The definition of the Establishing Shot
Very quickly, an Establishing Shot generally occurs at the beginning of each scene. It “establishes a scene”.
It is the view of the entire story space where the action begins.
In other words, it shows the relationship between characters and their positions in the “story world.” The story world does not mean the location of the scene – it means the location of where the characters are within frame.
Here’s where it gets interesting. It doesn’t have to be.
What makes this angle the coolest?
The establishing shot is the only shot that doesn’t have to be taken literally.
You don’t have to establish characters and their actions in a scene. You can use this angle to introduce a concept as well. If you have a scene of two men in a garage talking, and your first shot is the blood on the floor. That can be your establishing shot. You aren’t restricted to long-shots or extreme long-shots. You can even show a building, like the coffee shop in Friends. Seinfeld makes great use of the establishing shot by showing the outside of buildings for a good 2 seconds and getting right to the dialogues.
It should be called the guiding shot.
You can also use this angle to guide the viewer through time (daytime or night-time). This shot can be used to subconsciously drill symbols, colors, even theories into the viewer’s mind before the characters even start moving.
Every other angle works against the editor, this shot works FOR YOU.
It helps you kick-start your edit. It’s always a nice reference if you get lost in close-ups, especially if you’ve shot the entire scene in this angle.
I sometimes disorient myself and the viewer with medium shots, cutaways, and medium close-ups. Having a great establishing shot helps push away editors block.
Most new filmmakers skip this shot and get to the juice.
Disagreed. You can never avoid an establishing shot. Try it. Unless you’re editing an experimental, you need to establish the story in one way or another. If you have no long-shots, no cutaways, your first medium or close-up becomes your establishing. Some editors show a close-up first to disorient the viewer but eventually fall back to a long-shot or medium to establish. Yes this is a classical technique and some modern filmmakers frown upon it, but none of us can tell a proper story without it.
If you are going to use an establishing, and you’ve accepted its value, don’t stand out in the street and shoot a building (unless you really want to, and it’s cool). Brainstorm some creative ways to incorporate a theme or message into your establishing shot.
Introduce your story well.
You typically get 2 – 3 seconds to show something. Don’t let it be static. Move the characters and/or move the camera. Don’t just show a picture unless it’s something very interesting. It is your job as an editor to orient your audience to the flow of your narrative. Happy establishing!