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British Kinematograph (1949) - Film Production Technique





Alfred Hitchcock

Read by Mr. Victor A. Peers to a joint meeting of the British Kinematograph Society and the Association of Cinema and Allied Technicians on Sept. 22, 1948.

The filming of each picture is a problem in itself. The solution to such a problem is an individual thing, not the application of a mass solution to all problems. Film production methods of yesterday may seem out of date today, and yet tomorrow's problem may be best solved by using yesterday's methods. The first rule of direction must be flexibility.

Nothing should be permitted to interfere with the story. The making of a picture "is nothing but the telling of a story and the story — it goes without saying — must be a good one. I do not try to put on to the screen what is called "a slice of life," because people can get all the slices of life they want out of the kinema. On the other hand, total fantasy is not wanted, because people desire to connect themselves with what they see on the screen.

Those are all the restrictions I would place on the story. It must be believeable, and yet not ordinary. It must be dramatic, and yet lifelike. Having decided upon our story, we must next develop our characters and the plot. When that is done, are we ready to go on the floor?

I maintain we are not, because our picture is going to need editing and cutting, and the time for this work is before shooting. The cuts should be made in the script itself, before a camera turns, and not in the film after the cameras have stopped turning.

Script Cutting

My objection to the more conventional method of cutting is twofold. First of all, it is wasteful. The tragedy of the actor whose entire part ends on the cutting-room floor is not entirely a personal one ; his salary, the sets he acted in, the film on which his acting was recorded, all represent expenditure.

More important, if each scene is filmed as a separate entity, out of sequence, the director is forced to concentrate on each scene as a scene. There is then a danger that one such scene may be given too great a prominence in direction and acting, and its relation to the remaining scenes in the picture will be out of balance, or, again, that it may have been given insufficient value and when the scene becomes part of the whole, the film will be lacking in something.

The "extra shots" made after the regular schedule is completed are necessitated because, in the shooting of the scenes, story points were missed. The extra expository shots are generally identified by an audience for what they are : artificial devices to cover what had been overlooked in the preparation of the film.

How can this be avoided? I think it can best be avoided if a shooting script is edited before shooting starts. In this way, nothing extra is shot, and, most important, story points will be made naturally, within the action itself.

If we do not edit before we shoot, we may be faced, in the cutting room, with one of the most difficult of all editorial problems — the unexplained lapse of time. The passage of time may be essential to the plot, but it may not have been made clear in the sequences that have been shot. There was a time — long since passed — when one would simply have photographed the words "One Week Later" in transparency and caused them to appear on the screen in mid-air during the second scene.

The lapse of time can easily be indicated by the simple method of shooting one scene as a day scene and the next as a night scene, or one scene with leaves on the trees and the next one with snow on the ground. These are obvious examples, but they serve to point the need for editing before production commences.

Camera Movement

A director tries never to go on the floor without a complete shooting script. But for one reason or another, one often has to start with what is really an incomplete script.

The most glaring omission in the conventional script, I believe, is camera movement. The director may decide on the floor how he is going to film a sequence. But I maintain the time for such a decision is in the preparation of the script.

Here we encounter once again the fact that the tendency today is to shoot scenes and sequences, and not to shoot pictures. The angle from which a scene is to be shot ought to flow logically from the preceding shot, and it ought to be so designed that it will fit smoothly into whatever follows it. Actually, if all the shooting is planned and incorporated into the script, one will never think about shooting a scene, but merely about shooting a picture of which the scene in question is a part.

Shooting in Sequence

The object of these remarks is to emphasise that I favour shooting pictures in sequence. The film is seen in sequence by an audience, and the nearer a director gets to an audience's point of view, the more easily he will be able to satisfy the audience.

The satisfaction of an audience has been deprecated as an aim of picture making, and I think that is a very grave mistake. There has been a tendency to sneer at audiences, to regard them as a tasteless mass to whose ignorance phenomenal concessions must be made by producers and directors. Why is this? One reason is that a director hears comments about his work constantly, and these comments come, for the most part, from people associated with the industry. It is laudable to seek the applause and approbation of one's co-workers, but once one begins making pictures for their satisfaction, it is only a short step to condemning lay audiences for their lack of appreciation of kinema craft.

This is a dangerous point of view. Of course, it is a fine thing to make a picture whose technique excites admiration from people who understand technique. But these are not the people who pay the costs of production.

Audience Groups

A picture-maker need not try to please everyone. It is important to decide at what audience one is aiming, and then to keep one's eye on that target. But it is obviously uneconomic to shoot for a small audience, and a motion picture costing some hundreds of thousands of pounds, which has taken the efforts of one hundred or perhaps two hundred men, cannot direct its appeal towards people with a special knowledge of film-making or to a certain section of the community.

