Composing Shots: Spatial Connections

Shot Size

As covered in the Basic Course, the universal units of composition are the long shot, the medium shot, and the close-up.  These shots are a development of the continuity system insofar as they are overlapping portions of a single space and only make sense in relation to one another.  That is, they are used together to create a consistent spatial/temporal order. Though they can be used to describe spaces as large as the solar system or as small as the head of a pin, we always know approximately how large an area is being framed when the term is used.  That’s because the shots are scaled to the subject and related to one another proportionately.

A long shot of the One World Trade Center frames all midtown Manhattan and a generous piece of Manhattan; a medium shot of the building would lop off some of the lower floors.  Moving in for a close-up, a single-window might fill the frame. There are no absolute rules in the use of these terms themselves vary.  Figure ???? the basic framing heights are shown for the human figure.



Human Figure

Figure ??? Basic Framing Height for the human figure.


The change of size from shot to shot varies but it’s determined by the limits of identification.  As long as we recognize that each shot is an overlapping portion of the wide shot, the change in scale is permissible.

Visual recognition between shots, however, is only half the strategy of the continuity style.  Most often the relationship between shots is on the implication or interference.  For example, we see a wide shot of a man approaching a door.  This is followed by a cut to an extreme close-up of the man’s hand turning the doorknob.  Even if the doorknob was too small to attract our attention in the wide shot, we expect that it is connected to the previous shot since it makes logical sense, even though we could be looking at another doorway in a different place and time.  Narrative logic and the visual connection between shots cooperated to create a sense of continuous space.  This pair of ideas, cause and effect, and spatial recognition provide the organization basis of the continuity style.

The change of size from shot to shot varies but is determined by the limits of identification.  As long as we recognize that each shot is an overlapping portion of the wide shot, the change in scale is an overlapping portion of the wide shot, the change in scale is permissible.

Long shots, medium shots, and close-ups can describe any subject or location but are most often used to describe the human figure.  The terms take on a special meaning in this connection.  Here the change in scale between shots is not related to logic or visual recognition alone.  Instead, framing is determined by conventions of post-Renaissance art or what is generally considered pleasing and balanced compositions.

Before we go much further into shots and combining them, let’s review the basic camera movements.

Video ??? Camera Movement Animation

One-shot is a continuous shot feature-length movie, filmed in one long take by a single camera, or manufactured to give the impression of it.    Many lifestyle coaches and businesses produce one-shot films that are distributed on YouTube or Vimeo and the Video ??? Camera Movement Animation is a one-shot.

Establishing Shot Also known as an extreme long shot.  When a film begins or when it shifts to a new setting, filmmakers often use an extreme long shot that reveals the setting.  This establishing shot orients the viewer, the following shots are closer to the subject.

Extreme Long Shot used as an establishing shot as stated above.  The entire subject will be visible (if not obstructed by some intervening object) but very small in the frame, and much of the surroundings will be visible.  This camera distance is often used to show the layout and expanse of a setting.

Long Shot Usually the subject is seen in its entirety, and much of its surroundings is visible.  This camera distance has many possible uses —- for example, to stress how small a human subject is in relationship to its environment.

Both the extreme long shot and the long shot may create or enhance a humorous situation, sometimes because at that distance viewers cannot see pain, discomfort, awkwardness, or embarrassment involved.  Charlie Chaplin often made the distinction that close-ups were for tragedy and long shots were for comedy.  True and the long shot establishes the setting and helps add in rhythm as seen below in Video ??? Lindsey Stirling American Violinist Angels We Have Heard On High.

The Full Shot as an alternative to the medium or close-up has fallen into disuse in the last thirty years, relegated to the function of an establishing shot when it is necessary to connect a character and a location in a single shot.  Filmmakers seem to be reluctant to play a scene wide if a close-up of medium shot can be substituted.  One of the reasons the full shot is underused is that it requires dialogue scenes to be played in long takes.  This is because the full shot usually frames all the speaking characters in a scene, making a cutting pattern or medium and close-up shots unnecessary.  If the long shot is used with these two tighter framings, the editing pattern invariably moves in close and does not return to the full shot.  While the medium and long shots can encompass the action in a scene without resorting to other shots to fulfill the narrative, a close-up generally must be accompanied by other close-ups, medium or full shots to fulfill the narrative requirements of a scene.

