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Over The Shoulder Shot: The Rules You Must Know

by Clarke Scott | Last Updated: September 3, 2021

The over-the-shoulder shot or OTS is a staple in filmmaking, and it has been used since the early days of cinema. But why? It turns out that this point-of-view shot makes for a great way to keep your audience engaged during scenes where two or more characters are talking.

The OTS is an over-shoulder shot used in film and TV. It has most likely been used for presentations of conversations between two persons. The camera is placed behind the character, and the shot then frames the sequence of the character. The OTS shots are then used in a shot-reverse-shot sequence in which both subjects’ OTS perspectives are consecutively cut to create a back-and-forth interplay capturing dialogue and. This inclusion of the shoulders back allows audiences to understand the relationship between their surroundings while still showing an intimate photo of each person’s facial expressions.

You can also use over-the-shoulder shots as a way to establish an intimacy between two people who might not otherwise have much interaction on screen.

In this article, we will go over some tips for using over the shoulders shots.

What is an Over the Shoulder Shot

The over the shoulder shot, or OTS as it is sometimes referred to, is a camera position used in film and television that has the camera above the subject’s back and head. This shot is most often used to show conversational back-and-forth between two subjects. The shot thereafter frames the sequence from the perspective of that character, with the camera positioned behind one participant.

The over the shoulder shot is subsequently used in a shot-reverse sequence, alternating both subjects’ OTS viewpoints to produce a back and forth interplay that captures dialogue and emotions. The incorporation of the back of the shoulder allows spectators to comprehend spatial connections between two subjects while still being able to capture each subject’s facial expression in a closer shot. The choice of an OTS shot’s camera height, the use of focus and lenses, and subjects’ and relationships to others and space are all affected by a film or television director or cinematographer.1

History of the Over the Shoulder Shot

The over the shoulder technique was used in a variety of artwork, such as painting long before the advent of photography or filmmaking. For instance, the OTS was used by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, in his self-portrait, The Art of Painting created between 1666 and 1668.2

In addition, Caspar David Fredrich’s painting Moonrise over the Sea, painted in 1822 and now housed at the Krongauer Museum of Fine Art in Germany, depicts three back-facing figures gazing out to sea. The OTS, which is reflected in the artwork, many of Fredrich’s paintings featured this viewpoint. It allowed audiences to identify with the figures in the painting because they engaged in the same visual experience as the subjects in the frame.

Cameras were kept fixed and distant from the action during the early years of silent filmmaking, mirroring the view of a stage play. Scenes were frequently blocked and staged in early filmmaking, owing to theatrical traditions. Cheating out, for example, meant to face outward towards an audience more than would be natural and was part of an overall attempt to remain somewhat like what had come before. Filmmakers used this method to position both subjects towards the camera during a conversation scene in order to capture both subjects’ front and side profiles instead of turning away from the camera.

Films had progressed from one-take, static takes to longer films with many camera angles and shots in a sequence and locations. The first reverse angle in film history was used by Williamson in 1900 when he created Attack on a China Mission Station.

With the use of cutting and several shots for one sequence, actors no longer had to “cheat out” in order to appear closer to the camera. Instead, the participants could face one another, and the director may capture conversation in two reverse over-the-shoulder shots from both subjects’ perspectives. Cameras have become smaller, lighter, and can be positioned much closer to the subject. They may now adjust light, exposure, and focus with greater precision than ever before. 3

The Rules of the Over The Shoulder Shot

At first, the over the shoulder shot can seem quite basic, but it is actually a bit more complicated than it looks. What makes this common shot so interesting, and how can you use it in your next project? We will start with some key rules about setting up an over the shoulder properly, and then we will discuss some applications.

The rules of the over the shoulder shot are that one character should be in front and center while there’s another slightly behind them who has a supporting role. The two characters don’t need to be facing each other, but they still need to be connected somehow by their relationship or dialogue. Since the OTS is usually used for conversations, it should be shot in a way that captures emotions and connects to audiences.

