How to film dialogue with one camera?

HeySiri Posts: 382 Just Starting Out*

I'm making a short film and there's a lot of dialogue in it. I have some nice recorders and am filming with ONE camera. I cannot get another camera. Well, MAYBE but I wouldn't count on it.

The point is, how do I film dialogue with two or more people with one camera? I know I could film the scene, once from a longer angle, and once for every person, but won't the audio end up sounding choppy?


  • rutxer
    rutxer Posts: 176

    I'd shoot the full dialogue from all angles you want (or most) so you have material for L-cuts, J-cuts, reactions and more choices on line delivery.

    Unless you and your actors are super good, and you know exactly what shots will you use for each beat of the dialogue.

  • Triem23
    Triem23 Posts: 20,079 Ambassador

    Here's where we discuss "Hollywood" filmmaking  a bit and try to work through some tips. 

    The majority of films and a fair amount of TV production is shot single-camera (on an action blockbuster, for example, most dialog is still shot single camera with most multi-camera setups saved for big, expensive, "one-take" stunts like car crashes and big explosions). As you've already noted this means you are going to shoot multiple times.

    The general workflow/planning would be to start with a "master" shot: this is going to be a wide angle, hopefully covering all your actors. Depending on the location this could be something with a mostly static wide shot or might require a choreographed move to frame actors at points. Either way, you want to get those masters first and make certain you have minimal coverage of the entire scene.

    After that you'll start thinking about your "single" shots - those focusing mostly on one actor. Now, time is always limited on-set, so the best general advice is the same advice that applies to ANY scene - pre-planning is your friend. You absolutely, positively must create either a shot list or a storyboard. Often both. Having a list of shots needed or a storyboard (and storyboards don't have to be beautiful comic books, stick figures work) is pretty vital for planning. In fact, for the rest of this post if I type "shot plan" read that as "shot list and storyboards."

    So, we've planned out our shots and we've shot the master. Great - back to the shot plan. You're going to want to minimize the amount of times you move your camera and lights, because moves take time (especially if refocusing lights). For sake of discussion we'll pretend we're shooting in a room. We'll make it an interrogation scene. The actor being interrogated sits the entire scene and the interrogator stands and paces. The interrogator is to the "west" and the interrogated to the "east."

    We've shot our master from the "south." Our master is a tripod shot, but our lens isn't wide enough to get both actors. Our master has been blocked with some camera pans to pick up important lines. In fact, lets put the "one way mirror" on the south wall and shoot our master from the observation room next door! 

    Ok, back to our single shots. There are two ways to plan out which actor to shoot first: ease of setup, and "who is the scene about?" for ease of setup, in this example the person being interrogated is the easy setup...sitting in a chair, no movement? Lock that camera down! We'll do all of our "east facing" shots first! Maybe we'll shoot three basic "east" shots - One from the west end of the table, one from the center-south, one right up close. Easy! 

    Except..."who is the scene about?" In any scene one character is the primary driver of action or story meaning. We've set up a generic interrogation, but let's look at two possibilities for what the interrogation is about! 

    • Our hero has been arrested for a crime he didn't commit. He has to convince the police that the real threat is still on the streets. In this version the scene is about the person being interrogated. That ALSO means the scene is about the character with the easy camera setups. We're totally shooting to the east first. 
    • Our hero has arrested a henchman of the main villain, but the threat still looms. She has to get the henchman to spill the beans so the day can be saved. In this version the scene is about the interrogator. Even though the camera setup and move for her is more difficult, we need to shoot her first. We're going to shoot west. 

    Ok, so we've shot the master and we've shot all the singles in one direction. Anything else before we move the camera again and get the other side of the scene? How about "closeups and cutaways?" By closeups, I'm not discussing actor's faces, but things in the room, or, well, yes, parts of the actors. We're shooting an interrogation? What's in the room to play with? Since we've stumbled into a police type scene there will be security cameras in the room. Grab shots of them. Maybe we want closeups of the hands of the person being interrogated? How about the legal pad/notes of the interrogator? Maybe she has a coffee mug that sez "World's Best Mom?" The point of these cutaways is to give you something to help smooth edits - maybe your two best takes of the interrogator have her in two slightly different places in the room; cutting to that security camera helps bridge those two shots with the lines. Maybe in the edit the scene is dragging and you want to cut a 1/4 page of dialog? Cutting to the prisoners hands, fingers tapping, can hide the cut. Having cutaways in the shot plan is smart. 

    When to grab your cutaways is tricky. Ideally you grab a quick something from each camera setup. If dialog goes well and time allows you might even have time to shoot more cutaways after the dialog!

    "But, wait!" you cry, "my question was about audio!"

    Yeah, I'm getting there.

    Ok, with a single camera setup odds are good that moving camera/lights also means moving audio. How many channels does your recorder record, how many mics do you have, and where are they going to be? If you're doing a "traditional" mic on boom pole then your mic is probably farther away from both actors in the master. This would also mean that when shooting the singles you mic for the subject - so, when shooting the cop, point the mic at the her...the suspect's audio will be captured on his shots.

    Either way, with a single mic, chances are audio levels will change on each camera setup as you'll move the mic each time. 

    Do you have two lavs? Great! Mic each actor, hide the cables, audio will be consistent.

    Do you have multiple mics, not lavs? Where can they be hidden? Good news for the interrogation scene, since the interrogation would be recorded. Stick one mic in the center of the table and leave it. Again, you'll have consistent audio.

    Now, here's the vital, important killer hint: You need "room tone" ("location tone" "ambient tone"). Room tone is an audio-only take where you set up the microphone  tell everyone to shut the hell up and record a minute or two of the location audio.

    You might record "wild lines" ("wild audio," "wild takes"). Wild lines are, again, audio only takes. You may choose to record certain lines that are particularly important on-set just to make certain you have it. Again, this is where the shot plan helps. If the interrogation subject has this super-important line and I know in the edit we're going to be looking at the cop's reaction at the time, we can grab it wild. In our interrogation scene maybe someone in the observation room has lines that will be heard over speakers in the interrogation room? We might not need to see the speaker, so we could grab this as wild. 

    When you get into editing, yes, you're most likely going to have changing audio levels. You might even have changing background noise (especially if shooting outside). Unfortunately there is no super-easy five-step process to match all your audio. The bottom line is you're going to be taking audio from the best takes to patch together. You'll have to cut as close to a line as you can and you'll be using lots of quick fades to bring the clips in and out. At this point we'd detour into hours of discussion on EQ, Compression, noise reduction and other audio tools.... 

    But, since you recorded room tone you have that as a bed to layer lines atop. 

    How to deal with "patchy" audio? Two approaches - try to "bury" it or re-dub. 

    TV shows usually try to bury it. Room tone, sound effects and music are used to try to hide the edits. Because TV has less time and money than a movie TV audio from location shoots is often "patchy." Call up a TV show you like that shoots outside and send it to some good headphones...close your eyes and listen. Eventually you're going to hear the audio edits.

    Movies? The dirty truth on most movies is probably 90% of audio is re-dubbed. Yup, after the primary edit is completed (months after filming) the actors are going to brought in and they're going to re-record themselves while listening to the production audio on headphones and watching themselves on screen. The patchy production audio is tossed. 

    Except for the room tone. That's always going to be the bed of the edit. 

    Even TV shows do a lot of dubbing. Side note: "Loop Group." A loop group is a gang of voice actors. Loop groups are brought in for things like custom crowd scenes, party backgrounds, etc.  On a movie or TV show a fair percentage of "day players" (actors on set  for a day with maybe one or two lines - like featured extras) will actually be overdubbed by a loop group actor.

    Fight scenes are almost always overdubbed. You need your actor to come in and record "Yeaaaaaaaa-OOF!" over their stunt person running in then getting kicked in the face, after all.

    So, plan your shots to minimize setup, do what you can to hide mics as close to your actors as possible, GET ROOM TONE, and have fun on the mix. 

  • DafterThings
    DafterThings Posts: 984 Enthusiast

    I often do what @rutxer suggests even with stop motion.

    Not sure how helpful these are but I use 3 methods (admittedly for stop motion)...
    1) Film the whole scene with all dialog in one direction and then the same in the other.
    2) Shoot in 'theatre' style (my definition) where the actors are facing centre but at a slight diagonal. I then zoom to have them in separate shots.
    3) The last thing I have tried is to shoot each actor (in my case figures) over the shoulder against a green screen then add them to the scene with some heavy blur. This just makes it easier to animate without a figure close to the camera. 

    For the audio if you can block out the ambient noise (maybe record it separately and add it back later the dialog should still sync OK.

  • WhiteCranePhoto
    WhiteCranePhoto Posts: 924 Enthusiast

    Definitely read Triem's post carefully. It should be a sticky.

    Multi-camera dialog shoots are a lot more common with crappy indie productions and generic sitcoms than in quality work. (Yes, that statement is intentional.)

