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Old February 9th, 2005, 09:32 AM   #16
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Good article and great diagrams, Stephen.

If it makes you guys feel better, I've worked for many, many directors who range from needing a little bit of help to needing a lot of help on this issue, and I'm talking folks who are directing network television series and studio features. The responsibility for maintaining screen direction, incidentally, usually falls somewhere between the operator, the DP and the script supervisor; most directors as I indicated will rely on one or more of those folks to do the hard thinking for them on this.

There are certain "sand traps" that are easy to fall in when it comes to screen direction, and after having fallen in them a few times I now hear warning bells going off in my head.

The first I've dubbed the "Friend Zone Debacle", named for a scene that we shot in the first season of "Scrubs". Zach Braff's JD realizes that his relationship with a female character is never going to be romantic, and in a fantasy sequence he walks into a room, the "Friend Zone", that is full of guys who have also been unable to make the transition themselves. We follow him in from behind as he enters the room. On the right side of the frame (Zach's back stays in the center) is Man A, who speaks to him. Man is looking left to Zach. Then Man B on the left side of the frame pipes up; he obviously looks right to Zach. All well and good.

Then we turn around to shoot Zach's closeup. We pull him into the room. He looks at Man A--now wait a second, he has to look left to Man A, and Man A was looking left at him! Same problem with Man B. OK, well then we shoot two different closeups of Zach where we move the camera so that he can look right towards Man A, then swing all the way over to get the left look at Man B. Solved? Nope, the director wants a continuous shot of Zach looking first to Man A and then to Man B to use as a bridge between shots of the other two men. What to do?

We halted shooting to discuss it for a while. It took a long time to explain the issue to everyone who needed to know, and outside of flopping the shots of the two guys (effectively reversing the screen direction), no-one could offer a workable solution other than turning around and re-shooting the shots of the guys, which we didn't have time for because of the relight.

So, what should we have done? The rule of thumb that I developed is this: when you have a character that is splitting looks i.e. looking to either side of the camera, this creates the Master Axis, the line of action off which all other coverage is based. If you don't shoot the shot that includes the split looks first as we didn't, you may be setting yourselves up for disaster unless you think it through. In our case, the shot pushing into the room had a much bigger scope because of all the extras involved, so we considered it the master shot. But it was the closeup of Zach that should have counted first in our calculations.

How I would proceed with this now would be to walk into the room (it helps to be in the actual geography) and line up the shot mentally with Zach's split looks. Then, knowing that we would have to get Man A to look right rather than left, I would have suggested that we shoot Man A's coverage over Zach's left shoulder, then Man B's coverage over Zach's right shoulder. It certainly seems counter-intuitive, but picture this scene as cut together:

1) Follow Zach into room, back of his head is center frame. Man A on the right speaks to him, looking left.

2) Over Zach's left shoulder to closeup of Man A looking right.

3) Close up of Zach looking left to Man A. Then he swings his head to look right at Man B.

4) Over Zach's right shoulder to Man B looking left at him.

And that would have been that.

Between shots 1 and 2 there seems to be a line cross, as Man A's eyeline switches. Shot 1 is actually what I would call a reverse master, a true 180 degree turnaround, which is independent of the line of action. As long as the audience understands the geography of the room and who is were within it, this is perfectly acceptable. In this instance the 1st shot was so wide that the cut is not at all jarring. The true line of action is created in shot 2 and followed throughout.

The "Friend Zone Debacle" went off to editorial and the show was aired with the incorrect screen directions, incidentally, and it works OK--but just OK (and you can see it in all its glory when the first season DVD comes out on May 17th--thank you, Rob Lohman for the heads-up!). The moral of the story again: walk through the scene, think about the screen direction, draw diagrams if you like, create a plan and stick to it and you won't have unpleasant surprises in the edit. It's much better to take 10 minutes to work through beforehand than just to rush in and shoot, you'll regret it later.

