Big Tracking Shot From Little White Lies, Unpacked

Posted by August 23, 2011 Comment

All narrative filmmaking, and that arguably includes documentary, is a series of little white lies; fibs told for the benefit of their recipients. Appropriately enough, the opening scene of Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies is a very healthy string of deceptions, all intended to be for the good of the film’s audience.

The scene is best known for being comprised almost entirely of a long take, often reported to have been shot without cutting. A closer look will reveal, and quite plainly, that there are edits, but the scene was, nonetheless, designed to play out as though it were an unbroken stream of footage from beginning to nearly the end.

I want to take a pretty close look at the scene with you, and raise some ideas and questions about how it has been constructed. Some of the work on display here is impressive and very interesting indeed, and other times, I think it’s a little less successful.

I’ll have to spoil what happens in the first few minutes of the film, including a fairly big surprise, but won’t go much further in explaining the main narrative.

Throughout almost every second of this opening sequence, the director’s choice of framing and focus favour the character of Ludo, played by Jean Dujardin – best known to Bleeding Cool readers for starring in the OSS 117 movies or in title role of 2009’s Lucky Luke. The scene begins, however with audio only against white-on-black title cards, and when the images first appear, the camera is pointing at a closed cubicle door a graffiti-covered red door in a red lit nightclub bathroom, Dujardin hidden behind it.

So, while the camera axis is already trained on the soon-to-be perpetual subject of the scene, he’s obstructed from view. This could seem to be only a practical consideration, given the cramped nature of a toilet cubicle, but the intent seems to be to give the character an entrance. And so it is, as the door opens and Dujardin looms up into close up. And then, from this moment – just seconds in – that the previously still camera moves to follow the character, there’s no room for any doubt as to whom the scene is all about.

The scene goes on with Ludo making his way out of the bathroom, towards the dance floor and beyond, all of this in a follow-shot, going from red-lit area to green-lit area, back to red and so on. Along the way, several details in the dialogue and mise-en-scene tell us more about who it is we’re following – and incidentally, the other characters that he encounters.

In many respects, a long tracking shot like this has the same storytelling function as a series of short shots edited in sequence. The various plot points related in this scene would be exactly the same if conveyed through a conventionally edited scene. Here’s a series of the plot points for example, and I’m sure you’ll be able to visualise them both in typical montage and in a sequence shot:

  • A closed toilet cubicle daubed in graffiti. From the audio coming from within it’s easy to infer that drug use is taking place.
  • The door opens and a man in his late 30s steps out. This is Ludo and his appearance will do little to challenge your assumptions about his using drugs.
  • He comes face to face with a woman almost immediately – this is the womens’ bathroom, and she confronts him with this.
  • But he’s unfazed. He even makes sexually forthright comments to her, which gives them both a laugh, before he pushes on …
  • …into a man who puts up his hands apologetically, though Ludo still screams into his face as he keeps moving on…
  • … into a green-lit corridor. We’re heading towards the dance floor…

I’ve simplified.  Also note that this is just 12-seconds from a sequence of over four minutes.

Spelling out the entire scene would be repetitive, as many beats exist to consolidate what we learned from others or, in some cases, simply stitch the flow of events together. Some key points, however, bear more discussion.

It’s interesting to look at the best “tricks” in the scene. Perhaps the most obvious are the hidden edits.  If you want to find them, look to repeatable actions at moments when a figure moves through the foreground of the frame – a trick learned from Hitchcock’s Rope, but somewhat more fluid here, in the age of digital post production and CG.

In fact, I don’t think you could miss one of these transitions. It comes as Ludo leaves the nightclub and steps out into the early morning. The two camera moves that have been stitched together here don’t match particularly well, nor does the positioning of the actor. All the same, it’s still some way on from Hitchcock’s results, entirely as a result of the superior technology being employed.

This particular hidden edit could have had numerous practical applications, but I would imagine the two chief ones would be:

  • facilitating the outside filming as a distinct operation. This way, the material set in the more manageable interior location could be filmed over and over without compromising the outside shoot.
  • enabling a smooth transition to new exposure and colour temperature levels without the need for too much fixing.

The earlier edit comes before some tricky camera movements. At this moment, Ludo is sitting at a table in the nightclub with another man and a woman. In order to best present the quickly changing dynamic, the camera pushes in and out and reframes, going between three-shot framing all of them, two-shot framing on Ludo and the man, and simply focusing on Ludo, the others left as background artefacts.

While it’s possible that these camera moves were ad-libbed and the reframing done on the fly, I would think they were quite carefully planned as a sequence. They certainly do a great job in shifting the dramatic dynamic as appropriate, beat by beat.

These particular reframing moves are pretty much invisible with audience attention on Ludo and his interactions – on the contents of the frame and not on the form – but not everything in the scene is so subtle.

There’s a broad issue in that not every bit of camera movement is fully motivated. Sometimes the camera moves around Ludo to solve a practical issue, but not rolling in time with the dramatic undercurrent. See where he lights his cigarette, a bit of business apparently staged for the benefit of the camera move and not the other way around.

