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A shot is often defined as the basic building block of cinema because filmmakers work by creating a film shot by shot, and then, during editing, they join these shots in sequence to compose the overall film. From this standpoint, a shot corresponds to the length of film that is exposed during production as it is run through the camera from the time the camera is turned on until it is turned off. In this way, the shot forms one unit of a larger scene or sequence that, in turn, is made up of numerous shots. To create a shot, therefore, requires that the location be lit, that the actors be placed within the frame and their movements choreographed, and that other elements of set design and costuming be in place for the duration of the shot.

While this definition of a shot is a fairly standard one in film studies, it is also a rather inelegant one, and it has its share of problems. First, it privileges the shot as it exists during production rather than in a finished film. Few shots ever appear "raw" in a finished film. They are almost always trimmed and massaged during editing, and they are color corrected during the post-production phase and, also during post-production, they have sound married to them. Thus, the notion of a shot being defined as footage exposed from the time a camera is turned on until it is turned off fails to accommodate the ways in which that footage is transformed during the critical post-production phase. A better term for this conventional definition is "take."

A more elegant definition of shot is to regard it simply as the interval between editing transitions. In this sense, a shot comprises the footage punctuated on either side by a cut, a fade, a dissolve, or other transition. This approach is more properly biased toward the organization of audiovisual material in the finished film, and it overcomes the ambiguity that composited shots introduce for the standard definition, which does not conceptually accommodate them very well. Composited shots are those created by combining (compositing) individual elements that have been filmed separately. Special effect shots, for example, are composited in this way: a live actor is filmed against a blue screen; a digital matte painting is created in a computer; a miniature model of the set is constructed. Each (excepting the digital matte) is filmed separately, but all are then layered together in the process of compositing to create the finished shot. That shot is then edited with others to make up the larger scene or sequence. This then, is a weakness with the standard, production-oriented definition of "shot." Understood according to this definition, composited shots are ambiguous because they are composed from other shots that have been combined. Using the alternate definition of shot—the interval between edit points—resolves this ambiguity.


As a term like "composite shot" indicates, shots are classified and described or named according to a number of variables. These include camera position, camera movement, camera lenses, the actors involved, and editing. The most commonly used designations are those supplied by camera position: close-up (CU), medium shot (MS), and long shot (LS). A close-up typically shows one object, very commonly the human face. It isolates that object from its surroundings and, by doing so, concentrates the viewer's attention upon it. For instance, the extraordinary facial closeups that end City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) are matched in their expressive intensity by La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), a film composed almost entirely of facial close-ups. If the face is cinema's supreme emotive object, the close-up is the essential method to reveal it.

Just as a close-up implies a particular camera position, a medium shot is composed with the camera located farther back from its subject and, therefore, shows some of the surroundings that a close-up will omit. An actor filmed from the waist up would be a medium shot. A long shot has the camera located much farther away from its subject and is typically used to show a great deal of environmental information. For example, the long shots in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) stress the vastness and emptiness of the desert, which is the film's main setting and also the metaphor for its titular character.

As these somewhat loose descriptions suggest, there is no fixed, measurable boundary between a medium shot and a close-up or between a long shot and a medium shot, no point where one unambiguously turns into the other. Rather, they are loosely defined areas on a continuum of camera-to-subject distance. As such, they accommodate intermediate distinctions, including the medium-long shot or extreme close-up. The climactic gunfight in C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone, 1969) includes a series of close-ups of antagonists Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, and then, in one of Bronson's close-ups, the camera zooms in to his eyes, which fill the widescreen frame in an extreme close-up. As this example indicates, the mobility of the shot in cinema can make it resistant to rigid labeling. A long shot might become an extreme close-up, as in Notorious (1946) when director Alfred Hitchcock opens with a high-angle long shot of guests at a party and then moves the camera down and in to a very tight close-up of a key that one character holds in the palm of her hand. A full figure shot of Fred Astaire dancing might be described as a medium-long shot, though if he moves off into the background of the set, or if the camera pulls up and away from him, the shot might become a long shot. A shot can be dynamic; as it changes, so might its label.

The camera movement described in the Fred Astaire example suggests another means of labeling a shot. It could be called a boom shot or a crane shot, after the mechanical device on which the camera is attached to create its movement. Shots, therefore, may be named for the type of camera movement that occurs within them. Dolly shots typically include a small, short movement performed with the camera on a dolly, a small, movable platform. Tracking shots feature more extensive movement, with the camera pushed along a set of tracks.Steadicam shots feature motion performed with the camera strapped to the camera operator's body.

The lens on the camera may also furnish a means for defining a shot. Zoom shots simulate camera movement by using a zoom lens that progressively magnifies the image, but they do not supply the true motion perspective that only a moving camera can capture. Telephoto shots use a long focal length lens that makes distant objects appear closer than they are. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa sets his cameras far back from the actors and films with telephoto lenses to bring everything into close perspective. By contrast, wide-angle shots make near objects seem farther away than they are.

Using these lenses introduces an interesting ambiguity into the conventional LS-MS-CU designations as these tend to imply a one-to-one correspondence with camera position (for example, the camera is close in a close-up). A filmmaker could use a telephoto lens to produce a close-up while the camera is actually in a long shot position. Many scenes in films where characters walk along city streets and are shown in conversation in CU or in MS are shot with the camera far away in a telephoto setting. The close-up effect produced by the lens takes precedence over the facts of the camera's true position. While one would still label these shots as close-ups or medium shots, it would require a discriminating viewer to perceive the contradiction between the camera's implied and actual position.

