A medium shot frames actors from the waist to the top of their head. Why from the waist up? Because it allows the audience to see the most important elements of body language, which are conveyed by the arms and shoulders, while remaining close enough for the audience to see facial expressions.
When to use medium shots
The most common use of the medium shot is capturing dialogue. It’s the best distance for show the body language of both the speaker and the listener. This enhances the visual element of conversation, which is essential to an effective dialogue scene.
However, medium shots have a multitude of other applications, from framing a kiss that’s so passionate it involves the actors’ whole bodies, to showing the audience that the monster is right behind them.
Examples of medium shots
By putting Amerigo’s hunched-but-stiff posture into the frame, Coppola makes the emotional pain visceral. This contrasts with the disdainful look on the Don’s face and makes the audience feel Don Corleone’s power in their bones.
Due to its mockumentary format, The Office uses even more medium shots than a typical show, accentuating its documentary feel. They also work extremely well for its style of cringe humor—as Michael says something awful, we see Jim’s reaction and get ready to hear his sarcastic response.
Medium long shot and when to use it
A medium long shot shows characters from the knees up. It’s used to communicate additional information, such as the characters’ surroundings.
Medium long shot example
This is a fantastic example of just how much information you can impart with a well-blocked medium shot and two good actors. We can see:
- Jesse is romantically interested in Celine (arm placement) but feels very nervous (crossed legs)
- Celine is overwhelmed and has withdrawn into a business-like persona (hand-talking, defensive leg placement).
- Jesse feels shame (facial expression), foreshadowing the plot reveal that he is married to another woman.
- The two are very, very interested in each other (complete focus, lack of attention paid to the garden surrounding them)
Medium close up shot and when to use it
A medium close-up shot frames the actor from the chest up. It’s a shot reminiscent of documentaries and interviews, where body language is less important.
In films, it creates the feeling that the audience is having a very personal conversation with the character.
Medium close up shot example
Most Coen brothers plots feel like a story told by the stranger next to you at the bar. They feel woolly, rambling, dark, and real (if a little exaggerated). Naturally, the Coens love the medium close-up shot, which is the best replication of the “bartalk” experience in film.
Mastering the medium shot
Your actors will take to the medium shot well. They know how to speak with their whole bodies. So, don’t worry about them.
Instead, worry about where you’re focusing the audience’s attention. Are they being forced to bounce back and forth between points of emphasis? Or are they free to explore the shot to take in all the detail?
Finally, worry about the shot’s composition. Make sure that the shot includes exactly the background details and props you want it to, and nothing else.
We recommend that you start by using Celtx to build a storyboard, complete with stand-ins and props. That way, when it’s filming day and the pressure is on, all you have to do is match the shot to your storyboard and you’re good to go.