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Sean Baker Cut Up Paul Thomas Anderson Long Takes To See if a Doc-Style Steadicam Would Work on ‘The Florida Project’

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast Ep. 41: Baker talks about why he was nervous to introduce union crews, Willem Dafoe, and steadicams into his run-and-gun approach to filmmaking.

The Florida Project

“The Florida Project”

Marc Schmidt

Sean Baker is a filmmaker who puts a premium on making his films feel as authentic as possible. For example, sometimes he will use a handheld camera to follow his characters — who are often played by first-time performers — to give a scene a sense of documentary realism. After “Tangerine” — Baker’s iPhone-shot indie breakout — he started to wonder if image stabilization advances in smartphone cameras was changing what audiences thought “real” footage looked like.

“Audiences see homemade raw footage, but with a stabilizer on,” said Baker when he was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “So everybody is shooting their Youtube and Instagram videos and they are all very smooth — so we’re changing the way audiences think about how cameras are held and if shots are stable or not.” This led Baker to consider if he could employ a documentary-style steadicam effectively to his next film, “The Florida Project.”


You Can Listen to the Entire Podcast Above

In an early scene, two of the children (Brooklynn Prince and Christopher Rivera) living at the Magic Castle motel give new arrival Jancey (Valeria Cotta) a tour of her new home. “I wanted to shoot that [scene] in a doc-y way — I wanted it to come across like we were just following these kids,” said Baker. “I knew we were going to have jump cuts along the way just to their lines — ‘in this room there’s a woman who thinks she’s married to Jesus, in this room this guy gets arrested all the time.’”

While the young performers had scripted lines, Baker would encouraged them to riff, while the camera followed them the whole length of the motel, down the stairs, and across the length of the motel again. The problem was Baker couldn’t visualize if jump-cut editing — that he’d always used effectively on similar handheld shots — would work the same way with such a long smooth steadicam shot.

“I asked my assistant to take some of those long steadicam shots from Paul Thomas Anderson films,” said Baker. “Then chop them up, literally jump cut them up and see if [they still work.]” Baker’s assistant showed him what the long shot in the motel scene from Anderson’s “Hard Eight” looked like chopped up and the director knew instantly — “yup, that works” — he could add what he called a “docu-steadicam” to his repertoire for “The Florida Project.”

“The Florida Project”

While on the podcast, Baker also talked openly about the challenges he faced introducing union crews to his run-and-gun approach to filmmaking and why he was nervous to incorporate a star like Willem Dafoe into his world of first-time performers.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on iTunes, StitcherSoundCloud and Google Play MusicPrevious episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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