Pauline Rogers enters the fast lane of today’s “moving camera” super-highway

Over the years, ICG Magazine, and ICG Magazine.com has paid tribute to the history of the moving camera in different ways. We’ve talked to veteran cinematographers about the artists and moves they have admired; we’ve traced the evolution of the technology that has allowed for some of the most astounding moves imaginable; and, we’ve even paid homage to selected shots that have fascinated professionals and audiences alike down through cinema history.

But as a follow-up to this year’s “Kinetic Cinema” issue (June ’09), we devised a special July Web Exclusive predicated on what’s happening in the world of moving camera right now. From the most complex moves facilitated by sophisticated new digital and remote technology to the most inventive low-tech solutions (think a large shovel on an ice rink), we’ve tried to provide examples of the skill, physicality and, above all else, dedication served up by the world’s best camera operators and crews working today.

But First, A Little History, Please…

Last year’s July issue of ICG Magazine covered plenty of historical examples of moving the camera, beginning with the earliest “flip books,” the Kinetoscope, and the Lumiere brothers. When polled about groundbreaking camera movement in cinema’s infancy, most everyone points to Billy Bitzer’s slow track in and down on the massive Gates of Babylon for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, while Jules Kruger’s move for Abel Gance in Bonaparte was another early pick. Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, in which huge, silent film cameras were moved with even bigger cranes, popped up on every DP/operator’s radar, as did Orson Welles’ legendary opening title sequence for Touch of Evil. Shots from Raging Bull, The Color of Money and of course Goodfellas are the more recent antecedents noted, with the Doggicam move from Children of Men, made just three years ago, being the most popular citing in this decade.

One interesting point that came up in this informal “poll” is that the selection process for “iconic” moving shots has been slightly myopic. John Bailey, ASC, whose passion for cinematography may only be exceeded by his breadth of film history, offered a much-needed wakeup call to the debate. “We Americans are fairly staid when it comes to using a moving camera because our working method is built upon the concept of coverage,” Bailey notes. “Coverage precludes a complex camera style because it inherently limits cutting options.”

The cinematographer goes on to note that, “in Hollywood the studio is the author of the film (scan any DP or director’s contract for confirmation), and they always want options in the editing room to re-pace and re-structure the film according to their notes and the ineffable comments of market research focus groups. “This demands that we here in America shoot lots of coverage,” Bailey insists. “The filmmakers are expected to deliver enough material to the editor so that many hands can shape the cinematic pie. Many of us embedded in the American system don’t fully comprehend this until we are confronted with the stylistic density of international filmmakers, who operate under a much different system.”

There’s certainly no lack of proof to back up Bailey’s claims.

Examples he cites (thanks to the instant visual dictionary that is the Internet) include the following shots:

Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror: and Miklos Jancso’s Silence and Cry. ““One simple lateral piece of dolly track,” Bailey states. “This is what the French mean by mise-en-scene.” And yet another Jancso shot, this time from Red Psalm. “Try to find this kind of staging in a Hollywood film!” Bailey remarks.

The cinematographer’s point, that the roots of moving camera are as deep and wide as the oceans that separate filmmakers around the globe, is well taken. Everyone from feature to multi-camera cinematographers draws from the history of world cinema.

Given that filter and lens, let us explore what’s going on today…

On The Beach: The Steadicam Shot To End All Others

The theory was that there was only enough money in the budget for 1,300 extras for one or two days to shoot the Dunkirk sequence in Atonement. And from that limitation came the seeds of one of the most incredible and challenging moving camera shots in recent memory.

“Director Joe Wright wanted to put the audience physically and emotionally into hero Robbie Turner’s head as this dying soldier tried to get to his love, Cecilia Tallis,” explains cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, setting the stage for the now-famous Steadicam shot on the beach at Dunkirk. “The idea was to have the camera describe his nightmare with a restless moving around,” as operator Peter Robertson aptly described it, “sometimes bizarre (soldiers skinny dipping), sometimes macabre (cavalry horses being shot) and sometimes painfully moving (a choir singing on a bandstand).”

