May 1, 2019

Here's How to Shoot and Edit Different Kinds of Dialogue Scenes

The spoken word is the propelling force of most films, and you should know these interesting ways to shoot and edit your dialogue scenes.

Many elements have to come together to create strong, compelling, and dynamic dialogue scenes. It starts on the page and with actors' performances, of course, but then filmmakers have to consider pacing, cinematography, and editing to create the strongest dialogue scenes possible. After all, no one wants to watch stale sequences of characters just talking at each other.

Film Riot has some suggestions for shooting and editing dialogue in all types of scenes. Watch their video below.

Tips for table scenes

In real life, people spend a lot of time sitting together and having different types of conversations over meals, so it makes sense that these kinds of scenes would also make their way into movies. It's an easy way to get a lot of characters together at once and convey a great deal of information quickly.

Depending on the complexity of your scene, and what tone you want to convey, shooting a table scene can be a huge undertaking requiring whole or multiple shooting days. You need to get coverage of every character at every part of the conversation, including their lines and reactions to other lines. This will likely be done in medium shots, but if the emotion of the scene is heightened, you might also need close ups or even Dutch angles.

Film Riot points out a sequence in Mission Impossible as unique. When Ethan realizes something is wrong, the scene shifts to Dutch angles, close ups, and shots of surrounding characters to convey Ethan's paranoia.

It's pretty clear that the way this is edited and shot significantly increases the scene's level of tension.

Film Riot's video correctly points out that these different shots should only be used when the dynamic of the scene changes, along with the subtext of the dialogue. If your characters suddenly realize something that makes them fearful or suspicious, you can indicate that with a close up, a slow zoom, or a unique angle.

You can also opt for simplicity in your table scenes. One I think about a lot is from Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which keeps the camera focused on Meryl Streep for almost the entire sequence, following her internal emotional journey and keeping the scene's comedic conclusion a surprise until it smacks Jack Nicholson in the face. It's not very stylistic and feels grounded and real.

These same methods can be used in other sit-down scenes, like when your characters are riding in vehicles, although then you'll have the added complication of moving background details to consider.

How to use walk and talks

One thing you should definitely keep in mind, even during the writing stage of a project, is that table/seated scenes are not going to have much energy unless the stakes are high. And chances are, your characters aren't always going to be in life-and-death situations.

An easy way to inject energy into even straightforward dialogue scenes is to put the characters in motion. Make them talk while also moving somewhere or doing something. Their actions might reveal additional details about their personalities and the world they inhabit. How are they walking? How do they interact with things and people around them? What does their environment look like?

Film Riot also uses scenes from Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as strong examples of walk and talks. These types of scenes tend to be more exciting because the characters are simply too busy or are under too much pressure to sit and discuss whatever is at hand.

You can include walk and talks by using long takes of different lengths. Aaron Sorkin has always been a fan of walk and talks, as you can see from this clip from The West Wing. It's dynamic and fun to watch, even though characters are having simple conversations.

Because of the movement and staging involved in these scenes, they can be difficult and require an experienced crew and actors.

Put your characters in different locations

Of course, characters can have conversations while in different rooms, while speaking on the phone, or even telepathically.

If you want to have this kind of conversation in your film, you'll probably opt for intercutting, which will indicate action happening at the same time in two locations. For a different approach, you can choose to show only one side of the conversation, staying with one character and putting the audience in their perspective.

There's also the more comedic option of using a split-screen, but know that this will not always be tonally appropriate.

Use a static shot

Another way of shooting dialogue is to just point your camera at your talent, and let it roll, capturing the entire performance in a single take and using it unedited in your final project.

You really have to trust your actors for this one, but it can yield some truly stunning results, like in this sequence from The Master. It can provide another strong option for tense or emotional scenes, because it forces the audience to stay through an experience along with the character.

Consider dialogue in your editing

Film Riot uses one of the channel's original sketches to demonstrate how they edit their dialogue scenes, mostly by bouncing back and forth between the actors as they are speaking.

Remember to use J and L cuts to provide realistic flow to the dialogue. This means that within your editing timeline, audio from one clip is slightly overlapping with the clip that comes before or after.

Film Riot explains this as being like watching two people having a conversation in real life. You're looking at one person, until words coming out of the other person's mouth draw your eye to them.

You also need to consider ambient sound while putting together your dialogue scenes. Remember that background noise will sound different as you're getting coverage of different actors.

What's next? Make sure you know other basics of movie dialogue

There are so many elements you need to consider to create strong dialogue, from the start to finish of a film project. Check out our tips for writing dialogue and how sound design can make dialogue scenes stronger. Learn how Ridley Scott covers his dialogue scenes. Also remember you need to balance the score and dialogue    

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