Cinema is like magic, it’s full of tricks. When we watch a movie, we’re essentially making a pact with it – we accept all the cookies and say: “Okay, here I am, what do you have for me?” Some movies will have you in tears, some will make you laugh, and some will surprise you in the most unexpected ways.
#SpoilerAlert: It may seem obvious, but yes – I’ll be going to go over the in’s and out’s of these scenes, so there will be spoilers aplenty.
There are many different types of tricks a director can use. In this post, we’ll be focusing on 3 in particular: engineering tricks, choreography tricks, and post-production tricks. I’ll show you examples of each one, with a bonus for whoever reads to the end.
Table of Contents
- Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) – The engineering trick
- Kidding Ep3 S1 (Jake Schreier, 2018-2020) – The choreography trick
- Icons (Gray London, 2014) – Another choreography trick
- Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) – The post-production trick
- Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020)
Are you ready? Let’s take a look at how each of these scenes were made:
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) – The engineering trick
Loved by some, hated by others, Inception is a film by British director Christopher Nolan, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Packed with visual illusions, this film plays tricks on the viewer’s eye at all times. I could make an exclusive post on the making of Inception and its seemingly impossible scenarios, but I’ll focus on one particularly mind-blowing scene.
If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a sequence in a hotel where gravity plays a significant role. Characters are floating in some scenes, while the center of gravity moves from the floor to the ceiling, and from wall to wall in others.
The creativity of filmmaking has developed numerous techniques and technologies to achieve the zero-gravity effect. Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece is no exception. To record this sequence, a vertical corridor was built that replicated the original horizontal set.
To shoot the zero-gravity scenes, the actors and stuntmen were hung at the top of the corridor with harnesses, and were then be lowered to the ground, where the camera was located:
The actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said the biggest challenge in filming this scene was controlling every muscle in her body to appear relaxed. This is what people who have experienced real zero gravity say they feel.
This technique, in which the actors could be “easily” walked through all the corners of the corridor, created a very realistic zero-gravity effect, which left the viewer wondering how they did it. Nolan also constructed the scenes of the sequence with very different shots to mislead the viewer, so that they couldn’t find out how the trick was done.
A great wizard, that Nolan. I’m sure he’ll go far.
#Insight: The tricks that I classify under “engineering” tend to be gimmicky and grandiose. The film needs to leave the audience in disbelief and wondering how the trick was put together. The director can then say: “No, that’s not what we did. You can’t even imagine what it involved”. Or something like that.
Kidding Ep3 S1 (Jake Schreier, 2018-2020) – The choreography trick
This series, created by Dave Holstein, reunites actor Jim Carrey with the French director Michel Gondry, a duo who had already come together for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
If you’re familiar with Gondry’s work, you’ll know that he likes to play around with many different settings. Though Gondry didn’t direct Kidding, you can see his style in action.
The “making of” for the sequence shot in EP3 S1 went viral on social media thanks to its brilliant execution. This scene portrays the 5-year transformation of Shaina, played by actress Riki Lindhome.
Such a scene is only possible with carefully rehearsed choreography, where each participant knows their part inside out and performs it to perfection. Accuracy is everything.
In appearance it’s very simple. That is the magic of the choreography trick. But if you take a closer look: BOOM! You’re soon asking yourself: “HOW THEY DID THEY DO THAT?”
It took the work of a 50-person team to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble the set that Jake Schreier created as a tribute to Gondry – it had to be fast, precise, and almost invisible. Each member of the team was given a specific task for each moment in the scene: move a plant, move a couch, bring a puppy. Such was the speed needed that Lindholm needed a double on two occasions. The level of detail was enormous.
It took two weeks of preparation and a full day of filming to get a sequence totaling almost two minutes shot. It was definitely worth it.
Icons (Gray London, 2014) – Another choreography trick
In the same choreographic spirit of Kidding, I can’t stop mentioning this commercial from the English newspaper The Sunday Times. It’s called Icons.
In the 50-second commercial, the Gray London agency presented six icons of Western culture: The Thinker, Forrest Gump, Mad Men, The Creation of Adam, Reservoir Dogs, and Daft Punk.
The choreography has fewer elements than Kidding, but it’s executed just as wonderfully. Respect!
Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) – The post-production trick
In this film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to be the first to contact them.
In a scene where Dr. Arroway is remembering her childhood, we’re confronted with the death of her father, from whom she inherited her love of astronomy.
For this scene, director Robert Zemeckis decided to prioritize the reaction of young Ellie (Jena Malone), which is why the father never appears in the shot.
The girl calls for her father, who is on the ground floor of the house, and gets no answer. She decides to go downstairs to see what’s happening and finds him collapsed on the ground. Next, Ellie runs off to get her father’s heart medication, and that’s when the magic happens.
The girl runs up the stairs and into the hall towards the camera, where a slow-motion effect is used to add more drama. But it’s when she reaches the bathroom and opens the cabinet that the film leaves us speechless.
Where is the camera? Where did that mirror come from? Am I now in the movie without even knowing it? Okay, let me explain! The effect here was created in post-production because this scene was actually shot in two parts.
The first part is Ellie running towards the camera, right up to the moment she reaches out. The second part is the reverse shot of that moment, with the camera positioned behind Ellie. And the mirror? Well, there is no mirror, it’s just a blue screen. Take a look:
Here, the secret lies in post production, where the blue screen is replaced by the first part, that of Ellie running towards the camera. The effect is impeccably executed, and considering that this film is from 1997, you can’t help but admire the end result.
For those of you who’ve read this far, and also for those who cheated and came straight to the bonus, here’s one last scene to analyze. For me, this trick has a separate category and I’m going to name it as if it were an episode of Friends: “The one where it’s cheaper to buy the plane and crash it into the building than to have it done with CGI”.
Yes, that sounds about right.
Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020)
In this thriller, Nolan tells the story of a CIA agent who wants to prevent World War III.
In one of the most incredible scenes in the film, the characters crash a plane into one of the airport hangars. You may think at first that it’s a CGI plane and the actors were on a closed set painted all blue.
But if you have the stature of Christopher Nolan and you tell your team that you want a plane, then of course you get a real plane in a real airport.
And so, with the maximum security measures in place, Nolan crashed his 747 and achieved a scene that couldn’t have been more real.
I hope you enjoyed taking a look behind the scenes. Knowing how things are done in Hollywood can give you many ideas for your own projects. It’s true these scenes are really impressive, but what brought them to life was the initial idea. So with that in mind, keep on experimenting and practicing your craft!