A ONER IS FUNNER: “MOVING OHM”

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Moving Ohm

I directed a short for some actor friends who were looking to make a film/have some footage for their reels.  There was no budget, and as I (only briefly) pondered if I should take on the project, it occurred to me it would be a great opportunity to explore some adventurous actor/camera blocking, to push myself to go a little further.  And give the friends some footage for their reels, hopefully.  The last two projects I’d done were comedy shorts for Funny or Die, which, due to the TV-comedy-styled rhythmic cutting, were filmed with standard coverage of close ups, wide shot, etc. to allow for maximum control of the timing of the jokes.  So this would be a fun, if pre-cast, change.

Orson Welles & Alfonso Cuarón shoot Gravity

So, I challenged myself to shoot the whole 5-page short as a oner, that is, one continuous shot.  To me, the magic of a great oner is its commitment to a single intention. That is, it’s not a lot of coverage (individual wide shots, close-ups, etc) that would permit multiple versions of the same scene.  Being bold and committed to that intention gives the scene a real gravity.

Speaking of which, Alfonso Cuaron, one of my favorite directors who currently draws air, has a long history of killer, story-and-theme appropriate oners.  This one from his film Gravity is no exception; it’s beautifully detailed (check out the lens distortions, just like we’ve seen in real NASA footage) and is gorgeously organic and enthralling in its build.

I can’t wait to have the chance to do one as crafted and action-packed as this, or this one from Children of Men.  As I blogged about beforeOrson Welles‘ long take in a single apartment in Touch of Evil is upwards of 5 minutes; it has real gravity and is a real inspiration (and unlike Cuaron’s, is done completely in-camera).  So here was a chance push myself to make an organic, living, one-shot movie, as modest and simple as it would be.

Cue 3 actors, 3 wireless mics, 2 Zoom audio recorders, and a flop-sweating me on a Canon 5D desperately trying to hit my focus marks and direct the actors.  All in all, we did 15 takes; the sweet spot was around take 11, which is the performance I chose as the final.  I will say the focus marks got better toward the later ones, but better to choose performance, I always say.

Not bad for a Sunday afternoon with $0 spent.  Thanks to Brian Majestic, Daniele Passantino, and Casey Unterman for a fun time and lots of patience.

JEZEBEL (1938, Wyler)

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Today’s post has as much to do with David Fincher as it does with one of my all time favorite directors, William “Willy” Wyler, who’s known for, among other things, the beautifully natural performances in his films.  What do these two directors have in common?  A propensity for an unusually high number of takes.

Fincher is notoriously known, like Kubrick, too, for racking up close to 100 takes on any given shot that has any real drama or character moment in it.  The opening scene in The Social Network is already famous for its 99 takes.

So what’s ol’ Willy doing here… Well, I stumbled upon this great excerpt from his biography A Talent for Trouble, about his first working experience with Bette Davis.  Like Davis, I’d been leery about so high a take count (as was 1-take-and-we’re-out John Ford), mostly because my budgets haven’t allowed more than say 8 takes max, but also because I was incredulous about what was really gained.  In my experience, I had found that most actors are kinda generally at their best in one of the following three “take zones.”

Gets it on the –

– First Take (sharp actor has it all worked out, but not much change thereafter)

Second & Third Take (get the jitters out, good a few takes, but thereafter it gets staler)

Eighth Take (they finally get the words down, figure out the vibe and can run with it)

Part of the fun, I find, is figuring out where your actors hit it, and then arranging your coverage to coincide. In Martha Coolidge’s wonderful commentary on Rambling Rose, she talks about working her coverage schedule in support of Robert DuVall, Laura Dern and Diane Lane.  Great case study.

So the 8-10 takes works very well when you’re on a tight budget and schedule.  But Fincher operates (as did Wyler) with a bit more slack in his schedule and he speaks of the magical benefits of the transformation in performance that seems to happen around the 40th take.   I would guess it’s a case of the actor’s exhaustion allowing them to completely let go of the part of their brain that’s trying to control it.  So when I happened upon this excerpt of Wyler’s experience, I had a bit of a “eureka!” understanding of this crazy amount of takes technique, which I’m sure my producer is overjoyed to hear.

Here’s the excerpt from Wyler’s biography (which I highly recommend) and the clip they speak of.  You really can see an undefinable spark in the take he used.  What I wouldn’t give to see the 47 takes that preceded it!

William Wyler according to Bette Davis

“The first day on Jezebel he made me do forty-eight takes,” Davis recalled. “I never in my life had done more than 2 takes, ever.”

