Spice Up Your Videos with Shot Sequences

June 25, 2014

Meryl Ayres


Shot sequences are useful jumping-off points for beginner (and experienced) videographers.

Most often, a video is made up of several shot sequences, similar to how this blog post is made up of several paragraphs. Within each paragraph (or shot sequence), there are multiple sentences (or shots) that work together to create distinct sets.

Let’s review this thrilling metaphor, shall we?

  • Blog Post = Video.
  • Paragraph = Shot Sequence.
  • Sentence = Shot.

While taking a course in photo and video journalism at the Harvard Extension School, I learned some tried and true sequences that I still use to this day. These priceless gems have helped me to diversify my shots and create more dynamic videos.

Here are five of my favorite shot sequences. Try ’em out in your next video!

1. Medium. Close. Wide.

This is a great one to start with because it can be used in pretty much any type of video, and it requires minimal effort. It’s like the Meryl Streep of shot sequences: always a solid choice.

First: Capture a medium shot to establish a focus for your sequence.

Second: Take a close-up shot to highlight an interesting detail. This shot will serve as the sriracha for your sequence! Bam! Instant spice!

Third: Shoot a wide shot that includes more of the environment.

In general, close-ups are really useful when you’re trying to split up shots in an otherwise static video. If all my sentences were the same length and style, my paragraphs would become quite boring. Hooray for variety!

2. Close-up Collage

While we’re on the topic of close-ups, you can shoot a whole collection of them to create a portrait of a setting or a subject. Pair this with a caramel-smooth voice-over, and you’re on your way to creating video magic.

Imagine a scene with a woman reading a newspaper. As a videographer tasked with capturing this, you could use a nice, long medium shot of her reading away and call it a day. Or, you could take multiple brief close-up shots featuring her focused eyes, the headlines of the paper, the steaming mug of coffee, her purple nails, and any other interesting pieces that make up the whole. Talk about sriracha! Now we’re getting spicy!

3. The Reveal (my favorite!)

This shot sequence is analogous to a surprise birthday party in terms of the sheer joy it brings. First, think of something fun that you want to reveal in the last shot of your sequence. Maybe it turns out that your subject is standing among a colony of small penguins. Maybe someone behind him is actually talking, and he’s just mouthing the words. Maybe he’s wearing metallic leggings.

The possibilities are endless! In your first shot (or shots), be sure to hide the surprise, then “jump out,” or make the big reveal, in the last shot! So fun!

4. Match on Action

Some people call this method “cutting on action.” To build this sequence, you take multiple shots from different angles while preserving the continuity of the subject’s action.

Each new shot should pick up the subject’s action from the previous shot:

When done well, this sequence can make your video look seamless and professional, like a tuxedo unitard. Actions that your subject can repeat work best for this sequence.

5. Action. Reaction.

For this shot sequence, you will need at least two subjects, an “actor” and a “reactor.” When casting, it’s helpful to find subjects who are comfortable with expressing themselves on camera. As you can see in our video example above, Dave is quite comfortable with being a drama queen. Perfect.

Since I love anthropomorphized animals, I couldn’t help but provide you with another quick example. Let’s say one penguin, Randy, is surprising another penguin, Karen, with flowers.

  • First shot: Karen is typing away with her penguin flippers at her desk.
  • Second shot: Randy waddles over to Karen’s desk and pulls a bouquet of flowers out from behind his back. This is somewhat difficult because he has no hands.
  • Third shot: Karen’s face is surprised and excited. She can’t believe Randy remembered her birthday!
  • Fourth shot: Randy smiles and nods.

Once you begin shooting this sequence, the spatial relationship between the two subjects needs to remain consistent. In other words, if Karen begins on one side of the frame opposite Randy, she sure as heck needs to stay on that side. Otherwise, you risk creating cognitive dissonance, and penguins hate cognitive dissonance.

It’s Go Time!

When I went out to shoot my first video assignment, I brought a whole list of shot sequences in my back pocket and experimented with them constantly. You can, too!

It’s important to keep in mind that you can alter and expand upon these models; think of them as starter logs for your creative fire. You feel that steam heat? It’s even more important to stay true to your own unique style. Maybe you are a close-up collage Craig, or an action-reaction Antonia. Maybe you want to squeeze three close-ups in between a medium and a wide shot! Go crazy! There are no rules! Go get ’em tiger!

Have you tried any of these shot sequences before? How would you expand on these templates? Do you have your own favorite sequence(s)?

June 25, 2014

Meryl Ayres


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