The humble shot list is a deceptively simple tool. Its straightforward nature conceals a powerful utility for filmmakers of any type and for productions of any size.
In this post, we’ll show you how to harness that power for your next shoot. We’ll cover all the shot list basics, dive into shot list examples for real-world use, and show you how to make a shot list tailored to your unique production needs. We’ll even provide a free shot list template to get you up to speed as fast as possible.
Before we dig into how to make a shot list, take a moment to download Wrapbook’s free shot list template. Our shot list template goes beyond the basics to provide a detailed canvas that you can easily customize to meet the unique needs of your production.
Plus, you can use Wrapbook’s shot list template in conjunction with this post to start planning your next shoot as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Download the free shot list template by clicking the image below.
Now, with the shot list template open, let’s start breaking it down.
A shot list is a comprehensive breakdown of all shots to be captured during principal photography. It’s a pre-production tool that unites creativity with organization. The shot list transforms a director’s overall vision into a series of bite-sized pieces around which a production can plan.
Aesthetically speaking, shot list examples and shot list templates come in a wide variety. Some shot list examples are elaborate spreadsheets paired with detailed technical specs and storyboards. Others are little more than scribbled notes on scrap paper.
No matter what a shot list example looks like, however, it should always be treated as a collaborative document. After all, what is a shot list’s purpose if it isn’t shared? To be useful, a shot list must evolve with the input of key crew members.
Shot lists primarily require the collaboration of a director, cinematographer, and 1st assistant director. These three work together to ensure that creative concerns are supported by technical and logistic strategy. Other crew positions may become involved when their specialized insight or expertise provides a distinct advantage.
What is a shot list’s purpose? Broadly speaking, it’s about organization, but its real-world function is more nuanced. While shot lists are primarily a director and cinematographer’s device, producers can leverage them to optimize a production at several points.
The shot list is best used as a tool for strategic development. Shot lists break an imagined project into individual tasks with realistic parameters. The resulting document is a major influence on everything from equipment rentals to the shooting schedule.
This is crucial for the producer and their team. The shot list advances an abstract idea for a movie one step closer toward concrete reality. It provides a framework that enables efficient budgeting and scheduling. It’s pivotal for predicting costs and delivering a complete project on time.
In a way, figuring out how to make a shot list work is a key part of figuring out how to make the entire production work.
A well-designed shot list streamlines communication, increasing a production’s efficiency in the process. The document provides a common reference point for critical production info. A quick glance at the shot list gives any crew member a snapshot of the day’s objectives.
And even if the director or another key creative changes their mind on the day, the shot list creates a solid foundation upon which improvisation can confidently stand. Small changes are easier to handle when supported by clear, available detail.
For a producer, this functionality turns the shot list into a safety buffer. Over the course of a lengthy production, even the best plans are subject to change. The shot list provides a tool for navigating these changes through data and a common ground for communication. It informs and facilitates the shifts a producer must make to a project’s budget and logistics, reducing the impact of unexpected costs.
Finally, let’s not forget that the shot list is a creative tool. Figuring out how to create a shot list for a project is a production-friendly method of developing its creative vision. The process forces the creatives involved to think through their project at a microscopic level, paving a way for their vision to become a reality.
The shot list also provides a door through which producers can remain creatively involved without engaging in micro-management. A producer can interact with the director’s vision through the concrete information in their shot list.
The shot list makes it easier for producers to guide their director and coordinate the rest of their production. It creates a connection through which they can contribute their expertise to a project’s development.
Shot lists are not one-size-fits-all. If you were to examine three separate shot list examples, each would look a little different from the others. Figuring out how to make a shot list requires that you first figure out what information and formatting choices will provide the most benefit to your specific project.
However, certain components are considered standard. By our count, there are 11 essential elements without which no shot list example would be complete. Below, we’ll break them down one-by-one.
Scene numbers are imperative for the organization of your shot list. They tell readers which shots correspond to which scenes in your shooting script. While this may seem like a small detail, the complete absence of scene numbers would throw a production into chaos.
Scene numbers provide reference points that tie together multiple, large-scale tasks. They match individual shots with details from each department’s script breakdown.
On a commercial or music video, you may find that shots do not correspond well to literal scene numbers, but the basic concept remains critical. Make sure to label your shots according to their scene or sequence.
It’s important to label each shot within each scene. Because scenes are already organized by sequential numbers, shots are usually labeled by sequential letters. For example, the first shot of scene 1 would be labeled “1A”.
Note that these letters may change as your shooting schedule takes shape. During principal photography, shots are generally labeled in the order that they are captured.
If it will be faster to shoot the third shot from your initial list first, then shot “C” will become shot “A” as your AD builds the schedule.
Every shot list template should include space to describe each shot. This is where you’ll outline both the shot itself and the action it captures. The goal is to describe the storytelling function of each entry on your list, but the amount of detail included is a matter of preference. Description lengths usually vary according to each shot’s complexity.
Let’s illustrate with two quick examples.
In the above clip from No Country for Old Men (2007), two characters have a quick chat in a diner. It’s a straightforward dialog scene, filmed with straightforward coverage. There are no elaborate camera moves, effects, or stunts. The shots simply frame the actors’ performances.
As such, you could describe any shot in this scene with a bare minimum of explanation. For example, the medium shot that isolates Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) could be labeled “Medium Coverage: Sheriff Bell”. Combined with the other information on your shot list, that description would be more than accurate.
But contrast that with the below clip from Citizen Kane (1941).
While the core of this scene is one performer giving a monologue, the shots are considerably more stylized than in our previous example. There are complex camera moves, point-of-view shots, high-angles designed to frame multiple layers of action, and even subtle VFX shots.
