Video Production Tips

What is an establishing shot?

Posted May 30, 2021
Written by Clipchamp

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What role does an establishing shot play in the grand scheme of video production? Let's explore this basic film shot.

What is an establishing shot?

An establishing shot is a type of video shot that is placed at the beginning of a scene to set up the context, build mood and show the environment of the scene ahead.

These shots help us understand the physical space of the character but also make it easier to comprehend the plot of the video or movie.

Establishing shots are mostly wider in framing and can include multiple elements to fill up the frame depending on the scene that is about to start. 

An establishing shot of the shore

How to use an establishing shot?

There are multiple ways to use your establishing shots to fulfill the purpose of your video.

Establishing shots as a transition

The most common use of an establishing shot is to use it as a transition in between major scenes.

One can switch locations easily without making the film appear jerky. These shots act as a great transition while blending in as a part of the film because unlike social media videos you cannot use fancy transitions in cinema without necessity.

Sometimes establishing shots use J-cut editing with a video editor to pick up the pace in scenes. 

Establishing shots to show the passing of time

Establishing shots are very powerful due to their multiple uses. One such magnificent usage of an establishing shot is to show the passing of time.

In cinema, there are multiple instances to show the passing of time to move the story forward.

This is done with the help of establishing shots where the frame shows the time of the day with either a timelapse of the horizon or a fixed shot that is lit in a manner that subtly makes us aware of the time in which the scene is going to occur. Here;s an example from The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson. 

Establishing shot of the Grand Budapest Hotel

Establishing shots to give important details

Video makers can fill up the establishing shots with props and minute details that help the audience understand the era in which the story is taking place.

This is commonly used in science fiction and historical dramas where we witness an establishing shot highlights vehicles and technological advancements. 

The best example of an establishing shot would be to pick up any sci-fi movie like the Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity where the opening shot of the movie uses an establishing shot of Earth along with a spaceship from a distance. This makes us feel the environment up there and what to expect throughout the movie. 

Breaking the rules of an establishing shot for storytelling

Sometimes breaking few rules can create a dramatic effect in your story. Let's look at how this applies to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

The opening shot of the film may appear like an establishing shot but it hardly gives us any information about the context of the film. It retains the element of surprise. Nolan later uses his signature tracking shot with the character in the center frame to take the scene further.

Establishing shot of the Dark Knight

Nolan cuts to chase without giving much time for the audience to grasp the events that are happening on screen. This creates a mood of urgency in the scene.

How to write an establishing shot in a script?

Time to work your imagination! When you write a scene for the establishing shot, start with the location as this will help your audience to understand what's happening.

Common establishing shots are a cityscape, sunrise or sunset, or a flight take-off. These images can be easily sourced through royalty-free stock footage libraries. You can simply write a morning scene that begins with a sunrise and it will be super easy to incorporate into your story.

How to shoot an establishing shot?

Picture this: you want to introduce a royal family dining together in their palace. Before jumping into the grand dinner scene, you could take a low-angle wide establishing shot of the palace to make it appear larger than life. By showing the palace first, the audience knows what to expect next and this creates a smooth transition in between shots while seamlessly moving ahead with the story. 

Try your first establishing shot

Shooting the perfect establishing shot can require the camera to roll for a bit. When you've got ample footage, just jump into an easy video editor like Clipchamp and edit your establishing shot for free.

While you're at it, why not explore Clipchamp's glossary of video editing terms so that you can take your video production skills to the next level?

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