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How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer

Michael Maher

Learn how to frame a Long Shot the Conrad L. Hall way. Break down the work of a ten-time Oscar nominee by learning the difference between a Long Shot and Extreme Long Shot.

Top image via El Cine De Hollywood

Conrad L. Hall, ASC is a ten-time nominee for the Best Cinematography Academy Award, winning three times for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and posthumously for Road to Perdition — also winning three Best Cinematography BAFTA awards for the same films.  He earned four Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases from the American Society of Cinematographers, who also honored him with an ASC Lifetime Achievement Award.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

The long shot (not to be confused with a long take) is the widest of all the standard camera shots. They are often used as establishing shots to set up the context and space of a scene. The long shot is also called a full shot or a wide shot — which we also examined through the work of Robert Richardson.

Author’s Note: This is a continuation of the ongoing series of cinematographer shot breakdowns. For more, I highly recommend checking out the medium shots of Roger Deakins, the wide shots of Robert Richardson, low-angle shots, high-angle shots, close-up shots, as well as the introductory 7 Standard Shots Every Cinematographer Must Know.


Long Shot (AKA: Wide Shot, Full Shot)

extreme_long_shot_conrad_hall_flower_american_beautyHow to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer: American Beauty
Image: American Beauty long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Long shots often show the scale, distance, and location of a scene. They don’t always feature characters, but if they do — the subjects traditionally should be framed from head to toe. That is a rule that Conrad L Hall frequently breaks, which is why he is the focus of this breakdown.

People think you’re a genius for planning something like that, when in reality you were just smart enough to notice it and exploit it. — Conrad L Hall, ASC

When we covered Robert Richardson’s wide shots, many of his characters were portrayed as heroes standing tall in frame. In Conrad L. Hall’s long shots, we often find that many of the characters featured are either broken down emotionally or are overwhelmed by their situation. That means the way the shots are framed are completely different, as Hall often uses empty space to make his subjects feel smaller.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Conrad Hall Long Shot
Image: American Beauty long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Take the above example from American Beauty, in which Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) sits slump-shouldered in the middle of a boring room. If he was standing, he’d have a much larger presence in the frame — yet the purpose of this long shot is to make him feel insignificant.

I chose this frame for several reasons. It’s possibly one of the most “Conrad Hall” examples to further explain the DP’s style. When Hall uses long shots, we often find that characters are seated. Another one of his trademarks is cutting off the feet of the subject. He often frames from just above the ankles — whether the character is seated or standing. Also, note the door in the corner. Conrad L Hall uses doors and door frames to either add value to another characters entrance, or as a frame within a frame. Let’s take a look at examples of each of those signature looks, and a few more.


Long Shot: Frame Within a Frame

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Frame Within a Frame
Image: In Cold Blood long shot via Columbia Pictures

Conrad Hall’s long shots tend to focus more on individual characters, rather than the location itself. He uses locations and sets to draw attention to a character’s emotional state, often framing his characters within a door frame. Below you can see Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks) in Road to Perdition standing at the foot of his bed.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Road to Perdition
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Sullivan is perfectly framed between the door frame and the door itself. There are also leading lines all over this shot. Leading lines are the subliminal lines and paths that point a viewers eyes towards a subject. It’s a cinematography tool that gets the audience to look where you want them to. In this shot, notice on the trim on the walls direct your eyes towards the door frame, and the lines on the open door direct you right towards the main character. There is even the much more direct leading line of the bed post pointing directly at Hank’s head.

It’s a great shot, and one of many from Road to Perdition I will reference — which truly is one of my favorite films of all time. Not only is the cinematography top notch, but the film on the whole is just tremendous.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - In Cold Blood
Image: In Cold Blood long shot via Columbia Pictures

Another great example of a long shot frame within a frame is this one Hall shot for In Cold Blood. Once again leading lines direct you straight to the character in the door frame. The film is an adaptation of the Truman Capote true-crime novel, and this shot brings the entire eerie story to life.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Marathon Man
Image: Marathon Man long shot via Paramount Pictures

Here is another well-composed long shot from Marathon Man. Multiple frames balance the character in the center. You have the main vault doorway center, with a balanced frame of the door on the left and a trash can on the right. Then behind we have another rectangular door frame with bars, then another frame in the metallic circle. Beautiful.

While Conrad Hall does frequently use doors to create a frame within a frame (or a frame within a frame within a frame within a frame), the concept can be created in a variety of other ways. Another one of my favorites from Road to Perdition is this interrogation scene below.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Road to Perdition, Continued
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

We see two characters in a warehouse framed by the silhouette of Michael Sullivan’s legs. It’s a voyeuristic view, as Sullivan’s son is peeking in on the scene. With the frame drawing our direction center, and with the overhead light pointing straight down onto the interrogation, we can’t help but be captivated by the conversation.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Cool Hand Luke
Image: Cool Hand Luke close-up long shot via Warner Bros.

Here’s a great frame within a frame from Cool Hand Luke. Is this a long shot, or a close-up? Well it’s a close-up, but it’s also a frame within a frame reflection of a long shot. It’s a really unique way to frame the prisoners.

Beauty comes from contrast. I love contrast, either the lack of it or the abundance of it. – Conrad L Hall


Long Shot: Conversations

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Tequila Sunrise
Image: Tequila Sunrise long shot via Warner Bros.

