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Film

Here's the Secret to the Coen Brothers' Masterful Dialogue

Step 1: Be really, really, incredibly good at editing.

by Beckett Mufson
26 February 2016, 8:30pm

Screencaps via

The shot / reverse shot is one of the most basic techniques in the whole language of cinema. We see a character, cut to what the character sees, then back to see the character's reaction. It's not difficult or flashy to execute, but in a new episode of Every Frame a Painting called Joel & Ethan Coen - Shot | Reverse Shot, film essayist Tony Zhou—whose clever observations have led us through the work of David Fincher, Akria Kurosawa, Chuck Jones, and more—argues that this simple technique is the secret to Joel and Ethan Coen's powerful dialogue.

Using examples from classics like The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, and No Country for Old Men, he points out how the Coens and their go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins pack tons of information into simple reverse shots using a wide angle lens and incredibly precise edits. One of the most informative moments comes when Zhou contrasts the Coens' 2011 noir The Man Who Wasn't There with a film that they wrote but didn't direct, The Ladykillers. "People think that the rhythm comes from their dialogue, but the rhythm is actually non-verbal," Zhou explains.

Zhou wrote the essay with the help of animator and illustrator Taylor Ramos. Watch the full video below.

The Coen brothers' new film Hail Caesar, which takes place in golden era Hollywood, is in theaters now. See more of Tony Zhou's work on his YouTube Channel.

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