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What’s an establishing shot?


Memorable Establishing Shots
The aerial shot of Shawshank Prison -- a character in its own right -- is a sweeping establishing shot that introduces viewers to the prison where most of "The Shawshank Redemption" takes place.
The aerial shot of Shawshank Prison -- a character in its own right -- is a sweeping establishing shot that introduces viewers to the prison where most of "The Shawshank Redemption" takes place.
Castle Rock Entertainment/Moviepix/Getty Images

Any time a film opens with a view of some iconic landmark, you're looking at an establishing shot. Sweeping deserts and great pyramids take the audience to Egypt. The Eiffel Tower clues you in that the following scene, or even the entire movie, takes place in Paris. Views of Central Park, the National Mall or even a streetcar are all designed to establish the movie's setting in New York, Washington or San Francisco.

Of course, directors also use establishing shots in less obvious ways:

  • Consider the exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." When the viewer first sees the hotel, it looks like a mountain paradise surrounded by blue skies and lush, green trees. As the film progresses, each exterior shot grows more desolate; it's still the same hotel, just portrayed in an increasingly dark and uninviting manner to reflect the growing insanity of caretaker Jack Torrance [source: Mercado].
  • If you've seen "The Shawshank Redemption," you probably remember the aerial shot of the prison that fills the screen as Andy sits on that awful prison bus. This epic establishing shot provides the audience a glimpse into Shawshank in its entirety before Andy ever sets foot inside [source: Freer].
  • Fans of the classic noir film "Casablanca" are treated to an establishing shot just before Rick meets Major Strasser. The shot takes viewers on a tour through Rick's Cafe Americain, establishing the setting where much of the movie's action takes place.
  • Establishing shots on the New Zealand coast introduce the audience to the wild and rugged setting where "The Piano" takes place [source: Dirks].
  • The flyover views of Hogwarts establish setting for fans of "Harry Potter" and let viewers see how different parts of the castle relate to one another.
  • The shots of Willy Wonka's incredible chocolate factory allow viewers to enter a "world of pure imagination," complete with a chocolate river.

The list of establishing shots in well-known films is virtually endless, which indicates the popularity and importance of the shot and its role in modern film.