When you block a scene it’s important to think about how the audience takes in information. Every shot and edit matters. Today we’re focusing on the medium shot. Truly the visual glue of many a scene.
The medium shot is MORE than just the glue. 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.
So let’s dive into the nuances, uses, and special secret powers of the medium shot!
Watch: How to Master the Medium Shot
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
In film, a medium shot, mid shot (also referred to as MS), or waist shot is captured at a medium distance from the subject. They are 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.
Did you know: Sometimes the medium shot is called the mid shot, or waist shot. The medium shot is denoted as "MS" on a camera breakdown.
The medium shot is easily overlooked in favor of a close-up shot for more detail, or a wide for more scope. But what's so cool about the medium shot is that it's does both!
Look at this handy guide for the definition of a Medium Shot and Medium Wide Shot, among others.
Medium shots are oftentimes used to frame groups of people.
Your Sister’s Sister is almost entirely a Medium Shot Film
Or one person with lots of stuff around them.
This is a great medium shot film as Braff is forced to deal with this surroundings
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.
Mid shot. Aiming off frame
As you can see the medium shot does a lot of heavy lifting. It gives you character, performance, setting, and sometimes action.
The medium shot is also just one of many (over 50) shots we outline in our...
But we're not done with the medium shot just yet. Let's dive deeper into the why of this filmmaking tool!
So why use the mid shot?
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
As you can see here, Steven Spielberg is using this shot in Jurassic Park in several ways.
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!
I’ll take “what is a Medium Shot” for 2000, Alex...
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.
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.
A masterful Medium Shot Film and Medium Wide Shot.
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.
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!
The Duke himself, in a cowboy shot.
We still use the medium shot for our heroes today.Take a look at this swirling medium shot from The Avengers at the end of this clip.
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.
And think about it. The whole theme of that movie is getting the Avengers to... assemble.
When they finally do that we see it the moment in all it's medium shot glory.
A great example of the the Medium Shot Definition
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
The medium long shot
When it comes to the medium long shot it’s best to be 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.
What is the medium long shot?
Taking another step back from the medium shot would be the medium long shot. Another in-betweener, in this case an excellent way to get a greater sense of the location.
Medium long shot definition
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.
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.
This is more of a medium shot example, but had the depth of a medium long shot.
Medium long shots help an audience feel like they’re actually there without also making them feel uncomfortably close to the action.
Here’s another medium long shot example.
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.
If you watch the clip until the end you'll see out how Bigelow uses the medium long shot before Chastain enters the jet to show the scope of what’s happened for not only her character but also for the entire world.
Then Bigelow makes it personal by allowing Chastain to come towards the audience in a close up, and we feel her emotion.
Scope and the medium long shot go hand in hand because the shot still lets you access a character’s emotions in the scene, while providing a visual context.
Define that Medium Shot, Nolan!
The Joker’s reaction to this explosion is priceless. We get his mood walking away but also get to see the destruction he leaves in his path.
The moment with the character is intimate, but the scope of the shot and the sequence is in full view. This might be the versatility of the medium shot at it's best.
Medium shot example: Forrest Gump
How about something a little more quaint?
A mid shot that reminds us of an emotional experience
Medium shot examples: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Doug Liman added some sexual tension to Mr. and Mrs. Smith by framing how enamoured each of them are with one another in medium shot after 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 shot example: Titanic
Did you know one of the most famous shots of all time was a medium long shot? James Cameron made Jack and Rose’s forbidden love as humongous as the scope of the Titanic itself.
The medium long shot here is giving scope, but also intimacy all at the same time.
This is a medium full shot because they take up the frame.
Don’t worry, if you don’t have love in your life you can also use the medium long shot to convey just how alone you are.
Medium shot examples: Skyfall
One of our favorite cinematographers, Roger Deakins, makes the medium long shot lonely with Director Sam Mendes here in Skyfall.
James Bond has all of London to protect by himself now that MI-6 is compromised. And this shot gives us both things; Bond, and his new massive responsibility.
The medium shot and the shot list
The medium shot and the medium long shot are two more versatile visual devices in your filmmaking tool kit. What's next?
Well how to stitch them into your story in a compelling manner, of course. The medium shot can be used when you required an establishing shot, but you need to keep us informed of the specifics as they related to character.
Check out our post on how to make a shotlist using StudioBinder, and then start making one and see where the medium shot belongs.
So when you're making your next shot list, make sure that you keep the medium shot in mind at all times, so you can weave it into each sequence.
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.
Next up is the wide shot, or sometimes called the wide. This is the shot where filmmakers take on the world, and try to capture it's massiveness on the screen.
So we'll see you in the wide shot!
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