The scene required Davis to dismount from a horse and rush into a formal gathering.  Wyler had invented an inspired bit of business to complement Julie Marsden’s cavalier character.  He wanted Julie, who is arriving late for her own engagement party, to hike up the long train of her riding dress with a riding crop and in, a rather unladylike gesture, hook it over her shoulder as she strides into the house.

Wyler had told her to practice with the riding crop before shooting began.  The gesture had become second nature to her, and she felt she’d got it right on the first take.  But Wyler apparently didn’t think so.  He asked for another take, then another.  After a dozen more, Davis was exasperated and confused.

“What do you want me to do differently?” she asked him.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Wyler said.

Thirty-three takes later, without so much as a thank you, he commented, “Okay, that’s fine,” and called an end to the day’s filming.

Furious, Davis demanded to see the takes.  Wyler obliged by screening them for her that night.  They were a revelation.  What she thought she had done exactly the same proved to be different each time.  The early takes looked practiced.  The later takes not only looked more natural but showed that when she had felt irritable and fatigued she seemed vigorous and excitable.  And that was precisely what the scene required.

In conclusion, my minds a bit more open to what may happen to an actor’s performance upwards of 40 takes.  I mean, Wyler and Fincher are no slouches.

Finally, please forgive the racial stereotypes that blight this film from 1938 (which doesn’t make my list of top Wyler films) and are present in this clip.

The shot in question is at :21 – remember, it’s take 48!

BAMBI (1942, Disney, et al.)

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Disney-Multiplane-camera

Today’s shot marks the first inclusion of an animated film.  This one from the earlier days of Walt Disney. I tell you, these early films of his are brilliant. (By way of comparison, i feel this era of the 30s/40s was to Disney what the 70’s & early 80’s were to Spielberg.)  You could never make them today, what with their ambiguity and occasional darkness.  Poetic meditations, with a taste of Walt’s whimsy (instead of a smothering), that aren’t afraid of the shadows. (How about the visually-arresting scene in the dense snow fall, when Bambi is confronted with being alone?)

Walt Disney, director?

To my surprise, naming the ‘director’ of this film is complicated because there are so many credited – none of which are Walt Disney!  That really blew my mind.  While each sequence’s director received a credit (at least on imdb), no one can deny that Walt, like David O. Selznick, was the author of his passion projects.

I recently got to watch this film on blu-ray, by way of high-def projection. It looked magnificent. The opening shot jumped out immediately as something to post about. It’s bold; it introduces us beautifully to setting, theme, and tone; and it’s ground-breaking for its time (see the featurette in second youtube player below).

The films of this period at Disney mark a breakthrough in animated camera work with the invention of the multi-plane camera, but I feel this film utilizes it best.  (Other films included Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and a short called The Old Mill.) Depth is everything in photography and the opening shot of Bambi is a wonderful example of the charming, amazing depth this system created, and, boy, does this shot go on and on.  (Can you imagine how long the background paintings must have been?)  This shot surely was awe-inspriring for movie-goers back in 1942, like nothing they’d seen before, even in the other Disney movies.

The opening credits end and the shot begins at 1:20:

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Here is the piece on the multi-plane camera, or as Walt referred to it, a “super-cartoon camera.”  It even shows the elements used for today’s shot. Apparently it was a miserable experience to animate on this thing – there were so many lightbulbs and the thing had to be housed in a small room to keep light pollution out, so it was swelteringly hot in addition to being labor intensive to operate.  According to Walt’s biography, one multi-plane shot for Pinnocchio cost $50,000 – in 1940.

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I snapped a pic on a recent visit to the Disney Studios, where the multilane camera is on display in the lobby.  (Ironically, the art displayed on the set up is what I consider to be the sloppiest shot in all of an otherwise perfect film, Pinocchio, but more on that soon.)

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THE GODFATHER (1972, Coppola)

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I think you should watch the scene first! (Though if you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, move along, there’s nothing to see here.)  In this famous scene, to protect his family, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who is a squeaky-clean war hero turned civilian, is to murder his dinner-mates and enemies – Sollozzo and the bastard Captain McCluskey – which will doom him to a life working with “the family.”

The gun to do it with has been planted in the restroom…

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I’m obsessed with 70’s Coppola right now.  And what’s not to be obsessed with; this scene from The Godfather is a piece of perfection (as I consider the whole movie), down to the tiniest detail.  Today’s post continues the theme established in The Elephant Man post – ie, a brilliantly calculated close up coupled with amazing sound work.

