GUIDE – Composing Shots and Scenes for Cinematic Storytelling

Understanding Shots and Scenes

Understanding Shots

In the context of cinematic storytelling, a “shot” is a short clip of visuals in motion that you plan to cut together with other shots in order to compose a scene. In other words, shots are the “building blocks” of any video project.

You can capture shots using any available method of recording visuals in motion, whether your “actors” are live people, digital creations, or objects you plan to animate. Keep that in mind when you come across resources on video composition. Even if the resource seems to focus on live action video, the principles will usually apply to any form of video capture.

Scene Composition

A scene is a sequence of shots cut together to convey a moment in the story. Scenes are usually based on specific locations and purposes.

For example, a scene might feature two women eating lunch at a cafe while one shares some bad news with the other. Beginning storytellers often envision such scenes as one long shot, showing both women at the table without any changes in camera angle or framing, but that’s the least interesting way to compose a scene. If you’re working with live actors, that’s also a recipe for having to do multiple re-takes, given how common it is for actors to miss their lines.

Experienced storytellers compose scenes using multiple shots that allow them to change camera angle and framing for both practical and cinematic purposes. From a practical perspective, it’s simply easier to capture each element separately, particularly with live actors. From a cinematic perspective, moving between close up shots of each character and other kinds of shots helps keep viewers interested, as this is what we’re used to seeing on screen.

Here’s a sample shot sequence a storyteller might use to compose the scene described above, whether the story is filmed with live actors or animated characters.

  • medium shot of both women at a cafe table (8 seconds)
  • closeup of woman A’s face, as she shares bad news (6 seconds)
  • closeup of woman B’s face as she listens in sympathy (3 seconds)
  • medium shot of both women as woman A finishes sharing her news (4 seconds)
  • closeup of woman B’s face as she responds (6 seconds)
  • closeup of woman A’s face as she listens (3 seconds)
  • closeup of woman A’s fork as she dabbles with her food (4 seconds)
  • medium shot of both women as woman B reaches out to touch woman A’s hand in sympathy (5 seconds)
  • and so on…

Shot Length

If you’re surprised by the short length of each shot above, keep in mind that this is how most television shows and movies are put together, with a change in shot every 6-7 seconds on average. (For more info, Google “average shot length”.)

When you’re first starting out, it’s OK to use longer shots (and fewer of them) to compose your scenes. But keep this in mind: if you leave a visual on the screen for longer than around 20 seconds without some kind of change, most modern viewers will become impatient.

Also consider this: using multiple short shots allows you to convey emotion through framing, without needing to rely as much on changes in the characters’ facial expressions and body language. This is particularly helpful if you’re working with animated characters, so that you can let the shot composition convey the emotions that would otherwise be tedious to convey through stop motion.


Shot Composition

Scene Composition

Cinematic Strategies Explained on Wikipedia

Cinematic Strategies Explained on