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.