I’ve been reading Walter Murch a lot lately.  Murch did the sound design on this film (and the groundbreaking sound work on Apocalypse Now, to name just a few of his more famous jobs) and this scene is a revelation of what inventive, imaginative design can do.

Coppola & Murch make no beautiful music together

To point – the absence of music (Coppola’s idea) and the screeching subway train (Murch’s idea).  It’s amazing to think about the fact that the train was a complete fabrication by Murch in post.  There is no train established nearby, no mention of it, and not one bit of visual proof.  And, what’s more, it sounds like it’s ON TOP of us when the murder’s going down. But no matter – it’s emotionally exactly right.  In fact, I don’t know how many times I watched this scene before I consciously noticed it.

And now the shot, which slowly pushes in on Michael Corleone (Pacino) seconds before he builds his nerve.  No suspense music, no cut-aways – just a slow push in on a brilliant actor after all the minutia of character and situation have been meticulously set up in the scenes & moments preceding.  And the fact that Italian is being spoken and is not being translated — because at this point, we know, words don’t mean a thing — THAT’S. SO. BRILLIANT.

This incredible shot, coupled with the lack of music and the exquisite use of sound create an indelible, gripping moment in an equally amazing sequence. Here’s a favorite quote of mine by Murch on the use of music, which he brings up in the book The Conversations, when discussing how they held off the music till after the emotional punch, especially in this sequence, but also throughout the whole film:

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[This scene] is a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates emotion…Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids.  There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music — just like steroids build up muscle.  It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

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I love that — after all our emotion is built and spent with no artificial aid from music — the score kicks in with full-blown operatic grandeur once the deed is finally done and Michael’s fate is sealed.  At that point, we not only believe it, but we’ve actually experienced it with him.  That’s so rare in film.

Al-Pacino-The-Godfather

VERTIGO part 2 (1958, Hitchcock)

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As promised, we’re back for one more shot from one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Vertigo.  This shot really knocked my socks off when I saw it in the theater last year at the Egyptian in Hollywood.  (I really should go back there and find those socks.)

It’s another really assured moment. This one, for some reason, reminds me of Sergio Leone in its boldness.  I guess because it’s just so out there, while still so emotionally effective.   For the sake of revealing minimal spoilers, let me set it up this way: [Minor Spoiler alert] Stewart is in love with a woman, Madeline, who’s now dead at this point in the film.  When he comes across her doppelganger (also played by Kim Novak), he begs her to dress up as his former love and then kisses her.  Sounds healthy enough.  I mean, if I had a nickel.

The shot is here at 1:10, but as usual, you got to watch the whole thing!  Once again Hitchcock plays the suspense, building it as we await her grand reveal, now dressed like (dead) Madeline.  We’re right there with Scottie in anticipation.  (Hitchcock described this moment to Truffaut as Scottie metaphorically waiting for the woman to undress and come out naked, that Scottie is getting an erection in this waiting.  True story.)  Then there she is, at first revealed as a ghost as Bernard Hermann’s crazy gorgeous score hits us now full-blown with the same theme we first heard – only timidly – in that restaurant when they’d first met.  (For that scene, see this post here.)  Hope you’ll watch this video before reading on:

Hitchcock sends us back in time

In this one shot, Hitch throws us into the emotions of an obsessed man, shooting us back in time & space from the neon-sign-lit hotel room to the livery stable at Mission San Juan Bautista where he’d kissed Madeline for the last time and declared his love.

For me, this moment resonates so well because it’s a surprising and wholly unexpected peek into our heroes psyche and, technically — ie camera work and staging — it’s just so damn cool.  I had two different reactions to this shot upon first and then second viewing.

Sitting in the Egyptian, I found it so heart-rending that Scottie would be obsessed and hung up on that last intimate moment with her – but nothing’s ever been said about this before in the film. It’s like a surprise and truthful glimpse into his head that makes total, heartbreaking sense. We’re able to deduce all this on our own.  We go back to this moment because Scottie is trapped in the past (the main theme of the whole film), and as an added-bonus detail, an antiquated buggy is just the symbol for that.  I love that Hitch conveys all this with a bold, unexpected use of silent staging and (even then) old school in-camera special effects.

But then sitting at home watching the DVD, I had a different response.  Maybe it’s because I knew it was coming. Suddenly the moment in this shot when Stewart seems to realize his surroundings jumped out at me (1:36 in video above).  Has this kiss been her undoing, is it in this moment that he realizes exactly who she is, that it’s the exact same kiss from the stable?  Is he connecting the dots, realizing that perhaps it’s no mere coincidence this woman is the spitting image of Madeline? (I love that he soon doesn’t care – back to the kiss!)  Again, all conveyed in one “silent” shot.

