If you don’t have a lot of experience working on a film or television set, working as a stand-in can teach you a lot. In particular, standing in can teach you how scenes are broken down into different shots.
A common way to break down a scene in terms of shots is to shoot a wide, “master” shot, one which captures nearly all of the activity in the scene, and then to isolate the wide shot with smaller specialized shots. If there were two actors in the scene, what follows the wide shot might be a “two-shot” — a shot that holds two actors in the same frame. The two-shot might resemble a more narrowly framed master shot.
What follows might also be “overs.” When it comes to standing in for overs, it’s important to understand them so that you may assist the director of photography and camera department in quickly and smoothly setting up the shots.
Overs are shots that isolate one actor and are usually made from behind the shoulder of another actor. “Over” is essentially short for “over the shoulder of one actor, onto another.”
If two actors are facing each other but opened up a little, commonly the overs are shot over the actors’ outside shoulders. “French overs” are shots made over the actors’ inside shoulders. These types of overs are less common.
Anticipate Moving off Your Mark
Usually, the marks on the ground that you use to find where your actor stood in a scene apply for the wide shot.
When you get into overs, actors can be “cheated” to make the shot work better. (“Cheating” refers to making small adjustments to the placement of an actor or object to make it look better in the frame without ruining continuity.)
So, if you are about to shoot an over, anticipate that your current marks may need to shift.
Find the Lens
As they try to find the proper framing of the over, the director, the DP, or even the camera department may be aiming a lens or camera in your direction. However, you may be blocked in part by the other stand-in in front of you.
If you find that the over is “onto you” (meaning, a shot of your actor), you may need to shift your position slightly so that you can find the lens. While you probably don’t want to move from your mark unless you are asked to, it helps to anticipate that they want you to move to set up the over.
If, instead, you find that the over is “over you” and onto the other stand-in, you may also need to shift your position slightly so that the lens can find the other stand-in. Again, you probably don’t want to move from your mark unless you are asked to move, but anticipating a need to move goes a long way.
All in all, in setting up overs, often stand-ins will need to shift a few inches and/or rotate a few degrees to find the lens and to make the shot work.
Find the Light
Similarly, as you step into an over, lighting may change, and you may find you block the other stand-in’s light. Or you may find that your own light is blocked by the other stand-in.
If the over is “onto you,” you may need to find a light that is aimed at you by shifting slightly until light falls on your face. You won’t have to do this often when you are standing in because most of the time lights are aimed at you. But in some cases, lights are fixed and you need to find them in order to be lit properly.
If the over is “over you” and onto the other stand-in, be careful to avoid blocking any light that is aimed at the other stand-in. If you look closely, you may see that you cast a shadow or otherwise block the light falling on the other stand-in’s face, and that if you shift a particular way, the stand-in is lit again.
Most of the time, if you are blocking light that is intended for another stand-in, the light will move rather than you. But avoiding blocking another stand-in’s light can be a big help in setting up an over.
Clean vs. Dirty
Overs can be “clean” or “dirty.” A dirty over is one that shows, say, a piece of the foreground actor’s shoulder in the shot. A clean over is one that doesn’t show the foreground actor in the shot.
If you are shooting a dirty over over you, part of your body will be used in the setup of the shot. Be mindful when standing in in dirty shots that small movements on your part may affect the framing. Try to stay still during the setup of the dirty over.
However, if you are setting up a clean over over you, you might not even be needed in the setup of the shot. Or, you might be needed for off-camera eyeline in the shot. Stay close during the setup of clean overs in case you are needed for eyeline.
Figuring out where your actor is supposed to look is commonly resolved in setting up overs.
If a clean over is onto you, the other stand-in may not be used. The camera crew may give you guidance on where to look to suggest where the eyes of the other actor are. They may move around their fingers or hands and ask you to look at them; meanwhile, they’ll look at the shot to see if it looks realistic to have your actor look there.
Once the eyeline is settled, a common practice is for the camera crew to place a small X made of tape where you should look. Sometimes it will be placed on the matte box (the black surface around and in front of the camera lens). It is helpful to maintain eye contact with that X during the setup of the shot. Usually you don’t need to have laser-focus on the X unless they’ve asked you to maintain eye contact with it.
If an over is onto the other stand-in, the other stand-in may be asked to look at you — or you may be asked to look at each other. This is sometimes useful for determining if the eyeline works and/or if you should be cheated to a different place off camera.
When setting eyelines, if you’re on camera, you should look at the other stand-in’s eyes (or at “home” between the other stand-in’s eyes). But if you’re being used in a dirty or off camera just for eyeline, you don’t need to actually look at the other stand-in — you simply need to keep your body in position as if you were looking at the other stand-in.
Setting up French Overs
French overs are not as common as traditional overs — so uncommon that they may surprise you when they are done.
When you are standing in a French over over you, simply keep in mind that your inside shoulder is the one that’s being shot rather than your usual outside shoulder. Knowing what a French over is when it’s mentioned will help you be ahead of the game as the crew sets up the shot.
Setting up overs is common in television and film. The more you know about the finer points of setting up overs, the smoother the setup of the shots will be when you go to stand in!
Have any other tips for standing in while setting up overs? Share below!