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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 September 2007 - 05:30 PM

I was just thinking today, while on a long car trip, about the issues that have come up over the years when blocking actors to the camera, and the whole tension that sometimes arises between the needs of creating a shot that works and looks good and what is natural for the actors.

A couple of examples come to mind from the "Big Love" shoot.

We had a scene where Bill Paxton is in front of a crowd of store employees (he owns a large hardware store) introducing a parade float and dance presentation when he sees at the far end of the crowd his brother Joey from the polygamist compound. Joey beckons him over for a talk. The director and I always talked about staging the scene with Bill coming thru the crowd to talk to Joey and ending up with the dancing students on the parade float (in soft focus) in the b.g. of his close-up. Now when it came to shoot the scene, Bill's natural instinct was to position himself to stand and watch the dancing while also talking to Joey, in a side-by-side 2-shot. Trouble with that is that the entire event is then off-camera in the coverage and you'd have to use a POV cutaways to continue showing the dancing.

So we discussed the set-up, convincing Bill that not only was the parade float, crowd, and dancers a more interesting background behind his head (but not too distracting) but also that it worked symbolically -- behind him was one of his worlds, the hardware store, and in front of him was his brother from his other world, the polygamist compound. So there was a visual statement being made here about Bill's conflicted situation. But of course, Bill was right -- it was more natural and logical to stand and watch the event while talking rather than turn one's back to it. But as Bill oftens says, pointing at the camera, "we all serve one master."

Another instance where I changed a set-up to accomodate an actor was in a scene where Bill's wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) crosses into her kitchen from the backyard at night (where there is a party going on) over to the frigerator on the other side of the room, where she is confronted by her brother Alby. She then crosses back to exit into the backyard, leaving Alby. Now for time and simplicity's sake, I wanted to break-up the angles into two opposite directions, towards the backyard and the other towards the refrigerator. But Chloe felt that it was natural for her to play her lines to Alby on the cross from the refridgerator back to the backyard, requiring a 180 degree pan. Which wasn't so bad except that the area near the fridge for the camera was tiny and we needed to dolly in towards her near the backdoor where she pauses when confronted one last time by Alby. So this required that I not only relight the room for a 180 degree pan, but set-up a dolly move where the camera had to shoot looking over the back end of the dolly, with the dolly grip hunched down below frame, in order to get the lens in the corner of the room near the fridge. Plus there was no space for lights so I had to have the gaffer handhold her key light near the fridge (a 2' 2-bank Kino) and then fly it out of the way when the camera panned 180 degrees and then dollied backwards (looking over the back) towards her at the door.

It all worked fine and was a lot more natural for the actress and her movement and energy in the scene to pan 180 degrees with her back and forth. The irony is that in the final edit, she starts to leave the fridge talking, then it cuts to a reverse angle on Alby listening, and when it cuts back to her, she's just stepping over to the door, so most of the 180 degree pan (and half the dialogue) was off-camera (although the editor did use the 180 degree pan of her crossing at the head of the scene from the door to the fridge.) Now of course, the editing makes sense because the information she is delivering is familar to the viewers but a bombshell dropping for Alby, hence why the edit lingers on his reaction.

But for any cinematographer doing dialogue-heavy movies, it's always a challenge to make these scenes visually meaningful while serving the needs of the actors and their performance. Now sometimes, the best policy is to simply point the camera at whoever is talking without a lot of flourish or fancy lighting, composition, and movement, so the viewer concentrates on what the actor is saying and their expressions. Other times, it's nice to find a way of shooting dialogue that doesn't involve such a direct approach, but is more lyrical and visual, or symbolic, etc. Or simply "throw away" the scene rather than punch it up emotionally, to not go in tight for the emotions, etc. but play it more objectively visually at a slight remove.
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#2 Tim O'Connor

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Posted 26 September 2007 - 10:01 PM

I think about this all the time as I want to respect the concerns of the actors while doing what's best for the
story, ideally having those two items melding.

First off, I'd like to mention some examples of how certain types of cinematic storytelling have become
common and yet often they seem to work although if we questioned them I think they might seem illogical.


