Contrivance: a thing that is created skillfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose.
Contrive: to form or create in an artistic or ingenious manner.
Filmmaker contrivances intrigue me. Perhaps they are becoming a lost art due to CGI, but the mechanical reality of film magic is, to me, one of its most charming atributes. Potemkin villages. Boulders made of paper mache. Sugar bottles bashed over the head. The best fake blood. (Hitchcock is rumored to have used chocolate syrup for blood in Psycho.) Almost everything foley. Whacks on taut anchor-wires for telephone poles were recorded to get the classic laser sound in Star Wars. Here are three contrivances that I think are fantastic and a bit bigger than your average retractable knife gag.
Errol Morris's Famous Interrotron
In order to create a sensation of direct eye contact between his characters and the audience, Morris invented an interview method using two-way mirrors called the Interrotron, which is said to be a portmonteau of "interview" and "terror." The Interrotron enabled the interviewer and interviewee to look directly at each other during the filmming. One might think that this would create a more "real" effect, as though we are really talking with the person on screen. However, to me, Morris's invention has the opposite effect or, rather, it creates an enhanced reality so that his interviews sometimes (always?) feel surreal. McNamara in Fog of War is a great example of the surreal quality of Morris's filmmaking. This clip gets at the "terror" part of the technique. Look at how crazy McNamara appears at the opening!
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: The Stargate Sequence
Kubrick made this film in 1968. Forty-five years ago. And yet the Stargate Sequence remains one of the most remarkable cinematic experiences, especially on the big screen. The images are significantly enhanced by Ligeti's amazing score (used without permission), but the visuals hold up, too. Even today. Somehow it still feels like the future. So how did Kubrick do it? He used a technique called slit-scan photography, which is essentially taking a photo of a painting that has been masked down to a narrow slit and then smearing that image on a single frame of film by moving the camera during the exposure. It's a real technical achievement because each frame has to be created. I couldn't find the actual number of shots Kubrick needed, but with 24 frames per second, this nine minute journey required somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 shots at least. And when there were two sides to the image, as is often the case here, it's a double slitscan. Interestingly, Kubrick's images can be de-slitscanned so that you can see the paintings Kubrick was working with to create his (and Douglas Trumbull's) effects.
Zerkala (The Mirror) and the Life-Force Effect
This is one of my favorites. While watching The Mirror, I sometimes have the feeling that everything is alive; or, if not alive, that everything has some kind of life force. It's almost as if Tarkovsky's act of filming personifies things. Spilled milk. A tea cup. A glass lamp. A white cloth thrown through the air. Printing presses. Many things in The Mirror become characters, however minor. This life-force effect, if I can call it that, is perhaps most powerful when it feels bigger than the people in the film. For me, Tarkovsky's use of wind does this. But to use wind properly, or even at all, you have to control it somehow. You have to make it yourself. A contrivance. And Tarkovsky had a simple solution. Use helicopters. What amazes me is that even though I know the wind is faked and that there are helicopters right nearby with their propellers spinning, I still get the feeling of a metaphysical presence. Now that's filmmaking!