Anyone who makes video likely also loves film. Recreating a favorite cinematic scene can be a fun and valuable exercise in storytelling. The key is trying to emulate the tone or feel that you admire, which forces an examination of how successful storytelling is based in cohesion between the various elements that make up a movie.
As an example, we’ll look at recreating the feel of a scene from "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012), the comedy/adventure/romance directed by Wes Anderson with cinematography by Robert Yeoman (ASC). The movie creates a distinct tone, a whimsical world in which main characters, Suzy and Sam, run away from home and explore young love. The film is appealing because it tackles serious issues, but deals with them in an a fairly innocent manner.
The scene we’ll examine with an eye to replicate is the conflict between our main characters and their pursuers, the khaki scouts. Suzy and Sam, both 12 years old, make their way along a wooded trail when they run into the group of scouts who intend to bring the two back to town. The tension builds to physical conflict which goes unseen by the audience but is clearly understood.
This is a good scene to recreate because it succeeds in maintaining the movie’s whimsical feel while pushing conflict forward and raising the stakes within the story. It also tackles violence in a unique way, and has a specific and distinguishable tone.
In preparing to recreate a scene, look for interviews or behind-the-scenes material where the filmmakers discuss technical aspects of how the film was made. This kind of information is increasingly available and can be invaluable for a project like ours. Also, and most important, watch the film. This is a specific type of watching, not just plopping down on the couch and zoning out. Watch and analyze the scene, repeatedly. With each viewing, study a different facet and take notes
The first time we analyze the scene, we might note camera elements. On second viewing, we’d look at lighting. Next could be sound design. Art direction also has a huge influence on the feel, as does story, actors, movement, and use of space. Any element that stands out, or whatever it is that draws you to this particular scene, should be noted with an eye towards how it was accomplished.
The Core of the Scene
The most unique aspect to this scene is the way the fight itself is shown. We see a POV from over motorcycle handlebars as the khaki scouts launch their attack on Sam and Suzy. Then, cut to scissors snipping over a painted background, accompanied by a scissor sound effect. Next, we see a flying arrow and hear it moving through the air. Cut to a shot of the forest, empty. We hear a dog yelp, then screams from the kids. Khaki scouts run through the frame, fleeing from battle. Finally, cut to a wrecked motorcycle and the victorious couple as Suzy admits she sometimes goes “berserk”.
By alluding to the violence instead of showing it, Anderson maintains the perceived innocence of Suzy and Sam. Had we actually seen the fight, it would have cast a very different light on the main characters.
Replicating this style to denote a fight is the key to recreating the feel of this scene. The audience is presented simple shots of the weapons alongside a few sounds, then we cut to the aftermath. Instead of a fight, the audience is given the elements of a fight and our brains add them up, revealing a total that is greater than the individual parts.
The cinematography in "Moonrise Kingdom” makes heavy use of center framing and symmetry. In particular, our scene is driven forward through the use of long takes, close ups, and whip-pans. Using these visual elements will pushes the story forward while establishing the tone.
The most technically complicated shot in this scene is probably the POV from behind the motorcycle handlebars. This shot was likely taken from a crane, but we have captured similar shots using a chest-mounted action camera, which is how we’d attempt a recreation.
The shot of the flying arrow could be recreated by attaching the arrow to an arm or bracket, and keeping it at a fixed position in front of the camera. Now, pan the camera; the arrow stays in relative place as the background moves.
The scene uses soft, diffused light and has a warm tone. According to interviews with director of photography Robert Yeoman, most of the outdoor scenes in “Moonrise Kingdom” were shot using natural light and white bounce boards. Recreating this feel helps ground the film’s whimsical world in a sense of reality.
To recreate the lighting of this scene, we would try to shoot in the late summer or early fall, and on a cloudy day if at all possible. If we couldn’t get the appropriate weather, we would try to replicate the lighting by shooting in the shade, during the late afternoon, using reflectors as fill. In our experience, without cloud cover, having some diffusion options available would be helpful in recreating this.
If the lighting were more complex, creating a lighting chart would be a helpful step, but in using natural light, a chart might not be necessary.
Sound design is a huge part of advancing the narrative, as well as creating a style. This scene relies on the score, with some dialogue and sound effects. Music frames the conflict and is stylized with drum marches and percussion. The fight itself is heard more than seen, with sound effects playing a large role in our understanding of the events. To recreate this, use a drum corp march for building to the fight and audio cues to reveal action that goes unseen visually.
To recreate any Wes Anderson work, special attention must go towards art direction. His films use specific color palettes; in "Moonrise Kingdom," warm autumn colors create a world where change is in the air. The costumes found in our chosen scene mark Sam as tied in with the khaki scouts, while Suzy is clearly an outsider. Props further flesh out the characters, while the wooded setting has minimal dressing. To recreate this tone, the actors must have clear costuming that denotes their relationships to one another while fitting in with the specific color scheme.
The use of space is an often overlooked aspect that can also impact the tone of a scene. Sam and Suzy are proceeding down a wooded trail, and the khaki scouts act as physical obstacles for the heroes’ quest. The dynamics of space force a violent conflict. Replicating this aspect is important to recreating the tone of scene. The heroes are on a specific journey that is physically impeded by the antagonists. If our heroes have an option to avoid conflict, the feel of the scene changes.
While this article deals with the specifics of "Moonrise Kingdom," applying the techniques of analysis, research, and a bit of creative thinking gives a filmmaker the ability to recreate the tone of any work that inspires them. As a learning exercise or just a fun project, replicating the a favorite scene can be a great experience. We see how the feel is created by tying together many various aspects of film towards one cohesive vision. Trying to put yourself into the mindset of the masters is valuable, whether just getting started or with years of experience under your belt
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal” is a quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso. Regardless of if he actually said it, or who may have said it first, there is some level of truth to the statement.
Many popular filmmakers pay homage to the films that they were inspired by. In “The Departed” (2006), Martin Scorsese referenced Howard Hawks’ 1932 film “Scarface.” Stanley Kubrick drew inspiration from a scene from “The Phantom Carriage” (1921) when shooting “The Shining” (1980). Quentin Tarantino largely built a career on paying homage to the films he loved watching.
When does relying on someone else’s work become problematic? When does using someone else's style become stealing? It’s a fine line.
Ideally, our inspiration should be a jumping-off point, where we borrow some elements, but tweak them to make them our own. In “The Untouchables” (1987), director Brian DePalma uses a baby carriage uncontrollably rolling down a staircase as a dramatic device. Cinephiles might recognize the scene as a reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (1925). Eisenstein used this scene to demonstrate the brutality of the Czarist soldiers. DePalma takes the scene and makes it his own, using it as a moment to demonstrate the humanity of Federal Agent Eliot Ness, who risks himself to save the baby. DePalma’s scene utilizes the tone that Eisenstein created, but flips it, showing goodness in an individual, instead of inhumanity.
The trick is in recognizing the tone or feel that another filmmaker created and using that to tell our own stories; not to just re-tell someone else’s story.
Erik Fritts has a degree in Film Production and works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service external affairs office, producing video for wildlife conservation.