Quote of the Day: sounds like a plan

‘Even more than in THE WILD CHILD, THE GREEN ROOM was conceived as a succession of plans-séquence. The term “master shot” is used in English for what in French is “plans-séquence”, but the two expressions mean different things, because a “master shot” implies that there will be supplementary shots of the same scene (often close-ups), and that these will be inserted later on, during the editing. The fact that there is no American expression for “plans-séquence”  is evidence of a basic difference in concept. In Truffaut’s plans-séquence nothing can be inserted because it is sufficient unto itself. The character moves about from one character to another, lingers, makes a leap into the void to take in the whole scene, retreats, advances, all at a stretch, without cuts. The scenes between Davenne and Cecilia in the auction room are the best examples of this technique.

Green Wing

‘From the practical point of view, this sort of filming has advantages and disadvantages. One of the problems is focus. Since the camera is always moving on wheels, it is difficult for the assistant to correct the focus, since the actors are constantly at different distances from the lens. It also presents a challenge for the camera operator. In a short space of time innumerable compositions are being produced with every slight change of place. Preparing shots of this type takes hours, because the actors’ movements must be adjusted in relation to the movements of the camera. Sometimes a whole day is needed to get a single shot.

‘But when a scene is split into different shots, to be edited together later, it creates the false impression that shooting is done quickly, whereas in fact the opposite is true: one must be sure that there is continuity of illumination from one shot to the next, that the actors are looking in the appropriate directions, that entrances and exits from the frame fit into the preceding scenes. With the plans-séquence these preoccupations are no longer relevant. In any case, the main interest of this technique is not that it offers advantages from the point of view of production but that it allows the director to define his style. For it is in the style that we recognise the artist’s signature. All of this is quite close to certain concepts that Truffaut inherited from his mentor, André Bazin.’

~ A Man with a Camera, by Nestor Almendros.

Nestor

The term “sequence shot” is now often used to describe a shot that covers an entire scene without alternate angles being edited in, although the term is maybe more commonly used in criticism than “on the floor”. My suspicion is that we don’t have a widely-used term for this approach in Britain and America because (a) the technique isn’t widely used and (b) when we directors do it, we don’t tell anyone what we’re doing.

As my cinematographer friend Scott Ward says, there is a school of thought in television that says the director’s reason for being is to obtain sufficient coverage to make the show. Since shows are made for specific time slots, there needs to be a way to manipulate the duration of the footage, which becomes much harder if every scene has been covered with only one shot.

On my most extensive TV gig, I shot some scenes in sequence shots, purely because the schedule was so tight. I was aware that if anybody asked for additional angles in the edit, I would probably be in trouble (I was constantly in trouble on that shoot, or so it seemed at the time). So they had better work. More than half of the scenes had more than one angle, though after falling behind schedule on day one, and further on day two, I took to devising schemes that allowed even the most busy scene to be taken in no more than two shots, if at all possible. We finished on schedule and the episodes were manipulated into the right time slot with relative ease.

But consider the case of Leonard Kastle’s THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. The first five or so minutes of the film are a series of elaborate long takes, stretching the abilities of the camera crew beyond breaking point, but still fascinating and effective. The director of these scenes was the young Martin Scorsese, who was swiftly fired for only shooting masters. “If you only shoot masters, the film could end up four hours long,” he ruefully reflected, understanding his employer’s ruthless response.

It may be also that some producers will object to long takes for the very reason Almendros recommends them: as an expression of directorial style. Producer Pandro S Berman is supposed to have approached director Albert Lewin and asked, “Why do you do these long tracking shots?”

“It’s my style,” explained Lewin (naïve fool!).

“Style. I always wondered about that. What does that mean, style?”

Lewin is taken aback, bt endeavours to explain: “Well, style, that’s like when Picasso paints a certain way and you can tell it’s a Picasso. Or with Rembrandt, he has a style, and you can see how it’s different to Picasso.”

“Is that so? Is that what style is? Well, I don’t want any of it in MY PICTURES!”

Lewin

Now this may well be one of those libellous stories directors like to tell about producers (writers tell them about directors too), but there is a certain mindset that probably sees the producer’s job as being to quash any excessive outbursts of directorial style. Hiring the right director and then trusting her might be an easier option, but such a person, or such an emotion, is not always available on demand.

As Howard Hawks said to Peter Bogdanovich when asked if he ever had final cut; “No. Suppose I went crazy?”

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7 Responses to “Quote of the Day: sounds like a plan”

  1. I would love to see you comment on the technical aspects of some porn chic films :P

  2. I’m not too aware of the work of porno auteurs. I have written here about I Am Frigid…Why? and Dr. Caligari, both of which are sex films of a kind.

    Russ Meyer, who had a helluva visual style, was sarcastically put forward as the one true auteur by William Goldman, since he shot, cut, wrote, produced, and directed his films.

    Beyond that, one would think that porn was a natural home for the plans-sequence approach, but I’m not aware if anybody’s pushed this aesthetic into interesting new terrain.

  3. The Green Room is one of Truffaut’s very best films.

    The greatest and most throughgoing use of the sequence shot is to be found in the complete Out One.

    Albert Lewin is a fascinating auteur. While he worked at MGM as part of the Thalberg “brains trust” he was 50 before he directed his first film. His masterpeice is of course Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

  4. I must watch Pandora, I have the Kino disc sitting here. He’s a fascinating filmmaker.

  5. >The Green Room is one of Truffaut’s very best films.

    I would go so far as to say it IS his best film, out of the very few that I like anyway.

    No mention of Jancso or any of the other long-take masters in here (Angelopoulos, Hou, Mizoguchi, Tarkovsky, Akerman, Straub/Huillet, Tarr, etc, etc)?

    Would love to see THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI.

  6. There’s a very good book about Lewin: Botticelli in Hollywood by Susan Felleman (Twayne, 1997) On the cover is a still from The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)

  7. I have Bel Ami, and I love Maupassant. So why haven’t I watched it? Maybe I should have a Lewin week.
    The Masters of Cinema Mizoguchi releases are stacking up also, I should dive deeper into Mizo. I love what I’ve seen but I haven’t even scratched the surface.

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