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.
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)
Note the pun about their relationship in the scoring counter.
SHOT 2A Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 3 Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 2B Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 4A Between Mid Shot (MS) and Medium Close Shot (MCS)
SHOT 2C Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 4B Between Mid Shot (MS) and Medium Close Shot (MCS)
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.”
SHOT 6A Close Shot (CS)
“Skynet fights back.”
“Yes. It launches its missiles against targets in Russia.”
“Why Russia? They’re our friends now.”
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)
SHOT 6B Close Shot (CS)
Note: speech overlapping, emphasizes his last words by letting the audience watch her reaction as she hears them.
SHOT 2D Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 1B Medium Full Shot (MFS)
SHOT 1B Medium Long Shot (MLS)
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.