The Shot Behind the Shot – Chinatown (1974)

On the set of Chinatown

American Cinematographer recently shared its original story on 1974’s Chinatown, which was penned by the film’s director of photography John A. Alonzo (The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, Harold and Maude). Alonzo took over for Stanley Cortez two weeks into filming.

Here’s Alonzo on pulling off the film’s final long take, which was shot handheld and included putting a hat on the camera to disguise its shadow:

“A shot like that isn’t easy to pull off. First of all, there’s no room for the assistant to follow focus, because the camera is surrounded by the actors and extras. There’s no place to put lights on them, because when you have a camera that is that close, with a 40mm lens and an actor who is two feet away from you, your own camera would cast a shadow on the actor if you put any lights behind it. To solve the lighting problem, I mounted the little Obie light next to the lens, ran the wire down to my feet and taped it so that Earl Gilbert could keep his eye on it constantly and keep it up. We pre-checked the exposure wherever possible.

The next problem was that of following focus. Well, relying on my experience as a documentary cameraman, I asked permission of the union and they allowed me to operate the camera on that shot myself, because I can do that sort of thing. The next problem was what to do about the damned camera shadow. Roman came up with an idea. He said: “Put a hat on the camera. You’ll see a shadow if you look at the picture closely, but it will look like a hat shadow.” We put a hat right over the Obie light, so that any lights that hit me as I was panning around, cast a shadow that looked like somebody’s hat.

The scene was shot in very close quarters. The actors attacked. I say “attacked” because that’s literally what they did. They came right at the lens and I whipped down to Faye Dunaway, then I whipped up to John Huston, who was crying over the death. I panned over to Perry Lopez, the detective, then panned over to Nicholson, who said a line, then panned back to Lopez. Roman has since put a cut in there, but originally it was intended to be the one continuous shot. Lopez said: “Get out of here, Gittes.” As Nicholson’s partners took him away, I followed them slightly, then walked to my right and climbed onto the platform of the Chapman crane. They released it and I started going up in the air. The whole thing was hand-held and I couldn’t have shot it at all in sync-sound if it hadn’t been for the Panaflex. It’s an amazing shot, if I say so myself, and I wish it could have been used in its entirety instead of being cut.”

Check out more images from the Shot Behind the Shot series.

On the set of Chinatown

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