“Danny, the little hand says it’s time to rock and roll!”
James here, carrying a bunch of photographs, which I will now lay out on the table for you.
For some reason, when I started fiddling with these, I gravitated towards making them look vaguely like a German Expressionist film, ala ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. My favorite aspect of photography — and one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking — is how we may use it to change how we perceive mundane objects. To shoot them with through with magic, I suppose.
Hey folks. In this series, James breaks down a sequence, shot for shot (or close to it) via, well, screen capture, and draws practical advice for filmmakers such as, well, himself.
In today’s Screen Capture Film School, I’m going to examine a scene from Orson Welles’ classic film noir, ‘The Lady From Shanghai’. Bear in mind these screen captures are my best approximations of each frame, as when it goes dark, it’s difficult for me to tell where to direct the virtual camera. They vary a little, but rest assured the important content makes it through despite human error.
So! To give a little context, here’s what’s going on, plot-wise. Here’s a summary from Wikipedia:
Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) meets the beautiful blonde Elsa (Rita Hayworth) as she rides a horse-drawn coach in Central Park. Shortly thereafter three hooligans waylay the coach, Michael rescues her and escorts her home. Michael reveals he is a seaman and learns Elsa and her husband, the famous disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), are newly arrived in New York City from Shanghai. They are on their way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Michael, attracted to Elsa despite misgivings is persuaded to sign on as an able seaman aboard Bannister’s yacht.
After setting sail, they are joined on the boat by Bannister’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who proposes that Michael “murder” him in a plot to fake his own death and collect the insurance money for himself. He promises Michael $5,000 and explains that since he wouldn’t really be dead and thus there would be no corpse, Michael couldn’t be convicted of murder (reflecting corpus delicti laws at the time.) Michael agrees to this, intending to use the money to run away with Elsa, with whom he’s begun a relationship. Grisby has Michael sign a confession.
On the eve of the crime, Sydney Broome, a private investigator who has been following Elsa on her husband’s orders, confronts Grisby. Broome has learned of Grisby’s plan and that he is actually intending to murder Bannister, frame Michael for the crime and escape suspicion by pretending to have also been murdered.
Now we’re at the confrontation. Grisby thinks he’s got the upper hand. The framing immediately reflects this.
Grisby’s on the left, and Broome’s got plenty of head space on the right. He’s revealing what he knows at the moment, eroding Grisby’s confidence.
This close up directs our full attention to Grisby’s nervous reaction, but notice his eye line. He’s looking up.
Notice that Broome’s eye line is slightly over. He looks above Grisby, and fills almost an equal portion of the frame, but he is also slightly taller. This switch will reach its apotheosis in the next frame.
Grisby inherits the head space and loses superiority to Broome. It’s now fully explicit — Broome’s looking down at Grisby, as if his opponent has physically shrunk. It follows the dramatics beats of the conversation perfectly.
Despite Broome’s moral triumph, Grisby’s got his number. He draws his weapon and pulls the trigger.
Welles covers the gunshot — and the final reversal — by cutting away to his own character, Michael, drinking coffee and then reacting to the gunshot.
The next shot reveals Broome, down for the count, but not quite yet dead. Notice his eyes are directed to his former position. Orson executes a pan up, revealing:
Grisby not only fills the frame vertically but now occupies his opponent’s space, and quickly diverts his eyes to the next item of business, off to the left side of the frame, where he now steps, followed by a cut. This is a rapid sequence, so I’ll exclude a frame of Michael’s reaction in the kitchen and move on to Elsa.
The same house where Michael was engaged in his coffee. Elsa appears first in shadow on the right. The shot continues.
As Elsa meets her shadow, it directs our eye from the lighted hearth to the window on the left, where she looks for the gunshot’s source.
Now all three characters have action at the left side of the frame, prepping us for a confrontation.
Keeping continuity, Michael exits the kitchen door and moves from left to right, while Grisby moves from right to left, ending up at the car for another brief confrontation.
At this point, Michael still has some trust in Grisby, so they arrange themselves in the car to continue the job. A cool technique is used here, as they exchange places, executing a cross.
Michael on the right, Grisby on the left. Grisby’s further away and appears smaller than Michael. This is quickly rectified, keeping up the tension.
Grisby’s ugly mug fills the frame, looking down at Michael, crazed and predatory, definitely fitting Michael’s estimation of the man as a “shark”.
This was the hardest frame to grab because of the darkness. Michael looks slightly up, clearly feeling the pressure, as Grisby rants like a madman. Note that opposite sides of their faces are obscured by darkness. A couple of repetitive shots later, and the car leaves out of the left side of the frame.
Keeping continuity, Elsa’s action in this scene is from left to right, illustrating her separation from the events outside, which are out of her control, establishing dramatic distance.
And that’s a wrap for today. ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ is available on Netflix. Watch it and learn!
Damned writer’s block.
It’s my worst enemy as a storyteller. It flies out of the dark, kicks me in the head, and when I come to, there’s an ominous empty page before me and nothing in my brain with which to fill it…
What was I going to say? I don’t know. Oh, right; writer’s block sucks. The problem is, because it comes from so many sources (stress, staring at the page too long, a need for caffeine, etc.) there’s no ultimate solution. What I do, however, is just stop writing. I put my mind on something else. Since I write movies, I often spend hours viewing the best film posters I can find, because they communicate a story’s essence so simply and directly. It reminds me of the need for a powerful icon. I choose to get lost in there. I refuse to think about writing. Eventually my brain seems to forget it has any problem translating my ideas into a story, and before you know it, I’m writing again.
“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.”
Inception ©2010 Warner Bros.