What is a Master Shot in Film - Featured

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.


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.


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 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 lots of coverage


What is a standard master shot? 

If you take the definition of a master shot too literally, you will default to a 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. Not to mention, you’ll have a really cinematic shot.

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


What do I need from a complex master?

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.

That’s why the safe corner-master shot is so appealing.

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 motion 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.


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.

A long take WILL play out as a long take.

So if I want people to like my film, every scene has to be a long take?

Not at all!

A long take or ‘oner’ often requires a lot of time and energy spent on set.

Your complex master should help your 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.

3 Strategies Behind the Best Long Takes  •  StudioBinder

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.


How valuable is a complex master shot?

Steven Spielberg is arguably the most successful filmmaker 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 the complex 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:

Steven Spielberg Point Of Thought  •  StudioBinder

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 complex 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:

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.


Step 1: Breakdown your scene

Start with your blueprint. With film & television that means your 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 like StudioBinder, 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 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.

Behind the scenes  •  A Clockwork Orange

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.

We already have an interesting opening to our shot.

We know this is Doug’s office from the multiple photos of him.

We know how important he is because of the other people in the photos.

We know he is troubled because of his severity as he gazes at the city.

We know 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 film-making 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 the overall story.

If you just do a cutaway, 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. Tom doesn’t want to leave just yet.

Doug opens the door for Tom, who walks right past Doug further 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 composition visually convey this argument?

Could you have Doug start 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?


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 a crew throughout the day, and allows everyone on set to see the scene play out in its entirety.

Also, your lighting scheme for the scene 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 like StudioBinder, you can safely place scenes that will auto-populate elements, including cast members.

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 and build 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.


Step 3: Use shot lists and storyboards

This is exciting, isn’t it?

Let’s use the example from above:

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

Begin with a CU on SCOTCH GLASS.

Then we TILT-UP and RACK focus to Doug as he takes a sip. 

TRACK with Doug as he walks past the wall of photos.

Land on a PROFILE-MCU 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 in the edit as a single take. This is how Spielberg films many of his master shots.

If you use shot listing and storyboard software like StudioBinder, 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.

Shot List Example: Adventure Film  •  StudioBinder

This isn’t for your ego, but rather like a set of assembly instructions, the only difference being that the customer support hotline is standing by the crafty table stress eating while trying not to have a nervous breakdown.

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


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.

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.

Complex Master Shot  •  Jurassic Park

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.


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 film-making than doing another setup.


Step 5: How to use your shot in the edit?

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.


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 Master Class - Essential Filmmaking Techniques for Directors & Writers, where we give you five different lessons that will completely transform your filmmaking.

Up Next: Essential Filmmaking Techniques → 
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