Monday Prescription – What makes a ‘nice shot’?

Hi Film Folk,

In today’s Monday PrescriptionThe Film Doctor Team address one of the most talked about and, perhaps most misunderstood, aspects of film-making – the ‘nice’ or ‘iconic’ shot.

Yes, we’re all familiar with ‘those moments’. ‘That’ shower scene in Psycho, or ‘that’ long tracking shot in Soy Cuba or Touch of Evil.

Empire magazine have a great list of them selected by world famous cinematographers here.

But what makes a nice shot? What makes it so special? And how can you put one in your movie?


Film doctor - The Exorcist



First things first – it is without doubt that iconic shots come from iconic, or at least, very good movies. You can pack a shot with all the beauty in the world, or mastermind an insanely complex camera move, but if it doesn’t sit within a wonderfully constructed story then you’re wasting your time.

The film has to hold up. There are thousands upon thousands of films that slip through the sieve of time that may have had one or two great shots – but the film’s entirety was poor.

Make sure your energy and passion is channeled into the script (and casting process) beforehand or the hard work you put into your shot designs will all be for nothing!



A rack focus or a pan or a track in may feel fun and exciting on the day. But what purpose does it serve? Does it help the moment? Does it aid the story? Does it help with the transition?

Of course, there are a myriad of occasions where certain moves and techniques ARE relevant but there are also many where the camera simply needs to sit still.

Yes, it may feel boring to shoot on the day but if it suits the story and the moment, then stay still! Do not confuse something that works as a standalone aesthetic with something that will work in your film. A ‘nice shot’ has real purpose. Technique used with no purpose is jarring and unnecessary.

Always ask yourself, what is your motivation for using the shot/technique? Is it relevant to that sequence?


Film Doctor - Lawrence of Arabia



It may seem that a ‘nice shot’ just has to be aesthetically pleasing – but in reality another, more subtle kind of  ‘nice shot’ exists. These shots capture the tone/emotion of the character or world or theme in the context of the whole story.

Michael Slovis, cinematographer on Breaking Bad, agrees:

“Lots of cinematographers – and I don’t fault them for this, it’s just how they are – love beautiful imagery but what I love is organic storytelling.”

He illustrates the point with his favourite moment from Breaking Bad, a choice, he says, that often confounds in its relative lack of visual fireworks. “It’s Bryan Cranston watching Krysten Ritter die in Aaron Paul’s bed, when he could have saved her,” he explains, “and they say, ‘But why? It’s just a close-up of Bryan.’ My response is that there was no better place to put the camera – with the right performance, with the right angle, with the right everything – and feel at one with the story.”

(From an interview with Empire Magazine)


Yes, these kind of shots might not get the recognition they deserve as a shot. They might be christened with ‘great direction’ or a ‘wonderful performance’ but, of course, the shot, the framing, the angle, the lens made it so!



Of course, the edit is the prime building block for what makes and doesn’t make a nice shot. What has gone before it in the sequence? What follows it? What shots are you intercutting it with?

Some ‘nice shots’ or moments need teeing up, so ensure you have shot the right amount of build up material preceding the ‘nice shot’/moment otherwise it could fall flat.

On the flip side, don’t be precious. If you’re in the edit and your sequence of cuts doesn’t work – or your long complex camera move that took a lot of time and cost a lot of money, simply doesn’t work, then be ruthless. Cut it!

Your film will be better off for it.

Film Doctor - The Third Man 


The Film Doctor Team always encourage you to ask ‘what type of filmmaker am I?’ What is your brand? What is your style? Do you have a very obvious one – like Tarantino, Fincher, Wright? Or subtler one like Weir?

Do you make genre cinema or more undefinable fare? There isn’t a wrong or right answer but it may define your shot choices and your overall ‘look’ as a filmmaker.

Regardless of the answer, the same rules apply – is the shot necessary? If so, for what effect? Even the most ‘stylish’ filmmakers are lauded for having a purpose behind their moves, whether it’s the schizophrenic camerawork of Luhrmann or the crazed installation-like cinema of Malick.



We return to Breaking Bad‘s cinematographer, Michael Slovis, once again:

“To me, real cinematography is never done on the set, it’s always done ahead of time. It’s in the pre-visualising and the conception phase when the look, the textures, the visual language of a [production] is written.”

Enough said? Really dig yourself into film grammar and how everything will sit in the edit. Plan, plan, plan. You’ll be doing yourself huge favours and potentially saving yourself a lot of time and money.

Film Doctor - Hal 9000

Some Examples of ‘nice shots’:

**SPOILERS from The Shining, L.A. Confidential and Reservoir Dogs**


The Shining – The low angle shots of Danny cycling create a low and easy-to-intimidate perspective. These shots used throughout the film also remind the viewer of the grand scale of the hotel and the secrets that it could be hiding around every corner.



Reservoir Dogs – Mr. Blonde does all sorts of nasty things to his police hostage, but it is the long shot following him outside that serves to build up much tension, both visually and acoustically.


L.A. ConfidentialA simple hold on Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes speaks volumes at this important moment in the film.



‘Monday Prescription’  No.110 – Get your head around what ‘nice shots’ and nice moments truly mean.


Understand the sum and the parts, both together and separately.Make sure what you’re shooting is relevant to the moment.


Understand when to use flourishes and when to use subtlety.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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