On the Importance of Camera Coverage
Camera coverage is the additional footage the director and director of photography shoot so that later the director can make alternative creative choices in the way the scene is cut, in the way it is paced, and in the way the actor’s performance is emphasized.
Why is Camera Coverage Important?
A few sure handed, very experienced directors shoot their films in “one off” masters, or “oners.” When I say master, I don’t mean in a static conventional wide shot covering all the dialogue in the scene. I mean a one off choreographed master, where the actors and the camera perform an intricate dance with each other, moving in and out of close ups, seamlessly capturing the emotions and literary content of the scene in an artistically superior way. These Director Gods shoot no other coverage of the scene.
Here’s a famous example from Goodfellas.
For us mere mortals, this is a very, very dangerous way to shoot.
Even if you think you’re good enough to try this, your producer, script person and editor (if they are worth their salt) will scream about having no coverage. They know that when the film gets to the cutting room (or media to the edit bay) there will be no way to change the pace of the scene, modify the performance, cut around a bad performance, emphasize one character over another, or alter the scene in any way other than cutting off the head or tail.
“I learned more about cinematography in the edit bay than I learned on set.”
This truism may be a little exaggerated, but it speaks volumes. The message here is that to truly understand what you need to shoot, you need to know how it will edit together. Making sure you have enough camera coverage early on will ensure you’ll have options later. The first inkling I had of this concept was while shooting “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” with Universal and Lily Tomlin. Watch some clips and see examples of camera coverage.
I was shooting in an open elevator shaft, the director yelled cut and I pulled the hand-held camera out of the shaft and then turned it off. Wouldn’t you know it? The shot the editor used was the part after the director yelled cut and before I switched the camera off. This was a lesson for me to be a lot looser with the camera in order to give the audience a feeling of vertigo. It showed me that during an action sequence, I shouldn’t be afraid to move the camera quite violently to shake up and excite the audience.
As I shot more and saw what editors did with my footage, I was often disappointed that they didn’t use what I thought was my best take. But, over time I came to understand that the shot where the actress looks the most beautiful may not be the best for character development and overall pace. The shot may be breathtaking, but if it doesn’t serve the movie – it’s worthless.
But we digress. We are talking about coverage!
Coverage in TV
Here’s how a television show/sitcom is blocked. Two characters enter a room, they face each other and have a conversation. One then leaves the room and the other goes upstairs. We shoot a wide master of the whole scene, showing both characters, the door and stairs. We shoot the entrances, all the dialogue and both exits.
Then we would move the camera and shoot an OS (over shoulder). This would be a closer shot of actor #1 with a piece of the back of actor #2 in the foreground. Then we move to the OS of actor #2, shot over the shoulder of actor #1. In these OS shots we might pan to see actor #1 exit up the stairs and actor #2 exit through the door. Then we might shoot a CU (close up), a closer shot of actor #1, shot tight enough not to see actor #2. And then finally the CU of actor #2. With these 5 set ups we have an infinite number of ways we can cut this scene and we have control over scene timing, the actors’ performances, and even dialogue.
Coverage on the Big Screen
Create an imaginary line in a scene and don’t cross that line with the camera. Imagine a plan view of the set and the actors looking at each other. Draw an imaginary, straight-line through the path of the actor’s eye-contact as they look directly at each other. Then extend the line out to the outer walls of the set. This is “the line,” which cannot be crossed by the camera. If the camera crosses this line there will be a very jarring and disorientating effect in the final edit when this shot is used.
So for instance, if actor #1 is looking to camera left in his coverage, then actor #2 has to be looking camera right. You will notice in the diagram below that I used the path of the eye contact instead of just the actors’ position. This is because it is the eye contact of the actors (which side of camera they are looking to) that makes a scene “cut,” more than just body positions. This becomes much more relevant and complex as multiple actors are added to a scene.
So this simple scenario and the camera coverage described above, is a very simple, quick, but a rather uninspired way to shoot the scene. But when time is short, and let’s face it, time is the most precious commodity on most sets, it is a great way to go. Also when plan “A” goes horribly wrong and you are running out of time, it’s a great plan “B.” We’ll go into some more detail and “plan A” options in another post.
But realistically we should aim somewhere between the two types of coverage we have described so far.
The Shot List
A director should always come onto the set with a shot list as a guide to begin the blocking and rehearsal process. Sometimes the director will dictate to the actors where to be in the scene, but often the creative team will find that the scene has a life of its own and is moving in a different direction than first visualized. This is when the project takes on its own life and starts to become a piece of art. The muse is speaking. You have the opportunity to let her speak, or to impose your own will. If you do impose your will, make sure it’s for the right reason. Make sure you think it though. You decide if a new idea serves the project or not, but make sure that it’s not your ego talking.
Click on the images below to see some examples of shot lists.
Often a shot list is a plan view of the set with camera angles and position marked out. It allows the cinematographer to make sure all the coverage shot in one direction is finished before changing to another direction which needs to be relit.
The main lesson here is to make sure you have options so you can control and manipulate your project in post-production. Sometimes you will see an actual piece of magic happen in front of the lens and know you are going to use it.
But whatever happens, don’t skimp on coverage.
You can start editing here.