The Extreme Wide Shot: Dissecting Wall-E

All images © 2008 Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Pictures.

This is the first post of the series ‘The Shot Tells the Story’ using the movie Wall-E as my lesson plan. You can find the whole list of shots in the introduction post.

Now, you may not find the term ‘extreme wide shot’ in any film making books (or maybe you will…who knows?). It’s kind of my own term. Because I think ‘wide shot’ has too many variables. Therefore I’m breaking up wide shots into ‘extreme wide shot, ‘long shot’ and ‘full shot’ (you may not find that term in any book either).

They’re all wide. They can all be used as establishing (or re-establishing) shots. You don’t have to use all of them all the time. How wide you need to go will be determined by the story you’re trying to tell.

It’s all relative. And I’ll try to explain that.

But what all of these ‘wide shots’ have in common is one thing. They are answering the same question:

“Where are we?”

This is the first question you generally want to answer for your audience. Now, I’m not saying a wide shot has to be the first shot. But it should be pretty darn close to first. Again, it depends on the story and if there is something you’re trying to hide from the audience on purpose.

But I’m going to keep it pretty basic for these lessons. So I’m saying give your audience a wide shot very close to the beginning.

Or as your first shot.

Or in the case of Wall-E, the first five minutes of your film. That’s right. Except for one sequence where we see Wall-E scooping up the garbage, almost all of the shots in the first five minutes are ‘extreme wide shots’.

Why?

Because of the story they’re trying to tell us. The shot tells the story and here’s what these shots are telling us.

Above: “Space. Gotcha. We’re in space. Space is big.”

Earth. Cool. This story is told on Earth.”

Big city. That’s a big city alright. Lots and lots of big buildings. Must be tons of people living in that big city with all those big buildings. Pretty foggy too.”

Wait a minute. Those buildings look a little weird. Yes, there are some real buildings, but the others look all jagged. Like stacks upon stacks of…something. Why does it look so gloomy?”

Wow. It looks like those ‘buildings’ are made from piles and piles of garbage. Look at them all!”

It’s piles of garbage alright. Oh look! Something’s moving way down there. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s Wall-E because, you know, I saw the movie trailer and all.”

This big city looks abandoned. He’s driving around this big city and it doesn’t look like there’s anyone else here. Is there?”

Ugh, big box store. This place got overrun with those big ass stores, right? Buy, buy, buy.”

Buy n Large. I get it. They own the gas stations? One big business owns them too, huh?”

Holy moly! Looks like that one company took over the whole city! Think this happened just in this city?”

Is there anyone else here? Wall-E keeps on driving along and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here. Looks like there’s lots of other robots just like him all broken down.”

Nothing is moving. It looks like everything has stopped. Except Wall-E. Can this be true?”

Abandoned. We saw the video screens and this big, vast place is totally abandoned except for the robots. Is Wall-E the last one?”

Get it?

This particular story has to tell us all these things. And the best way to achieve it is all of these ‘extreme wide shots’.

It’s a story with a ‘big picture’ to lay out for us. And they drive it home. Over and over. We have to get that.

And we do.

Now as I said, it’s all relative. Would you need to show space, earth and all of these really wide shots of the city to tell a story about ants? I mean, that takes place on earth too doesn’t it?

No. You don’t.

Because we take that as a given. Unless aliens are coming down, it’s probably useless to tell that story with shots of earth. The widest shot you may ever need for a story about insects is a park. And that’s fine. It’s all your story needs to establish that world.

But Wall-E is about earth. It’s about the whole damn planet. And space.

So it’s necessary.

All of those shots answer the question “where are we?” over and over again. Because we, as the audience, have to slowly realize the scope of it all. And that takes some time.

It really eases us into the story.

Here’s another great little sequence that shows us just how much work Wall-E has been doing over the years. All the other robots have conked out. But our little guy is still at it.

Seeing him start a brand new ‘building’ really shows us just how long he’s been working cleaning up the place.

The use of dissolves between the shots and seeing the shadows change, lets us see a typical work day for him. Such dedication, huh?

I’ll leave you with this last ‘extreme wide shot’. It comes after all the action of him scrambling to get away from the fire blast and the landing. We figured out it’s a spaceship. And there are fairly wide shots before this of the ship’s blaster thingies.

But giving us this one very long shot gives us the big picture. We want to see the whole ship. Give us the whole ship.

Wow. It’s big.

Don’t be afraid of the really wide shots. You may not need to use as many as Wall-E did to tell your story. But use them to answer the question every audience member wants answered:

“Where are we?”

Read the Storyboard Blog by RSS Feed or by email for the next post in this series; ‘long shots’.

25 thoughts on “The Extreme Wide Shot: Dissecting Wall-E”

  1. Wow, look at those scenes! So realistic…hard to believe it’s animation! I haven’t seen it yet, but I mean to…

    This is really interesting: it will be neat to compare how telling a story with film is different or similar from writing a piece of fiction.

