Gain a Better Understanding of Film by Studying Them Shot by Shot

Heat shot breakdownFor those who have never made a film before, and even for those who have, the process of planning every shot is incredibly complicated and overwhelming at times. Making motivated and purposeful decisions on composition, lenses, and camera movement for each shot is essential to make coherent films, and filmschoolthrucommentaries has shared one technique used by virtually every filmmaker to study films -- the shot breakdown.

I did my fair share of shot breakdowns in school, and for me, it wasn't the most exciting or creative way to spend my weekends. But, somewhere around the second or third hour of cropping and labeling screenshots, I started to realize that my descriptions and analysis became more instant and natural. I wouldn't have to flip through a textbook to decipher what I was seeing; I was learning the beautifully complex language of film, reading and understanding films on my own, and anticipating (correctly) each shot that was likely to follow.

In a post by filmschoolthrucommentaries, this process of breaking down each shot of a film -- an approach to film study taken by Die Hard director John McTiernan, is explored at great length. McTiernan explains learning this technique from an instructor:

What he used to make me memorize was the shots. He’d say, “Ok, learn that movie!” -- by learn that movie he meant; you sit down with a bunch of paper and pencils and write -- shot for shot -- the movie from memory -- He made me learn to think of movies as a chain of images where you would fashion the entire chain of images.

There's no one way to do a shot breakdown; you can make up your own way that serves you best. Some simply label each shot (Shot #1, Shot #2, etc.) and describe the shot size, composition, lens used, etc. Others take stills from each shot for a visual aid. If you really want to torture yourself, you can storyboard the entire damn film shot for shot.

Check out filmschoolthrucommentaries' post to get the link to download a full shot breakdown of Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat.

Have you ever broken down an entire film shot by shot? Did it help you understand the process better? What do you do to study films?

Link: Shot Breakdown 001: Heat (1995) -- filmschoolthrucommentaries

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Your Comment


This is why we go to Film School.

October 12, 2013 at 5:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Yep, and not regurgitated online tutorials over and over again.

October 13, 2013 at 12:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

John Wilton

Lol, you think they don't do the same at the top film schools like NYU / VGIK / USC / LODZ / list goes on?

"The whole idea of the school is to enable you to watch films and to talk about them, nothing else. You have to watch films, and because you're watching them and making them, you're always talking about them. It doesn't matter whether you talk about them during history lectures, or lectures on aesthetics or even if you talk about them during English classes. It's all the same. What is important is that the subject is always present. That you're always talking about it, analyzing, discussing, comparing." - Kieslowski

October 17, 2013 at 3:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I stumbled onto the classic 1941 musical "Sun Valley Serenade", which was shot, as was the norm then, in 4:3 and the cinematographic composition was quite different from the modern norms. The Glenn Miller Orchestra had around 20 various band members and a typical performing group was in, at least, two clear rows (or in multiples, with the quieter instruments upfront, louder in the back) In order to be seen by the audience, the back row sat above the front row. On film, this required a more vertical shot. 4:3 was perfect for it. Additionally, it had a lot of skiing scenes where it almost looked like a Dutch shot. Once again, skiers came down virtually diagonally, from the top left to the bottom right (and top right to the bottom left). That gave it a far more exciting look compared to them coming across the shot in 2.4.

October 12, 2013 at 5:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder is another fantastic example of 4:3 compositions. The way they balanced the weight of that type of frame was amazing.
It really hurt my viewing of Oz: the great and powerful a few weeks later. That movie was projected in 4:3 for the opening but was quite ovbiously weighted for a 16:9 composition.

October 13, 2013 at 9:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


And then Hitch went to and stayed with Vista Vision at 1.53, despite having wider formats available to him. My favorite Christopher Doyle lensed movie "In the mood for love" is in (Euro) 1.66. There's something to be said about being able to look up.

October 13, 2013 at 2:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


It's a shame that some of the less wide aspect ratios developed such a stigma about them. I love widescreen and 2.4 in particular, but the feeling you get from a perfectly composed 4:3 frame-especially when projected really big-is unique; very different from even a beautifully balanced 1.66 composition. You're right... there definitely are specific films when 4:3/1.37 would be a very suitable aspect ratio and it just isn't a viable choice anymore for mainstream feature filmmaking. You'd have to be doing a specific period piece (a la The Artist) or an effect within a film to get away with it. I've been watching a lot of Mikio Naruse's 50's stuff recently and it just wouldn't work in any other aspect ratio but 1.37. Alas.
Some of Godard's more recent 1.37 stuff has been glorious:

October 13, 2013 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I did something similar, but for the scenario, scene by scene, for Lost in Translation and another one, to understand their structure, how they were written.

October 12, 2013 at 11:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


A DP named Evan Richards has a great personal website that breaks down films that he loves like The Godfather, The Social Network etc. shot by shot. Definitely you should check it out.

October 13, 2013 at 12:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I agree that this technique is really useful. What I like to do is load a feature film into an NLE and set the cuts there. Then I can even play around with different shot sequences etc. I wrote a little tool that works the ffmpeg to detect hard cuts in movie files automatically and create an EDL, so that you can import the movie and have all your hard cuts already set. I describe the general workflow on my blog, maybe it's useful for someone here:

October 13, 2013 at 1:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'd also recommend Evan Richards' site - here's a link to his breakdown of 'Close Encounters': - If you go through the archives, he's done this for loads of different films.

October 13, 2013 at 3:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Here's a breakdown of a fight scene from Ip man.

October 13, 2013 at 9:37AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

James Northrup

What I've been doing is analyzing the film Hellrasier at home with a notepad. I watch each scene over and over while writing down the number of shots each scene has, composition/shot size/camera movement, types of visual effects, sound details (like how the assign different animal sounds to each of the cenobytes), and the objective of the scene plus possible subtext. After reading this article, I think I'll be adding a few more categories to my list!

October 13, 2013 at 12:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Your link to download your work turns crazy my antivirus... :(

October 17, 2013 at 1:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Early in my career I worked with Billy Wilder. He told me to study the "stills" as they would not move around and confuse me. I now have a collection of over 150,000. They include a shot from 'Mildred Pierce' the Joan Crawford classic, I still can not figure where the director placed his camera.
At the same time, working with Harry Saltzman and Guy Hamilton, they both had me studying storyboards and emotion/action graphs drawn on the office walls.

October 17, 2013 at 4:17PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM