Coverage basically means getting ALL the shots you need. It can be very helpful to compartmentalize and have a framework for the way you think about shooting, and also the structure of movies.
First off, lets break down the structure of a sequence.
A sequence is built up of scenes, which in turn is built of shots. A sequence can be something like, Uma Thurman taking on the crazy 88. It’s built up of different scenes, inside their hideout, drinking sake. Then there is another scene inside the main restaurant, where our protagonist challenges the crazy 88 and Lucy Liu, and finally, when Uma and Lucy go head to head in the snow covered tea garden. Each of these scenes and locations can be broken down into a series of shots as well. You’ll often hear people say, shoot for the edit, or, shoot in sequences. This is the practice of trying to pre-visualise what shots you need for a sequence, and collect those, instead of getting caught collecting a single continuous shot of the same subject. There is a more in depth article on shot sizes, but it’s helpful to analyze some of these in the context of coverage as well.
This is a key shot. It’s probably the first thing you want to get in the bag, although it can often be picked up later, or somewhere else to ‘cheat’ a location. Where are we? Where is this scene taking place? How much of this information can we convey in a single shot. Often this shot is the exterior of an office building, or a home.
Filmmakers who have become bored with the predictability and static look of the establishing shot, more and more try and combine it with some kind of dynamic movement. Location in background, character enters in foreground, or, exterior office building, zoom and pan to a particular window where our protagonist is pacing back and forth.
Sometimes an establishing shot is eschewed or unnecessary, and a wide-shot is sufficient to tell the audience where a scene is happening. A master shot is a shot that has all the key elements of your scene in it. Imagine your scene is a stage play, this shot is intended to cover everything you need.
Most scenes in movies have two characters talking. With this in mind, once you have your master, the next thing to do is get singles of both your characters. This is a clean shot of each actors dialogue, often an over the shoulder shot. If you have a wide-shot, and two singles, you pretty much have basic coverage. Obviously it can be much more complex than this and you can pepper in as many creative shots as you would like, but this is the meat and potatoes of coverage.
Finally, you have the salt and pepper of your shooting prowess. These are often my favourite shots, they are the flavour of your sequences. What are the important parts of the scene, and how can we draw the audience’s attention to them?
Cut-aways are shots that are not integral to the action of the scene, but are very helpful to the editor. They are often not context sensitive, and can be used to ‘cut away’ to during the action to avoid continuity errors.
Editors will often use them like sticky tape to fix a broken scene, or to add pacing and style to enhance a scene. They often come in the form of a close-up, for example of the cat sitting on a windowsill in a dialogue scene, or the view out of a window at the street below. They give a sense of environment and are the little things that help make the audience feel at home in your story.
Inserts are very similar to cut-aways, but with a key difference, they are context sensitive, meaning that they are a part of your scene and will only work at a certain point in your story. For example, Bob is reprimanding our protagonist for being late to work again, as he does so, he takes an obnoxious slurp of coffee from his ‘#1 Boss’ mug. We might want an insert of Bob slurping his coffee, a real close up of the bristles of his moustache dipping in the luke warm brew.
It’s similar in aesthetics to a cut-away, but can only be used in this one particular moment, when Bob is drinking coffee, and can’t be used to paste over problem areas elsewhere in the scene, because it would be out of context. Inserts can also be line of sight, or reaction shots, in which the character looks out a window, and then we see their view, or looks off-screen at the windowsill, and then we see the cat.
If you manage to get these things you have basic coverage, and from there, you can work on getting more and more elaborate and creative angles and shots. These basic themes resonate in a documentary workflow as well, however with more emphasis on certain aspects.
In documentary, interviews are #1 (with some exceptions). Generally speaking, most documentary formats are built around interviews. This is where you get your story from, and where you build your dialogue. So for documentary filming, or event coverage, it’s often best to get your interviews first. This not only ticks off a huge part of your coverage, but can often steer you in the right direction when shooting your pickups/cutaways later. If you’re talking with the experts in the field, its quite likely they have some insights into what is important subject matter to cover. So, if you can, do the interviews as soon as possible, and your movie will take shape.
The art of shooting an interview is quite understated. Too often we see boring framing and composition in an interview setting, when there is so much opportunity for creativity. The basics however, are the golden rule, and headspace/lead space, and getting different shot sizes.
Different shot sizes allow you to stitch together the interview more seamlessly without having to cut away to other content. If you are blessed enough to have another camera/camera operator, it can be helpful to use two, with one set slightly across from the first, and slightly closer in.
This allows you to cut together almost anything that the interviewee says, without having to cover it up. If you are going to use two cameras, remember the action line, or 180 degree rule. Also, when searching for an interview location, light is one of your biggest concerns (sound being the biggest). You want consistent light (light that won’t change, for example the bright sun poking in and out of the shade), and preferably light that casts favourable shadows on your subjects face and separates them from the background (see the section on lighting).
In documentary, oftentimes almost all the footage you work with will be ‘cut-aways’. Interviewees will talk about something, and it will be covered up with creative representations of what they are talking about. It’s important to collect single cut-away shots, but also to always think in sequences. Try and get a Wide-shot, mid-shot, and close-ups (Master, singles and cutaways/inserts) for whatever piece of action you are filming. In this way, when putting the footage together, the editor has the ability to tell a story with the footage, instead of just making a montage out of different single shots.
Nat-Sound Breaks/Doco Moments
Another piece of the documentary puzzle is ‘nat-sound breaks’. These are those ‘real’ moments caught on film, where some kind of action just unfolds in front of the camera, however trivial, that doesn’t require a narrative voice to explain it. In ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’, one of my favourite docos, these moments come when Jiro tastes the sushi and tells his staff what needs to be done with the different ingredients. It’s a simple moment, but it helps with the pacing, and helps the audience to feel like they are watching something happening, not just people talking about something happening.
Sometimes, as a documentary filmmaker you don’t have access to a key part of your story. When this happens you have to consider creative alternatives.
Re-enactments of events are one option, another is to creatively construct a visual metaphor for your film. For example, you are crafting a story around a feeling that your characters are running out of time to deal with some impending issue. You could cut away to slow motion sand running through fingers or hands.
In Nukkan.Kungun.Yunnan we filmed coins dropping into the salty lake water to represent the lakes and Coorong are dying because of greed.
Magic realism are moments when your movie drops the pretense that it is all ‘real’, and uses metaphor and imagery to convey the message and emotions of your characters or story.
Now that you know the constituent parts of a movie, remember, whatever type of movie you’re making, don’t go out there blind. Put together a shot-list and a creative brief for your shoots. Know what you’re looking for. Of course, be open to change in documentary, and follow the story, but you will be more keyed in to those changes and intricacies, if you know what you were looking for in the first place.
Note: As a shooter, its extremely valuable to understand the processes of the edit. It can help you to understand if you are getting coverage. Are you getting everything you need to put together the story you see in your head? It’s very informative to work with your own footage, and helps you to understand your strengths and shortcomings as a shooter. It is a very easy way to become a much better cinematographer. I highly suggest trying to cut something together using your own work. Absolute minimum is to review your footage immediately after every shoot, you might be tired, but you will still understand what motivated you to take certain shots, and if they didn’t work you will be able to invent work arounds for the next shoot.
Find other useful web resources here:
Witness: Online Video Advocacy Guide shows its event coverage guidelines. The entire site contains more interesting tips on creating ‘genocide prevention’ media.
A forum on finding stability in event situations found on the hv20 website.
Yahoo.com Q&A on wedding coverage.
A wedding how to for wedding photographers. Helpful and relevant information for video coverage can also be gleaned.