To approach a kinema audience with contempt invites contempt in response. The great playwrights, Barrie and Pinero, for example, rendered more than lip service in their respect for their audiences. They wrote every line with a consciousness that it was designed to entertain adult human beings, and every line they wrote shows it. By the reasoning of those who maintain that intelligent drama cannot obtain a mass audience, their plays should all have been artistic successes and financial failures. But we know that they were well received, that many of them were terrific hits, and we should profit by that knowledge. A good film can have a financial success.

Filming Technique

I turn now to the actual techniques of picture-making. I have a liking, for instance, for a roving camera, because I believe, as do many other directors, that a moving picture should really move. I have definite ideas about the use of cuts and fade-outs which, improperly handled, can remind the audience of the unreality of our medium and take them away from the plot.

But those are personal prejudices of mine. I do not try to bend the plot to fit technique ; I adapt technique to the plot. A particular camera angle may give a cameraman — or even a director — a particularly satisfying effect. The question is, dramatically, is it the best way of telling whatever part of the story it is trying to tell? If not, it should not be used.

The motion picture is not an arena for the display of techniques. It is, rather, a method of telling a story in which techniques, beauty, the virtuosity of the camera, everything must be sacrificed or compromised when it detracts from the story itself.

An audience is never going to think to itself : "What magnificent work with the boom!" or "That dolly is very nicely handled!" It is interested in what the characters on the screen are doing, and it is a director's job to keep the audience interested in that. Technique that attracts the audience's attention is poor technique. The mark of good technique is that it is unnoticed.

Maintaining Interest

Even within a single picture, techniques should vary, although the over-all method of handling the story, the style, must remain constant. It is, for instance, obvious that audience concentration is higher at the beginning of a picture than at the end. The act of sitting in one place must eventually induce a certain lassitude. In order that that lassitude should not be translated into boredom or impatience, it is often necessary to accelerate the progress of the story towards the end, particularly of a long picture. This means more action and less dialogue, or, if dialogue is essential, speeches ought to be short, and a little louder and more forceful than they would be if the same scene were played earlier in the picture.

It is sometimes necessary to encourage artistes to over-act. It takes a certain amount of tact, of course, to induce a good actor to do so, and this is another argument in favour of shooting pictures more or less in sequence, because, once one has edged an actor into over-acting, it is, sadly enough, entirely impossible to edge him back again.

Direction is, of course, a matter of decisions. The important thing, is that the director should make his decisions when the need for them arises, and operate with as few rules as possible.

Following the paper the last two reels of Mr. Hitchcock's film "Rope" were projected.


Mr. Charles Frend : How much of the dialogue was generally post-synced in the two reels we have seen?

The Author : Not more than about 20%. Only when there was movement through a door from one room to another was post -syncing necessary. After each take a full sound take was done.

Mr. Ridley : What are the reactions of the actors to this new technique and is there more rehearsal?

The Author : The actors ran through the whole movement with rough lines, and while the lighting men were at work I would go off to another stage where there was a dummy set, and rehearse the cast completely. Every movement had to be perfect. First we went through the lines and then went over to the physical side and did that. Then we would go back to the real set, but I was always ready long before the lighting was ready.

Mr. Thorold Dickinson : After playing a reel for seven or eight minutes, how do you decide what to cut and when?

The Author : It is not an arbitrary cut, it is a dramatic cut.

Mr. Walter Lassally : When making a film by this new technique, do you find yourself bound to stick to the long, take technique all through, or do you find yourself free to inter-cut short scenes?

The Author : No. In my present picture I mix techniques.

Mr. Gordon Hales : In the last two reels of "Rope" how were the dialogue and effects done? Was it built up of several pieces of dialogue track?

The Author : I had the street scene written as a dialogue scene. We went out on the back lot and put a mike up about six storeys high and played the scene on the back lot. The recording of the police car siren was started one and a half miles away. Sound tracks were made on the actual location of this eleventh storey apartment in New York in the hours during the actual time it was being played.

Miss Kay Mander : In these long scenes, the camera is presumably not on tracks but on a free dolly.

The Author : That is so.

Miss Mander : How are the camera crew cued, and do the actors have to pay any attention to the camera?

The Author : When the first rehearsal takes place, the camera crew have their rehearsal period. In "Rope" there was a 10-day period of camera rehearsal only. We had a spotlight underneath the lens hitting the floor and when the camera hit the position, that spot was marked on the floor with a number for position. Also, there was a backmark for the dolly itself. So there were two sets of marks, one for the dolly position and one for the front lens, because of the swing of the arm. All the shots were marked out on a plan in squares, and this made re-takes easy. We re-took five reels because of colour problems.

