Shot/Reverse shot filmmaking with the Coen brothers

There’s no denying that the Coen brothers are unique in the film industry and have created their own style. They are known as filmmaking pioneers due to their ability to tell stories using different camera angles and lenses.

One noted tool is when the Coen brothers film dialogue between actors, from between them. Watching their various movies you’ll see the camera shot for one actor set up pointing towards him or her. When their dialogue is over, the shot is set up pointing towards the other actor speaking. This method of filming makes it clear that the two actors are engaged in a dialogue with each other that is woven in the story line.

Every Frame a Painting

The following video from Every Frame a Painting highlights the awesome of this method used extensively by the Coen brothers.

Opposing directors, like Paul Greengrass for example, like to shoot from over the shoulder of one actor, focusing on the actor speaking. This gives the viewer the feeling he or she is spying on the conversation and a part of the talk. The actor is almost looking at the viewer as they direct their speech to the secondary actor. Greengrass uses a longer lens too, to add to the feeling of being inside the conversation.

The common theory is that a longer lens makes you feel like you’re a spy. This works for the Coen brothers though because they like to make the viewer feel somewhat uncomfortable by isolating their characters. The goal is to show the viewer that the actor is trapped.

How is it filmed? Magic? No.

By filming on a 27- or 32-mil lens and push into their actor’s face, the Coens are able to exaggerate camera movement. It replicates action and can let the viewer feel they are live with the actors. It gives a feeling of getting insight into the actor. Plus, the exaggerated facial expressions let the viewer focus on exactly what the directors want them to see.

Single shots like this also create an environmental affect. They help viewers see the balance between characters and their surroundings. Also, they give away a lot of information. Consider a single shot on a wide lens and how much information it conveys. The viewer can see the actor’s face, but they also can gather information from the actor’s clothing, setting, background, etc. This is where everything can support exactly what the Coens are trying to communicate to the viewer.

The Coens also make an impact with their rhythmic filming. Looking at their films, they can find non-verbal ways to communicate with their audience. They create a specific tone for the viewers. That rhythm is a way to let the audience know that things are happening, and happening quickly.

The old film saying is “Tragedy is a close-up and comedy is a long shot.” The Coens mix both to distinguish themselves from other directors. As with any good director, each shot is chosen for a reason. It not only conveys the story, but it guides the viewer in one direction or another, depending on where directors want them to go.