LIVE FREE, DIE HARD (2007, Wiseman)

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Shot4Shot-Live Free Die Hard

As you can see, I’m changing it up and going off the beaten path. Today’s clip has a couple moments that are great examples of capturing exciting kinetic energy.  I can imagine that this director, Len Wiseman, was a fan of Spielberg’s Duel, which has fantastic examples of these type of wide-lens shots, as does all of Cameron’s work. Creating visually energetic shots seems to be Wiseman’s strength.  (Just did a little research, Wiseman credits Raiders as a major inspiration in his wanting to become a director.  Sounds familiar.  Any friend of Raiders is a friend of mine.)

These two shots remind me of being a kid and putting one eye up close to a toy car or plane to create the most dynamic movements possible for the movie I was directing in my mind.  When you do that, you have to add “whooshy” sounds to go along with the move, and it’s great to see today’s shot doesn’t skimp.

I include a chunk of the whole sequence in this clip because I think the first shot to discuss works as much for the breath it supplies in a necessarily cutty action sequence as it does for its super dynamic movement alone.

Live Free, Die Hard, Film Fast

When we cut to :11, Wiseman or second unit director Brian Smrz (why not, it was 2nd unit director Mickey Moore who directed the famous truck sequence in Raiders from Spielberg’s storyboards) provide some gorgeous wide-angle-lens adrenaline while also starting a new “phrase” of the action sequence.  (Note the “whoosh” sounds as the cars pass in the foreground!  Sweet.)  I know this must have been difficult to time; certainly models were used in planning it, I mean, how could the 10-year-old in him resist?  I wonder how many takes it took to get the timing just right.  (I mean look how many speeding vehicles there are, plus the camera vehicle, plus a chopper!)  However many takes, worth it.

The second shot (:24) is a splendidly exciting way to get us out of this sequence – nothing spells high energy like a wide-angle lens speeding straight at an on-coming vehicle and a quick whip pan with it as it peels off at a 90˚angle.  In this case, the car tears away from us down the ramp, and off into the next action set piece in the tunnel.

Love or hate Wiseman, these shots are sweet.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss them both:

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I AM CUBA (1964, Mikhail Kalatozov)

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One of the most insanely long and exciting shots I’ve seen is from the beginning of I am Cuba, a lushly lyrical fever dream of a movie. (Two movies have felt like fever dreams to me, this and Coraline – how’s that for a spectrum?)  This shot literally goes to unexpected places, and just seems to thematically fit in perfectly with what’s happening in the scene – like some voyeur wandering around with a handheld Bolex camera (come to think of it, the whole movie feels like that.)  Made as communist propaganda in the 60’s, this film, and especially this shot, must have nonetheless played well to the Don Draper set.

Like Tarkovsky’s work, you can get lost in Kalatozov’s powerful, timeless visuals, if nothing else.  I think the wide angle lens creates a dream-like, hallucinatory vibe (consistent throughout the movie) that — coupled with the amazing photography of the whole film — casts a real spell if you’re the patient type.

Check it out starting at 2:10 below – then check out the whole film if you haven’t already; it streams on Netflix! (Though how amazing and Terrence Malick-y is the very opening of this clip?!)

Thanks to pal & filmmaker Mika Johnson for introducing me to this movie last year.

STAR WARS (1977, Lucas)

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Shot4shot-Star Wars

I think by now we probably take this opening for granted, not stopping to appreciate how much good storytelling is crammed into this one “silent cinema” shot.  (But when you see the prequels, you realize with stunning clarity just how wrong such moments can go.)  I was six when this movie came out, so this film is embedded deep in my brain not as a film, but as a reality.  I was 6, it was real!  To this day, I can hear parts of the score and it’s not music, but an emotional window into an alternate universe.

Meanwhile, my friend Beth Grant went to the premiere of Star Wars back in ’77, having no clue what is was about.  In fact, she said she’d had the misconception it wasn’t even sci-fi, but a story of feuding Hollywood celebrities.  But she exclaims she’ll never forget the moment when this first shot came on screen – the place erupted into applause.  They’d never experienced anything like it.  2001 had had similar effects up to that point, but this was a whole new ball of wax – the immortal music, the amazing sound effects, the dramatic premise.  Beth says it was truly a spiritual experience, “we were awestruck and thrilled to the core.”

George Lucas, a long time ago

So the shot itself.  Man, George sure doesn’t make ’em like this anymore.  After the famous crawl floating through space, which sets up the plot, we’re treated to a slow TILT DOWN from the stars to the planets — not 1 but 3 (how about the music hit on the reveal of the visually stunning, NASA-grade image of the third and closest planet) — and a small ship on the run, lasers blasting at it and from it.  Explosions.  Cool sights and sounds.  The score. (Technology was limited back then, or we might have been assailed with 250 ships.)  But then, the Empire barges onto the screen and what a reveal.  That mammoth war ship goes on and on, dwarfing the little guy.  And thus the players, the entire nature of the conflict, the setting and tone, in short, the world is established in one fell swoop.

No wonder that first audience dirtied their collective pants at this one shot.  Here it is –

Extra! PIXAR’S TOY STORY ZOETROPE

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I had to post this, even though it’s not a shot or really even from a movie.  But it’s by movie makers and a total new application of one of the first technologies ever to show a motion picture, the zoetrope.  (Not sure if the Pixarians are the first to do this, but it has to be one of the best applications.)
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Damn those folks as Pixar just can’t help themselves, they’re just so clever.

This, more or less, is a sculptural zoetrope, one that makes inanimate objects come to life right in front of your naked eyes.  It’s the coolest sensation – like live computer animation.  It works by spinning the turntable very fast, and then illuminating only by strobe light.  Why didn’t I think of that?  (Makes me daydream if you could make an entire movie this way, or at least a short.  Could  a conveyor belt of sculptures move fast enough???) No camera, no coverage! They’ve cut out the middle man.

This is on display at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim.  I think it was my favorite thing I saw.  The strobe kicks in at 1:37 in the below video, which of course doesn’t do justice to what it’s like to see it in person.  Epileptics beware!

Let me know if you’ve ever seen this done before by someone else.

GOODFELLAS (1990, Scorsese)

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Shot4shot-Goodfellas-Stacks

The stuff I found for today’s post is awesome, complete with multi-media bonus features that really demonstrate the brilliance of Scorsese’s work here.  (As with Spielberg, I could fill an entire blog just with shots by Scorsese.)

Often times when a powerful, economical staging goes down before my eyes, I ask myself, “How the hell does the brain come up with that?”  With this scene, you have to wonder how much of that was in the script, how much of it was pre-conceived by the director, how much discovered on set, how much discovered in post?  With this video, the killing of Stacks, and with — wait for it — the shooting script pages from this scene, we get a tiny peek behind the curtain on what went down.

Before we get too far into it, it’s best if you watch today’s entire scene first:

What Scorsese had to work with…

If you read this scene in the shooting script PDF excerpt, (it’s a page and half), you see nearly a completely different scene.  It’s got the same characters and the same outcome, but the approach is entirely different.  Oners are great at building suspense (see this post here ) and this one is no exception. Obviously, reading the pages for this scene, Scorsese instinctually realized that a simpler more fluid staging would be infinitely stronger than the cuts the script suggests (which isn’t always the case, of course).

Now, this opening oner is great and all, BUT it’s the genius of this scene’s CODA that blows my brains out (no offense, Stacks). So unexpected, original and fun.

Shot4shot Goodfellas

Scorsese chooses to allow the tension of the first oner to play to maximum effect by not having voiceover on top of it, as the script suggests, but decides he can have his cake and eat it too, because really, there are no rules.  In place of the voiceover there is Tommy/Pesci’s fantastic pocket dialogue (“late to your own funeral!”).

Then, with the help of slow motion and an inspired music choice (his always are), he adds a “recap” of the killing, a coda, now letting us see the cold and crazy Tommy in this new perspective on what just went down.

You have to wonder – was this angle photographed as traditional coverage for the scene, but used instead only when this “coda” was created in post, as he felt Tommy’s “late for your funeral” dialogue was so awesome he wanted it to be heard and Scorsese therefore needed some place to put the voiceover about Stacks getting high?  Reasonable hypothesis for sure.

Finally, as a button, we cut to the ol’ faithful of director’s seeking buttons to their murder scenes – the high-and-wide of the aftermath. (That’s a skinny Sam Jackson, btw.)

Hope you’ll have a quick read of the scene in shooting script form (thanks to Joe Lajeunesse for getting it to me); it’s an amazing case study of how a director like Scorsese can elevate already mighty high material, giving it a powerful, signature style.

