JEZEBEL (1938, Wyler)


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.)



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:


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.


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.)