It’s a very tricky thing, staging a long sequence shot that wouldn’t have worked better, which is to say with less wastage and fewer reminders of the artifice of it all, had it been cut at least once or twice.

It seems obvious that scene pays homage to Mean Streets, specifically the introduction of Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy or the novel, rigidly tracking shots that were filmed with Harvey Keitel sitting on the dolly, securely fixed in frame as the background moves around and past him. What we have in Little White Lies tends to the less blatantly technical, however, and is therefore considerably less alienating. The scene in Little White Lies is already more successful than its counterpart in Mean Streets for this very reason; we’re more able to come into the world of the later film, less likely to be held out by the mechanical gimmick on display.

But you may still find yourself, in the moments where the scene falters, asking why it has been shot this way. Perhaps the best answer comes right at the end, in the last few seconds. This when the cuts start.

After Ludo leaves the nightclub, he puts on a helmet and climbs onto a small motorcycle or moped. The camera spends most of its time following the bike, though there is some time where it moves around and films Ludo in profile. We see the various street lights turning from red to green and back to red again (sound familiar?) and, towards the very end, Ludo’s bike starts pulling further away from the camera.

During this part of the scene, Ludo has no human interactions at all. Another biker pulls up at the same red light for a moment, but he is left either out of focus and out of frame, or in the distance. For over twenty seconds towards the end of the sequence, all that happens is that Ludo pulls away, slowly, from the camera and the town goes by, nothing in the architecture or road layout drawing any specific attention.

The on-going nature of all this nothing-happening can only lead to questions, and, in theory, to suspense or surprise.

But… I saw it coming, and I’m sure that many of you will too.

Now, if I’m being uncharitable, I could say that the scene has now moved from one cliché: the tracking shot around a nightclub, to another: the “splatter bus” surprise impact.

Probably first executed, at least to significant effect, in the first Final Destination picture, there’s a recognisable shock trick of having a character be hit suddenly by something entering from out of frame – typically something entering from the left of frame. Indeed, this basic paradigm has actually been repeated in the new Final Destination 5, during the bridge disaster premonition.

I’m calling the shot a “splatter bus” as I expect the origin of the shot in Final Destination was the famous “bus” moment in Jacques Tourneur’s wonderful Cat People, just with the ante upped rather gorily.

In the case of Little White Lies, a truck enters frame as Ludo’s bike crosses an intersection and it is shown to smash right into him. This has been achieved digitally, with an inserted truck moving across the frame with perfect, animator’s timing and obscuring the actual, filmed actor and bike (any portion of which could easily be painted out in any case). The bike and actor are replaced with a CG equivalent, slammed across the frame on the front of the truck.

At this moment we are 4 minutes and 5 seconds in from when the film started proper, with sound over title cards.

Then, within the remaining eight seconds of the scene, we cut directly to three more viewpoints:

  • Within the truck, looking through the smashed windscreen at Ludo and his bike.
  • Watching the bike and Ludo fly through the air, spinning, away from the truck.
  • The truck coming to a stop in the background as Ludo and the bike come towards the camera, the bike zipping right at the camera, ultimately blacking out the entire image.

Take note that in this rapid-fire sequence, each camera angle is on an axis rotated 90 degrees, or very nearly, from the last. This avoids any sudden reverse angles and possible issues with spatial confusion, at the same time as leading towards the final moment in which Ludo and his bike flying forward to black out the screen. It has been designed for heightened impact.

And of course, the rapidity of the cutting is only heightened by the long sequence shot that preceded it.

So we may understand now why Guillame Canet decided to stage his opening scene in such a technically troublesome manner – some combination of homage to Mean Streets, indulgence in his own cleverness, and a desire to bring as much emphasis as possible to the surprise ending of the scene.

The overall narrative of Little White Lies has been compared to The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus 7. Ludo is the Kevin Costner character, if you will. The remainder of the storyline focuses on a group of his friends taking a holiday together while he is in an intensive care ward.

Look at this trailer for a fairly accurate idea of what most of the film is comprised of:

There were at least three clips in the trailer from this opening sequence. I should also point out that the face-on shots of the chap in the helmet are not from this scene, and that character is not Ludo.

So why has Guillame Canet decided to start with so much concentration on Ludo if he’s going to be essentially absent from most of the narrative? Was Canet just trying to wrong foot us with a fake beginning, and create bit of narrative surprise?

Well, it certainly can’t hurt to learn something about the man at the centre of the story, even if his role is rather like the eye of a storm, an emptier space around which great masses of dramatic wreckage will rush.

But as well as that, I think we’re having a key point underlined for us in this opening sequence. During the nightclub scene Ludo is shown having a life away from the characters who “star” in the film, his supposed circle of friends. He’s seen interacting with characters who know him, and several others are mentioned, and with familiarity, by first name only.

Ludo has a busy social life, full of interactions (if not exactly happiness and joy) and not one thread of what we see in the opening scene traces obviously back to the group of friends we see gathered around his bedside in the hospital.

It will be up to you to find the connections in viewing the rest of the film.

Little White Lies is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now. It has not yet been released on disc in the US.

(Last Updated August 23, 2011 7:37 am )

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