Forget the Master Scene

Master SceneMaster filmmakers have been touting the importance of shooting a master scene for decades, but in today’s visual society it’s no longer necessary. Now that we’re in the third generation of film viewers, the audience has learned how to read films and no longer need things explained to them. The 1977 release of Star Wars demonstrated that proof with its use of time compression and fast cuts.

Prior to Star Wars, a scene might unfold like this:

A car stops alongside of a curb in a residential area. The key turns off and is removed from the steering column. The car door opens and a reporter steps out. He reaches back into the car for a pen and notebook. The reporter closes the door and locks it. Walking around the car, he moves up the sidewalk toward the house. His winged tip shoes move quickly up the staircase. He pushes the doorbell. The reporter readies his notebook and pen.  The door slowly opens revealing a nervous woman who doesn’t want her story published.

After Star Wars, a scene might unfold like this:

A car stops alongside of a curb in a residential area. The doorbell ring echoes within the house, as a nervous woman opens the door to find a reporter standing with pen and paper in hand.

Both presentations get across the important story elements of a reporter after a story and a nervous woman who doesn’t want it published. The first one was typically shot as a master scene and then reshot with potential close-ups, over the shoulder shots, and other types of shots that might include a crane or dolly. This type of shooting would require a good four hours to rehearse and shoot on location.

Today, the scene would open with a moving crane shot of the car parking along the curb. The interior shot might use a dolly to follow the woman to the door and a jib arm might move it into an over the shoulder shot as the door opens to reveal the reporter. The exterior shot would be filmed within an hour by the second unit team, which would keep costs down. The interior would be shot on the sound stage in less than an hour.

The cost of creating the master scene is high for independent budgets and its benefits are no longer relevant for today’s filmmakers. The odds of more than 4 seconds of a master shot being used is slim; let alone using it in its entirety. If the scene is really long, there might be a reason to use a master shot to break the scene in two, but most of the time filmmakers will only use the first or last 3-4 seconds of the shot – Making the remainder a very costly unusable piece of film.

Today’s directors plan ahead for the visual and emotional impact they want their audience to receive. The director requires only the shots that truly move the story forward and the rest are no longer filmed, thanks to an audience who can now read a series of images as a story. This new ability of the mind filling in the visual gaps will soon make film the most prolific story telling device for years to come. Thanks to YouTube and other online services, that day is well on its way.

The only remaining reason for a master shot is to cover for an unprepared director or one who isn’t able to visualize the film in his head. The master scene would capture how the actors play out the scene in order for the director to figure out what camera angles and shots he might need to tell the story. Today, however, storyboards, animatics and previs (previsualization) can easily replace this technique, while saving a significant amount of money and time.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers
Illustration/Photo © Illustrart, James Steidl –

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