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Coverage – Defining the Director’s Vision
Coverage 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.
Cross-cutting or parallel editing is a technique used to establish actions occurring at the same time in two different locations. This technique helps to create suspense as in the case of the sheriff and his men racing to protect settlers from the bad guys. Shots of the settlers fending off the bad guys intercut with the approaching sheriff brings up the pressing tension-filled question, “Will they get there in time?” Cross-cutting can also contrast two opposing entities to form a new perception. For instance, contrast shots of the rich dinning in splendor against the poor scavenging through dumpsters for food. It creates a sharp dichotomy about inequality.
Pace, rhythm and length of cuts are other factors affecting coverage. Pace has to do with how quickly new information is presented. This could be dialogue, visual activities, plot changes or mental/emotional renderings. Pace is largely dependent on the genre of the piece. In drama, the pacing is deliberate and flexing to promote audience input through imagery, questions, speculation, anticipation, resolving, and reflection of serious emotional caring forces. The pacing allows time to nurture an unseen internal story, time to comprehend, process, embellish, and respond.
In comedy, the pace is quick and energetic to limit exploration of a transparent story where logic and reality are distorted. The rapid pace maintains focus on lighthearted wit and humor, and replacing rapidly dissipating information with new, more exciting information. Comedy is much more informational than emotional while drama tends to be more emotional with emphasis on the implied and inferred. Another factor for a slower pace in drama is that emotional content takes longer to register and also longer to dissipate.
Rhythm in film relates to the periodic occurrence of memorable high-impact moments. The frequency and spacing are different for every story. When coverage accentuates these moments it sets up a rhythm of expectations and the audience becomes more attuned to the story. Thus, in any story, interesting things have to happen periodically. If nothing occurs for a long period of time, the audience looses interest and it becomes difficult to get them back. When there are dramatic or comic peaks and valleys spread throughout the film, the audience tunes into the character’s performance and their story. These peaks could be plot points where something hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction. They could also be new characters, new problems, or climatic resolutions. There are many plot points in a screenplay and these zigzag moments can involve rhythm peaks. They propel the story forward and draw the viewer deeper into the characters and their story.
There can also be rhythm within a shot or scene. Well written and performed scenes have the peaks and valleys, moments with higher impact. These could be awareness of new information, realizations, reflections, expectations, or weighing of options. It could also be sudden changes in character intentions and/or emotions forcing changes in their dramatic direction.
The rhythm of a film is dependent on its genre. In dramas, the peaks and valleys are more pronounced and their frequency is a well-spaced. Peaks and valleys are almost equal in dynamics and sustained for emotional affect. “Citizen Kane” and “Lawrence of Arabia” are films that have this overall rhythm.
In comedy, you’ll find a staccato rhythm representing a faster, more energetic one often found in physical comedies. The peaks are higher, more frequent, and closer together. With rapid -fire humor, the valleys almost disappear. Classic comedies such as “Airplane” and “A Night at the Opera” are typical examples.
In slow moving character pieces, the slowly undulating moments have a gentle rhythm that makes for gradual, milder changes. The peaks and valleys are much less frequent, less dynamic as the story slowly evolves concentrating less on plot and more on place, relationships and internal struggles. “Howards End” and “The Sixth Sense” follow this rhythmic pattern.
Shot length or cut length is another consideration in preparing coverage. The length of the cut depends primarily on how long it takes to convey essential information, whether it is dialogue, reactions, or behavior. To keep the film interesting it may be necessary to provide a number of perspectives, not only of the leads but supporting players as well. These include functional ones such as sidekick, skeptic, guardian, or antagonist as well as characters that make emotional and logic contributions.
Another factor in shot or cut length is the genre of the film and the style of acting. For instance, action adventure films usually have numerous cuts rarely over three seconds long. I found when cuts run longer; there is movement either by the characters, the camera, or there is highly impactful content. In suspense and thriller movies the length of the cut is stretched to create tension. In farce and mad-cap comedies, cuts are brief as the pace is accelerated and information is usually delivered in short bits and reaction shots.
