e’ve all seen films that constantly use medium shots, but how often do you notice? Every shot and edit matters. Today we’re focusing on the medium shot. The visual glue of many scenes and films.
The medium shot is a fine instrument. There are unexpected ways you can use this shot to tell more of your story in a more visually effective manner. We’ll also go into a few cool uses of this shot that will inspire your next shot list.
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What is a medium shot?
The medium shot is a great way to capture both the details of an actors performance and their surroundings.
The distance from the subject means you can frame up multiple actors at once, and capture everything they are doing in the scene.
Medium shot DEFINITION
What is a medium shot?
A medium shot (also referred to as MS), or waist shot is captured at a medium distance from the subject. It is used for dialogue scenes, but also depict body language and more of the setting. Oftentimes it will frame multiple subjects as well as a portion of the background and space in general.
Why use a medium shot?
- Show important action and costumes.
- Glue together separate shots through constant actions.
- Present visuals that are disarming, comedic, and informal.
The medium shot is super useful for movement, and comedic performances where we need to see the body language of a character.
Medium shots also gain from having imagery both on, and off-screen which is also useful for comedy because not seeing something is often just as funny. Medium shots are often used to frame groups of people, as well as background imagery and sets that are relevant to the scene.
Before go further, let's take a look at the spectrum of shot sizes to see how the medium shot fits in. From establishing shots to extreme close-ups, the various shot sizes all have their purpose.
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The medium shot doesn’t really play favorites. Everything is on the same plane and allows you to focus on the whole instead of the individual.
As you can see the medium shot does a lot of heavy lifting. It gives you character, performance, setting, and sometimes action.
Here is an example from The Hunger Games.
Let's use our shot list software to map it out. Check out the scene below:
You can see how the filmmakers used the medium shot to show a bit of confusion while still keeping both actors in the frame so that the viewer understands the stakes.
Medium two shot - Hunger Games
This scene is all about the Capitol attempting to turn Katniss and Peeta against one another, so by framing them together we are reminded of their bond and personal relationship. Then the filmmakers moves to a close-up.
Because the filmmakers move to a close-up, we can see the emotions of the characters as they register the new revelation that they must fight one another.
But the close up is way more effective because of the previous medium shot.
Remember that your medium shots can feature multiple actors at different shot sizes in different portions of your frame. Just because one actor is in a medium doesn't mean someone else can't be in a close-up or a full shot.
Medium shot examples
Medium shots and how they're used
The medium shot can be used to provide scale between the subject and their surroundings. It can also be used to provide a more intimate perspective of a room, for example, while still giving some broader detail.
Let’s check out some more medium shot examples and examine these expert uses of the shot.
Medium Shot Example: Jurassic Park
At first glance, it’s just to establish the characters as being lost in the jungle. They’re surveying the scene in front of them from the waist up.
But at second blush, we can see this medium shot is very effective at presenting where these characters have been.
Well, we can tell by their wounds and the state of their clothes that they’ve seen some serious action. They are "worse for wear."
Their lives have been hard ever since they left the tour.
In a wide shot we'd see that they were lost in the jungle, but we'd lose some of the detail on them. In a closer shot we'd see the details, but we'd lose the big picture. And so instead we have some of each. In our friend, the medium shot!
Medium Shot Example: Creed
Now let’s take a look at this medium shot in Creed.
Ryan Coogler and D.P. Rachel Morrison work to make sure that Adonis is in fighting position.
They don’t want us to be too close, because we need to see him in action, and it also resembles a sports cast more because of the wide framing.
At the same time, we need to sense the danger in this scene.
So Coogler and Morrison set it up so we see the fighters dance.
We stay in this shot as they circle.
Sometimes we move into a close up but for the most part the action stays in the medium and this allow things to play out as they go.
Tonally, the Medium Shot does a lot to convey what’s going on.
cowboy shot definition
What is a cowboy shot?
