Sometimes Doing the Impossible Can Be Fun

Someplace in the archives of Cannell Films is a rather incredible piece of footage.  I wish I had access to it, just to see if it is as good as I think it is.  I shot it.  Here’s the story.

Alex Beaton, the line producer in Vancouver for Cannell Films gave me a call.  They had moved their hit series, Wiseguy, to New Orleans for a season and managed to put it in the toilet.  Our actors and crews in Vancouver had made it a hit.  I don’t know what motivated the move to New Orleans.  Possibly it had something to do with introducing a new wise guy character.  In any event, the move hadn’t worked.  They wanted to shoot a new opening sequence back in Vancouver.  Could I story board it?

I’m not a story board artist, but I can get the idea across.  Alex handed me the script for the new intro and I set to work.  It was a narcotics bust.  The scene was to start with a helecopter approaching.  Then a shot of the doors of a swat team truck opening.  The swat team emerges and loads weapons.  The DA’s car roars up.  We see the decal on his door. The DA gets out and talks to the captain of the SWAT team, a few lines of dialogue.  Then the truck rams the doors to a warehouse.  The SWAT team enters and shoots a couple armed bad guys before arriving at a door at the back of the warehouse.  SWAT team members step in with a battering ram and takes out the door.  The DA and the swat team captain enter to find cocaine being bagged.  The DA presents a court order to the head criminal who spits on it contemptuously.  The DA collars him and wipes the spit off on his face and they drag him away.

After considering each shot described in the script, I ended up with twenty-two shots in the story board. The story board was sent to Stephen Cannell for approval, which it got, and then Alex asked me if I would shoot it.

Of course I said I’d be delighted.  Then Alex dropped the bombshell.  He could only give me two hours to shoot the scene, and that would be with the crew that had just finished the day of shooting with another show. Oh, and they couldn’t afford a helicopter.  We’d have to fake it with a bright light and a sound effect.

Twenty-two setups, which is what the story board called for, would normally be a full day of shooting.  To achieve it in two hours with an exhausted crew was just madness.  Naturally, I shrugged and said sure.  No problem.  Okay, I wasn’t quite that sanguine about it.  I protested.  I presented a reasonable argument for why it was impossible. But those were all the resources that Alex had. I gave it some thought and decided I could see a way to do it.

The solution was to combine all twenty two shots into one carefully choreographed shot.  We would begin with a Steadicam operator up on a ladder for the doors of the SWAT team truck bursting open.  He comes down the ladder and the shot settles into a close up of shotgun shells loading, then tilts up to see the helicopter whirling overhead taking us to the DA’s car arriving,  moving in to a close up of the DA decal on the side of the car and up onto the DA as he gets out, becoming a two shot as the DA and the SWAT team captain talk, then they step to one side as the SWAT team truck rams through the doors.  They follow into the warehouse and the camera swings to catch the guards getting shot then finds the door at the back  just as the guys with the ram break it down and we follow the DA and SWAT team captain into the room where the action plays out as one continuous shot.

Alex told me that I could have only one take.  I could see the impossibility of asking for two.  The reset would take hours. But one take was enough.  Damn but it was beautiful.  We shot a couple of cut aways just in case the pacing needed to be tightened up, but I didn’t think they’d be needed. The whole shot played, beginning to end, with every frame in the story board included and flowing from one to another.

I never heard much about that shot from anybody at Cannell films.  Maybe it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it was.  But I think it was amazing. .

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