Video???  Lindsey Stirling American Violinist Angels We Have Heard On High


A Critic of the Lindsey Stirling’s ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’

The video opens with a medium shot the camera tilts up and the shot expands to an almost medium full shot.  Then cuts to a close shot (timestamp 00:10) and at 00:32 cuts to a full shot of Lindsey Stirling and a long shot of the landscape.  At 00:41 cuts to a long shot with Lindsey as part of the landscape and no longer the focus.  She is in the middle ground wherein the close-ups and full shots are shown before she is in the foreground. The next cut at 00:48 is an extreme close up of the violin then pans over to the fingerboard where the action is her hand playing the strings and for a few frames the camera pans up the fingerboard before cutting to a full shot (00:53) of her arms stretched out with bow in one hand and the violin in the other.  The music continues for continuity.  We cut back to a long shot and she becomes a part of the landscape again and is located at the back of the middle ground almost becoming part of the background.  At the one-minute mark (1:00) the video cuts to a medium close-up for nine seconds and we cut back to the long shot.  We cut from the medium close-up for another ten seconds into a tighter shot transitioning it to a close-up.  Three seconds pass and we cut to a medium-full shot.   The camera dollies out into a full shot.  This isn’t a cut, rather a dolly or tracking shot out.  At 01:29 another long shot.  We can see she isn’t playing the violin yet the music continues for continuity.  At 01:32 we cut to a medium close shot of her holding her violin and she is poised as if she is praying to God.  The camera dollies left and rotate around her a quarter turn for three seconds then cuts to a full shot and the tracking movement of the camera is matched to the previous shot.  This is a match cut and also called cut on action (01:35).  We detail’s the cuts what we didn’t dive deep into was how the pans and tilts are incorporated into the long shots, close-ups, and medium shots. The pattern of cut on action between the close-ups, medium shots, and long shots continues throughout the remainder of the video.  I invite you to timestamps the cuts and camera movements in the remainder of the video.


The Medium Shot Before Television began the use of the close-up and extreme close-up, the medium shot was the workhorse for dialogue scenes throughout the sound period.  Combining valuable qualities of the full shot and the close-up, it is still widely employed in television and feature films.  Like the full shot, the medium shot captures an actor’s gestures and body language, but is still tight enough to include subtle variations in facial expressions.  The two-shot, three-shot, four-shot, or five-shot are the typical groupings.  With more than five players in the frame the camera often must pull back into the full-shot range to include every-one if the figures are not significantly overlapped.

The medium shot shares the honors with the close-up for popularity at the present time but only insofar as it is used in conjunction with close-up not as the primary setup for a scene.

The Close-up Initially with the rise of small screens the close-up was utilized more often.  To compensate for the small screens, the close-up is used to bring us into closer contact with the action.  For dialogue sequences that shoulder-and-head, also known as the over the shoulder shot has become the predominate framing.  Cost- minded producers like the tighter shots because they are easier to light and can be joined to almost any other shot, reducing the amount of coverage needed.

The close-up can bring us into a more intimate relationship with the subjects on the screen that we would normally have with anyone but our closest friends and family.  Sometimes the capacity for inspection can be overdone, and the close-up becomes a violation of privacy by forcing a degree of intimacy that should only be shared by consent.  The camera, however, does not require consent, particularly if it is equipped with a telephoto lens.


The Line of Action The general approach we are taking in this course is to encourage the development of solutions that are adapted to the individual needs of the filmmaker.  Many of the solutions that will be shown are part of recognizable strategies, but the filmmaker’s personal vision can at any time overrule systems acceptable practices, traditional wisdom, or convention.  Having said that, let’s look at the basic rule of camera placement that the continuity system observes: the lone of action.

The purpose of the line of action is quite simple: It organizes camera angles to preserve consistent screen direction and space.  It’s also useful for organizing the shooting plan.  Because the set has to be relit every time the camera is moved to a new angle, it makes sense to gang shots sharing similar angles of view together, so that they can sh shot at one time.  This avoids having to light any camera position more than once.


