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What is an establishing shot?

Many scripted television shows use “establishing shots” to help transition between locations in the show’s world — or let viewers know where the action is taking place.

  • Establishing shots often use the exteriors of real buildings — but not always ones that actually exist in the city where the show is set.
  • Some establishing shots also use buildings that have completely different real-life use than what it serves in the show.
  • Shows that repeatedly use the same location, such as characters’ apartments, work places or common hangouts, will often have multiple shots of the same building exteriors, taken from a variety of angles and at different times of day or night.
  • In some cases, establishing shots may be digitally altered to change the light, weather or even add or replace signage.
  • When a show choses a building exterior for a particular establishing shot, a crew may be sent to the location to shot multiple versions of the building’s exterior to be used throughout the life of the series.
  • Other times, the show may return later in its run to capture more shots.
  • In some rare cases, the building used in the exterior establishing shot may change in the middle of a series, often after the pilot or first season, while the interior remains the same and no reference is made to the location moving.
  • Some establishing shots may also feature generic locations from throughout the city, again shot at different times of the day, and are used more to convey that time has passed between scenes.
  • Many shows also use establishing shots for locations that are used only once or a few times in the run of a series — such as a restaurant, gym or hotel. In many cases, fake business names are digitally removed or replaced for these shots.
  • Establishing shots are not always used every time the location shows, especially if the show has distinctive interior sets that make it easier for viewers to determine where the action is taking place.
  • Most multi and single camera shows are filmed in studios or soundstages that may be in a different city than the show is set in.
  • In some cases, shows will shoot on location at buildings that might not be practical or economical to build on a stage and use an establishing shot that is of the building actually used — or a completely different one.
  • Some shows will use an actual building for a pilot episode — to avoid the expense of building a set — and then need to recreate a studio set that looks similar to the actually interiors and exteriors of the real life building.
  • In other cases, the producers may opt to create sets that are completely different and simply ignore the fact that the locations appear to have changed without explanation.
  • In still other cases, the producers may reshoot on-location or replace establishing shots with updated looks once the show is ordered to series.
  • Often establishing shots will feature famous buildings or buildings in neighborhoods that characters could not afford to live in or don’t make sense, from a practical standpoint, to be used for the purpose in the show.
  • Since many shows film in Los Angeles or New York, the buildings used for establishing shots are commonly found in these cities — even for shows set in other states or even countries.
  • In many cases, the architecture of the interior set of a show doesn’t match the exterior.
  • For example, a home front may show a certain number of windows but the show’s living room set has a different number or placement.
  • Many shows will also build “exterior” sets on a soundstage that may or may not match the building used in establishing shots.
  • In some cases, the buildings or homes used in establishing shots become tourist attractions — which some owners welcome.
  • Other owners find the attention to be a nuisance and may got to the extent to block the view of the property from the street or significantly alter the exterior.
  • Some shows don’t use establishing shots — or as often as others. “Law & Order” franchises are notable for using text to let viewers know where the action is happening.