How to Make a Shot List Like Terrence Malick

Building a better movie from the lens out.

A shot list, in case you don’t know, is the most basic blueprint of a film and the visual equivalent of a script. Most folks think of storyboards in this regard, but where storyboards hypothesize the finished look of a scene, the shot list is the step-by-step guide to where and when to use the camera, it establishes camera angles, height, distance from subject, duration of shot, and the specific means to capture it.

In the hands of most filmmakers, the shots disappear into the narrative, they are serving the story and thus take a backseat themselves; but in certain masterful cinematic hands – like, say, those of director Terrence Malick and his go-to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – the shot list and the items on it share the spotlight with the narrative, telling their own independent yet complementary story that when merged with the story of words makes for a more holistic and resonant film.

Like every other filmmaker, Malick has shot types that he tends to favor and repeat; unlike every other filmmaker, the way Malick deploys these shots is tailored for a variety of emotional effects, all of which are on display in the following video from StudioBinder that functions two-fold: once as a look at Malick’s specific shot palette, and again as a primer on how to create your own functioning shot list.

H. Perry Horton: Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist