OLIVER TWIST (1948, Lean)

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Charles-Dickens-David-Lean-Oliver

This is a quick shot by David Lean, a real favorite of mine. He famously did two letter-perfect adaptations of Dickens’ work – Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and today’s shot shows what a great visualist he was. Lean loved to figure out ways to visually express complex ideas in his films. For instance, when making A Passage to India, he was particularly torn on how to visually express Peggy Ashcroft’s character’s existential crisis that E.M. Forster suggests. (Reflections of the moon in her sunglasses became the abstract and curious image he came up with to express that. Admittedly, it wasn’t his best reviewed film.)

Lean’s work in today’s post is a bit more poetically direct and certainly more effective. It’s from the top of Oliver Twist, a sequence that was hard won, as Dickens’ opening in the book is decidedly un-cinematic and therefore had to be re-invented.

Dickens wrote, “…and in the workhouse was born on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, in as much as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”

Try turning that into a scene.

David Lean gets a little help from his friends

According to the incredible (and refreshingly honest) biography on Lean by Kevin Brownlow, Lean and his co-writer Stanley Haynes could not, for the life of them, come up with a suitable opening. Frustrated, they held a contest at Pinewood Studios. Only one person accepted the challenge, actress Kay Walsh, who had been cast in the role of “Nancy,” had acted in Lean’s previous three films and assisted in writing the adaptation of Great Expectations. (Incidentally, in my 6th grade year book, I answered the question of where I would live when I grow up with “Pinewood Studios.”  Still working on that.)

What she wrote was nearly verbatim of what appears in the opening of Lean’s film. My favorite, most evocative moment, has to be the pain and duress that he is able to convey by way of one brilliant cut-away. This shot – the contorting, prickered stems – is abstract, yet very cool and effective. (It’s a visual that Lean would return to; Lawrence’s death in Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, when his goggles end up in just such a bush.)

The moment is at 2:27 – ooo, child, that woman’s got the misery up in her back. (I also love the reveal of the word “Parish Workhouse” with the lightning strike at 4:07!) Amazing what an imaginative visual metaphor can express.

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APOCALYPSE NOW (1979, Coppola)

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Martin-Sheen-Hearts-of-Darkness

I just watched this film again last night on the big screen. What an experience. It really is a vividly realized descent.  In the gut-wrenching documentary on the film’s creation, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (man, do I dig what Coppola has to say here), we learn that Francis Ford Coppola and most everyone involved went a bit out of their minds in the jungle, what with the sprawling story, never-ending production, and insane conditions like the Philippine Army’s helicopters leaving whenever they were called, Marlon Brando’s obesity, storms destroying whole sets and Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack.

Today’s shot, like the movie itself, is about discovery in the face of the overwhelming. All in all, 230 hours of footage were captured for the movie, which puts the shooting ratio at 95-to-1. For every minute in the movie, there are 95 ‘unseen’ minutes.  No wonder it took over 21 months to edit the picture and another year to create the film’s rich and unsettling soundscape.  This also explains, to an extent, why it’s such a poetic and rich visual experience. There are so many shots that seem to be the most abstract yet perfect comment or detail to a scene.  (I think of the squatting girl in Kurtz’s bunker, when Sheen finally arrives, as a prime example.)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Accidental Discovery

Today’s shot is one of those inspired moments that come from a year and nine months of experimenting with a deluge of footage. Coppola admits freely what an accident its creation was, and it’s a true testament both to Coppola’s genius and to the magic possibilities of discovery. Coppola explains in the commentary track that he was visiting the editing room about 9 months into post when he saw a barrel full of discarded film. He asked what the shots were and they explained it was “fill,” that is, parts of shots before the real action started.

Coppola pulled out, completely at random, what would be the opening shot – fill from the napalm bombing sequence. The camera had rolled quite a while in advance, as not to miss the explosions. Coppola immediately felt the footage was unusual, beautiful and thematically interesting. And then he reached over to the music bin and grabbed a song, saying “wouldn’t it be funny to start a movie with a song called ‘The End?'” (The Doors, incidentally, were Coppola’s film school buddies at UCLA).

Well, the rest is more or less history. Walter Murch went to cutting the opening montage and a dark and evocative glimpse into Sheen’s character’s psyche emerged from the depths. Amazingly, the connection of the ceiling fan and the helicopter blades was only discovered while Murch was cutting the sequence. Then, a year or more later, they would tie it all together with the final design and mix of the amazing chopper sounds.

So enjoy this incredible sequence, which kicks off with a shot that was never even intended to be seen. It’s just these honest and unpretentious moments, captured more or less by accident, that can sometimes provide us with the most honest, interesting and poetically rewarding glimpses into the world of the film.

CHILDREN OF MEN (2006, Cuarón)

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Alfonso-Cuaron-On-Right

In terms of current work, Alfonso Cuarón is my favorite director.  There I said it.  Whether he’s posing for a faux promo pic (he’s above, right), directing a tiny character piece (Y Tu Mama Tambien)  or a huge franchise (Harry Potter), or spouting off on film theory, it’s honest, surprising, insightful, heartfelt, hilarious and/or terrifying and more often than not, just plain brilliant. Even his least successful film, Great Expectations, is worth the price of admission just for its first half.

I recently read a short interview with him in The Bagger’s New York Times article from 2006 when Children of Men was released.  I include this excerpt here, not particularly apropos to today’s post, but because once again Cuarón perfectly articulates something I’ve believed for a long time, but never boiled it down so succinctly.  It’s part and parcel to the intelligence and artistry he exhibits in today’s shot.

Alfonso Cuarón on Theme in Cinema

“What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative… let cinema breathe…narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it’s [just] an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element. Music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don’t explain [too] much….[it is a film’s exploration of themes, as opposed to its narrative, that determines its ultimate success.]”

I think that’s such an important point to make. If a film’s story is its body, then its themes are its nerves  – and a good director needles those nerves until by end credits, he’s hit them so directly as to light up the whole experience; make the body jolt to life.  If you ever want to enjoy what I think is a perfect exploration of theme, it’s Eastwood’s Unforgiven.  Gorgeous.

So, on to the shot.  Not to necessarily be pre-occupied with oners, because there are so many other elements (to borrow Cuarón’s phrasing from above) that go into to an amazing shot, but here’s another incredible example nonetheless!  In a single shot, Cuarón creates an entire experience, with beginning, middle and end.  It’s gripping, weighty, and exciting.  I’ll admit, the part with the ping-pong ball is a bit weird, but it does its job in the structure of the sequence.  This shot is so rich in action and story beats that upon first viewing of the movie, it’s nearly impossible to clock this scene’s all going down in one shot.  At least that was my experience.  There’s just so much being accomplished!

I would suspect this sequence wouldn’t be quite as impacting had there been cuts in place of the horrible nightmare that unfolds and escalates in real time before our eyes.  What do you think?

As Shakespeare wrote, “So quick bright things come to confusion.”

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958, Welles)

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Touch-Of-Evil-Orson-Welles

Most people know about the beautiful master shot at the top of this film, but Welles always spoke of another long oner in this film that he was more proud of.  It’s the apartment interrogation scene from this stylish noir – a B picture elevated to classic status by the artistry of Orson Welles.  (Funny, not only was this guy one of my dad’s heroes, but he kinda looked like him.  A case of life imitating art combined with too many hamburgers.)

During post production, this film was famously butchered by Universal; Welles was deservedly on the outs for his decadent and mercurial ways (no pun intended).  But thankfully the film was restored to Welles’ vision in 1998 by Walter Murch, using 58 pages of editing notes that Welles had left behind.  (You can read the thing here, thanks to Wellesnet.com: WELLES TOUCH OF EVIL MEMO – If you do nothing else, watch the opening 20 minutes of both versions and you’ll see a phenomenal case study on not only the brilliance of Welles, but also the power of intercutting two parallel story arcs, a design that Universal had refused to stick to when the film was released.  Restoring it to Welles’ intent is an improvement that’s hard to overstate.)

Back to today’s shot – Welles was just the best at blocking these long master shots.  He could create organic blocking for actors, each move beautifully motivated, keep the camera in the most interesting places, and deliver an amazingly nuanced performance of his own.  How fun would it have been to see what was going on behind the scenes as walls flew, camera assistants ducked, and tape marks littered the floor.

Hitchcock did an entire movie in one shot, but not nearly as dynamically, seamlessly, cinematically or organically as what Welles pulls off here, if you ask me.  Again, it’s about the to-and-from-camera blocking of the actors that gives Welles’ scene such nice depth as well as Welles’ characteristically low-camera makes for especially interesting compositions.

Orson Welles’ Touch of Noir

This youtube clip is actually two halves of the scene separated by a fade in & out where in the movie there are other scenes intercut. Both halves of this scene are done in single takes, and what a blast they are.  Allowing big parts of the action to happen off screen not only serves to simplify the blocking of the camera/actors, but increases the tension and dramatic impact of those off camera moments.  The whole thing has a building, claustrophobic feel just right for the action.  Welles really relishes the license that making a ‘noir’ gives him – hard light, shadows, distorting lenses, clipped dialogue and a wrinkled trench coat, to name a few touches.

Hope you’ll enjoy meeting or revisiting this classic scene.

MIDNIGHT SUN (2011, Baumgartner)

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Midnight-Sun-John-Baumgartner

Today’s post is a simple example of what I talked about in my last Spielberg Raiders post, about tying visual beats together with a pan or a tilt.  It also marks the very first shot of my own that I’m posting.  How excited I was to type my own name in the header. Hope you’ll enjoy the shot, and the firsthand report of its design and creation.

If you blink, you’ll miss the shot – it’s in the more action-y part of this demo scene I directed for my upcoming suspense thriller Midnight Sun.  In the scene, I tried to include a widely dynamic range of moments (action, suspense, quiet performance, loud stunts, gunshots, etc) both because it can make for good cinema, but also because it was a demonstration of my range to show that I could deliver this feature.

The shot is at 3:20 in this scene – but hope you’ll enjoy the build that gets us there.  You can hit “HD” to turn HD on or off, depending on your connection.  And you can make it full screen with the 4 little arrows button at the bottom right. (Also, beware loud volume!)

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The shot in question, while simple in the scheme of things, is more complex than perhaps it seems.  8 people are working in rehearsed synchronization to make a seamless, flowing moment.  Add an office-full more if you include the tireless post-visual-effects folk at Furious FX, who created for this shot the blood splattering onto the storage bins, erased the cable, removed some frames, and did some re-timing. (They delivered about 40 effects shots for the whole scene.)

If you ask me, the pan over to the stunt player flying backward out of the galley makes the moment both more chaotic and real.  Also, it’s a Reveal, which always makes for a more compelling shot.  I think whenever you can use “in-camera” reality for extraordinary moments, the more visceral and real they play.  Watching something in real time with the actor on set lets the audience feel that something more weighty is happening.

Shooting it this way caused complications, especially for an ultra-tight schedule/budget.  Because of the challenges of the large camera rig back-peddling quickly down the narrow aisle, I was encouraged by my cinematographer, Pete Holland, to parse the moment into 2 separate shots.

I should note that Pete saved my butt countless times with his brilliant insights and suggestions but this time he was reacting to the limitations the technology & space were presenting him.  But it shows nonetheless that in the hairy and incredibly stressful crap-storm of the set, delicate artistic impulses can get squashed, and sometimes you only have the faintest lingering memory of the reason you wanted it that way.

Behind the Scene glimpse of the Stunt

But I insisted, and we figured out how to make it happen.  Slowing down the back-peddle helped Pete and the camera rig a lot (it would be sped up a bit in post).  Then the first assistant director, the camera, the actors, the stunt team & I all practiced the moves on a count down from 4, which you can see in the raw behind-the-scenes footage below.  It looks so simple here, but imagine trying to herd all the cats, er, moving parts, while being constantly reminded you have very little time left.  I’m happy to say we got it on the second take.  (How’s that for a contrast to my post on David Fincher and William Wyler?)

First is a camera rehearsal with “no jerk,” that is, no stuntman flying, and second time is the take in the movie. Rest assured, the stuntman, R.C. Ormond, was fine, even though he sounds pretty agonized right after the stunt!

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So that’s the shot.  I think it’s a good example of how tying 2 beats together can be far more effective than two separate shots cut back-to-back.  In this case, it adds surprise, excitement and chaos to a moment that was all about those very elements.

Thanks to the wonderful cast/crew that made this shot happen, including Pete, 1st AD Jim Simone, stunt coordinator Thom Williams, stunt player RC Ormond, assistant Tyler Poppe, and producer John Ferraro, among many others.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK pt 2 (1981, Spielberg)

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Shot4Shot Raiders of the Lost Ark

Happy Friday everyone.  I want to thank everybody for your visits; the blog is now 1 month old and this week was an all-time high for readership.  So if you’re enjoying, please keep reposting and telling people about Shot4Shot!  I’m having a blast.

Here is the second of two shots celebrating the 30th birthmonth of this iconic film.  This shot is in a less flashy scene of the movie, one that might even make you impatient, because it’s a narrative interruption of Indy’s uncovering and entering the Wells of Souls to, at long last, reveal The Ark of the Covenant.  I mean come on, it’s asking a lot – it’s like being told to wait a day to open presents on Christmas morning.  (Or Hanukah or Kwanzaa morning.  Those work like that, right?)

It was with this very feeling as a lad that I once reached for the remote to fast-forward to the ‘more exciting’ part of the film. Thankfully, I stopped myself, saying, “Self, let’s investigate more closely what’s going on in this scene.”  And when I did, it quickly became one of my favorites and a case study in dynamic, economical staging.  Isn’t that Film Appreciation all over – stopping to take a look, never knowing what you’re going to find or learn from.

So this whole scene is only 4 really precise set ups.  Which is pretty awesome when you consider all the dramatic beats.  The first shot, and the focus of today’s post, is the meat of the scene – the long oner, with just the simplest dolly movement.  In and out and maybe a little side to side.  I love how Spielberg can do so much with so little.

Add to this the beautiful depth created by the open flap of the tent, the draped fabric everywhere, the search light and shadows on the tent wall, and the classically Spielbergian to-and-from-camera blocking of the actors.

Spielberg’s Extra Touches

One of my favorite moments of the scene (not in the oner) and a great example of always striving to create visual stimulation, is the well-timed hit of the search light behind Marion when she comes out from behind the divider to reveal the dress.

Another technique I love is tying 2 visual beats together through a simple TILT or PAN, which is always a good idea (I’m posting one of my shots next week on this point).  Why have separate shots when you can link them?  In this case, when Belloq grabs the booze, and then again when Marion sets her clothes atop the knife. It’s such a simple thing, but I’ve seen countless directors miss opportunities to use this simple, visually-interesting move.  In this scene, Spielberg uses them as brilliant little asides, both tilt downs revealing the true subtextual and conflicting motivation of each character. (His booze & sex/her’s knife and freedom.)

So there’s a lot going on here.  But most excitingly, the elegant and engaging blocking on such a simple dolly track to create a scene so visually robust and interesting, mostly in one shot.

Not sure if I’ve been clear or not, but I love this movie.

Oh, one last thing, there’s a little continuity error that always pops out at me.  I wonder if you know what it is?  Grand prize: bragging rights.

Please take a moment to answer the poll!

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981, Spielberg)

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Shot4Shot Raiders of the Lost Ark

It was just a matter of time before I came to this, of course, and no better reason than this film’s 30th birthday this month.  And I have 2 Raiders shots I’m posting (the second next week), both oners that I have spent many a minute marveling over.  Today’s is the scene in which Brody gives Indiana Jones the go-ahead and issues his ominous warning that the ark is “like nothing you’ve gone after before.”

Instead of an uninteresting scene with much exposition to unload, in this single shot we’re given a snappy, dynamically blocked (lots of to-and-away from camera), short dialogue scene packed with info, which behaves exactly as a good oner should.  We get wide shots, CUs, singles, OTSs (over the shoulder), 2 shots, dramatic pans & push-ins, and, of course, one well-placed insert shot.  Also look how the wide angle lens stretches the room at the seams – a very useful and typical lens choice for a good oner.

Spielberg Picks up the Pace

For directors, losing control of pacing is always a fear in committing to a oner.  If the scene lags in your cut of the film, you’re potentially stuck.  But note how Spielberg & actors avoid this by making the dialogue really clip along, taking no chances by employing that old Hawksian technique of barreling through the exchange.

One common and useful “oner” trick is to have both the actors facing the same direction.  I love how Spielberg does that here with Harrison Ford packing his bag at 1:00 — a perfectly natural motivation for an otherwise unnatural blocking.  The PUSH IN to Brody when the moment turns supernatural in tone is inspired!  So simple, effective and organic.

The music really guides us beautifully through the shot, too, transitioning us from moment to moment.  Just as Indy ponders Marion, her haunting theme evokes his history with her (that theme slays me), and then no sooner segues into the ark’s ghostly motif, making us just as apprehensive as Brody (and what a performance moment from Denholm Elliot).  Man, John Williams scored that impeccably and provides some important glue to this single shot of many ideas.

Sometimes oners can seem too showy or forced, but every actor and camera move here is perfectly motivated, and this oner seems to fit effortlessly with the content of the scene.  As a director, I think such scenes pop out at you as oners from the script.  If you obey that instinct, it usually works out well, though getting some inserts here and there for pacing insurance — to allow you to trim if necessary — can be a good bet.

What’s more, the cut-away insert shot of the gun reveal, in addition to being the perfect punctuation of the beat, might have allowed Spielberg to get the pistol’s landing position in the suitcase exactly right; it’s reasonable to hypothesize that Ford tossed the weapon a half dozen times to get it to lay just right  The insert shot provides a break in the master, so Spielberg wouldn’t have to film the scene from the top with each throw of the gun.

I first saw this movie when I was 10 (story here if you haven’t read it already), the perfect age to experience it.  While it’s surely a timeless movie, nothing will compare to that first, thrilling viewing.  Would love to hear your stories of seeing this amazing movie for the first time.

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