February 27, 2016

5 Filmmaking Techniques the Coen Brothers Use for Dialog Scenes

The Coen Brothers have this knack for taking something dark and tragic and dressing it up in a bathrobe and jellies so we can laugh at it.

Because, you know, someone putting a guy through a wood chipper is not actually funny, but for some damn reason when the Coens do it — with that stupid leg hanging out — it's comedic genius! Well, there is a method to their madness, namely in how they shoot dialog. Their approach to filming these classic shot/reverse shot sequences is explained in this video essay by Tony Zhou, from which we've highlighted the 5 things that the directors do to create that carnivalesque, "I'm terrified, but I'm laughing" feeling that's present in all of their films.

Zhou shares a ton of great insight about the techniques of the Coen Brothers and long-time collaborator, DP Roger Deakins, but he mentions five things in particular that we want to highlight in case anyone wants to try and capture that uncomfortably funny feeling in their own dialog scenes. Let's run through them quickly:

They keep their shots simple but precise

You won't see a ton of camera movement, handheld work, or rack focuses in the Coens' dialog scenes. And if you do, it's usually a simple push-in. They have a simple set up — two (or more) people having a conversation — but they're very precise on the set design, wardrobe, and positioning of the camera. 

They shoot a lot of singles

The Coens like to shoot dialog from "within the space of the conversation." Many other dialog scenes are shot in a series of over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots, and they certainly have their place, but what a single shot does, at least in the Coens' case, is isolate the characters. But it also does something else —

'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (2000)

They shoot with a wide lens

— it allows them to shoot with wide lenses. The Coens prefer to capture dialog with a 27mm or 32mm lens, and the look this produces does quite a bit psychologically to the viewer. It adds a comedic undertone to the shot because of the distortion, but it also reveals more of the frame, giving the audience a chance to look around the space and gain more information about the location and character. As Deakins explains, it gives a "sense of presence," and a weird one at that.

They dolly in to get close

Another advantage the Coens have to shooting with a wide lens is that camera movement, should they choose to use it, is exaggerated. In other words, for their trademark push-ins, not only do we get to see the subject's features begin to distort comedically, but the speed seems much faster, too. It's all very carnivalesque. (You can see a bunch of these dolly moves in the dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.)

They really nail that comedic rhythm in post

Of course, these shots would be severely lacking without the comedic timing of the editing, and the Coens are absolute pros when it comes to nailing it. Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot to be said about how to nail it — like director Chantal Ackerman once said, "When I cut -- I feel, I feel, I feel, and I say, "Here." For no reason. Just feeling." (Sry.)

These choices might seem like smalls deviations from how a lot of filmmakers choose to film a typical conversation, but shooting this way for a back-and-forth between characters can actually have pretty peculiar psychological and emotional effects on your audience.       

Your Comment

14 Comments

The most inspiring and helpful video essay I have watched to date!

February 27, 2016 at 3:31AM, Edited February 27, 3:30AM

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One day before this article was written, Tony Zhou released his video essay on the same subject. Watch "Joel & Ethan Coen - Shot | Reverse Shot" and tell me that this isn't plagarism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UE3jz_O_EM

February 27, 2016 at 3:42AM, Edited February 27, 3:42AM

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Ehhh... I think you're missing something here buddy; this article is about Tony Zhou's video essay, so no, this is not plagiarism. It is a pretty good practice to actually read and understand an article before commenting on it, just saying....

February 27, 2016 at 6:31AM

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I missed it completely at first myself. The article should really just be a link to a video. Tony Zhou doesn't try to make it seem like there are just 5 simple steps to pulling off one of the signatures of two modern day masters.

February 27, 2016 at 9:18AM, Edited February 27, 9:21AM

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Brooks Reynolds
Director/DOP
277

Thanks for this!

February 27, 2016 at 11:04AM

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Deborah Harris
Musician/Director
74

How to pull of an three pointer just like Stephen Curry:
1 - Stand outside the semi circle
2 - Throw the ball
3 - Watch it go in the net

February 27, 2016 at 9:19AM

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Brooks Reynolds
Director/DOP
277

What makes the Coen brothers unique is their uniqueness. Therefore, trying to emulate them via a step by step guide is failing to comprehend the single most important factor in a Coen movie...uniqueness.

