Learn more about the individual shots that make up a movie: these essential building blocks are just as important as the script itself.
When a screenwriter sits down to create a script, they break the story down into individual scenes: short chunks of action that take place over continuous time, usually in one location. But once that script lands on the director’s desk, they’re going to need to break the action down even further, into separate shots. This is known as shot division.
It’s an important part of the process because it allows the director to consider how the images and action being described within the written word of the screenplay will translate into real, physical images on the viewer’s screen. The shots that are chosen will change the mood, tone and potentially even the meaning of the film.
After all, the way in which a character or setting is framed tells us arguably as much as the way in which they speak, act or look. Consider the now-iconic shot of Elliot and his extra-terrestrial friend, silhouetted against the moon on their flying bicycle, in the movie E.T. That shot captures the magic and whimsy of the film perfectly; it also sums up the pair’s closeness and friendship better than any amount of exposition.
The brilliance of E.T. aside, now that we’ve established why shots are so important to a movie the rest of this article is going to explore how filmmakers come up with the shot division for their films. We’ll also look at what budding filmmakers can do when wondering how to distribute the shots for their own films.
So how are film shots divided?
There’s no one standard process that all directors or filmmakers follow: it’s up to each individual to decide how they would like to plan out their movie. Some directors might choose to list out every shot before they start, while others are more flexible – mapping out key scenes but also allowing the energy on the set to affect how the film is shot.
Different people, aside from the director, might also be drafted in to give their opinion on how she shots should be divided. This will often include the cinematographer as they will have a lot of knowledge and insight, but it might also mean asking the screenwriter or even the actors for their opinion. It really depends on how much control the director wants to exert, as well as the size of the production – with a small team working on a low-budget production such as a college film, it’s more likely that everybody will get some input.
One part of the process might include creating a storyboard. These will show rough sketches of what each shot of a scene might look like and will indicate everything from camera angles to what the actors are doing at that moment. These can be helpful because they give a very visual indication of what a shot is going to look like. However, in almost all cases there will also be a shot list.
This is exactly what it sounds like: a list of each shot, with key details such as camera angle, movement and shot distance, a very brief description of the action taking place, location, shot duration and any other useful notes that will help with the filming. This is produced in the form of a table and gives a clear indication of how each scene will ultimately unfold – it can also speed things up on the set.
Any advice for a new filmmaker looking to improve their own shot division?
Shot division is one of those invisible pieces of filmmaking: the audience isn’t really supposed to notice it, but if it isn’t done well then they will notice that there’s something missing. By taking the time to properly consider your shot division, you can make sure that you’re telling your story in the most effective way possible.
To do this, you need to spend some time thinking about what different types of shot will convey to the audience. Here are some of the things to consider:
- Shot distance and angle. A close-up shot is going to be useful for emphasizing a particular detail, while a point of view shot will help to create empathy with a character. A good director will use their shot division to consider how they can conjure up certain emotions or portray a particular meaning.
- How long should the shot last? A series of quick, flickering shots could be a great tool for disorientating the viewer, while a long, drawn-out shot that lasts a few seconds longer than is comfortable might help build tension.
- Variety is the spice of life: make sure that you keep things interesting by mixing up your shots. A classic sequence is a long shot, followed by an over the shoulder shot, followed by a close-up. This is a good place to start, but a good filmmaker will try to introduce their own sequences.
Anything else we need to know about shot division?
Only that there are no rules: a director can choose to divide their film’s shots however they see fit. You can even shoot a film in one continuous shot if you’re feeling brave enough – a technique used in the Russian film Rope and the Spanish film The Silent House. The 2014 film Birdman used shot division particularly cleverly to make it look as though the whole thing had been done in one take even though it hadn’t. That’s a clear indication of how important shot division can be if a filmmaker is looking to create a specific effect.
So just remember that the way in which shots are divided can make all the difference to a movie – even if the best shot division in films is the kind that happens seamlessly, without the viewers noticing the hard work and attention that has gone into making every shot count.