Miss Mander : How were the cues given?

The Author : The continuity girl on the back of the dolly did the dolly cueing by tapping the operator on the shoulder when he was in position. A man with a pointer pointed to the next spot, so that the man swinging the arm would know where to go.

Mr. Tanner : What is the work of the editor?

The Author : The editor works on the scrip! ahead of shooting. My present picture was laid out in the rough and the editor made his comments after the cameramen. He now works on paper, not on the film.

Mr. Peter Hoyle : Has the boom operator opportunity for rehearsal?

The Author : He gets more opportunities for rehearsal this way.

Mr. Ridley : The preparation of your detailed script reminded me very much of the Independent Frame process. What are your re-actions to Independent Frame?

The Author : I know nothing about it. I gather that it is as though you had made a picture and took all the cuts apart and set them up individually. It feels to me as though there is a restriction of movement.

Mr. J. Adkins : If you could have attached to your camera a television system showing the picture all the time, do you think it would be advantageous?

The Author : Definitely. This is television. There is a great similarity in technique.

Mr. Charles Frend : What is the time saved on the over-all schedule?

The Author : The time saved is about 25%. "Rope" ran for 7,200 feet and was shot in 36 days, including 10 days' rehearsal and five reels of re-take. It was a short picture, but the present picture I am doing will end up about 55 days.

Mr. Frend : What about comparative budget costs?

The Author : When you shoot ahead of schedule, you have merely a saving of time. In "Spellbound" the schedule was 57 days and the picture was completed in 48 days. Although 20% of the time was saved, there was only a saving of 10% of the cost. The cost of the story and salaries of the stars, and the director, were the same.

A Visitor : Is there no saving in set construction?

The Author : About 20%.

Mr. M. Harvey : Do you feel you will be limited in the type of story you can handle by this method?

The Author : No. If you have a story with a number of sequences, you can take each sequence and treat it in this way. You can also mix your technique. Certain sequences you can shoot in continuous takes and others you can cut.

Mr. Kenneth Annakin : Do you feel that it is possible to get a complete conception of the film on paper?

The Author : I have a complete conception of the film in the mind and not on paper. It has to be built.

A Visitor : The opening of the lid of the chest in "Rope," broke my continuity. Was there some purpose in doing so?

The Author : That was the end of a set-up. We were limited to the amount of film in the camera.

Mr. Pearce : Do your actors have to give a little more than in normal technique?

The Author: That is not strictly so. In movies we have been awfully lazy and we have just staged the scene to pick up the actor's face wherever it may be. By letting the actor move around he tends to help us more.

Mr. J. Mills : Can the system be adapted to a smaller studio? It seems rather necessary to be able to rehearse outside the stage in which you are shooting.

The Author : You want a large stage to get outside the confines of the set, but I have rehearsed in a scene dock.

Mr. Ridley : Have you ever filmed large crowd scenes by this method?

The Author : Yes, but the scene was not longer than about two minutes, because there was a dramatic reason for breaking it up. You rehearse the crowd independently of camera movement.

A Visitor : Do the long takes necessitate better equipment than we have in this country?

The Author : An electric dolly is needed, because it is more mobile and more sensitive.

A Visitor : How does the longer take affect the still cameraman?

The Author : The still man has a take all for himself. We are now doing stills in action. We play the film just the same and the still man goes through and takes instantaneous pictures and the result is quite astounding.

A Visitor : Does the dolly run on the normal studio floor?

The Author : In each case we have had to lay a special floor. At present we have an asphalt floor covering the whole studio. In "Rope" a wooden floor was placed on top of the one in the studio.

A Visitor : In the early part of "Rope," which we have not seen, do we ever see the fourth wall of the room?

The Author : Yes. The Camera goes right round and shows one corner of the fourth wall.

A Visitor : Has the lighting cameraman any restrictions?

The Author : With all the restrictions, we are getting excellent results on our present picture.

A Visitor : Do you think the new technique will be applied to all your future films?

The Author : Where it is useful, and within a given sequence, this new technique will be applied to my other films. If you have a sequence that is an objective one you obviously must cross-cut.

Mr. Ridley : Does it take time to train technicians in the new technique?

The Author : It adds to the cost only of the first week.

A Visitor : Can you show on the script your camera movements?

The Author : You show your main positions and you indicate the movement from that particular set-up to the next one — a series of punctuations.