Advanced Cinematography Techniques

9 Cool Cinematic Shots Anyone Can Do

Coming up with creative new camera shots isn’t always easy. Once you’ve mastered the basics — wide shots, medium shots, close-ups — you may start to fall back on the same old camera angles. It may seem like the more advanced shots you see in the movies are only suitable for projects with a big budget and lots of high-tech equipment.

But you don’t need drones and dollies to add new dimensions to your work. Let’s look at 9 cool shots that have been used in iconic movie scenes that anyone at home can do:

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

1. The swimming pool shot

One of the most challenging places for a cinematographer to shoot is in a swimming pool or other body of water. I’ve been on shoots that nearly lost equipment to unexpected waves while trying to shoot scenes on the beach. Underwater housing can be expensive, and a Go-Pro just won’t give you the cinematic quality you may be looking for with your pool scenes.

One solution is to place your camera in a fish tank – an empty fish tank, that is. Buy a fish tank from the store that’s big enough to hold your camera. Lower the fish tank gently into the pool until it floats half in and half out of the water. Put your camera in the dry interior of the fish tank and you’ll be able to shoot through the glass into the water.

You won’t be able to fully submerge the camera, but it’ll be low enough for you to get some half-in/half-out shots. Get comfortable with the setup, and you can track your actor stepping into the water or rising up out of the pool. You can use the same trick for bathtub shots, such as a close-up of your subject ducking their head under the water.

Billy Wilder used a slightly different trick when shooting the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard. In the shot, we appear to be looking up from below at a character floating face-down in a pool, with policemen gathered behind him.

In reality, we’re looking at a reflection: the camera was safely above the water, shooting down into a mirror that was placed at the bottom of the pool. The illusion is so convincing that if you didn’t know that going into the movie, you would probably never guess.

2. The (other) fish tank shot

Maybe you want to incorporate some underwater themes into your movie but you don’t actually want your characters to go into a pool or a bathtub. Try shooting through a (full) fish tank from the outside.

This shot was most memorably put to use in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. In one scene, the two characters encounter each other on either side of a fish tank.

The camera cuts between close-ups of their eyes as fish swim by in the foreground, as well as shots of their faces pressed up against the glass.

Why use a shot like this? Well, it gives you an opportunity to show your character’s facial expressions up close, without using a more cliche shot, such as having them look into a bathroom mirror. It can also make a house or apartment feel more surreal by distorting it through the glass and water of a fish tank.

3. The dollhouse shot

It seems like dollhouses have been making a comeback on the big screen. One of the creepiest movies of recent years is Hereditary, in which several scenes make use of a miniature dollhouse. The motif also appears in Sharp Objects, The Haunting of Hill House, The Miniaturist, and the remake of Halloween.

While you may not be able to create the life-like replicas used in these movies, you can still use miniatures to explore themes of claustrophobia or voyeurism. In Hereditary, for example, we see Toni Collette’s eye looking through the windows of the dollhouse at figurines of other characters.

A dollhouse doesn’t have to match the real-world exactly to create the illusion that it’s a replica. Pan from one room of the dollhouse to another and then use a cutaway to make a seamless transition to an actual bathroom or kitchen.

4. The tilt-shift

The tilt-shift is almost the opposite of the dollhouse shot. Essentially, it makes the real world look like a miniature model. You’ve probably seen the effect used in time-lapse videos on YouTube.

How does it work? In most close-ups, the camera has a shallow depth-of-field, and in most wide shots, it doesn’t. So in a close-up, the background will most likely be blurry, but in a wide shot, the entire landscape in focus.

A tilt-shift image plays with this effect by imposing a shallow depth-of-field on a wide shot. Now, only a portion of the frame is in focus and the rest of it is blurry. This creates the illusion that it’s actually a close-up shot, and the eye processes it as a model rather than as a full-size image.

How can you use this effect in your own work? If you’re using a DSLR, you can use a tilt-shift lens, or you can download a tilt-shift app for your smartphone.

The key is to pick a subject that’s suitable for a tilt-shift shot. In general, you’ll want to be looking down on your subject from above, so consider shooting from a roof or balcony. Also, more saturated colors emphasis the tilt-shift effect.

Including people in the shot tends to ruin the effect and make it look more life-like. So it’s best to use the tilt-shift for establishing or transition shots rather than entire scenes. Try creating a timelapse of a busy train station or a highway during rush hour.

5. Between the legs

Most of the time, we create a reverse shot by getting a bit of the head in frame or shooting over-the-shoulder. But we can use other parts of the body to add depth to the foreground of the image. In one iconic shot from The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character stands fully in frame while Mrs. Robinson’s leg fills the foreground of the shot. In another, her leg is bent at the knee, framing Hoffman’s character.

