The emotional power of shot scale
Shot scale is by far the most important aspect of film storytelling. Clever lighting, smart moves or creative effects can tremendously add to the film, but editing properly scaled shots makes 80% of our perception of a story. This article is the first one of a series where the power and meaning of shot scale will be studied in depth.
We, as humans, have a fixed field of view, and because our eyes are aligned horizontally, our horizontal field of view is much broader than our vertical field of view. To mimic this uneven aspect ratio, movie theater screens and HD TVs have a broader width than height, from 1.77 to 2.42 format and more. When the audience sees a character in a movie, they mentally adapt their field of view to the screen dimensions.
For example, a man’s figure filling the screen vertically from head to toe would be perceived as standing at a “safe” distance of say a dozen feet from the viewer. From the waist up, the man would be considered at “conversational” distance. From shoulders up, he would be at “intimate” distance. Surprisingly, those felt distances don’t depend on the size of the screen.
The words “safe”, “conversational” or “intimate” are hints to how we perceive distances emotionally. As we experience distance emotionally in real life, so do we with characters on the screen. This is why understanding shot scale as emotional distance is essential to storytelling. And guess what? This is what we are going to study in this series.
Dances with shot scale
Ok, here’s an excerpt from Dances with Wolves – Extended Version (K. Costner, 1990). Note that this scene is not part of the theatrical version. At around 25 minutes, there is a fairly unusual scene showing Captain Cargill coming back to Fort Sedgewick that he had been forced to abandon some time ago, leaving his men behind without supply. A man of honor, he eventually comes back to his men to let them leave the “Fort”. What makes that scene unusual is that Cargill is the subject of almost every shot, as we are only made to focus on his attitude and feelings. This one-character-oriented scene showcases the importance of mastering shot scale to tell a story.
SHOT 1A – Camera tracks R-L. Cargill enters the frame R-L, catches up with camera from Mid Shot…
… to Medium Close Shot.
SHOT 2 – Medium Full Shot. Cargill stops by Fort Sedgewick.
SHOT 1B – Medium Close Shot. Cargill calls to Corporal Guest.
SHOT 3 – Cut away on Fort Sedgewick. No one answers.
SHOT 4A – Close Shot, axis changed. Cargill calls again.
SHOT 5 – Medium Long Shot. Guest’s POV on Cargill from inside the fort. Hand-held camera tracks L-R.
SHOT 4B – Close Shot. Cargill asks Guest to come out.
“you don’t have to talk to me but please come out.”
SHOT 6 – Another cut away on Fort Sedgewick. No one answers.
SHOT 7 – Medium Long Shot. Another Corporal Guest’s POV on Cargill from inside the fort. Cargill turns away. Hand-held camera.
SHOT 4C – Close Shot. Cargill looks back at the fort.
SHOT 8 – Medium Long Shot. Cargill watches Guest come out in foreground.
SHOT 9 – Mid Shot. Cut in on Cargill talking to Guest.
“It’s the end. Assemble the men in front of my quarters.”
SHOT 10 – Mid Shot. Cargill over his men. Camera tracks L-R.
“You hate me. But I feel none of the same for you. You men stayed. You stayed after they took all our horses.”
“You stayed after all the others deserted. You stayed after the army failed to resupply us.”
SHOT 11 – Cargill talks to his men. Camera trucks in from Medium Close Shot…
“I have looked for that wagon from Fort Hayes, just as you have, day after miserable day.”
… to Close Shot.
“And all I can say is that I’m proud of you.”
What is so important in that example is that each shot scale has been carefully considered to drive the audience’s emotions and understanding of Cargill’s misfortune. Long distance shots depict an officer who tries to live up to his duty, when short distance shots portray a suffering human being. By mastering the alternation of apparent distance, the editor turned simple facts into shared emotion.
A story isn’t made of a hodgepodge of randomly scaled shots. Understanding shot scale is understanding the emotional distance to characters. If you want to weave your story with emotions, understand shot scale.