If you don’t know where to begin building your shot list, you need to get a read on the emotional content of your material.
by Glen Berry, edited by Stavros Stavrides
As visual people, when reading a script on first pass, we see the movie play out in our heads. The visual treatment plays as we go from line to line. However, as readers, we’re mostly feeling the effect as we read, not so much focused on the precise order of shots and how they specifically flow together.
Similarly, when we think back on our favorite movie, we can recall specific shots, effects and sequences, but not every shot from every scene, order of shots, how long each stayed on screen, and how each transitioned into another. If we were focusing on all that as an audience, and not hooked on the story, that film’s in trouble!
When reading a script or recalling a film, we often idealize its vision and in the perfect world of our minds, the picture is flawless. But as directors planning our own film, it’s an entirely different exercise. Once we’re past story structure and script, we need a well-developed idea of how the visual elements unfold in our movie. Shot by shot, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, we make a plan. It needn’t be perfect at first, but a strong vision of the outcome will guide us.
So once again, we face a blank page as we prepare to begin our shot list. How to begin? Let’s start with a scene.
REMEMBER: This is a very conventional approach to scene construction. As directors, we must read each scene, or sequence of scenes, and make a determination where the moments are and plan accordingly. One cannot blindly select shots in a cookie cutter template but if you don’t know where to begin, this is a way to get started, and depart from there.
Most of us are aware that an entire film has a dramatic curve – beginning, middle and end. We may have even identified the movie’s plot structure with ‘high points’ like Exposition, Inciting Moments, Rising Action, Conflict, Climax, and Resolution. Where an entire picture’s structure may be analyzed with these high points, so can almost every scene of our script. Each scene may be structured in the same way, with its resolution at the end of each scene driving us to the next scene.
Think of a scene as a kind of visual paragraph. In literature, where a paragraph on the page is made up of sentences and words, a sequence of shots in a film make up a scene. Our task right now is to select the size and angle of each shot and sequence them to construct a scene.
Speaking generally, the wide shot is often expository, and the close-up tends to be rhetorical. Wide shots contain enormous amounts of information and is commonly used as a tool for conveying large amounts of information to the audience – geography of the space, time period, setting, mood, activity, characters in the space, all action taking place.
Compared to the Wide Shot, the Close Up is hyper-focused. It conveys context, emotion, or grandiose effect. Trained on a person’s face, it delivers emotional detail so the audience gets to feel the impact on the character and more closely identify with their circumstance. Extreme close ups are often used at the climax of the scene to heighten the intensity of the moment for the audience.
As the action rises toward the climax of the scene, a common technique is to ‘ tighten’ the shots incrementally from wide shot to close up. If we were to stack up shots in the order of wide shot, full shot, medium shot, and close up, we would have the effect of ramping up be the scene’s intensity as it progresses up the ladder of rising action of the dramatic curve.
Here is an example of how the shots stack up in sequence of rising action in a confrontation scene from the classic “A Fist Full of Dollars”, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as our protagonist.
1. Wide Shot:
Now let’s study at the actual scene. This scene appears in Act I of the movie and has preceding scenes and following scenes. The scene contains:
As discussed earlier, we can find these elements in the dramatic curve of an entire movie, but also find them contained within one scene. First, we’ll identify these high points, then examine the scene’s shot construction.
Read the subtitles for cues. Then study the extended time-coded notes below the video.
(Note: This video clip may play an ad to the credit of the film’s copyright owners.)
Extended notes on the video: High Points and Shots:
THE ‘HIGH POINTS’
At 0:00 – The Exposition in this clip begins with our protagonist talking to himself. This sets the stage for our conflict. He’s a killer looking for a job. “I don’t work cheap,” he says, and is ready to show off his skills to a potential employer.
0:27 – We see this potential employer taking a watchful position on a balcony.
0:30 to 1:15 – The Inciting Moment begins as our protagonist walks a path of danger. He starts with, “Get three coffins ready” as he passes an undertaker and heads toward his targets, who notice him approaching.
1:15 – The Rising Action kicks off as he confronts the men. His conversation draws them deeper into a course of conflict with moments of escalation along that path.
1:55 – The Peak Moment where he throws back his cloak to reveal his gun. His intent to draw is the point of no return, as recognized by one of the antagonists in the foreground.
2:32 – The Climax of the scene, where the protagonist draws his pistol and kills the four men, the conflict now resolved.
2:25 – With Resolution, the climax unravels. Note the shots now ‘relaxing with wider framing. The Sheriff appears to arrest our protagonist who refuses to acknowledge the Sheriff’s authority and walks away.
In our Denouement, what do we about the protagonist? He is a killer willing to provoke conflict, kill four men, then walk away in the face authority.
If we were to watch this scene on its own, unaware that it is part of a larger film, we could easily assume that the protagonist is really the antagonist, since he is the one provoking the fight and doing the killing. However, a previous scene establishes the men as mean-spirited killers who deserve some get-back.
Because this scene is part of a longer film, information and events from previous scenes play into the conflict contained in this scene. Thus, the resolution to this scene is incomplete – not the end of the story. Rather, it sets the stage for further conflict to come in later scenes.
From 0:00 to 0:30? We open with a Medium Shot (MS) for the exposition of our character and then transition into a long, wide shot. That is our establishing shot that puts the geography of the space into context. These are expository shots.
We then move into some tighter shots, some MS and Over-the-shoulder two-shots. We then come back out to another wide shot at 0:52 to establish the geography of the corral at the other end of the street, but we’re still not as wide as the opening establishing shot. We have the same, wider shot on the reverse angle at 1:15.
From 1:16 to 2:32, our conflict, we see no more wide shots. We progressively move in tighter and tighterfrom MS and Two-Shotss to Close-ups. This is no coincidence as we move forward and up the slope of intensity on our dramatic curve, to increasingly tighter shots.
When our protagonist throws back his serape and both sides are committed to conflict, we see nothing but CUs from here to the climax (1:55 to 2:32). The moment of highest intensity are covered in CUs and ECUs.
Immediately after the climax of the scene, we back out of the tight shots for the denouement (2:46). We drop back off of the dramatic curve in terms of intensity and back out to wider shots, although it is an incremental step back from the height of the climax.
We stress once again: this is a classic scene construction, where wide shots are used for exposition, and close-ups for the rhetorical. Wide shots are used in the beginning with progressively tighter shots going up the dramatic curve. The tightest shots, close-ups, are used at the climax and we back off to wider shots for the denouement
If you don’t know where to begin building your shot list, you need to get a read on the emotional content of your material. Where are the moments of greatest intensity? What is expository (wide) and what is rhetorical (close)? Where are the turning points of your scene? Upon what does the conflict hinge and what actions reveal the nature of the characters in the scene? If you can identify these moments, you will have an idea of how to use framing in a series of tighter or wider shots to heighten intensity and focus the audience’s attention on the moments in your story.
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