McGarvey, Robertson and the rest of the camera team’s task was to create a sequence with an uninterrupted flow of images that “drift in front of our eyes like a hallucination from a Bosch painting or, in the case of the dying horses, like the contorted images from Picasso’s Guernica,” Robertson says. “The camera needed to show the desperation and pain felt by the dying Robbie as he begins to realize that he many never see his love again, as well as (visualize) the plight of a huge mass of stranded soldiers who desperately seek to return to their lives and loves.”

Needless to say, the five-minute uninterrupted shot was a major challenge. The movie was being shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a Panaflex XL on a Steadicam with Primo lenses. “The camera department’s problem for this shot began with the magazine,” says 1st AC Carlos de Carvalho. “We couldn’t use the conventional lightweight 400-foot magazine, because the shot was too long. The 1,000-foot magazine was inconceivable for Peter to handle. So, we chose to go with the 500-foot magazine, which was originally designed for handheld work.”

“Framing and composition also posed problems,” Robertson continues. “The shot demanded a wider framing for the architecture of the set at certain times and a closer framing on faces that would loom into the lens at others. Again, we ignored convention and opted for the Panavision 17.5-34 mm short zoom, which by remoting its function, gave Seamus the option to zoom during the shot. This lens gave us the optical range to see the set in all its glory without distorting the faces too much at close quarters. Seamus and I choreographed these zooms at moments in the shot when the natural movement of the Steadicam disguised them to the viewer’s eye.”

While remoting focus, iris and zoom offered McGarvey more creativity, it added three motors to Robertson’s Steadicam weight. Throw in the camera magazine, two video transmitters (one to the director’s monitor and one to McGarvey who needed a picture to gauge his zoom and iris pulls), “and you have an overall payload that weighed more than a standard airline baggage allowance,” the operator only half-jokes.

The next problem was how to fly around the beach with weightless elegance, covering close to a quarter mile in the process with precision framing. Robertson says it became clear that he would have to ride on a vehicle to cover the ground at speed and keep up with the action.

“I chose to ride on a ‘mule’ provided by Bickers Action,” he recounts. “This is a small, open-backed vehicle with a rear-facing platform, much like a golf cart. A low step was rigged so that I could slide off the back when I needed to continue the shot on foot. I used this for part of the shot when the three main characters are striding along the beach past the horses being shot. The step off the ‘mule’ comes at the rear of the beached Thames barge, where a pause was built into the action to help disguise the step-off.”

The shot was then continued on foot, up the beach, onto the promenade and around the bandstand. “After the bandstand, I stepped down via a ramp, cunningly disguised by the art department as a pile of bomb debris and sat back onto a rickshaw rig, expertly gripped by Gary Hutchings and Dean Morris,” Robertson picks up. “We then steered backwards through the chaotic scenes of soldiers riding a merry-go-round and disabling heavy artillery, to the beginning of the pier. Here, with the help of a line of carefully placed soldiers filing past camera to (once again) disguise my step-off, I traveled on foot for the final part of the shot up some steps and past a line of soldiers to look back on the mayhem of Dunkirk!”

Robertson made it through two rehearsals and three takes, fully loaded. He says he attempted a fourth but his timing was off and missed his footing on the steps leading up to the bandstand, noting that, “in a shot like this, once the camera stops dead the take is unusable. It felt like I had just performed a 10-hour gym session and, in hindsight, I consider myself lucky to have even completed three takes!” Robertson concludes. “I simply didn’t have enough juice in the tank to complete a fifth. Much has been publicized in print about how the Steadicam operator ‘collapsed’ or even ‘fell over.’ Those reports are all melodramatic representations of what actually happened but I suppose that every movie needs its myth and legend!”

Death Sentence: Cranes, Frames and Automobiles!

