Friday, September 28, 2012

Talking to Steadicam Pioneer Larry McConkey

Stockton, New Jersey resident Larry McConkey is a cinematographer and award-winning Steadicam operator whose credits include contemporary classics like Three Kings, Miller’s Crossing, Kill Bill, The Sopranos, and Goodfellas. (The photo above is of him shooting a scene for Hugo.) McConkey will talk about his work at a meet-the-filmmaker dinner in Lambertville on October 7 to benefit the ACME Screening Room. He talked to me last Saturday from his home in Stockton, after a late night of shooting Boardwalk Empire in New York City.

That long, unbroken shot in Goodfellas where Henry(Ray Liotta) takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana through the back door is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. Is it one of your personal favorites?
Yeah, yeah. I started out really early with using Steadicam in motion pictures, so I was able to help define what it could do.

When you’re making a film, there used to be limitations about where a camera can go that limited the structure and feel of the movie. So to have a device that could suddenly allow you to do these smooth moves and go places and not cut—wow! [Director Martin] Scorsese really bought into that big-time and said ‘This is gonna be great! Let’s just do it!’ But it was up to me to kind of figure out how.

When they first walked me through the shot, we were following the two lead characters down the stairs and around the corner and down. There’s no dialogue. They’re just walking and we’re just following behind them, and it’s four minutes long. I’m thinking, this is really gonnna suck. It’s gonna be the worst shot in the history of film. Who’s gonna want to watch this? But Ray, thankfully, saw a little panic in my eyes, and he said, ‘You want me to stick around a little, kind of help you work it out?’ Yee-e-ess!

Whenever I got to the point where I was in trouble or I was getting bored, wanting to see something other than the backs of their heads, we’d say, okay, we need to bring in someone who can interact with Ray in the hall. We had a couple that Ray had fun with and turned around to look at, so you could see his face. It was like a big puzzle: how do you keep a shot going and keep it interesting every second? And what happened was that all these tricks and devices I had to come up with just to keep the shot going ended up being what the shot was about.

It was also Scorsese. He’s a real source—especially back then—of energy. If he gets frustrated he’s apt to say, well screw it, let’s just cut that. So there was a nervous tension behind everybody’s efforts to really make this work, to show Marty we could do it. To make film history.

Well, you did. It’s just great.
Yeah. It still holds up. I agree.

And that’s become a trademark of mine. I’ve now done about half a dozen very long, four- or five-minute shots.

A lot of great cameramen have been technical innovators too: part engineer, part visual artist. Is that true of you too?
Yeah. I’m totally 50-50. Absolutely. I’ve been an innovator from the very beginning. I have a whole big workshop, as big as the house, where I come up with the gadgets that allow me to do the thing I was frustrated by in my last shoot. First comes the search: Does anybody make something to let me do that? If not, then I make it myself.

And then [Steadicam inventor] Garrett [Brown] and I developed Skycam together.

All filmmakers are highly dependent on technology and devices to make these images, which then hopefully transcend physicality. Especially the ultimate Skycam shot, which looks like a bird flying. It confounds the idea that it was gotten with cables and computers and things like that, because it just looks like a free expression of will.

The physical aspect of shooting is another reason why I like Steadicam so much. It’s like ballet. You have to have the discipline and training and balance and coordination of a ballet dancer, and also the engineering to work with the equipment and some sense, like a poet or a dancer or whatever, of the flow of the shot. And also sympathy for the story and the characters and the actors and how to work with them. I don’t know of anything in life that is so all-encompassing.

When I finally had pretty much committed myself to this as a living, I started to worry because I thought: There’s nothing that could go wrong with me now. I can’t stub a toe. I can’t sprain an ankle, or have a bad hand, or lose vision or balance or strength or intellect or curiosity. I mean, I can’t lose anything and do this job. I gave up dangerous things I used to love, like downhill skiing really fast or motorcycle riding.

Why are you doing this fundraiser for the ACME?
It’s so much better to see film with an audience than by yourself. It’s part of what makes it a magic medium, that it’s a shared experience.

There’s a lot more going into TV production than there has been in the past. People have HD now, so the format we can shoot in is better. Things like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire are every bit as intense and serious and motivated for excellence as a good feature film. That sort of approach is becoming more common, and the networks are starting to get into it too.

So then the real struggle is to justify spending money and taking time to go to the movies: getting the babysitter and going downtown and maybe eating out and all this stuff, for what? But, though most people don’t consciously factor it in, the seeing a film with a crowd that’s excited by it really elevates the experience.

The ACME is not about profit. It’s not about just making money. It’s about serving the community and sharing a passion for an art form. We need to support things like the ACME in every way we can, because that’s our soul.

Written for TimeOff

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