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Posts Tagged ‘Alfonso Cuarón

The Insignificant Detail #9

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After my second pass through the sequence I describe herein, I was initially prepared to hail it as containing the single greatest match cut in film history. Then I watched it a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth, cycling through it in half-second increments, and was reminded that we live in a digital age of wonders, and what our eyes see and our brains process ain’t always necessarily so.

Still, the prestidigitation — or prestidigitization, if you will — performed by director Alfonso Cuarón, the camera crew helmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the digital-effects team on the 2006 film Children of Men makes for an interesting study in How did they do that? followed closely by Why did they do that? and, more to the point, Why did they choose to do it that way?

Children of Men notably contains a half-dozen or more long, uninterrupted takes of varying duration — tracking shots or one-shots or “oners,” whichever term you prefer. Throughout the Internet, one can find plenty of debate about tracking shots in general and Cuarón’s tracking shots here in particular. To wit: Are they necessary? Do they aid in the storytelling? Are they just so much showing-off by the filmmaker?

I would argue that the tracking shots Cuarón employs here are more than mere indulgences and are highly effective in drawing the audience in to its hero’s point of view from one harrowing ordeal to the next.

The shot most often singled out for debate concludes Act 1 and involves an ambush on a vehicle containing five principal characters and a rotating camera that is shooting 360 degrees of action from inside the vehicle. But the shot that captured my attention is the sequence late in the movie that follows Theo (Clive Owen) through bombed-out city streets as he and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) attempt their escape, aided by the old woman Marichka (Oana Pellea) and the Georgian rebel Sirdjan (Faruk Pruti).

If you’re geek enough to follow along on your own DVD copy of the film, join me in Chapter 17. The long tracking shot in question begins at 1:23:46, framing an archway through which our characters are about to run out into the street. During the first three minutes of the take, circumstances separate Theo from the group, but he keeps moving ahead until, at 1:26:48 he is fired upon in the street and must take cover in a bombed-out city bus that’s been taken over by squatters.

  • 1:26:52 A shot is fired into the bus and hits one of the occupants, splattering at least seven prominently visible blood spots on the lens in the main field of vision. But the action keeps moving and so does the camera.
  • 1:27:12 As Theo exits from the rear of the bus, the seven spots are clearly visible in the frame.
  • 1:27:21 Theo runs across the street and dives for cover in front of the bombed-out building he’s trying to get inside. Six spots are still visible here; the seventh, at lower right, becomes visible when the camera pans away from Theo’s coat.
  • 1:27:43 An explosion rocks the front the building on the second or third floor, and Theo makes his move for the entrance.
  • 1:27:52 As he enters the building, the screen goes mostly black for about a second. Somewhere in those 24 frames, it’s entirely possible that a cut could be made, but the flow of the action, camera movement and sound design seem uninterrupted.
  • 1:27:58 There is more dark than light in the frame for the next several seconds, but upon close inspection, only three spots are now distinctly visible in the middle of the lens as a wounded man on the floor reaches out to Theo.
  • 1:28:00 Two of the spots pass over a brightly backlit doorway in the background of the shot and seem to dissipate there, while the remaining spot is still visible against the black of Theo’s coat. The camera moves in on Theo crouched at the base of the stairwell.
  • 1:28:03 From Theo, the camera pans up, and midway through the pan, we can still see that remaining spot until it too passes against a white background, at which point it is gone.
  • 1:28:07 The camera pans back down to pick up Theo and continues to follow him up two flights of stairs and down corridors until he is reunited with Kee and a cut completely reverses the camera angle at 1:30:04.

One uninterrupted take lasting 6 minutes, 18 seconds.

Blood — whether of the real or squib-packet variety — doesn’t simply evaporate, and at no point could the camera operator have wiped the blood off his lens while in motion without blurring the image and ruining the take, so there are at least three possibilities for what we see here:

  1. The vertical pan from Theo’s shoulder up the stairwell at 1:28:03 is The Greatest Match Cut in Film History.
  2. The squib explodes, blood spatters the lens, and in post-production the digital-effects team composites the blood spots out of the picture one at a time until the image is normalized, to lessen the visual impact of Now you see the blood; now you don’t.
  3. There was never a squib at all, and the initial blood spatter itself was digitally inserted for both dramatic and documentary-style effect, then gradually removed from the frame as the scene progressed.

As camera operator George Richmond describes in this video, the answer is No. 2. An exploding squib indeed spattered the lens, and although a camera assistant pointed it out in the heat of the moment, Richmond soldiered on so not to break up a take in the middle, just as it was nearing the height of its painstakingly choreographed action.1

I had quickly ruled out my initial reaction — option No. 1 — for two reasons: the improbability of matching the mark with a handheld camera and the presence of the last remaining blood spot during the pan up the stairwell.

Furthermore, if you think of the sequence as divided into two halves — the first driven principally by action, the latter driven by drama — the digital fix of option No. 2 allows the shot to seamlessly continue into its dramatic half without the distraction of the blood-spattered lens that seemed perfectly organic during the chaos only moments before.

And ruling out option No. 3 is, frankly, a relief, because it would be a totally unnecessary thing for a filmmaker to do when there’s so much more important stuff happening, both in the frame and on the set. I mean, that would require, like, Michael Bay–grade levels of douchebaggery, all for the sake of one Insignificant Detail.
1 In the moment, I recalled an interview I watched recently. Actor-director Jon Favreau asked Martin Scorsese about a scene in Casino in which Ginger (Sharon Stone) has a meltdown in the bedroom she shares with Ace (Robert De Niro). At some point in their confrontation, the stationary camera gets bumped ever so slightly but noticeably. Favreau thought it was brave of the filmmaker to leave that “imperfect” shot in the finished film in service of the actors’ best take, and Scorsese conceded that a director can’t ask his actors to duplicate such an emotionally raw performance like so much lightning in a bottle just because his camera got bumped. (Well, Kubrick would have. But that man was a sick, perfectionist monster.) And that was just a bedroom scene between two people. Now imagine calling “Cut!” going back to square one, and running take 2 of a battle sequence enacted by a cast of hundreds over several city blocks.


Written by Shepcat

October 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm