It was a long shot, but the effort paid off in exhilaration

Special to The Times

THE scene would be complex by any standard -- for roughly 15 minutes we follow Clive Owen as he navigates three blocks of intricately choreographed urban warfare in a deconstructing British society, circa 2027, as envisioned in director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.” Typically a scene like this would be shot in multiple takes and from different angles, with editing magic turning it into a seamless narrative.

But Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki decided they wanted “Children of Men,” their fifth collaboration and due in theaters here Dec. 25, to have a more realistic aesthetic. To get there, they used long, extended shots and wide lenses so characters could always be seen in context. Natural light and lots of hand-held camerawork ruled the set. Inserts, those additional shots to “fill in the blanks” in a scene, were verboten.

The result is a film that departs from cinematic convention, providing some of the longest uninterrupted and yet most synthesized live-action sequences in recent history. And with violence that seems raw and real, not glamorized.

In the case of the 15-minute scene, Lubezki, George Richmond, a British Steadicam operator who’d worked on Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” and a focus puller followed the actor -- in one section running backward up stairs -- as he raced through what amounted to a three-block-wide live set teeming with armed extras in riot gear.


Cuaron, who usually stands next to the camera, ran behind until certain sightlines required that he duck out of view, although a wireless device and a portable video monitor kept him connected to the action.

As Owen ran through the maze of buildings and abandoned buses, across streets and past moving tanks, amid gunfire and explosions, the hand-held camera, operated by Richmond, followed right behind, capturing the 15-minute action sequence in real time.

“The energy is so different than if you’re just shooting a little moment where a scene plays out in front of the camera,” Lubezki said. “Everybody begins to believe they are in the middle of this war and people start screaming and shooting. By the time the camera got to block three, the extras are really going nuts and you have to be careful that a tank doesn’t roll over an extra and you aren’t injured by close-range gunshots.”

The movie was shot for 60 days on location in wintry London, then in a studio outside the city. A typical day provided six hours of naturally gray light. The company spent two hours a day traveling, setting up and eating. The remaining four hours were used to rehearse, then, if they were lucky, nail a take before the light faded. The hope was that the camerawork, natural light and push to replicate the texture of reality would allow the audience to experience the sense of inescapable desperation and oppression that comes from living in a brutal world facing extinction.

It seems to have worked. The futuristic dystopian thriller, starring Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, first drew notice when it premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival in September, earning Lubezki an award for outstanding technical contribution.