As a point of reference, Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies, with their rapid cuts, have an Average Shot Length (ASLs) between 3 and 3.4 seconds. On his film “Inception” (2010) the ASL was 3.1. In the last thirty years Hollywood films have gotten faster, resulting in ASLs of less than 5 seconds. By comparison, foreign films have remained slower and those habits are often brought to Hollywood by European Filmmakers. For instance, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film “Drive” features fairly long takes and an ASL of 7 seconds per cut.
Sightlines are additional considerations in doing film coverage. Sightlines not only define character relationships, these looks can define when and where important story points fall. In fact, eye behavior is the prominent motivator in establishing editing cuts. When one character does his dialogue and looks to another character for a response, we are motivated to follow that look. Consistency in maintaining sightlines from one shot to the next requires working out shot progressions in advance. For instance, a person seated talking to another character standing requires sightlines in closer shots to approximate those in the master. Another area is eye behavior following a moving object, let’s say a car. An over the shoulder shot of a car traveling left to right by an observer will record the speed of the car and distance from the observer. However, in the reverse angle close up of the observer, the eyes will move camera right to left and the scan of the eyes will approximate the same speed.
Eye behavior and eye lines become more critical as the camera moves closer. They become more subtle and angled closer to the camera. This provides the same frame motion as in the longer shots and maintains the same illusion. As eye angles become less acute, in extreme close ups it may be necessary for the actor to look to the side or even within the matte box. Likewise, as the camera moves in closer the behavior must be toned down slightly to approximate the one alluded to in the longer shots. Eye movements, head movements and facial expressions should become more subtle. As the camera moves in the face fills the frame, accentuating the behavior and if not subdued, it may appear over the top.
Today’s directors have an array of cinematic tools at their disposal. With the latest lightweight video cameras, today’s productions can go almost anywhere, under the most adverse lighting situations, and still obtain quality pictures. Likewise, high quality radio mics have unleashed the actor’s mobility to where action and dialogue can be captured in new and innovative ways. This freedom of expression also extends to camera movement. Dollies, cranes, hand held, Steadicam, and camera drones allow movement unheard of years ago. However, this newfound freedom can be a hindrance in that the dexterity of the shot calls attention to itself and can overshadow the storytelling aspects. When these tools and devices become toys the storytelling suffers.
They have to be used with purpose and each has its affect on the audience. For instance, a slow dolly in can be a transition from the external to the internal, from the objective to a subjective viewpoint. Trucking shots, moving with a fast moving character or vehicle, can add tension and danger to the scene. A crane or drone shot can show a motivated perspective from that of a kite or balloon. In these examples, there’s a dramatic reason for the camera’s movements, one that fulfills a desire for a new perspective and strengthens the telling of the story.
Lenses and filters are other tools the director and DP use to tell the story. These too affect how we perceive the action. For instance, the standard lens or 50 mm photographs the scene pretty much the way our eyes see it. Wide angle lenses, on the other hand, have a wide angle of view and make objects appear farther away and further apart. They also distort their size and shape. With a wide angle lens, everything in the scene can be a crisp and sharp focus. Long lenses or telephoto lenses tend to blur the background. These are great when the director wishes to place all the attention on the foreground action. Lenses slightly longer than the standard lens, the 75 mm and 100 mm, are often used for close-ups of beautiful women. These lenses lack distortion and slightly compress facial features making the nose and eye sockets less protrusive.
Filters can likewise change our perception of a scene. A day for night filter can turn a sunny day into a moon lit scene. A fog filter can accentuate the light haze into a foggy night. Filters can also add warmth to a scene or make a cold weather location appear more frigid. They can also make clouds more pronounce than they are. Today, these filter effects can be done digitally in post productions yet accommodations for lighting and shadows need to be addressed during the production phase.
