How the Coen Brothers Put Their Remarkable Stamp on the “Shot Reverse Shot,” the Fundamental Cinematic Technique

Even if you don’t think you know what a shot reverse shot is, you’ve prob­a­bly seen thou­sands of them. Tony Zhou, cre­ator of the video essay series Every Frame a Paint­ing, calls it “the most basic thing we have in film gram­mar. Near­ly every­thing you watch is going to be filled with it.” Why? Because a shot reverse shot brings togeth­er, and often oscil­lates between, two shots: one shot, say of a char­ac­ter, and its reverse shot, tak­en from a cam­era turned around to face what­ev­er the char­ac­ter in the first shot faces — usu­al­ly, anoth­er char­ac­ter.

“Most film­mak­ers use it as quick way to record dia­logue,” Zhou says. “Keep the actors still, use mul­ti­ple cam­eras, shoot ten takes, and then make deci­sions in post.” But not Joel and Ethan Coen (the auteurs behind films like Far­goThe Big Lebows­ki, No Coun­try for Old Men, and A Seri­ous Man).

In the new Every Frame a Paint­ing video essay on their use of the shot reverse shot, Zhou finds what makes a Coen Broth­ers shot reverse shot a Coen Broth­ers shot reverse shot, includ­ing a ten­den­cy to film their dia­logue “from inside the space of the con­ver­sa­tion,” as well as to work with cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Roger Deakins who—in a piece of inter­view footage Zhou includes—describes him­self as a man with “a very strong feel­ing about lens­es,” and who for dia­logue scenes prefers wide-angle lens­es rather than long ones.

These pref­er­ences and oth­ers result in a fil­mog­ra­phy full of shot reverse shots that feel both “kind of uncom­fort­able, and kind of fun­ny,” a visu­al evo­ca­tion of the Coen Broth­ers’ fre­quent use of iso­lat­ed char­ac­ters trapped in “sit­u­a­tions they real­ly have no con­trol over” — and because of the choice of lens and place­ment of the cam­era, “you’re trapped with them.” And that set­up gives them a host of options when they want to empha­size or even exag­ger­ate cer­tain qual­i­ties of the char­ac­ters talk­ing or the sit­u­a­tion the sto­ry has put them in.

It even allows them to show more of the set­ting in which that sto­ry takes place, whether snowy North Dako­ta, Los Ange­les by night, 1980s west Texas, a 1960s Min­neso­ta sub­urb, or any oth­er of the regions and eras of which they’ve so vivid­ly made use. Add to that the kind of snap­py edit­ing rhythm that can make their movies’ dia­logue itself so mem­o­rable, and you may nev­er feel sat­is­fied by oth­er film­mak­ers’ shot reverse shots again.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Film­mak­ing Tech­niques of Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jack­ie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

The Art of Mak­ing Intel­li­gent Com­e­dy Movies: 8 Take-Aways from the Films of Edgar Wright

The Geo­met­ric Beau­ty of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wes Anderson’s Films

Watch the Coen Broth­ers’ TV Com­mer­cials: Swiss Cig­a­rettes, Gap Jeans, Tax­es & Clean Coal

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.