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Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene

Jourdan Aldredge

Planning a two-person dialogue scene in your next film or video project? Here’s everything you need to know to pull off the shoot.

Cover image by guruXOX.

Dialogue is just as important in film and video as it is in real life. Even during the early days of silent cinema, dialogue was a necessary aspect of storytelling — through dialogue cards and captions. In modern film and video, dialogue scenes are the crux of narrative development.

If you’re working on conversational scenes in your own project, follow these steps to get good coverage, a good audio recording, and proper editing.

Shots to Consider

Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene — Shots
Image by IxMaster.

Let’s start with the basics. Say you’re shooting a two-person conversation. The situation is the same in everything from cinema classics to modern sitcoms: you have two stationary actors talking back and forth. As a filmmaker, you want to maximize and stylize your coverage for a mix of wide and close-up shots. Here are a few shots to consider:

  • A wide two-shot.
  • OTS of each subject (over-the-shoulder).
  • Close-ups of each person talking.
  • Close-ups of each person listening and reacting.
  • Cutaways (aspects of the scene for cutaways in the edit).

Lighting Setups

Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene — Lighting Setups
Image by gnepphoto.

Lighting becomes tricky when shooting your dialogue scenes — especially if you’re not using a single-camera setup. With a single camera, it’s common practice to shoot from wide to close-ups. Once you’re not in a two-shot anymore (and have moved beyond over-the-shoulder framing), you only need a lighting setup for one individual. To help your actors, the other participant in the conversation can still say his or her lines — or you can use a stand-in.

If you are shooting multiple cameras, you’ll have to plan accordingly to light both characters equally for all angles of coverage. Here’s a great article about how and why sitcoms use three-camera setups (and the lighting problems filmmakers have had to solve over the years) to get complete coverage of dialogue-heavy content.

Recording Audio Options

Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene — Recording Audio
Image by guruXOX.

After setting your shots, audio becomes your next biggest concern. Working with two people in a static position doesn’t present too many challenges, though, so your traditional options are definitely still on the table. The real challenge is when you add more people (especially when they start talking over one another) and movement. Here are some basic approaches:

  • Boom overhead.
  • Boom under.
  • Lapel mics on each person.
  • Audio recorder hidden between both.

The decision comes down to getting quality audio from both subjects. If you’re booming both, you’ll need to be positioned perfectly or quick to pivot to catch each person’s dialogue. If you’re mic-ing both, be wary of cross chat and picking up too much of the other person.

Editing a Dialogue Scene

Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene — Editing Dialogue
Image by Tero Vesalainen.

When editing a dialogue scene, your main goal is to clearly present who is speaking and what they’re saying. If your shots were captured well and your audio recorded clearly, you’ll have an easier time and some flexibility for experimentation. However, if you need to cover mistakes from the shoot, you’ll be need to be creative to fill in missing information.

Some basic tips for editing a dialogue scene:

  • Start with the two-shot to establish the characters and their environment.
  • Alternate close-ups of each person when they talk.
  • Use reaction shots only when needed.
  • Use cutaways as elements in the environment are mentioned.

More Advanced Tips

Filmmaking Tips: The Basics of Shooting A Dialogue Scene — Advanced Tips
Image by gnepphoto.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can begin adding other elements, like additional characters, outside noises, and movement. Even keeping your camera stationary and letting your characters move around a little bit can create new problems you’ll have to solve. (It gets even tricker when your camera is in motion.) For more advanced tips and tricks when shooting dialogue-heavy scenes, check out some of these resources:

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