WHAT it is…

A convention in movie editing, used mostly in narrative filmmaking, where a Shot of a character gazing at something or someone off screen is spliced with a Shot of what is being seen, most usually from the point of view of the character. A lot of times the second Shot – the ‘Reverse’ Shot – is a reaction of another character responding to what was said or shown in the first one.

WHY it is special...

The Shot-Reverse Shot is one of the few techniques that require the presence of a human (or human-like) being in the individual shots. This is because the method is deeply tied to the idea of looking. The first Shot of the pair that makes up this technique supplies the look – the action – while the second one ‘returns’ the look - the reaction – confirming that both Shots have a spatial relationship with each other.

HOW it is used

Identification

The technique is most effective when used at critical dramatic points to generate subliminal identification with the protagonist of a story. Since convention has it that the Shot of a character looking must be followed by a shot of what she is looking at, the audience is directly allowed to see what she sees – a threat, a secret, an event – and made to emotionally empathise with her condition. Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the technique to wondrous ends testifies to its visceral power.

Prolongation

The first Shot of the two is usually long enough to provide information about who is looking and where but short enough to avoid making the audience wait to see what is being looked at. However, prolonging this first shot could ratchet up the viewers’ tension, especially when it is also a Reaction Shot, since it robs us of the knowledge of the scene’s environment, making us very uncomfortable with this new loss of control.

WHEN it is deployed...

The Shot-Reverse Shot pattern is most predominant in conversation scenes, so much so that some filmmakers have admittedly grown sick of it. Most contemporary conversations are constructed using Shots of an individual talking, facing slightly away from the camera, filmed from over the shoulder of the person they are talking to. These shots are then edited together to give the appearance that the two people are looking at each other in the eye.

WHERE to find it...

In Yuddham Sei (2011), Mysskin uses Shot-Reverse Shot to present the protagonist questioning the owner of a textile shop, who claims he has farsightedness. The director films them head-on, moving closer to them with every shot as if invalidating the man’s claim and alternately making us the interrogator and the interrogated, which mirrors the structure of the narrative itself.