With Obstacles Come Opportunity: Handheld Camerawork on a Budget in ONCE

11 March 2012

Irish writer/director John Careny directed three films prior to his Academy Award winner Once.  None of those films were major successes, which is why it took several years for Once to finally get the green-light from the Irish Film Board.  However, even the go-ahead from the Irish Film Board was not a dream come true for Carney and his cast and crew.  Yes, the film was on its way, but there was still not enough money offered to make the film on the scale many film get made in other, more lucrative, industries.  Nevertheless, Carney set forth with Once, a film he wrote as well as directed, for a 17-day shot on location in Dublin, Ireland.  In the end, Carney worked though every obstacle presented to him while making Once and, in spite of setbacks and insufficient funding, made a film both refreshing and remarkable.

Set in present day Dublin, Once follows the short time when the lives of two unnamed characters intersect.  “Guy” (Glen Hansard, as he is credited) is a struggling musician who lives with his father and works in a vacuum repair shop.  “Girl” (Marketa Irglova, as she is credited) is a Czech immigrant living in Ireland working as a cleaning lady and flower girl to support her young daughter, Ivanka.  Like “Guy,” “Girl” is musically talented, but does not fully explore her melodious flair until the night she stumbles upon “Guy” singing for tips in front of a clothing store.  The two almost instantly become inseparable.  Together they literally create beautiful music, and figuratively develop a strong bond before their brief intersection comes to an end.

Once’s limited budget certainly forced sacrifices during filmmaking and required resourcefulness on the part of the cast and crew.  For example, certain shooting licenses were never obtained, pushing the filmmaker to shoot his actors and action from a distance, with distance lenses, avoiding suspicion that a movie was illegally being filmed on the streets of Dublin.  Moreover, filming for the party scene too place in Glen Hansard’s personal flat because securing another location would have cost too much money and required paperwork.  This “makeshift” type of filmmaking makes it difficult to assess Once for its cinematics.  If the director did not make every cinematic decision willfully and intentionally—if, instead, he was forced to settle on decisions because of a lack resources—the film will not support a dissection of its cinematics.

Yet, upon second thought, every film, to varying degrees, is made from improvisations during filmmaking.  After all, Steven Spielberg began filming Jaws without knowing how to capture a shot of the shark, and filmed for weeks before figuring out a solution to his problem.  Spielberg used his resourceful nature and experimented cinematically.  Instead of showing the audience the shark, Spielberg allowed the camera, using special underwater equipment, to shoot from the perspective of the shark.  Instead of seeing the shark approaching, the camera itself slowly approaches an unsuspecting woman’s legs, as they tread water just below the surface.  That reversed perspective, compounded with a brilliantly understated musical score, redefined suspense and brought Spielberg’s shark to life.  Apparently, with obstacles come opportunities, and when a challenge during filmmaking occurs there is always a chance for something(s) rather extraordinary, inventive, and/or original to happen for cinema.

Almost certainly, this is the case with Once.  Whether the cinematics used were ones Carney wanted or ones he had to use to get the shots he needed, Once’s composition has technique to it, and that technique, whether desired or not, works for the film.  One of the most noteworthy cinematic techniques employed in Once is the use of handheld camerawork, a technique that lends realism and credibility to Carney’s film.

From a narrative perspective, there is not much of a story unfolding in Once, and what minimal plot it has is not complicated to follow.  Thus, the audience is asked to invest their interest in these two unnamed characters without much in return.  Yet, with the handheld camera technique a sense of realism is added to the film, and the audience watches as though a spectator wandering the streets, shops, and flats of Dublin with these two characters.  The handheld camera moves constantly, swaying around the action with all the range a person has while looking about; there is barely a still or stagnant moment, which makes the film incredibly dynamic.  Moreover, the handheld technique immerses the audience in the film; whether the audience is positioned right next to the characters, at a distance across a busy street, outside a restaurant looking in on them, or inside a recording studio with them, the audience almost always assumes a natural positioning, heightening viewers emotional and intellectual attachments to what they observe.  If the handheld technique was not employed, the audience would assume the role of an omniscient viewer, removed from the action they witness, which could not engage an audience with such a minimal narrative.

Another useful aspect of handheld camerawork is that it requires less cutting, which is part of the reason is creates a stronger sense of realism.  Many of the scenes in Once are largely uninterrupted by cuts.  For example, the sequence containing the film’s most famous song, “Falling Slowly” (which won the Academy Award for Best Song from a Motion Picture in 2007), is filmed in a music shop with infrequent cuts.  As “Guy” hastily teaches “Girl” the songs arrangement there are a total of six cuts, and when the two actual perform the song there are six more cuts and one cut-away to the music shop owner at the register.  While the camera sways around the entire time, back and forth behind and to the side of the piano, going from character to character and continuing to take advantage of the free-range the handheld camera technique has, the lack of cuts, and therefore preserved continuity of time, offers the audience the opportunity to invest with the characters and the song without interruption.

If anything the “Falling Slowly” scene would have been strengthened by no cuts at all; however, no cuts would have required perfection from the actors and cameraman (likely the director himself) while filming, which is a difficult feat to achieve.  If anything were to go wrong while filming a sequence without cuts the entire sequence would have to be reshot from the beginning, which is costly, timely, and non-conducive to Once’s budget.

All in all, for an independent film from Ireland that didn’t have much money or time to work with, Once is a better piece of cinema than the majority of films made from deep pockets that showcase big-named celebrities.  Yes, Carney would have, likely, made changes to the film if his resources were not as limited; however, he relied on his own creative resources as filmmaker to create something original, something unlike the rest.  The handheld camera technique is accommodating to even the smallest of budget, but, in this case, infuses the film with a necessary element; as “Guy” binds with “Girl,” the audience is bonding with Once, in large part thanks to the effective handheld camera technique.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 11/03/2012.

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