In this post I will deal with framing over-the-shoulder shots, a skill that every filmmaker ought to have in the toolbox.
What’s the big deal with over-the-shoulder shots?
Over-the-shoulder shots are considerably more laborious to frame correctly than other shots, such as close-ups, because it is not enough to frame the subject correctly – the other subject’s shoulder in the foreground must also be framed in a pleasing way.
When you adjust the framing for one subject you also change it for the other, and this complication is more than most directors can cope with. You cannot just move the camera: you must also communicate effectively with both actors in the shot.
My aim in this post is to make a tangible difference to your skill in this area.
Why bother with over-the-shoulder shots?
Many filmmakers flat-out say that they don’t shoot over-the-shoulder shots because they are too much hassle. That is a shame, because over-the-shoulder shots give a real feeling of intimacy and involvement with the story, by virtue of the fact that you are looking at something over somebody’s shoulder. They are beautiful and enhance the audience’s engagement with the film, and this technique is therefore well worth mastering.
1. Wide over-the-shoulder shots of short focal length
The two images below are taken from my first film. It is a wide over-the-shoulder shot of short focal length. I shot them with a 2/3″ Mini DV camera on the wide end of the zoom.
The effect of using a short focal length in an over-the-shoulder shot is that it makes the character in the foreground look dominant over the other subject.
The second image shows horizontal and vertical thirds for your benefit.
2. Wide over-the-shoulder shots of longer focal length
The two images below are taken from one of the TV spots on my reel. The framing is very similar to the example above, but in this case the focal length is longer. The lens used in the shot was an 85mm Zeiss Ultra Prime lens mounted on a RED camera, which is approximately equivalent to using the zoom on its medium setting on the camera used for the shots in Example 1.
You will notice that the longer focal length compresses the visual planes, reducing the apparent difference in size between the shoulder and the main subject.
Once again the second copy of the image has horizontal and vertical thirds for your benefit.
3. Tight over-the-shoulder shots
The image below is taken from another TV spot on my reel.
The lens used in this shot was once again an 85mm Zeiss Ultra Prime lens mounted on a RED camera. This time the actors are a lot closer to each other and the camera is also much closer to the actor’s shoulder. This is essentially an over-the-shoulder closeup.
Quick lighting tip: I told the DP that I wanted the foreground actor’s shoulder to be very dark in the frame, because this enhances the voyeuristic effect of looking at something over somebody’s shoulder. The fact that the shoulder in the foreground is both dark and blurred focuses our attention on the other actor, because the foreground provides a moody frame instead of directly competing with the main subject.
Notice how the opposite was done in Example 2 above: the actor’s shoulder is quite bright in the frame, and indeed we brightened it further during grading. This was done to enhance contrast in the scene. Despite its brightness, the shoulder still does not compete with the action because it is so blurred, as a result of the medium focal length, very wide aperture and the camera’s proximity to the actor’s shoulder.
4. Triangular composition with two subjects
The image below is taken from my first film. It is essentially a 2-shot (a shot with two actors in it), but it also has elements of over-the-shoulder shots. I added white lines to highlight the triangular composition for you.
Triangular compositions are exceedingly pleasing in photography and you must always have them at the back of your mind as a potential framing technique.
5. Over-the-shoulder shots with multiple foreground objects
In all of the foregoing examples the composition was asymmetrical: there was a shoulder on one side and one or two subjects on the other side of the frame. This does not always have to be the case: if one actor is facing two other actors, you may sometimes want to frame that actor over both shoulders of the other two actors, so that you end up with two shoulders at the sides of the frame and the actor in the middle.
The image below is taken from a music video I directed. It is a bilateral over-the-shoulder shot, because there is part of the singer on one side and her arm on the other side, with the main subjects framed approximately in the middle.
This makes the shot even more intimate and voyeuristic, because we are essentially looking through a reduced opening, just like peering through a crack in a wall. This kind of shot, just like regular over-the-shoulder shots, only really works if the foreground object is out of focus. If it is too sharp, it will compete with the main subject and the effect will not work at all.
How to direct actors when framing over-the-shoulder shots
As I wrote at the beginning of this post, many directors avoid shooting over-the-shoulder shots because they have trouble getting exactly the right framing: they say things like “there is always either too much shoulder or not enough shoulder, so I don’t bother.”
Here is how to direct actors when setting up an over-the-shoulder shot:
– With your director’s viewfinder arrange the actors in a way that pleases you and position yourself where you would like the camera to be, peering through your viewfinder to frame the shot.
– Having established the exact arrangement between actors and camera, put marks down for the actors and the camera.
So far so good – this is done with pretty much every shot, regardless of whether it is an over-the-shoulder shot or not.
The camera is set up while the actors wait elsewhere. By the time the actors get back to their marks with the camera where you want it to be, you will usually notice that the framing is not quite right. This is where many directors get stressed.
In reality, however, all you have to do is tell the actors to move a few inches to the right or to the left in such a way as to get precisely the framing you want. This may feel awkward to you, but the aim is not to act smooth: it is to frame the shot in precisely the way you want, whatever it takes!
Yes, framing an impeccable over-the-shoulder shot is not trivial, but a cool head and a lot of practice go a long way. Be ambitious!
One good trick is to instruct the actor over whose shoulder you are shooting to shift his or her weight slightly to the left or right foot in order to increase or reduce the amount of shoulder visible in the frame.
Real film actors know that they need to adjust their position by tiny amounts in order to get the right framing. They understand this and they do not find it weird. Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of directing actors who don’t have much on-camera experience, be sure to warn them that this is how filmmaking works or they might find these requests odd.
Whatever you do, do not under any circumstances compromise your filmmaking techniques: never be afraid to ask an actor to move two inches to the right if that is what your framing requires. If they are experienced actors, they will understand; if they are not, they need to learn as soon as possible.
Do not be afraid of over-the-shoulder shots: they add a lot of value to projects and you cannot afford to leave them out of your toolbox.
I will conclude, as always, by emphasizing the importance of practising. Grab your camcorder and a couple of patient friends and start practising framing over-the-shoulder shots with a variety of focal lengths and a variety of shot sizes (tight, medium and wide).
I hope you find this useful!