07 January 2008

Nerd Group Leftovers #1: Stupid Tracking Shots



Since there does appear to be some interest, here's the first in what may or may not (depending on feedback and my schedule) prove to be a regular series of cut-and-paste jobs from the Movie Nerd Discussion Group. This debate, which took place almost exactly a year ago, involves the two celebrated tracking shots from Children of Men—both of which, to my annoyance, wound up placing highly in the Best Scene category of my annual nerd poll, the Skandies. But if that seems like old news to you, just mentally substitute the Big Dumb Pointless Make-It-Stop tracking shot from Atonement, which I also hate.

Many of my remarks make no sense divorced from context, so I'm reproducing the posts as they were made, including all quoted text (here italicized). Since I'm doing so without permission, all names have been changed, though folks who recognize their own words are more than welcome to take credit in the comments. Also, bear in mind that by not reproducing others' entire posts, I may be misrepresenting their arguments to some degree, albeit not intentionally.




Antwone Fisher: As for the long takes, I've always been a sucker for them and still am (Cuaron's certainly staying true to his overall style - Mama and Potter 3 both had some doozies). Even just discovering, as Theo was, that these falling-down and getting-bombed buildings were all actually full of people the whole time would be enough justification for the style for me.

MD'A: Help me understand this. So if one shot depicts what appears to be deserted, crumbling buildings, and then there's a cut, and in a subsequent shot we discover that there are actually people in these buildings...somehow that's less powerful? Because you're thinking, "Aw, man, those buildings probably were empty in the other shot, and they just snuck the extras in between setups"?

Because if that's what you're saying, you're just reinforcing my own feeling that these endless takes are the equivalent of little magic tricks, in which it's crucial that there be no cut between the turn and the prestige. And little magic tricks are not great filmmaking imo.




Antwone: If the idea to get across is "going deeper into an unending, ever-worsening nightmare," then yes, I think a series of shots could have been less powerful.

MD'A: Why? I'm genuinely trying to understand this. How does the act of cutting from one shot to another—let's stipulate that it's a match cut, so no time whatsoever has elapsed; we're just now seeing the action from a different angle—make the situation Theo is in any less of an unending, ever-worsening nightmare? It's still ongoing. He's still getting no respite. There's no difference whatsoever for the character. There's only a difference for the crew. They have to work a lot harder if it's all one shot. Are you telling me you feel like the sequence derives more tension from your knowledge that the crew is busting its ass to make it work?

I see them as one choice among many that make up the movie - is it crucial for Theo to leave the safe house with no shoes? [Etc.]

That's a legitimate question, and I'm sure someone who likes the movie more than I do can provide a good answer. I'm asking a different question, and not (so far) getting a very satisfying answer.

If someone is going to go through the trouble of creating a giant, highly detailed battleground set full of people with guns and tanks, following the main character through it in a long unbroken take seems like an effective enough idea.

I don't get it. Why does the fact that the set is giant, highly detailed, and full of people with guns and tanks call for a really long shot that follows the protagonist through it? Or, more specifically, why would a sequence of say three or four shots that cut together in real time make (as you imply) the set seem less giant, less highly detailed, and/or less full of people with guns and tanks? Again, all I can work out is that the bigger and more stuff-filled the set is, the harder such an extended shot is for the crew to pull off, because there are so many more things that could go wrong. (Indeed, you see this mentioned explicitly in many admiring reviews: "If someone misses their cue four minutes in, they have to start the whole thing over again.") It's like you're being emotionally overwhelmed by the degree of difficulty. To me this is just the tech equivalent of giving the award to the actor who gains or loses 50 pounds or switches genders.

Anyway, the crux seems to be if one feels the "trick" is interesting/cool/compelling or not.

Thank you for including the word "cool," which is what I ultimately think this is all about. And I have no issue with "cool"—in other contexts. Here, nuh-uh.

And I'm honestly not trying to play gotcha, but take something like Gerry - some pretty long (and to me just as effective) takes going on there, but certainly just as noticeable to the viewer, I would expect.