Hope this makes sense to all who have slugged through this!
Charles Papert
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Old February 9th, 2005, 11:22 AM   #17
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This is a truly instructive thread enlivened by Charles' real-world remarks as a professional camera operator.

There are several books that treat this topic. One of the best I've found for this, and many subjects relating to shot planning and blocking, is Steven Katz's "Film Directing Shot By Shot: Visualizing From Concept to Screen" It's well worth getting, even if you just love movies but never plan to shoot one.
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Old February 9th, 2005, 11:53 AM   #18
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Single Shots

If you think of what you are shooting as a series of individual motionless shots, rather than as a moving picture, I think the necessity of the line becomes even more clear. The Matrix illustrates this point, I believe, in the series of shots where Neo first dodges bullets.

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Old February 9th, 2005, 12:15 PM   #19
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to make this discussion more complicated i want to suggest two things:

1. see kurosawa's "rashomon" - the scene in the forest - the triangle with woman, man and toshiro mifune. when they are all siting.
when you check this scene a few times, yo will know everything about stage line. and will know how to manage this with two or more people in the frame.

good. now the second one:

2. in today's editing - in my opinion at least, (and i'm teaching editing in polish film academy) if you are NOT shooting something extremly difficult for understanding for the wiever, forget about stage line. it's not SO important. if the emotions are high, and story is interesting nobody cares for it. (check walter murch's book - "in the blink of an eye")

it's another story of course, if this is an exercise in the film school :)

michael - do not worry so much about it - check "stage coach" by john ford and you will see HOW MANY wrong stage line cuts are made in this CLASSICAL movie which is almost alway reffered as A MUST for editors. (orson welles saw that film 40 times and didn't said a word about wrong stage line cuts!!!)
you can check jurassic park (I part) and find some nice cuts/cheats... :)

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Old February 11th, 2005, 10:25 PM   #20
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Thanks to Rob Lohman who provided the clip, I've put the "Friend Zone Debacle" up so you can compare against my notes.

I hadn't seen it in a few years, so it's a little different than I remember, but the issue is still there. I see that we did go ahead and cover ourselves by shooting a separate setup with the "correct" eyeline on Zach; the last shot in the sequence he is now looking right to the other actor instead of left (and you can tell from the background that we moved the camera a few feet to the left to justify this).

Chances are for most viewers, even film-savvy ones, this scene plays just fine. However, as I said, it's best to make these kind of choices knowingly rather than arbitrarily.
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Old February 12th, 2005, 09:20 AM   #21
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Is this "line" you are discussing, the same thing as "breaking the 4th wall"?
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Old February 12th, 2005, 09:40 AM   #22
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"The fourth wall" actually comes from theatre conventions. A set would have three visable walls, and the 'fouth' invisible wall is what the audiece is looking through.

When you break the wall in theatre, you go out into, or acknowledge the audience.

In film, that convention is represented by the camera. When you 'break" the wall in film, it's usually done by having the character talk to the camera, as if it were the viewer. The old "moonlighting" episodes did this a lot. Recently, I saw a sitcom do it. The characters were rearranging their living room. They actually moved the sofa that faces the tv (the one that always faces the audience) so that their backs were to the television audience. It was a funny 'insiders' joke to the fact that no one ever enters, leaves or looks in the direction of the set represented by the audience. It was a clever combination of the theatrical and filmic conventions of 'the fourth wall'.
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Old February 12th, 2005, 10:09 AM   #23
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Richard, that's a funny bit! I've grown really tired of sitcoms and their staginess, so it's fun to see the convention played with. Which show was that?

I'm much more of a fan of single-camera comedy, like "Curb Your Enthusiasm". On "Scrubs", even though it was single-camera, we still had the guy's apartment set which inevitably felt like a three-wall sitcom set. Even the creator/executive producer disliked it.

One movie that breaks the fourth wall pretty delightfully is "Trading Places"--both Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd get to do it in that one.
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