Why So Close?
Tony from Every Frame a Painting has a new video out, which is all about one of my favorite unused tools a director has: ensemble staging. It’s an endangered species in most mainstream movies. Production values, fashion styles, and special effects techniques aside, I think it’s pretty easy to tell when a movie was made just by seeing a bit of it. Staging multiple actors in fewer longer takes is commonplace up until the end of the studio system in the 50s and 60s, and becomes considerably rarer after the 1980s. Instead, you’re more likely to see actors framed individually, in a series of close-ups.
David Bordwell has described this trend as an “intensified continuity,” keeping the essential rules of regular continuity editing, but faster and more intense: cutting rates increase, close-ups become closer, wide shots become wider. He’s talked about this many times, especially here, here, here, here, here, and here.
DB offers a couple explanations for why this happened- my favorite[ref]As in, most amusing, not most definitive.[/ref] being the invention of Scotch tape in the 1960s which made it easier to splice cuts together than with paste. But did we have to lose ensemble staging too?
Kind of? Maybe?
It would be a mistake to ascribe agency to something like this- I don’t think people were trying to get rid of ensemble staging, but were trying things that weren’t as compatible with it.
Some of the most celebrated, ground breaking movies from the 1950s and 1960s, that would influence filmmakers in Hollywood later, created visual styles that were deliberately different from what audiences saw in theaters: among other things, they used non-professional actors, or shot on a real location as opposed to a set.
Consider the difference between a New York apartment in Brooklyn and a New York apartment on a Los Angeles soundstage. The sound stage will be absolutely enormous, and make you wonder how these hip young people can possibly afford it.[ref]I’m looking at you, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory[/ref] It will also have amenities like moveable walls and brighter lights than can plug into an ordinary socket.
It’s much easier to stage your ensemble in one shot on the soundstage than on location. The whole room needs to be well lit, which you might not be able to do with a couple Kino-Flos. Or worse, if it’s too small, you might not be able to get the camera back far enough to see everyone. Or if you can, you might have to use a super wide lens that distorts the space and your actors.
Perhaps you should just shoot everybody in a series of close-ups. You’ll have more control over getting what you want in post, anyway.
Look at the shot from about 00:17 seconds in Tony's essay- could you squeeze the camera and dolly track in front of that table if it were any closer to the wall?[ref]You can see a reverse angle of the room at about 00:24 seconds.[/ref] If it's a set, you'll have much more control over where you can put things- the camera might even be in a physically impossible spot on location!
That’s not to say you can’t try ensemble staging on location- many great directors have and gotten great shots. But if it’s not something you’re used to, or if you’re in a time crunch, you might just go with what’s easier.
If you're interested in seeing how other directors have used ensemble staging, I highly recommend checking out DB's Figures Traced in Light, his book on the subject.
I’d love to see more ensemble staging, and use it in my own work. But it’s not a default unless you make it one. Tools and techniques fall out of favor because people forget to use them. We have to actively remember what they’re for in order to bring them back.