Coverage – Defining the Director’s Vision

Coverage is a term that refers to camera placement in capturing the scene’s actions. It affords different perspectives of characters and their telling the story. More than any other aspect of filmmaking coverage defines the director’s touch, his vision of the story. In essence, coverage is what the camera sees, and feels. Used creatively, coverage is a decided factor in the success of a movie.

While it refers most to camera placement, angles, and composition, it also relates to the movement of the camera and the length of the shot. Other factors include camera lenses, filters and the rhythm, pace and variety of shots

Coverage is what makes up the elements that are later edited together to make the movie. It’s a selection of shots that the editor can splice together to complete the scene. Because shots are duplicated in a number of takes, these shots provide the editor with many options, ways to tell the story. And while the editor may assemble the shots into a scene, it is the director who has the final say how this assemblage is completed.

To obtain coverage, it’s common practice to first shoot a master. A master shot includes all the elements or characters in one camera shot. It’s the long shot or wide angle shot that depicts the location, the major cast of characters and the action that will take place in a scene. The editor uses this master shot as a road map to assemble closer shots.

The coverage then moves in for a two shot (two people). This could be a frontal two shot and/or an over the shoulder two shot. While the frontal two shot depicts the relationship between the two characters, the over the shoulder two shot isolates mainly on one character’s action. This over the shoulder angle allows greater flexibility in editing as the scene can move back and forth between dialogue and/or reaction shots.

The close up is usually the final setup in shooting a sequence. This type of shot is focused on the upper body and face. It allows for the greatest expression of emotions. Like the over the shoulder two shot, it allows for considerable editing flexibility as the scene can go back and forth showing both the dialogue and reactions of each character. The choker close up can move in just below the collar and the extreme close up composed below the chin and cutting off some hair. These closer angles gather up subtle emotions and behaviors one would miss in longer shots.

Another common shot in the sequence is the cut away. This focuses on some element or object related to the scene but not evident in the previous series of shots. It could be a telltale cigarette butt in an ashtray or an incriminating drink glass left on the coffee table. A character’s observation or avoidance of these items quickly tells the story in visual terms. They also allow a departure from repetitious dialogue/reactions shots and set a new rhythm to the scene. There is an array of other camera shot available to the director to tell his story and these we will discuss later in this article.

What is important from the director’s point of view is what shots best will tell the story. Having worked on films as a script supervisor, production designer, and art director, I see firsthand the confusion when this question comes up. The most prominent solution is do a lot of takes from every which angle. On big budget movies this is allowable; however, when funds are limited, one must be more selective. This article gets into the selection parameters and develops a process whereby these choices are logical and prudent.

In dissecting a scene, one must talk about the pressing question the audience will ask and want answered. This question is the inertia that carries the story forward and creates audience involvement. They become invested in the situation, the characters and their problems.

For instance, in a scene between a cheating husband and his naive wife, the pressing question is will she discover his infidelity. The audience knows he’s a cheater and wonders when she will uncover this fact. Thus the coverage of this scene would focus mainly on her reaction to what he’s telling her. When will she find out he’s lying? The coverage would seek to isolate her internal questioning, her probing body language and the eventual realization and contrast this against his deceiving behavior. The scene is the pivotal moment in the story and demands to be handled appropriately. What camera angles and moves would you use to define this questioning and her realization?

There are numerous ways this could be done and the director has to decide which camera angles or moves best define his vision. This article discusses how these decisions are made and the factors that go into making them. Basically, it has to do with what the audience wants to see and how this desire can be fulfilled, delayed, or manipulated for best dramatic value.

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