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Remember This Scene: 'Birdman'

Jeremy Fuster |
January 22, 2015 | 3:36 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

'Birdman' is a mix of top-notch acting and insane cinematography. (Fox Searchlight)
'Birdman' is a mix of top-notch acting and insane cinematography. (Fox Searchlight)
Every Thursday, Jeremy Fuster shines a spotlight on a critical scene from a popular film. Join him every week as he delves into what exactly makes these critical scenes so memorable and successful.

So last week I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the Oscar snubs handed to 'Selma,' but now it's time to focus on some other Oscar nominees, particularly a dark comedy that probably would have been a stronger contender for Best Picture in a less crowded year: Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman."

As I wrote in my review back in October, it's a minor miracle that this movie is so good. A wrong casting choice here or a weaker screenplay there, and this film would have been insufferably pretentious. Instead, it's an engaging, original work featuring actors playing actors and depicting the desperation and risk that can come with trying to reach your dreams.

On the technical side, however, "Birdman" is getting lauded for its excellent cinematography and editing. The entire story is told through long takes edited together to look like one continuous shot. Since the story takes place in the St. James Theatre, the darkness of the building is used to the film's advantage when editing. When the camera pans through a dark hallway to go from one lit room to another, seamless editing is used to end one take and start another.

READ MORE: Remember This Scene: 'Boyhood'

Again, this effect could have been incredibly gimmicky and distracting, but Inarritu worked well with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work in "Gravity") to make sure that the film's visual style drew attention to the actors rather than to itself. Through the scene below, the camera is firmly fixed on Riggan's face. He is the central point in the frame, and everything else moves around him. The only lighting used in the scene comes from the natural lighting of Riggan's surroundings, making his face move in and out of shadow even as he talks. This adds authenticity to the scene as Riggan's surroundings transition from bright Broadway stage to claustrophobic backstage hallway.

Focusing on the face also changes how we see the conversations between the characters. Usually the interaction between two characters is shown through camera cuts, with one character onscreen at a time. Without these cuts, we see the characters' body language along with their lines. What they're doing when they're not speaking informs us of who they are just as much as what they say, and because the cast of "Birdman" is so varied and strong, the effect doesn't wear off over time.

READ MORE: Oscars 2015: Complete List of Nominations

It's not easy to get this effect, though. To film these scenes, the "Birdman" team on both sides of the camera had to follow a subtle choreography. Along with memorizing their lines, the actors had to be constantly aware of how fast they were walking and where they were placing themselves in the frame. The camera operators, meanwhile, had to lug their heavy equipment up, down, and around the tight corridors of the St. James Theatre for takes that could last as long as ten minutes. One slight mistake renders the footage useless and forces them to take it from the top. Every time you're watching these characters walk around, you're seeing the end result of a crazy cinematic balancing act disguised as a casual stroll being filmed by an unseen camera.

Amid all the controversy of this year's nominations, "Birdman" seems to be one of the films being lost in the shuffle, and that's a shame. Everything about this film, from the script to the cast to the technical work, is top-notch. Nothing about this film was simple. It is a film built around a concept that challenged everyone who worked on it to never settle for ordinary. With "Boyhood" getting the critical push for months and "American Sniper" becoming the people's choice this past weekend, "Birdman" will now have to settle into the role of dark horse, hoping that voters will remember its tale of hope amid disaster.

Find other "Remember This Scene?" posts here.

Reach Staff Reporter Jeremy Fuster here. Follow him on Twitter here.



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