John Baumgartner


ALWAYS (1989, Spielberg)

I know, I know, why this movie?  Because this shot from ALWAYS, a minor film not highly regarded by most, is so amazing – a little treasure in a film filled with bravado staging and camera work, but otherwise mostly ignored.  So I thought this would be unexpected, while still allowing me to kick things off with Spielberg.

It’s a short scene of John Goodman making a phone call.  How to make it interesting and unexpected, while keeping on theme?  Why, yes, include a jumbo jet.  And make it a oner.

The thing I love about great oners, and Spielberg is particularly good at this (and this reminds me of what thrills me about Gene Kelly’s choreography, too) is that there are unexpected beats that go just beyond what you’d think possible.

In this shot  – a complete 360 pan (something Spielberg started in his short AMBLIN’ and really perfected in the car shots in SUGARLAND EXPRESS)  – Goodman walks down the hall, as we PAN LEFT with him, REVEALING a large window (this whole house structure must either be a full-build set or the greatest find a director has ever stumbled upon) where we see the large jet coming in for a landing.

TILT UP (straight up) with the plane, follow PAN LEFT as it sails over the sky windows in the ceiling (!), and then TILT DOWN as it is appears in the wall window on the opposite side of the house – landing on/revealing Goodman in the foreground for a good half page of dialogue (on phone).

Then in an unusual move for Spielberg, instead of coverage or a cut, an unmotivated PAN LEFT (unusual that it’s unmotivated, not that it’s a pan left) goes across the kitchen (interesting reveal of geography – side note, this kitchen reminds me – in color & layout – of the one in his episode of Columbo – making me think this may have been a build) to REVEAL Holly Hunter in the hallway, where the rest of the scene will take place.

The shot is really bold and unexpected and certainly not cheap.  I like it too because aviation is what these characters are obsessed with.  And Hunter’s character is haunted both by the memory of her late husband (not to mention the ghost of him) and the fact that he was killed flying; it looms over her like the jets over this shack of a house.  But most importantly, Spielberg gets to geek out on some pretty awesome, showy staging.

You can check out the shot here, it’s 1:07 on this youtube clip. Pls bear with the crappy quality until I can post my own:


  • May 14, 2011
    J. Carlos

    The plane is digital.

  • June 5, 2011

    I don’t know about the pan left being unmotivated. It seems the motivation is to reveal Holly Hunter. The empty geography it covers just indicates the increasing sense of her overhearing the call, and stylistically it matches the tilt up and tilt down. It’s presumptuous, but I think it fits with your sense that the tilts are motivated by the thematic idea of aviation looming over them, in that the second thematic idea is the emptiness of the house, the kind of emptiness that only exists through the subtraction of a loved one.

  • October 26, 2011

    So I have been catching up with the films on your blog I havent seen. Always was far from Spielberg’s best. (That bar scene at the opening was pretty average). But still… pretty sweet.
    I loved this shot coming when it did. I felt the unmotivated move was to really underline the beat.
    PS Great Blog!


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