Executing the perfect shot means externalizing the internal in such a way that the shot itself reflects or heightens the emotion of the scene. Telling stories visually is no easy task and requires a deep understanding of shot composition. Different types of shots are employed for specific reasons. “Cowboy” shots in cinema are a great way for filmmakers to tell a story, especially when those stories deal with heroism and confident characters.
It is called a “cowboy shot” because in old westerns it was used to frame a gunslinger’s gun or holster from the hip up. We see the character from the hip up, in a superior position, while still staying wide enough to show other important elements in the scene. So when the filmmakers of yore named it the Cowboy shot, the term quickly became a staple in Hollywood. Let’s start by understanding what this shot actually looks like, explore some modern examples, and see why we might want to use it in our own projects.
COWBOY SHOT BASICS
1. What is a Cowboy shot?
Because they fit into that sweet spot, they are incredibly useful for both creative and practical reasons.
COWBOY SHOT DEFINITION
What is a cowboy shot?
A Cowboy Shot (sometimes called an American shot) is a shot framed from the actor’s mid-waist to right above their head. Many times the camera is placed at hip level as well, to give a slightly low angle to the shot. The reason the filmmaker won’t go completely back to a full shot is so the audience can still register some of the emotion on the actor's face.
The idea of a Cowboy shot is to present the actor in a heroic, confident fashion while also allowing the viewer to see action taking place around the actor’s waistline, often to see guns or swords drawn.
Why do directors use Cowboy shots?
- To signal heroism and confidence.
- To remain close enough to register emotion.
- To show critical action that takes place near the hip.
There is quite a bit of psychology behind the cowboy shot because it places the most vulnerable portions of the human body in the frame.
The context of your shot can change very quickly based on your actor's facial expressions and the narrative of your story.
We won’t harp on old westerns, but we couldn’t not show you a Clint Eastwood Cowboy shot. It's a great example of the initial intention of these kinds of shots in film-superiority and confidence.
Sergio Lione’s, A Fistful of Dollars, uses this shot to show the dominance of Clint throughout the film. But, by the look of Marianne's face, the shot also signals fear and danger ahead.
Let's dive into some more recent examples and see how Cowboy shots keep up with today's more complex narratives.
CAMERA SHOTS AT WORK
2. Modern cowboy shots in film
We could make an entire post showing you nothing but photos of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, and while initially helpful, that wouldn’t be exciting, or current.
Instead, we'll show you modern cowboy shots that are used outside of the western genre. And hopefully, inspire some ideas for your own shot lists.
Here is a cowboy shot in Pulp Fiction.
You’ll notice that Jules has his gun in frame so that we can track the action, but this shot is also placed at a low angle. This helps to keep Brett’s body in frame, and has the added benefit of empowering Jules. These types of shots boost the tension without anyone having to say a word.
This cowboy shot in Fight Club, exists with a different intention. It focuses on comparison rather than superior positioning.
This shot of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton is less about displaying any kind of heroism. Brad Pitt's character stands with certainty and style, while Norton's slumps in a ragged suit. Here, the Cowboy shot captures how very different the two characters are from one another- in appearance and mentality.
And of course, if you've seen the movie, that idea makes for a very interesting story considering who they are to one another.
A second Fight Club example is a more traditional, as the position of Brad is more in line with the standard Cowboy shot.
It is a wide enough shot to see he is surrounded by the fight club, still standing after a bloodied beatdown, and looking down at his opponent. It establishes his superiority over his opponent and displays his raw toughness in a single shot, all the while providing a strong juxtaposition as Ed Norton's split personality.
Let's take a look at an example from The Dark Knight:
What is so interesting about this one is that the cowboy shot is still being used for a heroic effect, but because Gordon is not part of the group.
He is positioned far from the cops because that is the case philosophically for Jim Gordon in this film - and the cowboy shot framing helps to support his renegade style.
Finally, we reach the most common usage of the modern cowboy shot in blockbuster films, and that is.... the superhero shot.
Here is a cowboy shot from Wonder Woman:
If it's important to your story that your character is defiant against the status quo, cowboy shots can be incredibly powerful.
But keep in mind, these aren’t just for superheroes or western bad boys, (or even Brad Pitt). These types of shots are extremely effective when trying to show emotion and potential danger surrounding your character, or even, juxtaposition between characters.
Now that you know a little bit more about Cowboy shots, and the purpose of them, you can shot list your ideas to get a better game-plan for how you want to use them. If you’re still unsure how and when to utilize the Cowboy shot, you can collaborate with your team using StudioBinder's cloud share feature. Click below and get to planning.
The Aerial Shot: Camera Angles
Now you understand how and when you can use a Cowboy shot to generate a number of different emotions, or just advance the narrative all together. Different types of shots are employed for different reasons.
Learn even more by checking out our post on The Aerial Shot: Camera Movements Angles, and find out how aerial shots can be used effectively in your next project.