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(This is an excerpt from my book on filmmaking.)
Usually (but not necessarily) the opening establishing shot of the movie is a long shot.
It may be a building where the story begins, a field, a church, a familiar locale of a city, a night club, a sewer (if that's where your movie takes place -- I know someone who talked about making a movie called TUNNEL RATS, and he wasn't talking about rodents) -- whatever the location, a long shot is the best way of establishing it.
It is usually photographed with a wide angle lens (approximately a 25mm lens in 35mm photography and a 10mm lens in 16mm photography.) The main thing is what the shot encompasses. If it encompasses a general setting that gives the opening shot of the film as much information as can be clearly presented with one angle, then it's an establishing shot and can be shot with any lens.
It is called a long shot because the camera is placed far away to capture a large area of view.
The long shot should be a locked shot (no camera movement of any sort -- rock steady.) There are many exceptions; but a moving long shot draws the attention of the audience to the fact that they're watching a movie, and what you're usually concerned with, especially in the establishing shots, is in creating the basis for believability, the illusion of reality.
The long shot usually introduces the beginning of every scene. It sets in motion the audience's perception of time, place and logical action of the scene that is about to transpire.
For example, the first shot of the sequence of the stagecoach coming into town will normally be shot as a long shot. If the story is revolving more around the Marshall, who's waiting for the outlaw and ends up falling in love with the lady who's also arriving in the same stagecoach unexpectedly, then you might open the sequence with a medium shot of the Marshall sitting by the window in his office, and allow the stagecoach to appear through the window behind him, approaching from a distance and framed in the background to one side or over his head.
In the other example, you may start with a long shot of the field where the helicopter might land, angling the lens so that it picks up a lot of sky. Then with the locked camera, allow the copter to land in the frame, where it's designated to land, without having to follow it at all. The discipline required to shoot this scene well has to do with planning the whole action so that you'll capture everything: the copter landing, the dust cloud (if any,) all the principal actors who are on land and the area where the action takes place centrally located or imposingly framed.
Also, when shooting a musical number, a battle or the deck of an aircraft carrier, it doesn't really matter what it is, try to plan so that the whole action takes place within one immobile frame. The musical number will suck you into its magic, the scene of the battle will engage your curiosity and the deck of the aircraft carrier will appear steady even as the ocean horizon moves violently -- with the long shot and the locked camera you'll create the best illusion of reality.
There are some special exceptions that have to be mentioned. You can shoot effectively in long shot when using a moving crane, a tracking shot, a moving car shot, a moving aerial shot and, of course, all kinds of dolly shots. All these shots work, because they are assumed to be POVs (Point of Views) of some character or people. And it is technically necessary to use the wide lens so that one does not "lose" the action (the subject matter) by framing too tightly and not being able to follow a wildly or erratically moving subject. If it weren't for this reason it wouldn't be necessary or advisable to use a wide lens or the long shot in these sorts of scenes.
The medium shot is the most common shot used in movies. Every shot that isn't a long shot or close up is a medium shot.
Medium shots can be shot with any lens, but generally a medium lens is a lens that has the least amount of distortion, which is the same as to say that it photographs people and scenery in the way you normally see them in true perspective. (In 35mm photography the common medium lens is the 50mm and in 16mm photography the 25mm lens.)
John Ford is famous for relying heavily on medium shots in shooting his movies; but, that should be considered an exceptional style, a sort of stream of consciousness type of thing, not everyone can pull it off. Furthermore, the reason given for this style was so that editors couldn't fool around with the structure of his movies. He claimed to never go into the editing room or see his finished movies, so he wanted to make sure that there was only one way an editor could put his movies together.
That does make sense. There is rarely more than one way you can cut a movie that is made up of one camera angle. I once was given an assignment to edit a movie that was all shot in master shots. I was crawling on the walls trying to make the cuts work. It was a miracle that I was able to put the film together. There were no cutaways or anything! And the film was picked up by a distributor and sold!
The medium shot should generally contain all the action of the scene and it should be well matched with the flow of the long shot, so that the editor can cut smoothly or effectively at practically any point between them. This is the case especially if they are both masters of the same scene.
If the medium shot is a continuation or a further development of the story contents captured by the long shot, then the medium shot should be matched to some characteristic of the long shot with which it is supposed to be intercut.
Medium shots can be waist-high "singles" (covering one actor,) group shots, two-shots or over-the-shoulders, or they can be shots of any subject matter, as long as the framing looks "normal" to the human eye.
Over-the-shoulder shots are the most effective medium shots, because they lend themselves best to be cut to close-ups, since the perspective of the photographed face doesn't change very much in the cutting, thus allowing for a smooth transition.
Also, the over-the-shoulder has more immediacy when used at extreme angle where the actor whose dialogue is filmed over the shoulder of another actor is practically looking straight into the camera (communicating most intimately with the audience!)
Two-shots in profile are not as effective as over-the-shoulder shots; however, they are important in dramatic confrontations!
The other two-shot is two actors sitting in some side by side manner. Take the FORREST GUMP scenes of Forrest with his box of chocolates, sitting on the bench with other characters, in two-shots. Both actors are in full face view and in very simple and yet effective exposition.
A more effective two-shot is of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing in the surf in the classic FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.
As important as medium shots are as building blocks of a movie, avoid over-using them. That sort of thing amounts to sloppy film making. It's a lazy way to approach a story. Remember, your main goal isn't to prevent the editor from doing his thing, because you might be the editor!
The close-up is an important element of movies. It's a more difficult shot to do well than the long shot or the medium shot.
It's more difficult on a technical level. Just keeping an actor in frame and in focus are difficult jobs when using telephoto lenses; but, that's not the main difficulty. You should know when to use a close up.
If you use a close up too late in a scene, and you're holding on an actor's profile in a two-shot, or a distant long shot, the viewers are craning their necks and squinting their eyes to see who's talking, what's their expression or who are they anyway!
If you use a close-up too soon, you may gain immediate intimacy, but lose a great deal of information conveyed through body language that may be part of the actors' performances.
Too much use of close-ups also produces "Talking Heads" type of movies, a TV show disease.
The close-up should be a natural cut from a medium shot that is technically unnoticeable, but emotionally poignant or revealing. It should be a subtle enlarging of the presentation and used sparingly like salt.
There are all kinds of close-ups, some are extreme, showing eyes or lips, others are soft and romantic; however, all close-ups should be well lit and photographed with artistry, such as, when appropriate, back-lighting or using special filters and nets, since they are usually the easiest to control and much of the photographic excellence of a movie is judged by them.
Also, it's what actors are most concerned with. So pay a lot of attention to your close-ups. Much of your popularity as a film maker will depend on how you make your actors look. They'll literally love you for it! I mean that only figuratively of course!
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