These shots add an element of sensuality to the scene. But you could use this shot in other contexts too, such as shooting through a character’s bent arms or legs during a workout scene. It adds a bit of variety to the standard over-the-shoulder shot.

Another famous between-the-leg shot appears in The Big Lebowski, when the camera tracks beneath the legs of several women standing with their feet apart over a bowling lane. We can the bowling pins in the distance, framed by the legs the entire time. The scene in shot against a black background to increase the contrast.

6. The trunk shot

One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite shots, the trunk shot appears in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Jackie Brown. He also uses a “hood shot” in Death Proof that follows the same principles.

The trunk shot is a low-angle shot that generally looks up at a character from the POV of another character tied up or trapped inside a trunk.

There are two ways to shoot a trunk shot. The first is to cheat it: since professional film shoots typical have a camera operator who won’t easily be able to work from inside a trunk, it’s likely that the shot has been created on set. The production team may have found a spare trunk door to position over the camera, creating the illusion that the camera is actually inside the trunk.

If you want to create this shot at home and don’t want to fake it – say, you want to show the trunk door opening and closing without any cutaways – then put the camera in the trunk and let it roll for the entire scene.

Now that cameras are smaller and can even be controlled remotely, this is easier to do. You’ll likely have to do several takes to get the lighting and the angle right, or you can watch from a wireless monitor to make sure it turns out OK.

7. The low-angle close-up

The Shining is full of memorable shots, but one of the most inventive is Kubrick’s low-angle close-up of Jack Nicholson’s character leaning against a door. In this shot, the camera sits on the floor looking up vertically at Jack’s face.

This is a an effective shot because it has all the benefits of a close-up — a clear, well-lit view of the character’s facial expressions — but also conveys a sense of danger. Jack’s face dominates the frame, and his arms and shoulders fill the shot, making him appear even more powerful and threatening.

While this shot works well against a doorframe, it could be used for any scene in which a character looks down at something, such as an adult looking down at a baby or a pet. If two characters are having a conversation through a wall or a doorway, consider cutting between a low-angle shot on both sides of the wall.

To shoot it, simply position the camera vertically below the subject, and keep a frame of reference, such as a wall or bed frame, in the shot for perspective. You can use this shot to convey a sense of authority or menace.

8. The pillow shot

When you hear the term “pillow shot,” you may be thinking of an overhead shot of a character lying back on a bed. Or, maybe two characters talking to each other while resting on a pillow.

While that’s a cool shot too, it isn’t what we’re talking about here. In film theory, a pillow shot refers to a technique used by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. In many of his films, such as Tokyo Story, Ozu would cut away to seemingly out-of-place shots that aren’t really related to the narrative but help contribute to the tone and pace of the film.

A lingering shot of flags blowing in the window. Laundry hanging in the yard. An empty room that characters previously appeared in. These aren’t establishing shots, and they aren’t a typical montage either. They can create a feeling of time passing, or give the viewer a few extra seconds to reflect on the scene that came before.

Pillow shots are frequently used in anime, and their influence can be seen in the work of Hayao Miyazaki. They’re less common in American cinema, but occasionally appear in David Lynch’s work, such as repeated cutaways to traffic lights in Twin Peaks.

9. The silhouette shot

Some of cinema’s classic images are silhouette shots, from E.T.’s bike ride across the moon to the dramatic ending of Fight Club. While a general rule is to let the audience see the expressions on your character’s faces, sometimes a silhouette can tell you more than a close-up ever could.

In Jarhead, a soldier lifts his canteen up to take a drink in the hot yellow sun. In Million Dollar Baby, the silhouette of Hilary Swank’s character hit the outline of a punching bag. In Hurricane, a shadowy Denzel Washington does push-ups in his jail cell.

Silhouettes can strip an action down to its very essence. That’s why they’re especially good for fight scenes, as in the opening to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which has the appearance of a shadow puppet show. You can shoot a silhouette scene in a variety of lighting conditions, both indoors and outdoors — not to mention that most classic of cinematic endings, the hero riding off into the sunset.

These are just some of the cool shots you can get using your own camera and some basic lighting equipment. You don’t need a lot of setup, just a willingness to try new things and practice until you get it right.

Picking some of your favorite shots from this list and recreate them on a DSLR or a smartphone. Start experimenting with these shots now, and soon you’ll have a whole new repertoire of shots to add to your next production.

If you have any shots of your own please feel free to share them in the comments below!

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.