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Uninflected shots


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#1 Alan Dague-Greene

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Posted 16 January 2009 - 12:04 AM

I've just finished reading David Mamet's short book, On Directing Film. He is constantly driving home this idea of telling stories through the juxtaposition of simple, uninflected shots. He returns to it over and over. The juxtaposition of simple, uninflected shots.

He lays particular grievance upon the Steadicam for distracting from this method of storytelling, due to its ability to follow the subjects endlessly, and therefore prevent the story from moving forward and deny the audience the pleasure of decoding the juxtaposition of simple, uninflected shots. I'd say he's blaming the tool rather than blaming those who abuse it, but he has a very good point.

It's On Directing Film, and not On Cinematography, after all. But I'd like to hear what Steadicam shots you consider to be uninflected. Shots where every piece is essential, every moment moves the story forward. The entire shot is about the essence of that scene, and not a frame is wasted.

For me, I think it's the assassination in Road to Perdition, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it's executed with such a degree of expertise as to never distract the viewer with the tiniest suggestion of imprecision. Absolutely perfect start to finish, and also perfect for the scene and the movie as a whole. It is certainly an interesting shot, which Mamet cautions against. But it serves the story very well.

Others?

Alan
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#2 Brian Freesh

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Posted 17 January 2009 - 12:04 AM

First, I agree about that shot, totally. Wrote a short paper in fact.

Second, great subject to discuss! If I understand correctly...

Having trouble wrapping my head around what an "inflected" shot would be, much less "uninflected." Based on how I feel the dictionary definition that I found would have to translate, I don't think I'm interested in an "uninflected shot." And quite frankly would not agree that the "Road To Perdition" shot mentioned is not inflected.

Based on how you described it in regards to the shot mentioned, then sure, I'm all for "uninflected" shots. It just sounds to me that by definition something that is "uninflected" is uninteresting, a monotone voice for example. The "Road to Perdition" shot was very interesting. Totally inflected! It didn't have to start above Sullivan, that was an inflection. It didn't have to have the mirror gag, that was an inflection. And like Mamet seems to argue (not read his books, going based on what you said), the shot didn't have to move, that was an inflection. I would think an uninflected shot would be one that uses the most simple, straightforward, path of least resistance way to tell the story. But I could be totally wrong. However, if that's what Mamet is saying, screw that!

Definition of "uninflected" is likely unimportant, I'm not trying to split hairs. I think the definition of an "uninflected shot" could be quite subjective. After all, what exactly are you pointing to and saying, "Can I put an inflection on this?" You could argue that no part of the "Road to Perdition" shot is wasted, and I would agree. However, I would argue that aspects of it enhance the storytelling (inflections). Of course, that's the kind of thinking that can lead one to say all shots are inflected by their very nature. After all, wouldn't the simplest, most straightforward way to tell the story be something akin to: "Sullivan walks towards Conor's room. The guard lets Sullivan in. Sullivan walks into the bathroom where Conor is taking a bath. Sullivan shoots Conor in his head. Sullivan leaves."

Which, by the way, is all prose. Boy would that be a boring movie!

I read way too much into that, huh?

Brian {-)~
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#3 Alan Dague-Greene

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Posted 18 January 2009 - 03:57 PM

An uninflected shot, in David Mamet's line of thought, is one that carries no emotional or stylistic weight. A shot of a teacup, or a person reading a newspaper. He says: "This scene is about respect, shouldn't we shoot it from a respectful angle? No, because there is no such thing as a respectful angle." We assign meaning to meaning to images through their juxtaposition. That is his point.

An uninflected shot has no ego, isn't trying to show off, and is only serving the story. For my own purposes, I'm definitely stretching his idea of uninflected. I doubt he would agree with my application of his point.

When I think of that shot from Road to Perdition, I think of the music. I think of that scene's place in the movie. I think about the gravity of the scene. And of course, I think about that high angle and the dramatic lighting. My point is that even though it's done with a lot of style, it completely fits that moment in the story, and is inexorably linked in my mind to the assassination. I think it's so successful, because even though it sounds like it was an incredible feat to pull off, the end result is graceful and focused.

