How would it feel to watch your perfect scene play out on the big screen? You’re one step closer, because you’re about to learn one of the most important methods to help your scene achieve a big, cinematic look. The complex master shot.

By following five key steps, you’ll gain more control over the viewer’s attention, because understanding how to stage, schedule, and capture a complex master shot will transform your film into a tour de force.

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master shot essentials

MASTER SHOT ESSENTIALS

The master of all shot types

A really great master shot will elevate your material, and it will give you more options in the edit, but let's first begin by defining what a master shot really means in modern, narrative filmmaking.

MASTER SHOT DEFINITION

What is a master shot?

A master shot is the continuous filming of a scene, in its entirety, that captures all of the necessary information in the scene. That’s because the purpose of the master shot is to cover your entire scene so that you have, at the very least, one shot that can eliminate possible gaps in your edit.

Some master shot definitions insist that every piece of dialogue, every actor movement, and every interaction with a prop needs to be visually captured in the same continuous shot for it to officially be a master shot.

What does a master shot do?

  • Captures all necessary information
  • Tells the story in a compelling manner
  • Eliminates gaps in the edit by providing coverage

MASTER SHOT ESSENTIALS

What is a standard master shot? 

If you take the definition of a master shot too literally, you will default to capturing your scenes like a parent at a school play, or a drug store security camera — and even those have the benefit of a high angle.

Filmmakers often do this to play it safe. The other problem is that it can actually force you to add additional setups to get the more creative shots you had played out in your head.

In some cases, this is a necessity, because if a shot is particularly precise, it may require a new setup regardless. In other cases, you can eliminate extraneous camera setups with a more thoughtful, and dynamic complex master shot.

Let’s go over how to get a safe master shot that is also complex.

MASTER SHOT ESSENTIALS

What do I need from a master shot?

One of the main goals of a director is to establish control of the viewer’s attention. Expressing information with interesting visuals is what separates a professional from a novice.

With a complex master shot, you have more control. Any master shot needs to be a home base for the scene. That means both on set, and later in the edit.

But you don’t want any master shot...you want a complex master shot.

Below is a video about the Spielberg long take or ‘oner.’ I want you to watch this video, and then read the rest of the article with these scenes in mind. We will show you more examples and scenes, and even take you through a custom example that will explain it even further.

The Spielberg “Oner”  •  Every Frame A Painting

Determine the essential elements of each scene, and string them together into one coherent shot. Now you’ve got a complex master shot.

Complex master shots use fluid blocking and staging to intentionally point out information to the viewer, and they have the potential to eliminate the need for additional setups.

That doesn’t mean it has to be camera movement. This can be performance blocking that moves around a static camera. You’ll have depth and layers without having to move the camera.

In other cases, you can move your camera to add even more motion. 

You might be able to save some time, which really means money. It can translate into an energized crew, happy producers, and less unoccupied room in your trophy case at home.

MASTER SHOT ESSENTIALS

Are complex masters just long takes?

It’s all about your intention for the shot in the final edit:

A complex master can play out as a long take but it doesn't have to if there is additional coverage to cut to. A long take or ‘oner’ often requires a lot of time and energy spent on set.

Your complex master should help while creating a shooting schedule, not hurt it. If your scene is so complicated that filming a complex master would significantly increase your set time, consider scaling it back, or commit to the long take.

Your scene may be so serene that you want to reflect that tranquility with a static master. A complex master shot is not required for every scene, but it can transform a commonly dull setup into your main option in the edit.

Here is a video that breaks down the essential elements of an effective and cinematic long take, and these lessons will perfectly apply to your complex master. They are so closely linked, you will want to keep these in mind.

Strategies Behind the Best Long Takes  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Your complex master can also open as the establishing shot of a scene. Physically establish the setting of your scene, and then push in to show more information. Or do the opposite for some extra suspense.

Move the camera around. Tell a story with the shot.

MASTER SHOT ESSENTIALS

How valuable is a master shot?

Steven Spielberg is arguably one of the best directors of all time. He uses complex master shots constantly throughout his films, and he pairs it with a really sharp motivated camera movement.

You want an interesting scene, but you don’t have a Spielberg budget.

Even if your scene is just two people talking in a room, you can use a master shot to make your film more interesting.

Our video below goes into another great Steven Spielberg technique that can help you with your own projects:

Spielberg's Long Takes and Master Shots  •  Subscribe on YouTube

So, now you understand what you gain from your complex master shot, and how you need to weigh the pros and cons of that complexity against the set time and narrative payoff.

So, how do you begin to actually build your master shot?