See, to me there's a very clear difference. Take for example the shot of the two Gerrys walking in closeup, the one Van Sant swiped from Werckmeister Harmonies*. What's important here is the duration of the scene, not the duration of the shot. I don't think that walk would be any less effective had Van Sant also shot it from the opposite angle and occasionally cut between the two. More to the point, there's never a moment during that shot in which you think "Wow, how did they do that?" It's a very simple dolly shot that doesn't call attention to its own virtuosity in any way. It's only remarkable because it's so rare for a movie to follow people walking in silence for such an extended period of time. In other words, it's conceptually daring, not logistically complex.

* The Werckmeister shot is on YouTube [JAN 2008: apparently not anymore], and I just watched it for the first time since 2000. Van Sant improved it.




MD'A: Actually, I just thought of a better example from Gerry: The opening drive to the desert. It runs just shy of six minutes, and it consists of nothing but Gerry and Gerry driving. But it's actually four shots.

0:32 - 2:59 camera following car
3:00 - 3:48 camera "pulling" car
3:49 - 5:00 shot of the road from car's POV
5:01 - 6:18 back to camera "pulling" car

I don't believe for one second that shooting the entire thing from the "pulling" angle for six unbroken minutes would materially affect the mood this sequence creates. Unless of course to do so would be monumentally difficult for some reason, in which case I guess it would accrue additional force from the fact that it was done anyway. But I still say that's bogus, and that a cut per se does not somehow resolve tension that's been building for the length of that particular shot. It depends, as I said before, on how the shots cut together. And if it's gonna just about kill you to do it all in one shot, and you do it that way anyway, you're. just. showing. off.




John Leguizamo: Just for curiosity, did you find anything admirable about the reductio ad absurdum example of this practice: Russian Ark? or Rope[?]

MD'A: I admire elements of both of those films, but I do think the idea of shooting an entire feature as a single take is inherently dopey. The fact that Russian Ark is spanning so much history makes the concept a little more defensible; it really makes no sense for Rope to be told in that way, except as a means for Hitchcock to (yes) show off.

Antwone:

So these hypothetical cuts could hypothetically give the viewer a split second respite or break, which could hypothetically release some of the scene's tension.

I guess this is the agree-to-disagree statement, because I just don't think that a cut automatically works this way. A cut that represents a shift in time or location, sure. But not a cut that merely represents a shift in angle. I do not ever recall feeling "relieved" by such a cut. When Van Sant cuts from following the car to pulling the car in the opening of Gerry, it does not change my emotional relationship with this apparently uneventful journey; I am still just watching these two dudes drive.

Cuarón has another agree-to-disagree statement:

: Another thing is not to use editing or montage, trying to
: seek for an effect. It is to try to create a moment of
: truthfulness, in which the camera just happens to be
: there to just register that moment.

See, I strongly disagree with his implication that cutting is somehow dishonest, less truthful. I see where he's coming from, because in his mind there are no cuts in real life—we see everything continuously. But he's wrong.

Look to your extreme left, then immediately look to your extreme right. (Really do this.) Did you register everything in between? I don't. To me that's much closer to a cut from one shot to another than it is to a whip-pan. If you happen to blink along the way, as we all do about every six seconds on average, then it's literally a visual disjunction—a cut. The whole idea that the human visual field operates like a Steadicam is nonsense. Are you familiar with the saccade experiments, in which text on a page is constantly shifting but the subject is completely unaware of it because it only happens in the instants when their eyes shift focus? The illusion works because when you shift focus you're effectively blind for a split second, though your brain disguises the fact from you.

Between blinks and saccades, human vision is much closer to montage than it is to mise-en-scène.

Also, Bazin was on crack.

There's something about the idea that everything just keeps going that makes narrative sense in this situation. When Theo goes around a corner, he doesn't run into the craft services table, he's still in the prison.

So I was right: The reason this works for you is because if there's a cut before he turns the corner, you're somehow thinking, consciously or unconsciously, "I bet that's where craft services had been in the previous shot."

