Art of the Steadicam – Boogie Nights

By @nvds888

Note: I'm really humbled to be a part of the Coil Boost Program, and appreciate the recognition from the Coil team! Enjoy the article;)

Once so often, when watching a movie or TV-show, a certain scene or shot just blows your mind. For me, this usually happens with steadicam shots. The extraordinary ability to bring the world of the scene to life. Steadicam shots create the illusion of actual depth, and make it possible for you to render the environment outside of the current point-of-view just a little bit better. The long takes establish a firm belief that the actors aren’t merely puppets given directions by the old, cigar smoking, director. Everyone in the shot has to be on top of their game, no faking allowed..

Lucky for me, movie history is filled with great steadicam shots! The challenge and reward to capture minutes of film within one single take, while making the ride worthwhile. Many of the great directors eventually submitted to its allure. Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles, and Martin Scorsese are just a couple of the ones that were determined to master ‘’The Art of the Steadicam’’.

Last week I published this short article about the announcement of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new picture. A quick spark of admiration for some of his brilliant movies flooded the CBC chat for a minute. Enough reason for me to start this off with one of the many exceptional scenes/shots from his movie **Boogie Nights.



Eddie Adams is a high-school dropout living with his stepfather and emotionally abusive mother. He works at the Reseda nightclub, where (in the opening shot) he meets porn filmmaker Jack Horner. Jack transforms Eddie into adult-film sensations Dirk Diggler. Eventually, the story of Eddie follows a similar path as most Martin Scorsese characters, as a combination of drugs and egoism threatens him back down.

In this article I will go in-depth about the opening shot of the movie. After a slow, almost depressing melody, the title ‘’Boogie Nights’’ explodes onto the screen. The tone of the underlying score quickly changes to something ‘’promising’’ and ‘’glamorous’’. The fluorescent neon-letters immediately embark the scent of aspiring disco culture.

Now, I will recommend you to the steadicam shot

0.54 - Tragic music, and black screen make place for ‘’good’’ vibes.

PTA meant the first 53 seconds to be the actual intro of the movie. The story, at its core, is quite depressing. The sudden switch in vibes is meant as a change of perspective. The story starts off with the objective interpretation of the story, but the blackness and slow melody pretty obviously convey that it's just ‘’sad’’, and there’s no entertaining story here. That’s why within the first minute we already switch to the character’s perspective, which changes the entire tone of the movie. Suddenly there's an entertaining, ''fun'' story to tell;)

1.19 - I think it’s important to remember that when they were shooting this picture (1996-1997) there weren’t any drones around. The smoothness of the shot when it goes from the crane to handheld is just incredible! And, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, because we get the 360 view, the environment really comes to life.

1.23 - Notice the cars and neon-lights in the backdrop. The eye for detail is insane;)

1.40 - From this moment on the tricky part starts. The steadicam, probably operated by two people, submerges itself between the extras. The precision and planning that it requires to pull this off is worth noting. As the extras pass just before the camera, and the camera makes a smooth turn, while following Maurice Rodriquez (Luis Guzman), Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds rip), and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the audience dives (almost literally) into the conversation.

1.53 - How they handled the exposure and ISO settings is just magnificent! There’s no way that they could’ve used the same settings for both outside and inside. I think it’s very likely that during this turn they quickly changed the settings based upon previous test runs.

2.05 - If you think this scene is only meant to be pleasant for the eye, you’re dead wrong. The amount of information we get about the world and individual characters is huge! For instance, notice how Maurice expresses his ambitions here, and how this perception of his character stays the same during the whole movie. By introducing the various characters like this in the beginning, PTA actually dodges the otherwise required introductions of characters along the way. I only realized after seeing the movie a couple of times how well thought through the lines, and the way they say those lines, are in this scene. Within a couple of minutes PTA unfolds a whole world to us, that usually takes a long time to establish for filmmakers.

2.28 - Change of speed when the camera follows an exciting Maurice. Notice how the camera starts moving in circles. We quickly move from the restaurant to the dance floor, what can we do to make the audience feel this transition? PTA thought. The change of pace and the small increase in volume brings a sudden rush to the audience. Just at the moment when you might think that the steadicam shot is at the end of its lifetime, a new rush of excitement brings it back to life.

2.34 - Notice how the three characters, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), introduce themselves to us. The way they talk, and what they tell about themselves is fairly exaggerated and tailored to stick in the audience’s mind. The mission of the filmmakers was: How to bring these characters to life within one line of dialogue? In my opinion they pulled it off.

3.25 - I really love how the camera follows Rollergirl (Heather Graham) here. It's a little bit illuminating, as the camera actually doesn’t move that much. The use of the extras that are dancing on the dance floor increases the perception of ‘’speed’’ and makes the short bit more interesting. As well, notice how the music interacts with the motion of the camera. The timing of it is just **spot on!

3.30 - The quick interaction between Rollergirl and Reed Rothchild lets the audience know that there possibly is a link between the characters on the dance floor, and Jack and Amber. This is really incredible actually, how this little interaction reveals so much about the connectedness of the movie world. Without this interaction, we could’ve been surprised when Buck Swope suddenly appeared in the backyard of Jack Horner later in the movie. It's a crucial piece of information that changes our whole understanding of the world we are about to enter.

3.48 - The first time when Jack Horner spots Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). This is a commonly used shot in cinema. Really well executed! With the crowd in front, and eventually Jack’s expression when he notices Eddie on the other side of the room. The power of a well constructed shot. It's like this secretive pathway that only one of the characters can see. It also projects this sense of randomness, an answer to the question: How did Jack spot Eddie?

Paul Thomas Anderson always knows how to surprise the audience with his opening scenes. He really appreciates the importance of the beginning of his movies. In the case of Boogie Nights, when I saw it for the very first time, I really couldn’t wait to see more after this scene. Within four minutes he had unfolded an intriguing story, rich of interesting characters. Think about it, how many movies do this? In his later productions he mostly emphasized on the provoking of questions, the best way to catch an audience’s curiosity. Although this is just mildly the case for Boogie Nights, the quality and craftsmanship of the steadicam shot evoke a sparkle of pure excitement within everyone that’s not asleep. **Passion is contagious.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it! The simple re-watching of this brilliant shot made me excited all over again.. It made me remember that art can be breathtaking..

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