Editor’s note: On August 28, 2018 Daniel Gaucher, Professor in the Department of Visual & Media Arts at Emerson College, introduced Robert Altman’s The Player, part of the Brattle’s Elements of Cinema program. These are his introductory remarks. –Jessie Schanzle, Film Notes editor
I wanted to watch The Player tonight not only to see all the nice designer suits everybody wears in it from the 90s, but also to get a sense of what was called the developing shot. Now you might, if you’ve seen The Player, think to yourself, “well crap, they do a lot of long takes in that, don’t they? Where’s all the editing?”
Basically this film back in ‘92 was inspired by Altman’s work with his HBO series Tanner ‘88. What he did in that series and subsequently in this film is this sense of mixing fiction and reality, where one kind of blends into the other. So what you’re going to see in this is basically a screenplay about the industry itself, Hollywood. What better story to make a movie out of than a story about the story factory itself? And he did in fact say that it really didn’t matter that it was Hollywood – it was just a world that he was familiar with in an industry that he could make fun of because he was part of it. And ironically a lot of people actually agreed with him.
I printed out the IMDB list for this. The cameos alone in this piece take up almost four pages. So there were in fact a lot of people who didn’t mind doing this commentary on their industry. But Altman said it could be any industry where profit was the main driving factor, and then you see integrity fall by the wayside. My favorite IMDB review on it was “I had to take a shower after the film was over and remove myself from that world.” In it you’re going to see quite a lot of cameos. I’ll point out that almost all the cameos were completely improvised. He didn’t actually tell these people what to say. These actors and actresses in it actually either didn’t charge anything or gave their fee to charity because they thought it was a kind of a good message about when you’re dealing with people who have a lack of integrity.
The other thing it’s really famous for besides the 40-something cameos is its opening scene. It’s an eight-and-half minute-long single take. This movement of the camera and this movement of actors in a theatrical style is really kind of seen throughout the entire film.
Now you might ask why an editor is so fascinated with character blocking and/or moving a camera and not making cuts. Well to take two steps back quickly, what is the purpose of editing? What are the kind of questions that we have? Well we come into a new scene and we always ask ourselves: where? Where am I? So there you go: cue the establishing wide shot. I want to know what the world is, and what the time period is. Then you usually see a cut and the shot will get tighter. The next question would be: who? Whom am I supposed to identify with? Whose story am I grabbing onto here? So the second cut then is usually a tighter shot of a single character and we start to hook onto that person.
Then the next question that we get into with editing is: what? What is so important? What is going on? That’s where you get into the closer shots. The two shot, the medium shot, the close-up, or the extreme close-up. As we get in tighter, obviously we feel the tension of the scene or the power of what’s happening. Back in the days of stage, obviously that was done with the downstage/upstage technique, meaning that if I was to make something in the play important, or I needed you to be engaged in it or had some tension to it, I would move those actors and blocking forward towards the audience, because proximity equals engagement. That was called a downstage movement. If you got upstaged, you got pushed up to the back – not so important anymore. Occasionally the only time that rule is bent is if you have people in the front who might be engaging, and then they break off and then maybe somehow our attention gets pulled to the back. Those people become a framing element, kind of like a window we’re looking through, but that’s the rare exception. For the most part, equate moving closer to the audience with engagement and tension.
The developing shot is obviously taken right from that language. So when you see the developing shot, the beginning of this or any time a developing shot is done, we are moving the actors with the cameras so that the action is closer to the audience. You’ll see this many times in this; Altman is going to be doing the classic push in tight on something, pull-out, and move us on to the next plot point. Just like moving actors on the stage. Now what’s the problem there? Why isn’t everything done with a developing shot? Why did editing actually take hold? Well first of all, it’s an eight and half minute take. How many times do you think they had to shoot this thing to get it right? The correct answer is 15, of which five were useful.
So shooting a developing shot can be difficult. It’s an easy shot to mess up obviously. Secondly, in the name of expediency, it was one of the studio producers once said “I don’t want it perfect, I want it Tuesday.” The idea here was that in the interest of expediency, editing ensured that you would get the movie one way or another. So the bad part about editing was to shoot a bunch of coverage in wide, shoot a bunch of coverage in middle, shoot a bunch of coverage in close-up, and let the editor decide when we’re going to up the tension or back off the tension. And if the actors mess up lines, that’s fine, it was only a short little 30 second or one minute piece that we’re going to lose. But the other thing I want to point out though is there is, in fact, obviously some editing in this film and editing does add impact to filmmaking.
What would be a situation maybe where some editing would be more powerful than using a developing shot? Well there’s a couple of things that I would suggest. How about seeing into somebody’s mind’s eye, into their psyche? In theater we might do that with the monologue, the spotlight. Everything goes black and quiet and the person will share their thoughts. But in film we don’t have a lot of time to be burning like that, so we have to get right to the point. Maybe a series of images or a series of tight shots or what we’re juxtaposing is going to help us see immediately what a person is thinking or feeling. You’ll see some of that in this today also. How about when we have maybe an argument or some type of violence or something that’s got a staccato rhythm to it. I mean a sword fight on the stage may be sort of exciting but with a bunch of closeups thrown in and a lot of minutia with action going in your face, the editing actually does in fact heighten that adrenaline rush. It actually heightens the experience. And we’ll see some of that today, too.
And lastly, juxtaposition. One of the strong things editing always had was the ability to take one shot put it against another shot and by the two of them being together we actually get a third meaning out of the whole thing. You’ll see that used a lot today too.
So we love the developing shot. Why is the developing shot still a tool? The correct answer is because, in fact, Orson Welles said it should be. Things to watch for then as we go into this film: the developing shot versus the edited scenes. Why did they choose in this scene to do it as the developing shot and why in the scene did they go with editing instead? So think about that as we see both techniques used throughout. An L cut is an editing technique where the last scene is finishing but something from the next scene begins. Usually you’ll start hearing dialogue from the next scene before the previous picture has ended. Or you might hear some kind of music or noise that cues that we’re going to make a change. So keep an eye out for some of those creative L cuts. Specifically they do it with music too. The music and sound design in this film is interesting. It tells you sometimes how to feel. “God, that scary music, I should feel scared” or “Wow that’s foreboding music, something’s coming.” Or “that’s chaotic music. That’s working against what I’m seeing.” But one of the great things about this too is the sound design. You’re going to notice the producers never shut up. Everybody in Hollywood for some reason likes to talk over each other and that kind of conversation that blends over itself again is adding an editor’s touch to this piece. So with that enjoy the film.
After moving to Los Angeles after completing his degrees, he established himself in the production world as one of the original editors for the hit reality series Blind Date. He went on to edit reality and documentary programming including REAL TV, Extreme Engineering and the PBS science series NOVA. His work has aired worldwide on NBC, MTV, Bravo, A&E, UPN, Spike, VH-1, TLC, PBS, History Channel, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel.
Daniel’s current research addresses narrative in a virtual reality environment, and the impact working outside the frame will have on the rules of production and post-production. He completed post-production on the innovative virtual reality feature film (MansLaughter, 2015) which was distributed worldwide by Samsung for the Gear VR.