Overhead Shot - Types of Camera Shots - Header

Overhead shots are used all the time, sometimes for practical reasons, while other times for an emotional effect. The trick is to make sure they don’t disorient the viewer and come out of nowhere.

We’re going to discuss the overhead shot and go over which emotions are generated when you use a bird view, and show you overhead shot examples that enhance the scene in a positive way.

overhead shot meaning

1. Overhead shot basics

Overhead shots can be used on actors or objects, and they can incorporate the same techniques like camera movement and focus pulls to further the desired effect of your shots.

Let’s get the bird's eye view of it all.  

OVERHEAD SHOT DEFINITION

What is an overhead shot?

An overhead shot is when a filmmaker places their camera above the actors. It's somewhere around a 90-degree angle above the scene taking place. It can also be referred to as a bird view, birds eye view, or elevated shot.  

Its placement is somewhat near the action, differing from the aerial shot. An aerial shot would be closer to a satellite or airplane view, closer to a god view, and an overhead shot is closer to a bird view. 

Why do directors use overhead shots?

  • To simulate practical action occurring within a scene.
  • To empower the viewer with more imagery in less time.
  • To de-power objects and actors in the frame.

Overhead shots aren’t as easy to capture, as they often require specialized equipment and may be limited by your location.

In other cases, they aren’t too hard to achieve, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.

If you have a logical reason to use an overhead shot, like a really solid reason that has a practical application to the action within your scene, you should absolutely use them. They will boost your production value for sure.

Sometimes they’re hard to light, hard to pull off and can suck up a ton of time on set especially if you don’t have that eight-figure budget some filmmakers are fortunate enough to work with.

Let’s take a look at a few scenes and sequences that used overhead shots effectively, and analyze why they used the bird viewer in these scenes.


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bird view shot examples

2. When to use overheads

Let’s show you some examples of overheads that were used for specific narrative reasons and see if we understand the motivation behind them.

Here is an example of an action scene from Minority Report where Spielberg uses the overhead to show us where Anderton is escaping, and to show the overall danger of the situation.

Overhead Shot Minority Report

The emotional effect generated is almost incidental, though I would argue nothing Spielberg does this late in his career wasn’t planned.

Overhead Shot Example - Minority Report

Overhead to heighten escape

You could show this scene in many different ways, but I doubt it would be as interesting without the use of such a powerful angle.

Does Spielberg ever use the overhead for a more stylistic feeling?

Check out the next scene below. Spielberg definitely didn’t have to film this scene in this way, but it makes it more interesting and gives the viewer a similar perspective as the police.

It is also just really fun to watch, and it builds a futuristic world that further submerges us into the story, as well as creating some drama and a visual ticking clock. When will they reach Anderton? 

Notice the spider on the hunt crawling toward him.

Overhead Shots Minority Report Spider Robot

Overhead signaling danger

This is an example of the practical and emotional being split in half.

For your own projects, having a place to store and plan these kinds of shots is vital to the success of your film.

StudioBinder provides a killer shot listing tool to aid in this process. Check out the brief video below to learn more.

As you create your shot list in StudioBinder, you should be able to more accurately determine the moments where an overhead shot will be effective, and a reference photo or storyboard will give you a good idea of how it will look.

See below.

You can identify key moments for your overhead shots during your script breakdown, and mark them for the shot list of your scene.

Let’s look at another practical examples of this. Horror comes to mind.

Take a look at how the shot is used in American Psycho:

In this scene, Patrick Bateman tries to time a chainsaw drop onto a fleeing woman, and the overhead view shows us both the view of the woman and Patrick’s process of timing the drop.

Overhead Shots American Psycho Example

Overhead can be more effective than POV

Mary Harron could have used a POV shot, and it could have been somewhat similar, but I’d argue the absurdity, and thus the comedy, would have been lost without the overhead shot.

Let’s stay on theme and show another murder that used an overhead:

The practical use of this shot is somewhat unique because Alfred Hitchcock needed to keep the identity of the murderer a secret. Using this shot achieved both obscuring our view while also expanding our view.

It also adds to the dread because we see the murder happen in real time, and while by modern standards it seems a tiny bit silly, you still can’t help but be disturbed by a murder that plays out in a full, uninterrupted view.

Let’s look at a scene that didn’t NEED an overhead shot, but used one to generate an emotional feeling and worked.

In this scene, director Gus Van Sant uses the overhead shot despite there being no real motivation or action that occurs to make the characters in the scene have any reason to consider what is above them.

Overhead Shot Goodwill Hunting

Overheads for perspective

This scene is about two things - fate and perspective.

This shot explores the idea that perhaps things happen for a reason, that there may be destiny for us, and maybe that Sean (Robin Williams) is being looked down upon by his deceased wife from a higher place.

Maybe the use of this shot is about perspective, and how you need to see the important things in life rather than having an immature and narrow view of the world - like missing out on years of a happy marriage for a baseball game.

Van Sant opens the scene in an overhead shot and cuts back to it while Sean and Will dance around the room imitating Fisk:

Overhead Shot Goodwill Hunting Example

Cuts back to them mimicking Fisk

That decision is what makes me think part of the scene is supposed to be Sean’s wife in heaven, watching her husband live on with joy, and mentoring a bright young man on some much-needed philosophy.

Whatever Van Sant's intentions, it's clear that shot selection plays quite a role in expressing a film's meaning. Having a reliable tool to house all of your brilliant ideas will set you apart and keep you ahead of the game come shoot day.  

Plan, store, and share all of your shots in StudioBinder's software.

Not all overhead shots are for practical reasons, let's see more below.


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Overhead shot examples

3. More examples

Some filmmakers choose to use overhead shots for less practical reasons. While Tarantino doesn't usually sacrifice story for the sake of shock and awe, this next example from Kill Bill seems to serve one main purpose.

This overhead reveals the carnage of the scene to shock... and to awe.

Overhead Shot Kill Bill

Overhead in Kill Bill

While this shot is motivated by the desire to heighten what has happened, it may be more of a stylistic choice than a practical one.

This scene from Silence of the Lambs is a good example of when you instinctively should use an overhead shot for practical reasons.

This one is a little more obvious, but it is still a good example of how to frame your overhead shots, and when to cut to the close-up version and when to use the OTS overhead.

Overhead Shot Silence of the Lambs

Iconic overhead that serves a purpose

The overhead camera in this scene wasn’t used just one time, and instead director Jonathan Demme used multiple overhead shot compositions.

Remember, great shots are very seldom one kind of shot. Make an overhead/ECU shot, or an overhead/pov shot. You can combine all sorts of shots and get a different feeling from each choice.

Use StudioBinder to lay out your overheads:

When you're finished, take full advantage of StudioBinder's completely free masterclass on filmmaking techniques. This masterclass has five episodes solely focused on making you a better filmmaker. 

Learning never ends. Dive into some of our classes and use the product to implement what you learn. It's all here for you.

Up Next

The Aerial Shot: Camera Angles

Now you understand how and when you can use an overhead shot to generate a number of different emotions.

Learn even more by checking out our post on The Aerial Shot: Camera Movements Angles, and find out how aerial shots can be used effectively in your next project.

Up Next: The Aerial Shot: Camera Movements Angles →
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