The lynchpin of solid action pictures is often camera movement. And, one of the masters of action and movement is cinematographer John Leonetti, ASC, who is known for bringing a large amount of creativity to a show whether high, low or even no budget. Example given: the recent feature, Death Sentence, where director James Wan wanted to capture a heart-pounding chase sequence of star Kevin Bacon racing through a darkened parking garage in a single take.

Leonetti brought his crew, key grip Dennis Zoppe, dolly grip Darrell Sheldon (who is now a Local 600 camera operator), A-camera operator Michael St. Hilaire, and the late Steadicam/B-camera operator Thom Owens, together with the film’s stunt coordinator, assistant directors, camera assistants, gaffer, Wan and producers for a pre-shot walk-through. The consensus was that it was doable, even though the budget was tight, which nixed the idea of a night sequence, and gave birth to a daylight chase with a limited window of opportunity for enough light.

The prelude to the parking garage sequence begins with a group of thugs chasing Bacon through the streets. The action winds down streets and alleyways, hemming the star into ever more narrow locations, including interior hallways and a large industrial kitchen and boiler room.

“We used a conventional dolly for these earlier sequences, moving to a two-wheel ‘rickshaw’-type device outfitted with a bass boat seat for the running handheld shots, as well as a Steadicam mounted to a six wheel Polaris ATV,” Sheldon recounts. For these shots building up to the garage, the team blended skateboard dolly with speedrail, and Steadicam with handheld.
The challenge was to find a way to hand off the ARRI 235 camera with its 400-foot magazine for the continuous shot. The answer became a remote focus unit that would allow Wan and Leonetti to keep an eye on framing and exposure. Sheldon and Zoppe created a small rectangular speedrail framework to hold the camera, with support coming from 3/4-inch tubing that was strong and fit well in their hands. This “Zoppe Cam,” as the crew called it, also provided a variety of grip placements for each of the seven handheld operators who would take charge of the movement.

The next obstacle was the strategic placement of operators. Leonetti choreographed the sequence for five operators on various levels of the five-story parking structure, with two more operators seated on Chapman Lenny 3 Arms. During the sequence, the cranes were utilized to transfer the camera from the coverage on Bacon to the gang of thugs searching for him on another level and back up to Bacon again, as he reached level four.

Camera movement and framing were just one piece of the puzzle. The video assistant, Chaz Laughon, whom Sheldon calls, “a genius on Wi-Fi,” had to cover a lot of ground, as well as pass through a lot of concrete. Then there was the challenge of maintaining focus, requiring assistants Alan Aldridge and Dan Turek to operate two separate remotes that had to be passed off a number of times in concert with the camera. If the rehearsal revealed a glitch, as when one control was switched from one FITZ unit to another and disabled the camera, the whole team had to go back to square one. As for Leonetti, all he had to do was to run between the various floors to do remote stop changes ranging from T2.8 to T16 by the time they got to the rooftop!

The shot begins with Owens moving from the interior to the first parking level and a hard run up that entire level. He starts behind Bacon, leading at the time. “Thom passed the camera to me as Kevin crawls up a car hood,” explains Sheldon. “I carried him across the second level as he crisscrosses back and crawls again, now up to the third level.”

Christian Satrazemis then took the ARRI and ran it to the first crane hand off. That operator dropped back down to the second level and joined the thugs as they searched for Bacon’s character. After yet another hand-off to the second crane, the camera rejoins Bacon, now on level four (Bacon was assisted by a go-kart ride).

“I had to run up three flights of stairs to pick up Mike St. Hilaire on my rickshaw for the final run with Kevin to the roof,” says Sheldon. “By that time, everyone really wanted to hear cut!”

When the crew finally got to “cut/print,” the sun was dipping so low that there was a new problem with camera shadows during the final crane hand off. “A quick-thinking grip crew rigged an 8-by-8 foot solid to the crane arm to travel with the crane,” Sheldon explains.

All agree that the amount of choreography needed to get this shot done in one day on the fly was amazing. “John (Leonetti) kept his cool throughout the entire day,” Sheldon concludes. “James Wan was happy; the crew was exhausted, and we did it! Of course, the chase didn’t end with that shot. It continued to escalate to the demise of a thug entrapped inside a car as it plummets the five stories off the rooftop. But that’s another story!