That's just weird to me. I don't think that way at all. The fact that the shot keeps going on and on and on makes me much more aware that everything is completely fake. I start to see the crew ducking and weaving in my mind's eye. A cut before he turns the corner, on the other hand, doesn't seem like "cheating"; it's utterly uneventful, and hence more likely to keep me enveloped in the action.

(Have I mentioned that I'm a sucker for long takes?)

Whatever floats your boat. Again, I'm not against long takes per se; you don't see me badgering, say, Tsai Ming-Liang to cut more frequently. It's got nothing to do with duration; it's the "impossible" aspect that bugs me.

All right, so how many cuts per scene should be included to indicate non-virtuosity?

Obviously there's no formula. I'm just arguing against shots that call attention to themselves by virtue of weaving in and out and all over the place without a cut. And really just against their use in, say, a sober, grim movie about the end of the world. If you're De Palma making fucking Snake Eyes, go to town. But don't use the same technique (he didn't, did he?) for Casualties of War.




Gort: I never thought I'd see you ape Jacques Rivette's famous essay about the abjection of Pontecorvo's Kapo.

MD'A: I'm not arguing that it's immoral. I just don't think a grim dystopian nightmare that means to say something about the state of the world right now is well served by looka-me cinematography. It's distracting, not evil.

Jim Carroll: The tone may be different, but the cinematic grammar of Casualties of War is really not too different from, say, The Untouchables, just one year earlier.

Still, [someone else, unquoted here] is right. I'm not saying that any film about a Serious Subject needs to be super-austere. I cited Snake Eyes because that film kicks off with the exact kind of shot I'm talking about: a long, insanely complex single take that functions primarily as a means of constantly reminding us that Whoa damn they still haven't cut yet have they? And in the context of a movie as trashy as Snake Eyes, that kind of stunt doesn't bother me. But I'd be surprised if De Palma does anything that blatantly stunt-y in Casualties of War. The stuff you're describing doesn't seem to qualify, though without actually seeing the shots I can't be certain.




Antwone: So (gulp) are you cool with short impossible shots in nightmarish end-of-the-world stories?

MD'A: Basically, the more you want me to believe that your movie is happening in the real world, the less you want to create shots that make me wonder how they could possibly have been accomplished. It's not really anything to do with dystopia; I'd be equally annoyed by this kind of shot if it turned up in the middle of, say, L'Enfant—a film that does have a fair number of lengthy shots, but none in which the camera does anything that seems remotely close to impossible.

And truthfully, the shots in CoM would likely have annoyed me less had people not been foaming at the mouth about them before I even saw the movie. (This is exactly why I spend a ton of dough to go to Cannes and see many of the year's most important films before there's any buzz whatsoever.) For Lubezki to win the indieWire cinematography category in that kind of landslide—I just feel like people are being overly impressed by what is essentially hotdogging, and overlooking less flashy but more rigorous work (like Alain Marcoen's in L'Enfant) in the process.

[...] if long complicated shots distract you, then this movie is full of problems. Replace "distract" with "astonish" and it's a different story.

That's the bottom line. This is not the kind of movie in which I want to be astonished by a shot.




That's basically the end of it. As a bonus, however, here's an unrelated post I made later that month, recently cited by Robert Kennedy (this name, believe it or not, has not been changed) as one of the three funniest Movie Nerd Discussion Group posts of 2007.

George Jefferson: What I find mystifying is how the entire critical community seemed to have missed the boat (ferry?) on Déjà Vu, treating it just like a routine Denzel/Scott thriller when, for my money, it's the best studio film of the year.

MD'A: [Puts on coat, heads for theater.]

After Domino, I had an inkling that Tony Scott might find his way into being some kind of artist.

[Turns around, goes home.]

14 comments:

htfernandes said...

You got my feedback: please keep it going!

In this particular subject, I almost totaly agree with MdA, although sometimes we might be aware that we're watching a long (and difficult) shot and also consider that's the best narrative choice.

Matter of fact: Ridley's bro is no artist, but Deja-Vu's scene at last Skandies is way better than both CoM scenes.

Eugene said...