Shot descriptions within this scene would need to reflect its complexity. If you want the camera to swoop over a crowd before landing on your main character, for example, you should describe exactly that action. You don’t necessarily need to focus on technical details, but you do need to describe what the audience sees and how the shot feels.
A shot’s size describes its field of view. Are you capturing a close-up (CU) of a performer? Or are you capturing a wide shot (W) of an entire building?
Shot size examples
WIDE - Frames the characters in the context of their surroundings
MEDIUM (MED) - Frames a character from approximately the waist up
MEDIUM CLOSE-UP (MCU) - Frames a character from approximately the chest up
CLOSE-UP (CU) - Exclusively frames a character’s head and face
EXTRA CLOSE-UP (ECU) - Tightly frames a specific detail of a character’s face or body
INSERT - Isolates a specific detail or action within a scene (and not shot as coverage)
Shot sizes are important for production planning. They’re a shorthand for how much is or is not in a given frame. This simple information can influence how the entire set is organized.
As used here, shot type is a catch-all term that can be applied to a shot’s angle, story function, or other special characteristics. Combined with its size, a shot’s type creates a quick reference for understanding how a shot would be physically produced.
For instance, descriptions like “high angle” or “low angle” highlight camera placement. The term “POV” describes a shot as representing a character’s point-of-view. You might even note that a shot is “coverage” to describe its basic function.
Camera movement refers to any form of mobility necessary for capturing a shot. This includes pans, tilts, dolly moves, jib moves, handheld action, Steadicam action, drone flight, and basically any other form of camera movement that you can cook up.
Oddly enough, even the absence of movement is noted in this field. When the camera is completely stationary, a shot should be labeled “static”.
Most shot list templates will include a field for the lens that each shot will use. This usually notes the preferred focal length for each shot but may also note specialized lens types.
Frame rate describes the speed at which a shot’s individual images are captured. This is basically a technical description of whether a shot will be captured at normal playback speed or for slow-motion.
The equipment section of your shot list template describes any specific special equipment that a given shot will require. This section is open-ended and can be used to note essentially any gear that seems noteworthy.
For instance, you could elaborate on camera movement systems, like the tripod or a dolly. You could highlight camera filters or items used for a specific light gag. Frankly, you can note any combination of equipment that seems worthwhile for understanding a shot.
On a shot list, the term “location” can refer to either a scripted location or a production location. There is no hard rule for choosing one over the other, but your choice should prioritize clarity of communication.
At first, you’ll likely find that scripted locations are the most helpful. Each scene’s slugline provides essential details that can inform shooting. For example, is the location interior or exterior? Does a shot need to be captured during the day or at night?
As pre-production evolves, however, you may find that your shooting locations provide more pertinent information. At the tech scout, for instance, you may realize that splitting a scene’s action and staging it in two different areas offers an aesthetic advantage. In that case, you’ll want to divide your shots according to those separate production areas, not the single location that unites them in the script.
Finally, the notes section of any shot list template is an unsung hero. This is an overflow space meant to catch any information that doesn’t fit neatly into another category. It’s a simple but critical feature that can save your production time and money when used with communication in mind.
In other words, you can put anything you want in the notes section. There are no rules, except for one: If anyone tries to tell you how to create a shot list without space for notes, run away.
Shot lists and storyboards share a creative connection, but their purpose is fundamentally different. It’s important that filmmakers not conflate the two.
Shot lists are exhaustive by nature. They’re intended to provide a comprehensive portrait of a film’s camerawork. Their details are technical and logistic, designed to aid boots-on-the-ground production planning.
Storyboards, by contrast, are selective. Most productions don’t storyboard every scene, instead deploying them only when necessary. Rather than procedural details, storyboards communicate a creative vision with images when words are not sufficient.
They help the crew get on the same page by literally showing them how shots will flow into a complete sequence.
However, shot lists and storyboards are not mutually exclusive. You can learn how to make a shot list without storyboards, but the two tools are often more powerful together. Shot lists clarify a plan of execution, while storyboards clarify a vision of the end result.
These two tools can be used in conjunction with one another to optimize communication and organization. This is particularly true when dealing with complex sequences, like those that require stunt drivers. You might even consider upgrading your storyboard to some form of 3D pre-visualization.
Learning how to create a shot list means learning how to collaborate. The shot list is conceived, developed, and finalized over three basic stages, each requiring an escalation of teamwork.
The first phase of a shot list’s development revolves around the director’s vision. Before any other creatives become involved, the director must cultivate an understanding of how their film will play out.
At this point, it is not imperative that the director draft an actual list of shots. Rather, they should focus on crafting a collection of ideas, references, and guiding principles to form a starting point.
Next, the director and cinematographer will break the director’s vision into shots. They’ll collaborate to transmute the director’s ideas into individual, achievable images.
At this stage, the creative meets the technical. This is the work of revising and refining the project’s vision, preparing it to be turned into an actual plan by the rest of the production. By the end of this phase, the shot list should provide a blueprint for the entire project’s visual flow.
Before cameras roll, the 1st AD will reorganize the completed shot list according to the shooting schedule. This is crucial for turning a literal list of shots into a coherent production plan for achieving those shots.
Note that while the assistant director holds most responsibility for the schedule, its final form results from the input of an army of department heads and creative decision-makers. The shot list is ultimately a tool for organizing the entire production. As such, it requires the collaboration of all major stakeholders.
The shot list is a powerful tool, but it’s important to remember that it’s also a flexible tool. Above all else, you must figure out how to make a shot list that directly supports your unique production needs.
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