overage is a term that refers to camera placement in capturing the scene’s actions. It affords different perspectives of characters and their telling the story. More than any other aspect of filmmaking coverage defines the director’s touch, his vision of the story. In essence, coverage is what the camera sees, and feels. Used creatively, coverage is a decided factor in the success of a movie.
While it refers most to camera placement, angles, and composition, it also relates to the movement of the camera and the length of the shot. Other factors include camera lenses, filters and the rhythm, pace and variety of shots
Coverage is what makes up the elements that are later edited together to make the movie. It’s a selection of shots that the editor can splice together to complete the scene. Because shots are duplicated in a number of takes, these shots provide the editor with many options, ways to tell the story. And while the editor may assemble the shots into a scene, it is the director who has the final say how this assemblage is completed.
To obtain coverage, it’s common practice to first shoot a master. A master shot includes all the elements or characters in one camera shot. It’s the long shot or wide angle shot that depicts the location, the major cast of characters and the action that will take place in a scene. The editor uses this master shot as a road map to assemble closer shots.
The coverage then moves in for a two shot (two people). This could be a frontal two shot and/or an over the shoulder two shot. While the frontal two shot depicts the relationship between the two characters, the over the shoulder two shot isolates mainly on one character’s action. This over the shoulder angle allows greater flexibility in editing as the scene can move back and forth between dialogue and/or reaction shots.
The close up is usually the final setup in shooting a sequence. This type of shot is focused on the upper body and face. It allows for the greatest expression of emotions. Like the over the shoulder two shot, it allows for considerable editing flexibility as the scene can go back and forth showing both the dialogue and reactions of each character. The choker close up can move in just below the collar and the extreme close up composed below the chin and cutting off some hair. These closer angles gather up subtle emotions and behaviors one would miss in longer shots.
Another common shot in the sequence is the cut away. This focuses on some element or object related to the scene but not evident in the previous series of shots. It could be a telltale cigarette butt in an ashtray or an incriminating drink glass left on the coffee table. A character’s observation or avoidance of these items quickly tells the story in visual terms. They also allow a departure from repetitious dialogue/reactions shots and set a new rhythm to the scene. There is an array of other camera shot available to the director to tell his story and these we will discuss later in this article.
What is important from the director’s point of view is what shots best will tell the story. Having worked on films as a script supervisor, production designer, and art director, I see firsthand the confusion when this question comes up. The most prominent solution is do a lot of takes from every which angle. On big budget movies this is allowable; however, when funds are limited, one must be more selective. This article gets into the selection parameters and develops a process whereby these choices are logical and prudent.
In dissecting a scene, one must talk about the pressing question the audience will ask and want answered. This question is the inertia that carries the story forward and creates audience involvement. They become invested in the situation, the characters and their problems.
For instance, in a scene between a cheating husband and his naive wife, the pressing question is will she discover his infidelity. The audience knows he’s a cheater and wonders when she will uncover this fact. Thus the coverage of this scene would focus mainly on her reaction to what he’s telling her. When will she find out he’s lying? The coverage would seek to isolate her internal questioning, her probing body language and the eventual realization and contrast this against his deceiving behavior. The scene is the pivotal moment in the story and demands to be handled appropriately. What camera angles and moves would you use to define this questioning and her realization?
There are numerous ways this could be done and the director has to decide which camera angles or moves best define his vision. This article discusses how these decisions are made and the factors that go into making them. Basically, it has to do with what the audience wants to see and how this desire can be fulfilled, delayed, or manipulated for best dramatic value.
The amount of coverage depends largely on the schedule and budget. It simply comes to balancing the three considerations of any production, time, budget, and picture quality. It comes down to how many setups can be done each day. This is contingent on time allowed for lighting the scene, moving the camera, rehearsals, walk-throughs by the actors, and the number of takes allowed on each setup. If you have a crew that’s slow or a cast that can’t remember their lines and blocking, then these become factors in structuring your coverage. If so, you would be restricted to fewer camera setups to allow time for more takes.
