Nov 4, 2021
When looking at the basic shots of film and video, you often think of the different lengths: close-ups, medium shots and wides. And while these are indeed the building blocks to good cinematography, there’s one shot which is critical for any good dialogue scene: the over-the-shoulder shot.
But what is an over-the-shoulder shot (or often referred to as an OTS shot)? And how does an astute director or cinematographer properly use one in their compositions?
Let’s explore the fascinating world of over-the-shoulder shots. From some classic cinema examples, to some tips and tricks for shooting OTS shots the right (and the wrong) way in your projects, here’s everything you need to know to frame up the perfect over-the-shoulder shot.
An over-the-shoulder shot is a type of shot which includes (at least) two characters in conversation, with the camera positioned so that one of the characters is in focus with their face in view, while the other character is turned so their back is in frame (but not usually in focus).
Here’s an example:
As you can see, we have one character in focus while we have another character turned with their back and shoulder in frame. This is why it’s called an “over the shoulder” shot as the camera literally sits over the shoulder of the non-focus character.
These types of OTS shots are traditionally used by filmmakers as a way to provide context for a conversation scene between two characters. (You can use more than two characters with OTS shots, but it becomes confusing, so let’s just focus on 2 shots for now).
Over-the-shoulder shots are also usually thought of in relation to another filmmaking principle which is the shot-reverse-shot. OTS shots are an important tool in establishing a back-and-forth between two characters in conversation (whether that be verbal or even non-verbal).
As you’ll see below too, the over-the-shoulder shot is nothing new to cinema and filmmaking and has been used for decades. As such, the hallmarks of what makes a good OTS shot are well established, yet are also open for new and creative styles and approaches.
Let’s dive into some examples of over-the-shoulder shots and get a better understanding of how these types of shots are used. We’re looking for how these filmmakers have chosen to frame up their main focus character and their out-of-focus character’s shoulder.
Alright let’s start off with one of the most famous over-the-shoulder examples in modern film meme history. This shot-reverse-shot sequence from Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi thriller Inception is the perfect place to start.
As you can see in the three shots above, each one is a different iteration of an over-the-shoulder shot. The shots are meant to convey that we are watching a conversation between the two characters as the camera bounces between the two angles to show the faces (and subsequent squinty reactions) for each.
Another of my favorite examples of how the over-the-shoulder shot is used in film and television comes from this scene from 30 Rock. This shot type is very popular in television and this single-camera sitcom style in particular as it helps to bring the audience into an intense scene or conversation.
As you can watch as the scene unfolds above, we start with a wide shot to provide context for the setting (where the two characters are in relation to each other — which is also part of the comedy). We then get OTS shots of each as we are slowly brought into the action before the sequence finally ends up with closer shots and close-ups of each character towards the end.
The OTS shots aren’t used often or for long, but they are a critical element in the sequence’s construction as they help to bring the audience in slowly so that the jokes and overall comedy of the scene can all hit home.
OTS shots aren’t just for action movies and sitcoms; they can be used in a wide variety of film types as you can see in this shot from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. This over-the-shoulder shot is framed up with a lot going on cinematographically speaking.
We have lighting which makes our focus-character appear even more bright and in-focus, we have our two characters tightly together with enough space to still see the decor of the room, and we have a low-to-high composition between the two signifying their relationship.
Probably one of the most highly regarded conversation scenes in modern cinema, Michael Mann’s Heat is a masterclass in gritty action/thriller filmmaking. In one of the most pivotal scenes of the film, we have our two famous lead actors square off not in an epic shootout, but in a simple conversation at a diner.
This sequence is notable as starting from the very first shot, every single shot in the scene is an example of an over-the-shoulder shot. This is partly due to thematics as Mann is choosing to keep the audience aware that the other character is there and listening for each shot.
However, it’s also a great example of the variety of angles and looks you can incorporate with OTS shots as the camera still moves in and the cinematography plays with how close the two appear in each shot despite the fact that they are sitting completely still.
Finally, looking back through cinema history, once you know what you’re looking for you can find tons of fascinating examples of how the over-the-shoulder shot has been presented over the years.
Take this iconic shot from Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. In combination with the lighting, Welles cleverly casts his characters in dark shadows under the film projector lights.
Yet, despite the shadows, we’re still aware of the two characters and how the conversation is unfolding. It’s a really great example too of how the “shoulder” in the over-the-shoulder shot doesn’t have to be a non-factor in the composition. As with the right framing and lighting, the character’s shoulder itself can still be a crucial element for your shot and overall story.
So, taking what we’ve learned from these famous examples above, the question remains as to what makes an OTS shot a good OTS shot. While this might always be open to debate, the simple answer is that a good OTS shot will help a filmmaker visually tell a story.
A good OTS shot will be used when necessary to help an audience understand the scene. While this can be achieved with other exposition shots, wide shots or 2 shots, the OTS shot can be a great transition shot to move in from a wider exposition shot before getting in even tighter with a close-up.
Here are some basic guidelines for shooting a good OTS shot:
Good OTS shots can also be classified as medium shots as they usually are from the waist up and they let the audience see details of one character’s face as they are in conversation. The “shoulder” in the over-the-shoulder shot should also provide some details about the other character in the conversation — even if only to provide ambiguity to their character.
Similar to the answers above, a good or bad shot will always be subjective and have to do more with the filmmaking overall. However, if you don't want to mess up your OTS shots, here’s what you should avoid.
Just remember, a bad over-the-shoulder shot would simply be one in which the audience is taken out of the narrative or story. OTS shots in particular are meant to help draw the audience into a scene and conversation, so if your shot is distracting the audience instead of exciting them in any way, you’ve messed up.
At the end of the day, over-the-shoulder shots can be a killer addition to any filmmaker’s shot repertoire. OTS shots are great for a wide variety of film types and formats, whether they be cinematic short films, television comedies, corporate or commercial videos or even for YouTube or other new media styles — if you watch closely you’ll see OTS shots everywhere!
However, once you do feel ready to add over-the-shoulder shots to your own shoots and projects, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Looking back at the basic definition and examples above, it’s important to keep in mind that over-the-shoulder shots are just one tool in your cinematography arsenal. They can be one of your main shot types for the right scene, or they can be simple cutaways to help bring the audience in closer to the action.
It’s up to you to decide how and when you want to use these over-the-shoulder shots, but rest assured if you study from the masters and keep an eye out for composition, they can help capture your viewer’s interest and bring them into any sequence or scene.
If you’re interested in more shot theory and filmmaking advice and inspiration, check out some of these great articles from the Soundstripe blog: