Friday, May 25, 2007

Scripting the Establishing Shot

I discuss the inspiration for this post on The Rundown and whether you work in comics or film, you might be interested in that.

The Establishing Shot (ES) dictates the setting of a scene. This is particularly important when the location changes and is most often used in TV. As I said on The Rundown, a glaring (and successful) example of it was used in a recent issue of Marvel's Daredevil, which is what made it stick out in my head. Once you learn what it is, you quickly overlook it when you see it on TV - much like you did before you learned it.

We'll use Will & Grace as an example, largely because they use an Establishing Shot consistently.

An episode will open without an ES because opening sequences are not usually tied to the story in a sit-com. Cheers pioneered this technique, with their technique of a gag before the opening credits. The gag was never tied to the actual story, though some sit-coms have used the method to "set the stage," much like a preamble or prologue. Seinfeld almost always opened with an ES, but Seinfeld did not have a title sequence and, while it had several regular settings (Jerry's apartment and the diner being the two that come immediately to mind), it was not tied to a specific location. Still, it could have done without the ES, but it's a staple of the television sit-com, so...

Anyway, an episode of Will & Grace will open in the apartment (usually), and a series of gags will ensue. Roll title sequence, black, commercial break, return, ES.

The ES is always an exterior shot (EXT) unless it focuses on a specific plaque, document, picture, or label, which identifies the location. For example, a law office, where the scene opens on the law firm's name, stenciled on the door. In sit-coms like Will & Grace and Seinfeld, the ES are easy to spot (which is why I chose them to illustrate this concept) because they are cut-aways.

For example, when moving from a scene in the apartment to a scene in Grace's office, you'll always see the EXT of the building with that odd Cupid-cum-Doughboy statue. This lets the audience know that we are now at Grace's office. You may wonder why they do this, since we'll figure that out once the scene starts anyway, and I can only tell you that "that's the way it's done." Watch some of the older, "classic" TV shows and you'll see the same thing. An ES always comes (in TV) when you change locations - always.

Interesting side-note, most of the comedies that become the critics' darlings (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, more) do not use ES consistently. Interesting side-note #2: they usually don't last long (the shows, I mean). Interesting side-note #3: since the 1980s or so, most TV dramas do not use ES, or do so sparingly (the reason is because sit-coms are situational comedies, which depend more on the - wait for it! - situation, where dramas focus on the characters and relationships).

In comics, ES are almost always used when switching location, unless you follow the character to the location. For instance, if Spidey is swinging from building to building to get to the campus lab, we'll follow him through several panels until he arrives there, and he will let us know through his internal dialogue that we are headed to the lab. If we leave Spidey swinging away from the scene of a crime he just foiled and jumping to a scene at the campus lab, we're either going to get an ES or a blurb (narration in the boxes), telling us where we are.

As film and comics become ever more cozy and creators are starting to realize what I've been saying for, oh, 20+ years now (that they're both sequential art), the lines between techniques and methods become ever more blurred. Law & Order is a big proponent of what I like to call "The TV Blurb" - a black with the setting, given in time/date/location format - and it works particularly well for the show because it reinforces the genre: it reminds viewers of court documents, or how they perceive them dramatically.

Comics have always used ES (as has film) and I'm not sure which one got it from the other (I'd be inclined to think film got it from comics, since The Yellow Kid predates Hollywood... IIRC), but comics have finally dropped the extemporaneous blurbs like, "Meanwhile... elsewhere..." If you're scripting a comic book, never, ever describe the panel to the reader - what's the point? Comics are no longer aimed at children (not all of them, anyway), so it's an insult to the reader's intelligence and also redundant.

The same could be said for TV in that, if you want to get right down to brass tacks, the whole concept of an Establishing Shot could be dropped. But ultimately, film is a different medium than comics, even if the two share a sequential method; while styles and techniques can span the two, TV requires much more of a bottleneck, attention-wise, in order to keep the viewer focused on the point(s) of the scene and direction of the story.

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