For many videos and other stories, dialogue is central to telling the story. An alternate aspect entirely from visual storytelling, conversations require words to expand the story. Throughout most videos there is a continuous need for conversations, but this post will focus mostly on those key scenes with intense dialogue. The tools discussed here can also be used for any other place where characters talk together.
We’ll start with the essentials. Dialogue doesn’t necessarily require as much planning as more physical scenes, and the planning that we do is quite different. The particular scene and actors necessitate different levels of planning. For those more comfortable with conversation scenes and especially with acting off one another, we can simply construct the basic points of a conversation and rely on a little more improvisation than I usually advise. This requires that each actor knows their character well enough to perform realistically. Because of this required leap of faith, it’s far more often that we rely on a set of strict lines. But there’s much more to the planning stage than deciding how much we adhere to a script.
The flow of a conversation typically represents how realistic it seems to our ears. I’m using the term ‘flow’ here to reference a few points. First, we need the pacing to reflect our characters’ emotions and reactions, with a realistic speed of speaking and responding dependent upon the stakes of the conversation. Secondly, we need the presentation of the conversation to keep pace. This means that the filming and editing style should be used to supplement the acting. With simpler conversations that can merely be a suitable level of focus, but with longer sequences it means balancing the intensity of our focus and potential cuts with the intensity of what is being discussed.
While this is in part very much dependent upon the actor’s portrayal, each character needs to have a unique voice to differentiate themselves realistically. This comes from what they talk about (indicating views, which reflect their pasts), when they talk about it (indicating a level of comfort and necessity), and the way that they talk about it (the words and phrases that they use). Typically we think about the third point listed when discussing a character’s voice, but that is more linked to the actual auditory voice of an actor and how they portray their character. Keep all three of these indicators in mind when writing the script, even if the script is merely bullet points.
Connected to personal characterizations is the necessity to distance ourselves from our characters when writing. By this I mean the importance of keeping our own voice from seeping into the personal voices of our characters. Without the ability to do this, each character seems to bleed together and thus every conversation seems less realistic.
While I touched on the pros and cons of filming styles with dialogue in my last post, I wanted to get a little more in depth this time. With most conversations, the writing and acting is much more important than the camera operation, but it still plays a key role in telling the story. What to keep in mind is that the most important aspect of filming a conversation is to capture clear audio. I recommend a personal mic for each actor. If this is impractical for the filming set-up, then at least go back afterward and get dub-overs for each line. We may not even need to use them all, but the act of getting extra audio recordings on the same day of filming increases their quality by allowing the actors to perform the lines as close to the original recording as possible.
Uncut vs. Cuts
The difference between filming with long uncut sequences and multiple quick cuts is the amount of preparation that is required. As I have said before, I recommend longer cuts for the sake of suspense and realism. A lot of that realism, however, comes from the required preparation for longer takes. If we plan out the scene to contain multiple cuts for the sake of cinematography, and not just to make the lines easier, then that same realism can be captured by similar preparation. With many filming sequences of conversations, it is common to focus on other action while the actors are talking. This goes back to the requirement of getting good audio, as we will need to overlap it across these shifts in visual focus.
Activity with Dialogue
Sometimes we need our characters to multitask. People talk when they’re doing all kinds of things, and of course they’ll be doing such things in our videos. Depending on the intensity of the characters’ activities, there will be a variable necessity for extra audio recordings. To go along with these, I recommend additional video recordings. These can include even extra movements or motions while the actors relay the same lines. This will help with editing when we go back over everything and find inevitable errors.
The old guideline of “show don’t tell” might seem redundant at first when we are filming a conversation scene, but it still rings true. We don’t want to have our scenes full of exposition for the sake of exposition. This ties into characterization and realism. ‘Telling’ references the revelation of pieces of information that are crucial to the plot, without an actual connection to the situation at hand. If our conversations are written with a focus on realistic dialogue, these pieces of ‘telling’ shouldn’t come up at all.