It is like what James Gunn said about "Deadpool". Studios will look at the success of Deadpool and say "We need to do more R rated superhero movies". That is a mistake. The success of the movie wasn't in the MPAA rating but in the "originality" of the piece. The MPAA rating was just a byproduct of the originality.

So, the "magic" of Coen brothers dialogue isn't something that will be replicated by following a tutorial or spending countless hours dissecting their work.

Spend more time discovering and developing your own techniques. We are all subconsiously affected by the work we admire. Shifting it from subconscious to concious is where it stops feeling like art and it starts feeling like work.

It is really weird and I have never understood it because it seems counter intuitive.

February 27, 2016 at 12:54PM, Edited February 27, 12:54PM

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Luke Neumann
Cinematographer/Composer/Editor
2110

There are two ways one can interpret an article like this. One is as a "how to," which doesn't foster much in the way of unique creativity. The other is as a case study, one of many a student of film* will see and absorb in order to develop their own storytelling style. (* A traditional, formal student or anyone that's "into" film.) In this case, the title seems to suggest the latter.

That's only a half answer. How an article like this is interpreted - "how to" guide or information to build from, is up to the reader. One person's cheat sheet is another person's launchpad to their own style.

March 4, 2016 at 9:00PM, Edited March 4, 9:00PM

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Wes Anderson also uses wide lenses and the scenery is a character in many scenes. Both Anderson and the Coens have a color-rich retro vibe in their pallets. Knowing a bit of how and why they do what they do doesn't make us copy-cats. I myself love close-ups with eye lights and pretty bokeh - the more the mm, the softer the bokeh, but now I'm going to be much more conscious about the surroundings and close my aperture on purpose and pull back more. I also usually don't want distortion on my subjects so I'll be quite wary of that as well.

March 11, 2016 at 4:21PM

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Suzie Park
Director & DP
8

Just a quick question: "27mm to 32mm" is meant on a super 35 sensor?
So the equivalent of a 40mm on a fullframe sensor?
Just to be sure, to me some of those shots seems to be wider than a 27mm on super35.. Thanks!

February 27, 2016 at 7:16PM

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Federico Scaglia
Videomaker & Beat Provider / Motion Graphic Artist
81

All of their films have been shot on 35mm film, so yes, it refers to a super 35 size imager. But you are right, some shots seemed wider still, at least like a 24mm.

(Note that a 27mm is "the equivalent of a 40mm on a full-frame sensor" only regarding field of view, not other lens characteristics - the (focus) depth of field, the distortion (at the center) and the "feel" of the lens is the same, wether it's on a full-frame or a micro 4/3 size sensor. I say this only because this "equivalent" thing seems to be an ongoing misunderstanding).

February 29, 2016 at 10:00AM, Edited February 29, 10:00AM

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Something that has been lost with all of the modern camera movement techniques is the ability for the viewer to absorb the acting. Sometimes the most interesting film scenes are locked on a tripod with the action happening in the frame. My pet peeve is when handheld shots are used where they shouldn't be, trying to add motion where none is happening, but it ends up feeling like the camera operator might be a little tipsy.

March 4, 2016 at 1:28AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
296

Ha, there are some t.v. shows I can't watch because the camera movements are too wacko. Thankfully, gimbal shots are also used quite a bit, which still add movement to a scene without being jittery.

March 11, 2016 at 4:12PM

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Suzie Park
Director & DP
8

Saying that the comedic effect comes from using a wide angle shot is like saying that Cameron Diaz is a funny gal because she put on a Dior dress...
Wide angle is just a visual effect, it achieves a certain esthetic and delivers more information to the public. It doesn't by no means help in uping the comedic effect.
The only valid point in this video is the use of rythm. Rhythm is VERY important in comedy. Just like when you deliver a joke : if your rhythm is off, your joke falls flat.
What the Coen Brothers are masters of is the way they allow for the moment to become awkward. They take the time to let the dialogue stale. While doing so, they place their camera close enough to show the various subtle changes in the mimics of their actors as the time infinitely expands. There is two times : the time of the dialogue (usually slow) and the time of the editing of shot/reverse shot. This keeps the public on the edge of their seat for what could possibly happen next. In other word they build up suspense in the most banal moments of their characters' lives. What they get from us is usually a nervous laugh, followed by a grateful release.

October 16, 2016 at 7:54PM, Edited October 16, 7:57PM

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Arnaud Talaia
Screenwriter / Filmmaker
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