Shot selection can be one of the director’s best tools for communicating with an audience. It allows her to control what they see (or do not see) and manipulate the emotional impact of the story. And one of the most important and underappreciated shots in the director’s toolkit is the wide shot. A wide shot is a shot that is, at the very least, wide enough to capture the entire human body in the frame (also called a long shot), and at most a panoramic view that is so expansive the individual subjects are not even distinguishable.
Fargo (dir. The Coen Brothers, 1996)
Many filmmakers use wide shots almost exclusively as establishing shots which “establish” the environment and geography of the scene. But when used thoughtfully wide shots can develop character, set tone, dictate pacing, and create tension. Understanding the versatility of the wide shot will add a unique dimension to your filmmaking and help you stand out.
What Can It Show?
Sense of Place
A great location can become a character in the story and not just a generic backdrop. If you’ve found one, you might as well showcase it and not just “establish” it. Wide shots that show the characters interacting within the environment develop a sense of place and can help determine the tone of your story.
In Columbus (Kogonada, 2017), a student named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) takes Jin (Jon Cho), who’s in town to visit his comatose father, on an architectural tour of Columbus, Indiana, a city known as a mecca for modern architecture. The two characters bond over the backdrop of Columbus and its landmarks.
In this scene, the wide shot of the location is not used as an establishing shot, but as a master of the entire scene, making it the most integral shot of the scene. The wide shot creates a sense of place, establishing the relationship these two characters will have with the city of Columbus and each other.
The wide also helps establish the tone that the rest of the film will follow. It allows the viewer to feel like they are a bystander of this conversation, watching from afar. This is the second scene between Casey and Jin and all of the scenes after this follow a similar shot structure.
Isolation and loneliness can sometimes be challenging to show in a visual way, but wide shots are often a good place to start.
Christine (Antonio Campos, 2016) tells the true story of Christine Chubbock (played by Rebecca Hall), a young Florida news reporter struggling with depression in the 1970s. She’s frustrated both personally and professionally. In this clip notice how wide shots are used to introduce this lonely character.
At first, we are led to think that she is an important reporter doing a major interview. When we cut to a wide shot, however, we see that she is alone in a large, empty studio. What seemed important now seems awkward. We’re left with a woman talking to herself, imagining a situation she wishes she was in. This wide shot isolates Christine and introduces the emptiness and detachment she will deal with throughout the film. The feeling of isolation is helped by the juxtaposition of close-ups, allowing the wide shot to have a greater impact.
Intimacy means closeness, so it is intuitive for filmmakers to represent intimacy through close-ups. But, wide shots, if used correctly, can also suggest intimacy.
In All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003) Paul (Paul Schneider) is a small town lothario who must change his ways when he falls for his best friend’s sister, Noel (Zooey Deschanel). In this scene, watch how the wide shots are used to create intimacy between Paul and Noel when their love is at its peak.
This scene shows the couple at a point in their relationship where they are comfortable be weird and goofy and very open with each other. While intimacy is usually shown in films by focusing on the characters’ eyes and how they look at one another, Paul and Noel rarely make eye contact. Instead, intimacy is shown through touch and physical closeness. The scene only uses two shots, both wides, with the final shot emphasizing their isolation as a couple, alone together.
In dialogue scenes, cutting back and forth between shot-reverse-shot can become monotonous. Letting dialogue play out in a wide shot breaks the rhythm of this conventional editing. The same way quick cutting into mediums and close-ups might make an action scene more exciting, filming an important dialogue scenes in a wide shot allows your audience to pay more attention to what is being said by the characters.
In Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002), Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young con man who has accepted a plea deal and must work with Carl Handratty (Tom Hanks), the straight-laced FBI agent who captured him. In this scene, Abagnale has become frustrated by dull office work and has decided to run away again.
Throughout the film, Abagnale has been running constantly from one grift to another. The pacing is generally quick, mimicking Abagnale’s journey. In this scene, one of the most important of the film, Spielberg uses a wide oner to slow down both the scene and the film. The blocking of both the camera and the actors for this scene is also quite masterful. Handratty follows closely behind Abagnale as he is walking away, mimicking the chase at the center of the movie. As Handratty connects with Abagnale, opening up about his personal life, the audience is able to process the significance of the moment (while still getting a clear look a DiCaprio’s reaction).
From large blockbusters to small, personal indies, tension is something that is present in most films. Tension keeps the audience interested and invested in what happens next. It could be created in the writing, the editing, the musical score — or the shot selection.
In North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy named Kaplan and hunted by a secret organization intent on silencing him. In this scene, Thornhill takes a bus to an isolated location in order to meet with Kaplan, in hopes that the real spy will help clear his name. Watch how Hitchcock uses wide shots as a way to build tension within this scene.
The majority of the shots in the scene stay wide, mimicking the perspective of Thornhill, who is seeing everything at a distance. He has a lack of information, and so do we. As we wait for something — anything! — to happen, a car arrives. Because of the wide perspective we know there’s no one else coming to meet Thornhill, so both the audience and the character anticipate this will lead to some action. As we wait to find out what will happen, tension builds. The revelation that the man is not Kaplan, just some guy waiting for the bus, gives us a moment of relief, but then we go right back to anticipating the next danger.
Wide Shots on a Budget
Wide shots can be challenging to shoot because they take longer to light, sometimes require a lot of extras or set dressing to fill the space, and can tire out your cast and crew. But if you prepare correctly and shoot with purpose they can actually save you time and money.
Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962)
Not everything has to have hundreds of extras or large scale. If you look at the examples above, they are all one or two characters in a basic location. Keep it simple!
Also, know how you will use the wide shot in your final film. If your shot is so wide you can barely see the actors’ faces, don’t worry about performances. If you know you’ll only cut to the wide at specific moments, don’t shoot the entire scene.
On the other hand, if you plan for most of the scene to play out in a wide (as a oner or a moving master, for instance) make sure you communicate that to your actors, and break the wide shot down into smaller chunks if possible. Take after take of an entire scene can wear out your talent and your crew, and could actually hurt their performance.
If you can schedule it, rehearse before you shoot. And not just with your cast, but with some of your key crew members like your director of photography and camera operator. On a low-budget production this can be tough, but even if you just take a few minutes to walk through it with everyone, it will be beneficial for the entire team. By covering most of your scene in a wide and only punching in for specific moments you might actually save time by reducing the amount of set-ups.