Have you ever watched a film and come across a shot or a sequence that dazzles you?
In these times of cheap CGI everyone can fill their films with big battles and spectacular vistas, but occasionally you come across something a bit special.
I don’t mean a huge action sequence or massive explosion or excessive CGI. I mean a shot that draws attention to itself by almost not drawing attention to itself, or a shot so epic or moving that it raises the bar on the whole film. Sometimes you don’t even notice the brilliance at first, you’re so drawn in it takes a moment to realise what makes the shot so special.
The opening shot of Joss Whedon’s Serenity is a case in point. One single continuous take leads us in through the ship’s window and then we follow people throughout the ship, culminating in a shot of River in the cargo hold.
In one long shot we are introduced to the whole crew and given a glimpse of their relationships and a get a tour of the Serenity as well. It’s a shot technique Whedon has used before in season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ; in the episode “Anne” there's a three-and-a-half minute single shot showing all the cast – with the exception of Buffy herself – on their first day back at school. In the episode the shot is used to contrast the Scoobies hectic school life against Buffy being alone in a strange city.
In Serenity the shot is an efficient way to introduce the ship and everyone in it and jump straight into the story. We’re introduced to characters in everything we watch but with this sequence Whedon did it in a way that was both stylish and attention grabbing. I know there’s a hidden cut as Mal goes down the stairs because the ship was actually built as two sets but it doesn’t matter; you can’t tell it’s there and the effect is that you believe this ship is one contained environment and that these people live in it.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men is a film full of very long shots. Right from the off the film is full of gripping camerawork. From the terrorist attack on the coffee shop right at the start, to the harrowing ambush on the car, all the way through to the epic, tense journey across a hellish urban battlefield. Shots like these have been seen before but Cuarón did something a little different to emphasis the action in his film. The director uses long steady cam shots to force you to watch. He won’t turn the camera away; he won’t cut to another angle; he won’t give you a break from the awful events unfolding on screen. So the viewer is forced to watch – the camera never blinks and so neither do you. The effect is brilliant. You really can’t tear your eyes away from the screen for long, long periods of time. It makes what could have been an average sci-fi thriller in to a gripping ride that you feel intimately involved in.
Another film, Contact , has several of these interesting shots. First the film’s intro; admittedly this one is all CGI but it’s done with such style. From Earth orbit we travel out in to the solar system and further and further into the depths of space, all the while accompanied by the detritus of Earth’s radio transmissions as they float out into space. Soon the obtrusive noise of our planet is replaced by silence, utter and deep silence and still we travel further, past galaxies and star clusters, until eventually we emerge from the eye of our young heroine Ellie Arroway. It is a powerful and moving opening, suggesting there is as much depth and imagination in each of us as there is out in the furthest reaches of space. That there is as much to explore within as there is without. The film leaves itself a lot to live up to after a beginning like this.
Another sequence of note from Contact , and my personal favourite, is a scene again involving the young Ellie Arroway. It is the shot of her running to grab her father’s medication mid way through the film. We start in the hallway of their house. Ellie’s dad has had a fall and she says she’ll get his pills. Ellie then runs towards the camera and the audience. The camera pulls back as Ellie follows us up the stairs and round a corner, along a landing and into the bathroom, she pulls open the bathroom cabinet, grabs the medication and turns to run back to her father. As we see Ellie run back down the corridor we realise that the whole shot has been a reflection in the bathroom cabinet mirror, only that’s impossible because the shot started downstairs and round several corners. There is no real reason for this impossible shot, beautiful though it is. The director has said that he did it on a whim. I for one am glad that he did. In a film full of big sci-fi ideas and epic shots it’s this little emotional scene that stays with me the most.
These are just three films with sequences that I find the most memorable. There are others out there. And I’m glad that directors are adding these little bits of flare to the films they make. So what do you think? Are the sequences I mentioned as memorable to you as they are to me? Are there any sequences in other films which you find particularly memorable, shots filmed in such a way that they lodge themselves in your memory long after the credits have ended?