Frame Balance


We can think of the line of action as an imaginary partition running through the space in front of the camera.  It was originally devised to make sure that if multiple angles of a scene were shot, they could be cut together without confusing reversal of left and right screen space.  This way, subjects moving through the frame in one shot continue in the same direction in a subsequent shot.  This way, subjects moving through the frame in one shot continues in the same direction in a subsequent shot.  The line of action is also called the 180-degree rule or the axis of action, illustrated in Figure ??? below.



Figure ???

Figure ???   Line of action, 180-degree rule, or Axis of Action


To maintain consistent screen direction of the two people seated at the table, the continuity system proposes that an imaginary line of action be drawn them.  The direction of the line can be anywhere the filmmaker chooses, but it is usually the line of sight between subjects featured in a scene.  Once the line is determined, a working space of 180 degrees (the gray semicircle) is established.  For any scene or sequence, only camera positions within the established semicircle are permitted.  The result is that the screen direction of any shots obtained from one side of the line will be consistent with each other.  This is illustrated in figures ???, which shows the shots obtained with cameras A, B, and C of Figure ???. Camera positions that are outside the grey working space are said to be across the line To maintain consistent screen direction of the two people or over the line.  Figure ??? shows what happens if we edit shots from both sides of the line together, in this case, cameras A and F. The result is that the man is looking at the back of the woman’s head.


The Triangle System



Opening Scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo.


The Triangle System When the line of action is in use, another conversation, the triangle system of camera placement, is a shorthand way of describing camera positions on one side of the line.  The system proposes that all the basic shots possible for any subject can be taken from three points within the 180-degree working space.  Connecting the three points, we have a triangle of variable shape and size depending on the placement of the cameras.  Any shot can be joined to any other shot in the triangle system of setups.  The system includes all the basic shot sizes and camera angles used for dialogue scenes in the continuity styles.  the triangle system is employed for all types of situations, including single subjects and action scenes.  It is used extensively for live television programs such as quiz shows, sports programs, and sitcoms.  Even though three-camera are pictured in the following examples, a single camera can be moved to each point along the triangle and the different setups obtained individually.  This is often the case in feature films.  However, the triangle system lends itself to the multiple cameras setup as long as extensive staging or camera movement is not required.  This would create the problem of one camera moving in front of another.  There are five basic camera setups that can be obtained within the triangle.  Angular singles (medium shots or close-ups), master two-shots, over-the-shoulder shots, point-of-view singles (medium shots or close-ups) and profile shots.

In Figure ????, camera positions A and C are angular shots of the two subjects seated at the table.  Position B is a two-shot.  The framings accompanying each camera position, of course, could be varied, and the shot size for camera A and C can be any from an extreme close-up to a full shot.

Figure ??? is the second triangle setup for over-the-shoulder shots.  Camera A and C are moved into the over-the-shoulder position. Camera B always obtains the two-shot as in Figure ??? and so is is not included in the subsequent examples.  Variations are only obtained with the outside or wing camera positions.


The Triangle System


(Graphics are on page 132 and 133 in Shot by Shot)

Two shot a shot that frames two people, see B in the above graphic.

Over the Shoulder Shot is a film technique in which a shot of one subject seen from one camera position alternates with a shot of a second nearby subject seen from a different camera position.  Most often used to show the face of the first person speaking or reacting as the camera looks from behind and to the side.  The shot/reverse-shot technique is normally used in conjunction with the 180-degree system and helps contribute to continuity editing. , as seen in figure 3.12 on page 128 in Film an introduction.
(add the figure referenced here and Figure 6.10 on page 133 of Shot by Shot)



Point of View Close-ups camera placement at the approximate position of a character or person (or occasionally an animal) that gives a view similar to what that subject would see.  In this case we are combining point of view with close-up shot that creates an intimate position of what the subject would see. (Figure 2.49 pg 93 Film an introduction)

Objective Camera Camera placement that allows the film viewer to see the subject approximately as an outsider would, not as someone in the film sees it.  Opposite of point of view.

