by David Christopher Bell
It’s hard to get excited about something as technical as that thing that makes cameras not fall down on film sets, especially these days, when you can make a successful film without even going through the effort of picking up a camera at all. Even if you are shooting a live action film, thanks to the realism of CGI, computers are now able to put a lens wherever you need it to be – this is why I think we need to take a second to celebrate some of the hard working pieces of lightweight metal that were behind a few of the more bitchin’ shots out there. These rigs got the shot done, computers be damned!
6. Motion Control Split Screen in The Rules Of Attraction
Motion control has been around a while now – but what made this shot so impressive wasn’t the rig, but how rig was used, observe:
Pretty damn slick, right? Of course, they had to shoot the scene twice, once with each actor on either side of the shot. They set the camera up on a motion control rig, which is basically a crane or dolly designed to make the exact same movements over and over, and programmed it to pull out into the same ending position each time, so when it did, the split screen was no more! It’s so simple and yet so effective, especially in this scene, where two potential lovers are meeting for the first time.
It did prove to be a little difficult on the actors, whose actions, dialogue, and even line of sight had to be coordinated exactly with not only each other, but the rig as well.
5. SnorriCam in Requiem For A Dream
The SnorriCam rig, essentially a rig that attaches the camera on to the chest of the actor, has been around since as early as 60s. In case you are wondering it got its name from, thank two Icelandic directors, Einar and Eiour Snorri, (no relation, seriously) who worked to improve the rig in the 1990s. What makes this rig so awesome is that it literally is only as good as the actor wearing it – meaning that it showcases a performance so intimately, while at the same time is so intrusive to the performance that it takes a really dedicated actor or actress. For example, Jennifer Connelly.
Director Darren Aronofsky has this wonderful talent of knowing just when to use this rig in his films, which works best when creating some kind of emotional out of body experience. My personal favorite would be Marlon Wayans running from the cops, something that no doubt sucked to do with a giant rig strapped to your chest.
4. Vas-O-Cam and Shaky Cam in The Evil Dead
In case anyone is wondering, I have a copy of “The Evil Dead Companion” right next to my desk, which is probably why I keep bringing this series up.
The Vas-O-Cam and the Shaky Cam take us less in the direction of advanced filmmaking rigs and more in the direction of pieces of wood. You see, director Sam Raimi had a limited budget, but he also knew that he couldn’t let that show in the film – and the quickest way to spot a low budget film is if all you are seeing is tripod and handheld shots. No – he couldn’t just run around the set with a camera on his shoulder like a jackass, he needed rigs! So he got creative – the first kind of rig he needed was something to stabilize the camera when shooting the POV shots of the villain. The answer was simple.
Yeah. That’s a board. What made it work was that the board served as a way to distribute the cameras weight amongst several people gripping on to it, which made for the closest thing he could get to a steady shot. It looked like this:
Oh, right, also spoiler alert. Anyway, that’s the first rig, the second rig he needed was something to simulate a smooth dolly shot. The solution was elegant.
3. Car Rig in Children Of Men
Director Alfonso Cuaron is very much into tracking shots in his films – and you can’t really blame him for it; after all tracking shots are really, really fun to watch. So when he was faced with an action scene in Children Of Men that took place exclusively in a car (a very unfriendly place to put cameras) he had to make a few choices: he could cut between many different angles, shoot on a green screen, or build the most awesome car rig ever. He went with the third option.
Wicked boss. Basically it had a fake car interior mounted on a real vehicle manned by a hidden driver, then on top of it all, there was a second compartment where the remote camera operator and director sat. Between the upper and lower halves was the camera.
It hung down and moved the same way those claws at arcades moved: two tracks running the length and width of the car that it could move on, giving it free range to cover everything that was happening. So as the scene progressed, they would simply move this thing as they wished, provided that the actors also moved their seats in coordination with it. In the end we got one of the coolest shots ever.
Er…spoiler alert. Sorry. Also before you ask, no, it’s not all one shot, and yes, it was touched up with digital effects, too…but does it matter? So awesome.
2. Bullet Time in The Matrix
Speaking of awesome, holy God, is this an amazing rig. No doubt everyone is familiar with it – the best way to explain the effect is this: instead of a single lens that sequentially exposes film frame by frame as an action is carried out, bullet time is an array of lenses all devoted to a single frame of film capturing a different angle of an action at either the same moment in time or at a slower rate than usual. Okay, that may not have been the best way to explain it. It’s a bunch of cameras.
See? You can wrap them around your subject any way you please, kind of like a rollercoaster track, and then take a series of pictures that when put together sequentially appear to cover a small moment in time from many angles.
When the Wachowski Brothers began pre-production of the first Matrix film, they considered all sorts of insane ways to try to stop time, such as attaching the camera to some kind of rocket propelled rig to go faster than the action – in the end, the solution was clear with bullet time, and thanks to them we will surely never forget that famous shot from the first film.
Of course, in the later films they opted out of amazingly capturing a still moment in time and went with Muppet-grade CGI realism instead. We can only hope some film comes along to once again take advantage of this awesome, awesome rig.
1. Smart Gun aka Steadicam Gun in Aliens
Yes. Technically there wasn’t a camera at the end of this rig; instead, there was something way cooler.
Since its conception in the late 70s by Garrett Brown and wonderful first uses in The Shining, Rocky, and Marathon Man, the Steadicam has become an essential to any major motion picture production. It’s quite hard to explain the technical details of it, but imagine having a third arm sticking out of your stomach that is holding a camera – and anywhere you move, the arm counterbalances, keeping the camera held steady. Hence, Steadicam. It looks like this:
That’s Brown himself manning the rig there. So okay – now picture a German MG-42 machine gun at the end of it, because that’s what the pre-production team of Aliens did.
No doubt many reading this have a warm place in their hearts for this particular weapon, and the arm was one of the key details to making this alien drone killer one of the more outstanding guns in sci-fi lore. It’s like the cherry on top.
Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t really a walk in the park to handle either – anyone who has tried on a Steadicam can tell you that the part of the steadying process is redistributing the weight of the camera from the arms to the torso, so you best have a strong back. The case was no different for the smart gun, as Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez) has expressed in interviews, you couldn’t really have the thing on very long.
Small price to pay for going down in badass history, I guess.
Week in and week out, there’s always something interesting happening in the Cinematic Listology Archives.