Turn down the volume and watch any movie from the golden age of Hollywood and you’ll see this simple narration over and over: Establishing shot of characters A and B, over the shoulder shot from A to B, switch to over the shoulder shot from B to A, close up on A, close up on B. This progression from wide shot to close shot narrows our field of view and communicates visual information about where we should focus our attention. The foundation of telling a focused visual story is the widest shot, the establishing shot.
What the Establishing Shot Establishes
Setting, principal characters, and point of view (POV) are communicated by each establishing shot. Viewers notice subtle cues to place and importance, too. Hollywood moviemakers talk about the T-zone when aligning their cameras and actors. This T-shaped area of the screen is the place of primary importance. Through years of watching movies, viewers learn to privilege this area. In fact, we read the screen in a way similar to reading a book, scanning from left to right and down. Knowing this we can place the face of our hero in the left upper corner of this T and wordlessly communicate to the viewer their importance simply by setting and point of view.
Principal Characters and Key Actions
As a rule of thumb, include all the principal characters of a scene in the establishing shot. If other characters are introduced—entering the room or even just joining the conversation—set up a new establishing shot. Conversely, as characters leave the scene, establish their exit with a new establishing shot. Basically, if a character is going to speak or act we need to clearly communicate to the viewer who is speaking to whom or who is acting on what. The establishing answers this question of who and what as they relate to our characters and their actions.
Viewers are constantly absorbing information from the screen and using this information to make hypothesis about the progression of the story. Establishing shots are a critical component in this hypothesis process. By communicating placement of the principal characters, a good establishing shot can communicate all the elements of the story and even suggest the most likely outcome.
If a viewer feels lost—if the visual information they’re receiving doesn’t jive with the hypothesis they’re making, they often lose interest or become confused. We want the viewer to feel smarter than the movie. In a sense, the viewer should always know what’s going to happen next. This is part of the joy of watching movies! They instantly raise our IQs. And this effect is largely produced by using narrative strategies that cue the viewer about the importance of each element in the story.
How can establishing shots contribute to the success of your students learning key information from Video Stories?