Profile Shots Camera placement is 45 degrees from the front or back of the subject.  Within the triangle method using camera A and C.  Naturally, the exact angle of the shot, composition and shot size are infinitely variable within the triangle as long as the line of action is not violated.  Figure 6.12 page 134 in shot by Shot)


Profile Shots


Eyeline Match creates order and meaning within the story space by matching eye lines between characters or what a character is looking at.  Put simply, if a person looks off-screen in the first frame, the audience will expect to be shown what the character sees in the next shot.  If a character looks screen left at a character off-screen, then an imaginary line of sight will be drawn between him and the off-screen character.  By obeying the line of sight, the characters will look toward each other, maintaining eye lines. (Rogers Camera workbook)  See figure ??? A and C. (the above graphic)

Match on Action A cut that joins two spaces together by virtue of the fact that ab action shown in the first ]shot is them completed in the second.

Establishing a New Line of Action with a New Sight

The only time the camera is permitted to cross the line of action is when a new line is established.  One way to do this is shown in Figure 6.13 page 135 shot by shot.


Establishing a New Line of Action with a New Sight Line


In this example, the old line is established between the couple seated at the table.  A second man approaches the table and the seated man turns his attention to him.  This new line of sight establishes a new line of action and a corresponding 180-degree working space for the camera.  This is indicated by the the gray semicircle.  The establishment of a new line is usually set up with a shot of a person who turns his attentions to a new ares or person within the frame.  This pivot shot joins the two lines of action. Once the new line of action has been set up, the camera can move across the old line of action anywhere within the new working space as long as the sight line remains with the two men.  You will notice that this space also includes the woman.  Even though it is permissible under the 180-degree rule, a camera will not be placed in quadrant X to photograph the woman.  The next time she is seen in a shot, the camera will be located according to the old line of action.


Establishing a New Line When a Player Crosses the Line

Establishing a New Line with Player Crosses the line 1.0

Figure: Establishing a New Line with Player Crosses the Line

Moving the Camera Over the Line

Not only can a player cross the line and establish a new one, but the camera can pan, dolly, or make a crane move to a new space and a new line of action.  This is easily accomplished as long as the camera movement in uninterrupted.  In this situation, an eyeline does not have to be established and the camera can move from one side of the line of sight between two players to the other without confusion.

Moving the camera over the line

Figure: Establishing a new line of action with a single line.

Figure 6.17 shows one version of this strategy with a curved camera path (black dotted line) crossing the line of action.


Cutaways and Bridge Shots

Cutaways and bridge shots are another way to cross the line to another part of the scene is to interrupt the geography of a sequence with a shot that is clearly related to the action,  but not the geography of the scene.  As an example, we have established a scene in the classroom of a school.  We want to cross the line, but none of the strategies we have looked at in previous examples will work within the action or the scene.  In this case, we photograph a close-up of a student’s notebook or other pertinent detail.  This cutaway serves the same purpose as the pivot shot.  When we return to the main action, the camera can be moved over the line and a new line established.    This solution is generally used as a quick fix in the editing process when problems of continuity arise.






The Line of Action for Moving Subjects and Action

The line of action is most useful when used to organize the photography of multiple-player dialogue sequences.  Through screen direction would seem to be crucial to understanding the relationship of fast-moving subjects —– for instance, cars in a chase sequence — unquestioning observance of the line of action may actually stand in the way of more interesting arrangements of shots.  For one thing, continuity editing is not the only way of organizing film images:  Other methods, such as kinetic or analytical editing, may be in conflict with strict continuity and yet provide better solutions to creative problems.  Today’s viewer is so visually sophisticated that they are able to “read” unconventional editing patterns with relative ease.  Be aware that more dynamic results may be obtained in some sequences if the line is crossed and the screen direction is reversed.  Keep in mind there are alternative ways of organizing shots.

Action Sequences

In action sequences, there is frequently no lone of sight to establish the line of action.  In this case, the line of action follows the dominant motion of the subject of the shot.  If one case is pursuing another, the line is the path of the cars, as shown in Figures (6.18) ????.  If the two cars are alongside each other, an additional line of action can be established between the cars, the implied sightline because even when the drivers of the cars are not prominent in the shot, the cars become the symbols of the drivers and their line of sight.  This situation is peculiar to cars, boats, planes, or any other conveyance that has a driver.  Both lines are shown above in Figure (6.19) ???

