Today I want to talk about magic moments, within a scene, a shot or even a single dialogue line in films. What makes them so memorable for us, why do they touch us so deeply? And then, how is it done? Can we identify what makes these sequences so unique and then replicate it into our own projects?
Sometimes movies have such a special moment that it sticks with you. It stays into your heart and your mind, perhaps because it helps you to understand yourself or something in your life a little better, or it validates something you already knew, like if it was the proof you needed to make sure you were right. Other times, these magical moments are just that, and even when you find no connection to yourself you are deeply moved, and you feel it fits the movie and the scene just perfectly.
Let’s take for example one of the greatest classics: The Godfather and the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo at the restaurant (https://youtu.be/ppjyB2MpxBU?t=87). After Michael retrieves the gun from the toilet, he walks back to the table, takes sit and gets ready to shot. We have then a long shot where we see Michael convincing himself to do it. How do we know he is getting ready? Why do we feel his inner struggle? And even more, how can be so sure that this is the most important thing going on into the scene, even more than the dialogues?
Well, of course, it’s not a single thing, it’s the conjunction of several elements. The acting, the sound fading away, the timing and so on, but the most potent element Coppola uses is the camera. Follow me: the shot starts with a medium shot of Michael, we have Sollozzo’s shoulder as a space reference. But the camera is not fixed, it's slowly pushing it into a close up of Michael. And while we look at the character, we move closer to him. We instinctively focus on his held facial expressions, and as we get even closer, we feel what he is going through. Well, most of it is being constructed with this not-so-subtle camera movement.
Movies use this resource all the time. Sometimes it is called dolly, dolly in, traveling forward, close-in, etc. No matter the name, it can usually help us to maximize the emotions of a character, to let us know that the character's inner dilemma is the focal point of the shot. Sometimes it just let us know there is something else going on. Remember the last shot of Christopher Nolan’s Inception? At the end of a more complex camera movement, the camera travels toward the spinning top for a few seconds until the end of the movie.
Now, to achieve this result, sometimes it only takes a slight zoom in to get it done. But if you are not very careful, it could look artificial and imposed. Most times, you’ll have to actually move the camera towards the objective. Nowadays, that's not bad news. You have a lot of options to make it work, and just a decent slider might have the trick done. Depending on what camera you are shooting with, you can count on an affordable Rhino ROV Mobile, for other situations, you can also rely on steady cams, I've used the iFootage Wildcat-III stabilizer, and you will save some money but you’d probably need to stabilize the shot in post-production unless you think some extra movement can be good for your scene.
Of course, the dolly-in is just one of many resources available to invigorate your shot with extra meaning, and when you’ve been around for a while you’ll notice most of the best directors have a highly developed sense of how to move the camera around. With this I mean, where should the camera go, and why?
Let’s go with a more intricate example: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is considered to be one of the best films ever, and there are many reasons why it is so. One of those is the thorough camera control at every time. Let's take for example when, towards the end of the movie, John forces Judy to dress as Madeleine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tesqTwX7cpc). The first part of the scene is almost a sequence shot, it starts with a wide shot of the room that turns, through a traveling backward, into a medium shot of John and Judy and then, it supports the action by traveling forward and becoming a close-up. Then, there is some panning right and then back to the left as the camera keeps following John while he moves through the room. The shot ends when Hitchcock make us turn to watch at the door where Judy is dressing up. The camera movement, in this case, provides the scene with a sense of continuity, it raises the tension as we stay with John and it helps the director telling the spectators exactly where to look at any given time.
The sequence was obviously thought in detail, it was surely practiced many times, not only by the actors but also with the camera crew. When you are shooting difficult shots, it’s crucial the camera crew practice with the actors, and if you are alert and your team knows what they are doing, you might even find great variants during these practices.
Think of this: the hardest work was made before even turning the camera on. When you think your shot and you know what you need out of it, it will be much easier for your team to follow. Even if you are shooting by yourself, it will allow you to focus on the technical aspect. And even though this shot from Vertigo is very complex, it can be replicated with a tripod and a slider, just like the iFootage Shark Slider Mini we talked about last week. So, when you are watching a movie, try to pay attention to these subtle camera movements. Think what good does the movement do to the scene, why the director or cinematographer would choose that particular movement over others. Would you have done it differently? Why?
In the end, we are talking about filming magic moments. And, if you agree with me that magic is what we call what we can't fully understand, we might also agree in that it will take much more than moving your camera around to achieve such a peak in your films, but rest assured, it’s a step in the right direction.
Author: Cristian Berruezo