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Judging A Film By Its COVERAGE

  • December 25, 2018
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Judging A Film By Its COVERAGE

A while ago I got a question about coverage from a member in Australia (everyone sing “he comes from a land down-under!):


“Hi Shane, I’m a weekend warrior filmmaker, and I have a reasonable grip on the shooting side, but I’m trying to understand the construction of an average 100 minute film. I’ve dissected a movie, how many scenes, how many shots etc., but would appreciate your thoughts on this. Is there a loose formula or do you just have a script and you shoot what’s required and let that dictate the length of the movie? Thanks, Rod in Australia.”

Our Hurlbut Visuals call operator pointing out Rod’s home on the globe

A rule of thumb that we generally adhere to is that every page of the script counts as one minute. If a script is 120 pages, then that will be a two hour screenplay. I find that when you have action films they’re in the 90 to 105 range, horror films tend to be the same length and dramas are usually around 120 to 135. There’s a little bit of adjusting based on the genre of the screenplay, but unless you’re doing crazy, long, arty shots, they will tend to stick to that rule.  

Scott Waugh, who directed “Need For Speed”, constantly gave me shit for creating all these crazy, techno crane shots on our movies together. Not because they weren’t good, but for time. Timing is everything.

Coverage Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Here’s Scott Waugh in action

So now you’ve seen what Scott looks like. Here’s how that conversation usually panned out –

Scott: “You create these awesome shots,  Shane, but I have to cut them out of the movie because they’re way too long.”

Me: “Well, just let the shot happen then.”

Scott: “Oh yeah, it’s all well and good, but we need pacing on this thing.”

He’s right of course. It’s about finding that middle ground to do these styles of shots. Think of the “Birdman” style shot where it’s all one continuous shot moving with the actor; you’re in front of him, you’re behind him, you’re off to the side, you’re totally immersed in the action. If you haven’t seen Birdman, watch it! Here’s a taster of one of those “Oners” (a seemingly one continuous shot with some gratuitous Michael Keaton underwear action):

Obviously, you need to keep your show, your story and your film moving otherwise you’re gonna have audience members over the country falling asleep.

That was the one thing I learned working in television, you don’t do oners. (Everyone can now shed a tear at the lack of oners in TV…) That was a huge bummer to me, but that’s what came down from the show creators, that oners do not exist. Everything had to be cuts. It kind of bummed me out because I love oners, I do a lot of oners in Fathers and Daughters – have I said the word “oners” enough?

Coverage Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

I didn’t have a problem bringing it down into all cuts for television, because they have that box, that 42 minute box and if there’s a oner (take that Samuel L Jackson – he probably doesn’t read this to be honest) that does a whole scene, they’ll have to cut the scene to be able to fit within that 42 minute window.

When they have to meet that 42 minute window, they will cut like Edward Scissorhands

These are all things to think about when you’re creating your stories and where they’re actually going to end up. The design of how you’re going to shoot them is going to be very important.


Some people go with the tried and tested recommendation to get all the coverage in a more classic approach, going from a wide to a medium to a medium-closeup and a closeup. I know you probably are more than aware of what those four are, but this gives me the chance to indulge in some movies that I absolutely love so feel free to play a game of “Name that Movie” right now:

Coverage Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Wide shot – Can you younger subscribers name the movie though?

Coverage Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Medium shots uh, find a way…

Medium Close-ups can capture happy people and men of constant sorrow. If you know the movie, that song is now gonna be in your head for the rest of the week and for those of you who don’t, click the media below for a quick blast!

Heeeeeere’s… a close-up

Here’s the key, in my opinion, it’s horses for courses. You work with all different styles of directors – I worked with Gabriele Muccino on Fathers and Daughters, and the script was the bible. The script not only had the words on the page, it also had the look, it described each scene and the lighting within it as well as having a complete and accurate shot list of what Gabriele was going to do on that scene. What this does is really shows you immediately the pacing of the film, you start to see it all on the pages in the script, he puts the different shots even within the words on that page and everything.

L: Gabriele seen here doing his hair for a picture – no stone unturned

When you do this, it is very helpful and it educates exactly what coverage you need, and you don’t really over-cover. I felt we did not over-cover at all on that film.

Over-coverage is a common problem..

I thought it was the most proficient, the most organized and the most responsible in what we were getting of any movie that I’d worked on. He didn’t need close-ups sometimes, he’d let it all play in a two-shot. He didn’t need to go in for the super closeup, he would be happy with a medium shot. It was really a wonderful learning experience for me, because I had come up the ladder with a lot of directors that did the wide, the medium, the medium-closeup, and the extreme closeup. That was what I had learned.

A shot from another Gabriele film – The Pursuit of Happiness

Working with Gabriele, who is much more European. The way he felt, you don’t need all that coverage. I quickly adjusted my thought process and how I shot because I’m there for him to bring this vision to life. It was very important for me to immediately get into his style and understand his approach so I could really create the best suggestions and light the scenes so he could get that immersive camera that he was so longing to deliver.

On Need for Speed, we did a lot of coverage. We went in for closeups, we went in for extreme closeups. We did it with five, six, seven cameras a lot of times. There was a lot of coverage for Scotty Waugh to be able to cinch, expand and do whatever he would like to do.

Coverage Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

With McG, same thing. On Terminator Salvation he wanted a lot of coverage, so there’s that style as well as Gabriele’s style as well as somewhere in between, and I think that’s what my suggestion is to you guys: Learn your director and their style and plan your shots based on that.

The process of taking the shot list and embedding it in the script is very important for you to really see the tone and the style. It starts to evolve right in front of you as you see it on the page next to the words, and the description of the shot. It’s really a powerful way to approach it.