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What is a Shot List & How to Create a Compelling One

Shot lists are like the road maps of film production. Without this necessary tool, any production would be lost. Every filmmaker needs to know how to accurately translate their script to the screen, and this is done by creating a detailed and concise shot list. 

What is a shot list?

A shot list is a comprehensive list of all camera shots that will be captured during principal photography. It is usually a collaborative process between the director and the director of photography (DoP) as they brainstorm the best way to visually tell the story. The more detailed your shot list is, the easier it will be for you and your camera department to understand what exactly needs to be captured to tell the story during production. Shot lists rely on describing all aspects of the camera language for each individual shot, such as shot size, angle, and movement.

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Why a shot list is important

Most films are not shot in the order that they are written. This is because it saves a lot of time to analyze the shot list and figure out the easiest order to shoot it with the least amount of lighting and camera changes. For example, if you have two dolly shots in the same scene, shoot those two shots back to back to save time, rather than moving the camera away from the dolly for the next sequential shot to then put it right back where it was previously. 

The shot list keeps all departments of a production organized and efficient, allowing everyone to understand where the camera will be in the space and where the lens will be pointing. This promotes productivity for the crew members on set because with a shot list they can anticipate what they need to accomplish for the next shot.

10 essential details of a shot list

1. Shot number

Shots are described using numbers starting with No. 1 at the beginning of each new scene. The shot number will be the reference number for that particular shot. 

2. Size

How much of the subject is seen within the frame. This is written with shot abbreviations, such as CU (close up) and WS (wide shot). 

3. Angle

Is the camera lower or higher than the eye level of the subject? This affects how the subject is seen. 

4. Movement

How the camera moves in the shot. If the shot is static and does not move, just write “static.”

5. Lens

What type of lens will be used for the shot. 

6. Time of Day (TOD)

This tells us the time of day the shot takes place in the script, such as in the morning or at midnight.

7. Location

Where the scene is taking place, so be sure to include if it is an interior or exterior location. 

8. Description of action

What actions and movement are happening with the subjects in the frame.

9. Time

How long the lighting and camera set-up will take to get this shot ready.

10. Audio

What kind of audio recording device will be used for this shot (i.e. lav, boom, etc.).

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Creating a shot list

A shot list is an opportunity for the director and DoP to work together and think about how to visually tell the story in the script shot by shot. It is important to note that every shot that is included in your shot list must have a specific purpose for pushing the narrative of the film forward. The details of how the camera is positioned and moves for each shot will affect the narrative, as well as change how the audience sees your subject and the subject material in your film.  

Once you understand the elements needed for your shot list you can begin organizing them in a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is the easiest way of organizing your shot list efficiently, and it is the format most industry professionals use. Here is an example of a shot list in a spreadsheet below:

  1. Begin by choosing which scene in your script you would like to transform into a shot list. The 10 essential details of a shot list listed above will be the columns and each individual shot will be the rows. 

  2. Fill in the first row with each of the 10 required shot details explaining what you are trying to visually achieve for each particular shot. Remember to note, every creative choice you make during this process will affect the narrative of your film. 

  3. Continue this process for each new shot by creating a new row in the spreadsheet and give it a new shot number.  

  4. Once you have filled the rows with all shots you need for that scene take time to go back and double-check you are covering everything you want the audience to see in that scene. Try to edit the shots in the shot list together in your head; if they cut together and make sense, then you have created a successful shot list. 

  5. Feel free to personalize and color-code the spreadsheet once all the important information is filled in. Make sure to print out extra copies of your spreadsheet shot list to have on set for crew members to keep and reference. 

Beyond the shot list 

So you have completed your shot list, what’s next in the filmmaking process? The next step is to begin the storyboarding process. This, too, is a collaborative process between the director and the DoP as the purpose of a storyboard is further explain each shot in the shot list visually. A storyboard is a sequence of drawings that represent the shots planned in the shot list. Drawing out the compositions in a storyboard give the shot list a visual component to further understand what a filmmaker is trying to create. 

These processes can be daunting and time-consuming, but remember, the more time and preparation you put into pre-production the more efficient your production will be!

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