Establishing shots are an essential part of film language. They are like the glue that hold your scenes together, letting the audience know when you have changed time or place and when a new scene is about to commence.
Because we are so accustomed to seeing establishing shots, they are often invisible to audience and, as a consequence, something that first time filmmakers omit from their films.
Establishing shots are usually extreme long shots or long shots. How many times have you watched a scene that begins with an establishing shot of a city skyline then cuts to the interior of an office building?
Establishing shots do more than just let the audience know where a scene takes place. In Dark Water (2002), director Hideo Nakata uses an establishing shot of the apartment building that Yoshimi and her daughter move into to create a sense of menace. A wide angle shot of the brutalist architecture, grey sky and sheeting rain contributes significantly to the film’s dread.
Establishing shots don’t have to be static. Think about how you can use dollies, sliders, jibs and drones to make them more dynamic.
While there some reasons you might begin a scene without an establishing shot – to create a sense of disorientation, for example – they are an important cue for your audience that cannot be ignored.