Are you about to shoot a film/short with a conversation in it and not quite sure how to go about it? In this article I will cover some basics on how to make your dialogue scenes work.
Although dialogue scenes are among the most common types of scene, they can be the hardest ones to shoot, especially if you are low on equipment and personnel. This of course applies to all aspects of filmmaking, but shooting a conversation with one camera instead of two makes things far more complicated. Don’t let yourself be discouraged – it’s not impossible. Here’s how you do it:
Shoot the dialogue several times
Since you only have a single camera at your disposal, you will need to shoot the same dialogue multiple times. Let’s say there’s a conversation between two people in your script. At first you should do a master shot of both actors to establish the situation they are in, and as a general shot that you can cut back to. Then you move on to over-the-shoulder shots or portrait shots of the actors. Keep in mind, both actors must perform their lines every take, even the one who is not in the shot. Your boom operator should point the microphone towards the actor who is currently speaking. Furthermore, you can do close-ups of the actors’ faces to emphasize a certain emotion or reaction.
Draw an imaginary line from one actor to the other. This line will be your axis. All your takes should be shot from one side of said axis, otherwise, it would be disorienting for the audience. Of course, the axis can be crossed if you’re going for disorientation on purpose. But remember:
Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.
When shooting over-the-shoulder shots, you should tilt your camera by at least 30°, because the cuts in between the two perspectives will become jump cuts. While jump cuts can be a very effective stylistic device (Dogma Films thrive on jump cuts), always remember the rule about breaking rules.
It is of utmost importance that your actors stick to their lines since you’ll be matching one audio recording with a couple of different takes in editing. The same goes for your actors’ movements. Make sure to block your actors beforehand (“blocking” = determining one or more actors’ position(s)), so they know at exactly which point of the dialogue to move. Use the same lighting and the same lens throughout the dialogue. Since you’ll be cutting back and forth between different takes in post, you wouldn’t want every single take to be completely different. Shooting only a short conversation can take a whole day, because as a director, you’ll have to be pedantic. No mistakes allowed!
Communicate the subtext
What are the characters in your dialogue actually saying? Is a character lying or trying to hide something? You could light only half of this character’s face. Is one character in control over the situation, while the other one is intimidated? You could shoot the first one from below, to make him look bigger to the viewer, and the other one from above, to make him look smaller. What’s on their mind? How do they feel? Endless questions and endless possibilities. Watch and analyze the dialogue scenes from your favorite movies and create your own way of telling your audience what is going on besides the spoken lines.