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Master Shot Guide

FIVE STEPS TO CAPTURE A MASTER SHOT

COMPLEX MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Let’s create an example for our steps

Before we begin to take you through the steps, we need to create a scene example that has some motivation and some action.

Here is our scene example with the main story beats:

  • Doug is a high-power banker. His office is located in the penthouse of a skyscraper in Manhattan. 
  • His close advisor, Tom, comes into the office to confront Doug about something controversial.
  • They get into a heated argument, which ends with Tom winning the argument, and Doug losing. 

Got it? Good — we’ll be using this for the rest of the post. Picture this scene in your head now.

COMPLEX MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Step 1: Breakdown your scene

Start with your blueprint. With film & television that means either your teleplay or script.

Not only do you need to breakdown the elements in your scene to make sure you capture each and every one of them, but you also need to consider the intention of the scene in the larger context of your story.

If you use script breakdown software, you can easily label and color code the elements in your scene, so if you need us to see a prop or a particular costume detail to give us all the necessary information, you’ll have a constant reminder that links right to your shot list.

Script breakdown feature at work  •  StudioBinder

Once you’ve labeled all of your scene elements, and gotten the logistics out of the way, now it’s time for you to stretch your artist legs.

Take your scene, and ask yourself these questions?

What is the statement of the scene?

How does this scene fit in with the central theme of your film? Does it reconfirm the theme? Does it contradict your theme to create balance? Establish the statement of the scene. If it isn’t clear, consider a rewrite.

Consider this long take that functions as a master shot in one of Scosese's best movies. Jordan (DiCaprio) navigates the chaos of his world with ease, which supports both strong character development and the theme of The Wolf of Wall Street. We wouldn't intuit this without the master shot presentation.

Master Shot in The Wolf of Wall Street  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Let’s use our example from above:

We open on a wall in Doug’s office. The wall is covered in framed photos that show him shaking hands with world leaders. Then we pan to a severe Doug as he gazes out his penthouse office window… the skyline in the BG.

Let’s stop there, because Tom hasn’t even entered the office yet. Here's what we know:

  • This is Doug’s office from the multiple photos of him.
  • How important he is because of the other people in the photos.
  • He is troubled because of his severity as he gazes at the city.
  • Where we are in the world because of the skyline.

This shot gives us so much information, and no one has even said a word. Do you see why so many movies are so poorly done despite the millions of dollars in production value?

They often jump right into clunky, poorly written dialogue when they could be speaking with the performance blocking, camera movement, production design, and world-building.

What do your characters want?

We can all agree that character performances are critical to a scene’s effectiveness… but if you leave it completely up to the actors, you may be leaving valuable filmmaking opportunities on the table.

When you default to a static master shot, the visuals may not inform the viewer of how important certain pieces of information or scene elements actually are in the overall story. If you just do a cutaway shot, you may throw the rhythm off for your scene.

The complex master shot can often go deeper, and better focus the viewer on a character’s motivation based around motivated camera moves. The camera is a performer too. You need to:

  • Identify character motivations.
  • Create a performance blocking that informs motivation.
  • Plan out how your camera should complement motivation.

Back to our example:

  • Doug wants Tom to leave his office but Tom doesn’t want to leave just yet.
  • Doug opens the door for Tom, who walks right past Doug into the room with his back still turned as he reads his first few lines. 
  • Doug shuts the door, and argues with Tom, who only turns around once he has finally confronted Doug with the big issue of the scene. 

Does this blocking scheme visually relay the information of the scene Can you picture your version of a complex master shot for this scene?Does it have motivated camera movements and varying shot angles?

How does the scene progress?

Every good story is ultimately about change. At the end of your scene, your characters and audience should feel differently than they did when the scene began.

Find the change in our example: Doug begins with the upper hand, but by the end Tom wins.

Can your blocking and frame composition visually convey this argument and the character dynamics? Could start with Doug in the foreground, but then end the complex master with him in the background?

Doug’s defeat in the argument plays out visually, and we literally see the motivation of the scene play out in front of us. Doug is smaller than he was at the start of the scene, but he ends smaller, in the background, less dominant, and defeated.

What’s next? We've got our shot blocked out so it's time to schedule it.

COMPLEX MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Step 2: Schedule your master shot

In almost every situation, it is best to do the master shot as your first setup. It creates a reference point for your cast and crew throughout the day, and allows everyone on set to see the scene play out in its entirety. Also, your film lighting scheme needs to be established early on.

Have fun with these first takes, experiment with the scene, but make sure you end your setup with a definitive take that you will work from for the remainder of the scene setups.

