The Master Scene Method

With an example using the short sci-fi film, “Skimmers”.

By John Klein

One of the most common ways of shooting a scene is what’s called the master scene method. The basic premise is that the first thing you’ll shoot of a scene is usually a wide shot – the “master shot” – that encompasses all the dialogue and action in the sequence, and then go in for “coverage” – how we refer to two-shots, close-ups, inserts, and other pieces of the sequence. The idea is that, even if you ran out of time on the day, you’ve at least started with a shot that covers the whole scene, and thus you’ll have a movie at the end of the day.

The practice is very commonly used in television, especially in scenes with multiple characters where a character may only have a couple of lines in a long scene, and thus their coverage could be a very brief close-up with a reaction shot and their delivered lines while the bulk of the coverage is devoted to the main characters. A good example of this would be this scene from a short sci-fi film I directed called Skimmers:

In this, you can basically see how the whole scene could be edited for rhythm and pace, but the bulk of the scene’s important beats can be witnessed from the master shot and close-ups, and the rest is really just gravy on the storytelling pie. When shooting this scene, we shot the master shot first, then each shot of Derron (in the chair) on the same axis, going in progressively closer, then the two-shot, then the close-ups of Asher and West on the other side, then the inserts last since we had covered the rest of the scene.  And as we only had a few hours to shoot the entire 4.5-page scene, we only got one or two takes of every shot, so we had to make them count!

The great thing about this is that it’s not just something that’s useful on narrative sets, but in documentary and promotional work as well. Typically, when I’m shooting b-roll on a video to drop in during an interview edit, I’ll structure the way I shoot that b-roll very much like a traditional scene. Say it’s a family eating dinner. I’ll grab a wide shot, then make sure to grab close-ups of each person at the table – always taking care to obey rules of continuity like the 180-degree rule and the 20% rule, which keeps the possibility of jump cuts to a minimum – and inserts of their plates, maybe a shot of the dog sitting on the floor, or any artsy shots of reflections or framings within frames like doors or windows.

With b-roll, it’s not imperative that the actions match with each take, so all you’re really doing is giving the editor tools to construct a sort of scene that will match a sound bite from the intervie and giving it a more cinematic flair.

It’s certainly not the only way to shoot a scene, and there are times when it can feel rote, like putting together a puzzle you’ve already made several times before. But for capturing the best takes of performances, for ensuring that you’ve got the scene covered, and for enabling your editor to cut for rhythm and tone (and foul-ups!) rather than hoping that oner really worked, the master scene method – both in narrative and in documentary film – can be a great tool.

Watch the Short Sci-Fi Film, “Skimmers”


Pictured: Shot on the Red Epic, “Skimmers” is a short sci-fi film about the black market that emerges for selling fresh water during a catastrophic drought. Pictured: DP Greg Boris, 1st AC Andrea Kinnerk, sound mixer Adam Carl, and actors James Dolbeare and Greg Hardigan.

Photos by John Klein.


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