  2. Yeah, That’s Pixar’s movie! A new exploring of technology such as “looks real” CG camera, focus on millions of details, touching acting without facial, lipSync, even foot or elbows! Less is more! Wall-E, A big deal for eyes & heart! I just love it!

  3. @ Steph – I know! Especially in that first half of the movie you almost forget it’s animated. It feels like you’re watching *real* robots in real life. It’s when the humans show up that you remember it’s a cartoon. Not a bad thing, but you really get lost and absorbed into that first half. It’s great.

    And it is quite different than a novel. The main difference is that in a book, you can get inside the characters’ heads and read their thoughts. In film, we have to *see* it. We have to see the story rather than be told it. 🙂

    @ Victor – There is some awesome camera work there too, like you said. Watch the focus changes and hand-held feel in some places. Very ‘live-action’ and helps with that ‘real feel’.

    And the acting of the robots is *so* great. 🙂
    K

  4. I remember all those shots like I saw it yesterday. (‘Twas like 4 days ago.)

    I chuckled a little because my niece (who is going through a questioning-the-TV-phase) was asking me (or anyone in the room) questions that you are asking and actually answering. I think she’s aware of what’s going on in the movie, she just wants confirmation I guess. I really don’t know. No one knows where she got that from. But she eventually quieted down once we reminded her to just watch and see what happens. Kids…

  5. @ T – Kids are the perfect audience to test a story. They tell (and ask) it like it is.

    That’s pretty funny about all the questions. You can always read her my post next time. 🙂
    K

  6. Great post Karen. I loved this movie from the dumb little bouncing to lamp to the pixelated characters and Peter Gabriel music during the closing credits. You’re poking at just the right elements that made this movie great and poignant at parts. I’m just blown away that they consulted with some professional cinematographers (like the real, physical guys) for advice on filming tricks to sell this movie. The irony of Apple being behind this film is also apropos to the opening shots you selected.

  7. Okay, I know I’m nitpicking here. But I remember thinking SURELY one Wall-E couldn’t have built all those buildings himself. There were probably several Wall-E’s, but maybe he’s the last remaining one.

    You get a hint of this, when he blows a tractor tread, and salvages an extra one from his bin of spare Wall-E parts.

    But still…you see how long it took him to insert ONE trash-brick onto his latest building. And you see the size of the building he’s working on…you get a sense that he’s being doing this for a long…LONG time.

    (Hmmm…several Wall-E’s, though…possibly a plot for a sequel?)

  8. @ Lorin – Thanks! I don’t doubt they consulted with professional cinematographers. It *really* shows in some shots. Especially the ones with the rack focus and hand-held feel.

    And it’s never over-done. I love that Pixar doesn’t go crazy with ‘3D camera moves’, but use them when they help tell the story. Not just ‘because they can’. 🙂

    @ Friar – Oh, I think there’s no doubt that there were *tons* of Wall-Es doing all that work and he’s the last one. This was shown with the broken down ones and that fact that he keeps fixing himself with spare parts.

    It was also shown with the videos. It was only supposed to take 5 years to clean up the planet, but 700 years later…here he is still at it. No wonder the other ones broke down!

    Guess he’s really just another ‘cubicle’ worker, eh? 😀
    K

  9. after reading the prior post, i had to re-watch this movie over the holiday weekend. excellent! i loved noticing the little subtleties that made this great, like you said, the expertly used handheld camera moves.
    such amazing acting in it–i feel like i might unknowingly start tapping my fingertips together when i’m nervous now too…;P

    @Friar– please, nO sequel !! much like it would for the Iron Giant, i have a feeling it would cheapen this gem~

  10. ahm hi…your page is very informative..i have been researching on different shots and new techniques in cameras and lighting..your storyboard tips are a big help to a starting animation writer/director like me…the story and how to visualize it and drown your audience into the scenes are most important…kudos and god bless you always…

  11. Hi there,

    I was googling “storyboard” templates and landing into this cool blog. I just need the templates for a couple of training and testimonial videos for our company, but I think I’ll subscribe 🙂

    Great Info!

    Karen.

    Ps: Adorable name ;D

  12. Hi Karen! (FanTAStic name)

    Well I’m stoked you found me and that you’ll be returning. I may touch on some of that stuff in the future for folks like you.

    Enjoy your templates. 🙂
    K

  13. Hola from the Canary Islands;-)
    Was looking for storyboard templates too and landed on this amazing site/blog!!!
    In the summer I run a summer camp for kids and we’ve been doing very short films with them the last three summers but with someone who usually produces short films. This August I thought I’d get the kids to do their own short film from A-Z so your tips and templates come very handy:-)
    Thanks a million! Have subscibed and will be back;-)
    Loves Wall-E btw;-)
    Patricia

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