Cinematography Tip: Hallway Tracking Shots the Coen Brothers Way
Filming in tight hallways is tricky — even for pros like the Coen brothers. Here’s their low-budget solution to a common filmmaking problem.
Top image via Janus Films
Watching the live commentary included with the Criterion Collection release of Blood Simple was an eye-opening experience. Hearing Joel and Ethan Coen share some of the same frustrations I’ve encountered firsthand was truly sweet relief. Despite these frustrations, the Coens were able to make micro-budget movie magic, capturing some high-quality shots in less-than-optimal conditions. Let’s look at one example a little closer.
One shot that gave the Coen brothers a little trouble takes place in an exceptionally tight and dimly lit location.
Abby, the main character portrayed by Frances McDormand, is walking down a hallway in her house at night. As you can see above, the outside light leaking in through the windows splashes across the wall.
The biggest obstacle to pulling this scene off proved to be the location itself. DP Barry Sonnenfeld couldn’t operate the camera rig in the close quarters of the hallway without casting unwanted shadows. The size of the house didn’t just limit camera movement — it prevented the execution of moves (like this very tracking shot) that the filmmakers felt were vital to the atmosphere of the film.
So, How Did They Film It?
Discovering that the house was the problem, the Coens came up with an elegant solution — they countered the limitations of the house by removing themselves from the house.
The camera operator set up outside the house and utilized a long lens to film through the window, tracking backwards as McDormand walked. They nailed the shot and discovered a timely, affordable fix to a difficult situation. This kind of DIY attitude is exactly what makes filmmaking so exciting. Find a problem. Fix a problem by thinking outside the box — or, in this case, the house.
Do yourself a favor and check out the Blood Simple commentary. It’s packed with filmmaking secrets and tips. For more Coen brothers action, visit this post that explains how they faked a nighttime driving scene from the comfort of their garage.
What was the last DIY solution you found on set? Share your experiences in the comments below!