You read a scene from a screenplay and immediately start seeing shots and cuts. Great! You’re a true filmmaker. But what is the scene really about? You need to consider it very carefully, because it doesn’t just affect the actors’ performances — it also makes all the difference to camerawork and editing.
When I was a newbie, whenever I read a scene, I would immediately start thinking of how I would shoot it: a wide establishing shot from a particular angle, a close-up of this, a medium shot of that. Everything went through my mental camera lens. This was the early phase.
In the next phase I started giving a lot of consideration to how the scene would be cut together.
As I mentioned many times in the past, the way a scene will be edited makes a difference to how you direct each shot.
This means that you cannot be a brilliant director unless you have an equally brilliant understanding of film editing. I’m willing to bet that some directors would dispute this, because they know that their editing skills are not up to scratch and therefore want to run away from the problem, but you can really get a handle on this and leave them behind you.
Seeing the cut sequence in my head and then working backwards to design the shots was significant progress, but the third phase is what we should all be aiming for. You see, in a good script, every scene has a very specific job to do. It’s not just people doing and saying things: a well written scene serves to develop the characters, advance the plot, or make some sort of important point about the story in general — maybe all three things at once!
This is closely related to the concept of subtext, which is the term we use to describe the real meaning behind what someone says (the true meaning may or may not coincide with the words’ ostensible meaning).
For example, consider a scene in which a man and a woman are at home, packing their belongings into boxes.
As a newbie, I would immediately start thinking of the most interesting way to shoot and edit the scene. This is obviously a good thing, and I still do it, but here is the thing: you must also be absolutely clear on what the scene is really about, because this can and should make a difference to how you shoot it.
Are they packing boxes because they are divorcing and going their separate ways? Or are they happy and closer than ever, moving out of the house because they won the lottery and moving into their dream home?
They could be doing exactly the same things with exactly the same lines of dialogue, but the two scenarios obviously produce two vastly different scenes. This is obvious to everyone, but what is somewhat less obvious is that the meaning of the scene does not just affect the actors’ performances and overall tone: it also affects the camerawork and the editing in some incredibly subtle ways.
In principle you can certainly get away with shooting the two scenes with exactly the same camera set-ups and editing them in exactly the same way, provided of course that the performances are tailored to the different scenes, but if you get away with this I guarantee you that it is because you used bland, tame, timid camerawork.
I am instead a fan of brave, interesting camerawork that really gives the story a massive push, but if you choose to go down this path, the camerawork must absolutely be consistent with the scene’s true meaning. This means that many scenes will not allow the use of your favorite camera angles. When you forgo shooting your favorite angle because the scene really needs a different approach, you know you are really growing as a director!
So what I do now is that, while it is physically impossible to prevent myself from immediately thinking of shots and cuts, the first issue to which I consciously apply my mind is what role the scene plays in the overall film. Once I have made my mind up on what a scene is really trying communicate, I use this insight to inform the design of the shots and editing. I can assure you it makes a big difference!
A word of warning: if you are reading a screenplay that is anything less than “very good,” there is a pretty good chance that most scenes are not really incisive and are not going anywhere, so don’t feel bad if after much thought you are unable to identify a scene’s narrative purpose: it might not have one, as a result of poor screenwriting.
In my experience, this Filmmaking Tip is a sensitive and important issue for intermediate filmmakers — those who have no trouble quickly designing shots for a scene, but have still not progressed to using the language of film to add to what the actors are saying and doing, instead of simply covering a scene from many angles and hoping the editor will be able to do something with it.
I would encourage you to give this issue some careful thought, and put it into practice the next time you shoot something.
I hope this article encourages some thought, experimentation and creative growth!