Last night, I had the pleasure of hosting a Q&A with Alfonso Cuarón for Film Independent, part of a five-week series. I looked at it as an opportunity to get all my questions answered from a longtime talent crush — and if people wanted to listen in, swell.
Between clips, we talked about music and color and collaboration. I also wanted to know about Cuarón’s lengthy, technically-sophisticated shots.
Even before Gravity, Cuarón was known for very long takes. Children of Men has a stunning car sequence that plays like one continuous moment, and a wide shot with Michael Caine that continues for quite a long scene.
But it’s not showing off, and it’s not just because he has access to great technology and master technicians. Watching clips from the much more down-and-dirty Y Tu Mamá También, it’s clear that Cuarón loves these uncut scenes regardless of the genre or budget level.
So I asked him why.
His answer spoke to the relationship of the character and the environment. It was a revelation for me. I suspect the audience could see the lightbulb over my head.
So what I’m about to say isn’t quite what Cuarón said, but my reaction to what he said.
Foreground and background
In film, whenever you cut, the audience has to re-establish where the character is in relationship to the environment. Sometimes you’re cutting to a new location, a new scene, so that re-establishing is significant. But even if you’re just cutting within a scene, the character’s relationship to the background is different. There’s a (subconscious) process of figuring out where Kathy is in the space, and her relationship to it.
It’s unnatural — in real-life, things aren’t jumping around — but audiences have gotten really good at handling it. We’re all sophisticated viewers now, so many of the old rules about cutting are less crucial than they used to be. We can cut fast. We can jump cut. We can cross the line. Aggressive cuts have given us some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema.
Cutting is a powerful tool. But it has a cost, too.
Think of it from the audience’s perspective: each cut requires us to find our character against the background. It’s not a huge burden, but it’s work. If there’s a lot of cutting, we prioritize the character and start paying less attention to the background. We don’t explore the setting because we’re worried we’re going to miss what the characters are doing. The Who is almost always more important than the Where.
But in a long take, we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again. We can notice things we otherwise wouldn’t. Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds.
In the case of Gravity, most of those backgrounds are completely computer-generated, which is testament to just how good Cuarón’s work is. Space in Gravity feels so real in part because we get to see it in such long stretches. And because it feels so real, we invest even more deeply in Bullock’s performance and the reality of her predicament. We believe that she — and we — are really there. The long takes are a huge part of why.
Most of us won’t be making movies in space, but it’s a lesson I’ll be taking with me. I love the power of a cut, but I’ll always ask what could be gained by not cutting.