Scene coverage in Road to Perdition

The main action is happening between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters, so it kinda makes sense to draw an “action line” between them and cover the scene from one side of the line. This way you’ll avoid problems later in the editing.

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 01

From the picture above you can see, that most camera setups are located on the right side of the line. This side was probably chosen due to technical considerations (limitations of the location etc.)

The scene starts with a high angle master shot of all characters, this clearly shows where each character is seated. Now, we can freely cut to individual characters without confusing the viewer… unless we cut to the camera placed on the other side of the action line.

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 02

In the third shot the camera physically jumps to the other side of the line. However, it doesn’t feel wrong. The reason is that you could get a similar shot while staying on the same side if you’d use a telephoto lens (instead of wide angle).

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 03

The next jump is between shots 4 and 5. In this case, the trick with longer focal length won’t work anymore. You could eventually avoid this jump by making a new action line (right part of the picture above), but in this case I believe there is no reason to do that: There is almost no interaction between the two characters in the shot (this is basically a reaction shot), therefore the original action line remains the same (that is the one between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters).

Cutting to the other side of action line feels usually very disruptive, but in this case it works fine. The previous shot is more than 13 seconds long, that’s long enough to memorize where everybody is seated, so when we cut to the other side, we won’t feel confused. This applies to reaction shots 6, 8, 16, 17 and 22 as well:

This scene is a beautiful example of jumping from one side of the action line to the other (and thus breaking the 180 degree rule), without making the viewer confused (which might be the intention in some cases).

I’d love to hear Sam Mendes talking this scene through in some audio commentary, particularly the last shot, where camera follows and keeps in focus Tom Hanks with Paul Newman, while making Daniel Craig’s character increasingly out of focus…

P.S. Have you noticed the continuity error between shots 6 and 7?

Shaky camera in American Beauty

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

I find shaky camera to be extremely annoying. Most of the time the camera shakes for no reason and covers basically 3 mistakes (1) (bad acting, bad set design and bad directing). There are only few movies where shaky camera actually serves the story being told (like in Bourne trilogy).

There are movies though, where shaky camera is used in a way that you won’t be even aware of it.

I re-watched recently American Beauty and noticed that the camera was always mounted either on tripod, dolly track, steadicam or crane. There is only one scene, where the camera was handheld (just a note, I don’t count the DV camera that Ricky uses, even though it is handheld).

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

It’s a fight scene between Col. Frank Fitts and his son Ricky. He (Frank) is mad and angry at his son and beats him (Ricky) brutally.
The camera in this particular scene is handheld. It helps to portray his (Frank) anger and it injects more energy to the scene. Just try to imagine the opposite: Camera would be mounted on tripod or would move very smoothly. That wouldn’t work, because conflicts (especially family conflicts) are far from being smooth.

The handheld camera was such a great choice, that I noticed this only recently. It feels so natural; it feels like this was the only possible way how to shoot this scene. Handheld camera is a key to “secret” why this scene works emotionally.

As always, shoot me any comments you might have! 😉


  1. Unsteadicam chronicles


Visual accident in In Cold Blood

Let me start this article by a great quote by Scott Adams:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

If you work in some creative field, you know that mistakes happen from time to time. Well, I like to call them happy accidents. One of the best examples I can think of in music is Cher’s ‘Believe’. The vocal effect that is on the record is basically a happy accident resulting from experimentation with vocoding and filtering.

Here is a historical footnote from Sound on Sound article (originally published in February 1999):

It was the first commercial recording to feature the audible side-effects of Antares Auto-tune software used as a deliberate creative effect. The (now) highly recognizable tonal mangling occurs when the pitch correction speed is set too fast for the audio that it is processing and it became one of the most over-used production effects of the following years.

However, the happy accident is not enough to make a monster hit record like Cher’s ‘Believe’. It’s just a starting point. So the reason why the record sounds so great is that the producers (Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling) used it very creatively – they applied the vocoded sections only to parts where they had the most striking effect and not to the whole vocal track. Overall, it was very painstaking process, but well worth it – Cher was amazed!

This blog is focused on the art of cinematic storytelling, so I won’t write more about recording process of Cher’s song, since this was supposed to be only a short introduction to happy accidents, but if you are interested in music, sound design or just curious, I totally recommend reading the whole article at, where you’ll learn more about the recording process of Cher’s ‘Believe’.

Now, back to the art of cinematic storytelling! Today’s article deals with a purely visual accident that happened in one of the last scenes in In Cold Blood.

The scene in question is when Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) is about to be hanged at the end of the movie. It’s very sad and you do feel sorry for him, even though he committed such brutal crime.

The whole scene was shot on stage – they made an artificial rain and they also had a fan to the side, which was blowing the spray from the rain against the window.

When they were rehearsing the scene, Conrad L. Hall (cinematographer responsible for such great movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke or American Beauty) noticed a very interesting light effect that happened once on Perry’s face. He loved it immediately.

After the discovery, they changed the blocking (staging) so that the light effect would stay on Perry’s face all the time.

As the water is running down and light hitting his face through that window, it seems like he is crying. It makes the scene extremely emotional and hard to watch. He talks about his father, how he hates him and loves him at the same time. He is not crying, but the visuals are crying for him. I think this has to be one of the most beautiful examples of cinematic storytelling.

And the best part about it is that it was “just” a visual (happy) accident, it wasn’t planned at all!

Now, there are other examples of rain running down on window used for similar purposes. One of them is a scene in Toy Story 3. In this case it wasn’t an accident probably, because Pixar storyboards everything very carefully. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful example of cinematic storytelling.

Toy Story 3 - Lotso
Toy Story 3 – Lotso

The picture above was taken from a scene, where Lotso learns, that he was replaced by another toy. Even though he is not crying, the visuals tell everything!

I usually have problem with the last sentence in my blog posts, what to write, how to finish, but here it is easy: Make mistakes, use your tools in unusual ways, think outside the box, look for happy accidents and who knows – maybe one day you’ll make a monster hit record or an unforgettable movie scene!


Other Examples

Team America - Gary Johnston
Team America – Gary Johnston