It’s rare but exhilarating when you find a movie that offers a unique take on film’s visual language without relying on the crutch of extensive computer-generated imagery. That’s precisely the beauty of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film is directed, produced and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams) and features a dynamic ensemble cast dominated by Michael Keaton’s lead performance as Riggan Thomson.
While most films are constructed of intercutting master shots, two-shots and singles, much of Birdman is presented as a single continuous take. While this look has been done before (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, among others), it’s never been to this extent. Approximately 100 minutes of the two-hour movie appear as a completely seamless composite of lengthy Steadicam and handheld takes.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a movie star who rode to fame as the comic book superhero Birdman, but it’s a role that he walked away from. Searching for contemporary relevance, Riggan has decided to mount a Broadway play based on the real-life Raymond Carter short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman takes place entirely at the historic St. James Theatre near Times Square and the surrounding area in New York.
Principal photography took place over a 30-day period, both at the St. James and Times Square area, and at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Sets were built on the soundstage for the backstage and dressing room portions of the theater.
Throughout the film, Riggan struggles with the challenges of getting the play to opening day and dealing with his fellow cast members, but more notably confronting his super ego, Birdman, seen in person and heard in voiceover. The confrontation, of course, plays out in Riggan’s imagination. The film, like the play within the film, wrestles with the theme of the confusion between love and affection.
It was through the skills of the cinematographer and the editors that this ambitious vision came to life. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as “Chivo,” served as director of photography. He won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Gravity, a film that was also heralded for its long, seemingly continuous shots. Stephen Mirrione (The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Thirteen, Traffic) and Douglas Crise (Arbitrage, Deception, Babel) teamed up for the Birdman edit. Both editors had worked together before, as well as with the director.
Mirrione started work during the rehearsal process. At the time of production, Crise handled the editing in New York, while Mirrione, who was back in Los Angles at this time, was getting dailies and checking in on the cut as well as sending scenes back and forth with changes every day.
It Starts with Preparation
Stephen Mirrione explains, “When I first saw what they wanted to do, I was a bit skeptical that it could be pulled off successfully. Just one scene that didn’t work would ruin the whole film. Everything really had to align. One of the things [we did] was to tape and edit all of the rehearsals. This was done about two months before the principal photography was set to start. The rehearsals were edited together, which allowed Alejandro to adjust the script, pacing and performances. We could see what would work and what wouldn’t. Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read so, together with Alejandro, we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. It was like a pre-visualization that you might create for a large-scale CGI or animated feature.”
Once production started in New York, Crise picked up the edit. Typically, the cast and crew would rehearse in the first half of the day and then tape during the second. Birdman was shot with ARRI Alexa cameras. Media was sent to Technicolor, which would turn around color-corrected Avid DNxHD 36 dailies for the next day.
The team of editors and assistants used Avid Media Composer systems. According to Crise, “I would check the previous day’s scenes and experiment to see how the edit points would ‘join’ together. You are having to make choices based on performance, but also on how the camera work would edit together. Alejandro would have to commit to certain editorial decisions because those choices would dictate where the shot would pick up on the next day. Stephen would check in on the progress during this period, and then he picked up once the cut shifted to visual effects.”
Naturally the editing challenge was to make the scenes flow seamlessly, in both a figurative and literal sense. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition. The characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.
“I think we anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and prepared for them, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience. That made a big difference.”
Score and Syncopation
To help drive pace, much of the soundtrack uses a drum score composed and performed by Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez. In some of the film’s scenes, the camera pans over to a drummer who just happens to be playing in an alley or even in a backstage hallway. Sanchez and Iñárritu went into a studio and recorded 60 improvised tracks based on the emotions that the film needed. Mirrione says, “Alejandro would explain the scene to the drummer in the studio and then he’d create it.”
Crise continues, “Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start, too.”
“And then Martín [Hernández, supervising sound editor] took it to another level. Once there was a first pass at the movie, with many of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone in every movie, but with this film I think it was especially important because the rhythm is so tied to the camera, and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal, at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.
The Invisible Art
The technique of this seamless sequence of scenes really allows you to get into the Riggan character’s head, but the editors are reserved in discussing the actual editing process. Mirrione says, “Editing is often called the ‘invisible art.’ We shape scenes and performances on every film. There has been a lot of speculation on the Internet about the exact number and length of shots. I can tell you it’s more than most people would guess. But we don’t want that to be the focus of the discussion. The process is still the same, of effecting performance and pace. It’s just that the dynamic has been shifted, because much of the effort was front-loaded in the early days. Unlike other films, where the editing phase after the production is completed focuses on shaping the story, on Birdman it was about fine-tuning.”
Crise continues, “Working on this film was a different process and a different way to come up with new ideas. It’s also important to know that most of the film was shot practically. Michael [Keaton] really is running through Times Square in his underwear. The shots are not comped together with greenscreen actors against CGI buildings.”
There are quite a lot of visual effects in the film to enhance and augment the transitions from one shot to the next, making them seamless. On the other hand, when Riggan’s Birdman delusions come to life on screen, we also see more recognizable visual effects, such as a brief helicopter-and-creature battle playing out over the streets of New York.
Winking at the Audience
The film is written as a black comedy with quite a few insider references. Clearly, the casting of Michael Keaton alludes to his real experiences playing a superhero in the first Batman film, which in many ways launched the superhero film genre as well as the Batman film franchise. However, there was also a conscious effort during rehearsals and tapings to adjust the dialogue in ways that kept these references current.
Crise adds, “Ironically, when we were shooting the scenes on the rooftop, there was a billboard in the background behind Emma Stone and Edward Norton with a reference to Tom Hanks. We felt that audiences would believe that we created it on purpose, when in fact it was a real billboard. It was changed in post just to keep from appearing to be an insider reference that was too obvious.”
The considerations mandated during the edit by a seamless film presented other challenges, too, such as where to structure reel breaks and how to hand off shots for visual effects. Mirrione points out, “Simple tasks such as sending out shots for VFX and color correction or even making changes for international distribution requirements were complicated by the fact that once we finished, there weren’t individual ‘shots’ to work with—just one long, never-ending strand. It meant inventing new techniques along the way. Steven Scott, the colorist, worked with Chivo at Technicolor Los Angeles to perfect the color and lighting and had to track all of these changes across the entire span of the movie. The same way we found places to hide stitches between shots, they had to hide these color transitions, which are normally changed at the point of a cut from one shot to the next.”
The film was in production and post for about a year, starting with rehearsals in early 2013. Birdman was mixed and completed by mid-February 2014. While it posed technical and artistic challenges from the start, Birdman came together in the end thanks to perfect choreography of cast, crew and the postproduction team. It will be interesting to see how Birdman fares during awards season because the film succeeds on so many levels.