Composing a Shot-Reverse

Ah, the shot-reverse, that staple of film and television, that standard for dialogue scenes everywhere. Sooner or later, two characters are going to stand three feet apart, facing each other, and have a chat. (You know, like real people do all the time.) And the required coverage will be a wide or two-shot, followed by a pair of singles known as a shot-reverse.

The singles can be dirty (including the other character’s shoulder or back of head in the frame) or clean (not showing the other character). Except for tight close-ups, dirty singles – often called over-the-shoulder shots for obvious reasons – are most common, and it’s these that I’ll focus on in this post.

 

The Unwritten rules. Which I shall now write.

Conventional wisdom on shot-reverses says that the two shots should

  • be the same size,
  • use the same lens,
  • match the height of the respective eye-lines,
  • allow “looking space”, and
  • frame the two characters on opposite sides of the screen.

Here is a shot-reverse from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson) which obeys all of these rules…

And here is a shot-reverse from Alien (DP: Derek Vanlint) which obeys none of them…

Ultimately, like all framing decisions, it’s subjective. Directors often have strong ideas about what they do and don’t like in shot-reverses. And no two DPs will agree exactly on the subject. And of course the actors will move around at least slightly during the scene, messing with any strict composition you’ve established.

 

Using the width of the frame

Traditional television, driven as it was by dialogue scenes usually covered in over-the-shoulder shots, was perfectly suited to the old 4:3 ratio. The subject and foreground characters neatly filled the frame.

But with today’s wider aspect ratios – particularly 2.39:1- we have a choice to make about how to use the extra horizontal space. If we want to place the characters on either side of the frame, we have to shift the camera out, away from the eyeline…

This has the disadvantage of showing some of the foreground character’s face, and starting to look a little like a two-shot. But it may be very effective symbolically if the characters have a strained or distant relationship in the story.

If you don’t like all that space between the characters, you can return the camera closer to the eyeline, keeping the subject on the “correct” side of frame, the side that gives them the most looking space

However, the foreground character cuts off the looking space, and the composition can end up looking unbalanced. It may feel like the subject is trapped, squashed into the side of frame by the foreground character. But again, this may be the effect you want to create.

You can frame the characters more centrally, or you can go to the other extreme, placing the foreground character enclosing the side of frame, cradling the rest of the composition…

This creates a nice sense of depth, making the screen resemble a window. The foreground character on the edge of frame continues the perspective of the physical frame itself (be it the plastic surround of a TV set, the curtains of a cinema or whatever) into the frame.

(I can’t understand why the cinema’s empty. This looks like an awesome movie.)

Here’s a similar composition from Die Hard (DP: Jan de Bont), where the perspective is continued even further into the image, to a statue in the deep background…

 

Oscar-winning shot-reverses

Looking through Evan Richards’ Cinematography Index at recent movies to bag the Best Cinematography Oscar, I saw a wide variety of styles in the shot-reverses. Here are just a few that stood out to me as interesting.

Here’s an example from The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki) which uses the foreground character as a framing element on the right…

This next example from Inception (DP: Wally Pfister) has great perspective, helped by the line of the table, and the wineglass on the left which almost feels like a vanishing point for the eye-line…

This clean shot-reverse from Sicario (DP: Roger Deakins) is interesting because the camera height is not on the eye-line….

The men at the table are shot from just below their head height, giving them more power and permitting the inclusion of the great perspective lines of ceiling lights in the background. The characters are framed quite centrally, which is also true of this final example, from Memoirs of a Geisha (DP: Dion Beebe)…

In the first shot, the distant window on frame right anchors and balances the composition, while the lantern on frame left serves the same function in the second shot.

 

And now the conclusion

If there’s one single piece of advice to take from this somewhat disjointed post, it’s that it’s more important to frame a shot-reverse in a way that feels right aesthetically, for the characters, and for the story, than to follow any rules, because…

See also: Composing a Wide Shot and 2.39:1 Composition

Composing a Shot-Reverse

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