Establishing Shot

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Man, they're establishing the hell out of this building, here!"
Tom Servo, on an overly long Establishing Shot in Mystery Science Theater 3000's riffing of Werewolf

A wide shot that covers the whole room or background, used to set the scene, and tell the viewer visually where the scene will be taking place. Almost always placed at the beginning of the scene.

All too often the outside of the building -- Perfect Strangers, Seinfeld, Happy Days, Cheers—with a snip of theme music. Occasionally zooming into one window.

Science fiction shows often use shots of the spacecraft or planet involved.

Establishing shots have fallen out of favor somewhat since the 90s. Current movies and TV dramas (24, Lost, Heroes, to name a few) go right into the action of the scene. Captions or title cards may be used instead to establish location or time setting. The Law and Order franchise uses distinctive title cards to establish time and place.

Beware of Television Geography.

Often accomplished, especially in older films, with Stock Footage.

See also Silent Scenery Panel for the Comic Book equivalent. Also see Meanwhile Back At The, as these shots can sometimes but not always graphically represent a "Meanwhile...". When used in videogames this tends to be an excuse for Scenery Porn.

Examples of Establishing Shot include:

Anime and Manga

  • Cowboy Bebop is really fond of shots like these; whenever the show wants to indicate that time passes without anything interesting going on, it tends to cut to showing off the surroundings in series of still images while the jazz soundtrack plays uninterrupted in the background.


  • Overused ad nausem in Tommy Wiseau's The Room, providing some snark bait to the riffers.
  • Often averted in 2046, to the point of confusion. Most of the movie is done in close-ups.
  • Traditionally, Star Wars material begins with the camera panning down from the starfield after the title scroll finishes to show a planet and often starships in orbit.

