What Is a Master Shot?

January 22, 2021
1 min read

The master shot can often be confused with an establishing shot as both shots establish the scene by identifying key signifiers such as; who is in them and where the location is. However, an establishing shot leans more towards establishing the geographical location of a scene. If the next scene, which is a conversation between two characters, occurs within the garage of a city building, the establishing shot may be of the city and the garage’s exterior. However, over the last decade, there has become a tendency to cut the establishing shot to maintain the scene’s steady pace.

The master shot is a shot that includes all of the actors in the scene, and it runs the entire length of the action.  It is usually the first shot to be covered, and the master shot will then be interwoven with other shots such as mid shots or inserts. In a conventional scene between two people,  there will likely be 3 shots covered.

  • The Master.
  • Shot of subject A.
  • Shot of subject B
Diagram of Master shot.

These shots also stay true to the 180-degree rule.

Some directors may feel that the master shot carries enough information to use on its own. Therefore be conscious of how much the audience actually needs to see; you can cover a lot in a single master shot if the composition is set up carefully. David Fincher (Sev7n, Gone Girl) says:

If I put the camera down real low so you can read what’s on that birthday card, I better have a fucking good reason to why I’m doing that. You know, do I need to see that. Everything is on a need to know basis. What is it that you need to know and how does that fit into the style.

Lewis McGregor

Lewis McGregor is a filmmaker, photographer and online content creator from Wales.