You're right, Mamet would say to shoot it in the most straightforward way possible. But without going into too much detail, the book shows him working through an entire thought process that may preclude Sullivan walking down the hall in the first place. So the point of how he would shoot it may be moot, as the scene would likely be entirely different, or not even there.

So, maybe the question is: is there such a thing as an uninflected Steadicam shot?
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#4 Brian Freesh

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Posted 18 January 2009 - 05:51 PM

An uninflected shot has no ego, isn't trying to show off, and is only serving the story.


See, I guess that's my problem with his way of thinking. How do you define what is serving the story and what is not? The RTP shot's high angle at the beginning is very telling I believe of Sullivan's character. And yeah, in fact, showing him walk down the hall at all is about him as a character. Would Mamet have simply cut to right before the gun fired, watched it fire, showed the corpse, then cut to the next scene? I dunno, maybe. That's all that forwarded the plot, but I think the rest of the shot forwarded Sullivan's character, which happens to be a part of the story. I agree that the shot serves the story and there is nothing extraneous to it. But from the sounds of it, Mamet would likely disagree.

I'd like to see a debate between David Mamet and Michael Bay on the use of camera in film. As long as I wasn't in the room.

As for other shots, Elephant comes to mind as a discussion point. There's a series of shots that seemingly waste time NOT telling the story. Specifically I'm thinking of the shot with the girl that starts on the field in gym class. I guess the argument for that film would be that it wasn't so much telling a story as describing a place, time, and tone. Not a big fan of the film myself, but I felt those shots did exactly what they were supposed to and nothing more. Been a while though, another viewing might change my mind for all I know.

For the humor, I'll bring up Doom for the POV shot, cause that HAD to be what it was to exist at all. However, the existence of it in the film for the film's sake is completely useless. No plot is forwarded, it's just supposed to be a cool shout out to the game, at which it succeeds wonderfully. One could argue that the movie exists only so that shot can, in which case the shot is only inflected by the film around it.

My favorite use of Steadicam tends to be when elements (story, plot, character, anything, etc...) are tied together in one shot for a purpose. And if the shot is better off with the steadicam aesthetic and versatility. (so if hand held is a better aesthetic for the shot, go for it, or if a locked off frame can bring the elements together and that makes sense aesthetically, go for it). For this reason, I submit the shot(well, two put together) from "Serenity" which introduces the crew (great shot Mark Moore!). There shot ties together the space of the ship, the characters in their daily routine, and the main character's mindset, all in one beautiful shot. Had it been done with cuts from place to place in the ship, we'd see the characters, we might not get lost in the geography (though we might), but I doubt we would have seen the captain with the same eyes. There are likely several other successful ways to shoot that scene. I think this one worked wonderfully.
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#5 William Demeritt

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Posted 18 January 2009 - 06:07 PM

I remember purchasing "On Directing Film" a few years ago and reading through it. I believe the book is a compilation he made after teaching a class at Columbia, and the book is comprised of his lectures.

I do think that you're going to run into an argument based on subjective judgment, whether a shot is "subjective" or not. Is Steadicam "inflected", or is any camera movement? Is any camera pan or tilt taking away from what the audience should see and know? Does the camera need to linger? How much time does the average audience member need to recognize and understand a shot in a montage, or why composition exists as it is? I'm reminded of one of Billy Wilder's rules of filmmaking: let the audience figure it out for themselves, they'll be grateful.

I guess the question of inflected versus uninflected shots then comes down to the storyteller. Are rapid cuts and frantic montage inflected or uninflected? What about the shots in Michael Haneke's "Caché", were those appropriate or forced? I'm sure everyone can think of a shot that stands out in their favorite movies, and play the devil's advocate: "Ignoring my affection for that shot, was it really truly necessary?"

My question is: If we shoot everything in the most straightforward way possible, at what point are we just shooting theater?

