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.

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WAR STORY (2001, Baumgartner)

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Abraham-Benrubi-John-Baumgartner

All this commotion and hubbub about Michael Hazanavicius‘ gorgeous, new silent film The Artist has got me reminiscing about my silent movie, War Story, which L.A Weekly declared, if I may mention, “triumphs on all fronts” (L.A. Weekly, Nov. 2001, review here). This is the film I was referring to in my post on Chaplin. When I was first inspired to make this movie, I’d been so taken by Chaplin’s work, felt such an immediate kinship, that I had to create something in homage, while making it my own with a modern twist.  The little tramp character, in my film one Metly Moorville, would be gay and fall for a soldier heading off to WWI, who would return the ardor, but whose identical twin brother would be a violent homophobe. Naturally, comedy-of-errors hijinks would ensue.

I found one of the most challenging parts of making War Story was creating the details of the silent, physical comedy. While many gags I lifted from a wide array of Chaplin’s work, most still had to be invented. So I workshopped with a group of actors some two years before the cameras rolled. (This is one of the most prepped films I’ve ever done. Camera tests, make-up tests, set-design tests, models, storyboards, etc, all were undertaken in the two years it took my amazing producer on it, Susan Stoebner, to miraculously raise our financing.)

Making Silent Music, Chaplin Style

Today’s shot is one of those gags that came out of that workshop. I think we probably spent an entire evening working on its choreography and timing, a full two years before it would be filmed. Like many of the shots in the film, it was designed, rehearsed and shot as if it were dance, with counted beats cuing various actions (well before Mike Petrone’s ingenious original score would be heard). While much of it was created in advance with a group of actors who wouldn’t even ultimately appear in the film (two years is a long time to hang around) there were nonetheless lots of final tweaks on set. By the way, the waiter, played by Damon Huss, was inspired by Albert Austin whom Damon had an uncanny resemblance to once made up.

The bit is followed by perhaps one of my favorite gags in the film, something I patently stole from Chaplin’s Idle Class, a short he did early in his career for the Mutual Company: Metly’s knocked down twice by the big brute Eric, played by the incomparable Abraham Benrubi, only to cut his loses and just volunteer the third knock down. (Benrubi, like Huss, was destined to play this role which was based on one of Chaplin’s stock players.) The great joy of making this film was the mixture of stealing Chaplin’s best bits and inventing my own, while hopefully saying something brand new in the process. I’m honored to say that in 2004 War Story was selected to be preserved in the film print archives of the New York Public Library.

After the clip below is a short behind-the-scenes featurette by my talented filmmaker friend, Nick Louvel, with additional camerawork by the equally talented filmmaker Mika Johnson. In it you can see, among many other things, the Mitchell Standard 35mm hand-cranked camera we used.

Here’s the sequence in which Metly and Eric vie for the open waiter position. The shot’s at :48.

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Here is the behind-the-scenes, please forgive the 10 seconds of silent black that precede it:

Shot4Shot VLOG

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Indiana-Jones-Doom-Spielberg

Youtube yanked the sample video of Temple of Doom (and others), so I was inspired to create my own, hosted by yours truly, to take advantage of Fair Use laws, and to maybe start expanding Shot4Shot into a youtube channel: Shot4ShotFilmBlog.

Vlog 1: Temple of Doom

Please check out the video below and let me know what you think.  You can also read the original blog entry on Temple of Doom here.  Behind scene pic below also.

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Click to enlarge photo:

Spielberg-Model-ILM

HARD PILL (2005, Baumgartner)

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Jason-Bushman-Susan-Slome-Jonathan-Slavin-Scotch-Ellis-Loring

This is a shot from my dogme-styled feature, a oner that was inspired by the lateness of the day and the large number of actors in the scene, like my theory in the previous post on Willy Wonka.  In the scene, our main character, played by Jonathan Slavin, is throwing a birthday dinner party with Susan Slome and Scotch Ellis Loring.  He’s invited sexually-ambigous Matt (Jason Bushman) from his office, determined to make his romantic intentions clear, until a complication arrises.

This scene was shot at one in the morning after an already long shooting day. We had just filmed a lengthly dinner scene (which proceeds this scene in the movie) with this same group, which meant lots of director-brain-energy had been used to get all the right coverage, let alone make sure the 180 line was making sense.  (Incidentally, around this time I had been watching a lot of, of all things, Spielberg’s dinner table scenes in E.T. – great examples of finessing the line with a group at a table which can be very tricky and easily a disaster.)

Once all the actors were on their feet and it was time to block, I realized that if I designed single shot coverage for everybody I was not only going to have to block five actors standing and moving in a room, keep track of the line vis-a-vis who was talking to whom, and take the time to shoot singles for each of the five actors, but that we’d also be there another two to three hours.  And I was running out of steam fast.  But I also had the realization that this was the perfect opportunity for a oner.

So we blocked with the cast and camera (I was running camera, so it made it quicker) and rehearsed over and over till we got the timing down.  I’d say we blocked and rehearsed for 45 minutes, and then shot maybe five takes.  It’s take two that made it into the movie.

I think the shot plays very fluidly and works well with what follows; the next scene is standard coverage at the dinner table, everyone sitting down. This, I think, offers a nice contrasting intro to that scene, while wrapping for the shooting day well before dawn.

Here’s the shot:

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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.