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.