Archive | April, 2014

A Stupid Opinion About That Fucking Epic Shot in True Detective 

1 Apr

True Detective was such an amazing experience. The show was near perfection on every level. When I suggested Caitie dust off her keyboard and write a stupid opinion about it she responded by saying, “What could I write about it other than, “this is the best” over and over again until I reached a thousand words?” And that pretty much sums up the futility of tackling True Detective on a whole. It’s too perfect to write a critique about it that wouldn’t end up as a gushing summary of the events of the show. I’d end up like Chris Farley on The Chris Farley show just asking “Wasn’t that awesome?” over and over again. Instead I’ve decided to breakdown the most memorable moment from the first season, where every episode has more than one memorable moment. The moment is that epic steadicam shot during the drug heist. I don’t just think that this is the best shot/moment of the series, but I think that is the best steadicam shot in the history of moving images. That’s how fucking cool that shot is. Just an amazing piece of cinema, which I will attempt to gush over for the next thousand-ish words.


The scene is simple in its story telling. Rust (Matthew McConaughey) participates in a raid on a stash house in the projects in order to make a vital connection in the case. The raid is poorly planned by a strung out, high-as-a-kite group of bikers with too many guns and a closet full of issues from their childhood that can only be numbed by violence and meth. Nothing in the set-up of the scene implies that it will go successfully, which is why this show is so wonderful; it gives the audience exactly what it says it will. No tricks, just high quality stories told in the highest possible way. Which leads to the presentation of this scene. 

Once the events of the scene are set in motion, it is going to be an intense situation. Instead of opting to play up the tension of the scene through editing, the choice was made to shoot it all in one shot via steady cam. This kind of shot requires an Elysium-type robot suit with a camera attached to it. It is a huge contraption, which makes Christopher TJ McGuire, the steadicam operator, a hero and champion of the moving image. The two previous shots leading up to the Fucking Epic Shot (FES from here on out) set the visual queue for the audience. The prior shot shows Rust get out of the truck before the rest of the biker gang approaches the stash house. We get a medium close shot of Rust where the camera moves around him priming for even more movement. Then as the truck drives off leaving our hero, the camera racks its focus to the truck making the turn onto the next street. This is setting up the importance of the background information. The background details will be so vital in FES, there’re going to add to the tension of the scene. The next shot is from Rust’s point of view and again goes to queuing the audience to notice the background. It’s a wide shot of him looking out across the yard to the bikers and their hostage getting out of the truck and approaching the house. With this shot the audience readies its eyes to subconsciously be on alert for the wide, deep elements of the shot, and once that’s been established BOOM! disorient the audience with the FES pretty tight as the camera follows Rust as he disarms the lookout of the house.


Once they enter the house, the camera floats tight around a frantic Rust as he tries to keep the situation under control by searching and clearing out the rest of the house. When Rust rejoins the rest of the reckless posse the background action begins to take off. We see the grenade-triggered booby trap on the door to the drugs, then we see the biker groping and harassing the girl on the couch and finally we see the shadows of the rowdy crowd outside approaching the window. We get all of this information while the camera is still focused on Rust and his unease with the situation unfolding. This is another great example of Matthew McConaughey’s skill that he can hold the audience’s attention, but not so tightly that it distracts from the important world of the scene.

When the scene turns deadly, it briefly shifts to slow motion as the first shots are fired. The action slows down, the sound slows down, but only for a fraction of a second before Rust snaps back into action. The few frames in slow motion are the only seconds he wastes before taking things into his own hands. Rust checks his escape route, grabs his man, Ginger, and makes his exit.

From the moment of the first shooting the audio becomes a huge element of the shot. First, when slowed down, everything is silent except for the gunfire, when the sound comes back the music is replaced by gunfire and screams of terror. Then outside, the sounds are replaced by police helicopter as the camera quickly pans up to show. The helicopter appears and shines a spotlight right on guys as they’re beating a man dressed as a police officer with a baseball bat, thus giving justification for the hell-fire of police cars that are about to be brought down on the projects. The next major audio queue is the overwhelming beating of a heart while Rust is calling Marty, Woody Harrelson, to tell him where to meet them.

So now the audience (lucky us) have been queued to notice the background and the sound. As the FES progresses these established elements of the shot are used to put the viewer in the action. As Rust leaves the house, there is a close up on him, but as punishment for not being aware of the whole situation, he’s attacked by assailants who come from off screen, where our eyes have been trained to observe. Then the background becomes the focal point of the scene. We’re constantly scanning the depth of the shot for potential danger. When we see police cars in the background and hear the gunfire, shouting and panic, we are there in the same situation as Rust. That is what makes this shot so special, it’s an epic steadicam shot where the majority of the information is in the background, whereas every other steadicam shot is designed to display the main focus of the scene. It’s unique, masterfully executed and woven perfectly within the story, adding and enhancing the richness of the show.

This one shot rivals any Saving Private Ryan Normandy Invasion shots for realism and putting the audience in the action. What is amazing is that this beautiful shot didn’t have to be experienced on the big screen to have its full impact. This versatility required by the filmmakers and actors in this shot is simply amazing. It’s my stupid opinion that this should be studied in every film class from 101 to doctorate thesis. Now I just lay awake at nights imagining the filmmakers racking their brains on how they will top this scene in season two. This is the sign of great television.

-C. Charles