Once Upon a Time in the West – Shot Analysis

Danny Kneip | September 7, 2013 | 2 Comments

August was especially unkind to the Wooden project. Almost viciously so. Yes, I’m blaming all of my problems on August. To think I was going to name my first born child “August”… wow, what a dummy I would have been.

I began the complicated sequence for the introduction of the Christmas Witch and her conversation with Stockpot with a worried eagerness, if that’s even possible.

My storyboards, completed earlier in the year, looked great on paper. What I realized during production, however, is that ultimately, my camera was seemingly always on the wrong side of the action. It was always “behind” the character or in the wrong place at the wrong time and I am religiously restricting myself to proper camera etiquette and being mindful not to cross the line of action.

By my third attempt at storyboards, I finally got it right and the solution should have been fairly obvious to me, but I was stuck in my own head.

The solution to my camera problem came when I searched for inspiration in the opening sequence of “Once Upon a Time in the West”, the classic western from Sergio Leone.

There’s a great “reveal” of “Harmonica” in the opening sequence, which opened my eyes to how I could effectively get my camera on the other side of the line of action.

Leone forms a triangle with his characters, with the main bad guy played by Jack Elam, at the center. They’ve arrived at the train station to kill a man, who is cued by the sounds of a harmonica, and as the train exits screen right, Jack slowly turns around.

The camera begins to move right and transition from a high angle to a low angle shot. A new line of action is being introduced – Leone is deciding for the remainder of the sequence (minus one jarring exception) that he will keep his camera on the right side of the characters.

 

In making this camera move, a new triad is formed; the leftmost bad guy is pushed off screen and Harmonica is revealed as the new center point.

This “revealing shot” is also significant due to the three major blocking moves that occur in order to successfully complete the vision.

1. The train has to move out of the way to reveal Harmonica.
2. Jack has to move out of the way to reveal Harmonica.
3. The camera has to move to reveal Harmonica.

The moves are dependent upon each other and at least two of those things must happen in order to complete the reveal.

It’s like window curtains opening so you can see what a beautiful day it is outside while you’re sitting indoors in your boxers playing with your computer.

By the end of the fourth shot in this last sequence (above), once the train has left the scene, the camera has eased to a very slow movement, seemingly happy with it’s placement, but in the continuous action shot, as the characters readjust to the arrival of Harmonica, the camera pulls out to reveal the original triangle again and a “3 against 1” stand off.

Below, I want to reiterate the two triangles created from camera movement and blocking. The opening shot of this sequence with the three bad guys and the train in the background is superimposed on the final reveal of Harmonica, just before the bad guys are repositioned.

This is, for film enthusiasts who study shit like this, extremely exciting!! 🙂 It’s not something I noticed right away, which is good because that means Leone’s blocking wasn’t heavy handed.

Anyway, that’s all tedious nonsense to you, I’m sure. Just know that my blocking problems are sorted. 🙂

But as long as I’m citing issues, I also had a line of dialogue that just was not flowing properly. And as my actors are not coming back to record new lines with me, the only character that could be rewritten was my own. I’ve had to do that on a number of scenes already but for this particular scene, nothing has really seemed to work.

The original lines were:

CHRISTMAS WITCH
(about to throw a nutcracker into the fireplace)
I said I don’t care to freeze me tootsies off!

STOCKPOT
(moving to snatch the piece away from her)
And I prefer the chill! Now who are you and what’s
your business here?

The line was changed to:

STOCKPOT
I’ve just finished polishing that wooden piece and now
you’ve put your greasy prints all over it again!

Then changed to:

STOCKPOT
Bitch, is you out yo fuckin’ mind o’ sumtin??

Finally settling upon:

STOCKPOT
Oh, you pest! It’s a commissioned piece for Lady H,
who will have you beheaded if you break it!

This last line helps reinforce the fantasy world, that somewhere outside of the forest, there is a kingdom and that the woodcarver’s work is appreciated far and wide. It also flows better with the updated action.

However, since I still am not happy with the timing of that line, my back-up option is:

STOCKPOT
Oh, you pest! Were you raised by pigs? It’s not yours
to break! Now who are you and what’s your business here?”

So now you know all of my problems are sorted. For now.

Oh, also, something had gone terribly wrong with my mesh deform on the Witch. The armature worked just fine if the character was facing straight ahead, but when I turned the main armature bone 180 degrees, the mesh deform started twisting up my model, which I guess I never tested during it’s creation. 🙂 Silly me.

Anyway, I fiddled with the mesh and the rig enough that a solution presented itself and everything’s rolling again. I’m sorry I can’t explain how I resolved my issue, but believe me, I am not smart enough to find the solution in the settings. I just got lucky somehow. Anway, my problems are now sorted.

In terms of meeting my December 2013 deadline, yeah.. good luck with that.

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