Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN: A tribute to Orson Welles and the long take
As any good director working in movies will freely admit, they have been influenced by the cinema of Orson Welles in making their own films. And just having seen Alfonso Cuaron's masterful new movie "Children of Men" (which will be opening from Universal Pictures on Dec 25th), I want to give everyone a very good recommendation about seeing this picture, because I found it to be not only exciting, well-acted and extremely moving, but also one of the most audacious feats of cinematography to come out of Hollywood for quite awhile. The camerawork is by the three-time Oscar nominated cinematographer, Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, who dazzled us with his work on Terrance Malick's "The New World" last year, and was also responsible for Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" and Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Great Expectations."
And quite possibly, although it may be a stretch for me to say this, I really think I haven't seen such an innovative use of the camera since Orson Welles "Touch of Evil" in 1958, (which by coincidence, was also released by Universal, but as we know, that was in a different era, and by a much different regime).
Anyway, despite the involving story, I found myself quite in awe of the camerawork in "Children of Men" as I've seldom been while watching a movie.
Of course, Alfonso Cuaron is a Mexican director, and since "Touch of Evil" takes place in Mexico, it seems rather fitting that Cuaron was probably influenced by that film in making his current movie. And it might be ironic if Cuaron's and Chivo Lubezki's superb work brings the long take back into fashion in the movies again, since most of today's younger directors, who come to film from directing music videos, don't seem to know that a take can last over 20 seconds.
One reason I think it's fairly safe to say that Cuaron was influenced by Welles, is because it seems to me there are also several other other classical film influences at work in his movie, including subtle homages to Hitchcock (Psycho), Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), and Ingmar Bergman (Shame).
Here is some of what Cuaron had to say about his long take camera style for "Children of Men" which strangely enough seems to echo what Charlton Heston reported about the long rehearsal's Welles needed for "Touch of Evil's" long takes, as well as using the long takes in a moving car, which Cuaron does in his movie, but was of course preceeded by Welles wide angle shooting of Heston and Mort Mills driving through a back street of Los Robles.
Alfonso Cuarón made the conscious decision early on to shoot as many long takes as he could in Children of Men, removing some of the rhythmic, artificial cuts associated with current cinema and allowing for a more realistic, cinema-verite style"to squeeze the frame to the last of its potential, to hold the frame until there's nothing else we can tell in that frame and, all the time, following Theo's perception," he offers.
To achieve this, he utilized wide lenses and a roving "curious" camera in an attempt to elicit an emotional response to the characters being portrayed in a certain space at just the right time. This meant a higher level of choreography from cast and crew to orchestrate these difficult, lengthy, near-documentary takes. More rehearsal time was taken during production to prepare for the more intricate shots, in order to maximize time within the restrictions of location shooting. In the end, these longer takes (Cuaron reasoned) would cut down on the time spent in editing, with the seamless look he wanted already begun by the cinematography. The overall goal: Keep the audience in the film and plugged into the drama of Theo's (Clive Owen's) journey.
To achieve Cuaron's desired look, camera operator George Richmond shot for 16 weeks with a handheld camera. The resulting shots are tactility real, giving a feeling of being in the moment while following Theo on his turbulent journey. Lubezki offers, "The camera almost became another person on seta curious, inquisitive person who follows our main character and, at times, becomes very nervous and edgy. This puts the audience in the environment and gives them a sense of 'real' time."
This is never more evident than in one of the longest, most action-filled sequences toward the end of the film, when "we follow characters through the streets in the midst of battles into this apartment building, being shelled from the outside by the army with freedom fighters shooting back from inside. And we follow room to room, floor to floor, in one single shot. I had this instinct to tell everybody, 'Don't worry, we can always cut.' But everyonethe ADs, the stunt people, the visual effects, the cast, the crewtook it as a crusade and said, 'No way, we're not going to cut! We're going to go all the way through!'" relates Cuaron.
The final sequence took four days of preparation with no cameras rolling. On the fifth day, several failed attempts occurred. Then, just before day's end, the scene came together, per the director, "better than I could have hoped, because there were little accidents along the way that made it more lively!"
Clare-Hope Ashitey (who plays the role of Kee) recalls, "Alfonso tends to build up his scenes in layers, and between each shot and each take, he'll add comments, which really help you to layer your performance. Soon, he's created something so different from what you started with."
The look and style of the film was another one of the elements that attracted Michael Caine to the project: "So it's 2027, and these futuristic films tend to be expensive-looking and slick, but ours is dirty and shadowy. They usually put dolly tracks down, but our film was shot using handheld, so it looks something like a newsreel. That was the final thing that swayed me to do it. I actually thought, 'Aha, here's a director who's actually thinking!'"
Some of the takes involved in the long sequence of shots could only work during certain times on any given day. Producer Marc Abraham says, "It's been difficult shooting in the U.K. in the middle of winter, because you have a limited amount of time where there's enough light to expose the film."
Every detail of a shot was diligently prepared prior to a take, which didn't leave much room for mistakes. But, says Owen, "We had an amazing camera operator who literally, from day one, put the camera in incredible positions. He did extraordinary things, and all by handit gives you a constant feeling that you're present in the environment.
For some of the very challenging shots desiredin particular, a 12-minute sequence of dialogue and action filmed from within a car carrying five passengersthe creative minds behind the cameras were required to develop some made-to-order technology. The result was an invention affectionately referred to as "the contraption," which was a rig that allowed the camera to move around the interior of the car without the passengers getting in the way, with the final, seemingly continuous shot appearing as if there are no internal cuts. While the integral components of the contraption had been previously utilized separately, they had never all been assembled for use simultaneously.
Frank Buono (from the U.S.-based company Doggie Cam) was one of the mastermindsalong with Cuaron and Lubezkibehind the contraption. He explains, "The rig allows for the camera to be put anywhere inside the car and be able to look around 360° out of the window and never see any rigging or be bothered by any obstructions. It was built on a platform that was especially made so that it can be driven forwards and backwards by stunt drivers at the same level as a car. The cameraman, director, focus puller and I filmed the shot from an operations station built on top of the rig. We looked a little like the Beverly Hillbillies rolling down the street while we were shooting, but the end product is an incredible piece of film work."
One of the five actors inside the car was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who offers, 'This one shot is captured with one continuous moment...which means our movements and reactions have to be very fluid in terms of what the camera is doing. Our seats are on hinges, so that all the actors get out of the camera's way as it moves around the inside of the car."
All who collaborated to create the contraption hope they have come up with something that will continue to be used in filming. Buono continues, "Alfonso has been scratching his head trying to figure out a way to patent this idea, because he's worried everyone is going to catch on and start using it! He's incredibly proud of it, as are we all. It kind of feels like we have created a landmark shot on this movie, really, this roller coaster inside a car."