2 Ways to Hurt Your Final Edit

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There, on the screen, is a single shot of a person talking. Then there’s a cut and we suddenly see another person on the screen, replying to the first person. It’s the all-too-familiar back and forth known as Shot/Reverse Shot. I wrote about it in an earlier post and included some video essays on the subject I found informative. The goal of that post was to illustrate how a filmmaker can convey relevant information about the story’s emotion, the characters, and the tone all in the way he/she chooses to shoot Shot/Reverse Shot.

But did you realize that Shot/Reverse Shot can actually hurt your film? Here are two ways…

Shot/Reverse Shot can ruin the pacing of your edit. I’ve seen dialogue scenes cut so that the person speaking is always on screen. Character #1 says something. CUT. Character #2 responds. CUT. Character #1 speaks. CUT. Character #2 speaks… And back and forth it goes, the cinematic equivalent of a tennis match. Don’t edit your scene like this. We don’t need to see the person who’s speaking. Sometimes there’s more emotional impact from seeing a character react to what’s being said, rather than seeing the character who’s speaking. In fact, in comedy, it’s often funnier to see the reaction of the person who hears the punchline, rather than seeing the person who delivers it (Just watch any episode of 30 Rock).

Shot/Reverse Shot can limit your creativity. Locking two actors down on marks and then simply cutting between two over-the-shoulder shots is ubiquitous and often unavoidable when making films. But relying solely on this approach can really limit your creativity when it comes to blocking a scene. It might be liberating to know that you don’t actually have to shoot dialogue scenes this way, You can move the actors around in the space. You can move the camera. You can lock the camera down in a two-shot and simply let the actors play out the scene. You can do all of the above. The point is, be creative when blocking your scenes. Go back and watch classic films from the 1940s-1950s…

  • Notice how the camera will often follow characters throughout the space.

  • Notice how the camera lingers on a two-shot, or three-shot and simply let the actors work.

  • Notice how a close-up two-shot will slowly widen out and inconspicuously pan left slightly to reveal a third character entering the room.

If you have the time, you need to watch this video essay that breaks down specific scenes in Jaws and how Spielberg blocked the camera and the actors. If you don’t have time to watch the full 34-minute piece, I suggest watching the scene starting around 8 min. 20 sec. that shows Chief Brody entering his office.

Don’t let Shot/Reverse Shot limit you and ultimately weaken your final film.

Have any other thoughts? Leave them in the Comments.

Here's How to Make Dialogue Scenes More Dynamic

At some point in your film, two people will be talking on camera. It’s inevitable. So, the question is, how do you shoot your dialogue scenes in a way that’s visually interesting and pleasing to the viewer?

INTERESTING LOCATIONS MAKE FOR INTERESTING SHOTS

If your actors need to stand still for a dialogue scene, find an interesting location in which they can have their conversation. If the location itself has a lot of character, or is unique in some way, you can create a lot of visual interest for your scene, even if the actors are relatively still.

Consider how Steven Spielberg shot this dialogue scene from Jaws. The scene itself is pretty straightforward: The Mayor and the Chief of Police are discussing whether or not to close the beaches. Spielberg could have shot this scene anywhere, but he chose to shoot it on a moving ferry. The uniqueness of the location provided a nice composition because although the actors are relatively static, the background is in constant motion.

CREATE DEPTH TO YOUR COMPOSITION

Sometimes a dialogue scene will have to take place in someone’s living room, or in a diner booth, or at a card table, or some other place where the actors are seated and locked into one position. Now, if you decide to shoot those scenes up against a blank wall, the composition won’t be very interesting. Give your shot depth by placing the table and the actors in the center of the room and staging the background accordingly. Angle the camera and the table so that the background falls off into the distance.

My latest short film Hangry is predominately a single conversation between two characters seated at a table. The crew strategically placed the table in the center of the room and arranged other tables in the background to create depth. We also made sure that the camera wasn’t directly facing a wall or any other flat surface. We used colorful wall art to break up the background, used the movement of the extras to add life, and removed a few practical overhead fluorescent lights to create variety between light and shadow, which added texture.