To answer the question at hand, one Steadicam shot that I frequently rewatch with amazement is the infamous "Contact" shot. The dialogue is essentially a string of orders for aligning the dishes, frequencies to check and recheck, and to have a montage of shots of her running past the camera would possibly suffice to be "uninflected". Chasing Jodie Foster from her car, up the stairs and into the lab is a fantastic, high energy shot, and really captures the character's enthusiasm and transfers it to the audience, many of whom may not be that enthused by radio frequencies and alignment orders.
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#6 Alan Dague-Greene

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Posted 19 January 2009 - 12:18 AM

Great discussion. A few points:

I'm reminded of one of Billy Wilder's rules of filmmaking: let the audience figure it out for themselves, they'll be grateful.

I think that's exactly it. It's the juxtaposition of shots that leaves room (in both space and time) for the viewers to draw the connections on their own. Avoid belaboring the obvious. Like a person opening a door, with an insert shot of their hand on the doorknob. It has no purpose. I think Mamet's beef with Steadicam is that it facilitates far too many irrelevant moments within a series of events, where a cut would do well to stay focused on the story. I don't agree with everything in the book (you're right, it's compiled from lectures at Columbia), but this point is definitely worth considering.

My question is: If we shoot everything in the most straightforward way possible, at what point are we just shooting theater?

Since film can be edited, I don't see this as a problem. There are extreme cases like My Dinner with Andre, where the entire thing is seen from basically one angle and without interruption. But I rarely see a film that looks like theater to me. For what it's worth, one discussion with his students yields a "scene" that's described in terms of the basic action and the cuts, and it's a great little piece. Straightforward, but still engaging.

As for other shots, Elephant comes to mind as a discussion point. There's a series of shots that seemingly waste time NOT telling the story. Specifically I'm thinking of the shot with the girl that starts on the field in gym class.

I was just thinking about this shot yesterday. To me, it is uninflected because it is so hands-off (as is much of the rest of the film). It's not moving the story forward, but really there is no story to move. It is just pure tragedy. All you can do is watch helplessly. That's how I see it, anyway.

It's worth mentioning that this concept of uninflected shots would yield movies like Raising Arizona or A Clockwork Orange impossible to make.

How do you define what is serving the story and what is not?

In the book, Mamet encourages a close relationship between the story and the cuts. As he works through an imagined scene with his students, the story may change and the shots may change, all in the pursuit of boiling the scene down to its essential elements. So, in a way, the shots are the story, and therefore every shot is serving the story.
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#7 PeterAbraham

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 01:16 PM

So, in a way, the shots are the story, and therefore every shot is serving the story.


Boy. Talk about distilling everything we do with Steadicam down to one sentence.

Peter Abraham
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#8 PeterAbraham

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Posted 01 October 2010 - 12:12 PM

I've re-read this thread, as I sometimes do here. Good food for thought. It struck me that many threads in this particular area address extremely long shots. The complexities, the nuance, the pacing, the problem-solving and dramatic enhancements.

In an odd and I suspect unintentional way we are ignoring the very important bread and butter work many of us do. No matter what we are shooting, our responsibility to remain invisible and only support the story by moving our frame is the same. It may not matter if it is a 4-minute shot or a 25-second shot.

If, by operational or compositional dint, we have done something to draw attention away from the story happening within the frame edges, we've done a disservice. Don't mean to take anything away from the astonishing complexity of nailing a shot that lasts 3,4,6...7 minutes.

But it doesn't mean that we get to phone it in when the shot doesn't even last 30 seconds. Good to keep in mind, especially when developing a style and skill set early on. Every story moment is of equal value and is deserving of that same level of support.

Best to all,

Peter Abraham
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#9 Sydney Seeber

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Posted 01 October 2010 - 12:26 PM

David Mamet is a fantastic writer.


