How to stitch long Steadicam shots together like in Birdman

Mar 20, 2018

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My first feature was shot in a series of long steadicam shots similar to the movie Birdman. I had no intention of making the whole movie look like one shot but I shot it this way for many many reasons:

  1. They allow you to get an amazing amount of footage shot in a day
  2. They are the most fun for the crew to shoot (even though they’re challenging to pull off)
  3. They are by far the most fun for actors because they get to act for minutes instead of seconds before changing angles
  4. There’s a great sense of accomplishment when they’re executed correctly
  5. They lend an amazing sense of cinematic style when done well

In truth though, the longest steadicam shot we had in the film was just over 9 minutes. Most of them were much much shorter – between 1 and five minutes, but were stitched together in post with some After Effects trickery. I learned that there are some things you definitely need to do and some things you definitely want to avoid when shooting long shots that you intend to stitch together in post and I thought I’d share them here in case anyone else is trying to accomplish such shots.

If you’re looking for a list of steadicam shots you can reference I suggest going here:

Always cut on a move and match speed

You can keep a steadicam somewhat static at times but if you’re planning on blending shots its always better to have some movement in the frame. Far and away the easiest way to blend shots is if your camera is moving and NOT your actors. Making a mask around actors is quite difficult and time-consuming and requires a lot of rotoscoping, whereas cutting against inanimate objects, like picture frames hanging on a wall, is much easier.

Of course, if you are using stationary objects to blend takes and your camera is moving one thing you really have to do is to try to match your speed. If you’re running through a scene and trying to match it with another shot where your slowly walking it just won’t work.

Matching Direction

Again, this should go without saying but you want to make sure you are going in the same direction. If you’re walking with a pan from right to left, then make sure the second half of the shot also starts with a right to left pan. Don’t go from panning to stationary or even from one direction to another (obviously), but planning things out and having a written document of everything you intend to do (including the direction of the movement) will help you from going into full panic mode half-way through your day when you can’t remember what direction you were panning and you can’t or don’t have enough time to review your media.

If you have a script supervisor working on your set you should also mention what you’re planning and have them take special note of those fx shots so you can ask them what direction or relative speed the camera was moving if there’s any question in your mind.

Inanimate Objects are best

I said this before but it’s best to plan for NO actor to be in the frame or at least in the part of the frame where there will be a layer mask. If you catch a part of an actor’s arm or face in the frame where you’re hoping to stitch two plates together you’re just asking for trouble. The human body and face are so complex that you’ll just never really match them and you’ll end up rotoscoping them out of the frame entirely or using them as an object to wipe behind and it severly limits you with your options. You’ll find to make the shots work you might have to push in and synthetically add a zoom and it just starts to mess with your shot in a way that you won’t like.

Just plan on the camera either leadning your actor or trailing a little slowly behind them so that when they walk passed a wall they let the actor go a few seconds faster then they go which will give you the necessary amount of frames of blank wall to match with your second shot.

Don’t rely on darkness/light

I tried to rely on darkness and light to cover some cuts and really I wish I hadn’t done this. Unless you’re also moving through a naturally dark or exceedingly bright space because of the story it just looks synthetic. Think about it, most AC’s would rack the iris within enough time that you’d only see one or two frames of darkness when going from outdoors to indoors and that’s not enough for you to cover a cut.

If, on the other hand, you’re walking through a cave or a dark hallway to go from one room to another, then that might be enough motivation to make it work for the story. But even then, it looks a little fishy. After all, you’re not shooting a documentary, it’s a narrative film and everyone kind of has a subconscious understanding that you control everything in a narrative film. If you walk into a dark hallway where the camera clips black, there’s a subconscious question in the audience’s mind that’s asking why you didn’t hang some lights or block the scene so that you didn’t have to go into the hallway.

While this is definitely a way to accomplish an invisible cut I would avoid it unless you are absolutely forced to for some reason (and I’ve yet to see a reason that makes sense in any scenario).

Motivate the camera movements

One thing a lot of newer filmmakers tend to forget is that their camera movements have to be motivated. While this isn’t technically a technique about stitching scenes, this is a pitfall of stitched shots that many filmmakers fall into by accident.

You can’t just pan around to something without a character leading the camera there or at least a sound motivating a whip pan. Well, in truth, you can but what happens if you don’t motivate the camera is the camera starts to have a mind of its own and become a character. The lens becomes much more voyeuristic than you might like. A good example of this is the opening scene to Robert Altman’s movie The Player. While there is motivation for some of the moves in the long opening of the player, there are several moves where the camera is following nothing and just lands in an office or on a conversation out of its own free will. This gives a sense of the camera has a voice and a perspective in the movie and has a very different feel than Birdman where the camera feels like it’s reacting to the scene spontaneously.

In The Player it works because the movie is about the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the voyeuristic quality adds to the tone of the film, but unless you’re going for that look bear in mind that if your camera is unmotivated in its movement, even for a few seconds, you will end up with a camera with its own POV that can very quickly distract the audience.


1 Comment

  1. Robertjem

    pulls off one of the great cinematic magic tricks of all time. The entire 119-minute movie about a fading movie actor, played by Michael Keaton, trying to jump-start his career by appearing on the Broadway stage looks as if it were shot in one extended take. Of course, that would have been impossible. However, Inarritu, determined to maintain the illusion behind the $18 million film, has instructed his editors not to discuss how long each individual take was and how many cuts, in some cases disguised by ingenious visual effects, were stitched together to make it appear seamless.


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