I would love to hear what you think.  Which way did it hit you: a mix of both or someway altogether different?  It seems like my two interpretations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but each certainly shades the shot in a completely different light.  Speaking of which –

How about the whole scene being bathed in green light?  (Is it just me, or is green often associated with the supernatural?  Maybe I’m just thinking of the ghost in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit.) Green is Novak’s characters’ color and the room in this scene is drenched in it, the color of the iconic dress she wore in the red restaurant when she was first revealed! (see this post here)  Hitch’s carefully designed visual cues all point us in an evocative direction – cutting out the middle man, the conscious brain, and going straight to the emotions.

Oh, silent cinema, how I love thee.

P.S. I just came across this and had to add it as a bonus.  Get a load – a commenter on this video states that Hitchcock created these repeating editing patterns to demonstrate the emotional loop that Stewart’s character was stuck in.  Shut up!  So cool.

DELIVERANCE (1972, Boorman)

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Some creepy ass shit.png

Sorry, no dueling banjos in today’s shot, but it’s no less creepy.  Here’s an example of a oner that builds incredible, terrifying tension in no small part because it’s unbroken.  Now, I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I’ll explain in a bit, but when it does work, it’s awesome.  Whenever I watch this and think of the terrible situation Ned Beatty and Jon Voight’s characters have fallen into, I get really tense.  My brain keeps yelling at them “Run!” or “Grab the gun!” as if I could change the terrible outcome.

The spot-on casting of the hill folk is half the reason this scene is so effective.  I mean, I’d shit myself if I ran into these two in the city, let alone the back woods.  Add to that skillful writing, the pitch-perfect set-up in the preceding minute, and this wonderful, lingering, relentless shot and we’re really cooking.  (Possum, I assume.)  Joking aside, this is a truly horrible predicament and I think the shot choice maximizes its tension.

Boorman builds a (tense) shot

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the blocking works 100% of the time.  To me, it sometimes feels a little inorganic, which takes its toll on the actors here and there. (Not to say there aren’t some awesome performances and directing here.)  I’m not sure what circumstances Boorman was battling when he shot this.  Maybe he only had a half day to get the whole scene.  Maybe there was a guy with a chainsaw making noise across the river who’d only give them an hour of silence.  Maybe he was so excited about the tension he was building that he didn’t care about the believability of all the blocking. Who can say?

Reminds me of a story Lumet relates in his book Making Movies:

“I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he’d panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport – neither of which belonged in a period movie.” 

So who knows what was going on behind the scenes, but one thing Boorman accomplishes for sure, the tension really builds, and how.

A fave bit: Ned Beatty’s reaction when he first realizes the guys are assholes.  Priceless.

2001 (1968, Kubrick)

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2001 Transition Edit
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Doing research has been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this blog; you never know what nugget you’ll stumble upon.  I really got a kick when I happened upon the material for today’s post which is technically 2 shots.  Well, I guess it’s 4 shots, because not only am I serving up Kubrick’s stunning editorial truncation of millions of years of human evolution, but I’m also serving Kubrick.  Oh, yes, he’s been served.  The second shot (or 2 shots) is what Kubrick stole from.  But no worries.  As Oscar Wilde quipped, “Talent imitates, genius steals.”  While I don’t believe Kubrick ever commented on or admitted to this, as far as I could find, it’s hard to believe he didn’t get the idea here, consciously or unconsciously.
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Kubrick steals from the best

Now, everyone is super familiar with the famous, brilliant, awesome, mind-blowingly simple yet profound, etc, match cut transition in 2001 from the pre-historic primate’s bone-throw to the space ship millions of years later.  But not many probably know the shot from Powell/Pressburger’s A Cantebury Tale (1944) — including myself, until I stumbled upon it doing research for the recent post on Deliverance, of all things.  This must have inspired Kubrick’s master stroke.
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Cantebury Transition Edit
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In the 1944 application of the technique, we leap  centuries in one edit.  Check out how cool and ahead of its time this cut is – a falcon turns into an airplane.  Military technology jumps 600 years.  Pretty bold and cool.  It’s in the youtube video at 3:17.
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As cool as that is, Kubrick was able to give the same technique an even deeper resonance.  Instead of centuries, it’s millions of years, and the entire evolution of mankind is expressed in one-twenty-fourth of a second by way of a single edit.  Doesn’t get more efficient than that, does it?  That’s what a director is always striving for, to communicate the most information in the simplest way, with the greatest story impact. Earth to Kubrick, mission accomplished.
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