Take 4: Alfonso Cuarón

The first Cuarón film I saw was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I had no idea who directed it—nor did I care, being 11 years old. However, I could tell that something separated it from the two previous Potter films. Except for Azkaban, when I watch the Potter movies, especially the Yates-helmed ones, it seems as though the filmmakers had a list of the plot points they needed to shoot in order to constitute a film, so they shot them and organized them in the correct order. Cuarón, on the other hand, captures the mood of Rowling’s books so that the movie feels like a realistic, cohesive, lived-in, expansive world—largely due to his complex, creative camera movement and shot composition.

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Cuarón smartly approached the third installment of the Harry Potter Franchise as a coming-of-age film, transitioning the three main characters from children to young adults. The most artful, quirky Potter film, Azkaban is a needed transition from the playful and whimsical first two films to one more serious, nuanced, and darkly comic. Cuarón also introduced to the series a more inventive use of magic and decided to allow students to wear “regular” clothes instead of their formal school robes, thereby differentiating and developing the characters’ identities. Here are two videos that outline Cuarón’s unquestionable impact on Azkaban, the Potter franchise, and the future of the film industry:

Movies with Mikey

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Although Cuarón’s contribution to the Harry Potter lore can’t be ignored, his best work is after Azkaban. In my recent Cuarón viewing, namely Children of Men and Gravity, I grew fond of his integral use of long takes. In both films, as these extended shots develop and the viewers become more involved, an uneasy sensation of horror and wonder intersect, further immersing his audience in the experience. Children of Men, my favorite Cuarón film, has 147 shots longer than 22 seconds (a long take for most movies), including two elaborate action set pieces lasting 4:07 and 7:34. Altogether, the average shot length (ASL) for the film is approximately 15 seconds. (In comparison, Inception has an ASL of 3.1 seconds.) These unbroken shots have become Cuarón’s bread and butter and, perhaps unfairly, the defining feature of his filmmaking career. Paradoxically, they’re noticeable due to their impressive choreography, yet invisible due to their ability to absorb the viewer. Rather than flaunt his skill as a director, Cuarón employs continuous takes for a simple, practical reason—long takes simulate real life. Because the human eye doesn’t “cut,” Cuarón hesitates to do so unless necessary. This decision allows him to create a new version of the age-old, Spielbergesque “movie magic.”

Here’s a video essay that demonstrates that Cuarón’s use of the long take is strategic rather than “showoffy”:

Alfonso Cuaron: The Art of Letting it Play

For further reading, here’s an in-depth analysis of the philosophy that undergirds Cuarón’s inclination to shoot long takes:

Reality Effects: The Ideology of the Long Take in the Cinema of Alfonso Cuarón

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