Coverage and the Master Shot: The Director’s Visual Language and ‘Chart’ by Myrl A. Schreibman

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. Coverage and the Master Shot: The Director’s Visual Language and ‘Chart’ by Myrl A. Schreibman  Pages 30 – 31.

Coverage is the director’s visual language. It is the sequence of shots that are selected which impact the story in many different ways. And directors must plan ahead and have an idea of how they will cover a scene. There are approaches that help determine the camera shots needed to tell the story from a variety of angles once the actors in the scene have been staged. One successful method is to stage a master shot as a way to rehearse the scene so everyone on the set can see how the believability of the scene plays out. And then, if push comes to shove and you really get into a time crunch and are unsuccessful in completing the coverage for the scene, you have the master to revert to. This also allows your actors to basically experience their environment and to liberate their instinct without having the camera invade their acting space, which can and will happen when you cover a scene. It permits them to securely set their “approach or feelings to their relationships” in the scene so they can either comfortably duplicate it or build on it during the various coverage shots. In addition, the master shot becomes the “chart” that shows you intuitively how and when to cover the scene. If staged correctly and looked at carefully it will also show you the most efficient and creative way of visually telling the story. One phenomena with a master shot is that even though directors have certain shots in mind but not a complete understanding as to how to achieve them, the creation and development of the master will be their compass and guide their creative thought process as it lets directors observe the actors’ process and focus on their performances.

Creating the master shot as the first shot may inspire changes to the ideas you brought to the set and inspiration is a wonderful creative ingredient for a director. The master shot, like all shots, should be motivated as it is created by the story and what you do with the actors.

Master shots, however, do not have to run throughout the entire scene. The scene can be broken up into dramatic beats which is a section of dialogue or a change in staging in which the characters are relating to one another emotionally or on one subject and the dialogue takes a turn indicating a change in the emotional beat. For example, if the scene you are doing is more than 1 and 1/2 pages and because of drastically shifting staging of the actors, you find that it serves the production schedule to do more than one master shot, find a place within the scene to end one master, do its coverage, and then pick up the other master and its coverage later in the production day. The separation point between the two masters should be a moment in the scene where one or more characters make a logical emotional transition to a new dramatic beat and the staging changes to motivate the beat. This way actors can easily focus on the discovery of the moment for each of the two masters during coverage without concerning themselves with the rest of the scene. The director becomes the barometer for the continuity of their performances throughout the shooting day.

Although preferred, it is not always necessary or possible to stage a master shot. In these circumstances developed coverage will change. For example, if the scene calls for a large courtroom with plaintiffs and defendants, their attorneys, the judge and other officials as key characters in the story, along with members of the press and a gallery of people watching the proceedings it may be difficult to almost impossible to do a master shot of the scene without the use of a crane. And even then it will be more of an establishing shot than a master shot which shows the dramatic and emotional action of the scene. This was the case with Oliver Stone’s JFK. Again, the director goes to the basics; the characters in the story, and instead of a master shows shots of the various elements and characters who not only make up the courtroom but also relate Schreibmanto one another in the story while always coming back to the dramatic action with Kevin Costner who speaks to the court and the jury.

The Master, The Moving Master, and The Master That Moves

One common mistake that inexperienced directors make is thinking that an establishing shot is a master shot when they decide on a wide angle shot which establishes where the characters are (as opposed to who they are) and proceed to have the actors play out the scene in that wide angle. Establishing shots are not master shots although master shots can be designed to start or end as an establishing shot.

A master shot that is performed with no or minimal camera moves in which the audience observes the action and the characters is referred to as a master. The viewpoint of the shot is as if the audience is fixed, watching the scene progress and actors move into the frame. Such a shot can be seen in Tobe Hooper’s’ Poltergeist just before Zelda Rubenstein playing the psychic, opens the door to Carol Anne’s bedroom to save her from the arms of evil spirits. The shot starts on a close-up of a tennis ball and ends on the doorknob of the room while making slight adjustments for the five characters in the shot.

Another type of master is one in which the camera observes the action and moves along with it while observing the scene. This is called a master that moves. The most familiar is that of actors having a conversation while walking. In this master, commonly referred to as a walk and talk, actors are motivated to stop along the route specifically for coverage purposes. When the movement stops it gives directors the opportunity for coverage before the dolly moves again as it is difficult <but not impossible> to match coverage on a moving dolly shot. This technique lets the editor edit the coverage in between the best moving moments of the dolly shot from multiple takes that the director may do.

It also lets the editor re-pace the actor’s performance, adjusting the rhythm of the scene. Another type of master is the moving master. This is when the camera is a participant as opposed to a viewer in the scene. In a moving master the camera and the actors move to and from one another engaging the audience as a participant in one way or another. A moving master usually involves the camera moving in the space of one or another character, employing close-ups and medium shots. Moving masters are always intensely motivated by the movement of the actors. This type of moving master uses primarily tight shots and angles combined with motivated changes in lens depth of field to direct the audience towards one statement in the shot or another. The moving master often has actors go in and out of the camera frame while disorienting the spatial relationship for the audience. Directors, when employing this technique, must carefully think through coverage to work with this kind of master shot. In the most daring instances, there is no coverage and directors must then make sure that the performance is totally sustaining. Moving masters take a long time to stage and rehearse and they run off a lot of film stock. So they must be carefully planned.

Finally it is always a good idea to do more than one take of any master shot even when you finally get the one you want. In all probability the speed of the shot when projected runs slower than you perceived on the set. So after you have the master shot you want, do it again and ask your dolly grip to move faster and your actors to pick up their cues. Your continuity person will be able to give you the running times of both takes and you will find that, more than likely, the faster take is the one you finally use.

There are many different ways that a scene can be covered and coverage never should happen in a vacuum. Directors must look to see what and how they can bring out in pictures what is emotionally happening from the characters and allow that to be the driving force for the coverage. The master shot will lead you in the right direction to find that coverage. And after you have done the master shot, if you are lost in what coverage shot to do next and the production crew is standing around waiting for you to make your camera decisions, it is time for you to be true to the story and go back to the characters for your bearing. You will find the path there.

Myrl A. Schreibman is a Producer/Director, professor at UCLA Film School, and author of the book, “The Film Director Prepares, A Practical Guide for Directing Film and Television.”

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