Many of us go to the movies or turn on the TV to escape everyday life. Filmmakers are constantly seeking out big and small ways to immerse us in the action so we forget the outside world. Today we’re going to go over a subtle camera angle that you may not have noticed before: the over the shoulder shot.
It’s a way to discreetly place us within the frame of an intimate conversation or intense moment. A standard cinematic device used to make us feel like we’re actually there. And it definitely should be a staple of your shot list.
But what is an over the shoulder shot?
Over the shoulder (OTS) shot definition
The over the shoulder shot is a camera angle that frames itself from behind a person who is looking at the subject of the shot. The over the shoulder shot abbreviation is “OTS.”
Other names: Sometimes this shot is called the “Dirty single.” A “clean shot” means there’s nothing in the frame but the subject. A “dirty single” is the view of something else in the frame other than the main subject.
You need an OTS shot every time an Avenger tries to talk.
What is an over the shoulder shot?
The person who faces the subject usually occupies one-third of the frame. But modern camera angles allow for a much wider look at the frame. As an audience, we’re looking at the subject of the shot literally over the shoulder of someone else.
Black Panther needs an OTS Shot to get introspective.
How to shot list an OTS shot
So, you have the perfect tense conversation that requires an over the shoulder shot? What do you do now? You need to put it in a shot list so your DP can anticipate and prep. Plus, you may want to get coverage of each shot, in case you need to cut wide in the edit.
Add your over the shoulder shots and storyboards to your shot list.
Specific camera movements matter too. Will you have the character step into the OTS shot, or just cut to it in the edit? Do you need sticks or will you use a Steadicam to get the camera angle you want?
You want to capture all these crucial details in your shot list. With StudioBinder, these details are already listed as options, so you only need to check their boxes. This allows you to create creative combinations that make your movie come to life.
Your signature over the shoulder shot is only a click away.
Collaboration is fast and efficient. Send your shot list to the DP with the click of a button. The best part? We let you start shot listing for free. This gives you more time to think about the intangibles.
For example, why are you using an over the shoulder shot anyway?
Why use over the shoulder shots?
As mentioned in the opening, the OTS shot helps drop the audience into the conversation. Directors also use it to help set the tone of the discussion at hand. In this iconic meet-up in Michael Mann’s Heat, the OTS shot is used to set up the tension.
These actors are why film shots like this exist.
These two characters are going to face off. Each one of them hates the other. But they both know the only way to win is to be smarter. So the OTS shot brings us into the dirty single and elevates the tension.
Let’s look at some examples to see how to utilize the OTS shot in different ways.
Maybe the most famous over the shoulder shot comes from The Godfather’s opening scene. Watch as Francis Ford Coppola directs this scene and uses the OTS shot as the way to introduce Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone.
One of the most iconic film shots of all time.
Bonasera is telling the story of his daughter’s brutal attack, and we are moving backward to the over the shoulder to show power.
This is a man who commands full attention and we can’t even see his face. It’s ominous and dictates how much power The Godfather has. He’s the unseen backbone of America.
Immigrants know this, and they know they need his help.
What about a different genre?If you look at Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, he flips the idea of an interrogation scene by using the over the shoulder shot. Instead of having Batman have the power in this scene, it’s the Joker who is in control. The Joker is calling all the shots. Particularly, the OTS shots.
This over the shoulder camera shot creates tension.
What about mixing the over the shoulder shot up? You can add a low angle on the shot like this one in Titanic to show your character bending to the will of a new love interest.
This over the shoulder camera shot sets up the theme of the movie.
It even works to intimidate usually strong characters like Rey, when she meets the mythic Luke Skywalker for the first time.
This over the shoulder shot example displays Rey's lack of Jedi power.
But what about some twists on the OTS shot? Leave it to Tarantino to take a shot we were used to for conversations and turn it into something horrific in Reservoir Dogs.
Tarantino skews the over the shoulder shot definition.
What can normally be used as a conversation here becomes a dance. Our intimacy in this situation is unwanted. We’re terrified at the prospect of what’s going to happen.
This also works in the traditional sense. Take this conversation from Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell slips into the traditional OTS shots here but there’s an added level of intimacy. Listen to the conversation and then see how he uses the OTS shots to progress into the scene.
We start really close. The OTS is breeding secrecy. Bradley Cooper is trying to get a secret letter handed off to his ex. Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with her husband’s death in self-destructive ways. But as the scene grows we use OTS from a distance. Showing what it’s like for someone to have an outburst in a restaurant and get everyone looking.
As soon as we move outside the over the shoulder shots are now about the intimacy of these two people. They’re hugging and punching one another.
Two people confused about who they are and where they are in life. By the end of the scene, we’re showing each of them looking over the shoulder at the other as they deal with the real world.
Bradley’s interaction with the people outside the theater as he has a breakdown and Jennifer dealing with the cops who are trying to figure out what’s going on.
It’s a dazzling series of scenes that all use OTS to put us into the story, tear out our hearts, and create a visceral sense that we’re there with these people.
Up Next: 50 more camera angles!
Now that you’ve mastered the over the shoulder shot and added it to your shot list, it’s time to add a few more angles to your repertoire. Check out our post of over fifty different camera angles so you can spice up even the most basic scenes.
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