The camera itself must have focus, which means you are able to see both characters clearly. The lens choice will also help determine how close or far away from one character appears from another. For example, a wide lens makes the space between two people feel smaller while zooming in tight to both subjects will have the opposite effect. The height of where you place your camera is also important. The distance from which you shoot this shot can be interpreted as a reflection of time and/or intimacy, so it’s best to stay close to the shoulder of your subject.

There are many applications for using over the shoulder shots, and they “can help create a sense of tension or intimacy between camera subjects, depending on their relationship. For example, two characters who have just met will not want you very close because it would be uncomfortable for them. However, the more comfortable they get with each other, the closer you can be.

To portray nervousness or tension, it is best to stay farther away from your subjects and keep them small in the frame, which creates a sense of unease as if something bad could happen at any second. On the contrary, if you want to show intimacy, closeness, and connection, you should be closer, which helps create a sense of trust.

The Psychology of the Over The Shoulder Shot

The OTS shot, and the reverse shots are employed to capture a subject’s perspective behind the camera. This is done by positioning the camera over their shoulder. In this approach, you may change the level of identification a viewer has with a character and thus create a dynamic relationship between two characters on screen and the third character—the audience.

This can be used to infer connection, disconnection, and subvert it in the case of mystery dramas types narratives, whereby the writers are attempting to throw an audience of the case, so to speak.

The camera’s angle in relation to the focal subject is adjusted by controlling the camera’s position.

Furthermore, the duration of a shot from one viewpoint may make the audience feel more connected to a certain subject than another. This is often due to audience members attaching themselves more strongly to one subject’s viewpoint than the other or contrasting viewpoints. The greater the camera aligns with the eye line of a subject in a shot, the easier it is for audiences to comprehend links between characters or modify their degree of identification with one subject over another.

Intentional or unintentional usage of the OTS in film and television, as well as breaking the OTS’s rules, is frequently a subtle signal to audiences that a change in mood or tone has occurred.

Single Shot Two Shot vs. Over the Shoulder Shot

Over the shoulder shots are frequently used in tandem with other shot angles, such as single and two-shots. Single shots, often known as single framing, are used to concentrate on a single character’s emotions and activities. From an over the shoulder shot, many directors switch to medium-shot single framing. This is a far more natural approach to focus on a character, especially an intense feeling, than switching to a more extreme shift, such as a close-up.

A two-shot, on the other hand, shows both characters in the same picture. This technique is also utilized in films. It is sometimes used in conjunction with single shots and over-the-shoulder shots to provide the audience a sense of the location and surroundings outside of the characters’ private, often emotional bubble. When two characters are shown simultaneously, a two-shot may show the developing connection between them.

When Can You Break The Shoulder The Shoulder Rules

The scene from Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis’s character Butch is being lectured by Marsellus Wallace is a great example of breaking conventions.

Generally speaking, the focus on not on the actors in the foreground but on this part of the scene. We are instead focused on the back of the head of one actor. Again, you must think about how the shot is connected to the emotional elements of the scene and set within the context of the overall narrative of the film. In most cases, filmmakers will utilize ots shots to capture conversations between two characters. But great filmmakers go a step deeper into the emotional subtext.

How to Shoot an Over The Shoulder Shot

Follow these guidelines to produce a basic yet effective over-the-shoulder shot. This would be a plan of your plan for how to shoot the scene.

Begin with the Two Shot

A two-shot can sometimes be useful to establish context and clarify the parties involved in an exchange or conversation, even if it is not always necessary. Once the two-shot has been established, start by shooting wide, then moving to an over-the-shoulder position. This allows the audience to get a sense of the positioning of characters within the world. Thus establishes a crucial connection between the viewer, the characters, and the message or subtext of the scene.

