Favorite shots: “Michael Clayton”

William B. Demeritt III
July 12th, 2012

When people discuss Steadicam, they often go straight to the iconic shots that define our craft without going any further. They talk about Larry’s “Goodfellas” shot without acknowledging the incredible oners performed in “Raising Cain” or “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Now, I in no way mean to marginalize Larry’s “Copacabana” shot in “Goodfellas”, but I mean to expand on just that and perhaps discuss my take on the other iconic Steadicam shots.

I like to tell people “We all know the ‘Goodfellas’ shot, let’s come up with the shot other people will refer to your movie when discussing oners.” I put the story above all things, and a great Steadicam oner is what tells the story in a way no other tool could have. Every instrument has the potential for a great solo, but often times it’s the symphony that gets noticed as much as the solo.

To start this off, I’d like to highlight a shot that I think tells an amazing story: Scott Sakamoto’s incredible oner in “Michael Clayton“. If you haven’t seen the movie, please check it out, probably one of my top films of all time. Great suspense, great drama, great performances and direction.

***SPOILER ALERT*** If you haven’t seen the movie, going beyond here will spoil a part of the movie ***SPOILER ALERT***

Anyone left? OK, good.

Two hitmen are contracted to kill a primary character in the story, and the shot lasts just over 2 minutes. Imagine the efficacy of the scene when reading the script: two trained killers are hired to take down their target in 2 minutes or less, undetected and otherwise unnoticed. Their efficiency makes them professionals, and to cut the shot up could undermine their capability. So, in less than 3 minutes total, they can attack, immobilize, kill and disappear. How terrifying! What better way than to show this skill with a single, unbroken Steadicam shot?

We start in a lockoff that pulls back with Tom opening the door to see him stunned and dragged back inside by our killers. We push in and follow them, booming down and tilting down to stay sympathetic to Tom, now paralyzed and under the control of his assailants. We lockoff for an additional medication, and he’s laid down. When brought back up, his head is down, and we instead tilt up to stay with the killer’s face, ready for his line. They lift, and the operator compensates with a boom up to let us see Tom’s paralyzed but terrified expression while they carry him across the room.

The blocking works perfectly with the push left, as the operator enters the bathroom, leading the killers and never revealing where they’re taking him. He also has a chance to land and prepare his lockoff (boom down, slight tilt, and land) just as Tom comes to rest on the floor. If you watch the corners, you’ll see how after all this movement, the operator still lands a beautiful lockoff although his heart is likely pounding (roughly :48 seconds since the shot began). After 10 seconds of lockoff, the operator slowly pushes in, timing his landing to the needle entering Tom’s foot to deliver the lethal injection. No sway, no over-gripping the gimbal, no boom wobble or bounce. The operator then reverses his movement and slowly pulls back while tilted down and boomed low.

He seems to bring Tom’s hand back into frame at exactly the moment his hand convulses in an eery last grope for life before expiring. However, he’s far enough back to see the killer on camera right’s face as he casually scans the bathroom. These slow moves are where operators can blow the shot and distract the audience, but Scott Sakamoto keeps focused on the drama. Keep an eye on the corners while pulled back, even after all this time, Scott’s lockoffs are incredible. No wobble, no drift, no breathing, nothing. Really great stuff!!

As if that wasn’t enough, once Tom is deceased, the camera pushes in and tilt down to hold on his face for the remainder of the shot and scene. One last time, a killer’s hand checks his pulse, and then they disappear. Walking in while tilting in a slow move that lands in the tilted lockoff, the total final part taking 20 seconds, shows a great deal of skill at the end of an otherwise very well planned shot. Many kudos to Scott Sakamoto for this shot, and here’s hoping I the chance to have a shot like this on my reel or in theaters someday!

William B. Demeritt III