If you've ever wondered what an establishing shot is and why they’re so important, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s step into the world of establishing shots.
- What is an establishing shot and why is it important?
- What does an establishing shot set up?
- How long do you have to hold an establishing shot?
- What size is an establishing shot?
- What are the best establishing shots?
What is an establishing shot and why is it important?
Establishing shots are used in film, TV, and other content to establish context for the scene. They appear at the beginning of a scene, setting up the relationship between people, objects, places, and more. If you look at your content as a fancy dinner party, the establishing shot is an equally fancy invite – it should let viewers know what they’re in for.
Establishing shots give viewers information without prior context; that can be plot details, character quirks, the passage of time, and more juicy information. They’re also great for establishing the tone, or if you’re feeling cheeky, subverting the tone.
What does an establishing shot set up?
As we’ve just covered, establishing shots can be used to set up a bunch of different components. Let’s check them out below.
If your video is set in the Swiss mountains, it makes sense to start with an establishing shot of the mountain range. Make it massive: capture some drone footage, get as high as you can, and cram the highest peak into the frame. Is there a traditional Swiss cottage lurking in the foreground? Consider stuffing that in, too.
This information is bare-bones and doesn’t reveal anything about time or character, but it’s an effective way to tell viewers where they are.
Is your content set in the 1800s? How about a stylish film grain to date your establishing shot? Or if you’re going for a cyberpunk dystopia – in the Swiss mountains, sure – you could always color grade your establishing shot to look Blade Runner-esque. You can also suggest the passage of time by using the same establishing shot throughout your content, but setting it during different seasons or eras.
An establishing shot just featuring a character can bolster the audience’s relationship with them. If your establishing shot is a wide shot of your character in a field, fists to the sky, then we can assume something bad has happened.
If your Swiss movie is a survival horror, it could probably use some bone-snapping, blood-chilling music – it could even be shot in black-and-white, focusing on dead trees or endless tundra. If it’s a rom-com, though, the music should probably be upbeat, with everything framed warmly, happy skiers bobbing away in the distance.
How long do you have to hold an establishing shot?
There’s no written rule saying how long your establishing shot should last, but generally, a few seconds should be enough. The shot’s purpose is to contextualize the scene – once you’ve done that, it’s time to move onto another shot and dive into the action.
What size is an establishing shot?
Establishing shots are typically wide shots. They don’t have to be, but wide shots’ maximalist nature helps the camera drink in as much information as possible. Most establishing shots are wide, but not all wide shots are establishing shots. That’s because establishing shots are a technique, whereas wide shots are a defined size.
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What are the best establishing shots?
Now that we’ve, ahem, established what establishing shots are and how they’re used, let’s finish with some of our favorite establishing shots.
Harry Potter (2001 – 2011)
The Harry Potter movies were helmed by multiple directors and teams across their ten-year run, but one thing remained constant: Hogwarts. The School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the setting for most of the films’ duration, making it the perfect signifier of change.
The winter holidays are approaching, so we’ll throw some snow on Hogwarts. The characters are about to head into a dangerous situation, so let’s make some clouds converge around the tower and frame the school to look super-imposing, almost looming over Harry and his friends. There’s been a huge battle between good and evil, so it only makes sense to show the aftermath, Hogwarts’ lovely architecture blown to smithereens.
Hogwarts almost becomes a character, or shorthand for what is happening and why. It’s a clever device that can be used as an establishing shot for just about any scenario.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s classic novel deceives audiences right from the start. The establishing shot, wide and floating across mountain roads, gives the impression that the film will take place in the great outdoors – but that’s just not true, is it, Stanley?
The camera twists and turns through the expansive nature, following the car that contains our three main characters. But it keeps going, leaving the car behind and settling on the Overlook Hotel: the haunted, creepy setting in which our characters will be stuck for the film’s duration. In those first three minutes, Kubrick subverts expectations and leaves audiences wondering what else he’s holding back.
Friends (1994 – 2004)
Friends is one of TV’s most iconic series, from its very first establishing shot to the final scene. Immediately, from the initial few seconds of the pilot episode, the establishing shot tells us all we need to know: we’re in the tiny Central Perk coffeehouse. The camera pans across the window, you see the logo, and then you’re inside with the central cast.
That’s it. It’s just a logo on a window, but it says so much. As the series progresses, viewers understand how important Central Perk is to each of the characters – they grow, fight, argue, and make up on that worn-out sofa. Any time Friends’ creators wanted to switch to a Central Perk scene, they’d just slam us with an establishing shot of that window.
The biggest movie of 2023 gave viewers more sugary, color-drenched establishing shots than they could hope to manage. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie uses establishing shots to set scenes in Barbie Land, pumping high-octane music as the camera settles on a larger-than-life setting, like the beach or the Barbie Dreamhouse. Everything in Barbie Land is more.
Things change when you’re in the real world, or when [spoiler] happens in Barbie Land. The the colors aren’t as bright, and there’s less focus on the bubblegum excess. For example, the real-world school is small, boxy, and drab, its establishing shot framed as the opposite of Barbie and Ken’s bright outfits.
So, now that you've got all that under your belt, why not start experimenting? Watch films, TV shows, and other pieces of content – look at how they use establishing shots, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Establishing shots aren’t always required, and by watching more, you’ll get a feel for when they’re appropriate.
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