The practice of dialog editing (Part 1)

With our shot scale series at hand, we have everything we need to edit our first dialog scene. You don’t need a camera or editing software to do that. Your favorite text processor is all you need to elaborate your own dialog layout, like a photostory.


A photostory?

Yes, a photostory. Here’s the big picture. Choose a dialog scene from a movie you like, involving only two characters. It has to be “sober”. No fancy character or camera moves, no complex lighting, no stunning low or high angles. You should avoid over-the-shoulder framings for the moment, we want to deal with apparent distance only. Of course, the scene must include an array of shot scales for this to work.

Now take snapshots of that scene and sort them by scale (MLS, FS, MCS, …). If you use VLC to watch your DVDs on your computer, hit [Shift]+[s] to take a snapshot. That’s what I did with a dialog scene from Outland (P. Hyams, 1981) for you to play with. Right-click on this link and choose ‘Save target as…’ to download them in a zip file, or simply download all images one by one from this page.

The idea is to arrange your snapshots in the order you like to make your own dialog layout. Now here’s a trick. Borrow dialog lines from another movie! That will prevent you from ending up with the same layout as the original one. The dialog I have chosen comes from Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), when Sarah questions the Terminator in a car. Actually, there are three characters in that scene, so I credited her for her son’s line… Never mind.

A bit of advice before you go. As you know, shot scale is absolute: Each apparent distance describes characters as physical or mental entities (read more in The descriptive power of shot scale). But the power of shot scale is relative. It depends on the previous and next shot scale: They “fight” or “collaborate” with their neighbors. Moreover, for the dialog to work, the apparent distance to characters must follow the audience’s expectations. There is an emotional “flow” you must find out and play with until it feels natural and meaningful. Keep in mind that you should be able to account for your choices. There should be no place for randomness here.


It’s all about distance

In part 1 of this article, I’ll show you a typical layout (not unlike the original scene). It starts with an establishing shot, then you career through the dialog, bringing the audience closer and closer to characters, and finally cut out back to the master shot. And voilà, the dialog is over.

The photostory is displayed in two columns. The leftmost column is reserved for snapshots and dialog lines. Read them vertically, as though it was real footage. The rightmost column displays what the audience is supposed to feel by watching those images. Please read that after having experienced the photostory entirely, or it might spoil the effect. Ok, here we go.


SHOT 1A Medium Long Shot (MLS)


“I need to know how Skynet gets built. Who’s responsible?”

Objectifying shot, makes characters’ figures look like small, isolated puppets at the bottom of a large frame. They are crushed by the environment and keep their distance. A storm is brewing.

Note the pun about their relationship in the scoring counter.

SHOT 2A Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“The man responsible is Miles Bennett Dyson.”

Physical shot meaning opposition here. He doesn’t seem to be keen on giving out information easily, does he?

SHOT 3 Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“Who is that?”

Physical shot, slightly closer than his last one. She forces herself on him, slowly but surely.

SHOT 2B Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“The director of special projects at Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.”

Slightly longer physical shot — it’s a physical vs physical confrontation — he appears less powerful than her, less stable too as he sits down at her level.

SHOT 4A Between Mid Shot (MS) and Medium Close Shot (MCS)


“Why him?”

Both physical and mental shot, she is more inquisitive, taking over the conversation. A mental vs physical confrontation is engaged now.

SHOT 2C Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“In a few months he creates a revolutionary…”

Physical shot, he is giving up the emotional confrontation, reluctantly giving in to her demands. He seems to have lost the battle.

SHOT 4B Between Mid Shot (MS) and Medium Close Shot (MCS)



“Go on. Then what?”

Same physical and mental shot, nothing has changed since 4A, meaning that she is not satisfied with the given information so far and keeps putting pressure on him.

Note: there’s a bit of speech overlapping here. His last word is empowered by letting the audience watch her reaction (or lack of reaction) when she hears it.

SHOT 5 Truck in from Medium Close Shot (MCS) to Head & shoulders Close Shot (HSCS)


“In three years Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. Stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers.”


“Becoming unmanned, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet funding bill is passed. The system goes on-line on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense.”


“Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. eastern time, August 29. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”

Both physical and mental shot, the ice is broken. He appears more and more involved emotionally now. He is giving information willingly. At the same time, his revelations make him become more and more threatening mentally. At the end of the shot, the mental vs physical confrontation will have turned into a mental confrontation.

SHOT 6A Close Shot (CS)


“Skynet fights back.”

“Yes. It launches its missiles against targets in Russia.”


“Why Russia? They’re our friends now.”

Mental shot, she’s thinking. She’s been hit by the information she’s asked for. Now she wants to know more, but it hurts.

Note: strong speech overlapping. Both characters seem to be thinking out loud, and the audience is meant to focus on her when she hears his reply. This long shot also comes in counterpoint to his previous lines.

SHOT 7 Close Shot (CS)


“Because Skynet knows that the Russian counterattack will…”

Mental shot against mental shot, he is totally true to her. Now both characters have the same size on screen, no one wins. The power game is over, they are much closer now.

SHOT 6B Close Shot (CS)


“…eliminate its enemies here.”

“Jesus. How much do you know about Dyson?”

Mental shot against mental shot, she now realizes the impact of his revelations but isn’t keen on handing over the conversation. She tries to involve him at personal level.

Note: speech overlapping, emphasizes his last words by letting the audience watch her reaction as she hears them.

SHOT 2D Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“I have detailed files.”

Physical shot, an emotional setback. She’s been too far. In reaction, he has suddenly half closed the doors.

SHOT 1B Medium Full Shot (MFS)


“I want to know everything. What he looks like. Where he lives.”

Physical shot against physical shot, the “friendship” is over. Their relationship has gone back to square one, although she now knows what she wanted to know. She finds herself opposing him on an equal footing again.

SHOT 1B Medium Long Shot (MLS)



Objectifying shot, contrasting with her one-word sentence. On the one hand, the emptiness of the frame “propagates” sound, emphasizing her speech. On the other hand, the frame does show everything in the room, supporting the meaning of her speech.

What’s up?

You don’t need a camera, nor do you need an editing software to elaborate your own dialog layout. You just have to know your shot scales and their impact on the audience to give your lines a certain meaning. If you want to try your hands at this exercise, download those snapshots, play with their relative power and follow your own emotional “flow”. It’s all there.
In part 2 of this article, I’ll show you a totally different approach of the same scene. Same snapshots, same dialog lines, but a completely different meaning. See you there.


Recommended reading


Recommended watching