With so many possible shots for a filmmaker to use, it’s easy to take the fundamentals for granted. However, they’re fundamentals for a reason—and none so much as the shot-reverse shot. An effective and economical way to convey mood, themes, and subtext, the shot-reverse shot is a go-to technique for creating the illusion of a seamless sequence of events. If done well, it can propel the story forward, tap into the scene’s emotion, and inform the audience of the character’s point of view (POV).
“Euphoria” Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO
A shot-reverse shot is a film editing technique that takes two separate shots—usually a medium or a close-up—and cuts them together to appear as if a continuous conversation is happening. The sequence begins with the shot of the first character, who is interacting with someone offscreen. The next cut shows the reverse angle of the first shot to indicate that the person offscreen is interacting with the first character. Cutting back to the first character completes the shot-reverse shot, but you can toggle between the two for as long as necessary. The back and forth of the shot-reverse shot allows audiences to focus on character reactions to the conversation.
Imagine two characters are having a conversation across a table. Shooting this in a two-shot (where the frame encompasses two people) is one option, but a shot-reverse shot best highlights the back-and-forth dialogue.
Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov theorized that editing can change perspective and that an audience derives more meaning from an image when followed by something that contextualizes it. Here, Alfred Hitchcock explains the Kuleshov Effect:
One of Kuleshov’s students, Sergei Eisenstein, filmed “Strike,” which has one of the earliest shot-reverse shot examples. The filmmaker’s emphasis on the significance of editing in crafting a filmic narrative is still felt today. “If the actor cannot show a thought, editing must,” writes contemporary film theorist Mark Cousins in “The Story of Film.”
Dialogue-heavy scenes benefit from a shot-reverse shot for the following reasons:
- To provide context: The shot-reverse shot makes it seem like two conversing characters occupy the same space—even though they’re being captured by two different camera setups. Each side of the shot-reverse shot takes on meaning based on the context of what comes before and after it.
- To create tone: The shot-reverse shot has the power to indicate not only whose point of view we are witnessing but also the tone of the conversation. “Camera movement not only directs the attention of audiences but indicates how we should be feeling,” notes director and scholar Alexander Mackendrick in his book “On Film-making.” For example, “if one character is seen in close-up and the other in medium shot, our feelings of sympathy and/or identification are with the figure seen at the closer distance.”
- To maintain continuity: The shot-reverse shot maintains continuity (to show seamless action) while having the ability to convey different meanings depending on the angles and shots.
A good shot-reverse shot requires preparation and attention to detail. To use it most effectively:
- Plan your shots: “A well worked-out plan for the staging and camera coverage ought to give you more freedom to improvise, not less,” writes Mackendrick. Plan your shots and blocking for actors ahead of the shoot with storyboards and/or a shot list. This preparation will make it easier to follow the 180-degree rule. Establish where your first shot will be and where the second shot of the off-camera character will be.
- Don’t break the 180-degree rule: The imaginary line is called the “axis of action.” The camera must only film from one side of the 180-degree axis. “The standard shooting pattern is that camera set-ups should be kept to the same side of the axis,” explains Mackendrick. The eyeline must match during a shot-reverse shot because otherwise, it can distract or disorient the audience. You don’t want the characters to look like they aren’t talking to each other. Consistency is crucial, and the 180-degree rule helps you remain consistent.
- Pick a lens: Cinematographer Roger Deakins favors a wide lens for the shot-reverse shot since it can exaggerate how facial expressions appear. Alternatively, director Paul Greengrass often goes for a longer lens to deliver a voyeuristic aesthetic that also heightens the tension. Aim for consistency—since you’ll use at least two cameras, you won’t want to switch between lenses.
- Pay attention to lighting: How you light the actors impacts the mood. Ensure that the light source and shadow are consistent on both sides of the shot to maintain continuity.
- Consider camera placement: In Deakins’ long collaboration with the Coen brothers (including “Fargo”), he often places the camera in between the two people conversing, which delivers what he calls a “sense of presence.” If you opt for an over-the-shoulder shot (aka “dirtying the frame”), it can orient the viewer to the information within the frame and even create intimacy between the two characters.
- Explore shot options: What angle are you going to use? You’ll likely use the reverse angle for the second shot if you shoot one character from a low angle. Or you might want to break conventions and use a Dutch angle, as Brian De Palma did in “Mission: Impossible.” Experiment or even change between close-ups and mediums within one scene to depict different moods, themes, and subtexts.
The Coen brothers are masters of dialogue, effectively deploying the shot-reverse shot throughout their filmography to isolate characters, increase humor, and create empathy. This scene from the Academy Award–winning “Fargo” showcases their effective use of camera placement.
Sometimes the shot-reverse shot can involve one actor playing two versions of the same character, as Sam Raimi demonstrates in this conversation between Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) and his Green Goblin alter ego. Cutting between points of view ensures the audience knows this is the same character while highlighting the two extremes.
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Paul Greengrass’ signature handheld camera aesthetic does not reduce the capabilities of shot-reverse shot with this set-up. Instead, shooting over the shoulder in such tight quarters increases the scene’s tension and sense of unpredictability. The close-up of Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) coupled with the lower angle accentuates his power.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Director Gary Ross uses shadow to place distance between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as they gear up to enter the Hunger Games arena. An over-the-shoulder angle coupled with the wall puts a barrier between Peeta and the audience, while Katniss’ lighting signifies her importance as protagonist.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese uses a mix of shots (including a two-shot master and an insert) to establish the power dynamic while Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and eccentric broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) eat lunch. The Manhattan skyline dominates the background of Mark’s shots, highlighting his success—which is further emphasized when he leans in toward the camera.
“Game of Thrones,” Season 5, Episode 8 (2015)
Although the shot-reverse shot is often used in dialogue scenes, it’s not a requirement; and in this scene, actions speak louder than words. The Night King (Vladimir Furdik) reveals his party trick of bringing the dead back to life, and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is at a complete loss for words. Director Miguel Sapochnik eschews both soundtrack and dialogue in these final moments. Only the sound of the wind blowing contributes aurally to the overall devastating impact of this shot-reverse shot.
“The Americans,” Season 4, Episode 8 (2016)
Matthew Rhys wears two hats in this episode (and scene) as actor and director. He uses medium close-ups for the shot-reverse shot during the tentative start of the conversation, before switching to a medium-long shot-reverse shot when Elizabeth (Keri Russell) suggests Philip (Rhys) is being manipulated. When carefully placed passive-aggressive comments escalate into fury, Rhys deploys close-ups to accentuate the anger on both sides. This sequence shows how a shot-reverse shot adds rhythm while heightening the emotion.