing shot.

But either way, the main thing is to know up front IN THE WRITING whether you need one or not -- rather than shooting none or shooting one for every scene. Unless you have the resources to go back during post and shoot some properly.

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I think its good to note that "establishing shot" and wide shot are also different things. An establishing, used purely for a sense of setting, in my opinion can feel unnecessary if it doesn't have any further motivation or feeling to convey - but the wide shot is just a tool of camera language. 

I don't think its a simple as would we get better production value out of staying tighter - that is a larger conversation about the intention of the filmmaking and the feeling a wide shot might illicit that a closer shot could not achieve.

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Yes, an establishing shot is not the same thing as a wide master shot.

As with most techniques, you use an establishing shot mostly to make things clear for the audience to avoid confusion — if they won’t be confused, then the other reason might be either to create some breathing space in the tempo and flow, or to create mood — a classic example would be a shot of Dracula’s castle silhouetted against the full moon with clouds passing in front. The next scene inside the castle with Dracula is probably obviously inside a castle so the establishing shot is not strictly necessary unless the previous scene was in some large manor house at night and was not different-enough in look to be clearly another location.

As for eliminating wide shots in scenes, that’s a storytelling issue but you run the risk of visual repetition if your whole movie is just mediums and close-ups. On the other hand, maybe your movie takes place in a submarine and wide shots might be difficult to get or might make the space look bigger than it should.

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The question is completely contingent on the style of the film. There is no right answer.

But for me anyway, the more I do this, the more I feel that the audience's understanding of specific 3-dimentional geography is overrated, even utterly unnecessary.

That said, I tend to establish important spaces fully at the beginning of a movie to get it out of the way, but by having a character lead us through the space so it's "organic" and part of the storytelling. It can have intention rather than water the scene down. After that's done, we feel very comfortable in shooting the rest of the movie however we want. Caleb leads us through the house in "The Witch" and Ephraim leads us through the lodgings at the beginning of "The Lighthouse." The cable-up shot up the interior lighthouse tower does it too, but justified differently: we are drawn up toward the light by some sort of "other-ly" power. 

When I'm part of the design, I like to approach the "wide master" the same way as an "insert": with extreme discretion. To varying degree, they take you out of the scene, so I often try to include these images as part of a multi-stage mies-en-scene. Otherwise, at the very least, I aim them toward the beginning or end of the scene. They can be effective "buttons" for closing emphasis but feel clunky in the middle of scenes... but if placed well, that hard "clunk" can be effective too.

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1 hour ago, Jarin Blaschke said:

 They can be effective "buttons" for closing emphasis

Martin Scorsese often ends scenes with a master shot that way... like an exclamation point on everything you just watched. 

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"Establishing Shots" - do have a lot of use in the edit. Sometimes you need a beat between one scene and the next.

Sometimes you only discover the issue mid edit, e.g the transition you planned doesn't work - but you need some "filler" to join the two scenes or space them out because you need to give the audience time to digest the end of one scene before the next begins. 

Establishing shots work well because if you don't have the footage it's easy to go out and shoot some pickups or use stock footage (in a covid pinch). E.g a quick house EXT that doesn't need the actors.  It's not about cinematic perfection but making the edit flow better.  

As David states it's better if these are scripted and planned for. But on a shoot day it's often the first thing you drop when you are behind (because it can be picked up later).  

 

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On 6/21/2020 at 9:04 PM, Albion Hockney said:

I think its good to note that "establishing shot" and wide shot are also different things. An establishing, used purely for a sense of setting, in my opinion can feel unnecessary if it doesn't have any further motivation or feeling to convey - but the wide shot is just a tool of camera language. 

Good point, Albion. I was using the terms interchangeably, but you’re right that they are different things. 

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I'm a fan of Ozu's pillow shots. Personally, I think locations are characters in and of itself; establishing shots can introduce the location, but I feel they should as a character. Ozu's pillow shots are antithetical to how establishing shots are used yet they simultaneously establish location, character, and mood while serving as transitions as well.

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Posted (edited)

 

On 6/23/2020 at 5:39 PM, AJ Young said:

I'm a fan of Ozu's pillow shots. Personally, I think locations are characters in and of itself; establishing shots can introduce the location, but I feel they should as a character. Ozu's pillow shots are antithetical to how establishing shots are used yet they simultaneously establish location, character, and mood while serving as transitions as well.

Yes. I Love Ozu's transitional shots. Those shots are always metaphoric and carry a lot of meaning and intention! the contemporary filmmaker Koreeda does a similar thing very effectively.

Edited by Albion Hockney
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