Establishing Shot

In movie and television production, an Establishing Shot conveys the context for a scene. It gives the audience important information about where and when the subsequent action and/or dialogue is taking place.

For example, if a film is set in Paris, it’s a good bet that the Eiffel Tower will be featured on the skyline – even if the subsequent story does not take place in the 7th Arrondissement. For the same reason, a movie set in Toronto almost always features the CN Tower in its establishing shot. Other clues within the shot – such as the vintage of the vehicles – can help convey era, while clothing styles and weather can help convey season.

Today, Port Rowan has a large town water tank in the area where the rail yard used to be. But as far as I know, in the 1950s it did not have a signature tower of any sort – certainly nothing that first-time visitors to the town would immediately recognize as being uniquely Port Rowan.

Since I’m modelling the branchline to Port Rowan set in the summer in the 1950s, how do I help convey that information to first-time visitors to my layout?

Today, I completed a key component of my Establishing Shot:

 photo LongPtBillboard-01_zpsniewdol4.jpg
(“Are we there yet?” A tourist hauls his pride and joy – an Airstream trailer – with the promise of summer fun ahead. Click on the image to read more about the trailer.)

This scene – still a work in progress – is located at the very end of the Port Rowan peninsula, which is the first thing one sees as one enters the layout. I have no idea if there were billboards in Port Rowan to advertise Long Point. But I don’t care either – because I’m pleased that in much less than a square foot of layout real estate, I’ve managed to convey a wealth of information, including:

– We’re close to a place called Long Point.
– Long Point is on Lake Erie.
– Long Point is a summer destination, with cottages, beaches and campgrounds.
– It’s the 1950s: The vehicles tell us so.
– It’s summer, because the driver of the grey car has his windows down and he’s pulling a camper.

Note that the scene does not, specifically, convey that we’re in Port Rowan – only that we’re close to Long Point and Lake Erie. As the visitor moves further into the layout – about three feet to the left, to be precise – they well encounter the railway’s impressive station, complete with “Port Rowan” signs. The Establishing Shot doesn’t have to tell the whole story: subsequent shots can fill in more of the details even as the action and dialogue commence.

I built the billboard from a laser kit I picked up from Barry Silverthorn, who used to manufacturer and market 1:64 structures and details under the Grand River Models brand. (While Barry is no longer running that business as a going concern, he has quite a few of these still in stock.) It’s not obvious in this photo, but I enhanced the kit with nut-bolt-washer hardware on the frame and support legs.

For the sign, I found a suitable vintage image online – it’s actually from the 1940s if I recall, but I plan to add some weathering to the billboard so it appears to have been in place for a while. I added my own text in PhotoShop. I then asked Barry about the size of his billboard so I could adjust the image – and Barry not only resized it for me, but he also took my text and did a much better job of laying it out on the image. (Thanks, Barry!)

This scene still needs work. I plan to add static grass, flowers, weeds and bushes – and possibly even a tree behind the billboard. But already, this little scene is playing an important role in telling layout visitors where they are – and when.

(I’m interested in hearing from others about their Establishing Shot. Use the comments section of this post to share…)

(For those of you who participate in the forums at Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, there’s also an active discussion of this subject over there…)

12 thoughts on “Establishing Shot

  1. Great observation and crossover knowledge from one medium to another, plus I just love the billboard and trailer! Now I’m trying to think what in my mise en’scène could have the effect of establishing place from a long-shot, overall view of my layout upon entering the room that is immediately recognizable as New York Harbor.

    Unfortunately, the Manhattan skyline is behind the viewers as they look at the layout, so it would be problematic trying to use a backdrop. Maybe I need a disconnected piece of the layout by the entry that has model of the Empire State building…

    You’ve got me thinking, again. Thanks!


  3. Hi Trevor,
    Nice touch on your layout. Always important to set a scene so to speak. I remember a billboard featuring a Large Mouth Bass fish and another choice to model would be a car hauling a boat on a trailer ( common today as it was in the 1950’s).
    On my layout I have a theatre playing “Rocky” setting the era as 1976 or 77 as it probably played small town Ohio after its Best Picture Oscar. I also have an American flag flying at the courthouse and a water tower establishing the town as , Kimball:Home of the Kings. I named the town after Tv’s Dr. Richard Kimble, who in the course of his flight as a “fugitve” of the law hopped a lot of freights.The Kings are a little league team as I would forfeit a larger space to make a Ball Diamond. My Canadian diesels when they appear will be on a detour or second unit behind Grand Trunk engines on run through freights with traffic rights over the C&O or N&W , my major railroads in town who cross each other at a diamond. While leafing through a Railfan magazine that Graham MacDonald gave me on the Double Headers Tour this past March I came across an article about the town of Kimball, Ohio, where the the real N&W crosses the the C&O at a diamond. Amazing! I hope to visit it this summer and observe how much poetic “modelling” I am creating!

  4. Trevor – I always assumed that shots of Toronto showed the CN tower because it made no sense to show the Stanley Cup!… ouch!… I really love the overall concept you discuss and is something I want to keep in mind… reminds me of an article Paul Dolkos did for an MR special, I think, on modeling the 1950’s… best – Jim

  5. I guess, the opening view of Long Marton is the one where you walk through the doorway and see the signalbox. ( ) (* miniature signalman not included). The actual view, is I guess, closer to ( ) than the one above, but both kind of frame the layout when you walk into the room. The box in real life is on the opposite side of the track- it’s just genn’d up with the Airfix kit for now. (somehow, I don’t seem to be able to find much time to work on the railway, between work, firefighting, community association, fire commission, and a pair of boys…) The big bridge is off to the Left, and Long Marton station on the right. There is also the goods yard and goods shed, which are on the track directly in front of the signalbox, but really, the levers define Long Marton as to how it is intended to be operated far better than anything else.

  6. I don’t have my Algoma Central layout yet, but one sort of signature or establishing shot might be a small flag stop with a boat dock on a remote lake, representing a nearby camp or cabin on that lake – a common occurrence up and down the ACR.

  7. I hadn’t heard of establishing shots before, but I immediately started to think about what it should be on my modular station layout.

    Two candidates emerge: either the depot, which sais “KISA” in nice bold letters telling everyone where we are, or the rather well-known engine house, which has been frequently photographed and still remains. Era (1960) is established by vehicles (like you pointed out), or advertising.

    The season is mostly established by green foliage I think, this disappearing over the winter, and drying hay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.