How to Cover a Scene – Understanding the Basics of Scene Coverage

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Okay, so you have a script. What the heck do you do next to ensure you film this in the best way possible? It can be done in so many different ways with completely different results. To set you up for success, here are some basics to help you make the best decisions for your given story. Think of this post as a primer to get your feet wet. It’s just a start but a start nonetheless!

1. Shot Sizing

When choosing the type of shot to capture for your scene, there are a few different types to consider. They include the establishing shot, wide shot, medium shot, close up and in some cases, extreme close up. How much coverage is needed is totally dependant on the scene you are hoping to capture. Sometimes the scene may be a ‘oner’ (captured in one fluid shot), other times, you may have over 100 setups. Totally depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

Establishing Shot

Establishing shots setup the environment for where the action is to take place. It puts context of place for the audience.

Wide Shot (WS)

When covering a scene, you will almost always want to start with your wide shot to establish the actions in the scene. Think of that as your ‘master’ shot. When moving into coverage, you will want to make sure that you follow the actions that were captured in the wide shot. These master shots are your “safety” shots that you can fall back on if the other shots just don’t seem right in the edit.

Medium Shot (MS)

Medium shots are basically framed from the waist up. Medium shots bring the audience in closer to further inform them of the actions and emotions of the scene. Most notably, medium shots show us a subject’s gestures and body language.

Close Up (CU)

Close-up shots range from the chest or shoulders up and are often used to capture dialogue, show expression, and otherwise bring your audience close to the character or object on screen. Close-ups draw our attention to specific details in your scene.

2. 180 degree rule / Camera positioning

The next rule you will need to understand is the 180 degree rule when it comes to coverage. This rule really shows the importance of camera positioning when getting coverage. Your goal is to paint the picture of the environment for the audience just as much as the characters in the scene. The 180 degree rule is what helps them understand the characters positioning in the scene in relation to each other.

The 180 degree rule is a guideline that states that two characters in a scene should maintain the same left/right relationship to one another. When the camera passes over the invisible axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line and the shot becomes what is called a reverse angle. When this happens, you will be throwing off and confusing your audience. This can be what you desire based on your given story but is pretty rare.

3. Shot reverse shot / Lens Selection

The next thing to consider is shot coverage. As much as this is guiding what the viewer sees, this also controls what they don’t see – or even more specifically – HOW they specifically see things or don’t see things. Confusing enough? Well I will let the video take it from here. Depending on the type of lens you use, that will really determine how you see the given scene.

Shot reverse shot is a technique where one character is shown looking at another character (often off-screen), and then the other character is shown looking back at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer assumes that they are looking at each other.

4. Importance of Camera Movement

When it comes to camera movement (or again lack there of), it needs to match your story as well. If you’re shooting a poetic film that is set in the 18th century, a smooth floating camera that moves through the spaces seemlessly might work great. For a horror film, a shakier handheld camera would likely be a better fit to put your audience on edge. However, if you were to reverse the two scenes, you could clearly see how they wouldn’t work together.

Whether a static camera on a tripod, dolly shot, gimbal / steadicam shot, crane shot or another other way of moving a camera will work, you will want to breakdown the intention of your scene. Think about camera MOTIVATION before considering any type of shot. What is the motivation behind the camera movement and how does it help better tell your story.

5. SHOT SEQUENCING

The video below does a good job at showing you how to control what the viewer sees to help tell a strong visual story. The goal with this example was to show how your camera and shot selection can lead a viewer through a story by slowly revealing story elements. Jump ahead to the 3:30 mark to get to the meat of this one.

6. Screen Direction, Lighting, pacing and more

Other aspects you will want to understand are such things as screen direction, the impact of lighting, the role pacing plays and more. Obviously I am not going over all of them in this post as we would be here for days. You can see that it isn’t just as simple as pointing your camera and calling ‘ACTION’.

Breakdowns

Now that you have an idea of some of the things you need to consider when thinking of how to capture your story, the next thing you will need to understand are the script breakdowns. Script breakdowns are done by many people on the team. Regarding scene coverage / creatives, the two most important breakdowns are the director and director of photography breakdowns (all breakdowns are important but we will be focusing on these two for this post).

First assistant director – script breakdown

Okay, I lied a bit. Before I jump into the director and director of photography breakdowns, I just wanted to mention the first assistant director’s breakdown. For the fundamentals of the shoot and scheduling, this breakdown is the most important to ensure the shoot can even happen – and that all departments are on the same page.

Director – script breakdown

Now back to the meat of scene coverage. The most important breakdown is the director’s breakdown where they do both a visual breakdown as well as an emotional one. That being said, the better the director, the more comprehensive of a breakdown they usually have. Completely understanding all aspects of how the script comes to life is hugely driven by the director’s vision.

Director of Photography – Script Breakdown

The director of photography works closely with the director and also does his or her own breakdown as well. In my opinion, the work of a good director of photography way before the director calls action. Usually their work is done before they even show up on set. From gear lists to lighting setup diagrams, the goal is to come in on the day of the shoot and execute on your plan. One thing to note is that the director of photography isn’t solely responsible for coverage (types of shots needed for each scene). The director creates a shot breakdown that the director of photography works from. The director of photography’s job is to help shape the visual style.

Wrap up

Although just a few things to consider when choosing how to cover your scene, I hope the post helped you get a better idea of some of the things to consider. The way in which you cover your story has a much importance on the success of the film as does the story itself so take time to breakdown each scene of your story and think of the role each is playing in the bigger picture. That relationship between director and director of photography is a big one so work together to tell the best possible story!

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  • David Katz

    Oh man, lots of good material here. Love this work Preston !

    • prestonkanak

      Glad you like it! Always good to start with a strong foundation.

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