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For the Sake of Conversation: On shot reverse shot

Written for Aotg.com by Parker Mott
Parker's Site: www.thefinaltake.com
Twitter: @parkermott

“Shot reverse shot” is a staple of editing in dialogue sequences. Conventionally, it utilizes the 180 degree rule, the eye line match, and rule of change among others. Film historian David Bordwell defines the film technique “wherein one character is shown looking (often off-screen) at another character, and then the other character is shown looking "back" at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer unconsciously assumes that they are looking at each other.” (Bordwell)

The primary elements of a shot/reverse shot sequence are derived from the three-camera set up. The shots you should have for a basic shot reverse shot are: a two-shot of the characters usually in wide or medium shot; an over the shoulder shot on character A; and an over the shoulder shot on character B. The diagram below should give you an idea of the set up.

This technique is instrumental for Hollywood’s classical editing style, as it typically provides continuity in conversation with characters filmed at eye-level. It is meant to immerse audiences in the dialogue – and thus the story – instead of directing their attention to the visual style. Shot reverse shot originally served this type of “invisible editing”, never calling attention to itself and staying within the bounds of continuous time and space. But filmmakers have also discovered ways of dramatically enhancing shot reverse shot, through stylistic means that are a little more pronounced.

A classical example of shot reverse shot is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut Hard Eight (editor Barbara Tulliver). The film opens inside a diner (the perfect place to film this type of conversation).

In terms of shot reverse shot, this scene is standard but effective. A nice touch is the way the clip starts with actor Philip Baker Hall looking directly into the camera, emphasizing his character’s sincerity and good intentions. While that’s a slight breaking of the fourth wall, Anderson keeps the audience’s focus on the interaction. He uses a traditional set up of over-the-shoulder shots, while occasionally turning to a medium two-shot. The latter serves to break away from the closeups and re-establish the sense of place, before subsequently sucking us back into the gravity of the conversation.

When cutting a dialogue scene that utilizes shot reverse shot, remember that one character’s reaction to what is being said is just as important as what is being said. Read the script carefully and determine the beats of the conversation. Doing so will help you gauge when to cut to a reaction and what it will reveal about that character’s emotions. This is important, because the emotions of the characters inform the emotions of the audience.

Look at this extensive bit of shot reverse shot from Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street:

Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing has to account every frantic tick of this eccentric conversation. The scene deals with two characters that hold very different temperaments: Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is very still, shy and mannerly, while Matthew McConaughey’s is jittery, talkative, and highly animated.

This hyper-contrast of personality becomes a gold mine for editors to mess around with the elements of shot reverse shot. Pay attention to DiCaprio at 4:30 after his line “I’m in it for the long run”. Scorsese and Schoonmaker stay on DiCaprio as McConaughey takes over, prioritizing his reaction over the other actor’s words. With this extended reaction shot, which ends on the actor smiling, the editor stresses a beat in the conversation through the actor’s thought process: DiCaprio’s character is starting to picture, with amusement, the debauchery his coworker is energetically describing.

This shot also ties to another useful tool in editing shot reverse shot: the L-Cut, or what editors call “split edit”. The L-Cut is an edit transition, wherein the sound of a scene plays over an opposite image in order to emphasize the context of the discussion or enhance its flow. This technique is an alternative to the linearity of classic back-and-forth, allowing editors to break away from that action and change up the rhythm and underlying meaning of the conversation. Also, by introducing an indirectly related image, it actively involves the audience by making them figure out the implied connection.

For instance, let’s look at this scene from 2005’s Syriana (the first 16 seconds, in particular):

In this clip, director Stephen Gaghan and his editor Tim Squyres start the scene with actor Jeffrey Wright marching toward the camera. Meanwhile, Tim Blake Nelson’s corruption speech overlays this image, offering a seamless transition into the (rather one-way) exchange.

The split edit enhances the implied tension of the scene, as it sets Wright’s determination (demonstrated by his robust gait) up against Nelson’s cocky, morally indifferent rant. While Wright is speechless for the entire scene, the split edit – as he trots toward the camera – reveals his thought process, which is that Wright adamantly disagrees with Nelson on moral grounds. Note that after the split edit, the rest of the conversation is presented linearly, using shot reverse shot and an establishing long shot (brownie points if you also spotted the filmmakers breaking the axis!).

In a film scene, one-on-one conversation should be more than about the exchanged words. An editor does not want to succumb to what Walter Murch calls the ““Dragnet” system”, which only focuses on who is speaking and only cuts to the other party once that speaker is finished. Murch explains that this technique (or lack thereof) offers “a shallow simplicity that doesn’t reflect the grammar of complex exchanges.” (Murch 66) Therefore, it is up to the editor to discover the numerous “cut points” for shot reverse shot to have dramatic purpose beyond some leisurely tennis match of verbal serves.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David; Thompson, Kristin (2006). Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Murch, Walter. "The Rule of Six." In In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001.

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