The cowboy shot is a shot framed from the face of an actor down to just above the knee, which makes it so you can see both the holstered gun of the cowboy as well a his face. The shot was commonly used in westerns for this reason.
Did you know: The medium shot is sometimes just referred to as the cowboy shot, or the American shot?
The cowboy shot rose to fame because it was used to shoot cowboys. Particularly in scenes when they were about to shoot each other!
Westerns were one of the most popular genres in film and television for the first half of the 20th century, and they left and indelible mark on the American psyche... AND the name of the medium shot!
We still use the medium shot for our heroes today.
Take a look at this swirling medium shot from The Avengers.
There are plenty of medium shots inside that clip but they chose to end it with the classic hero pose, harkening back to the cowboys of old and showing us the team, now united.
You also get to see the costumes, which are as much a character in themselves.
But how can a director utilize medium shots outside of action?
How about to reveal something about a character? Or a situation?
Check out this medium shot from The Princess Diaries. After going to what is basically finishing school, Mia Thermopolis is ready to take on fine dining.
This comedic scene is shot in a medium so we can take in every joke.
Mia is tied to the chair to straighten her back, surrounded by different silverware choices, and etiquette pratfalls. If you were too far away you’d miss the details, too close and you’d miss the jokes.
Comedies thrive as medium shot films
Most comedies live in medium shots and MCUs, and this is because the performance in comedies are almost more important than many dramas and action films which rely more on the camera work and lighting.
the medium long shot
The Medium Long Shot also known as "three quarters shot"
When it comes to the medium long shot it’s best to get more specific. Some people also call it the “three quarters shot” because it usually frames about ¾ of a person’s body.
Generally, the medium long is a lot like the medium shot, just a tad wider. But not so wide that it’s full on long shot.
Let’s dig deeper.
medium long shot definition
What is the Medium Long Shot?
Another step back from the medium shot would be the medium long shot.
Medium long shot definition
What is a medium long shot?
The medium long shot frames a subject from the knees up, it is an intermediary between the long shot and the medium shot, it slightly favors the background over the subjects and foreground.
Did you know: The medium long shot is also know as the three-quarters shot?
Sometimes it's also called the medium wide shot and defined as the MLS on the page or breakdown, the medium long shot is a technical definition.
Medium long shot
Basically it’s a medium shot that’s a little further away.
The main reason to use a medium long shot is to highlight the background but still stay in the social proximity of the character or scene. You need to see the character, but really in the context of the location or setting.
Medium long shots help an audience feel like they’re actually there without also making them feel uncomfortably close to the action.
Let’s dive deeper into some medium long shot examples to see how the masters use this shot to tell their stories to perfection!
MEDIUM LONG SHOT EXAMPLE: ZERO DARK THIRTY
Check out how Kathryn Bigelow uses the Medium Long Shot to frame Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty.
A great version of the Medium Wide Shot.
There’s obviously an emotional weight she’s carrying. She just took out the world’s most dangerous terrorist. Look how Bigelow handles all this.
Medium Shot Example: Forrest Gump
How about something a little more quaint?
Ever been in love and felt like you and your significant other were the only people in the world when you were together? Well, the medium long shot can help you recreate that.
Medium Shot Example: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Doug Liman added some sexual tension to Mr. and Mrs. Smith by framing how enamored each of them are with one another in medium shot.
Two stars who both tend to fill the frame and catch our eye, were placed side by side in the film but also in many medium shots. The tension was made visual.
This is a pretty spicey medium shot
Medium shots are versatile enough to be used in any way you need, but the trick is to surround them with thoughtful shot selections that help elevate your material and drive home the tone, theme, and narrative of your story.
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Shot List Like a Pro
So now you can define a medium shot, and medium long shot, and even a cowboy shot. But more than that you know how versatile this type of shot is, and how to use it in your shot list to forward your story.
When is it important to rely on your plan? When is it important to be more flexible? We’re going to help you navigate through this process because knowing how to use your shot list is just as important as creating one.
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