Shot/Reverse Shot (SRS)
Conventional technique of cinematography and editing for the filming of dialogue. In the classic shot/reverse shot sequence, the camera frames each speaker (usually 2-4) in medium close-up as he or she recites a line of dialogue. The shoulder or profile of the listener can often be seen, slightly out of focus on the edge of the frame, while the camera is focused on the face of the speaker.
Shot/Reverse Shot allows the spectator ("you") to occupy the listener's point of view. However, because both characters alternate between speaking and listening, the spectator is omniscient, an outside observer. There is visual logic in this design: character A speaks in frame - cut - character B speaks in frame.
The Affect of Speech
Directors may also use Shot/Reverse Shot to observe the way in which a speaker's words affect the listener. To accomplish this, the camera will first alternate between speakers. If, for instance, one speaker communicates a negative statement ("Our relationship is over"), the camera will turn to frame the listener, not the speaker. As the speaker talks, the listener visually responds through (perhaps) tears, frowns, or more subtle variations.
Woody Allen: The Cinema Of Conversation
The cinema of Woody Allen captures conversation by manipulating and playing with conventional SRS technique. In Manhattan (1979), the first scene of dialogue is a four person dinner (Isaac Davis, his teenage girlfriend, best friend, wife). Woody Allen is closely aware of the expressive depth of his acting team. Instead of simply framing each speaker, Allen pairs the listeners together, watching how sets of characters respond to one another's words and emotions. The camera favors the image of someone reacting to dialogue. Allen creates an emotional density in Manhattan by requiring each actor to continue performing throughout each scene regardless of the camera's position.
In searching for ever more creative techniques of filming conversation, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) demonstrates Allen's ability to depart completely from traditional SRS. A pivotal scene in the film is a conversation between three sisters at a restaurant, a heated argument about power and trust. To capture the sensation of neurosis and mistrust, the camera slowly traces a circle around the three actresses from behind. Unlike normal shot/reverse shot, the speaker and listener relation is eroded by the circular shot: characters interrupt each other, direct and avoid eye contact, and add to the overwhelming tension.
Shot/Reverse Shot, a technique of cinematography since the advent of the "talkies" in the late 1920s, has become a normative and unconsciously recognized way of situating the spectator. That is, we accept and expect its presence in film, though SRS was, at the time of its creation, a radical and groundbreaking step forward for cinema.
Further Reading: the concept of shot, continuity in film (by zadignose), and especially riverrun's masterful study of Film Editing.
Bordwell, David. Film Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies. London: Routledge, 2000.