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How to Shoot Your Film for Editing

by Tom Stern

Everyone has their own production style. Conventional philosophy is “Tell the Story. Tell the Story. Tell the Story”. Meaning that the story is told once when the script is written, again during the shoot, and a third time during post. I think this reflects the Hollywood division of writing, filming, and editing into three separate jobs performed by different people. I’m sort of a contrarian in this regard. My philosophy is “Write to Shoot. Shoot to Edit. And Edit to Watch and Sell.” This flies in the face of conventional wisdom like “Don’t edit yourself. Write the script first and then figure out how to film it”. I think about shooting when I write. And I think about editing when I shoot, which is another thing you are not supposed to do.

I offer the following suggestions and advice.

Plan for editing. “Shoot to edit.” You aren’t going to get out of it. It has to be edited. And almost any scene can be improved by editing. But if you don’t have footage to cover your edits — then you will be stuck with the scene you shot. And the only choice you’ll have is a) drop the scene, b) use it as is, or c) re-shoot the scene (which usually isn’t an option).

#1) Run-through. I always have my actors run through the whole scene one time without filming. This gives them a chance to rehearse on the real set while feeling free to stop and try something different, or to speak about it with others, knowing the camera isn’t rolling. Practice radically reduces the number of takes required. Most people just shoot without this step. And everyone is afraid to talk, to ask questions, or to try something different because they know the camera is rolling. The result is they end up working it out during the shoot between takes, and the first couple of takes of each scene are always wasted. Skipping the run-through not only wastes time during the shoot, but it means more time in edit because there are more bad takes you have to sort through. You stand a much better chance of filming the whole thing if you have a run-through without the camera running, even if this is counter-intuitive.

#2) Shoot a Master. Shooting a continuous Master shot for each scene is an old big-Hollywood-style of shooting. Most people consider it an anachronism from a bygone era and won’t shoot master shots. During the run-through I always plan out a master shot. I’m an animator, so I think in “keyframes”. I look for perfectly composed static shots (ie “keyframes”). Then I lay out camera and actor motion to bridge between these static frames. In this way, the master is laid out as a series of perfectly composed shots that arrive at perfect frame-ups apparently by natural coincidence. For example, I might have a perfect 1-shot with an actor in the center of a frame. I might know that in the next part of the scene another character walks up and they talk. So for this dialogue there is a perfect 2-shot with each actor balanced left and right in the frame. Then I’ll plan how to get from the 1-shot to the 2-shot through actor and camera movement. Sometimes I’ll have the actors cheat motion or position to get them into a perfect framing. Often I shoot the master handheld or on a dolly. But even if I don’t have a beautiful blocking, I’ll still shoot a master of the scene with the camera locked-down to the tripod in a mid-wide shot. If there is a lot of movement, I’ll just grab the camera and shoot handheld — following the action. Sometimes I shoot by stepping into the scene — walking around and moving with the actors. The master gives me a place to start editing in post. And even if the delivery isn’t perfect or the actors even need to pause and look at their script — it gives me a basic framework upon which to cut and edit the scene. And I know that there are no physical continuity problems in the master because it’s one take. You stand a much better chance of being able to edit the entire story together if you have master shots, even if most of the master shot footage doesn’t appear in the final. Again, counter-intuitive.

#3) Shoot bust shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups. Next I shoot all the one and two shots and close-ups. If I have two cameras or if I have the time — I’ll shoot the entire scene tracking each main actor in a bust shot or a CU. This gives me a second option for a cut — because I can cut to the other actors’ reactions with voice over, or I can show the speaker.

#4) Shoot reactions for coverage. There’s never enough material to cover edits. So always shoot a few reaction shots in CU or extreme CU for each actor at each location. I’ll just talk the actor through a series of motions -- “someone is entering from your left”, “someone is entering from the right”, “you don’t like what they just said”, “nod as though you understand”, “shake your head no”, and so forth.

#5) Shoot environment for coverage. If the camera isn’t locked down, then I often take a minute or two of CUs of things in the environment for cutaways — what’s on the table. Fingers tapping. A book. Something of interest in the room. If not, then I often take about 3 minutes of environment during the break-down of the set — when people are out of the way, nobody is waiting on me, and I don’t have to keep the camera in the tripod for continuity.

One of my hardest learning experiences was when I begged a friend in Hollywood to let me take a whack at editing his indie film. He sent me 33 tapes. Every tape had between 5 and 20 takes of each scene. He ran out of time so some critical scenes didn’t get filmed at all. On each take I had a dozen takes showing both actors. No single shots. No environment shots. No reaction shots. No master shots. They were all blocked out to “tell the story”. I had absolutely nothing to cut away to. Some scenes were filmed in two or three segments. But because the camera and actors moved between the takes and there was no coverage, I couldn’t even bridge the edits between the parts of a single scene. There were only three choices: a) Use the best take as is, b) drop the scene, c) re-shoot. Re-shooting is almost never an option; the actors change their hairstyle, or the location isn’t available, or it costs too much. In the end he had a pro edit it in Hollywood and it ended up being a 17-minute film with no story. What I learned from that experience is “Shoot to Edit”.

Tom Stern is a writer, producer, and director. His company, FILMdyne LLC, specializes in Digital Cinematography. Their motto says it all: “Shot on video – looks like film.” Visit them online at Tom is the author of the Redrockmicro M2 Cinema Lens Adapter manual. Tom is a frequent contributor to the online forums at, under his nome de plume Andy Starbuck.Tom is also one of the founding members of JustUs League Films. A production troupe in Lexington, Kentucky.

(All pictures used in this piece were created with FrameForge 3D Studio 2 and were used with permission from Innoventive.  You can read the review of this software here.)

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