As a term like "composite shot" indicates, shots are classified and described or named according to a number of variables. These include camera position, camera movement, camera lenses, the actors involved, and editing. The most commonly used designations are those supplied by camera position: close-up (CU), medium shot (MS), and long shot (LS). A close-up typically shows one object, very commonly the human face. It isolates that object from its surroundings and, by doing so, concentrates the viewer's attention upon it. For instance, the extraordinary facial closeups that end City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) are matched in their expressive intensity by La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ( The Passion of Joan of Arc , Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), a film composed almost entirely of facial close-ups. If the face is cinema's supreme emotive object, the close-up is the essential method to reveal it.
Just as a close-up implies a particular camera position, a medium shot is composed with the camera located farther back from its subject and, therefore, shows some of the surroundings that a close-up will omit. An actor filmed from the waist up would be a medium shot. A long shot has the camera located much farther away from its subject and is typically used to show a great deal of environmental information. For example, the long shots in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) stress the vastness and emptiness of the desert, which is the film's main setting and also the metaphor for its titular character.
As these somewhat loose descriptions suggest, there is no fixed, measurable boundary between a medium shot and a close-up or between a long shot and a medium shot, no point where one unambiguously turns into the other. Rather, they are loosely defined areas on a continuum of camera-to-subject distance. As such, they accommodate intermediate distinctions, including the medium-long shot or extreme close-up . The climactic gunfight in C'era una volta il West ( Once Upon a Time in the West , Sergio Leone, 1969) includes a series of close-ups of antagonists Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, and then, in one of Bronson's close-ups, the camera zooms in to his eyes, which fill the widescreen frame in an extreme close-up. As this example indicates, the mobility of the shot in cinema can make it resistant to rigid labeling. A long shot might become an extreme close-up, as in Notorious (1946) when director Alfred Hitchcock opens with a high-angle long shot of guests at a party and then moves the camera down and in to a very tight close-up of a key that one character holds in the palm of her hand. A full figure shot of Fred Astaire dancing might be described as a medium-long shot, though if he moves off into the background of the set, or if the camera pulls up and away from him, the shot might become a long shot. A shot can be dynamic; as it changes, so might its label.
The camera movement described in the Fred Astaire example suggests another means of labeling a shot. It could be called a boom shot or a crane shot , after the mechanical device on which the camera is attached to create its movement. Shots, therefore, may be named for the type of camera movement that occurs within them. Dolly shots typically include a small, short movement performed with the camera on a dolly, a small, movable platform. Tracking shots feature more extensive movement, with the camera pushed along a set of tracks.
The lens on the camera may also furnish a means for defining a shot. Zoom shots simulate camera movement by using a zoom lens that progressively magnifies the image, but they do not supply the true motion perspective that only a moving camera can capture. Telephoto shots use a long focal length lens that makes distant objects appear closer than they are. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa sets his cameras far back from the actors and films with telephoto lenses to bring everything into close perspective. By contrast, wide-angle shots make near objects seem farther away than they are.
Using these lenses introduces an interesting ambiguity into the conventional LS-MS-CU designations as these tend to imply a one-to-one correspondence with camera position (for example, the camera is close in a close-up). A filmmaker could use a telephoto lens to produce a close-up while the camera is actually in a long shot position. Many scenes in films where characters walk along city streets and are shown in conversation in CU or in MS are shot with the camera far away in a telephoto setting. The close-up effect produced by the lens takes precedence over the facts of the camera's true position. While one would still label these shots as close-ups or medium shots, it would require a discriminating viewer to perceive the contradiction between the camera's implied and actual position.
In addition, the number of actors in a shot sometimes furnishes the means for labeling that shot. A two-shot features two actors, a three-shot shows three, and so on. Editing also gives us a taxonomy for describing shots. A master shot is the one that contains the action and dialogue of the entire scene filmed in a medium or medium-long shot setup. Editors then intercut the master shot with footage from other camera setups showing partial views of the scene's action. An insert , for example, is a closer shot of a detail or bit of business that is cut into the master shot. Master shots perform an orienting function for the viewer by showing where everything is situated in the geography of the space of a scene. Similar to a master shot, in this respect, is an establishing shot , which provides a long shot view of a set or locale and thereby serves to orient the viewer and provide for a gradual entry into the dramatic content of a scene. Many films begin with establishing shots. Think of all the detective and crime films that open with long shots of the city. These long shots function as establishing shots, conveying the urban locale of the story.
When they are used to open a scene or film, establishing shots are typically followed by closer views of the action. These closer views may include inserts and closeups. They may also include point of view shots that simulate the approximate line of sight of a character. A subjective shot is a point of view shot that exactly corresponds to what a character is seeing. A few films sustain the point of view shot design throughout their entire length: Lady in the Lake (1947) and 84C MoPic (1989) are composed entirely of subjective shots.
A shot, therefore, can be described in numerous ways depending on the variable (lens, camera movement, editing) that is relevant for the analysis. These descriptive terms are never separate from the expressive possibilities that the different shots afford. As noted, close-ups serve to focus and concentrate the viewer's attention on significant details, and they are excellent vehicles for conveying emotion, as in facial close-ups. Tracking shots convey the excitement and exhilaration of motion. Classical continuity editing relying on orderly changes among master shots, medium shots, and close-ups serves to clarify dialogue and convey essential narrative information.