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.


TOUCH OF EVIL (1958, 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.