Production: How To Do an Over-The-Shoulder Shot

Shot design is a key part of the production process. Shooting coverage may seem boring, but with the proper investment of intuition, you can enhance a standard conversation. An over the shoulder shot can add just the right amount of depth to any given situation.

Step 1: Perspective

What is known as "talking heads" is a situation in which a person is standing still and merely speaking. With the right set up, you can shoot two people in conversation as two independent talking heads. However, this can be a bit confusing if you do not have a two-shot to tie the two people together. In order to establish and maintain that these two individuals are in the same space and addressing each other, you need to get both of them in the same frame. So, you can add one person's shoulder to the foreground in order to visually link the two characters. Though you may not see both people's faces at the same time, the audience will intuitively make the connection and the scene will become seamless.

Step 2: Placement

Though the term is "over the shoulder", you may find that it is not completely accurate. You can attempt to literally place the person's shoulder into the lower corner of the frame, but you may not be happy with the results. This is because a lump in the corner of the frame is not the most pleasing thing to look at. So, try asking the person to shift slightly into the frame. Now you might have a slice of their head along the side of the frame. This is more recognizable as a person and is therefore more appealing than the ambiguous lump.

You can also adjust the term "over the shoulder" to something like "over the hip". This could be used if you want to accentuate the curvature of a woman's body in the foreground. Or, perhaps the foreground character has a gun on his belt. Use the story to help you find compelling shots.

Step 3: Movement

When you place an actor very specifically into an over the shoulder shot, you risk having them become tense. Do not tell them that they cannot move. This will be disastrous because their rigidness will show on camera and will probably not match the reverse shot in which they are freely moving about. Try to direct them to hold a position without becoming a statue. Even if your frame gets obscured from time to time, it is not worth sacrificing natural behavior.

Step 4: Shot, Reverse Shot

When you are shooting over the shoulder, you generally want the reverse shot to match. Though there are exceptions, you generally would not want to shoot one shot dirty and the reverse shot clean. You should also measure the distances between the camera and subjects in order to get as similar a frame size as possible when you turn around.

Shooting over the shoulder adds elements of interest to your framing. Using multiple layers of depth will enhance your shots.