Monday, March 25, 2019
“Coverage is what you do when you don’t have any real idea about meaning or style.”
Okay, a somewhat strong statement. What do I mean by that?
Of course, it’s useful to understand what standard “coverage” looks like. Two people are seated together and having an important conversation. So convention says to shoot a two-shot (a wide view of the two of them) and then matching OTS shots (over the shoulder of first one, then the other speaker, medium tight on the one facing us). And we mustn’t “cross the line” or our viewer will be confused. And sometimes we push in for a closer close-up on the faces at a critical moment in the conversation.
Shooting that coverage isn’t a terrible idea, of course, other than the need for all the setups and all the takes. (An actor’s time and energy often being the most critical resource on a set.)
But conventional coverage isn’t based on any particular insight about the story, about the emotion of the moment, about the relationship of the two speakers to each other and to the topic being discussed or avoided in this conversation. Nor does it imply anything useful about how such a scene is assembled in the editing process, other than the idea that all of these shots might be useful and therefore need to be used.
Consider this scene. The conversation is between two boys of high school age. They are sitting at a small table in a coffee shop. Aaron is slight and awkward. The second boy, Michael, is older, taller and both self-confident and domineering. In the story, something terrible has happened to Michael’s friend and he’s determined to figure out who was responsible. He normally doesn’t even talk to Aaron, but he happened to see him at the table and decided to quiz Aaron a bit about the whole thing, partially motivated by an unconscious need to be in control. However, unbeknownst to Michael, Aaron was actually a witness to the terrible thing that happened to Michael’s friend and feels he may have been partly responsible. He’s terrified of Michael at this moment and trying desperately not to show it.
Okay, what kind of “coverage” makes sense here? We could do all the conventional shots and certainly put together something. But – this is just me quickly thinking about the scene – I might want to shoot this:
First, a two-shot in which Aaron is alone, sees Michael coming to his table, and “welcomes” Michael to sit down. And then slowly push in towards Aaron until we are in a full face close-up, all the while hearing the conversation. Then, just at the end, a somewhat wide but standard OTS on Michael, who gives up the conversation as useless and leaves. And back to the empty two-shot of Aaron, now alone and shaken. My thinking is that I want the audience to see how shaken Aaron is by these moments and how he is trying to conceal it. So we hear the entire conversation, but we don’t need to see much about Michael; the subtext of this scene is all about Aaron.
A key issue related to coverage is the pace of the final scene. If we use the two standard OTS shots and cut back and forth between the two speakers, it is easy for the pace of that cutting to contradict the emotional tension of the scene.
Consider a different scene. This is a romantic, comic conversation between Grace and Don. Both are in their thirties and have met briefly before and Grace asks if she can share the (only available) table with Don during a busy lunch hour at this café. Don is a bit strait-laced and Grace is quite the free spirit, so their banter is first a bit perplexing for Don and then, delightful. But Grace is called away by a phone call she takes, leaving the table and Don, who wishes she had stayed.
Again, free associating a bit on this scene, my thoughts would be these. First, we might want a long shot of the busy restaurant and Grace spotting the place at Don’s table. A version of the standard two-shot seems natural here to show their relative ease or unease as Grace settles in. I would probably also favor a very tight two-shot of the conversation showing both Grace’s wit and Don’s surprise or misunderstanding in the same shot. Finally, I would want the standard OTS on Grace when she gets the phone call that ends their time together, following her up and away from the table. And a single on Don of his reaction as she gets up and leaves him, the café and the frame.
My point is fundamentally this: doing conventional coverage makes every scene conventional. Style is a question of knowing what you do not need to tell the story. The audience does not feel more strongly or laugh louder because you did “all” the expected coverage. Nor does the production move swiftly through photography (or editing) if you always get the “all coverage you might need.” And while there are always situations in production where it is wise to prepare for problems by shooting a bit more than you need, it is also always wise to conserve time and energy by knowing exactly what you do not need.
A commonly repeated tale is that Alfred Hitchcock photographed only the parts of the scene he expected to use in editing the film, rendering alternative treatments impossible. True or not, it is the approach we should all be following as well as we are able, shooting what we need to tell our particular, unconventional story.