Shots photographed from both sides of the line of motion (camera positions A, C, and  B, D) will result in a reversal of screen direction when cut together, as shown in the accompanying storyboard panels.  The implied sightline is a special case and only overrides the line of motion temporarily.  Otherwise, the line of motion is the prevailing rule.  While this may seem like the type of situation that the 180-degree rule was devised to prevent, it is actually a common editing pattern even in dialogue scenes where there is a line of motion and an implied sightline.


This is the case in The Godfather Part II when the young Vito Corleone is driving a small truck along crowded New York streets.  Fanucci, the local crime lord, is seated next to Vito, and they have a conversation as the car moves along.  Two tracking shots are used, one on each side of the car,  framing a good deal of the car and the moving background.  Cut together the shots form a pair of very wide over-the-shoulder shots.  Each time there is a cut during the conversation, the background reverses direction.  the abruptness of the cut could have been softened if the shots were tighter so that Vito and Fanucci filled the frame.  As it turns out, the shot change is not bothersome and so stands as an example of the latitude possible within the 180-degree rule.

Crossing the Line of Action Sequences

The strategies for “properly” crossing the line in nondialogue situations are essentially the same as those illustrated for dialogue scenes, beginning with Figure (6.13, page 135) ???.  The only difference is that the principal line of motion is substituted for the sightline.   To recap, there are three basic ways to establish a new line of action/motion.

  1. A subject (car, horse, person, etc.) can cross the line establishing a new one by the direction of his new line of motion.
  2. The camera can cross the line either following a subject to a new scene space or merely traveling for graphic variety to a new viewpoint.
  3. A new subject can enter the frame and become the dominant line of motion in contrast to the first.  This is analogous to the situation in Figure (6.13) ??? when a new character entered the scene establishing a new line of sight.

Crossing the Line While on the Line

The closer the camera is to the line of action, the more difficult it is to detect when the camera has crossed the line.  The Figure 6.20 ??? camera positions A and B are on the line of action, so when they are edited together there is a reversal of screen direction. This type of sequence would probably have been avoided 60 years ago; but today, the audiences ha no problem understanding the geography of the scene space in this editing pattern.   This reversal is somewhat more startling than is sometimes the case when shooting on the line since the subject is in profile.  when the subject’s sightline is the same as the line of action, we get front and back vies, which help the viewer differentiate the shots.

When actually filming, it usually turns out that it is rarely necessary to go through elaborate staging and logistical analysis to find a way of establishing a new line of action.  My basic belief is that if the filmmaker has a solid understanding of cinematic geography, has a good overview of the scene, has kept thorough notes on what he is going to shoot and has already shot, then he will probably not encountered any major difficulties with continuity.

Camera Movement vs. Zoom

You may be wondering why videographers use these techniques instead of the zoom function on their cameras. Although zoom is an important tool, these techniques are more dynamic by creating motion within your video. For example, a life coach could use tracking as a way to metaphorically envision time. As you move through a room or area outdoors, the focal point changes—just as time changes the focal points in life. A realtor could use pan and tilt to provide potential buyers a more accurate, in-depth view of the many rooms in a house. This virtual tour would set them aside from other realtors who use still images to sell homes.

  • Zoom vs. Tracking/Dolly Shot: The main difference between a zoom shot and a tracking shot is in the zoom shot the camera remains still and the lens changes focal length. In tracking, the camera moves along with the action. The folly shot captures the action in a dynamic way.

Combining the two shots to create new effects, as seen in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Hitchcock combines a zoom and dolly shot to create the effect of vertigo when Scottie (James Stewart) has flashbacks of being on the rooftop and his fellow cop, in the chase scene falls to his death during the establishing scene.  We see this combination shot in the tower chase scene, (timestamp 2:04) when Scottie chases Madeleine (Kim Novak) through the bell tower.  Hitchcock accomplishes this effect by using a model of the bell tower and zooming in while tracking back, pulling the camera back on a dolly track.  These opposing forces give a dizzying effect.


The Tower Scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Find out more about the film from Roger Ebert.  He fully critics the film and there you can learn more about the meanings and subtexts in this film.