2 Ways to Hurt Your Final Edit

Video Editing on iMac

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.

On-Set Nightmares and Why Honesty is Important

When I was first starting out in film production, I got a job as a set PA for The Rosa Parks Story, a biopic starring Angela Bassett. One of my jobs was wrangling extras while shooting street scenes; placing them on sidewalks and street corners, showing them where to cross, etc.

Now, since this was a period piece, set during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955, there were several vintage picture cars on set, most of which had to be driven up and down the streets in the background. The Picture Car Coordinator placed extras in each of the vehicles, instructing them on where to drive. Apparently there was a woman so eager to be in the film that she overstated how knowledgeable she was when it came to driving these vintage cars. You can probably guess what happened.

I was standing on a street corner, just out of frame as the cameras rolled. Then, from off to my left, I remember seeing one of these mid-1950s vehicles come speeding down the street, out of control. It screamed through the intersection right in front of me and sped off to my right where it veered off the road, plowing into a row of bushes. The Picture Car Coordinator and other crew members rushed over to check on the driver. The woman behind the wheel was shaken, but unhurt. However, the situation could have been far more serious.

That incident took place 18 years ago and it still pops into my mind from time to time as a lesson in the importance of being completely honest, not only while on set, but in whatever you do. Never be afraid to ask questions. Never be embarrassed to acknowledge your limitations. People always appreciate truthfulness and I’ve found that they are more than willing to help when you need further instruction. Even today, I’m never hesitant to seek out someone more knowledgeable than me when it comes to questions I have about any facet of film production. That’s how you grow. I’m reminded of a quote I heard recently from a writer and director. He said, “Always be the dumbest person on your team.”

What lessons have you learned while working on set? Leave them in the Comments.

Here's An Important Exercise For All Filmmakers

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When I was in college taking a course on film production, the Instructor gave each of us an assignment. Drawing inspiration from Dogme 95 He told us to think about our personal philosophies on filmmaking and then to write those viewpoints down in our own filmmaker’s manifesto. I enjoyed the exercise and think it’s an important one for every filmmaker to undertake. Even if you don’t formally write anything down, just thinking about your own voice and the films you like to make can be invaluable in finding stories that you are passionate about.

I’ve been thinking more and more about my current philosophies on filmmaking and how it’s changed and evolved since those college years. My recent two short films, Big and Tall and Hangry, are a significant shift in tone and genre from all of my previous short films. Whereas my earlier works were weightier dramas dealing with the break down of the family dynamic, Big and Tall is a family-friendly adventure story and Hangry is a comedy. In light of these last two shorts, I started thinking about how my approach not only to story has changed, but also to the technique of filmmaking itself.

So, here are a few of my own filmmaking philosophies. Perhaps you’ll agree with me. Perhaps not. And that’s okay. What’s important is that you use this list as a way for you to start thinking about your own approach to filmmaking.

ACCESSIBILITY

Although film is an art form, I don’t necessarily believe in art for art’s sake. I believe a film should be accessible to general audiences and provide some kind of entertainment value. All genres are acceptable.

MOVE THE CAMERA AND/OR ACTORS FOR BETER COMPOSITIONS

Careful consideration should be made to balance both camera and actor movement to create more dynamic compositions.

LIMIT COVERAGE. LET THE ACTORS PERFORM.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get the coverage you need to tell your story. Nor am I saying that you should shoot everything in one take. What I am saying is that if you are thorough in your pre-production planning on both camera and actor blocking, you will find that many times you can let your actors play out a scene and you don’t have to punch in nearly as much as you think.

UTILIZE FOREGROUND TO BACKGROUND

Don’t keep everything in your frame locked down to one particular spot. Allow them the freedom to move around. Bring things closer to draw the viewer’s attention. Move things further away to minimize their importance. Try moving the camera through the space.

EVERY SHOT SHOULD SERVE THE STORY.

Maybe you’ve seen a drone shot in a film that seems to come out of nowhere. It just feels out of place. It screams, “Hey look! We have a drone and we used it in our film.” If you use a drone shot, make sure there’s a purpose for it in your story. The same goes for films shot entirely in one take. If you’re going to use a long, one-take tracking shot, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that it serves the story first. You shouldn’t try and market your film based on gimmicks (“Shot entirely in one take!”). That only gets you so far.

GIVE DEPTH TO YOUR SHOTS

Avoid staging scenes right up against flat backgrounds. Give your scene some separation between foreground and background. Shallow depth of field or deep depth of field is acceptable.

RELY ON VISUALS TO TELL THE STORY, NOT DIALOGUE

Think of ways you can convey information to the audience about character and plot visually, rather than through dialogue. I love trying to move story forward through visual storytelling, but sometimes my approach is difficult for actors who are auditioning for me. For my short film Final Hit, I remember that there just wasn’t that much dialogue on the page and the actors auditioning had a lot of questions. Sometimes as a director, a specific expression or action is all I’m looking for to convey information. Consider what you learn from watching the opening scene of Dunkirk just by what you see on screen.

AVOID FLASHBACKS WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Flashbacks tend to slow the pace of the film and are often (but not always) unnecessary.

These are some of the main thoughts I have when I approach filmmaking. I’m sure if I revisit this list again in 10 years some of these items will have once again evolved. And that’s okay. That’s what being an artist is all about. It’s about changing and refining and exploring new avenues.

What are some of your own philosophies toward filmmaking? How would you define your own style and voice? Leave your thoughts 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.