establishing shot Noun, e.g., In “Ed Wood” (1994), the camera takes us from a lightening-lit Hollywood sign down and back over roof tops to the marquee of a theater, then down to the sidewalk and Ed Wood. The Hollywood hills and city in this establishing shot is a model similar to one Wood used in “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) and tells us the location of the action is not only Hollywood, but the Hollywood of Ed Wood’s mind.
Definition: A shot that establishes the location of the ensuing action.
History: The shot was introduced in "Birth of a Nation" (1915) by D.W. Griffith, whose M.O. was a panoramic long shot to establish place, followed by mid shot and then a close-up. For years this technique remained nameless as techniques do in a new art form until they survive an extended period of monkey-see-monkey-do. The term “establishing shot” didn’t become part of the vocabulary until the early 1930s, and then intially to label shots critical to Hollywood’s trend of setting movies in foreign locations.
Two things caused this this trend: the Great Depression and the advent of talkies. Hard times made many moviegoers long to escape through movies about the rich, foreign places and the rich in foreign places. Sound created demand for stage actors, many of the best being British (e.g., Charles Laughton, Ronald Colman, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Claude Rains, Joan Fontaine, Ray Milland, Basil Rathbone, among many) and continental actors (e.g., Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Bela Lugosi, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, etc.). Equally in demand were foreign character actors (e.g., Paul Cavanaugh, Peter Lorre, Elsa Lanchester, Sig Ruman, Alan Mowbray, Nigel Bruce, Leonid Kinsky, Frederick Worlock, Gerald Hamer, etc.).
The first so-called establishing shots were of iconic structures—Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids, etc.—that set the stage for foreign actors to convince audiences that filming had occurred abroad, not on a Hollywood sound stage. In fact, establishing shots in some early low budget movies were achieved by filming photographs. Later, as Hollywood depicted different American cities, each had iconic establishing shots, e.g., the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Washington Monument, etc. As moviegoers became more geographically sophisticated, so did icons such as the cable car that establishes San Francisco as the location in the beginning of “The Birds” (1963).
The first iconic establishing shots told the audience: “The action you are about to see occurs in this city.” The one exception was the iconic gothic castle or manor house which conveyed a message that would be far more important to modern filmmakers, namely, “The action you are about to see occurs inside this building.” Some later establishing shots would convey both messages, as for instance, Miami Beach’s Fontainebleu hotel in “Goldfinger” (1964), which told audiences the city and place of the ensuing action.
Today, most establishing shots are non-iconic. We see the exterior of an office building, a courthouse, or even a home, and we infer the ensuing action occurs inside. One early example of the non-iconic shot is in “Citizen Kane” (1941) when the camera takes us through a neon sign of the El Rancho dinner club to a skylight on the roof and down to the table of a distraught Susan Alexander. 53 years later director Tim Burton would emulate this shot introducing his title character in "Ed Wood," a filmmaker who greatly admired Orson Wells.
"Citizen Kane" also gave us one of the first interior non-iconic establishing shots. Here the camera pans vast heaps of Kane's possessions as it tracks to a blazing furnace into which workmen are throwing items considered to be junk. The film ends showing Kane’s sled, Rosebud, burning. Emulating this ending, Steven Spielberg concludes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with a reverse non-iconic interior establishing shot. First, we see the ark sealed in a crate stamped “Top Secret,” after which the camera tracks back to establish the crate is one among thousands stacked in a warehouse. However, take away from these and most establishing shots the advantages of dollys, cranes, helicopters, zoom lenses, sound stages, matte paintings and digital graphics, and you have D.W. Griffith.
Hollywood Lexicon Index