Live-Action TV

  • Scenes set on Centauri Prime in Babylon 5 always began with a SFX pan over the planet with several Centauri ships flying by. Similarly other planets in the series had their own establishing shots—Earthdome for Earth, a beautiful crystal city for Minbar, and so on.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation had one matte painting of a futuristic city which was used over and over again for establishing shots of alien planets.
    • Similarly, Star Trek: The Original Series had several matte paintings that were recycled; the most notable of these was of a bronze-colored castle-like structure that frequently appeared in the closing credits.
  • In Stargate SG-1, Several clips of the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain were shot 10 days before the series began and was not supplemented with new shots until the 9th or 10th season.
    • The spin-off uses an aerial shot of Atlantis as the establishing shot.
  • iCarly have them for pretty much every location, but they aren't always used. Some important places that appear in one episode get them, such as the convention centre that the Carly vs Shelby fight took place in. A few strange examples, such as when Freddie was hit by a truck in iSaved Your Life, they show an establishing shot of a hospital, but it cuts to Bushwell, where Sam tells Spencer about it, and the scene after Freddie is seen he's at home recovering. In iSaved Your Life, they changed the usual establishing shot of Bushwell Plaza by adding a storm, which was in response to complaints that Seattle which is a very rainy city in real life being completely sunny on the show.
  • Particularly on US television/films, relocation of the action to Britain is often accompanied by a brief shot of red London buses driving past Big Ben. Usually the opening bars of "Rule Britannia" are played over this.
    • Similarly, it sometimes seems that every apartment building in the whole of France has a view of the Eiffel Tower. (Subversion: The film 102 Dalmatians shows the Tower, before pulling back to reveal that it's only a poster showing the Tower.)
    • And every apartment in Italy has a view of either the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum. This was parodied in Police Squad!!, when Drebin by means of voiceover informs the viewer that he is going to Little Italy to follow up a lead, and the Colosseum is shown in the background. A subsequent interior scene shows the Pisa tower outside the window.
    • Showing Las Vegas replicas of foreign monuments is a popular variant, and is sometimes played with as per the 102 Dalmatians subversion.
  • Subverted on Frasier, where the exterior of Frasier's building was seen just once in 11 years. The establishing shots were replaced by witty title cards.
    • Similarly, while Sacred Heart Hospital in Scrubs frequently has an establishing shot, the shot for the apartment building where the main characters live is only seen a few times in the very first episodes, and then very rarely afterward.
  • ER also has a subversion, in that the outside of the hospital is not shown until the very end of the final episode. But it's played straight with the inside of the hospital, as the second scene of the first episode follows Dr. Mark Greene through a hallway of the ER towards the admitting desk.
  • An episode of Prison Break shows an establishing shot of Tijuana with a Bital bank sign in the foreground... but the problem is, that by that time, Bital was already replaced by HSBC.
  • The Sitcom Caroline in The City, about a cartoonist, had animated establishing shots done in the style of Caroline's cartoons.
  • Back To You also uses animated establishing shots.
  • Establishing shots of the Connors' house and other locations in Roseanne were all still photographs, except for the end of one one Halloween Episode in which the house was represented by a model (which exploded).
  • CSI frequently uses random aerial shots of the entire city, presumably to show the viewer that the the plot relevant areas haven't suddenly grown legs and moved to another city in the last couple minutes.
  • The Bill never used to bother with this, but it has only recently started to use a series of exterior stock shots of the various locations where we see the officers (the police station, hospital, etc) before cutting to interior scenes. The bad part? There are only about five or six alternative stock shots of each location, so get used to seeing the same two nurses walking past the hospital—you'll be seeing them a lot.
  • Mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the movie Zombie Nightmare when an establishing building shot is followed by a rather disparate interior shot ("It went from a high-rise to someone's basement.").
    • Or when the shot is for a long time, to which one of them usually says "They're establishing the hell out of this building!"
  • Burn Notice follows CSI's method of accompanying scene changes with random city shots. Except instead of casinos Burn Notice seems to prefer bikini clad women.
  • Daytime soaps don't often use establishing shots these days, but in the 80s and 90s, most episodes or scenes began with exteriors of stately homes or other settings.
  • It's been pointed out that what is supposed to be the Matthews' house in Boy Meets World doesn't match the set used for the inside at all.
  • Fawlty Towers used the establishing shot of the hotel during the opening credits for the Running Gag of the sign's letters being rearranged to spell things like "Farty Towels" and "Fatty Owls."
  • Plenty of examples of this used in Bones - particularly an outside shot of the 'Jeffersonian' Museum.
    • The episode "Yanks in the U.K." used many weary shots of London landmarks, relating to Britain Is Only London.
  • There is an establishing shot of the Weir home in the pilot of Freaks and Geeks, which is notable for being very out of sync with the tone and feel of the rest of the show.
  • The Cold Open of almost every episode of Modern Family starts with an establishing shot of one of the three families' houses. They are used to transition during the episodes as well.
  • How to Be Indie uses idiosyncratic establishing shots formed of what look like cardboard cutouts of the relevant buildings that rise up to show the transition to a new location.
  • Friends established they were in one of the two principal apartments by showing an apartment building from Greenwich Village.

Video Games

  • Serious Sam The First Encounter and Second Encounter have quite a lot of these; whenever the player enters a new wide area, there is a lengthy cutscene that has the camera explore every nook and cranny of the area, usually also drawing attention to important artifacts and useful items that might be around.

Web Comics

Web Original

  • Lampshaded in the first episode of the new Maddison Atkins, in which Maddison appears in the establishing shot, asking Adam what he's doing, and then proceeds to walk across the shot.
  • Parodied in Weebl and Bob, where an establishing shot of a building is accompanied by a ditty exclaiming "Establishing shot of the building!" And in another episode, the narrator sings "Chris' house!" over a shot of... well, what do you think?

Western Animation

  • Family Guy shows the outside of the house far too often, usually after any sort of passage of time. It's really annoying once you notice it.
    • Similarly, American Dad often shows the outside of the Smiths' house, especially at the beginning of episodes.
  • Daria uses these almost every scene change.
  • The Simpsons makes use of these. Every time we see the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, a crow caws in the background.
    • In earlier seasons, a shot of the supermarket would always be accompanied with a stray shopping cart drifting into the street.