A creative variable crucial to the director’s visual vocabulary and storytelling toolbox is shot size, which refers to the size of the subject in your frame.
You can alter it in two ways: by changing the proximity of the camera to your subject (moving closer or farther) or through optics (changing the magnification power of your lens). These two solutions yield very different compositions.
COMMON SHOT SIZES
When directors visualize each dramatic moment in the script, they choose the shot size that best communicates the narrative, emotional, and thematic meaning for each moment. Shot size plays an important role in creating the emotional connections between audience and characters, and the frame of reference is the human form. However, the following shot designations work in principle for non-human subjects as well.
Common shot sizes by abbreviation: (a) ELS from Haneke’s The White Ribbon, (b) LS from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, (c) MLS from Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, (d) MS from Kurosawa’s Rashomon, (e) MCU from Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, (f) CU from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, (g) ECU from Romanek’s One Hour Photo.
● Extreme long shot (ELS): A wide view of location, setting, or landscape (frame a). If there are characters in this shot, the emphasis remains on their surroundings or their relationship to the environment.
● Long shot (LS): A shot that contains the human figure from head to toe. This works well when you need to show larger physical movements and activity. Location and setting are very visible and provide a context for the character (frame b).
● Medium long shot (MLS): Frames your subject from approximately the knees up with the background still quite visible (frame c). Larger physical movement and body “attitude” are emphasized in this shot.
● Medium shot (MS): Frames from approximately the waist up (frame d). This shot is good for smaller physical actions, posture, and facial expressions, yet maintains some connection with the setting. However, the environment is no longer prominent since the viewer is now drawn closer to the subject.
● Medium close-up (MCU): This framing, also called a “head and shoulders shot,” frames from the chest or shoulders up (frame e). The emphasis here is on the subject’s facial expressions, but it also shows any physical “attitude” carried in the shoulders. This shot brings us into the personal space of a character.
● Close-up (CU): Places primary emphasis on the face (or other part of the body) (frame f). Small details in features and expression are the subjects of this very intimate shot. A close-up brings us into the character’s intimate space and underscores object details when narrative emphasis is important.
● Extreme close-up (ECU): A stylistically potent shot that isolates a very small detail or feature of the subject (frame-g). Strangely, moving this close to a human subject can create an abstraction because it leaves too many features off-screen and thereby obscures emotions. ECUs create such a strong and graphic emphasis on minute details that objects often take on thematic or symbolic weight.
● Two shots and group shots: The two-shot frame features two subjects. Shots including more than two people are called group shots (below).
One of the principle duties of a director is to determine how to visually present every moment in the script, and this means choosing shots. As you can see, shot size greatly determines visual and narrative emphasis, the relationship between the subject and environment, and the emotional connection between a viewer and a character at any given dramatic moment. Here are four basic considerations a director takes into account when imagining shot sizes:
● Function: Considering a shot’s utility, we choose the image size according to what we want the audience to see. Showing the grace and athleticism of a dancer requires a long shot. A medium shot of a few soldiers will not show the awesome strength of an army, but an extreme long shot can reveal their vast numbers. A close-up is best to show a flicker of emotion crossing someone’s face in a reaction shot—any wider and it may not be detected.
● Importance: Related to function is “Hitchcock’s rule” of composition stating that the size of an object in the frame should be directly related to its importance in the story at that moment. 1 Giving an object great visual prominence focuses audience attention on that object and cues us to its narrative importance. At a critical dramatic moment in Atonement (Wright, 2007) a MLS two shot could have easily shown Robbie handing Briony a letter to give to her sister Cecilia, but director Joe Wright cuts to a CU of the letter at the moment it changes hands. This shows its extreme importance as the letter that will destroy everyone’s lives (below).
● Emotion: Shot size can be used to elicit a specific emotional response or make a connection between a character or situation. As mentioned earlier, close shots reveal the emotion in facial details, while longer shots can withhold emotional attachment.
● Theme or concept: Frame size of a single shot can also imply a thematic idea or conceptual approach or, if used consistently, the concept behind an entire fi lm. The very first shot of Ray, the central character in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2010, below , top ), is an extreme close up that plainly shows her tears, the stress lines and the red blotches on her face—even her dirty fingernails. From shot size alone the director’s message is clear: the film will be a very close, direct, and unflinching look at this woman’s struggles and conflicts. Hirokazu Koreeda’s Mabaroshi (1995, below, bottom ), on the other hand is primarily in long shots and extreme long shots, and traces the profoundly emotional journey of a young woman grieving the death of her husband. Because we rarely get a clear look at Yumiko’s face, we never enter her intimate emotional space, and Koreeda is implying that we can never understand this sort of deeply personal sorrow. Never can we approach or truly share it, leaving Yumiko isolated with her anguish.
● Formal: Sometimes shot size contributes to the formal style and tone of the fi lm (which should remain consistent). Often, we’ll select a specific shot size because it helps us create a graphically compelling, engaging or seductive image (below).
Keep in mind that these categories are not exclusive—many shots perform multiple functions. This discussion only scratches the surface of the broader topic of shot composition and selection.