Oct 5, 2021
Any seasoned filmmaker knows a single adjustment in shot size and focal length can create a drastically different on-screen effect (good or bad).
If you want to capture subtle changes in a subject’s facial expression, you probably wouldn’t choose between an extreme close-up and a full shot. And that’s because the full shot positions the subject at more of a distance in-frame.
Instead, you’d consider using a shot that brings the subject closer in view like a close-up, medium shot, or, you guessed it, a cowboy shot.
The cowboy shot is a great tool for filmmakers who want to 1) capture a subject’s profile from mid-thigh to the top of their head and 2) still show the surrounding setting.
There’s a lot of film history and modern context to unpack when it comes to one of these critical camera shots, so without further ado, let’s get into it.
Technically speaking, a cowboy shot is a modified hybrid of a medium shot and a wide shot.
Instead of framing a subject from the waist up (like a standard medium shot would), this shot extends to mid-thigh level. And instead of showing a lot of the setting (like a wide shot would), the cowboy shot reveals the background in a more minimalistic way.
As a result, the viewer’s attention remains on the subject in-frame, but they still have a good sense for the surrounding landscape.
It’s no secret where this shot (also known as the American shot) gets its name. Watch any old western film or series from the 1930s and on, and you’ll recognize the signature shot instantly.
Most often, this shot is used in the lead-up to a gunfight between a decidedly good character (think John Wayne or Clint Eastwood) and a decidedly bad character.
As the two opponents enter into a stand-off, the director uses the cowboy shot to keep one character in-frame from their gun holster to the top of their head.
Camera operators might alternate this shot between both opponents, but the focus is always on the “good guy” hero figure.
And that’s because this shot can make a character appear more heroic and confident on-screen — especially when the cowboy shot is paired with alternating close-up and wide shots.
To see how all of these different shots work together, let’s take a look at one of the most well-known examples of the traditional cowboy shot in film history.
The opening close-up of the hand hovering over the gun holster creates an immediate sense of tension in the scene, which continues to build until the three characters draw their guns.
But before that happens, the camera pans from face to face in series of close-ups and extreme close-ups — giving the audience full access to each character’s emotional responses in that moment.
The tension in the scene builds until the three characters draw their guns, and there’s a cowboy shot of Blondie (Clint Eastwood) firing the first shot.
The wide shot that follows re-establishes the setting and clues the viewers in on what happens next.
Throughout the entire scene, Blondie remains level-headed and confident even as his opponents show signs of concern, panic, and fear.
The filmmakers use the cowboy shot to emphasize this contrast and confirm that Blondie had the upperhand all along.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. Maybe the old westerns genre is a niche that doesn’t appeal to you. Or maybe you have a lot of respect for the genre but don’t see yourself taking on a project like this anytime soon.
Whatever the case might be, it’s only natural to question whether or not the cowboy shot is actually essential to your shot list — especially when you’re working on film or video projects that lack cowboys.
But to put things into perspective, check out this quote from American film director Francis Ford Coppola:
“I believe that filmmaking — as, probably, is everything — is a game you should play with all your cards, and all your dice, and whatever else you’ve got.”
It would be a mistake to keep the cowboy shot, or any other shot, off the table. And that’s exactly why modern filmmakers like David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino adapted the cowboy shot for “Fight Club” (1999) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994), respectively.
Let’s break down how Fincher and Tarantino used the cowboy shot in both films, starting with “Fight Club.”
In this scene, Fincher modifies the traditional cowboy shot by keeping both characters, i.e., opponents, in-frame at the same time.
Instead of using dramatic jump cuts to reveal what’s unfolding between two characters — as an old western filmmaker might — Fincher captures most of the conflict with the same cowboy shot.
Similar to Fincher, Tarantino uses the cowboy shot in a scene when tensions are high and conflict between characters is imminent:
The cowboy shot, in this example, is used to position Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in a position of power over the other character in the scene.
Tarantino intentionally pays homage to old westerns by using this shot to reinforce the traditional “good guy, bad guy” trope and also capture the moment when the gun is drawn from the holster.
Here’s the thing about camera shots and angles: certain ones have a reputation for creating a specific on-screen effect and doing it well. While this is great, it also makes it extremely easy to overuse the same shots.
The Dutch angle is a classic example of this.
The off-kilter look of this angle can give any scene an eerie and unhinged feel. But if a filmmaker defaults to this angle for every tense scene in every film they produce — well, the effect isn’t as powerful anymore.
The same thing can happen with the cowboy shot, if you’re not careful.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can take a common technique or camera shot and make it your own.
By paying attention to a few key factors — i.e., the context, angles, and talent in-frame — you can adapt the traditional cowboy shot for any scene or project.
When we associate a particular shot with a specific mood or tone, it’s hard to break that association. And when every mention of a cowboy shot is followed up with a Clint Eastwood reference, it’s hard to separate the storytelling tool from the narrative.
But, if you needed the reminder, cowboy shots and old westerns aren’t exclusively linked together. Like most popular shot types, the cowboy shot has evolved and found new life outside of its original genre.
It's something that can and even should be used in other genres by modern-day filmmakers. But as you think about how you can use a cowboy shot, one of the first things you want to pay attention to is the context of a scene.
If one character is in a position of power or strength, this is something that a cowboy shot could emphasize on-screen.
Just keep in mind that a cowboy shot puts the character at a decent physical distance away from the viewer. So if you’re trying to capture an emotionally vulnerable moment, you might want to opt for a medium close-up or medium shot instead.
While you can absolutely forego the old western theme, you could also give it a satirical spin like the creators of this Super Bowl commercial did:
(If you were wondering where the Lil Naz X reference came into play, it’s here.)
The angles that you use when transitioning from shot to shot can transform the meaning of a scene, and even minor adjustments can make a big difference.
For instance, notice how the filmmakers for the 2018 film “The Favourite” used a cowboy shot with a low angle in this scene.
The angle isn’t extreme — it’s actually rather subtle — but in the context of this scene, it reveals a lot about the power dynamic between Lady Sarah and her new servant Abigail.
Visually and thematically, you can draw a lot of similarities between the cowboy shot in this scene and cowboy shots in old westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (the most obvious being that a pistol is involved).
Even though the films are set in different eras (and on different continents), the cowboy shot is used to frame one character as self-assured and powerful while another character is vulnerable and uncertain.
And this feeling is strengthened by the filmmakers’ use of angles.
A long-held assumption that many creators have about the cowboy shot is that only one person should be in the frame. But that isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
The beauty of filmmaking is that you get to decide whether you’ll take a traditional or nontraditional approach.
Maybe you take a note from the scene in “Fight Club” (1999) and use a cowboy shot to capture the action between two characters in close proximity within the frame. Or maybe the scene from “Pulp Fiction” (1994) is more your style.
At the end of the day, you’ve got a repertoire of production knowledge and skills that you can use to give new life to the cowboy shot — and hopefully the best camera for your projects. So don’t pass up on an opportunity to use this shot just because you’re not using it in the traditional way.
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