Anyone who has ever worked on a commercial set or a student film knows that the true characters, drama, and fun are to be found behind the camera. This short film, directed and shot by steadicam operator Yousheng Tang, pays tribute to the great long takes in cinema and the people who make them possible. Shot in a single six-minute take, it's is full of insider jokes and technical flourishes, including a cameo by the filmmaker in the mirror at 04:38. Below, Tang speaks about the making of the film and shares some of his favorite long takes in the history of cinema.
The Atlantic: What inspired you to make this film?
Yousheng Tang: The idea for Behind the Scene came up on the set of a friend’s film when I realized that on most shoots I work on, what happens behind the scene is often more interesting than what’s happening in front of the camera.
As I was coming to the end of four years at film school, I realized the times I cherished most were when all we had was a few broken light kits, a crappy camera and no idea what we were doing or whether the film were even exposed at all. We hadn’t even imagined that we would be working on real movies and getting paid for it. We made terrible shorts together and always had a great time.
Behind the Scene was inspired by my friends and the bits and pieces of stories that happened to us on sets behind the scene that I will remember long after I had forgotten what the actual movie was about.
What were some of the technical obstacles you had to negotiate in the process of shooting?
I consider myself to be a camera operator more than a director. Stepping into the shoes of a director was an unfamiliar and scary territory. I would spend more time talking about camera movement, lighting, and designing the menu for the crew than actual directorial aspects. Luckily, I had the amazing support of my trusted and talented friends Alex Kurze as my co-director, Alex Chinnici my cinematographer, as well as Emily Miller and Cody Snider as my producers.
Being a super low budget short, we didn’t have many luxuries. At the same time, I wanted to provide each department with the proper budget in order for them to do their jobs properly. I especially wanted to feed the crew with great food. We were able to thanks to chef Tim Wu.
A lot of favors were pulled in from everywhere. We got the location from a friend who was also a crew member, some equipment from Lighthouse Lights, a grip and electric rental house I had worked for, a camera for stock test from my friend Jonathan Yi, and a cameo appearance from Dee Snider. The list of favors goes on and on. Through the support of Dewitt Davis at Kodak, we were able to secure 11 rolls of film, which meant we only had 11 takes to get the shot.
The amazing crew held it all together. Alex Chinnici and gaffer Jesse Skogh were able to light a massive area with very limited amount of gear. My mixer Mel Cubero had to figure out how to record sound on a complicated move with minimal equipment. Production manager Chris Bradley handled gracefully the logistics of the set.
Being a one take, timing, performance, sound, camera work, focus, lighting cues, speed ramps -- all had to be in sync to make a take usable in a very limited time -- not to mention 99% of the crew also had to act in the film. Troy Sola my focus puller had to act and pull focus at the same time! The pressure to get the shot was intense at many moments, especially when magic hour was turning into tragic hour. In post, my editor and unsung hero Nick Noyes spend many long nights fixing my mistakes.
All obstacles and limitations aside, committing ourselves to pull off a complicated one take energized everyone creatively. Great food and beer kept everyone happy.
What motivated you to shoot film rather than video?
I had long discussions with my DP Alex Chinnici regarding shooting formats. We had considered shooting on Red, 35mm, and even the high speed Phantom camera. Our good friend Seth Hagenstein generously offered to provide us with a free Red camera. In the end, we chose Super 16 mm film because this film was a celebration of low budget filmmaking and we had both learned cinematography on this format. We felt that shooting digitally would cheapen the experience. The grains, color, look and feel of 16 mm were something both of us were comfortable with and felt appropriate for the storyline of the film. Also, chances to work with film are becoming less frequent. We both just miss it. It felt like reuniting with a long lost friend.
There are some famous long takes in the history of cinema – do you have any favorites?
The precision, timing and intuition of these masters’ work is something I aspire to. When the technical aspects of operating become second nature, it really shows their focus on storytelling. Every choice is not only rock solid but also moves the story forward without making the audience notice the movement.
All my operating flaws aside, Behind the Scene was my humble attempt to pay tribute to the masters of steadicam.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been tremendously lucky and grateful to be working as a steadicam operator with talented and creative people. I hope to continue in that track and improve my skills as a camera operator with the goal of joining the camera union in the next few years.
I’m currently working on an updated reel and looking for an agent. My next film about China’s one child policy and the forced abortions that occur illegally in rural villages is in pre-production. I hope to raise enough funding to shoot in the winter of 2012.
I would also love to do a sequel to Behind the Scene.
For more work by Yousheng Tang, see http://www.yoshisteadiop.com.
For more fantastic steadicam scenes from film and television, check out http://www.steadishots.org/.