    Even several ASC cinematographers have said that they don't prefer multicam shoots; you have to either compromise your angles so they don't edit well, or compromise your lighting leading to less effective lighting, or you need a more complicated lighting setup so that you can shoot around it.

    It's very rare for people to stand face to face when they talk to each other, so having every conversation in your film staged that way is a hallmark of a newbie. Think about the conflict in each scene, and stage based on that. For an interrogation scene it would make sense for the two characters to be directly opposing each other visually, but for a scene with two friends chatting over a glass of wine (or coffee) about a guy one is interested in, actually facing each other would not.


  • Triem23
    Triem23 Posts: 20,079 Ambassador

    . @WhiteCranePhoto Just noting part of why I used an interrogation scene as a hypothetical is to reduce variables. We know it's a room, we know the suspect is most likely cuffed to a bar on the table, so.... One person sitting, one person standing, limited shoot angles, easy to visualize.

    @HeySiri Otherwise, as WhiteCrane correctly notes, it's pretty rare to have people in conversations facing each other unless it's a table scene (like a dinner, meeting or interrogation), and, even then, that's a TABLE scene. Whitecrane's example of two friends chatting... ok, well, maybe that's a couch, but, yeah, not a lot of facing each other.

    There are, literally, book and video SERIES on camera blocking for dialog.

  • WhiteCranePhoto
    WhiteCranePhoto Posts: 924 Enthusiast

    @HeySiri I HIGHLY recommend Bruce Block's "The Visual Story."  There's also a series of three books whose titles I can't think of that have lots of examples of blocking and camera moves.

    @Triem23 I was just pointing out that not every scene is an interrogation... so not every scene SHOULD look like that. :)

    But yes, @HeySiri you're going to have to learn some editing to film a dialog scene. It might seem daunting at first, but it's not nearly as insane as it sounds, though it does take practice.

    And look at the bright side. You'll learn a LOT about coverage when you sit down to edit :)


  • Triem23
    Triem23 Posts: 20,079 Ambassador

    @WhiteCranePhoto are you thinking of "Master Shots" by Christopher Kenworthy? Vol 2 is "100 ways to shoot dialog."

    Yeah, I have a bookshelf of photo/film/video/vfx/cg books right next to my bed. I'm that guy. Heh.

    I did get you were pointing out not every scene should look like that. I was just overly pedantic in pointing out why I used that example. :) 

  • alaska_vfx_filmer
    alaska_vfx_filmer Posts: 516 Enthusiast

    just thought I'd throw it out there

  • tddavis
    tddavis Posts: 5,096 Moderator

    @HeySiri You should also do what I do with long, high detailed instructions from @Triem23 and others; I copy and paste them into a text document and archive them with a name that briefly let's me know what it is and put into a folder with name of the author.  Did the same with Hitfilm U and other space related youtube tuts from Triem23.  Just a thought for future ease finding info.

  • WhiteCranePhoto
    WhiteCranePhoto Posts: 924 Enthusiast

    @Triem23 Yes, that's the series! I have a copy as well, on one of my bookshelves... probably stuffed in the one that has the collection of stuff on CG art. :)

    Another book that's a great read is "Everything I learned about filmmaking I learned from watching Seven Samurai" -- it's a very deep dissection of the movie's use of the language of film.


  • HeySiri
    HeySiri Posts: 382 Just Starting Out*

    @Triem23 thank you for the very long—but very, very helpful—reply! Most of my dialogue scenes are outdoors, so I can use ambient outdoor noise to fill in any bad gaps. I'm using lav mics, so audio should remain fairly consistent.

    However, one of my more ambitious dialogue scenes involves six people. How do you think I should film something like this? They're standing in a circle, so maybe one master that involves going around the circle, and one close up shot for each person?

  • WhiteCranePhoto
    WhiteCranePhoto Posts: 924 Enthusiast

    How does the conversation in the circle evolve? Maybe you can film it in pairs based on the dynamics of the scene? That would allow you to get more expressive coverage with fewer shots. 


  • HeySiri
    HeySiri Posts: 382 Just Starting Out*

    @WhiteCranePhoto it's sort of like they're planning a mission, but it could be sorted into pairs I guess.

  • FilmSensei
    FilmSensei Posts: 3,108 Expert

    @HeySiri I know I am late to this party, but if you have not seen this Film Riot lesson on shooting a dialog scene, it would probably be worth your time to check it out...

  • HeySiri
    HeySiri Posts: 382 Just Starting Out*

    @FilmSensei thanks for the video! I love Film Riot’s tutorials and thought I had watched them all... I guess not!