Steadicam Analysis: Elephant
Updated on February 10, 2009, 5:09 AM - Written by Tim Buttner
With a movie such as Elephant (2003), from acclaimed indie director Gus Van Sant, where there are a cornucopian number of Steadicam shots throughout the picture, because the movie is mainly told through Steadicam shots, it becomes difficult to select one as significant and distinguishable from the others in terms of aesthetics and level of difficulty. The whole movie had one Steadicam operator. A frequent collaborator with Van Sant, Matías Mesa created an atmospheric style to his operation that is similar to his other collaborations with Van Sant on Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005). The shots are long and uninterrupted. Often these shots feel poetic, which creates a new visual language for the critics and audience to interpret and form their own meaning. Yet, does this assist in telling the story?
A specific shot of interest is one where we follow the school jock, Nathan, as he travels across the school. In it he strolls down one hallway, up a flight of stairs, down another hallway, outside, back inside, and to the school office. The shot lasts two minutes and fifty-seven seconds, and is accompanied by Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig Van Beethoven, which had begun in the previous Steadicam shot, which had a long intro to Nathan and the beginning of his journey.
The shot continues a feeling that, we the audience, are traveling in the same direction as Nathan. This feeling is a motif that runs throughout the movie, because the last shot is on Nathan and Carrie, the girlfriend he meets in the shot in discussion, fleeing into a cooler from the gunman who, after killing his partner, stalks down to the freezer and discovers them. Well, that may not necessarily be the last shot of the movie, but it is when it comes to involving the characters, because the last shot mirrors the first shot of the sky and the clouds. Interestingly, there are more important characters than Nathan and Carrie, especially more fascinating and well-performed ones, but Nathan crosses paths with at least five during his introduction. Three of these characters are in the shot in discussion.
Van Sant chose to add an interesting new element to the shot by introducing these three teenage girls with slow-motion effect and only a two-word phrase escaping their triangle for Nathan to hear. Naturally that happens to be, "So Cute." The first rule of creating a fact about a character that is true is to have it spoken by another character. We followed this character from his only interaction with his football buddies before his journey, where we never heard a word, across the school to his girlfriend, who's interaction with him feels fake and as if she's not comfortable with him despite a kiss and the dialogue telling us that they're a couple. The introduction of the three bulimic girls, as we find out later, is a clever way of making the audience accept that truth, and it's done with a revealing technique.
On the technical level this is extra burden, but it's impressive considering that there are other technical challenges addressed during the trek across the school. Focus pulls happen constantly as the operator dropped back for medium shots and caught back up with the jock for head and shoulder medium close-ups. He did the same for the slow-motion introduction in a medium shot to medium-wide of the girls, and then racking back to a head and shoulders medium close-up of Nathan as he enters the frame again to create a brief, but interesting composition that confirms he heard those words. We return to normal speed as he goes into a darker part of the hall, leading him down to his girlfriend and the school offices. Although, isn't there an additional technical difficulty to over- or under-cranking shots?
In another technical difficulty throughout the trek are iris pulls, which also is part of the difficulty of over- or under-cranking shots. He travels outside, where the Sun's light shines during the day, and although it's diffused during this shot (as day had been presented in all other shots outside) there is a considerable difference in f-stops between that light and the light inside. This also proves that if they shot a higher speed tungsten film, which imdb.com tech specs confirm is 500T, they had to filter the lens with an 85 filter, which would cut off 2/3rd of a stop. This creates an interesting shallow depth of field in the slightly deserted interior halls (where they had to be opened wide), and a deep focus in the populated outside walkway (where they had to be closed down), where we get to view some kids dancing before we go back inside to pass by those girls. As he goes into the darker corridor to meet his girlfriend the bulimic girls, and the people farther in the background at lunch, are fazed out of focus when we return to a wide aperture. That is an interesting way to bring focus back on to him as the subject of interest.
There is only one way in which the focus, aperture, and frame rate could be changed during a shot without the operator having to burden himself and that is through an assistant on a remote unit. However, with the number of optical elements to readjust, it's possible that two camera assistants could be needed on remote units. The first assistant camera is credited as Christopher Blauvelt and the second assistant camera is credited as Hector Rodriguez, so whichever part they played in the execution of the shot they should be recognized for their contribution. The shot had to take a lot of time to set up because of its complications, which displays great physical stamina from the operator. Remote units add additional weight, in addition to the matte box with 85 filter.
The shot accomplishes a lot of things within the technical realm, thanks to great teamwork, but it also accomplishes a lot in the realm of storytelling. It is visually interesting, aesthetically poetic, revealing of place and character, and it manages to tell its own story as it assists the overall story.
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