What is the shot-reverse shot?

Part cinematography and part film editing, the shot-reverse shot is a way that filmmakers convey emotion and show a character’s point of view — literally and figuratively.

A shot-reverse shot showing two people standing on a road talking

The shot-reverse shot is a tried-and-true storytelling technique.

A staple of filmmaking that’s almost as old as Hollywood itself, the shot-reverse shot creates the impression of a single unbroken conversation by cutting between alternating camera angles. This is a form of continuity editing — the movie magic that allows films to tell a consistent story when using more than one shot. Once you’ve set the scene with an establishing shot, you’ll probably use some form of the shot-reverse shot to show your characters interacting with one another and their environment.

       

A shot-reverse shot starts with a shot of a character, and then cuts to a shot of what or who that character is looking at (the reverse of the angle from the first shot), and finally cuts back to the initial shot to show the character’s reaction. This sequence of cutting back and forth between the two shots can continue for as long as the scene requires.

       

“It’s been around forever because it works,” says independent film producer Nick Escobar. “It helps you tell a story quickly and effectively.”     

 

How to use the shot-reverse shot.

The shot-reverse shot shines in dialogue scenes, where a filmmaker can shoot a conversation using two angle shots and then cut between them during the editing process to suggest that the conversation is happening in real time.

       

“Somebody says something and we see a reaction shot of the other character,” Escobar says. “Then they reply and we see the person from the first shot react, and it continues back and forth.”

       

But there’s a lot of variety you can use when shooting a conversation using the shot-reverse shot structure. For example, some filmmakers choose to use single shots, in which only one character is visible in the frame at a time. These are often referred to as POV, or point-of-view, shots because they give the audience the impression that they’re seeing through the eyes of each character.

       

Or a director may use over-the-shoulder shots, which include some of a character’s back and shoulder in the frame while focusing on the character they’re talking to. “Sometimes those are called dirty frames, because you’re dirtying the screen with extra stuff,” Escobar explains. “Choosing which one to use is all about the mood and the feelings you’re trying to invoke.”

You don’t even need two characters in a scene to use the shot-reverse shot. When paired with a cutaway shot of a prop in the scene, it can show a character’s emotional response to that item or their environment.

       

“You could show a character seeing a letter on the table, and then show a reverse angle of the character seeing the letter with a little piece of the envelope in frame,” says director and cinematographer Padraic O’Meara. “And then we get to see how the person feels about the letter they just picked up. Maybe they start to cry. And if we didn’t have the letter in the frame, we wouldn’t know why they’re crying.” 

 

Planning for a shot-reverse shot.

When preparing to shoot a scene using a shot-reverse shot, it’s important to spend some time planning out your camera shots and blocking for actors ahead of time to make sure you don’t break the 180-degree rule.

       

“Basically, wherever you stick your camera, you can only show things within 180 degrees of that position,” Escobar explains. “It’s a way to help keep the viewers oriented. If I’m doing a shot-reverse shot with two people talking and in one shot one of them is looking to the right, the other person needs to be looking to the left so their eyeline matches and it looks like they’re talking to each other.”

 

Depending on your shot size and the depth of field your camera operator uses, you’ll need to make sure each character’s background matches their locations as established in the master shot.

       

“Having an understanding of the three dimensions of your environment is extremely important when shooting shot-reverse shots,” O’Meara says. “Especially when it comes to setting up the lighting you need to establish mood and consistency.” For example, a character whose shoulder is lit from the right in one shot should still be lit from the right when we see their face in the next shot.

Two images of people talking showcase different angles of a shot/reverse shot

Use the shot-reverse shot to build character.

Beyond showing two people talking to each other, you can get creative with the simple framework of the shot-reverse shot to give your audience subtle details about the relationship between the characters. If you’re trying to suggest that one of the characters in the scene is weak or at a disadvantage, you could shoot their shots from a high angle to make them look small. Or, to suggest that a character is powerful and in control, you could shoot them from a low angle so they appear larger, looming, and more commanding on screen.

       

Camera movements can also hint at changing relationships between characters. For example, when the police are interrogating the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, their conversation is filmed from steady, immobile camera angles. But when Batman arrives and begins his own more aggressive interrogation, the shot-reverse shot of their dialogue is filmed with handheld cameras, creating more sudden and unpredictable camera moves that hint at the chaos brewing in the conflict between these two characters.

       

“When it comes to communication, there’s so much more than text,” O’Meara says. “There’s the subtext and the emotion behind it and the way characters express and receive information. It’s so important to do it the right way, and that’s where shot-reverse shots can be so effective.”

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