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Depicting history, and making it too

'Russian Ark' was shot in one long take -- an exhausting and rewarding endeavor.

January 05, 2003|Alina Tugend | Special to The Times

New York — It was the middle of a Russian winter, and cinematographer Tilman Buttner had just a narrow window of daylight to do something no one has ever done before -- shoot a feature-length film in one continuous take.

The film was "Russian Ark," a dreamy tableau of Russian history from Peter the Great to the present, filmed entirely in 33 rooms of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with 2,000 actors and extras who had never rehearsed all together. It was, to say the least, a staggering undertaking.

"Russian Ark," a Russian-German co-production that was shown at several film festivals last year, opens in Los Angeles on Friday. (It also is screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.) It is the creation of Alexander Sokurov, a Russian who has directed numerous documentaries and feature films ("Taurus," "Moloch" and "Mother and Son").

Sokurov has said he did not wish to direct a film with no edits simply as a cinematographic stunt, but to do a film shot "as [if] it were in a single breath.... I wanted to try and fit myself into the very flowing of time, without remaking it according to my wishes."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 573 words Type of Material: Correction
"Russian Ark" cinematography -- An article in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly reported that "Russian Ark" is the first movie photographed in one continuous unedited take. "Time Code," which was released in 2000, consisted of four simultaneous, continuous shots.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 12, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction
"Russian Ark" cinematography -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly reported that "Russian Ark" is the first movie photographed in one continuous unedited take. "Time Code," which was released in 2000, consisted of four simultaneous, continuous shots.

It was Buttner, 38, a German originally from the former East Berlin and an acknowledged expert in the use of the Steadicam -- a camera stabilization device that combines the steadiness of a dolly with the freedom of movement of a hand-held camera -- who was chosen to make Sokurov's wish come true.

Buttner, who operated the Steadicam on the movie "Run Lola Run," says he was excited from the moment Sokurov approached him.

"It was great someone had the idea and had the courage to try it," Buttner said during a recent visit to New York. "At first it was supposed to be a documentary, and as it developed, it got bigger and bigger."

Past filmmakers have dreamed of shooting one long unedited movie; Hitchcock attempted it in "Rope" but was constrained by the technology of the time. But technical advances in video -- some made especially for "Russian Ark" -- allowed it to happen. It was shot on compact high-definition cameras, which produce images commensurate with the shutter speed used on motion-picture film, with the image eventually transferred to a 35-millimeter negative. A complex portable rig was designed to move the camera on a Steadicam to cover 4,265 feet of the museum.

The high-definition camera made it possible to shoot in one take, but the maximum time that they could record with that method was 46 minutes -- and Buttner needed almost twice that. A German company managed to develop a prototype portable hard disk recording system that could record up to 100 minutes. (The completed film runs 87 minutes.)

The catch was that because of technical limitations of the equipment, the filmmakers could not back up and record over any mistakes. Those restrictions, combined with the limited availability of the Hermitage (two days) and the famously short Russian winter days, made the shoot the equivalent of a high-wire act without a net.

"Films are usually shot in 30 to 40 days," Buttner noted. "They're like a pyramid with a large foundation -- a lot can go wrong, but they can fix it. This was the opposite. It was like the top of a pyramid stuck in the ground. It was stuck well in, but if anything had happened, it would have fallen."

Hermitage tour guides

The film takes the point of view of a contemporary filmmaker -- whose murmuring voice is Sokurov's but who is never seen on camera -- and a jaded 19th century French diplomat (Sergey Dreiden) as they invisibly meander, alternately bewildered, frightened and amused, through the Hermitage.

The film begins in the 1700s and time-travels back and forth through Russia's past and present, with a grand-finale extravaganza of the last Great Royal Ball of 1913, shortly before the Bolshevik revolution, complete with hundreds of beautifully costumed dancers and a full orchestra.

Shooting of "Russian Ark" was set for a few days before Christmas 2001, with only about four hours of light available during the wintry Russian days.

"The Hermitage was closed for two days, one for preparation and one for shooting," said Buttner, as he animatedly told the story of those tense few days. "For 48 hours, nobody slept."

Forty electricians moved into the Hermitage on Dec. 22 to set up lighting for the film. "We started on the 23rd of December," Buttner said. "We were supposed to start at 12, but pushed it to 1 because of problems with the camera and lighting."

Now they had three hours.

The unwieldy army of people responsible for making cinematic history fell into place. The slender Buttner, strapped into his 75 pounds of camera equipment, was tied as if by an umbilical cord to an assistant carrying 50 pounds of apparatus that recorded the images to a hard disk.

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