The coverage rules and how to break them
The previous list of coverage shot is just a general guideline. Filmmakers usually go for a good Master Shot first because that is the minimum you generally need. If you run out of time or film you at least have something you can use.
The traditional rule concerning coverage is to get all the setups you might need for editing each scene. The establishing shot to inform the audience where the scene is taking place. The master shot to have an overall view of the action of the scene. A variety of closer shots of the actors from every angle, distance and in every combination so you can be able to cover every possible editing choice.
Each setup is filmed over and over in a series of takes until you have at least one good take where the actors got all the lines right and played the scene with the correct emotional involvement.
On major films with big budgets this is often the approach used. Every setup gets 15 or more re-takes to guarantee that there is plenty of good material. Budget conscious filmmakers can't afford to be so careless in their techniques and the best directors are very thoughtful about their coverage, regardless of budget, for other reasons.
Actors get bored and tired after many takes. Their performances gets lifeless. It often happens that even well rehearsed actors need some warm up time. The first couple of takes are full of little mistakes. Then the third for fourth take is usually the best. After that the actors start to lose their enthusiasm for the scene and any additional re-takes will be less well acted. Get as many takes as you need to get the right emotion and maybe one extra for "insurance", then stop.
A reason for doing a large number of takes may be to wear down an overly enthusiastic actor if the scene requires the actor to seem exhausted and at the end of their rope. If the actors don't seem to be able to get it right, take a break. After they've had a short while to rest, go off with them in a corner if necessary and remind them of the events that have led to this emotional scene to help them get into the mood. Then try again.
If the director has a good understanding of the scene s/he will know that some of the coverage shots will not be required in the edit, so why shoot them? If you don't want the audience to know where the action is taking place you don't need the establishing or master shots, only the medium and close-up shots. If the scene involves an emotional outburst from one or more of the actors you will probably want some extreme close-ups. If the scene is not highly emotional you can skip the extreme-close ups.
A good director will have thought out the coverage they want ahead of time. There is usually too much happening on the set to try to work out complex coverage on the day of shooting. The goal is simply to get angles that are necessary to end up with a good edit. Anything more than that will just be waste.
Actors tend to start running their dialogs together while they are acting. Although it is a natural part of normal communications for people to overlap when they are speaking it can make cutting from one setup to another very difficult.
One important trick is to have the actors pause for a fraction of a second after they give their lines and before the next actor begins to speak. This is especially true for the close setups. This slight pause gives a place where the different setups can be edited together. The editor can use this pause to change the pacing of the scene. The pause can be stretched, removed or the dialogs can even be overlapped to slow or speed up the pacing of the scene.
For cuts to look natural it is best to make the cut during some movement. Either a movement of the camera angle or a character moving, such as standing up or turning to look in another direction. During filming it is therefore important for the actors to be busy moving and gesturing all the time, so long as they don't disrupt the composition of the frame. It also looks more natural for people to be busy. In real life people are rarely still.
Hollywood Camera Work is a master course in film blocking and staging. If you've never heard of blocking and staging that may explain why you find your attempts at filmmaking look amateurish next to what you see on the screen at the multiplex. Along with bad sound, lighting, and acting, poor placement of the actors and camera are the biggest mistakes for beginning filmmakers. It's the difference between films that look like bad home movies and films that tell an exciting, emotional story.
Per Holmes, the creator of the Hollywood Camera Work DVDs, was a both a successful music producer and music video director. He was puzzled that there wasn't a comprehensive reference on blocking and staging techniques and spent five years creating one of his own. Luckily he decided to share his work and Hollywood Camera Work is the result of that effort. (Note that the educational discount previously offered from this site is no longer available. Check with the publisher to find out about product availability.)
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