For example, how many times have we seen a character explain how he got into a predicament and his
explanation is played out as if he's talking continually yet the shots change locations every couple of
sentences.

Say,

1. Joe: How could you break up with Ellen? (They're in the kitchen.)
Bob: I had to. It was over long ago.

2. Joe (apparently continuing) She just never forgave me. (Now they're shooting hoops.)

3. Joe (") It's like she couldn't forgive me no matter what I did. (Now they're drinking beers.)


We've seen the above technique used zillions of times and for the most part it spreads a lot of expostion
across some interesting sights but it doesn't make sense because there's usually no implication that we're
seeing the same subject repeatedly discussed over time. Instead, it usually feels from the writing that
the director said "Well, we'll have to break this up."


On almost every episode of "Law and Order" there's a scene in which Jack McCoy has a long discussion
with somebody and rather than have him stand on the sidewalk and make a speech, he walks and burns off
a bunch of lines, stops and then there's a bit of coverage as the person with him challenges some part of
the previous expostion and then he walks on with the remaining dialogue and gets to exit dramatically
through the natural cutting point/wipe of an elevator or courtroom door.

Last night I saw on cable the end of the "Sex in the City" episode in which Carrie first meets Mr. Big. They're
in his limo and he offers to drive her home. She says her address and Mr. Big says "Got that?" to the driver.
That makes sense because that information would go to Mr. Big first and then to the driver but that's the
fastest way to get it done without wasting screen time repeating what the audience already knows.

When the car arrives at Carrie's address, they say goodnight and she gets out but we see a question on her
face. She turns, runs back to the car and knocks on the window. It rolls down and she asks Mr. Big something
like has he ever been in love. There is a dramatic pause and then he says yes and there is a moment and the
car drives away. Now it's certainly dramatic but it's heightened reality because I'm sure that in real life the
limo driver, at least five feet away, would not decide for himself that the conversation is over and he should
drive away without a word from his boss. Yet, it has a dramatic effect and I can just picture the director
saying okay, on Mr. Big's last line, the limo goes and Carrie is left alone and puzzled on the sidewalk. So
either an a.d. cued the driver or he could hear and took his own cue.

Now if the director had directed Mr. Big to nod at the rear view mirror or something, that minimal action would
have justified the otherwise unilateral decison by the driver to make a dramatic exit and the scene still would
have worked as desired but without being open to this question that it's a bit of a set-up. (Of course most
gents probably would have waited anyway until the woman were safely inside her building but that's another
story.)

I have an acting studio and I am constantly talking with newer actors about how film scenes tend to be
much more compressed than scenes from plays and that what could be a monolgue on stage is often
a single word or a look that implies the contents of that monologue. That's why film actors, whom
we can see much more closely than actors on stage, have to be so good at letting us see what they're
thinking.

Certainly, there is much less need for actors to cheat toward the audience the way that is required on stage,
If an actor on a film set says "Hey, I'm a lefty" usually we can say no problem we'll move the camera, or
the wall. Nonetheless, there are times when it's essential to get certain information in the shot and much less
desirable to cut away to that information. The parade example in the "Big Love" scene shows that. Sure,
maybe the guy would be turned a bit away but it's the essence of the moment that may determine the best
composition more than the greatest degree of realism.

Most films scenes are much more naturalistic than realistic anyway. For example, how many movies have
you seen in which a guy meets somebody that we are supposed to know is a stranger to him, flirts with her,
asks her for a date, and then says "Okay, I'll meet/pick you up at seven." and then he or she leaves the
scene? Thus, we see no way that he could know her phone number or address or have made sure that they
both meant the same "Joe's Pub" in Manhattan. Next scene, they're on the date. This is practically a
convention for saving screen time but how well it works depends on well the scene is done.

The scene can still backfire because if a phone number is given and it's a "555" exchange. doesn't that just
snap you out of the movie as much as when you might have sen that the director was Alan J. Smithee?