Long shots are great for capturing conversations. Most long shots tend to be intercut with two medium shots or two close-ups of each character speaking. Hall uses them to put the audience in the location. The above silhouette is a play on the title Tequila Sunrise, where Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell sit on a swing set.

They are beautifully framed within the A-frame of the swing set, but you should also note how their silhouettes are also framed by the mountains and water. It adds an epic scale to the space, while also using some stellar background lighting from the sun.

The cinematographer was frequently asked how many nights he needed to get the shot just right; he revealed that he shot the sequence like a commercial, using a portable swing set that could be moved so that the setting sun was always in the ideal spot. “Contrast is what makes photography interesting,” he maintained, “and there is more than one way to create it. I used all of those techniques on Tequila Sunrise.” – American Cinematographer

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Searching for Bobby Fischer
Image: Searching for Bobby Fischer long shot via Paramount Pictures

You’ll quickly realize that Hall often has characters seated in long shots. In another example, here is a look at two young chess players competing in the Conrad Hall-lensed film Searching for Bobby Fischer. The added headroom may seem a bit excessive, but were the characters adults — this would seem like a traditional shot. The emphasis is on the youth of the characters. Also, once again notice all the leading lines. The table legs stand center frame pointing straight up to the chess game, and an added emphasis comes from the arms of the chairs.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Butch and Sundance
Image: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid long shot via Twentieth Century Fox

Another note worth taking is the close proximity of characters sharing the screen. Whether he has two characters talking in the scene, or dozens sitting around — Hall is not afraid of stacking people on top of each other. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidyou will often see the titular characters attached at the hip. They are never too far removed from each other.


Long Shot: Character Entrances

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Character Entrance
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

When it comes to bringing other characters into a scene, Conrad Hall will often have a well-lit door on stand-by. Above, you’ll see a double frame within a frame, as the doorway on the right frames Michael Sullivan Jr awaiting the return of his father. Once the elder Michael returns, he is perfectly framed by the hallway on the left. Also note that he leaves the door open, and a nice light spills into the scene.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Character Entrance
Image: American Beauty long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Hall has done a similar setup in American Beauty. This long shot places two characters well off to the right side of frame, with a single door balancing the composition on the left. There is a beautiful contrast in the scene once the door opens and a tungsten light dominates the color spectrum. The door itself also adds a beautiful leading line shadow to the characters on the right.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Extreme Long Shot
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Now this shot is borderline between an extreme long shot and long shot, but for the sake of this article we’ll call it a long shot — as the character will walk into frame. Like before, notice the frame within a frame using the bridge supports, and all of the leading lines directing you center frame. This is our first introduction to Jude Law’s character Maguire, an oddball photographer obsessed with death. His presence is unsettling, and through his entrance on screen — the audience is already made uneasy by the way he walks into the scene.


Long Shot: Multiple Characters

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Multiple Characters
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG

Conrad L Hall is also a master of framing multiple characters in a long shot at once. Perhaps the culmination of everything he learned over the years was the shootout in Road to Perdition. I could write an entire piece just breaking down this one scene. We see six silhouettes majestically lit in the pouring rain. The street curbs perfectly frame the action, and the street lamps in the rear add some depth and definition to the end of the street. This image might be the most iconic shot from the film, and one of the most remembered of Conrad Hall’s career.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Multiple Characters, In Cold Blood
Image: In Cold Blood long shot via Columbia Pictures

It’s certainly a long shot he has had experience with, here’s another silhouette dating back to his work on In Cold Blood, this one featuring five silhouettes walking through the prison yard. A strong light source adds some stunning shadows to the characters as they walk, lining up nicely with the leading lines in the bleachers.


Extreme Long Shot: Establishing Locations

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Exterior
Image: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid extreme long shot via Twentieth Century Fox

When long shots are used from a farther distance, or when the characters are much more minuscule in size — the framing is referred to as an extreme long shot. These are used almost exclusively as establishing shots, transitions, and finales.

Above you’ll see an extreme long shot from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where we see the heroes (still joined at the hip) riding right down the center of the frame. You attention is immediately drawn to the signature mountain shot from western films, as the landscape itself is practically its own character.

In a similar fashion, below you will see another extreme long shot — this one from In Cold Blood. Once again the mountains play a huge role in establishing the scene. The characters are once again side by side, framed by the two railroad crossing signs. There is the added beauty of the railroad tracks cutting through the pavement and then turning directly towards the mountain range.

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - Location
Image: In Cold Blood extreme long shot via Columbia Pictures


Now that you have a glimpse at the amazing work of Conrad L Hall, and a better understanding of framing long shots — like me, you can now stare off into the vast void and question how you could ever compare to such greatness.

Filmmaking is about finding things out, it’s about examining, it’s about discovering. You should approach your work in the same way that a child discovers new aspects of the world. I draw inspiration from absolutely everything around me, and what I observe from life. When you get to be a visual storyteller, you learn to watch how people behave and to see things – to study the light, to watch a field as you’re driving by it in a car. It’s like making movies 24 hours a day. – Conrad L Hall, ASC

How to Frame a Long Shot Like a Master Cinematographer - By the Sea
Image: Road to Perdition long shot via DreamWorks SKG


Want more breakdowns from world-renowned cinematographers? Let us know in the comments below.