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MOVE THE ACTORS

There might come a moment in one of your films when one character answers the door, revealing another character standing on the porch. Now, what happens next? In a lot of the short films I’ve seen, the two characters simply stand there, one on the threshold looking out, and another on the threshold looking in. Then the scene simply cross cuts between over-the-shoulder angles.

To make this setup more interesting, try moving the actors in a way that makes sense to the story:

  • Does one character suggest taking a walk while they have their conversation? Now the two actors can move off the porch, on to the sidewalk, and you have a walk-and-talk scene.

  • Does one character invite the other one in to the house? If so, be careful not to place your actors in two chairs. You’ve just traded one uninteresting static shot for another one. Try moving the actors from room to room. Does it make sense for the homeowner to busy him/herself in the kitchen while the other person talks?

MOVE THE CAMERA

Whether you choose to use a slider, dolly, or stabilizer rig, adding camera movement to a scene in which two people primarily stand/sit still and talk, always adds visual interest. But what’s even better is when you can both move the actors and the camera. If you take the time to think through the scene, the purpose of it, the dynamics between the two characters, etc. you can create authentic blocking for your actors coupled with camera movement to create a very dynamic dialogue scene. Watch how Alfred Hitchcock staged this scene in the film Vertigo for inspiration on how to combine actor and camera movement.

Have any other thoughts on how to create a dynamic dialogue scene? Leave them in the Comments.

Best Practices For Working With Non-Professional Actors

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In my video production career I have predominantly worked with non-actors and the challenge is always the same: how can you capture natural, believable footage from people who aren't trained to perform in front of a camera?

If you've been hired to shoot a commercial for a local restaurant or a sales video for a niche product manufacturer, you will at some point be directing the people who actually work at these businesses. So, here are some things that have helped me get the most out of my non-professional on-camera talent.

  1.  Spend a few minutes with them before bringing them to set.  Introduce yourself. Find out something about them. Talk about things unrelated to the shoot. Get them talking about themselves. Smile. Laugh. Be personable. Build trust. The more comfortable they are with you, the more willing they'll be to take direction when the cameras roll. 
  2. Be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish.  Believe it or not, sometimes the business rep who shows up for the shoot has been "volun-told" by a superior to be involved in the production and he/she may not even know what the video is really about. Don't assume he/she knows what's going on. Spell out explicitly what the scene is about and what you will be asking him/her to do. Answer any questions that may come up. Remember, the more comfortable the talent is, the better the footage. 
  3. You are setting up scenarios, not staging scripted scenes.  If you come to set and start giving a long list of specific, scripted directions to your talent ("Now, at THIS point you will cross to THIS side of the room and stand HERE, turning 3/4 to camera BEFORE delivering your line...") they will immediately tense up and deliver a performance that feels too rigid and unnatural. Why? Because they aren't accustomed to taking direction, hitting marks and nailing the timing that comes from years of actor training. Instead of specific, scripted direction, focus on setting up a scenario; something they do every day while doing their job. Keep the direction loose, start rolling, and capture the scene much like you would if it were a documentary. Remember, your job is to capture an authentic moment.
  4. Be willing to pivot.  Sometimes your talent might tell you, "I wouldn't necessarily do it this way." Okay. Great. Tell them to perform the action the way they normally would in their day-to-day jobs. They'll be more confident and comfortable and your footage will look more natural.  
  5. Remind them not to look at the camera.  Don't scold them. Don't yell "Cut!" as soon as you see them look over to the lens. Let the scene play out, then walk over to make adjustments, using that moment as a gentle reminder. It is so hard for people not to look at the camera.  
  6. Tell them what you're doing on set as you're doing it.  Non-professional actors don't know what coverage is. They might not understand why you keep moving the camera around and why they have to repeat the same action over and over. Remember, your job is to make them comfortable. Constantly explain what you're doing ("Okay, now I'm going to zoom in for a tighter shot so I can get that same action in close-up.") so they feel reassured that they aren't doing anything wrong.

