Shots, coverage and budget

I was watching MEN IN WAR last night, Anthony Mann’s gritty (at the time) foot-soldier movie. It’s a great film, although the first 30 minutes are probably the best, and there are some typically excellent sequences from Mann, one of my favorite directors.

I’ve seen the film a few times before, but last night I noticed how efficient it all was. It’s set in Korea, but it was shot in Griffith Park in LA. Apparently, they didn’t have any army cooperation, so there’s a couple jeeps in it and some guns and that’s it. And, most interesting to me, there are not that many shots in it.

I’m not sure how a lot of this would play out in present day cinema. Shooting in Griffith Park is still pretty standard, but people have a more worldly view of Korea now. A war movie could probably get away without the tanks, but I’m pretty sure that audiences these days expect bigger artillery in their war films. I’m not sure that a film with less shots works with audiences these days. Watching MEN IN WAR last night, I could imagine the same film, with the same action, but covered more so that the director could keep cutting. Today, that would be the standard, though I don’t think it would make a better film.

The thing is, this was how they kept budgets low in those days. They shot less film. They had shorter schedules, usually under 18 days. They shot on the studio lot. This is why Anthony Mann and the great directors got the big bucks: because they could make this work.

Filmmakers always have to work on a budget, and there is usually a choice that has to be made between coverage – ie. the number of shots that cover a scene – and quality of those shots.  The idea is that if you take the time to get a shot perfect – with lighting, camera movement, performance, everything – the less time you have to get more shots.  Or you can shoot quickly – maybe using available light, or not worrying that the dolly looks bumpy – and this gives you time to get more shots and, therefore, more options in the editing room.  Producers always want coverage because it gives you more options in the editing room, but there’s something to be said for a director who has the vision and preparation to cut some of those options out before shooting them, and can therefore make what he has look better.

Watch an Aldomovar film or a Woody Allen and you can see you are in experienced hands, there’s no excessive coverage and the quality is top notch.  You can see in, say, MAGNOLIA, where the director, PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON has decided that he needs a lot of shots, moving quickly and had to sacrifice some of the quality of the shots.  Obviously, a bigger budget gives you more time to get more shots, done better.  David Fincher films look great and seemingly have plenty of coverage, but they cost a shitload and take months to shoot.   On the other extreme, look at something like CLERKS, which had so little money that they didn’t have a lot of shots, and the ones they had looked like shit.

But CLERKS worked with audiences and it was audience perception what I was thinking about when I watching the dated quality of MEN IN WAR.  Audiences these days are accustomed to films that cut from shot to shot constantly, sometimes arbitrarily and unnecessarily, because that’s what they are given.

Budgets are getting smaller, so filmmakers (and audiences) will have to make do with less and, inevitably, that will mean films that don’t look so polished, and/or don’t have as many shots and may seem a little slower paced than films did a few years ago.   It seems pretty clear to me that the trend is to get a lot of shots and not worry so much about the quality.  I’m interested to see how audiences react to films that take the quality approach, and maybe sacrifice a little of their excessive pacing.  A great director knows how the grab an audience whichever approach they take.

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