Another factor is how effective and timely are communications. If cast, crew, and the director have to belabor every decision while the clock is running, then time runs out before you get the required shots. Good coverage begins with preparation, knowing what you want to accomplish before you arrive on the set. It’s having a game plan that includes communicating with department leads about the plan for the next day. It includes a detailed shot list that’s communicates to the production team and cast what they are going to accomplish.
However, one must go beyond the shot-list and determine what aspects of the story need to be highlighted, repressed, or modified. Once on the set, things can suddenly change and one must be ready and willing to revamp the coverage to capture performance surprises as well as correct flaws. The objective should be to photograph performances that best tell the story. This may require adjusting ones shot-list to accommodate a better version of your vision. Likewise, being overly committed to the shot-list can back the creative team into a corner. It can overlook obtaining those fresh and compelling serendipity moments that make the scene magical.
Another aspect of coverage is POV. Whose point of view are we seeing? This consideration greatly affects camera angles as well as sightlines. Usually the character with the POV becomes the observer, the one from whose perspective we see as the story unfolds. However, this perspective can also be represented by the reactions and behavior of the observer. Simply put, the scene unfolds through the eyes of the POV character and what we see and hear is a reflection of his or her persona. Sightlines are acutely connected between the POV character and the observed object, character or thought. It is this juxtaposition that gives flow and purpose to the scene. It’s like a well-phased filmic sentence that is immediately understood. This juxtaposition between observer and subject observed is given added prominence via screen time; dominate camera angles, and well-defined sightlines.
Establishing geography is an overlook facet when it comes to coverage. Geography is the spatial language filmmakers use to evoke the experience of inhabiting and moving through space, to transporting the audience to different places. When done correctly, the viewer is oriented with the character’s movements coming and going to and from various locales. Creative geography is frequently used in film to transition between setups. For instance, when a character enters through the front door of a house shown from the outside, then emerges into the sound stage of the house’s interior, the action appears seamless. We accept that the house he entered from the outside is the same one as in the interior shot.
The spatial conventions used in film to establish geography are mainly screen direction, framing, and matching action. Consistent screen direction is important as our minds accept the proscenium perspective where an actor crossing the frame left to right continues going left to right in the next shot. Normally, this would not be a problem except that films are shot out of sequence. Thus script notations have to be kept so the connecting shot can display the same screen direction.
Framing the shot is likewise dependent on maintaining similar subject size. For instance, in a two person scene, the complementary angle moves from medium shot to medium shot. This is helpful when editing a sequence as the subjects’ head sizes remains consistent when cutting from shot to shot. The only difference is that each head appears on the opposing side of the frame. The subject’s frame size also helps indicate the objective and subjective sides of storytelling. Wide angle long shots tend to show what’s happening while closer angles tend to display why it’s happening and/or the emotional aspect of the scene.
Matching action shots likewise require a similar subject sizes. This makes the cut more acceptable and covers flaws in matching the motion. In matching shots, if the camera angle is 30-degree or more between the initial shot and the matching shot, this makes the transition smoother. In fact, this rule applies to most camera setups as it helps avoid the dreaded jump-cut.
A jump cut in film editing is two sequential shots of the same subject taken from camera positions that vary only slightly. While not inherently bad, jump cuts are considered a violation of classical editing, which attempts to give the illusion of continuous time and space. Jump cuts draw attention to themselves and the film’s construction. It becomes conspicuous and disrupts the continuity. However, it does have a purpose. It can give the effect of jumping forward in time and can also set up a jarring moment sometimes found in thriller and slasher films.
A smash cut is one where the scene abruptly cuts to one that is disparately different and not expected. It could be done for aesthetic, narrative, or emotional reasons and usually has a jarring effect on the story experience. A good example is when a character wakes up from a frightful nightmare to find himself safe in his own bed.
The L cut or split edit uses synchronized picture and sound elements to make transitions, however one or the other preludes or overlaps into the next cut. For instance a boy and girl are conversing and instead of going back and forth between the two, we hear what one is say while the other reacts. L cuts are also used to hide transitions between scenes. A good example is the loud sound of a train heard before we see the image of the approaching train. The name of the cut refers to the shape it makes on the video/ audio computer tracks, one below, one above, offset from each other.