In almost any film, music video, TV advert or YouTube video, there is always an opening shot. A piece of footage that introduces the action and location, but also sets the overall tone of a scene or even the entire motion picture. In filmmaking, this opening shot is called an “establishing shot.”
Other media that feature an establishing shot include video games, animated films, and cartoons. You can also find them in virtual reality experiences and news reports, amongst other types of motion picture content.
In what follows, we will explore the establishing shot in more detail. After discussing some types of establishing shots, we will talk about how to capture them as well as where to find stock clips for your projects.
What is an establishing shot?
We briefly sketched out the opening shot or establishing shot above. Before going any further in our discussion, let’s define it in more depth.
What exactly is an establishing shot? In film and television, an establishing shot is often a wide-angle shot that shows the location or geography of where the story and action take place. Some movies and TV series like to flip the establishing shot on its head, using a closeup of a person, place or object to capture the audience’s attention before gradually zooming out or cutting to the scene’s larger interior or exterior location. Certain TV shows, especially police procedurals set in cities like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago will often include establishing shots taken from b-roll or stock footage, which we’ll get into later.
Aside from cluing viewers into the urban, rural, marine, subterranean, and even space environments, an establishing shot reveals vital information about characters and the plot. These shots can also indicate lighting changes that subtly or radically alter the atmosphere and mood of a scene. Establishing shots also show the passing of time, often with a time-lapse shot, whether it’s the changing of seasons, the gradual decay of structures, or some other temporal clue.
Star Wars is well known for its establishing shots. The franchise’s opening shots instantly inform viewers that the action takes place in space—more specifically, in a galaxy far, far away.
But the Star Wars filmmakers don’t just use establishing shots at the beginning of a film. Viewers will notice that these shots are used almost any time a location changes. The new location might be a different planet or some new interior or exterior space. For example, the Death Star is often shown in a wide-angle establishing shots before viewers see scenes on the megastructure, usually between Darth Vader and his imperial minions or prisoners.
On the indie side of filmmaking, Wes Anderson uses establishing shots in impeccably crafted ways. One of his finest is the “let me tell you about my boat” establishing shot in The Life Aquatic. In it, Anderson shows Steve Zissou’s bisected ship—“The Belafonte”—as if it were a set of a theatrical production. Anderson’s camera then moves systematically and whimsically through the Beleftonte’s various rooms and compartments, as Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) narrates the history of the ship, as well as how it is for his underwater adventures.
The brilliance of this establishing shot is that the dissected Belfonte gives the audience a complete spatial awareness of where scenes unfold. And viewers instantly know the world of Steve Zissou and his merry band of Jacques Cousteau-esque marine filmmakers.
Types of establishing shots
Although establishing shots are often a wide-angle view of a scene’s interior or exterior space, as we noted above, this isn’t an unbreakable rule. Again, an opening shot can also begin with a close-up of something like a face, a painting, or some other detail, then gradually move out to give the viewer more information about the space and scene.
Filmmakers can use aerial footage for establishing shots. Big Hollywood productions do this in a variety of ways, usually by plane, crane, and helicopter. More recently, movie and TV studios, independent filmmakers and even YouTubers—each with different budgets—use drones to capture aerial establishing shots.
One of cinema’s great aerial establishing shots appears in David Fincher’s 2007 mystery thriller Zodiac. What makes this shot even more groundbreaking is that it was completely computer-generated. In this establishing shot, a CGI aerial cam offers viewers a birds-eye view of a taxi driving through downtown San Francisco at night, amidst the mounting fear that the Zodiac killer is imposing on California’s Bay Area.
Yet another iconic establishing shot can be seen in Martin Scorese’s 1990 gangster flick Goodfellas. The shot opens on the character Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta)’s hand, as he gives his car keys to a valet. The steadicam operator zooms out to reveal Hill and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), then follows them through the back door of a restaurant, into a kitchen, and out into the dining room. This ingenious establishing shot demonstrates Hill’s power and access as a mobster, which is another layer of seduction for Karen beyond Henry’s good looks and charisma.
On YouTube, there are several great channels with fantastic establishing shots. National Geographic’s YouTube channel features many great establishing shots, which take viewers immediately into the location that the channel is exploring. Travel vloggers like Vagabrothers and Fun for Louis, as well as tech/science vlogger Veritasium also have really good establishing shots that pull viewers in. Dutch pianist, recording artist and vlogger Joep Beving also uses establishing shots to great effect, transporting viewers into the interior and exterior spaces where he films his musical performances.
How to capture an establishing shot
We’ve highlighted some of the great establishing shots in movie history, but creating them can be accomplished on even the most modest of budgets. In fact, you can create a good establishing shot with a smartphone camera. But if you want to step your game up and create establishing shots with more professional video gear, here are some things to keep in mind.
First, work on your framing and camera movements. Any good establishing shot is an exercise in what the filmmaker or videographer reveals to viewers inside the frame. To practice framing, shoot footage of people, objects and structures with various focal lengths, such as the wide-angle shot, close-up, aerial, or the moving Steadicam/gimbal/dolly shot.
Next, work on details like lighting and set design. This will give your project’s establishing shot a more professional look; and it will appeal to short films, music videos, and YouTube vlogs alike.
When you’ve practiced these details, you can start thinking about different types of camera lenses. You could get a zoom lens so you can capture establishing shots that range from close-ups to wide angles; or you can get prime lenses for different focal lengths.
And keep in mind that the establishing shot really comes together during the editing or post-production process. Practice pairing your establishing shots with other shots through video transitions. It will bring viewers into a scene, change the tone or atmosphere, show the passage of time or indicate location changes.
Why you should use stock footage establishing shots
Not all filmmakers, YouTubers, documentarians and other video content creators will have the skill or desire to create their own establishing shots. Others might need just a few establishing shots that they just weren’t able to get because of time, budget, or other constraints. For those filmmakers and content creators, you can find great establishing shots using stock footage from platforms like Artgrid.
Shot taken from the Artgrid story Italy Vibes
On stock footage platforms, filmmakers and content creators can find various types of establishing shots. Users can browse for shot types like aerials and close-ups, time of day, location, and format. There are also establishing shots for specific video themes, like sports, lifestyle, fashion and so on.
With stock footage, there will most likely be an establishing shot for any filmmaker, vlogger or other content creators. So, if you can’t capture the shot yourself, you should be able to find several options for your project using stock footage.