Cinematographers use plenty of camera techniques to create the director’s vision for the film. From zooms to pans, these techniques help tell a story and can help the audience understand what’s happening on screen. There are some advanced techniques, like the dolly zoom (also known as the Vertigo (1958) effect), that use the characteristics of a camera to create a sensation that’s impossible to convey in just a single photograph. While we rarely experience life as a series of scenes cut together to form a cohesive narrative, most movies are filmed this way. In fact, many films use too many cuts, which can disorient the viewer. The more natural approach to filmmaking would then be a series of long takes, making the camera its own character that can move around the space of the movie and focus on what it needs to convey the plot. This week’s two films use long takes to their creative advantage.
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours
One of the benefits of the long take is how much information can be cohesively tied together. Alfred Hitchcock used a long take at the start of Rear Window (1954) to introduce the scene, the characters, and the main reason why the setting will be constrained to the eponymous “rear window.” While this long take works its way around the set, without following anyone in particular, Martin Scorsese uses the long take in Goodfellas (1990) to follow Ray Liotta’s character through a nightclub. Long takes have been increasing in popularity as they have been easier to film. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) uses a long take in an extended action sequence to help convey the peril of the main characters as they try to find safety. It is then no wonder that his next film, Gravity (2013) would use the long take to great effect as well, earning him the Best Director Oscar (it won Best Cinematographer, too).
In Gravity, the camera mostly follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to return to Earth after a high-speed cloud of debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer. The only other crewmember to survive is Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who uses his experience as an astronaut to calmly work through the problem. Through the use of his Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), he helps both of them reach the International Space Station (ISS), where they find all the attached spacecraft have already evacuated to Earth. With no other options, and the debris making its 90-minute destructive rounds, Dr. Stone must resort to drastic measures to reach the somewhat nearby Chinese space station, where she can use a lone Russian Soyuz capsule to return home. This is, of course, assuming everything still works and that she can pilot the foreign spacecraft.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours
While long takes are an essential part of a good cinematographer’s toolbox, it can be difficult to shoot the entire film’s plot in a single take. Difficult, but not impossible. Even though movies like the Hungarian version of Macbeth (1982) weren’t entirely one shot, it’s the first instance until Timecode (2000) to successfully perform the technique. Before this accomplishment, films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) used some clever editing and trickery to make it seem like the movie was filmed in one, continuous shot. With the advent of digital techniques and capabilities (film reels were a limiting factor), this becomes even easier to achieve. Except for a few cuts at the beginning and ending, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) manages to tell a “one-shot” story that takes place over a few days, thus earning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer Oscars in the process.
We open on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hovering in his underwear in his dressing room, mentally preparing to go on stage to perform the play he has chosen to write and direct as a statement to distance himself from his previous role as the superhero “Birdman.” With opening night a few days away, he’s assaulted with cast changes, foreign reporters, and an ungrateful daughter (Emma Stone). The camera follows the drama as it weaves around the theatre and behind the scenes, capturing the hectic nature involved in any thespian endeavor. While Riggan wants to succeed and become the successful actor and director he wants to be, he is haunted by his past and threatened by the future that is closely guarded by New York theatre critics. In a drastic moment on opening night, Riggan is able to obtain notoriety that is both ironic and fitting.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 continual camera work