Variety is a must in any motion picture. Too much to the same thing makes the presentation redundant and the audience soon looses interest. That’s why coverage needs to be a mix of angles and progressions. And these angles and progression need to be motivated by characters’ behaviors, story situations, and genre of the film. This quest for variety need not be a conscience endeavor, but one that unfolds organically through competent understanding of camera placement and their cinematic meanings. Finding what’s truly important in the scene and featuring story arguments that pulls the audience deeper into the story. Likewise, exploiting the audience’s pressing question raises the involvement of the audience. When caring or rooting forces are present, these can likewise be emphasized for deeper viewer investment. As you can see, determining coverage requires complete understanding of the script’s dramatic implications, the character’s wants, emotions, their functions and conflicts.
Sound and music are likewise an integral part of coverage. They can serve several purposes that not only promote the emotional side of the movie but also help enhance the storytelling. Often directors and DPs overlook the potentials of sound and music when laying out coverage. For instance, music can help establish an ethnicity or location, even the period of a film. And by commenting on the visual, music and sound effects can generate an emotional response or even an intellectual position. Orchestrations can heighten the emotional stakes. Strings can emphasize romance and tragedy, brass instruments conger power and sorrow, while percussion heightens suspense.
Music can also help create plot relationship with leitmotifs, thematic identities connected to characters, situations and/or places. Music can also imply a sense of space. For instance, Westerns and Outer Space films use a full symphony orchestra while an intimate two character scene in a small flat necessitates something much smaller. Music and sound effects can also manipulate the audience into making false assumptions about good versus evil. Likewise, poor recorded sounds can be dubbed, replicated or enhanced whether it is dialogue or the sound of an army tank. In simulating reality, sounds like a door closing or footsteps can be produced by Foley artists, generating these sounds mechanically. Music and sound can add life to a mediocre scene as well as help bridge abrupt cuts in action. When considering coverage possibilities, these entities should not be overlooked.
What procedures can save time and money and make coverage more effective? This is the question that should be asked in preproduction. Detailed planning and articulate communication should be part of this process. As the coverage is laid out, the director and DP have to communicate what grip, lighting, and camera equipment is required to complete the projected shots. If scenes are story boarded, then lighting and camera plots can be planned. Many of these questions can be taken care of before the clock is running. When everyone knows the first shot of the day is a two shot at the kitchen counter then the proper equipment can be on the stage. When the next shots are complementary over-the-shoulder, followed by close ups on each lead, the crew can be ready to make quick and effective lighting and camera changes.
Another helpful procedure is rehearsing actors off stage while lights are being set up. This is a perfect time to see how your projected coverage will work out and what tweaks and adjustments need to be made. When there are story boards, shot lists, lighting and camera plots, the creative team becomes more effective and results is a higher quality film that stays within budget. Likewise, have an alternate game plan should something go wrong. What scenes can be omitted, what angles are not necessary, and what lines of dialogue can be deleted. What transitional shots can fix an editing problem? Addressing these questions early on makes for a calmer more effective shoot, one with a sensible shooting ratio.
One glaring problem in obtaining coverage is the compulsion to get a perfect master shot, especially when only a small portion is going to be used. This is usually the establishing angle and only a short duration needs to be perfect. The rest of the shot gives the editor an orientation of the scene. Knowing up front what coverage shots are truly necessary provides more time to get the angles that best tell the story. It also provides more time to sharpen the performances with additional takes.
In closing, coverage necessitates understanding cinematic storytelling and the language of film. Camera angles, composition, and sightlines convey certain things. They have meaning. It could be status, or suspicions or a telltale clue. It’s not enough to follow traditional camera moves with master, two-shot, and close ups. One must be innovative and look for fresh compelling ways to portray what’s happening in the scene. Likewise, one must be faithful to the genre and the style of acting for this sets how the coverage will unfold on the screen, maintaining the pace, rhythm and the purpose of the story. For that’s what it is all about, serving the story.
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