How to Make a Shot List
Written by Michael Goi, ASC, ISC
The key part of my preparation as a Director is making a shot list, but for a lot of people, making a shot list is an activity that they are either afraid of or avoid. For me, making a shot list is the most fun process of directing an episode of a television show or a movie because there is no pressure at that moment. It is all about your imagination.
With the number of scripts I have to read every week, I was finding it difficult to retain the important information in individual sentences of the screenplays. The words I was reading were ceasing to have any meaning and would become just a jumble of words. I discovered that by immediately starting to make a shot list, it was forcing me to understand the story and the characters in much greater depth. Because I had to come up with shots to visualize what was in the script, it reinforced and reminded me what was important in every scene.
If I’m directing a television episode and I have the script the night before I start pre-production, I have a complete shot list for the entire episode the morning of the first day of prep. Many directors have asked me how I can come up with a shot list when I haven’t yet seen any sets or locations. It’s quite simple. The shot list is not about the physical reality of the locations or sets at the time you write the initial one. It’s about the type and number of shots that you think you need in order to tell the story.
Being able to give a production a shot list very early in prep gives an advantage to the assistant director, who can then schedule with some certainty how much time is going to be needed to complete a scene because they will know that you are planning seven set ups instead of three. It also enables the different departments on the production to have an immediate understanding of what kinds of shots you think you may do and what kind of resources may be needed to accomplish them.
I approach creating the shot list from the inside out, meaning I climb inside the head of the main character and think of ways to visually depict the world the way the character feels it is in that moment. For example, if there is a large, glamorous party, but the main character is in a state of turmoil about something else, I will not shoot a big shot of the party to show all the glamour and glitz. I will choose to shoot angles that show the audience how traumatized the main character is as he or she makes their way through the party. This is an important difference. When you do that, you are essentially making the audience feel the way the main character does. This increases the audience’s sympathy and understanding of why the main character is acting the way he or she is. It is not catering to an objective view; it is making the scene completely subjective.
I’ve taken this approach on every project that I’ve directed. People often ask me where the images and the style of “American Horror Story” came from. It came from the characters. By climbing inside the heads of completely dysfunctional characters and visually depicting the world as they see it, I was showing the audience the frame of mind of unstable people. So, the initial shot list has nothing to do with the logistics of the sets and locations. It is entirely to do with what types of shots depict the frame of mind of the character. Once I scout locations and see the sets, I can adjust the shots if I need to, but those are normally minor adjustments.
When they are making their first shot lists, many people get into way too much detail. They describe every lens choice, every dolly push, every single thing they can think of in enormous detail. That approach will sabotage you when you’re on set and cannot do exactly those shots. People are often surprised that my shot lists are very simple. The simplicity gives me flexibility to adapt to any situation that comes up. I have included an example of one of my shot lists here. You can see that it leaves room to be interpreted in different ways, but the intention of the shot and the number of shots I feel are necessary for the scene are still conveyed. The sometimes-indecipherable hieroglyphics and thumbnail drawings on my shot list are my reminders of compositional choices or camera placement after I had seen the locations.
If you have access to a script for a film you have not already worked on, practice making a shot list. Read the script and write down the shots you think you would do to tell that story. You will find the process gets quicker and quicker the more you do it, and your ability to remember vital pieces of the story puzzle becomes easier.
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Michael Goi, ASC, ISC, is a four-time Emmy-nominated television and motion picture director, writer and cinematographer. Among his credits are “American Horror Story”, “Megan Is Missing”, and “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” He is a three-time past president of the American Society of Cinematographers and co-chair of the Directors Guild of America’s Diversity Task Force. Michael is the editor of the 10th edition of the American Cinematographer Manual.