If you think you might need an extra take, run it. It costs five minutes to do an extra take that is already setup. It costs at least half an hour to move on to the next setup.

When you use scheduling software, you can safely place scenes that will auto-populate elements, including cast members. Here's a preview of how StudioBinder's shooting schedule works.

Shooting schedule software  •  StudioBinder

When you know who and what you need, the next step is knowing the time spans for when you will need them on set. This will help keep costs down while building the most efficient schedule for your day.

Why is that so important?

If you fall behind, you may not be able to get that piece of coverage you’ll need for the edit. You don’t want to send off dailies to the producers just for them to see a gap in your scene.

Do you see why so many filmmakers default to a standard master shot, and why so many films are far too static and simple for their budget?Don’t let fear dictate your creativity, your films, or your life. Be bold. Be complex. Plan diligently. Thank the Academy.

COMPLEX MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Step 3: Use shot lists and storyboards

This is exciting, isn’t it? Let’s start creating a shot list for the scene using the example from above:

Notice how descriptive this example is, and how it helps your crew.

  • Begin with a CU (close-up) on SCOTCH GLASS. 
  • Then we TILT-UP and RACK FOCUS to Doug as he takes a sip.  
  • TRACK (tracking shot) with Doug as he walks past the photos. 
  • Land on a PROFILE-MCU (medium close-up) of Doug as he stares out his window. 
  • PROFILE-MCU becomes 2-SHOT as Tom enters the office in the BG. 
  • Then RACK FOCUS to Tom with Doug in FG.

How did that shot play out in your mind? Was it more interesting than a corner shot? The description is specific, succinct, and complex.

It encompasses everything laid out in the scene, and it COULD work as a single take. This is how Spielberg films many of his master shots.

If you use shot listing and storyboard software, you can label your complex master setup, and then place multiple shots with different compositions and level changes under the setup.

That way, you’re still organized and clear with your intention that this is one continuous master shot, but you can get more specific so that your cast and crew understand the complexities of the shot.

Here's another long take & master shot from The Irishman, which is a technique that is clearly part of Scorsese's directing style.

The Irishman Opening Scene Analysis  •  Subscribe on YouTube

The more specific you are with your shot list, including shot size, camera framing, and camera gear, the more your crew and department heads will know what you need to complete your scene.

COMPLEX MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Step 4: Capture your master shot

You’ve decided to film your complex master setup before any other setup. Very smart but your work isn’t done yet.

Collaborate with your cast a crew, establish the rhythm and tone of your scene, and find a “take” that works really well.

Your best master take on the day is the map that will help you navigate through the rest of your shots. Every setup from here on out should replicate the rhythm and tone of that take, at least to some degree.

Oh, and before you move on — run it once more for safety. You can imagine how much rehearsal and takes were needed to capture some of the long takes in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men.

Complex Master Shots  •  Children of Men

The key is to organize and capture any missing coverage in your remaining setups so that it gives you options in the edit.

The shots and coverage you get after your complex master will keep gaps out of your edit, and allow you to showcase important information in your scene that somehow didn’t make it in the master.

Maybe you’ve got the bulk of your action and scene taking place on a stage, but then you need to get a reaction shot of a specific audience member. Great. Get that shot after you’re all done getting EVERYTHING else in your scene, and pepper that reaction shot in during your edit. That setup isn’t going to be quick, so don’t do too many of these.

Let’s say you need to get a few different reaction shots. What about a dolly shot that moves across a row getting each person in a close-up?

That’s much more economical filmmaking than doing another setup.

MASTER SHOT GUIDE

Step 5: How to edit your master shot

So, you’ve captured hours of footage for a scene that should run about five minutes. But you’re not sure how to begin your scene? How good was your master shot?

Did you establish something critical to the scene? Is the opening image of your master something interesting? Is it the back of Tom’s head?

If you have a truly complex master shot, it should be able to work on its own, even from the very beginning of the shot.

Try it solo in the edit, and then cut to more meaningful and interesting shots when appropriate. Does it work on an emotional level? Do we feel like the characters in the scene? Do we want to feel differently?

The important thing is that you have options, and complex ones at that.

UP NEXT

Essential Filmmaking Techniques

Now you have the filmmaking skills of a Spielberg, or an Aronofsky, or maybe even a Wiseau… but there is still a ton of information out there for you to level up your production and directing skills.

Check out our FREE Writing and Directing Masterclass, where we give you five different lessons that will completely transform your approach to filmmaking.

Up Next: Filmmaking Techniques → 

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