Skates: Thin Ice Indeed!

Former Steadicam operator Alan Caso, ASC just can’t give up the sense of movement when he is shooting movie. If it isn’t Steadicam, it’s another of his favorite tools – the jib arm. However, Caso also loves to create movement in different ways, often using an extremely low-tech approach if it fits the project at hand.

“For Skates, we had quite a lot of material to cover on the ice at The Pond in Anaheim,” Caso remembers. “We used every known trick we could think of to provide a variety of shots for shooting ice skating. These included building a 12-by-12-foot platform with 16 hockey pucks used for feet! This supported two cameras covering an actress from the waist up, as she was miming the motion of skating while standing on a human lazy Susan (which allowed her to turn and spin). Six hockey players, skating in circles and wide arcs, moved the apparatus.

Other shots included a number of cameras with various focal lengths following the skating action from static positions and dolly tracks on and off the ice. The Skates crew also used the 80-foot Akela Crane, which provided a fairly shallow arc for long distances, as well as bigger angles for some amazing crane shots.

“However, the shot that proved most amazing was not high-tech at all!” Caso laughs. “It was so low-tech you could probably term it Aztec! I plopped myself down cross-legged on a large snow shovel (we had to send away for it since none were available in Los Angeles), handholding an ARRI III with a 17.5 mm lens. I had one of our speed skaters push and pull me around on the ice, leading and following the skating double’s feet at extraordinary high speed from about 2 feet away! The dailies were so exciting they took our breath away. It just goes to show that some of the best solutions come from simple concepts.”

Nim’s Island and Salt: Low-Tech Creativity At Its Finest

Stuart Dryburgh has shot a range of projects with a range of tools, using the most expensive toys available when the bottom line is broad and generous. However, when he is “budget or location challenged,” as he calls it, things can sometimes become even more creative.

Take Nim’s Island as an example. “We were in Australia shooting a scene with Jodie Foster being bounced around in an open-sided ‘taxi’ van on a dirt road supposedly in Rarotonga (or was it Western Samoa),” he recalls. “The selected location was too narrow and bumpy for a conventional insert car. But we had to move.

“Luckily my Aussie grip crew, headed by Ray ‘Brownie’ Brown and Adam ‘Skully’ Kuiper, had been developing a high-speed, off-road tracking vehicle for the series Pacific that was about to start production. We essentially got to road test it, and it worked great! It easily carried a Garfield-mounted Steadicam with our ARRI LT, operator Simon Harding, 1st AC Brendan Holster, sound man Dave Lee, and dolly grip Dave Shaw, who was driving.”

Dryburgh says the results were the best solution to an interesting challenge, noting that he’ll take a “tricked out ATV performance in a golf cart anytime!”

Even more recently, Dryburgh’s moving camera creativity was forced to enter hyper-drive when he shot selected action scenes for Phillip Noyce’s upcoming Salt, to be released in 2010.

“When we returned to shoot additional material for a scene which involves Angelina Jolie’s character climbing around the outside of an 11-story apartment building,” the DP recounts, “second unit director Simon Crane requested that we try to get much closer to our actress for some moving shots. The down angle was too steep to get a roof-mounted crane into that position, and we didn’t have the time or the budget to get a cablecam or Spydercam.”

The solution, as Dryburgh tells it, was to bring stunt riggers and key grip Jimmy Pollard together to create a moving camera, rigged with ropes and pulleys, which used the same flying technology used to safety actors, equipped with a Libra-stabilized head and a Pan-ARRI camera.

“It worked beautifully,” Dryburgh chuckles. “We made some dizzyingly exciting shots, and re-affirmed the benefits of interdepartmental cooperation on the set. That kind of passion is so important to all of us, whether we’re doing a huge budget feature or something where an ‘on-the-spot’ invention can make all the difference.”