Just the Two of Us: Shooting a Multi-Character Scene

I am a very specific planner when I direct. I want to know what will happen in every frame of the final cut. When I am on set, that Excel worksheet with my shot list and details is my security blanket in all those on-set moments a director just wants to suck their thumb and call their mommy.

But planning every shot is not easy. It is overwhelming. You don’t know where the performances will lead. Or even where a technical glitch will steal half your day’s footage. Worry about those things makes one overthink to paralysis. And right now, I’m planning for a mere 10 minute short and it’s like staring into the abyss. And the abyss is staring back. Everything my eyes are processing all day is fodder for my shot list. My brain is crackling from obsessing on each and every second of the 600 second short. I meet a potential cast member and I want to rewrite everything. Even looking at my cats makes me reconsider an earlier decision. I don’t even know why. My cat makes me reconsider a lot of life choices.

Other writers and filmmakers tell me “It will make you go mad if you let it.” If I let myself go, the movie will never get shot. There’s a fine line between being a perfectionist who finishes and being a perfectionist who never starts. But I gotta plan. It’s my neurotic nature.

So today is research day. I am focusing all of my energy by watching movies. Clips, to be exact, so I don’t get lost in the story. I watch every shot and time them. Then I get an a-ha moment and I go to the drawing board.

Today’s research clips are from THE DEER HUNTER. Right now, my focus is on the mystery of shoulders. I’m going insane about who has an important shoulder to put a camera behind when you got 10 shoulders in your scene. And when I’m going crazy like this (as opposed to all the other wonderful ways I go crazy), it means I have to reconnect with a basic, fundamental part of cinematic storytelling.

Watching the Russian Roulette scenes in THE DEER HUNTER, I realize that every moment in a film is between two people. That narrows it down. If you have your beats clearly defined, you know exactly which two people are interacting. That tells you how to shoot and edit their shoulders. Watch the video below and pay careful attention to the over the shoulder shots. Note whose shoulder you are over.

We are transitioning from a beat between DeNiro and Walken and into a place where the ringleader has a beat with DeNiro and then Walken. When the beat shifts again, the scene becomes DeNiro and Walken again. You even see the frame that bridges the two beats at 2:32. The slap is off camera because we are moving into the beat where it is just DeNiro and Walken in that room. Now I’m so aware of that off-camera slap, that it’s bugging me when I re-watch the scene. But I get it. I get the perfection of it pulling me away from the “center” character and into the world of two men (DeNiro and Walken) where everything else is background. Every beat is two people. How you fill the space between and around them is what makes a great shot.

Now look at this one. Look how intense this is because we never leave Walken and DeNiro. Just these two clips are why movies are made. Wow. Just wow. All those people in the shot and you feel it in your gut, deep in your gut. you are watching two men alone in a room. It gives us a visceral connection to the evolution of these two characters.

So there it is. Shoulders likely change every beat. But there’s never more than two shoulders. Consider the rest of the cast props to the two-person beat within a shot within a scene within a movie. The focus will add dimension to the overall arc and focus audience eyes on what is most important at that very moment.


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