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Reaction Shots Do Much More Than Convey Emotion

If you’re looking for a really quick way to communicate a story point…use a reaction shot. Yes, that might seem obvious at first, but did you know that they do more than just show what a character thinks or feels about a particular event?

Watch our short edit tip video below to find out why this seemingly simple editorial choice is more crucial to your cut than you might realize!

So, what is a reaction shot?

A reaction shot is a shot which cuts away from the main scene in order to show the reaction of a character to it. It’s usually showing a character’s facial expression in a close-up or a tight medium.

Reaction shots serve three primary functions.

Function 1: Suggest what the viewer themselves should be feeling

First, reaction shots suggest what the viewer themselves should be feeling – whether it’s fear, shock, lust etc. It’s the power of facial expressions to trigger in us an echo of the emotion being displayed.

Multiple reaction shots can have the effect of intensifying drama, comedy or whatever tone you’re trying to convey. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Greek Chorus, commenting with a collective voice on the dramatic action.

Function 2: Allow the viewer a moment to digest things as they occur.

Also, reaction shots allow the viewer a moment to digest things as they occur. If the footage just showed two boxers slugging it out in a ring without cutting to the occasional audience reaction shots, the viewer would quickly become either overwhelmed by the constant action or simply immune to it.

Neither is good. This applies to comedy, horror and just about every other genre you can think of.

Function 3: Gives an editor flexibility and choices

Finally, reaction shots give an editor flexibility and choices. Let’s say you have only two takes of a dialogue. The first half of it is good on take one and the second half is good on take two. You can avoid a jump cut by inserting a reaction shot between the two takes.

Let’s see how this works in action. In the film “The Martian”, the Director of NASA is imparting some dire information about the peril of their astronaut who’s stranded on Mars. The only two spoken lines come from the Director of NASA (character A), and the head of the Mars Mission (character B). And, both lines are from the same camera setup.

How do you think the scene would play if we went right from character A’s line to character B’s response?

A clip from 'The Martian' loaded into a Non-linear Editing software highlights a potentially awkward cut between dialogue.

It’s a very awkward cut.

Of course, in the theatrical film the editor wouldn’t cut it like that. If the two character’s lines were in the same take, they’d just stay on the shot the whole time and let it play out with the pace as it was filmed.

But, if they were looking to shorten the scene or if the lines were delivered in different takes, they’d have to cut away. Usually either an insert shot, or a reaction shot.

So let’s add back the original reaction shot from the theatrical film and see how things play out.

In Non-Linear Editing Software, a reaction shot is added to aid the transition between two pieces of dialogue.

We can see that obviously solves the problem of the jump cut and giving additional emotional guidance to the audience, lending weight to the gravity of the situation by showing the other characters’ concerned reaction to the director’s statement.

By helping you advance the story in the direction you want it to go and getting you out of some tricky editorial jams, the reaction shot easily represents one of the most powerful weapons in an editor’s arsenal.

Find these tips useful? Let us know! Leave a comment below (we read everything) and tell us if there’s anything you want to see us tackle in the future.


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