Over the shoulder shot: Its uses in cinema

In a nutshell

  • The over the shoulder, or OTS, shot is a common way to film dialogue scenes
  • For an OTS shot, position the camera over the shoulder of one character to capture the face of another
  • OTS shots can be used to reveal spatial and emotional relationships between characters

The over the shoulder shot is an essential piece of our cinematic vocabulary. We can find it in nearly every dialogue scene across every genre of movie or TV show. Let’s take a closer look at the over the shoulder shot and why filmmakers have come to rely on this simple yet powerful camera angle.

What is an over the shoulder shot?

The over the shoulder shot is a particular camera angle commonly used to depict two characters exchanging dialogue. For this shot, the camera is positioned behind and slightly to the side of one actor to peer over their shoulder — hence the name — towards the second actor. The result is an intimate shot that highlights the interaction between characters as they converse.

Before early filmmakers mastered the art of editing, movies were filmed in tableaus — single static shots depicting an entire scene, or even an entire narrative. This meant actors had to take a more theatrical approach to presenting dialogue. Actors in conversation couldn’t face each other directly as they would in real life. Instead, they had to turn out toward the camera the same way stage actors would turn toward the audience during a play. This arrangement limited the realism and intimacy that film could achieve at the time.

Eventually, however, progressively smaller cameras and a better understanding of the power of montage converged to bring us conventions like shot reverse shot editing and, of course, the over the shoulder shot. These are the building blocks of the more natural-feeling dialogue scenes we see today.

The function of the over the shoulder shot

Because the over the shoulder shot provides a perspective separate from the characters in the scene, we sometimes refer to it as a third-person shot. Think how video games often position the camera just off the shoulder of your character avatar. This third-person framing allows you to see your character in relation to the game environment.

The same concept applies to the over the shoulder shot in cinema. The angle allows the audience to understand the spatial relationship between each character and the environment. At the same time, the OTS preserves a sense of identification with the point-of-view character. This way, the audience can more easily pick up on subtle narrative and emotional cues like eye lines and the distance between characters. We could choose to show each character in a separate single shot. However, using an over the shoulder shot to keep both characters in frame keeps them connected emotionally as well.

How to use the over the shoulder shot

In order to get the most out of the over the shoulder shot, you’ll need to do a bit of planning. There are three main elements to think about before you start shooting. The first is character position, also known as blocking. Next up is camera placement. Then finally, you’ll need to consider what footage will be needed to reconstruct the scene in the editing process.

Character blocking

When it comes to character blocking, think about the relationship between the characters in the scene and how you want that to come across visually. This will help determine how the characters are positioned in relation to one another. Are they friendly co-conspirators in an emergency strategy meeting? Place your characters close together so their whispers aren’t overheard. Or maybe it’s a pair of brothers in a shouting match — keep them farther apart to emphasize the tension and emotional distance between them.

Camera placement

When planning your camera placement, you’ll need to follow a couple of rules:

  • The rule of thirds: The rule of thirds is actually more of a guideline, but it’s a helpful starting point for framing your over the shoulder shot. In general, you’ll want the back of the closer character to take up no more than one-third of the frame so that we have a clear view of the face of the farther character.
  • The 180-degree rule: More crucial is the 180-degree rule. Since you’ll be shooting from different angles within the same physical space, there is a chance your audience may become disoriented as you move the camera around the room. To prevent this, only move the camera within a 180-degree arc on one side of your characters. Practically speaking, this means you will position the camera over the right shoulder of one character and over the left shoulder of the other. Following this rule will ensure that the characters are always facing the same screen direction once the clips are edited together. For more information, read “The 180 Degree Rule.”

Once you decide on camera placement, you can adjust the more stylistic elements like depth of field and lighting to suit the demands of the story.

The edit

Lastly, you’ll need to think ahead to the edit as you are making your shot list and shooting the scene. Generally, you’ll want to use the OTS shot in a shot reverse shot editing structure, alternating between character viewpoints. You already know you’ll need to follow the 180-degree rule when switching angles to avoid confusing your viewer. Now think about how each side of the conversation will fit together in the edit. As you are shooting, make sure to get adequate coverage of both sides of the conversation. You may also want to get wider shots for more context or closer shots to emphasize emotion. This will give you plenty of options to work within post-production. And remember to get reaction shots — you don’t always have to hold the camera on the speaking character.

The over the shoulder shot applied

Let’s look at a few examples to better understand how the over the shoulder shot works in practice:

Rick and Ilsa part ways

We’ll start with perhaps one of the most referenced movie scenes of all time: the separate ways scene in “Casablanca” (1943), in which Rick delivers the legendary line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” This classic exchange is shot mostly over the shoulder. Using this angle emphasizes the love and intimacy between the two characters, even though they know they can no longer stay together.

Chigurh doesn’t murder a gas station owner

Near the beginning of “No Country for Old Men” (2007), we get an uncomfortable dialogue scene between the villain, Anton Chigurh, and the owner of a gas station. The film has already shown us that Chigurh is capable of great violence. That’s why the inescapable closeness of the over the shoulder shots in this scene makes us feel so claustrophobic — trapped.

Counter-example: Deckard interviews Rachael

Because this angle is so ubiquitous, we can also understand the usefulness of the over the shoulder shot through its absence. In one scene in “Blade Runner” (1982), our protagonist, Rick Deckard, is tasked with interviewing a young woman, Rachael, to determine whether or not she is a type of synthetic human called a Replicant. In the scene, the characters sit at either end of a long table, with Deckard’s hi-tech testing equipment between them. The lack of a conventional over the shoulder shot emphasizes the uncomfortable distance and mediation that separates the two characters.

Final thoughts

The over the shoulder shot is a great way to emphasize the emotions that emerge from a dialogue scene. With it, we can provide the audience with a new point of view that establishes the spatial and emotional relationships between the characters and the broader environment. That’s why the over the shoulder shot is one every filmmaker should master.

Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.

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