There is a great scene in an "X-Files" in which Mulder and Scully are on a prison basketball court talking to an
inmate (played by Tom Noonan.) The agents are seeking this guy's help in finding a missing girl. The innmate
is having fun much like Hannibal Lecter does with Clarice Starling. If he just spills everything, he'll have no
company and no entertainment.

The agents appeal to the innmate and he says okay, if Mulder can make a shot (it's going to be a long bomb
from three point land) the innmate will give the information. The shot is wide but close enough that it's clearly
David Duchovny. He shoots and the ball arcs high and swish, it goes through the net. The agents look for their
information and the innmate shrugs no and when the agents look at him like he's broken his word he says
"Never trust a child molester."

That is a pretty dramatic scene but it would have been ruined if they had cut in to the close-up of the ball going
through the net, yet how many times have those types of cuts been used and they don't heighten the scenes,
they dilute them.

Now, fortunately for the "X-Files" production, David Duchovny is an avid ball player and could make
that shot probably without too many takes.

However, the big point here is that to me the scene must be blocked for the essence of the story. There are
times where you do not want to cut and want to let the actor go all the way through and if that's the case,
it must be figured out how to do it and get everything that you need.

In "Field of Dreams" there is a scene in which Ray Kinsella is pitching to Shoeless Joe and Shoeless Joe gives
this short but beautiful monologue on what it feels like to once again be on a baseball field smelling the grass
and holding a baseball bat. It takes place in one moving shot and the story I heard was that Ron Shelton,
the director, said to shoot no coverage because he wanted that whole piece in the movie and he was sure
that if he gave any editing options the studio would chop it down but if he did it in one shot they couldn't cut
the whole scene.

I sympathize with the "Big Love" 180 degree pan situation. You be a nice guy and sacrifice the ideal shot in
order to help the actor and then the correct needs of the storytelling negate most of that work anyway.

I think a lot about blocking and work to have it help the story as much as possible while also being natural.
I tell actors that if they want to talk to the director about their blocking, many directors will listen (some even
let the actors work it out quite a bit themselves.) However, I say, if you tell the director that you dislike the
blocking, be able to say why. Maybe you wouldn't go over there because the character is known to be afraid
of dogs. I'd probably say oh my gosh, thanks.

Of course, any safety concern is valid and should be expressed.

Once, after working extensively on a scene, the night came and as we rolled one of the actors walked in and
completely changed the blocking and walked out of the light, the shot....

I asked him why and he said "I don't know, I just felt like it," I gave him a chance, quickly, to see if he could
give me a good justification for changing the blocking but he didn't have a burning feeling about it. The "I"
in his reply was referring to him, not the character. I said no, let's do it the way we worked it. He was a liitle
miffed. I didn't say anything else because we had work to get done. Last week, he called me up to check in and
I had a small part which I could have given to him (he has a particular look) and I didn't because I'd rather
have an actor who isn't that cavalierly lazy.
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#3 Ram Shani

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Posted 27 September 2007 - 12:44 AM

i think that's the difference between what i called cinema Vs TV in term of blocking.

in TV you are more in talking head situation that's what most TV show about and that's why there is over used of CU

and cutting only from time to time you see different things like the sopranos ,x-file, 6 feet under

you shoot and light for the actors they have to look good so you see them

in cinema it's different story the blocking is one with the director vision of how he tell the story and what the story is about most of the time it create the subtext of the move

anyway realty has nothing to do with it only the move realty

that's why its art

its funny to think of an actor chased buy transformer 60ft high in the street moving in his car between traffic fast say something to the director about the "realty"
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#4 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 27 September 2007 - 02:15 AM

So we discussed the set-up, convincing Bill that not only was the parade float, crowd, and dancers a more interesting background behind his head (but not too distracting) but also that it worked symbolically -- behind him was one of his worlds, the hardware store, and in front of him was his brother from his other world, the polygamist compound. So there was a visual statement being made here about Bill's conflicted situation. But of course, Bill was right -- it was more natural and logical to stand and watch the event while talking rather than turn one's back to it. But as Bill oftens says, pointing at the camera, "we all serve one master."

