Rubber Biscuit

Was discussing something with Anne Billson on Twitter. Those shots where either a character moves on a dolly independently of the camera —


Belle in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, gliding eerily down a corridor of wafting curtains.

This ghost in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL — Cocteau maybe invented the trope and Castle maybe introduced it to Hollywood.

The implacable revenant in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, who never makes the mistake of moving like a normal living person. She teleports from room to room like Droopy (“I do this to him all through the picture.”), sits up in bed without the use of arms, rising like a drawbridge, then finally wheels forward through a rainbow of artfully gelled lighting, arms already in position for a spot of strangling…

Kathleen Freeman as the Penguin in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Landis’s parodic use of the supernatural glide is striking because the trope was scarcely in common use at the time. It wasn’t like the trombone shot/exponential zoom in his THRILLER video, where the gimmick was maybe on its way to becoming overexposed and thus ripe for parody. The nun on wheels (at the very end of the long clip above) feels like it could have been played absolutely straight in a real horror movie.

(I like to think they intended to hire Kathleen Byron as a scary nun but asked Freeman by mistake. But I know this is not true.)

Also, those shots where the camera moves WITH the actor, as if the actor were on wheels or the camera were attached, or both. There are two variations on this (well, two main ones) ~

At the opening of SECONDS, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe mount their camera on an actor via some kind of rigid harness, getting a whole range of eerie effects whereby the world lurches about, a drunken handheld nightmare, while the foreground shoulder or slice of face remains rock steady.

Another example of the same thing: Scorsese fastens on to Harvey Keitel for (appropriately) a drunk scene in MEAN STREETS, to the tune of Rubber Biscuit. Scorsese has also attached his lens to a boxer’s forearm to deliver a fist’s-eye view of a punch in RAGING BULL (blink and you’ll miss it) and to Willem Dafoe’s crucifix as it’s raised in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a novelty.

The other variation ~

Spike Lee is the main proponent of this one — camera and actor are moving in unison, but it’s a steady tracking shot, as if the actor is standing on the same dolly the camera moves on (and he is). Lee seems to do this in every film, and, distressingly, sometimes he seems to be doing it just to prove it’s him. His signature shot.

I used this one in my short film CLARIMONDE, back in the nineties — so Lee may have been the influence. I wanted a dreamlike effect and to show a character moving without free will. We didn’t actually have a proper dolly, just a tripod with castors, so I got my lead actor, Colin McLaren, to balance his feet on the castors and grip the top of the tripod so we could wheel him across the studio floor. I still like the result.

This whole slew of techniques seems to be without a name, unless I’ve missed something. I propose calling it the Rubber Biscuit Shot, even though Scorsese didn’t invent it and Spike Lee could probably stake a better claim to ownership. I just think Rubber Biscuit Shot sounds absolutely right for the weird, dislocating effect.

10 Responses to “Rubber Biscuit”

  1. Colin McKeown, via Facebook suggests that “double dolly” and “floating dolly” are in use for the Spike type shot, and supplied this link to a Spike Lee supercut:

    I think “rubber biscuit” could still earn a place to describe Seconds/Mean Streets type harness shots…

  2. There’s another alternative to the double dolly technique also attributable to Cocteau – camera and actors stand still, with rear projection of a moving shot being utilized in the background, a la Orphee.

    Any other links between Bava and Cocteau?

  3. I’m not sure, but you made me think of a great moment in Bava’s Shock!/Beyond the Door II, where the camera is strapped to Dario Nicolodi and its the movement of her hair that makes it clear she’s being carried around the room. Pure Rubber Biscuit!

    (Like with most of that movie’s best bits, Lamberto Bava was the one actually calling the shots.)

  4. I must check Shock out; doesn’t it also have that marvelous single shot transformation?

  5. Yes, a fantastic startle effect that always gets a scare-laugh out of my students. Time I showed it again!

  6. chris schneider Says:

    Would Lon Chaney rising from the swamp in Siodmak’s SON OF DRACULA fit into all of this?

  7. Yes, and I think it may be the shot that Anne and I started from. It’s a Spike Lee double dolly avant la lettre. So he’s probably the first to do that variant on American soil.

    His brother Curt (screenwriter on the film) was on the set of Metropolis, where Lang attached the camera to an actor’s forearm…

  8. A birthday scene (I think) in the first THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, very touching. .. sliding along the floor with Polanski in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS…

  9. The “camera attached to the body of an actor” maneuver is sometimes called Snorricam – I’m not sure how the Icelandic filmmakers who are associated with the technique got to subsume it under their monikers. Probably most civilians think of it as a “GoPro shot.”

    I’ve shown the SECONDS opening with the Keitel MEAN STREETS shot to film students, to demonstrate how one filmmaker can push a novel technique in new directions. With SECONDS, Frankenheimer gets a wonderfully unsettling, alienated-from-your-body feeling – and then Scorsese finds in the technique a perfect subjective analogue for drunkenness, marrying the shot to a kind of tightrope act of performance, where Keitel has to convincingly play out his dissolution with a camera strapped to his torso. Scorsese finds the perfect formal flourish to put a button on the shot, with Keitel finally prone on the floor, dragging the world to his own askew plumb-line, with the horizon set vertical.

    It’s a great aesthetic baton-pass between Frankenheimer and Scorsese – showing that the effects of a certain formal technique are not set in stone, and can be pushed into new areas of expressiveness.

    One example that’s at least Snorricam-adjacent, and which leaves me scratching my head, are some shots from 1983’s ANGST. I haven’t lately been in the mood to see a movie about a serial killer going about his serial killing, but some shots in the trailer and in a couple scenes I’ve caught online appear to be attached to the actor, but not in a completely rigid way – so that the camera seems paired with him, but also swivels around him in a really effective, disassociated symbiosis. I can’t figure out how the director exactly did it. Examples here:

  10. Wow, “Snorricam” has an ugly sound to it. Prefer my version.

    I’d heard that Angst was good, and those shots are fascinating. I guess you could attach a harness-cam with a hinge or the ability to circle the subject, and that might be what’s going on in some of these.

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