An argument that I think is missing here -- and it's one that's related to but distinct from the "tension" point on which you "agreed to disagree" with "John Leguizamo" -- is the extent to which long tracking shots can better convey a convincing sense of geography. An easy way to gum up an action scene (e.g.) is not to present a lucid view of what's going on where, where the characters are in relation to one another, and where a particular character is in relation to where he was a moment ago. The more integrity that the physical location in which the action is taking place has for me, the viewer, as an actual physical location, the more I buy into the scene, the more suspense I feel, and the closer my ass creeps to the edge of my seat.

Now, it's true that skillful direction and editing can accomplish this without long takes. But I think that these "stupid tracking shots" are one very good way of giving us that sense of geography, especially in a complicated scene. But it doesn't even have to be scene-specific -- one reason I think that the Cuaron installment of Harry Potter is so awesome is that it's the only one of the series that lets us perceive Hogwarts as an actual place that you could diagram on a map if you wanted to. And I think Cuaron's penchant for long tracking shots is one reason this is so.

md'a said...

That's a fair point, Eugene, and I suppose one could make that case for the second of CoM's vaunted shots, which is the one to which "Leguizamo" mostly referred. But I was much more irritated by the trick shot in the moving vehicle earlier, which required the creation of a special rig and clearly has nothing to do with maintaining geographical integrity. Nor do I think the big Atonement shot serves any real purpose other than directorial showboating—which one can't say about many of the longer takes Wright employs in Pride and Prejudice, in which we're generally moving from room to room in ways that heighten alliances and divisions between/among characters.

Mike Casey said...

The CoM long shots engaged me because of their surreality, not their "realism". We're so used to cutting that one long shot can feel like slow-motion. Cuaron's shots produced a feeling in me similar to the "everything slowing down during a car crash" cliche. I expected a cut, not because "wow this looks hard to shoot" but because I expected a shift in focus. Whether that came in a ECU or a master shot or a reveal of important information or a hiding of what we need to know or a change in environment didn't matter, I just expected some hint that the characters could mentally reorient themselves. There was no rhythm, rhyme or reason; Theo's emotional state had flatlined.

Josh said...

There's a great long take in Alex Cox's Highway Patrolman that makes it clear to me that audience expectation has a lot to do with why these shots are effective. The HP shot works because by keeping the camera on the cop running to help his wounded partner, and not cutting to the violent action, Cox gives us a sense of the terror the cop is experiencing. But beyond that, the shot draws attention to its own artifice. It simultaneously draws us into the character's experience, and makes us aware of exactly how we are being manipulated. I want to shout "Cut!" at the screen. The point with this type of thing is hardly ever simple verisimilitude.

I think it's possible to treat serious, somber subject matter on film while still using the medium in a dynamic or even "show-offy" way. Do the shots in CoM detract from the film's thematic impact. Not for me. I think the way in which the violence in the film is depicted highlights Cuaron's seriousness of purpose.

I don't have a problem with the shots in CoM, or the one in Atonement, but I think your problem with them stems in part from the idea that these shots flatter the film-savvy audience. General audiences might not even be particularly aware of the length of these takes, or the logistical difficulties involved, but film snobs can pat themselves on the back for recognizing these aspects while they applaud Cuaron's daring.

Again, I think these moments in CoM work pretty well, gimmicky or not, but I guess I can emphasize with your distaste for them.

Josh said...

There's a great long take in Alex Cox's Highway Patrolman that makes it clear to me that audience expectation has a lot to do with why these shots are effective. The HP shot works because by keeping the camera on the cop running to help his wounded partner, and not cutting to the violent action, Cox gives us a sense of the terror the cop is experiencing. But beyond that, the shot draws attention to its own artifice. It simultaneously draws us into the character's experience, and makes us aware of exactly how we are being manipulated. I want to shout "Cut!" at the screen. The point with this type of thing is hardly ever simple verisimilitude.

I think it's possible to treat serious, somber subject matter on film while still using the medium in a dynamic or even "show-offy" way. Do the shots in CoM detract from the film's thematic impact. Not for me. I think the way in which the violence in the film is depicted highlights Cuaron's seriousness of purpose.

