By now, you probably read our article on the different kinds of shots, and stumbled upon reaction shots. In this post, I will explain why reaction shots are so important to the film language.
First, a quick definition courtesy of Wikipedia:
Reaction shot is a shot which cuts away from the main scene in order to show the reaction of a character to it.”
That’s it in a nutshell. A reaction shot is usually silent, as it shows a character reacting with facial expressions (a frown, a smile, a gasp). Sometimes a shot starts with a silent reaction before the character vocalizes his emotions.
To illustrate: if the main conflict of a scene is a married couple arguing, a potential reaction shot could be the kids watching, visibly worried. In fact:
More often than not, reaction shots are a close-up or a tight medium because that proximity allows the audience to see the reaction up close, and thus connect to the character.
This is a clip from Indecent Proposal (1993) where billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) makes an unsettling offer to a couple he just met:
The beauty of reaction shots is that they are subtle. The inattentive viewer doesn’t think, “Hey, there’s a reaction shot, now another…” More often than not, we just absorb the emotion, “Wow, Demi Moore was outraged. Was she crying? I think I saw tears.”
But when you step back to analyze the construction of the scene, you can see how it was directed and cut for impact. In fact, watch that scene again on mute, and it should become even more obvious how the mechanics works.
Now that you have seen a couple of examples, let’s examine why reaction shots are so important to the medium:
Note: I am listing this post under Cinematography and Editing because I really think that Reaction Shots are equal parts each. The cinematographer has to shoot right, and the editor has to cut it right.