Determine the best camera placement

Over the Shoulder Shots Traditionally, a shot that takes place over the off-screen character’s shoulder was known as an over-the-shoulder shot. You may utilize this in a number of ways depending on the situation and your message. If, for example, the foreground character is armed, you might want to move the placement to more of an over-the-hip shot, as opposed to a center position. We showed an example of this approach in our article on the cowboy shot.

This is also called a dirty OTS or a dirty single.

Decide on the best character position.

The amount of the foreground character you wish to include in the shot is entirely up to you. Experiment with various postures to see how much or little you want them in the frame. During this phase, keep the background character’s eye line level with the camera and their features out of view. Keep the background figure’s eye line level with the camera while obscuring the features of the foreground character by paying attention to the camera angle throughout the scene.

Shot one side then the reverse

When filmmakers employ over-the-shoulder shots, they generally alternate between the two characters’ viewpoints. Reverse shots are often required to match because of this. Take a look at the angles between your subjects and yourself to ensure that they aren’t moving around too much. Make sure there’s no over-exposure or underexposure on either side and that the distance between the camera and your subjects is consistent.

Best practices for Shooting an Effective Over The Shoulder

There are no absolute standards for filmmaking, especially for specific shot types. However, there are certain minimum standards that may assist you in obtaining the greatest photograph possible.

Over-the-shoulder shots may be more difficult to shoot now than you first imagined, so here are some helpful hints for shoot an effective over-shoulder scene that captures an audience’s attention in a creative way without throwing them out of the narrative.

Pat Attention to shot sizes and frame proportions

In most cases, you want the character facing the camera to take up roughly a third of the frame. This will provide a comfortable viewing experience for the audience and leaves enough room for movement on either side.

Pay attention to the angle.

Avoid camera angles that reveal too much of the off-screen character’s nose, especially if it’s someone with a prominent facial feature. When the elements of a shot are in the frame, returning to the reflecting OTS may divert attention away from the on-screen character and interfere with continuity when shifting back to it. If the off-screen character’s facial features are in your shot, it probably means you need to move the camera in closer.

Pay Attention to Eye Line

The eye-line of the on-screen character should be about level with the camera. Because the audience is looking at the discussion from behind someone’s shoulder, a high or low standpoint may disrupt the scene. Taking a slightly higher angle might be beneficial if you want to convey fear. A lower camera angle can also be a powerful approach to project power.

A Thousand Moments Later – 2017 dir. Clarke Scott

Pay Close Attention to Continuity

Instead of telling the foreground actor to keep still, tell them to stay in their place without standing completely motionless. When an actor in the foreground restricts their movements too much, it may come off as wooden and unnatural or even appear to break when they’re freely moving in the opposite shot. Even if your actors’ movements and behavior are restricted for a few seconds, it’s worth it to have organic movements and actions.

You should diversify the shots you use while filming a film or shooting a scene to keep things interesting, give the scenario(s) context, and convey essential ideas. Over the shoulder images have a huge influence when utilized in conjunction with other, more secluded angles. By learning how to make effective use of and shoot over-the-shoulder shots, you may substantially enhance your filmmaking.

Summary & What’s Next

To summarize how you shoot this as a scene, we start with a two-shot as this establishes the scene, the positioning of characters within the scene, as well as the context in which the scene is placed. And we have the actors run the scene from start to finish. You might need to have several takes to get what you need.

Next, you place the camera behind the shoulder of one actor and have it focus on the others actor’s face, and you run the entire scene again. You were doing as many takes as needed to get the performances you want.

Now, rather than moving to the reverse angle and doing it again, swap out the lens for something longer in order to be tighter of the actor’s face, perhaps even making this a single shot rather than an over the shoulder, and run the scene again.

You do it this way in order to save time for resetting lighting too often. So after you have run the scene twice at different focal lengths from one side, do you move to the other.

Footnotes

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_the_shoulder_shot
  2.  Wheelock, Arthur K (1995). Vermeer & the art of painting. New Haven: Yale University Press
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_the_shoulder_shot

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