In addition, the number of actors in a shot sometimes furnishes the means for labeling that shot. A two-shot features two actors, a three-shot shows three, and so on. Editing also gives us a taxonomy for describing shots. A master shot is the one that contains the action and dialogue of the entire scene filmed in a medium or medium-long shot setup. Editors then intercut the master shot with footage from other camera setups showing partial views of the scene's action. An insert, for example, is a closer shot of a detail or bit of business that is cut into the master shot. Master shots perform an orienting function for the viewer by showing where everything is situated in the geography of the space of a scene. Similar to a master shot, in this respect, is an establishing shot, which provides a long shot view of a set or locale and thereby serves to orient the viewer and provide for a gradual entry into the dramatic content of a scene. Many films begin with establishing shots. Think of all the detective and crime films that open with long shots of the city. These long shots function as establishing shots, conveying the urban locale of the story.

When they are used to open a scene or film, establishing shots are typically followed by closer views of the action. These closer views may include inserts and closeups. They may also include point of view shots that simulate the approximate line of sight of a character. A subjective shot is a point of view shot that exactly corresponds to what a character is seeing. A few films sustain the point of view shot design throughout their entire length: Lady in the Lake (1947) and 84C MoPic (1989) are composed entirely of subjective shots.

A shot, therefore, can be described in numerous ways depending on the variable (lens, camera movement, editing) that is relevant for the analysis. These descriptive terms are never separate from the expressive possibilities that the different shots afford. As noted, close-ups serve to focus and concentrate the viewer's attention on significant details, and they are excellent vehicles for conveying emotion, as in facial close-ups. Tracking shots convey the excitement and exhilaration of motion. Classical continuity editing relying on orderly changes among master shots, medium shots, and close-ups serves to clarify dialogue and convey essential narrative information.


Many filmmakers treat the shot as an extended unit of expression and composition. Such filmmakers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, and William Wyler favored a practice of working within the boundaries of a single, extended shot (called a long take), rather than cutting among many camera setups (which is the normative practice in cinema) in creating a scene. At its most extreme form, this practice results in sequence shots, an entire sequence lasting several minutes done as a single, extended shot. The Hungarian filmmaker, Miklós Jancsó (Red Psalm, 1971), composes his films as a series of sequence shots; a ninety-minute film by Jancso may contain as few as ten shots.

This aesthetic practice emphasizes the structural integrity of a shot with overwhelming expressive force because the shot takes precedence over editing. In Welles's case, the sequence shot may be coupled with deep-focus composition; in Kurosawa's, by a static camera emphasizing the hieratic positioning of the actors; in Renoir's, by a continuously moving camera that fluidly reframes the composition. In each case, the design insists upon the real time that exists within the shot and disengages it from the structured cinematic time of the rest of the film as created through editing.

Admittedly, by the standards of contemporary commercial cinema, filming in long takes is a very deviant practice. Films constructed from montage, from very quick cutting, have become the norm today in commercial cinema. Montage, however, devours the structural integrity of the shot as a unit of meaning that can stand alone. In montage, no shot stands alone; instead, the total gestalt produced by the montage is what counts. The expressive possibilities which the shot enables—extension in time, space and depth of field, compositional richness, the subtleties of facial expression, and the heightened performances that result when actors play off one another in real time—are diminished by over-reliance upon montage. As a discrete unit of meaning that can be insisted upon for its own richness, the shot is an endangered species in contemporary cinema.

It is endangered for yet another reason. As cinema evolves from its photomechanical base in celluloid to a new existence on digital video, shots are no longer strictly required. Shooting on digital video, a filmmaker need never cut. He or she can compose an entire feature film as a single, unbroken shot, as Alexander Sokurov did in Russian Ark (2002).

Until the digital era, films existed as a series of shots because filmmakers had no alternative. They had to cut numerous shots together to make their films because the camera's magazine held a limited amount of footage (generally about ten minutes). This mechanical constraint compelled them to cut, and as film moved toward longer forms early in its history, filmmakers had no choice but to conceive of films as a series of shots created in artful relation to one another. The beauty of cinema lies in this orchestration of expressive design across numerous shots. In this respect, the aesthetics of cinema were rooted in a mechanical constraint. Occasionally, a filmmaker might explore the potential of doing away with shot-by-shot construction. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) aimed to create the illusion that most of the film was constructed as a single shot. In fact, however, Hitchcock was cutting among numerous shots; he was merely hiding the cuts. As long as it was based in celluloid, feature film required that filmmakers work shot by shot.

As Russian Ark demonstrates, digital video has removed this requirement. On the one hand, the single shot design of Russian Ark is such a flamboyant conception as to represent the apotheosis of the shot. How could a shot ever rise to a more monumental form of expression than here, where Sukorov moves his camera across several centuries of narrative time and orchestrates the movements of 800 actors? Yet, just as montage devours the shot by severely limiting the weight of its expressive design, it turns out that the expansion of its boundaries in Russian Ark produces a similar effect. By eliminating editing altogether, the extreme shot duration made possible by digital video dissolves a powerful source of cinematic design. Removing the alteration of visual expression across shots by removing the edited series, the unbounded shot of digital video loses its identity as a shot. Without boundary there is no essence. The power of the long takes employed by Kurosawa, Welles, and others lies in the way they open up a stylistic alternative in the body of a film whose editing does not rely on extended shots. Virtue lies in contrast. By removing contrast, the unbounded shot of Russian Ark, and its potential in digital cinema generally, poses as severe a threat as montage to the structural integrity of the shot in cinema.

Despite what the digital future promises, the shot as the basic unit of cinema is unlikely to perish. The contrast among shots suspended in series has been, and will likely remain, the key aesthetic experience of the medium.

SEE ALSO Camera;Camera Movement;Editing;Technology


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Stephen Prince

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