When asked about the biggest piece of advice he could give to aspiring actors, Edward Norton once famously said, “The more you do your homework, the more you’re free to be intuitive; but you’ve got to put the work in.” That said, understanding the craft of filmmaking isn’t just a way to compliment your acting skills but to showcase your professionalism and adaptability as an actor – something directors (and all importantly casting agents) love.
If you’re looking to work in film and television, it’s no secret you’ll have to get familiar with the camera and knowing the basic shots and angles can be hugely propitious for your skills to shine. So here are 12 of the most popular camera shots all actors should know:
THE AERIAL SHOT
It’s all in the name – this shot is filmed from the air and is often used to establish a location (usually exotic and/or picturesque).
ICONIC EXAMPLE: The opening of The Sound Of Music (1965).
THE ESTABLISHING SHOT
Again, it’s in the name – this shot is at the head of the scene and establishes the location the action is set on, whilst also setting the tone of the scene(s) to come. It usually follows directly after an aerial shot in the opening of films and is beloved by TV directors.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: The infamous New York City diner – Tom’s Restaurant in Seinfeld (1989-1998).
THE CLOSE-UP (CU)
This is perhaps the most crucial component in cinematic storytelling and is arguably an actor’s most important moment on camera. This shot is usually framed from above the shoulders and keeps only the actor’s face in full frame, capturing even the smallest facial variations. As it eliminates any surrounding elements that may be relevant to the scene’s narrative, it’s really up to the actor’s skill and focus to shape the story.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Opening scene of Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971).
THE EXTREME CLOSE-UP (XCU)
This shot is traditionally used in films and focuses on a small part of the actor’s face or body, like a twitching eye or the licking of lips in order to convey intense and intimate emotions. This unnaturally close view is used sparingly as the multiplication of the subtlest movements or details need to be justified in the dramatization and boldness of that particular scene.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) mouth as he utters the famous word “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane (1941).
THE MEDIUM SHOT (MS)
Also referred to as a ‘semi-close shot’ or ‘mid-shot’, this generally shoots the actor(s) from the waist up and is typically used in dialogue scenes. It aims to capture subtle facial expressions combined with their body language or surrounding environment that may be necessary to provide context.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: When Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) converse in the bathroom in The Shining (1980).
THE DOLLY ZOOM
This shot sees the camera track forward from the actor whilst simultaneously zooming out, or vice-versa. So the foreground generally stays the same while the background increases or decreases across the frame. First invented by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo to create a dizzying, vertiginous effect, it’s become quite the filming technique among the industry’s top filmmakers. However, as it’s a tough shot to get right, actors really need to be on their A-game when filming and a little patience goes a long way.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: The moment Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) realizes his worst fears have come true when first seeing Jaws. Jaws (1975).
THE OVER-THE-SHOULDER SHOT
This is where the camera is positioned behind a subject’s shoulder and is usually used for filming conversations between two actors. This popular method helps the audience to really be drawn into the conversation and helps to focus in on one speaker at a time. Seeing as the non-speaking actor is seen only from behind, it’s common for major production sets to substitute actors with stand-ins or doubles for these shots.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Conversation between Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) about calling up the help of his ancestors in Amistad (1997).
THE LOW ANGLE SHOT
This shot films from a lower point and shoots up at a character or subject, making them appear larger so as to convey them as heroic, dominant or intimidating. It’s also another way of making cities look empty.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Basically every time a superhero (and villain) first appears in costume in every superhero film. But another noteworthy one I can’t pass up is the shot of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) during the trunk scene in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
THE HIGH ANGLE SHOT
In contrast with the low angle shot, this one films from a higher point and looks down on the character or subject, often isolating them in the frame. Basically the direct opposite of the low angle, it aims to portray the subject as submissive, inferior or weak in some way.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Matilda walking up to the librarian for the first time in Matilda (1996).
This is a medium shot that shows two characters within the frame. Pretty straight-forward but can be pivotal in establishing relationships between the characters.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) shooting Marvin in Pulp Fiction (1994). Yep, a two-shot of a two shots.
THE WIDE (OR LONG) SHOT
This shot normally frames the subject from the top of their head to their feet whilst capturing their environment. It’s typically used to establish the setting of the particular scene – so similar to the establishing shot, but focused more on characters and actors and the contextual relationship with their surroundings.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: When Jim Stark (James Dean) and Plato (Sal Mineo) first meet in jail and Jim offers Plato his jacket (with Judy (Natalie Wood) strategically in the background). Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
THE MASTER SHOT
Often confused with the establishing shot, this too, identifies key signifiers like who is in the shot and where it’s taking place. However, unlike the establishing shot that has a tendency to focus more on location, the master captures all actors in the scene and runs the entire length of the action taking place. This allows for other smaller shots like close-ups or mid-shots to then be interwoven into the master, showcasing different angles of the same scene. It’s usually the first scene to be filmed so by choosing a physical action that can be easily repeated throughout multiple takes can ensure the actor gets major brownie points from the director.
ICONIC EXAMPLE: When Travis Bickle joins his fellow taxi drivers Wizard (Peter Boyle), Doughboy (Harry Northup) and Charlie T (Norman Matlock) in the diner. Taxi Driver (1976).