Would love to hear your theories on how this moment came about.

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010, Hooper)

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Whether or not you were cranky that it won Best Picture over The Social Network — I’m talking to you, Joe and Tommy (and don’t worry, that film’s coming up here soon) — a lot of people talk about this unusual composition from the impeccably crafted The King’s Speech when Bertie first meets with Logue in his dingy office.  I noted it upon first viewing, and came up with a few theories of my own and had many a conversation about it with my filmmaker friends, as did lots of film-goers, lay people alike, I’ve come to learn.

My first inclination was that the walls around Bertie remind us that he is a slave to the royal institution – that the social structure all around him is an oppressive and ever present force.  Why not, right?

Hooper Explains The King’s Speech Composition

I got to listen to director Tom Hooper at the DGA symposium of nominated best directors for 2010 (he would win), and his explanations were both simpler and more far-fetched:

On the esoteric side, he said he wanted the negative space around Colin Firth to visually represent the painful emptiness Bertie feels when stuttering – those awkward, hanging pauses that torture someone just trying to express themselves.  (The ragged texture of the wallpaper I think adds to this, though I don’t think Hooper commented on that specifically.)

On a more practical level, he wanted to visually suggest the discomfort between Logue and Bertie, by filming them in starkly contrasting and disparate, unnatural compositions.  As their relationship grows throughout the film, the shots grow more and more properly composed and comfortable.

Straight from the horse’s mouth!

Here’s the oft-talked-about scene below.  Note that according to Hooper, the wallpaper was a totally found element, i.e. it came with the location!  Best find ever.  Another tidbit: due to some real-estate fraud, the building was reclaimed half-way through filming and only through great effort and bureaucratic maneuvering did they get back in to finish.  Ah, production.

Added bonus, this clip ends with the biggest laugh in the movie, I think:

Let me know if you think it cool & poetic, or if you maybe found it distracting and too abstract.  I, myself, dig anything thoughtful and unexpected so long as it doesn’t feel gratuitous.  Fine line, that.  I think this is the former.

Please take the poll and check back for the results as they come in!

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962, Lean)

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Of course not all incredibly effective shots are oners.  This one is the culmination of a series of shots masterfully edited.  And you can’t talk about masterful editing without talking about David Lean.  He began his career as an editor (at one point was the highest paid editor in England), eventually transitioning to directing with the help of Noel Coward.

Many years later he’d complete his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, and today’s post is a static shot within my favorite sequence of the film.  Many consider perhaps the finest cut in movie history to come from this movie – the famous edit from Lawrence blowing out the match to the shot of the desert sun rising – a transition as amazingly effective for its startling visuals as it is for its subtextual richness.  (All that stuff about not minding it hurts.)

But I tells ya, I love this one just as much, this conspiracy between Lean, his composer Maurice Jarre, writer Robert Bolt, and his editor Anne V. Coates (boy, what was it like to be David Lean’s editor? Obviously they worked it out.)

David Lean’s slow build

In this sequence, one of the teenage orphans, Daud, waits patiently for Lawrence to return from “the devil’s anvil,” where he dared to rescue Gasim.  Lean plays the suspense, because death is all but assured for Lawrence but nonetheless Daud (and the audience) waits patiently, with touching loyalty.  This slow build reminds me of Lean’s quote about boring the audience before thrilling them (see this post).

Then, on the horizon of the great Nefud desert the faintest speck appears, and Lean, Jarre and Coates slowly build the sequence from restrained hope to unabashed euphoria – climaxing with the cut to my favorite shot: a SUPER WIDE of the two camel riders meeting.  Brings a tear to my eye every time I experience this sequence.   What high emotion they capture in this one shot.

Check out the sequence here in this youtubes.  The shot is at 5:11 – but to get its impact you have to watch the whole sequence, either from the top, or at least from 3:33. (Sorry about the aspect ratio; youtube has removed all the properly formatted ones.)

P.S. I always get a kick out of Spielberg’s reference to Lawrence in Raiders (one of many, I’m sure).  After Salah helps Indy descend into the map room, he’s caught by the Nazis in the exact same framing in the  below Lawrence (:27) youtube – even when Farraj falls, Spielberg has Salah do that, too.

Here’s the shot from Raiders, that’s a Pan Left, just like Lean does.  I grabbed the second frame just as Salah is about to fall:

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