What's an establishing shot?

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance in "The Shining."
"The Shining" is chock-full of establishing shots of the Overlook Hotel that complement Jack Torrance's descent into insanity.
Warner Brothers/Moviepix/Getty Images

Whether your choice of medium is the pen or the camera, every great storyteller knows the simple mantra for hooking an audience: Show, don't tell. When it comes to film, using the right combination of images allows a filmmaker to tell a story without excessive narration, while still ensuring the audience can easily follow the story.

To this end, filmmakers rely on a variety of shots to portray ideas and evoke emotions in the audience. When you're immersed in a film, the camera's movement is largely unnoticeable. If you examine a film carefully, however, you'll learn to spot the different types of shots and understand how each plays a unique role in the making of a movie.


One such shot used to great effect at the start of a movie or scene is the establishing shot, which helps set the scene and provides important clues to the context of following scenes. To achieve this shot, cameramen use a wide-angle lens and a long or aerial shot to include a large area within a single frame. This allows the audience to take in the entire area at once and see things in relation to one another instead of just up close. It may not provide the same level of detail as a close-up or medium shot, but it's not designed to. An establishing shot is all about putting things in context so they make sense for the audience.

Want to learn more about how something as simple as an establishing shot helps viewers follow the story? Read on to find out how filmmakers work their magic.


Setting the Scene

The super moon rises over the Manhattan skyline.
An aerial shot of a skyline, like this one of midtown Manhattan, can help establish time of day, season and setting.
Robert Barnes/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

The establishing shot can be used to provide viewers with a wealth of information, from setting to time of day. When applied before an interior scene, an establishing shot of the outside of a building lets viewers know where the indoor scenes take place, which can make a big difference in certain stories. An aerial establishing shot of the Manhattan skyline makes the audience believe the story is set in New York, even if the entire production took place on an LA soundstage. This type of technique has also been used to transport viewers to ancient Egypt, Imperial China and every other corner of the globe.

An establishing shot of a bitter snowstorm lets the audience know that the movie takes place during the winter, while one that focuses on brilliantly colored trees lets viewers know the scene is set in autumn.


In addition to establishing the season, these shots also work well for films that move between different time periods. Picture a film set in the modern era, with flashbacks to the medieval period. An establishing shot of a green landscape, complete with a castle or two, reveals that the following scene is set in an earlier century. The next scene could start with an establishing shot of a major urban center, which brings the audience back to the present and prevents confusion.

This technique also helps filmmakers establish viewpoint by displaying different characters or elements in relation to one another. What would a classic murder scene be without an establishing shot showing where each member of the party was seated before the lights mysteriously went out and someone wound up dead?

Establishing shots can also be inserted at the end of a scene to great effect, though they may be referred to as re-establishing shots when used in this manner. Imagine, for instance, a scene where a single character's face fills the screen. When the camera pulls out, we discover a bloody corpse at his feet and blood splattered on the walls -- shocking the audience with a single shot.

Now that you understand the basic principles behind this common film technique, let's discover some classic examples of the establishing shot in some of Hollywood's most legendary films.


Memorable Establishing Shots

Prisoners work in the field in a scene from "The Shawshank Redemption."
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.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Dirks, Tim. "Film Terms Glossary." American Movie Classics Company. Date Unknown. (August 22, 2014) http://www.filmsite.org/filmterms8.html
  • Freer, Ian. "The 30 Camera Shots Every Film Fan Needs to Know." Empire Magazine. Date Unknown. (August 22, 2014) http://www.empireonline.com/features/film-studies-101-camera-shots-styles
  • Mercado, Gustavo. "The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition." Taylor and Francis. 2013.