Everybody loves an ambitious shot, whether it’s the famous tracking shot from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or the one from True Detective, the car scene in Children of Men or even the time-hopping in Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” music video. Most recently, an episode of Michel Gondry’s Showtime show Kidding added an impressive moment to the canon of legendary long takes: a remarkably orchestrated in-camera time lapse tracking a character undergoing a personal transformation over the course of years.
Acclaim awaits those who are able to pull something like this off, but needless to say, that’s far easier said than done. A lot goes into conceiving a complicated long take, let alone actually making it work. We turned to production designer Maxwell Orgell and cinematographer Shawn Kim, who helped realize the Kidding shot and have extensive additional experience creating long takes from their frequent collaborations with Gondry. We spoke about how they pulled off the Kidding sequence and what universal advice they could offer for those looking to tackle something equally ambitious.
Always Put Story First
The decision to move forward with an elaborate shot, be it a long take or in-camera timelapse, must first overcome one question: Why? Why do something that will require an extensive amount of planning, and a high degree of stress to execute, when something much simpler would work?
“Story” should always be the first answer. Not, “It would be cool,” or, “Because complicated shots get a lot of attention.” Therein only lies the path to gratuitousness, but not so with story. That was something very clearly on the Kidding team’s mind for their own shot. “Every single thing like this kind of shot, no matter how special it is, or how much attention people give to it, has to serve a story point, or it’s ridiculous in my mind,” says Kim.
Feist’s “1234” music video, shot by Shawn Kim
There’s nothing wrong with other reasons, of course. The “can we pull it off?” challenge might motivate some and offer creative rewards, as Orgell notes. “If you can nail it this way, it’s far more gratifying in terms of filmmaking,” he admits. It can also be rewarding, even essential, to break from the safety-net-like comfort of digital effects. “There’s something that’s fundamentally important about going back to a practical level, even if it’s not easier or requires a greater team effort.”
But story should still always be the primary reason for an ambitious shot. All questions about how to make an in-camera timelapse, and avoid a flashback montage, came back to that for the Kidding team. “What is the best storytelling method of this shot?” Kim recalls asking.
Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World” video, directed by Michel Gondry
Breaking Down a Team Effort
Once the “story test” is passed, a lot of planning has to happen. Elaborate shots have a lot of moving parts that need to be identified, broken down, delegated, and brainstormed to realize. It can be helpful to first break them down into parts, as the Kidding team did. “We started talking and sorting out what actions occur, how many beats we have, how we’re going to do this, and how we’re going to get from point A to point B,” says Orgell.
From there, answering the “How are we going to do this?” question requires tremendous involvement from almost every part of a production to determine the path forward. However, a lot of that can’t happen without a better sense of the space. That’s why production designers can often help lead the front. “We started thinking about what sorts of spaces lend themselves well to this transformation in general,” Orgell says, which led to the square apartment we see in the Kidding shot.
They also needed an anchoring point or two, which many elaborate shots have in the form of characters, objects, vehicles, or something else that guides the viewer through the sequence. In the case of Kidding, the team knew that aside from Shaina (Riki Lindhome), there would be a Jeff Nichols (Jim Carrey) speech playing on a TV, which would serve as an anchoring point that the camera would return to. That guided the team’s planning with thoughts like, “Okay, we’re going to be looking over here; we’re going to keep on moving clockwise, and this area’s open. What’s the fastest way to change both the wall or other things like that over there,” says Orgell. “It gave us a general hemisphere that we were working in.”
Wielding Tricks to Create Onscreen Illusions
As planning starts to advance, it’s often motivated by the question, “What changes the world the most, and how do we make that work?” says Orgell. Tricks of the trade are usually the answer to help realize an elaborate shot’s illusion onscreen. A lot of ingenuity, creative brainstorming, and economic storytelling goes into it. A case like the Kidding shot especially requires these things because a lot happens quickly in the shot. “It’s about a very fast change with the maximum impact for what we want to do there, but it really does deploy a whole bunch of these tiny tricks,” says Orgell.
That led to creative solutions to “simplify” the set transition between periods of Shaina’s arc. For example, instead of removing an old carpet and bringing in a new one to represent an improved version of her apartment, the production team stacked an old looking carpet on top of a new one. That way, once they removed the old one, the new one would be waiting there already. Similarly, Orgell designed a dilapidated wall that could be pulled away to reveal a ready-to-go modern kitchen, instead of wasting valuable time on a set-dressing team scrambling to create it on the fly. Then there was the drug paraphernalia on the coffee table in the early shot, which was glued on so that the crew only had to remove one item — the table — instead of several.
Finessing Toward (Im)Perfection
Unsurprisingly, complicated shots require rehearsal. Like a choreographed dance or a theater performance, production teams need to develop an instinctual knowledge of who goes where and when that only practice brings. Practice also helps finesse the “in theory” timing versus the actual timing required to execute the shot. “We set a cadence for how fast the movement was, and we laid out a general plan, a general flight path if you will, and then we just ran it a few times in prep to see where the lag is — which handoffs are slower, which parts need more or less of a pan, which parts need to hold off on something before you reveal it,” explains Kim.
As things get tweaked, it’s usually the camera that adjusts, not the other production teams. “The camera is the easiest thing to fix when it comes to things like that, because if a handoff or a change is taking too long, you can speed up or slow down a camera move to compensate for it, as opposed to changing the actions of three or four people. You massage that through,” says Kim.
But perfection during rehearsals shouldn’t be too high a priority. Kim believes there’s great value in imperfection. “Once you have a feeling that, ‘Hey look, the possibility is there,’ you stop rehearsing and stop making it too perfect,” he explains. “It’s getting as close to that as possible, but with the acceptance of anomaly and a little human error or mistakes that end up adding something to it. The pressure of that red light adds a little bit of magic. It gives it an energy. It gives it an aliveness.”
And once, “That’s a wrap!” is yelled, something special comes out of it as a result — both in the moment and looking back on it. “It’s almost a microcosm of the filmmaking experience in its own right, in general,” says Orgell. “You can have the most talented people in the world on something, but without every single part working properly and doing its thing, the success of the project is still always questionable. There needs to be that end product. It’s every department’s contribution that makes it a really memorable experience.”
Header image from Kidding courtesy of Showtime