Film Projects

The Art of Shot Listing

We are exactly two weeks away from shooting my new film, OF DUST AND BONES, and the last week or so, my life has been devoted mostly to one thing: working on the shot list with the Director of Photography, TJ Hellmuth.

For me, this is one of the most pleasurable parts of preproduction. It’s when I‘m forced to tune into the movie that pre-exists in my head in a whole new way.

Normally, it goes like this. I read the scene aloud. Then I explain to TJ how I saw the scene in my head, and why I wrote it the way I did. I try not to be attached to this, because often it’s not the best version – I stay open to there being a better way. We then discuss the scene in depth – why is it in the script? What is it really about? What’s the story within the scene? What’s is the scene’s essence?  What are we learning about the characters, the story?  As we answer these questions, it usually becomes pretty clear how we need to shoot it.   Intuitively you sense the camera close to one character, profile of another; as you dig in, you know why you felt that way. And of course, if you’re lucky and are working with the right DP for the project, they’ll keep suggesting ideas that you never would have come up with on your own. The joys of collaboration.

Watching the movie in your head is the real pleasure. It’s also deceptively hard work. You play different versions…what if we went from a medium wide to a close-up there? What if we stayed on that character? What if we dollied in super slow? And each question requires you to close your eyes for a moment and play the scene in your head again, trying out different shots until the scene in your head plays most effectively.

Shot listing is slow work.  Other movies are discussed (for this movie, we’ve talked a lot about Gus Van Sant’s GERRY, Abbas Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY and Ingmar Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT and PERSONA), as well as photographs and paintings (all about Rembrandt for this).  References are googled, shared, discussed.  It’s painstaking work.

No matter how time consuming, I think this is an absolutely crucial part of the process of preparing for a film.

Obviously there are logistical reasons for it. The DP can make a solid list of gear that’s going to be needed, and share the detailed plans with the gaffer and grip so everyone’s on the same page and knows what to expect before they get to  set. Also the First Assistant Director will know how to schedule effectively (although a scene might be only 1/8 of a page, if it involves 7 shots, it’s going to take a while).

But for the director, it goes beyond this. It’s becoming cognizant in a practical way of the language of the film you want to make.

Sometimes when I’m doing this, at first it feels like the film in my head is always in my peripheral vision, and that I can never quite see it…but as the process goes on, it comes into clearer into focus. I become more and more certain of what it is we’re trying to capture, and that fills me with excitement and hope, because the film in my head is always amazing. A perfect film, before the realities of shooting kick in.

Of course, the shot list is not written in stone. On the day, you might discover in blocking with actors a far better and different way of shooting a scene. Only an idiot (or a control freak) would stick stubbornly to their shot list and not be alive to the truths unfolding before their eyes when on set. But if you’ve done the groundwork of a thorough shot list, guaranteed you’ll make better decisions on set.  You’ll have built a solid creative vocabulary with your DP, dug deep into film that you are making, and together, moment to moment, you’ll always know the best way to shoot your scene, no matter what you might have thought before.

- Diane Bell (Writer/Director)

Twitter: @dianebell1

Instagram: @dianebell

Twitter (#OfDust): @rebelheartfilm
Instagram (#OfDust): @ofdustandbones

Meet our Cast & Crew: DIANE BELL BYRNE, Writer/Director

Hometown: Born in Dumfries (Scotland); grew up in Kobe (Japan), Melbourne (Australia) and Dusseldorf (Germany); matured in Edinburgh (Scotland) and Barcelona (Spain); currently residing Santa Monica (USA).  Hometowns everywhere.

All-time favorite movies (3): (What?! Only 3?!  Okay…) It’s a Wonderful Life, Tokyo Story, Au Hasard Balthazar (+ so many more).

All-time favorite musical artists: Glenn Gould, Billie Holiday, Diego El Cigala

All-time favorite TV shows: Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, Fawlty Towers

Favorite new artist-to-watch: A filmmaker called Rory Gory - her first film AUDIENCE is so unique, can’t wait to see what she does next

Favorite Instagram account: @subeepix - this is my sister Susan’s account; she’s an incredibly talented photographer and I love seeing the world through her eyes

Favorite Twitter account: @melsil - she supports women in film and passionately brings attention to films by women that I otherwise wouldn’t know about

If you could have lunch with one person (dead or alive), who would it be?: Thich Nhat Hanh.  Pure presence.

If you could be in someone else’s shoes for one day (alive), who would it be?: Classical pianist Andras Schiff, so I could sit at the piano all day and play Bach and Beethoven, and know what that felt like

If you could have personally witnessed something, what would it have been?: Hamlet being performed for the first time at the Globe theater.

Most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?: Not telling you!

Twitter: @dianebell1

Instagram: @dianebell