On the other hand, I find his style of directing to be incredibly slow paced and over-the-top methodical. It's no wonder he doesn't like Steadicam.
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#10 David Baldwin

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Posted 01 October 2010 - 04:52 PM

And there's only so much Rebecca Pidgeon you can put up with...
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#11 James Davis

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Posted 04 October 2010 - 07:07 AM

Personally I think that shot in Goodfellas (you all know the one I am talking about ;) ) where he is introducing all the other characters as they walk through the scene, is a prime example of where an elaborate shot blends seamlessly with the story telling, mainly because the entire shot tells a story from start to finish.
But yeah I think Alan summarized it best :)
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#12 Scott Jason Gill

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Posted 04 October 2010 - 09:12 AM

I've re-read this thread, as I sometimes do here. Good food for thought. It struck me that many threads in this particular area address extremely long shots. The complexities, the nuance, the pacing, the problem-solving and dramatic enhancements.

In an odd and I suspect unintentional way we are ignoring the very important bread and butter work many of us do. No matter what we are shooting, our responsibility to remain invisible and only support the story by moving our frame is the same. It may not matter if it is a 4-minute shot or a 25-second shot.

If, by operational or compositional dint, we have done something to draw attention away from the story happening within the frame edges, we've done a disservice. Don't mean to take anything away from the astonishing complexity of nailing a shot that lasts 3,4,6...7 minutes.

But it doesn't mean that we get to phone it in when the shot doesn't even last 30 seconds. Good to keep in mind, especially when developing a style and skill set early on. Every story moment is of equal value and is deserving of that same level of support.

Best to all,

Peter Abraham


I remember being struck recently about half way through watching "The Time Traveler's Wife" that I had been oblivious to the Steadicam work in the film, despite always watching for it (even to a fault at times). Candide Franklyn's excellent operating in this film is never intrusive. It cuts very cleanly with the rest of the film and is simply another support tool in moving the film forward. This is a shining example of the "bread and butter work" Peter refers to. Not flashy, not glamorous, just solid and flawless, never distracting from the story.

There's a place for both styles, finding a director/dp/operator team that can use is correctly is the key.
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#13 Twojay Dhillon

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Posted 16 January 2011 - 02:10 AM

Mamet's teachings are chock-full of theoretical errors. Easily dismissible by any junior at SF State. Hell, I think I'll contact J. Hammett and have her get her students to rip his so-called absolutes to shreds.

No, I will not play the part of Cliff and give you Notes. Read and study for yourself.
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#14 Sarah Thompson

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Posted 12 July 2012 - 10:53 AM

I've experimented with Mamet's approach. It works, but I'd be uncomfortable calling it better or worse than the alternative (i.e., what he'd call an inflected shot -- a long master, long Steadicam tracking shot, etc.). Realistically it's just another tool in the toolbox for constructing a visual story. It leans less on the actors (so might help if your actor isn't too great, I suppose...) but much more heavily on the editor -- if the rhythm is off, the sequence can stop making sense. It can also help to sell an emotional idea that isn't directly playable. I've recently been doing rewrites on a feature script that was mostly pretty good, but the writer strayed into some lazy action ('Jack notices that <something emotionally complicated happened off screen that you don't see directly>') that translated fairly straightforwardly into juxtaposition. I haven't shot it yet, so I'm crossing my fingers that it'll work in the edit, but it does seem to make some kind of sense. I don't think I could have done the same thing adequately with a long master approach because it would just be no way for the actor to get the information across.

Spin (extended camera/post toolchain test)

OK, here goes, I'll stick my neck out and link an example. First thing I'll say is that Spin was never really intended to be a short film -- it was shot very quickly (couple of hours) mostly as a source of test green screen footage for checking out a post toolchain (compositing/CG/sound). I can list a lot of things I'd reshoot or do differently if I was really aiming for it to stand up as a 'real' project. However, another thing I was trying was Mamet's approach, partly because I'd just read a couple of his books -- the short has no dialogue, and in fact its story never really appears directly, it's all inferred through juxtaposition (of sound as well as images). Its nearly all composed of locked-off shots because every shot has a green screen comp going on with some combination of matte painting or CG background, and I wasn't feeling like spending a week or several doing matchmoves.
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