Could you have moved the camera behind the actors, holding them in a medium-wide two shot, so that they could stand facing the crowd and you could still have the crowd in the background? Then possibly shoot two opposing OTS/CUs that raked them from behind, so that the visual statement is made in the wide shot and then the performance is covered in the tighter coverage. It seems like the control you lose to the actor in how they want to play the scene should be counteracted by your control of where to place the camera in relation to them.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 September 2007 - 02:24 AM

It's the sort of scene where you want to be on Bill's face and his reactions for most of it because of the news he receives during the scene, so the editor wouldn't use much of a 2-shot of their backs with the crowd in the background. That sort of staging would make more sense if they were commenting on the action before them, so you see what they are talking about as they talk. But in this case, it wouldn't have worked as well. What's great about the image of Bill's face with the crowd and dancers behind him is that it reinforces the reoccurring theme that Bill is trying to juggle too many things at once, so a frame packed with multiple layers of action suggests the sort of circus that is his life. It's sort of Fellini-esque.

Also reminds me of the famous shot in "Citizen Kane" with Kane reflected in the windows dancing as the two guys talk about him in the foreground -- so I suppose if I had a mirror behind them, I could have made it work with Bill facing the crowd rather than have his back to it.
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#6 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 27 September 2007 - 02:53 AM

... I suppose if I had a mirror behind them...

Well, I guess the only way that would work is if you created a gag where some extras carried a large reflective surface behind him. Window installers, perhaps?
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#7 Adamo P Cultraro

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Posted 28 September 2007 - 10:29 AM

Tim - your scenarios are the classic "movie vs reality" issues that are contained in most movies. Which is why even in a movie as unbelievable as 'children of men', the cinematography was sooooo believable. We were right there with the characters experiencing the whole thing with them. That one long tracking shot as they entered the building was phenomenal and very realistic, even if the content itself wasn't.

Shooting something that's obviously fantasy can be made to look realistic by clever cinematography. Shooting something that is reality, something mundane, like asking someone for a date, can be made to look very fake by canned cinematography.
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#8 Tim O'Connor

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Posted 28 September 2007 - 11:11 AM

Tim - your scenarios are the classic "movie vs reality" issues that are contained in most movies. Which is why even in a movie as unbelievable as 'children of men', the cinematography was sooooo believable. We were right there with the characters experiencing the whole thing with them. That one long tracking shot as they entered the building was phenomenal and very realistic, even if the content itself wasn't.

Shooting something that's obviously fantasy can be made to look realistic by clever cinematography. Shooting something that is reality, something mundane, like asking someone for a date, can be made to look very fake by canned cinematography.


I'd go along with that. I might consider looking at it as also that something that is obviously
fantasy can be made real in the mind of the viewer by clever cinematotgraphy, the distinction
to me being that what's real may still not be realistic, but that's probably a minor quibble.

Your example of the tracking shot is a good one I think of the important question, realistic or not,
does the movie work?
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#9 Douglas Sunlin

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Posted 28 September 2007 - 11:41 AM

Wow. What little I learned in acting school suggested that "natural" was usually not the best choice. I mean it's not "natural" to be followed around with a camera wherever you go and have everything you say written down by someone else before you even think about it. :)

Maybe I'm missing something, but it's the appearance of naturalness that matters, not if the actor (assistant storyteller) feels "natural".
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 September 2007 - 12:06 PM

Maybe I'm missing something, but it's the appearance of naturalness that matters, not if the actor (assistant storyteller) feels "natural".


You can't ignore an actor's physical instincts though; it's something you have to deal with. A scene that you planned on having the actor sit down for may feel more natural to him standing up, and you have to consider that, whether or not you end up accepting it.

And some actors don't mind contorting themselves in unnatural positions or staging for a certain special shot, but other actors have a hard time dealing with the mechanics of filmmaking so you need to accomodate them. Some can't even hit a mark to save their lives, or "find camera", once they are in character.

Others are overly concerned with mechanics and technique, to the point where you wish they would just act and be in character rather than wondering about the focal length and lens height and where their key light is, or asking me if that shadow they are throwing on the furniture is supposed to be there, etc. Or telling the director how the scene should be covered.
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