These are the techniques that have worked for me over the years and the more you practice them, the easier it will be to draw out the best from your on-camera talent.

What methods have worked for you? Leave your suggestions in the Comments. 

 

Why Shot-Reverse Shot Is So Important

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of thinking critically as you watch a film or TV series. If you are a filmmaker, it's important to analyze what you see on screen and consider why directors make certain choices, and how these choices convey information about story and character.

One of the things to look for is how a director shoots a dialogue scene, Shot/reverse shot is a trait common among every film or TV show and yet the audience can still learn a lot about tone, themes, story, and character just by observing the composition of these shots (if done well). 

For starters, watch this video essay on shot/reverse shot from Every Frame a Painting:

Okay, so what other examples can we examine, and what can we learn?

First, it's easy to rely soley on a typical over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot for every dialogue scene. It's pretty standard and can be seen in every film, like this example from The Dark Knight:

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When you start storyboarding your film, think strategically about how to compose your dialogue scenes. Don't rely on the over-the-shoulder look only. It certainly has its place (like orienting the viewer by establishing line-of-sight and spacial relationships)  but I don't believe every dialogue scene should be shot in this manner. I think the content of the scene, along with mood, theme, subtext, and where the scene fits within the larger narrative, should dictate how you frame up dialogue scenes. Consider what we can learn about character and the story from the following examples:

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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Greengrass loves to dirty the frame when shooting dialogue scenes. In this image from Captain Phillips he's using a longer lens, which compresses the spatial relationship between Tom Hanks' character and the Somali pirate. This makes it seem as though the two characters are in very close proximity, emphasizing the threat posed to Captain Phillips and his crew. Shooting over the pirate's shoulder emphasizes the voyeuristic feeling, as if we the audience are peering into a situation that we really don't need or want to be involved in. And since Greengrass likes to shoot handheld a lot, the added shakiness of the camera adds intensity, edge, and danger to the scene.

MR. ROBOT

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Mr. Robot uses unconventional framing, often placing characters on the short side. So what does this tell us about character and story? When you see something like this, it might tell you that the character is quirky in some way; that he/she is different from the norm and doesn't follow conventional societal rules. It might also convey a sense of paranoia; the idea that there's always something lurking behind the character, or that there's something from the character's past that he/she is running from, but can't quite seem to shake.

For more on short-side framing, what it conveys, and how to do it well, check out this article.  And for an analysis on the cinematography of Mr. Robot, watch the following video essay: 

 THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

In The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme made the bold choice to center characters in the frame during dialogue scenes and have them talk almost directly into camera.  

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This technique has many affects:

  • It's very unsettling. We aren't accustomed to watching dialogue scenes play out in this manner, so it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable (Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who maintains intense eye contact the entire time? Then you know what I'm talking about), which fits perfectly with the tone of Lambs. 
  • It places us right there in the scene with Agent Starling (Jodie Foster). This is her story; her journey. Throughout the film she's trying to prove herself as a capable agent when many look down on her because she's a woman. We're seeing things a lot through her eyes. And when we see other characters staring back at us in these dialogue scenes we feel what she feels - that she's being scrutinized, evaluated, and critiqued.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The technique of placing the camera behind the actors while they sit next to each other (on a park bench, for example) or stand next to each other (while at a bar) definitely says certain things about the characters and the story that's different from scenes where the camera is placed in front of the actors. For shows like House of Cards, this framing device communicates the idea of secrecy. The characters are closing themselves off to the camera and, therefore, to the world around them. They don't want others to see/hear what's going on. If you pay close enough attention, you will see this kind of composition in different spy and espionage films.

A director definitely has thousands of considerations to make when shooting a film and each decision has a lasting impact on the final product. In this post I've attempted to give a general overview of shot/reverse shot composition options, but I didn't even get into decisions like focal length, camera angles, and how dirty the frame should/shouldn't be when shooting over-the-shoulder. Hopefully this post has shown how much a director can convey about story and character even when shooting something seemingly as ordinary as a dialogue scene. 

If you have anything you would like to add to the conversation, please do so in the Comments section.