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Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and the Mysterious Floating Master

In my own filmmaking education, the term ‘floating master’ was floated my way during one fine day of learning, uttered by an esteemed and respected editing teacher. I remember sitting in the classroom thinking … “Huh?” It sounded more Buddha-on-a-lily-pad than technical film coverage term. I believe she referenced the phrase – which is really ‘floating master shot’ in the same breath as the name Woody Allen, and as I watched MIDNIGHT IN PARIS this week, I harkened back to this particular method of working and its effects on narrative. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, by the way, is a finely charming narrative indeed. And Woody Allen does, by gum, utilize the floating master over and over and over.

Why? Well, these veterans have their ways. Clint Eastwood only does two takes, apparently. Does blocking your actors into two-, three- and four-shots (meaning the number of actors present in each) and then moving the camera as they move, eschewing the practice of utilizing heavy coverage with medium and close-up shots … really makes it easier to make movies? I’m not gonna be the one to say Woody takes the easy road – but the man says it, and eloquently, himself, in this Winter 2007/Spring 2008 Cynthia Lucia interview (about the 2007 Allen film CASSANDRA’s DREAM) in Cineaste:

“… There is a long scene with the brothers and the uncle set under a tree. Now that was a very long scene, if you look at the script it’s many pages of dialogue. Somebody else and very effectively, as well could have shot the uncle, and Colin [Farrell] and then Ewan [McGregor]. Then over the shoulder of Ewan and then over the shoulder of Colin, all different combinations. They could have worked on that thing for two days. I didn’t; I started the camera once, and dollied around the trees and filmed seven pages of the scene, before I was forced to get into some cutting. And I do that out of laziness because I don’t have the patience to make the actors do it or to do it myself shooting the scene, and then shooting the same material again, and then shooting the same material again on the other actor and shooting it again over-the-shoulder and shooting it again, over and over, so that you’re constantly droning on doing the same scene over and over all day. I can’t do that. I choreograph so I can get everything in early in the day and at, say, two in the afternoon, we’ll shoot. We cover seven pages in one shot and maybe the first time they screw it up, but by the second take or the third take, they’ve gotten it, and I get the whole scene. The actors appreciate it; they don’t have to do it endlessly. They can sink their teeth into some acting for seven pages instead of doing one line before a cut that’s not acting. It’s worked out very well for me, but the convenience of it is that I’m lazy.”

I would also add – in order to pull this off, a filmmaker must have truly excellent actors. And, it’s perfectly suited for dialogue-based work. Both true for Woody Allen. For others – it’s sort of a “don’t try this at home” scenario … usually. The effect on Allen’s narratives? For me, it creates this sort of Allen flow – it’s a dance between camera and actors that keeps the narrative moving like an even, gentle river. It’s not surprising, but it’s not too jarring, either, and allows the wit of the word and the concept it’s housed within – to float prominently to the top. And that’s what Allen’s all about.

Full Cineaste interview here.

–AH