The Shot Behind the Shot – Glass (2019)

I missed the final chapter of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy in theaters, but as of yesterday Glass is now out on home media. Here’s a before-and-after VFX shot from the film, which – like Shyamalan’s previous two efforts The Visit and Split – was self-funded by the director.

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The Shot Behind the Shot: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985)

Behind the scenes of The Stuff

(Above) Behind the scenes of a practical effect from The Stuff (1985), a sci-fi/horror satire about a deadly dessert written, directed and produced by the late great Larry Cohen. Cohen passed away Saturday at the age of 77. Though he never quite received the plaudits of George Romero, Cohen also specialized in B-movies laced with social commentary. Here’s Cohen on the subtext of The Stuff, from an interview with Diabolique Magazine.

Diabolique: Some of your films from the ‘70s and ‘80s reflect New York as a corrupt, dangerous place. Were there any notable events that occurred in the city back then that had an impact on you?

Cohen: It wasn’t just New York. Things were going on all over the country and the world that I wanted to try and deal with in my films.  Take The Stuff, which was about products being sold on the market that kill people. There are still so many products like that being sold today. In those days you still had cigarettes being advertised on television. Nowadays it’s not cigarettes, but it’s medication that’ll probably kill you just as fast.  As a matter of fact, every time they advertise a different pill of some kind they have a disclaimer afterward telling you all the side effects — like death. So, The Stuff was an allegory for consumerism in America and the fact that big corporations will sell you anything to get your money, even if it’ll kill you.

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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.”

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The Shot Behind the Shot – Spike Lee’s patented “double dolly” from Malcolm X (1992)

Malcom X Spike Lee double dolly shot

Few directors boast an instantly recognizable signature shot, but Spike Lee and his “double dolly” are among that select company. The technique involves placing both the actor and the camera on dollies – allowing them to glide along the dolly track in unison. My favorite of these shots comes courtesy of cinematographer Ernest Dickerson in Malcom X (1992), as Denzel Washington (in the titular role) is propelled toward the fateful rally where Malcolm was assassinated in February of 1965. The scene is accompanied by Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. The Civil Rights anthem was released as the B-side of the single Shake only 11 days after Cooke himself was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances in December of 1964.

“I’d cut the sequence without (the Sam Cooke song) and then Spike brought the song in and we added the music and everything fell so gorgeously and emotionally together (that I didn’t adjust the edit). It floored us and spooked us. If you look at it, you’d definitely think I cut that sequence to that song, but I didn’t.” – Barry Alexander Brown, from a 2019 interview in Filmmaker Magazine


A montage of Lee’s double dolly shots…


Further reading…
Spike Lee breaks down his signature visual flourishes for the NY Times
The unlikely story of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come from The New Yorker

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Shot Behind the Shot – A blindfolded Sandra Bullock braves the rapids in Bird Box

Before and after VFX from Netflix's Bird Box (2018)

(Above) A before and after VFX comparison from Netflix’s Bird Box (2018), which finds Sandra Bullock and two children traversing river rapids blindfolded. The movie is set in a creature-ridden post-apocalyptic nightmare where even a glimpse of the outside world results in almost instant death. The practical portions of the aquatic action were shot on location on the Smith River in Northern California. The water tank work was completed over the last two days of principle photography in a tank surrounded by 200′ of blue screen, with 300,000 gallons of water tinted to match the color of the Smith River.

The pics above come from the awesome site Art of VFX, which detailed the making of Bird Box via an interview with VFX Supervisor Marcus Taormina.

Check out more of the Shot Behind the Shot series here.

Behind the scenes of The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Ballad of Buster Scruggs before and after VFX

A before-and-after visual effects comparison from “Mortal Remains,” the final chapter in the Coen Brothers’ Netflix western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. While the other entries were shot on location across New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska, “Mortal Remains” and its spectral stagecoach ride were shot entirely on a soundstage. In keeping with the Coen’s reluctance to delve into the meaning of their work, even the film’s production designer Jess Gonchor wasn’t sure of the passengers’ fate.

“I still don’t know whether the characters in that story are dead or alive or just living in the afterlife,” said Gonchor in an interview with The LA Times. “The Coen brothers didn’t discuss it. We built these monochromatic super facades, which were lit from behind. It was a storybook version of what the afterlife might look like.”

The images above come from The Art of VFX’s interview with visual effects supervisor Michael Huber.

The Shot Behind the Shot – Elf (2003)

I found a few images of behind the scenes set-ups on the Blu-ray featurettes of Elf. They offer a glimpse into how cinematographer Greg Gardiner used forced perspective to create the illusion that Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf towers over his North Pole counterparts.

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The Shot Behind the Shot – Jaws 2 (1978)

Behind the scenes Jaws 2 ending

(Above) The set up for the shark’s fiery demise at the conclusion of Jaws 2 (1978). The production still comes from a collection of 180 set photos recently unearthed and published by the Northwest Florida Daily News. The sequel was shot on Florida’s Emerald Coast as opposed to the Martha’s Vineyard locations of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 original. Check out all of the set stills here.