Video Editing

What is a master shot?

Posted April 27, 2021
Written by Clipchamp

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The master shot is one of the most important shots to understand when it comes to filmmaking and making videos so let’s dive in!

Filming crew ready for master shots

What is a master shot?

A master shot is any shot that's used to cover all of the action that occurs in any scene. It involves a camera angle and perspective that keeps all the action in view. As long as all the relevant characters and the action they're undertaking is consistently in view, you have yourself a master shot. 

The purpose of a master shot is to encapsulate everything that's important into one single angle or moving shot. This means the master shot can serve as an excellent way to introduce something within your film or video. It can also form the basis of a narrative-changing action scene. 

Your master shot can serve as the backbone of your video editing process. This is why it's usually useful to have a master shot as your opening, as well as at key points in the narrative during feature-length creations. 

If you're writing a film shot list, the master shot should be at the very top; it is, after all, the “master”. They're often paired with wide shots or establishing shots.

Why master shots matter

Master shots are important to understand because they're regularly used to introduce characters or stories to a viewer. In fact, throughout cinema, master shots have historically been viewed as the most important shot of them all. This is because the master shot is used as a form of anchor point or foundation for the rest of a production to revolve around. Back in the day, every ensuing scene would somehow link back to the perspective the viewer received in the master shot itself.

No matter what video ideas you come up with, the introductory aspect of your video is arguably the most important. If a viewer doesn't understand who or what is important from the get-go, they're less likely to stick with you. This is doubly true with the amount of video content, TV and films produced today. So, skillfully using a master shot can help you grip your viewers, and allow them a better understanding of your intention with the video.

When to use a master shot in your video?

Master shots are best utilized in videos that have some form of narrative. This is thanks to their heritage within feature film productions throughout the golden age of Hollywood in the 1940s. However, the principles behind a master shot can be adapted to any medium. 

Master shots require creativity. They need you to find a way to creatively include all major players or props in one single scene. Conceptually, this is a great way to think about video production. It forces you to consider the arc of your narrative, or what story you're trying to tell with your video. It also forces you to consider what the most important aspects of your video are.

If you're making an ad for TV or social media, for example, a Facebook ad, then everything should be perceived as a master shot. That way, there's no wasted space in your footage.

Blocking and staging in master shots

A well-crafted master shot is reliant on both blocking and staging. 

If you're juggling a large cast of characters, you'll need to get creative about where they are in the shot, and why? Your protagonist will likely be front and center, but where do your supporting cast stand to portray their characters best?

It's fine to move the camera during your master shot, which can help fit everything in on larger shoots. This addition of motion can also be useful if you're creating an action-heavy production.

If your master shot is static, you’ll need to find a way to have everything in frame at any one time.

Master shots vs long takes

A lot of people equate moving master shots to long takes. Though they are similar, these shots are used in different ways. It's about planning early on to figure out which approach is best for your production.

If you do find your master shot dragging for a long time, it may be worth transitioning it to a long take. If you do, make sure to remember that long takes require even more planning to get right.

Remember, if you’re making a movie, there are rarely any re-shoots once you're at the editing desk.

How to film a master shot

A strong master shot can be used to anchor an entire film or its acts. The best way to use this shot is to introduce your characters or introduce conflict between them.

As a step-by-step process to filming and using a master shot, you need to prepare in the storyboard stage. You don't need to be an artist, just create a storyboard that shows the characters and the action.

Break down what your film or video is about; what's its purpose or underlying message? Firm up your character's motivations and the role of the scene first, then start figuring out your staging and framing. This is the shot you should usually film first, so plan out how it's going to look and run it through with your cast or those featuring in your video. Once you've run it through, the next step is to film your shot for real. Don't panic at this stage, even if it's your first attempt at a video of this nature. Make sure you get as many takes as you feel comfortable with; (you'll thank us for this tip later!). This becomes truer the larger your production is, as it's expensive to bring everyone back together to reshoot anything.

How to edit a master shot? 

You should approach the process of editing a master shot in the same way you'd edit any other scene or piece of video content. Watch each take, and ask yourself if this is working. Compare your viewing to the preparatory notes you wrote down at the beginning.

There are fewer rules to a master shot than there are with other techniques, which can work in your favor. As long as it's establishing the characters, action, or intent, you can go with a moving shot or a static one. 

You can make it so the master shot in a film lingers for a long time, or shifts to a sudden action sequence. This is a classic trait of old Westerns and their Mexican standoffs. 

Think about what you want to achieve with your film or video, and make the master shot contribute towards that vision.

Learn more about camera and editing lingo!

There are so many more tricks and techniques to making videos so check out our Clipchamp glossary to keep improving your knowledge!

Or, if you're ready to get creating your master shot, try it with Clipchamp for free.

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