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Shots Versus Setups

The following post applies to single camera shows. I honestly don’t know what they do for multicam series.

I’ve noticed lately the some newbies confuse the terms “shot” and “setup.” These are related concepts, but they are distinct.

In general, the “shot” is the image the camera operator is seeing through the lens.1 The goal of every production at any given moment is to capture this image, hopefully with nice lighting, appropriate set dressing, actors performing the lines well, and all the other junk that goes into making a movie.

The “setup” is, well, everything. It’s the camera position and movement, lighting scheme, actor blocking, and anything else that physically must go on to capture the shot.

A new setup2 happens when the camera is re-positioned (not including dolly moves during the shot), or the lighting setup is changed. Or, more drastically, when the entire crew moves to a new location. If the director decides to change the actors’ blocking, this is almost always just a new take, not a new setup.

Here’s where the distinction matters: if you have two cameras rolling, you’re recording two shots simultaneously, but that’s only one setup. It’s possible, when filming effects work, for two or more setups to be combined into a single shot through compositing.

A typical TV series has about 30 to 40 setups per day. A feature may shoot less than half that number of setups, and maybe a quarter of the screen time. This is because many features still shoot with only one camera, unless absolutely necessary.3 This is why a feature might take five months to shoot, while a TV crew can film the same amount of material in three weeks.

So, on many sets, “setup” and “shot” are used interchangeably. Most of the time, that’s fine, but you should still know the difference.

Each setup is labeled on the slate, first by the scene number, then with a letter. For instance, the first setup of scene 42 will simple read “42.” The next setup, “42A”. And so on.4

Office PAs are usually required to write lunch reports and wrap reports for the studio. These are basically truncated production reports, issued at, you guessed it, lunch and wrap. They vary from production to production, but generally, the studio wants to know how many pages were shot, how many minutes of screen time (according to the script supervisor’s timing) were filmed, what scenes were completed, and how many setups were… um, setup?

Once you’re done shooting, these definitions go out the window.

Typically, when you’re discussing a finished film, a “shot” is a continuous image up until a cut. In this sense, one single-camera setup could be used in a dozen shots. Hell, an entire scene with dozens of cuts could be just two setups.

The above scene from Seven has 23 “shots,” if you’re counting cuts. But according to the director’s commentary, it’s just two, two-camera setups.5 According to Cinemetrics, Seven has over 1500 shots! I guarantee you, there were not 1500 setups.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, here’s a neat video about Spielberg’s shots:

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. And, eventually, what winds up on the DP and directors’ monitors.
  2. Often declared by the AD shouting, “New deal!”
  3. For example: stunts and special effects that can only be performed once. Also, if the director really wants to capture both sides of a conversation without interruption.
  4. For more detailed information, check out The Black and the Blue.
  5. I’m not certain this is 100% accurate; there are a couple of shots of Brad Pitt that are clean, and others are more dirty OTS. Maybe that’s a variation in takes, but I wasn’t on set, so I can’t say for sure.
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