STEADICAM

To look at how the thread gets broken, we'll examine pairs of sequences sufficiently similar to each other to bear comparison. The opening sequence of the space-western Serenity (Joss Whedon 2005), is two Steadicam shots joined by a edit hidden roughly in the middle. The motivation for the sequence is probably threefold: to introduce the protagonists in their various elements; to show the set in almost its entirety; and to make a long, exciting master shot to kick off the film.

 

view Serenity

 

The shot starts well, with simulated turbulence from the operator adding to the tension. That we linger on the wide two-shot, instead of cutting away to the view outside or to fingers punching the control panel, is at least a decision. Only when we move out of the cockpit to follow the captain down the companionway, and loose all but the top of his head—in order to hold the mercenary in shot—does the choice not to cut to a reverse-angle shot look dubious. Now the camera moves around them, crossing the line, with the mercenary first shrinking, then growing relative to the captain in a way that is inconsistent with the dialogue; but we are at least set up for a pretty good whip-pan and dutch angle. We explore more of the set, with another back-of-the-head shot going down the steps, and since we don't have another character to lock on to, we see the captain descend first, and then the camera descending. Had the operator boomed down in tandem with the subject, we would not have lost contact to the same extent. As it is, it feels a little like a POV—as if a new character is following. The over-the shoulder-sequence with the engineer works well, even though she slips into frame a fraction late for the move, and the switching two-shots with the doctor certainly helps along their turbid exchange. Notice how the relative sizes of the two actors in frame concords with the dialogue. It's good work.

We pan off to follow the captain, and now comes an inexplicable whip pan—inexplicable except that this is the hidden edit.* To quote Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, "Nobody ever walked out of the theatre because there was an edit." Which is better, a well-considered edit that advances the storyline, or a clumsy move that lengthens a shot? We stray into the realm of personal taste here, but I'm reaching for the razor. What is so compelling about a continuous shot, that you would throw in an incongruous move just to hide an edit? The shot recovers somewhat, with the camera taking its cue from the movements and gestures of the actors; but from here to the end of the clip, we are just following people around, and by the time it's over, we realise that it was all a device to introduce the set and the protagonists. The opening titles come as a relief.

Contrast this with the Grand Central Terminal shot from the gangster movie Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma 1993).

 

view Carlito's Way

 

Both shots succeed in matching action with camera movement, and at advancing the narrative, but Carlito's Way excels due to exceptional motivation, meticulous planning, and professional excellence. Even though the shot is more complicated than the one in Serenity, there is no moment of discomfort at any point, and no sensation of the camera's presence disconnected from the action. When we cruise over Carlito's shoulder to look down on the concourse, we slip into his POV, but then whip-pan effortlessly back into a reverse-angle. The camera move overrunning Carlito at the top of the escalator—and continuing down on its own—is radical, yet it works. In Serenity, we didn't notice the cleverly-hidden edit. In the Carlito's Way clip, we don't care about the edit; even though, two thirds of the way through, we cut away to the big guy puffing up the steps, before cutting back into the same take on the escalator again—and nobody walked out of the theatre. Even though Larry McConkey's operating throughout is peerless, there is no resistance to editing it like any other footage.

*The spaceship was comprised of two different sets.

 

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