Around the turn of the 20th Century, two new media were invented. Okay, some scholar is going to correct me and say the first movie was actually made in the 1860’s, and Scott McCloud thinks hieroglyphics were comics, but work with me, here. As mainstream, commercial ventures, film and comics got started in the mid 1890’s. Before that, live performances were pretty much the only visual presentations, unless you count stereoscopes. Some books had illustrations, yes, but they were superfluous. Didn’t need them to understand the story. Live performances, of course, were on stage and seen from a theater seat—and that’s exactly how early film and comics were presented, from a point of view as if from a theater seat.
Then, one day, some actor walked up to D.W. Griffith’s camera and stuck his tongue out, and when the film was developed, they discovered close ups! Kidding. But, anyway, filmmakers and comics artists soon discovered that there were different kinds of shots. I will now show you the three kinds of shots.
I always get in arguments with Barry Windsor-Smith over this. He says there are nine kinds of shots. I say there are three kinds of shots. You can say whatever you want, as long as you understand the principles, but let’s use my definition for the moment because it’s me here.
(AT THIS POINT, ON MY BIG PAD I DREW A CRUDE SKETCH OF A HOUSE ALONG THE SHORE WITH PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS IN THE BACKGROUND. TOOK ME 13 SECONDS, HOW GOOD COULD IT BE…? THERE WAS A LITTLE TINY GUY BESIDE THE HOUSE.)
This is a long shot. You can see a house here. There are the mountains, here are the prairies, here’s the ocean white with foam. We must be in America. That’s one kind of shot, a LONG SHOT. I hereby arbitrarily define a long shot as any shot that shows great scope, where the scenery is the star, where, if there are people, you cannot make out any meaningful information about the figure or figures, other than they are present. You can’t, the guy’s a dot. This is also known as an ESTABLISHING SHOT, and, by TV types, those weirdos, shooting in a studio, as a BARN SHOT.
(I DREW TWO SKETCHES, ONE OF A COUPLE OF GUYS IN THE NEAR DISTANCE AND ONE OF A GUY WHO WAS CLOSE, BUT FULL FIGURE. TOOK SIX SECONDS. IT WAS A REALLY AWFUL SCRIBBLE.)
These are medium shots. I hereby arbitrarily define a medium shot as any place where you can begin to make out meaningful information about the figure, like the fact that this guy’s taller than that guy, up to the place where the figure fills the whole panel, but is not cropped. That’s a medium shot.
(I DREW A PANEL WITH A SLIGHTLY CROPPED FIGURE AND ONE OF JUST AN EYE.)
And these are close ups. I hereby arbitrarily define a close up as anything from where any part of the figure is cropped right up to the big eyeball.
Barry would say, “Well, no Jim. There’s a long, long shot. Then there’s a medium long shot, and then there’s a close long shot; there’s a long medium shot, a medium medium shot and a close medium shot, a long close shot….” You get the drift. Whatever, Barry. You guys can chop the shots up any way you want, but for the moment let’s accept my way just to make life easy.
When cartoonists and filmmakers discovered that there were different kinds of shots, they discovered that different shots were good for conveying different kinds of information. They discovered that the long shot was good for setting the locale, showing where the characters are, showing what kind of area it is. Here you see you’re in America–mountains, prairies, ocean white with foam. They also discovered, by the way, this shot was also good for what I would call big action. In other words if this mountain blows up, you know if Mount St. Helen’s there, you need that shot.
Here’s a medium shot. They discovered that this was good for establishing figures, making it clear how tall the person is, how they carry themselves, what they’re wearing…. Again it could be a car you’re establishing, not a figure, but you get the drift. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll call it figures.
Medium depth is also good for human-scale action. Does anybody watch sports on television? That’s the depth they use 90% of the time. This depth is so important to understanding human action that they use that almost exclusively. Yes, they give you the dramatic close up of the pile up on the goal line, but you don’t know if the guy scored so they show you the medium shot. Ninety percent of televised sports—watch a baseball game. What do they show you? They show you the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, and the umpire, full figures. They show you only four guys, out of the what, 15 on the field…? Because, if they showed the whole field, the players, umps and base coaches, you’d be TOO FAR AWAY to see the pitcher, batter, catcher and home plate ump—the principle actors—well. To show the principle human-scale action, they’d rather leave out the others and show you the main action at medium-shot depth. Otherwise, they’d just be little dots to you. If the guy hits the ball, they pull back to show the play. Watch a tennis match. 90% of the time they show you the whole court, both players, full figure. Medium depth. What Barry would call a long medium. Boxing? Occasionally a close up of the fighters clinching, but 90% of the time it’s medium depth, the whole ring, both combatants full figure. Human action. Establish the figures. So I know this guy is not wearing roller skates.
(HERE I DREW A SCRIBBLE OF A GUY CROPPED AT THE ANKLES.)
This guy might be. He might be wearing roller skates. I don’t know. I know basically what this guy looks like. But, hey, he might be three inches shorter than I suspect, and he might have wheels on his feet. Prove that he doesn’t!
The great Walt Simonson once drew an entire issue of Thor that never once showed Thor’s feet. I honked at him about it. Walt, who doesn’t take honking well, honked back and we snarled at each other for a while. We later made up. If you ever see Walt, mention that I complained about no feet and he’ll honk at me retrospectively for you!
So what do you get in a close up? A close up is good for establishing details, faces, whatever you want to call it, let’s say faces here. It’s also good for interaction, reaction, emotion, expression. Let’s “face” it, this is how we recognize each other. Faces. We recognize each other by our faces. So this close up shot, our pioneers found, was good for establishing what a person looks like facially, and if he’s crying, or happy, or sad, or whatever, that’s a good shot.
So, they discovered that there are three basic kinds of shots. There are no other kinds of shots. If it’s a bird’s eye shot, of a worm’s eye shot, it’s still either long, medium, or close. These are the three kinds of shots. They also discovered that using these different kinds of shots convey different information, that they could let the picture carry part of the burden of telling the story.
Yes, of course you can combine them, have a face up close and someone jumping rope in the background. These are tools not rules.
Yes of course, one can intelligently VIOLATE the non-rules. In the movie Rocky, there’s a great scene, shot from across the street, of Rocky making up with and hiring the Burgess Meridith character as his manager. Ordinarily, you’d do a conversation, an emotional scene close up—but Stallone had just done such a scene inside Rocky’s apartment. So he chose to do the hiring/reconciliation scene at what Barry would call long medium depth, getting across the exchange and emotions with big gestures and body language. Brilliant.
Once you know, once you have command, you can play.
Grasp the principles. Be bulletproof clear. Then go for the gusto.
Before film, before comics, when you were watching a stage play they couldn’t do different shots. You, in the audience, had only one POV. You always had a medium shot. So in Shakespeare plays the Roman generals are always talking about the battle over there, offstage, because he couldn’t show it! No long shots! Forget the fact that they didn’t have the budget to hire the actors. Even if he had 10,000 actors, he couldn’t have shown it. Once they discovered with a camera they could do that, worlds opened up. And they don’t have to explain it. No need to have generals giving kind of dorky soliloquies about the battle that you can’t see. Once they discovered VISUAL STORYTELLING it opened up all these new worlds. It let the art, the picture carry a lot more of the story so that the writers didn’t have to have kind of dumb discussions of things you couldn’t see.
JayJay here. This is a Types of Shots guide we came up with at Broadway Comics to help communication between the writers and the artists. The Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been some of my favorite comics, so I scanned the art from them when I put this together.
CLOSE SHOTS – Good for conveying details, emotion, reactions, expressions.
EXTREME CLOSE-UP – A shot in which a small object or part of an object fills the entire frame, usually cropped.
CLOSE-UP – A shot in which the subject fills most of the frame with little space around it.
BUST SHOT – A shot in which the main subject is fills much of the frame, but more of the surroundings are shown. As in a head and shoulders or portrait type shot of a person.
MEDIUM SHOTS – Good for establishing figures and body language, human size action.
CLOSE MEDIUM SHOT – A shot with the subject near to the camera and clearly visible, but most likely partially cropped.
MEDIUM SHOT – A shot which shows the subject and its surroundings equally well. Usually full figures.
LONG MEDIUM SHOT – A shot where meaningful information and details are still clearly visible, but the subject of the frame occupies less of the space than the surroundings.
LONG SHOTS – Good for setting locale, showing location of objects, showing an area, showing big action.
LONG SHOT – A shot at such a distance that few details and little meaningful information about the object of the frame can be readily seen.
DISTANT LONG SHOT – A shot where the object can still be clearly seen, but no meaningful information about the object is discernible at all.
EXTREME LONG SHOT – A shot that is so distant that the main object is a dot or is not visible at all.
OTHER DESCRIPTIVE TERMS
- ESTABLISHING SHOT – A shot that shows enough of the surroundings to establish the locale adequate to the telling of the story.
- HIGH ANGLE or BIRD’S EYE VIEW or DOWN SHOT – A view from an angle higher than normal eye level.
- LOW ANGLE or WORM’S EYE VIEW or UP SHOT – A view from an angle lower than normal eye level, frequently the ground level.
- DIAGRAMMATIC SHOT – A view from normal eye level at 90 degrees to the action or interaction of the subjects.
- STRAIGHT ON or DEAD ON SHOT – A view from directly in front of the subject.
- OVERHEAD SHOT – A shot from directly above or almost directly above the subject.
- PANORAMIC SHOT – A wide angle shot which is similar to the viewpoint of a panoramic camera.
- FULL FIGURE SHOT – A view in which the subject is not cropped.
JayJay here. Jim has had something come up so we had to skip Monday’s (4/25) blog.