Posted in Acting, On set
Answer: Your director has any number of choices of how to shoot a particular scene, and one of them is to shoot an actor “dirty,” or … (continued in David’s answer below)
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Answer: Your director has any number of choices of how to shoot a particular scene. One of them is to shoot an actor “dirty,” or with the shoulder, arm or leg of another actor visible in the show. Why they’d choose to do that can be for any number of reasons.
The angle at which your scenes are shot can be from any direction: head on, from the side, even from above, and each of those choices can change the audience’s feeling about a particular scene. In addition to angles, the composition of the shot, and your role in that composition, can vary from a simple clean head and shoulders shot, to what’s called a dirty shot (and everything in between.
A dirty shot is a shot that contains some physical intrusion, usually in the form of a body part from another actor, like their shoulder, head, hand, leg or waist. The director may want to make the shot dirty to simply give a sense of distance between the two actors. Consider the famous shot of Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg as Dustin Hoffman wonders aloud if he’s being seduced in the 1967 film The Graduate:
Another reason for a dirty shot might be to create a power differential between the two or more actors in the scene. That very same scene has Hoffman’s shadow pacing back and forth as he stammers about Bancroft’s character’s actions. We keep our eyes on Bancroft as Hoffman is reduced to jelly – an acting choice that is accentuated by the dirty shot choice.
A shot may start clean, and end up dirty – imagine a gunfight, where the scene begins with a medium closeup of one of the combatants getting set, and slowly pulling back along the ground to reveal his opponent, standing, legs planted, ready to draw. But we only see his leg – a shot designed to heighten the tension in the scene. That’s not a hard scene for the second actor: simply plant your foot where your mark is, and stay there as the camera heads back along the track or zoom.
Should you have to create a dirty shot on the fly while acting, hitting your mark when shooting a shot that starts clean and ends up dirty is essential. What if the second gunfighter in our example above met the camera movement and stepped into the scene as the camera came to a halt? A more intense version, adding motion and density to the shot, and giving the editor more choices to work with.
One way to make sure you hit your mark accurately is to step off backwards, even if it’s several step to your final mark. Start at your two (your final mark in a two-step shot), and simply reverse your steps, like an old backwards running film, until you get to your one. Sometimes, it’s simply one step, swinging your leg out of view of the camera until it’s needed, and other times, you need to move from your one to your two – and you need to hit your mark without any adjustments.
Working with your camera operator and the director on perfecting the shot is a fairly straightforward thing. You’ll rehearse for camera, taking each step slowly, allowing the camera operator to rehearse the move as well, giving the dolly grip a rehearsal if there’s camera movement on track or wheels, and giving the focus puller an opportunity to mark focus points.
The angle at which the shot is made can also mean you cheating your height – should you be a bit too tall for your fellow actor, hiding their face from view of the camera, you’ll spread your legs, dropping your upper body down and allowing the relative height be more even. Likewise, you might get an apple box or two to stand on, should you be shorter than the shot composition calls for.
Finally, extras and background can help achieve a realistic, dirty shot. A very dirty shot, actually – watch scenes in restaurants, malls, offices and other busy locations and you’ll see background actors walking directly between the camera and the action, sometimes completely blocking the lead actors from view for moments at a time. This adds to the realism of the scene, and gives the audience the feeling of being right there for the action.
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