Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 22, 2018

Technology Sweeps Us Along. “Impossible” Becomes, “Hey, Let’s Do THIS!”

In 1975 or -6, I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s latest film, “The Passenger,” starring Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson. The use of vast, empty space to suggest the disassociation and chaos of modern life was one of Antonioni’s trademarks. So were long, uninterrupted shots, with lots of silence, subtle shifts in movement and character expression, building tension and drama.

The penultimate scene of “The Passenger” is a jaw-dropping bit of filmic legerdemain that encapsulates all those traits. The camera looks from a dimly lighted hotel room, out through a barred window, with the dusty square of a small African town visible outside. Slowly the camera moves toward the window, where some cryptic bits of action occur. That move last almost exactly 4 minutes. Then, the camera continues outward, between the bars of the window, travelling into the square. There, it follows as the action builds: Police cars arrive, people get out, the camera turns to the right, following the people, panning around 180 degrees to look back at the hotel it just exited. In fact, the camera moves up to the same window through which it flew, and we witness the conclusion of the 7-minute scene looking into the room through the barred window from outside.

Well!

For a long time, no one knew how Antonioni and his crew did that. Remember, there was no such thing as a digital effect in 1975, and the scene was clearly a single, unedited take. How did that camera move out of the room, boom around the square, turn around and look back at the window set in a solid wall? It was a subject of endless debate in the industry, among students and aficionados of the craft.

Recently, I directed the shoot for a commercial video my partner and I wrote. It was a relatively straightforward piece, with an on-camera narrator showing viewers the craftsmanship of some high-end building contractors in a just-completed house in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a particularly complicated production, although there are always a hundred details to watch, including lighting, shot composition and wardrobe, in addition to making certain the action and line delivery were correct.

Video shoot Brad Nixon 9072 (640x472)

The producer of the show also hired a drone camera operator to add some extra camera movement oomph to the depiction of details in and outside the structure, including the custom, curving stairways.

Drone shoot Brad Nixon 9089 (640x569)

It was my first time to direct a drone camera. It’s not a huge imaginative leap, because there have always been ways to move a camera forward and back, side to side, up and down. But now, high definition cameras the size of a computer mouse can fly, with complete control over zooming, panning and turning in all 3 dimensions.

Drone rig Brad Nixon 9092 (640x434)

The trick, as with any tool, is to be imaginative, but not just to do something because you can. The shot still has to communicate: some judgment is called for.

Still, there I was, using a flying camera to look around inside a room, like this:

Drone flight Brad Nixon (640x452)

… and on one side of the room, there were those doors that opened onto a balcony and … how could I not? Can you blame me?

I tried explaining to the young drone operator who Antonioni was, but that was clearly a waste of time: He’s a techie, not a film buff. I laid out how the shot would go, looking around the kitchen, out the door, flying through the door (which I would open), out, turn, look back and fly in again (going one better on Sig. Antonioni).

In about 3 minutes flat, we pulled off a shot that took Antonioni’s crew several days and a truck full of gear to create (which included building the hotel so it was in the right place). No, that shot won’t be in the final video, and it’s missing that excruciatingly painstaking 4-minute push from the room to the window, anyway.

And that’s all there was to … what? Oh, you want to know how the master did it back in’75? I’ll be brief.

The camera was on a track hung from the hotel room ceiling. The bars were hinged to swing open imperceptibly as the camera reached the end of the track at the window. At that point, a gyroscopically stabilized crane outside hooked onto the camera, took it away and executed the outdoor movements. By the time the shot returned to the window, the crew had closed the bars again, giving the appearance that they’d never opened.

Read the full description at this link, which includes a video of 6:11 of the full shot (that’s Jack Nicholson on the bed at the left). Wikipedia has a description with more detail.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Grazie mille, Signore Antonioni.

© Brad Nixon 2018


Responses

  1. Your description of The Passenger brings to mind a recent movie some 40 years later, Eye in the Sky, featuring a range of amazing drone types and camera miniaturization. Dramatic, suspenseful, moving.

    Like

  2. Nice…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Now I want to see “The Passenger.” I’ve never been much of a film buff, and I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen any of Antonioni’s work, but your description was interesting and engaging.

    During the flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey, drones were used extensively to find people who were trapped in out-of-the-way places. Amusingly enough, I was recorded by a drone during a stay at the Presidio in Goliad. I’m the one in orange. I talked with the operator at the time, but only found the video by accident.

    Like

    • I’ll look. “The Passenger” was one of 3 films Antonioni directed as part of a single contract, including “Blow-Up” and “Zabriskie Point.” Any of them worth a look. And I’ll watch you on the drone. Thanks.

      Like


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