Every once in awhile, a director loses his mind and decides to try to shoot an extended walk–n-talk like the ones so commonly used in Aaron Sorkin shows:
Or like this opening scene from Goodfellas.
If you are a perspiring film director, have completely lost your mind, and insist on shooting something this difficult, make sure you listen to your AD or Producer or client, and let them talk you out of it. I recently ran into this, and like most directors, I was too thick-headed to listen, and decided to proceed anyway. So, in a grand effort to make your life easier, here are 5 steps to building a successful walk-n-talk.
Step 1: Pick Your Path
The very first step to making a creative walk-n-talk is to pick an interesting course to walk through. Unless you are walking through a parade (which isn’t a bad idea), or a skateboard park (another great idea… hm, I should be writing this down), try to pick a path that is very interesting. Lots of corners work well, and stairs are a nice touch. One note of caution, though: Remember you are going to have a steadicam operator, 2nd AC, boom operator, steadicam guide, and possibly a director all walking in one big clump. Make sure your corners and stairs aren’t too tight.
Another thing to remember is that sound is a big issue. You are going to have several people shuffling along with the actors and you just might pick up the squeak and slide of all those shoes as they fumble across the floor.
Here is the path we took through the governor.
Step 2: Get a lot of extras
This is a common mistake made on lower end productions. I know that it’s a big pain in the tookus to wrangle a large group of extras when you don’t have a lot of resources, but trust me, it will make your walk-n-talk sing. In the previous clips above, notice how many extras those shoots had and how often the actors interact with them. Don’t be afraid to loose your principals in the crowd either. Let them disappear behind a small group and reemerge somewhere else. This can actually work well as a story telling tactic.
One of the best ways to create tension in a scene is to frustrate the communication between your characters. If you have a crowd making noise or getting in the way of one of your characters, the scene can become a ton of fun. It will make the audience lean forward and really tune in to the scene.
Step 3: Get a crackerjack steadicam operator
I cannot over emphasize this. Doing long moves like this are very difficult and if your operator doesn’t have some chops, then you will be in for a very long day. There is nothing worse than watching your actors absolutely killing it, and suddenly your horizon goes horizontal and is never corrected, or the tops of their heads get cut off.
A good tip here is to ask for a steadicam reel before your operator shows up. If he doesn’t have a reel, then there’s a good chance he/she hasn’t been at it for very long. Be wary.
Step 4: Have a good actors WHO KNOW THEIR LINES
This falls right in line with Step 3. If you have a cracker jack crew and operator but your actors can’t seem to get their lines straight… Well, then that is going to suck like there is no tomorrow. What you have to remember is how heavy a typical steady cam rig is. We were recently shooting with an Arri Alexa, and the entire rig ended up weighing in at around 50lbs. That’s a lot of weight for one guy to sling around, and you will kill your operator if they have to keep redoing it because of ill prepared actors.
If your actors are really struggling, here are a few things you could try to help out.
- Suggest firing them. No no no, just kidding. NEVER do that. That will just make it worse. Actually, do just the opposite. Don’t tell them anything I just wrote, tell them you have all day and it’s no problem and that the steadicam operator is at the top of his game. Try to take the pressure off by telling them you think you already have a usable take. (Yes, you might have to fib a little.)
- Make sure they understand their lines. This might sound obvious, but if your actor is saying something that they don’t really understand, or is contrary to their character, or is just way over their head, then it can be a hindrance to them remembering what to say.
- Have them make the lines their own. This is one of the best tools I know of to help an actor out. They may have a real hard time saying, “She sells seashells down by the sea shore” while walking up stairs and handing documents to passerby’s. Just make it easy on them and change the line to “Jill works in Venice.” Problem solved.
- Break up the shot. Have the actors pause at some point so that you can cut away to an over-the-shoulder or something similar.
This brings me to my final point.
Step 5: Stop Walking
Yeah, I know. After all this talk about picking your path and what not, you’re going to think I’m giving you contrary advice by saying this, but here me out. One of the best ways to break up a walk-n-talk is to have your actors stop at important points and have a quick bit of dialogue. This does a couple of things for you.
First, it gives the audience a break so that they don’t get seasick. With all those dynamic camera moves around corners and up stairs, it can leave you feeling a bit woozy. Give the eyes a break and have the actors stand still in a two shot or slide into a simple over-the-shoulder.
Second, it gives you a cutting option. During these breaks you can cut to a reaction shot or a reverse over-the-shoulder and now, if your actor is having a hard time with his lines, or your camera op just can’t keep up, you can split the action into smaller pieces. Yes, it will break up your precious unedited take, but chances are, your project will be better for it.