How to Direct A Dialogue Scene

In most films, the story will be developed and progress through dialogue scenes. Shooting a dialogue scene can be a challenging task. You need to make the text enjoyable, even if it’s not. There are several techniques to use that will make that happen, and I will explain them here.

A dialogue scene starts with the subtext

Before planning a dialogue scene, you need to understand the subtext of the movie scene. A Subtext is a content that is not said directly by the characters, but it exists in the observer’s perception of the scene. Sometimes it’s in the observer’s subconscious, and he even not aware of that. The subtext of the scene should be drowned from the film’s premise. The first step you’ll need to take when shooting a dialogue scene is to analyze the dialogue. You need to understand why the characters are saying each line that they say, and what is the purpose of this dialogue scene – is it to reveal something about the characters? Maybe create specific emotion with the audience, or maybe it’s merely to take the story to the next stage. Once you know how to answer these questions, you’ll be able to run the next stages more easily. Here is a great example of a subtext in a dialogue scene. Look at the funny trick Woody Allen uses to show us what the characters are really thinking.

Plan your shooting script

When shooting a dialogue scene, you should plan the shooting script to express the subtext of the scene and its dialogue. Please read my post on types of camera shots to understand the psychology behind each shot. The way you will frame your actors will set the tone and pace of the scene. The ideal way to shoot a dialogue scene is to start with an establishing shot, to let the audience know where the characters are placed. Then you’ll need to break the movie scene into the shots you think are right for the scene. The Two-shot the purpose of A two-shot is to frame a view of the subjects talking and showing the emotional reactions between them. The subjects that take part in the dialogue don’t have to be close to each other. For example, you can have one of the dialogue participants in the foreground and the other background. The Over The Shoulder Shot A trendy shot on dialogue scenes is Over The Shoulder (OTS). The Over The Shoulder shot can have different meanings in a dialogue scene. Usually, it sends a message of connection and closeness between the characters in the scene. In OTS shot, you place the camera behind one of the actors, so that its shoulder will be in the frame while the camera captures the talking actor. Two-thirds of the frame should show the speaker, and the remaining third on the character whose back is to the frame. When shooting Over The Shoulder shots, you might want to use the Depth of Feild technique. You want the focus to be on the talking character, so the shoulder of the character that listens should be a bit blur and to take only one-third of the frame. Close-up Close-up is the most known shot in filmmaking. In a dialogue scene, you will use them for the talking character and the listening character. In the close-up shot, you frame the actor’s face to make what they are saying or their reaction to what is being said, the main focus in the frame. Since it’s an emotionally intense shot, you need to be careful from overusing it. Usually, you use the close-up shot to convey an emotion or to show small details in the actor’s reactions like a smirk, eyebrow raise, or anything else that is important to tell the story effectively. This is a good type of shot also to intense the rhythm of the shot.

Use the master shot technique

The master scene technique is a method used by lots of directors. What you do is shooting the whole scene in wide-angle from the start to the end, and then you start shooting all the inter-cuts. This way, if one of the cuts you shot didn’t go well, you can always come back to the master shot. I recommend reading my post on The master scene method to learn how to do it well.

Plan which lenses you want to use

The lenses you’ll choose for the scene will affect the emotion the audience gets from the scenes. There are many types of lenses, and you need to consult with your cinematographer what he prefers. Many like to use the Zoom lenses because you can play with their focal lengths in different ways. They are great for documentary films and action scenes. Cannon has some pretty good zoom lenses. The most popular lenses to shoot with are the prime lenses. They are very affordable compared to others and very sharp. They are also useful to shoot in low light locations. I like to use the Rokinon Cine Lenses, but there are many others.

Blocking for a dialogue scene

Blocking is planning where the actors are going to be in the scene and their movements inside. When blocking a dialogue scene, you first need to understand the subtext of the dialogue. For example, if the character’s lines mean they are getting closer to each other, they can show it by walking towards each other. If one character fears the other, it can walk away. Making your characters stand and not move at all can also have subtext meanings in it. When you plan the blocking, you should use the mindset of a choreographer. Think about all the elements in the scene and how you can use them to express the subtext of the dialogue. I also recommend reading my articles about lightning a scene, and recording sound on locations. After concerning all of that, you can start to go deeper into visualizing your scene and understand the message you want to convey through it. In this article, we’ll go through all the steps that will make you create the perfect dialogue scene.

Pro-tip

When the dialogue is important, and you want the audience to focus on what the characters are saying, keep the shots simple as you can while staying loyal to your story’s premise

Use inter-cuts

Think about the inter-cuts you want to add to the scene if you want to give the editor maximum flexibility to work with. The inter-cuts can be Close-ups on the listening characters, their hands (if they’re doing something that is important to the scene), their eyes, objects on the set &, etc. Of course, when using inter-cuts, you should think about how are they contribute to the scene and its subtext.

Think about how you want to edit the dialogue scene

It would be best if you also thought about the editing of the scene. If it’s quick-paced editing, then the shooting script should take it under consideration. If needed, consult with your video editor to understand what he needs to get the kind of editing you are planning for the scene.

Make the dialogue scene entertaining

The planning of the shooting should also consider the length of the scene and the atmosphere. For example, if we are shooting a long dialogue scene, we’ll want to move the camera during the dialogue. Moving the camera can be done handheld or with a steady cam or even with a dolly. Another way is to shoot it all in one take without any camera movement. That’s a less exciting way to shoot, but sometimes it will fit better to the atmosphere of your scene.

4 Extra Tips you need know for a real dynamic dialogue scene

  1. Try to avoid “Talking heads” – Talking heads is a scene where all you get is…talking heads, for example, dinner scene. Now, this is something you need to be careful from. I’m not telling you not to shoot table scenes, but If you don’t have to, then don’t! In dialogue scenes, you should always try to put the characters in motion. Make them do something while they talk. It will be even better if what they are doing will reflect in some way what they are feeling or any other subtext about them.
  2. Use interesting locations – If you have a dialogue scene where the actors need to stand still, try to use an interesting location. A unique location with a lot of visual interest for your scene, even if the actors are relatively still.
  3. Keep the 30-degree rule – Sounds obvious, but if you don’t keep that in mind, you might find yourself in a mess at the editing room/ For those of you that don’t know about it means that when you shoot different angles of the same subject, you need to change the angle by at least 30 degrees or you’ll end up with a dreaded jump-cut. 
  4. Keep the 180-degree rule – Again, obvious, but for those who don’t know about it, when shooting two actors talking, you need to keep your camera on one side of the action. Not doing so, will end up with your subjects suddenly switch places.