The shot reverse shot is one of the fundamental components to film grammar. Almost every film ever made has a shot-reverse-shot somewhere, and many filmmakers use the shot-reverse-shot method for dialogue coverage.
The shot-reverse-shot is a film technique in which one character looks at another who is often out of frame. The second character is then filmed in a reverse shot looking at the first character. Because the characters are facing in opposite directions, thus the viewer assumes they’re looking at one another.
When done well, I believe the shot-reverse-shot sequence is one of the most powerful filmmaking techniques available to a director.
So in this article, we will explore this simple but often misunderstood because of this simplicity. As well as take a look at the psychology of the shot-reverse-shot, and give you some examples so you can understand further how to use this powerful technique.
But first off, let’s get clear on what the shot-reverse-shot is.
What is a Shot Reverse Shot
The shot reverse shot technique is a filmmaking technique that has been prevalent in movies from the beginning of cinema. The shot reverse shot allows filmmakers to create more engaging narratives by giving audiences an insight into both sides of the story, one character at a time.
It also allows audiences to see characters’ reactions to events, which creates richer interpretations of what they are watching on screen. Shot reverse shots help bring films to life and give them meaning beyond just sound and image.
A shot reverse shot works by placing the “subject” of the conversation in one shot and then showing their reaction to what was just said or done. This allows audiences to understand both sides of a story, which is especially helpful when two characters are having different conversations.
For example, if one character says “I love you,” and the other responds with “I never loved you,” and these are shot as singles in a shot-reverse-shot sequence, the audience will be able to easily see how each character reacts differently based on this exchange. And the shot-reverse-shot can also show reactions without dialogue.
But do not confuse this with the Kuleshov effect. The Kuleshov effect is meaning created by two successive shots. And thus does not require the filmmaker to show the reverse angle of the first shot, but rather any shot whatsoever.
The reverse shot is a hallmark of classic Hollywood continuity editing, which de-emphasizes transitions between shots in order for the viewer to perceive one continuous action that develops linearly, chronologically, or logically.1
The Psychology of a Shot Reverse Shot
As I said above, the shot-reverse-shot is often used as a stock method for capturing dialogue scenes. It allows the director to keep the actors still and get standard coverage for the edit without too much trouble.
But if you want your dialogue scenes to be more than just coverage, then understanding the power of the shot-reverse-shot setup will allow you to take a particular scene to a whole new and deeper level of psychological sophistication.
Thus mastering this style of filmmaking will give you precision with your filmmaking—particularly when we are talking about things such as sub-text, rhythm, empathy, and connection.
One of the first things to understand about shooting one character, and then the other character from inside as opposed to, say, an over-the-shoulder shot, is that it changes the feeling an audience member will have even if the acting were exactly the same.
As Roger Deakins points out, “there is a sense of presence; you’re right there with somebody as opposed to being. I think, psychologically, it is a totally different effect.”
And he is right. It is a totally different effect, and for that reason, you must understand what it is that you are trying to achieve with your camera placement.
Perhaps an over-the-shoulder on a longer lens is best if you are shooting an interrogation scene but, maybe not.
As a general rule, a longer lens will give you a sense of “spying” on the scene. But more than this, it closes off the audience to the environment the characters are situated in.
Opens Up Creative Possibility
One thing that placing the camera on inside will do is allow you to use a wider lens. This then opens up all kinds of creative possibilities that we can do with the camera movement, such as push-ins.
And it also allows set design to provide more information to the audience. And by giving us more detail about the environment of the characters in we, therefore, understand the internal world of the characters more deeply as a result.
Increases Timing Options
The shot-reverse-shot also gives you a greater ability to adjust the rhythm after the fact. You will need to shoot for this at the tie of the scene but, in post, while editing, it is possible to increase or decrease reaction shots if both actors are not in the frame. The reason for this is related to continuity editing and continuous action, which can make it harder to hold on to a character’s reaction.
But by shooting the first character as a single, then the other character as a single, you are able to move the pieces around in the edit with more freedom simply because each character is the only character in the frame.
Problems with Tone
This does mean we need to be careful with tone. For if we use a wider lens too close to an actor, we risk the possibility of making something that is not strictly to be played as funny, play as funny.
For the Coens brothers, this works in their favor and is a key point to understanding the style of one of their films.
But it may not work for all filmmakers so understanding grammar and the effect camera placement, focal length and camera placement combined, has on the tone of your film is important.
Because the camera is placed between two characters, you are putting the viewer in the same space as the character. This can increase the sense of empathy for what the character is going through as the audience members are there with them.
By placing the camera closer to the actors, you are, in effect, placing the audience closer to the action. And this is empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, which makes it easy to understand how this will affect the degree to which an audience will care about the characters.
Sometimes we hear people say, “I just didn’t care about the characters in that movie.” And when this happens, it is often believed to be the result of poor writing. But that is not always the case.
Sometimes this lack of a connection an audience will have with your character is a result of camera placement. So by placing the camera between two actors, you are literally placing the audience there too. This won’t fix bad writing, but it can increase connection.
This can then be used to increase empathy for the characters at the right time in a story. And that’s the fascinating thing because dialogue scenes aren’t just about recording the dialogue. They’re also about nonverbal behavior, facial expressions, the body language.
We can choose to shoot these nonverbal moments as a single, or we could also place the camera between two characters. It all depends on what you want your story to be about and how you intend for it to play out with an audience watching it.
When to Use a Shot Reverse Shot
How you choose to place the camera is important, but more important is when. The reason for this is that it can and will affect many other aspects of the grammar of your film.
For instance, if most of the film is shot on the outside and has lots of two-shots, and then all of a sudden, you force the audience to sit between two characters, this sudden shift could be quite jarring. Of course, this might be what you are looking to do—shock the viewer—but if this is done without an understanding of its effect, it is likely to now work that well.
The shot reverse shot is frequently employed for dialogue sequences, and it often employs by starting on the outside in a set of over the shoulder, and ending on the inside in matching singles to show the flow of the conversation, and take the viewer from a casual listener to an active participant in the conversation.
Indeed, this will also help to avoid the scene coming off as “talking heads,” by varying your shot size and focal length.
For example, you could use a mid-shot and then move in for a closeup to accentuate an emotion. Sometimes it’s also effective to go from the subject shot (showing person A) into a medium or wide shot of both characters together in one frame.
Another way filmmakers can break out of talking head sequence is by using different angles and compositions within this technique. For instance, shooting over the shoulder looking slightly up at two people sitting down across from each other might offer variety when dialogue is not about anything particularly interesting or emotional, like dramatic or suspenseful sequences.
In the above sequence, we clearly see that we can shot on the outside in an over the shoulder and then move inside to singles in order to create tension and then release it at the right times to create production value beyond what is written in the screenplay.
By moving the audience from outside to inside, or inside to outside you are able to manipulate the narrative for maximum effect.
Summary and What’s Next
In this article, we looked at the filmmaking technique of the shot-reverse-shot. We looked at its definition and the psychology of this type of filmmaking, the potential risks it can create for inexperienced filmmakers, and when you should employ it.
It is something we need to understand as a filmmaker because it is a filmmaking technique with a lot of power to tell your story when done well.
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