I don't have a problem with the shots in CoM, or the one in Atonement, but I think your problem with them stems in part from the idea that these shots flatter the film-savvy audience. General audiences might not even be particularly aware of the length of these takes, or the logistical difficulties involved, but film snobs can pat themselves on the back for recognizing these aspects while they applaud Cuaron's daring.

Again, I think these moments in CoM work pretty well, gimmicky or not, but I guess I can emphasize with your distaste for them.

Josh said...

There's a great long take in Alex Cox's Highway Patrolman that makes it clear to me that audience expectation has a lot to do with why these shots are effective. The HP shot works because by keeping the camera on the cop running to help his wounded partner, and not cutting to the violent action, Cox gives us a sense of the terror the cop is experiencing. But beyond that, the shot draws attention to its own artifice. It simultaneously draws us into the character's experience, and makes us aware of exactly how we are being manipulated. I want to shout "Cut!" at the screen. The point with this type of thing is hardly ever simple verisimilitude.

I think it's possible to treat serious, somber subject matter on film while still using the medium in a dynamic or even "show-offy" way. Do the shots in CoM detract from the film's thematic impact. Not for me. I think the way in which the violence in the film is depicted highlights Cuaron's seriousness of purpose.

I don't have a problem with the shots in CoM, or the one in Atonement, but I think your problem with them stems in part from the idea that these shots flatter the film-savvy audience. General audiences might not even be particularly aware of the length of these takes, or the logistical difficulties involved, but film snobs can pat themselves on the back for recognizing these aspects while they applaud Cuaron's daring.

Again, I think these moments in CoM work pretty well, gimmicky or not, but I guess I can emphasize with your distaste for them.

futurefree said...

I wonder how differently these shots would be perceived if almost everyone commenting hadn't read beforehand about how impressive they were. Personally, I've noticed that if I get sufficiently sucked into the drama of what's going during a scene, I tend to stop noticing the editing scheme so much, at least on first viewing (with CoM I had heard about the shots beforehand; I'm just saying this is true for me generally). I.e., uh, what josh said: "General audiences might not even be particularly aware of the length of these takes, or the logistical difficulties involved." Anyway, I can think of a couple points in defense of the one-take car ambush sequence in particular:

- I suspect that a big part of the reason people respond so strongly to this scene is that it involves the early and unexpected death of an ostensibly major character, and I think death is particularly shocking partly *because* it occurs in the middle of a single long take. A long unbroken take (if you just happen upon it while watching the film and it hasn't been built up as the most technically amazing thing ever in every review you've read) can be an effective way for an abrupt mood change to catch the audience with their guard down. When the camera's riding along with the car with some characters joking around and trying to relax, you don't expect a flaming car to suddenly come into view out the window, let alone for one of the characters to die shortly afterward choking on their own blood. Yes, it would've been a shock however it was filmed, but the unbroken take makes it a particularly uncommon kind of shock (at least for now, until it starts a trend and everyone's doing it).

- The long take during a suspenseful/gut-wrenching scene like this can imbue it with a sort of unflinching/merciless quality, a feeling that your POV is trapped there along with the protagonists; it's one way - partially effective here because it's such an uncommon way (or, again, at least it has been until now) - of making an audience feel really *immersed* in the terrible situation they're watching, even if they don't consciously realize there's no cutting going on. Mike Casey's "everything slowing down during a car crash" comment is spot-on; the "trapped" one-camera POV can enhance that helpless when-is-this-going-to-end? feeling. Cf. the almost unwatchably harrowing murder scene in IRREVERSIBLE, also a long shot that would be "impossible" without post-production trickery, also deadly serious-minded. And yet I haven't heard anyone complain that the obvious technical difficulty of the shot is distracting or damaging to the film.

(Just for a record, I have only a mild liking for CoM overall, but generally my issues are with the writing, not the cinematography.)

futurefree said...

p.s. I shouldn't have been coy; by "anyone" in my last sentence, I did of course mean Mike in particular, since the shot in IRREVERSIBLE seemed to me to encapsulate everything he was arguing against in talking about CoM and ATONEMENT. Thinking about it a little more, though, I realize my reasoning was poor, and I can anticipate his response: IRREVERSIBLE is a different case because it's an obvious formal experiment from the get-go; the impossible one-take face-smash is just one more facet of that experiment - it's not like it's happening in a cinema-verite atmosphere.

