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Subject size is the size of the subject as it appears in the frame. The most common sizes are the wide shot, medium shot, and close shot. At the far ends of the spectrum are the extreme wide shot and extreme close shot. The main function of subject size is to convey story information by orienting the audience and emphasizing (or de-emphasizing) the subject.

 Subject size is used to:
    orient the audience
    emphasize or de-emphasize the subject

The classic shot structure for a scene starts with a wide shot, cuts to medium shots, and climaxes with close shots. In other words, the subject size gets bigger as the action intensifies. This pattern can be monotonous when used for every scene. Nonetheless, it is basic to understanding how shots relate to action and can be used as a springboard for more creative scene designs. The following discussion elaborates on the different subject sizes.

Wide Shot

The wide shot is primarily used to establish the setting or location of a scene. Since objects appear small in the frame, it can also be used for de-emphasis and is ideal for conveying character isolation. This shot from Vertigo accomplishes both of these goals:

The wide shot has two drawbacks: it weakens the director's control over audience attention and lessens the impact of action. It should be avoided when important detail must be conveyed. Wide shots are also referred to as establishing shots.

Close Shot

The close shot  is the exact opposite of the wide shot in that the subject is very large in the frame. Consequently, it is used for emphasis. When the subject is an actor, anything closer than mid-chest is considered a close shot, or close-up. Here, the actor's head dominates the composition. There are several types of actor close shots, as illustrated in this still from The Godfather:

Another variation is the over the shoulder shot, where an actor is seen in close-up over another actor's shoulder. This shot is often used in dialogue scenes as a bridge between a shot of two actors and a close-up: 

The close shot is a powerful tool and should be used sparingly. When used too often, the audience becomes desensitized to it and its effectiveness is lost.

Medium Shot

As the name indicates, the medium shot falls between the close shot and the wide shot. When the subject is an actor, the upper body dominates the frame, usually from the thighs up. Movies are primarily constructed of medium shots, with wide shots and close shots used for orientation and emphasis, respectively. 

Multiple Sizes 

A composition can have multiple subject sizes. For example, one actor can be shown in close-up, while another is in full shot. This enables the audience to follow action in the foreground and the background simultaneously. The technique, called deep focus, was pioneered by Orson Welles in his landmark film Citizen Kane. The following shot shows actors in close, medium, and full shot:

Variable Size

The size of a subject can be varied during a shot by moving the camera and/or subject. For example, an actor in medium shot can move away from the camera into wide shot or toward the camera into close-up. This shot from Shadow of a Doubt moves from a medium shot to an extreme close shot:

Cutting Heights

There must be a clear understanding between director and cinematographer as to where frame lines cut off the actor's body. These designations are called cutting heights:  

A rule in cutting heights is that frame lines should not cut through an actor's primary joints, since this has a strange look on screen. Primary joints include the neck, waist, knees, and ankles. The director should be aware that terminology may vary slightly from one cinematographer to the next, so definitions should be clearly established before shooting begins.

Technical Considerations

The preferred way to change subject size is to move the camera in relation to the subject, or vice versa. Subject size can also be varied by changing the lens focal length (i.e., magnification), however, this affects the way the image looks in terms of depth perspective and depth of field:

Depth Perspective - Depth perspective is the apparent distance of the foreground and background in relation to each other. Wide focal lengths expand the apparent distance, while long focal lengths compress it. 

Variation in Depth Perspective
 (note size of people in background)

Depth of Field - Depth of field is the amount of acceptable focus behind and in front of the subject. Short focal lenses tend to produce a wide depth of field, where everything on the set appears in focus ("deep focus"). Long focal lenses produce a shallow depth of field, where only the subject area is in focus.

Shallow Depth of Field

To avoid fluctuations in these variables from one shot to the next, the cinematographer chooses a focal length and shoots the entire scene with that lens. The camera is then moved in relation to the subject to create the desired subject size. 

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If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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