So...never mind. I answered my own question.

Still don't have a problem with the CoM shots, though.

Gilidor said...

Awesome, read every word... But I disagree, at least about CHILDREN OF MEN -- I do think that the tracking shot in ATONEMENT could be cut from the film altogether and it would be *better*. The difference is that in CoM, there's suspense and danger and so much going on and you're stuck in the moment... But in At', it's just a boring guided tour through period recreation.

Julius_Goat said...

This is an awesome thread. I think it comes down to what is distracting for the individual viewer, and what is not.

For Mike, obviously the long shots were a distraction and an artiface, and thus they didn't work.

For me they heightened the tension almost unbearably, in part for reasons brought up by eugene and others, and in part for reasons I can't express, and I don't really care to dissect it. At no time was I thinking, 'wow, what a shot!' I was thinking, 'please don't kill the baby please don't kill the baby pleasedon'tkillthebaby.'

So, obviously, for me they worked.

I have no idea if having cuts would have resulted in just as effective a scene, because those weren't the choices made. I daresay the scenes could have been just as harrowing with cuts. An effective edit requires skill just as a long dolly shot does, and film is artifice no matter what.

I love this film, and I love those scenes. The reason I love them has very little to do with their technical complexity.

Greg said...

Ah. Well, Antwone here - sup. Kind of odd to come across this here, but okay. Though I am hoping it is reproduced in more of a "look at this interesting discussion I had" spirit than "look how right I was and not enough people knew about it."

Guess I better go check out ATONEMENT now...

Anonymous said...

I went into CoM knowing nothing about the long takes, and have to admit I didn't actually *notice* how long and unbroken the scene in the car was until it was nearly over, at which point I went, "Whoa... wait a minute..." and was sucked completely out of the film with the realization. I made a mental note to check it out on DVD someday and only then got back into the film.

As somebody who doesn't necessarily look at every film with a film critic's (or filmmaker's) eye, I guess that lends support to both sides of the argument. The scene didn't immediately call attention to itself, perhaps because what was happening was compelling enough to hold my attention. That sort of supports the idea that the technique, judiciously utilized (and paired with the right content) can help (or at least not hurt) the movie.

On the other hand, despite all the compelling content, I did eventually lose the story when I realized that there hadn't been a jump cut in a long while. The tension was there... and then it was instantly gone.

During the battle scene I noticed the long take was happening pretty quickly, probably because I had been primed by the earlier scene in the car. As a result I was definitely less involved in the story than I would otherwise have been.

On a completely unrelated note...

"Cole is so spectacularly wealthy, and so ridiculously lazy, that he’s watching the TV set in his hospital room while lying completely prone, using a special pair of eyeglasses that reflects the image downward at a 90-degree angle."

I haven't seen The Bucket List, but if I'm understanding what's being described here, there's a conflict. "Prone" means "face down." I'm guessing he's lying on his back, based on the description of what's happening with the glasses.

Anonymous copyeditor

mr. pink said...

I agree with Anonymous: I was too engrossed in CoM's car scene the first time to notice the long-take whizbangery—in fact, I didn't believe the guy who told me after the screening, because I could imagine the cuts in my head. (It helps that many of the takes are long, um, long before the big setpieces: Cuaron got me used to the lengthy shots in the early dialogue scenes.) I noticed the long take during the battle scene because it extends the chance of something awful happening to what seems like an eternity: every time Owen ducks around another corner or dashes up a staircase, we've been led to expect the worst.

I love CoM's long takes because I didn't sit there during the movie thinking, "Wow, these long takes are awesome!" (Had I heard about them before the movie, I might well have been distracted by them and liked them a lot less; I was thrilled by their virtuosity in retrospect.) Whereas in Atonement's long, unimpressive Dunkirk take, that's all there is to think about: the choreography is too transparent, like watching stage scenery wheel on and offstage on cue.