Shooting, Editing, and Crossing the Line on HBO’s “Succession”

Succession has all the hallmarks of HBO Prestige Television: big names, stunning production design, Shakespeare out the wazoo. It crosses the line as much in its shooting as its characters cross it morally, and just as often for kicks; see Episode 1.04 “Sad Sack Wasp Trap” (video for educational purposes):

I did a more detailed breakdown of a line cross (or breaking the 180 rule) in another post. Doctor Who is shot in a little more of a traditional style, whereas Succession goes the Friday Night Lights route of playing everything as a fly-on-the-wall narrative, with a floating camera giving it a bit of a documentary or reality show sans interviews. This feel also means casual blocking and line crosses are more common, but the way Roman and Kendall are juxtaposed here makes it feel quite intentional.

:00 Roman comes in Camera Right, and approaches Kendall Camera L. The next few cuts change from a wider to a slightly closer shot, with the off-camera actor somewhat dirtying the frame, while otherwise keeping their positioning the same.

:20 Kendall stands up and walks around his desk, but though he is briefly aligned with Roman, they maintain their respective R / L positioning, as does the next cut at :24.

:29 We cut from a single of Kendall Camera Left to a single of Roman Camera Left, and whereas the first several cuts were all from roughly the same two positions and established the 180 line, here the camera jumps across.

:31 Back to Kendall, who is Camera Left, and Roman still dominating R side of frame. 

:33 Back to Roman Camera Left, similar to the shot at :29 but now with Kendall still in frame. This is the most jarring cut, because we go from a shot with both actors clearly in the frame, directly to a similarly framed shot where actors have ‘switched sides.’

:42 A single on Kendall, who now remains where he’d be repositioned, Camera R

:44 A single on Roman, who now remains where he’d be repositioned, Camera L

This is a short and sweet sample, but Succession does things like this constantly, not only in large crowd scenes where the moving camera and ensemble nature means crosses go mostly unnoticed.

For example, see the dinner scene in Ep 2.07 “Return” where Shiv and Roman wheedle their mother – the camera moves all over the place, with seven anchor points and a dozen shot sizes (more on this later) and no traditional ‘move right to left during a shot to reset the line.’ 

Does director Becky Martin do it because otherwise a scene of three people sitting and chatting around a table – as opposed to twenty people at a n opulent party or three circling each other in a board room – would feel less kinetic? Does she do it to represent how the rapid verbal tug-of-war keeps shifting the power dynamics? Or is it to keep the audience off-balance with each character’s blunt attempt to knock each other off-keel? Maybe all of the above.

To demonstrate: fun with diagram! Shot numbers start at 1 as Caroline walks into the dining room with the pigeon, and ignores the two INT: KITCHEN shots of her getting more wine. Some of the cameras are clearly different takes/lenses for wides and closeups, but I labelled them the same due to essentially similar setups & angles; for example, the positioning in C CAM shot 3 of the table and shot 6 of Shiv’s closeup are similar angles with Shiv on the left, so same camera in the diagram for sake of simplicity.

Succession diagram 1

It’s a 3:52 scene with 63 cuts (65 with Caroline’s kitchen forays).  Nearly every shot is on an angle, with a wide mix of CU and M shots, some clean some dirty, a couple even moving. It’s much more complex than the classic Gilmore Girls Friday night dinner setup, which is essentially four people around a table, camera in the middle, clean mostly-centered MS of each participant.

As the conversation escalates, more cameras get added to the mix, which also means fewer instances of going from A CAM to B CAM and right back to A. Because the camera is roving, we may get in a medium in 39, and the same camera for shot 41 is a closeup. This puts the audience as constantly off-balance as Roman and Shiv.

Not always but often, the camera uses eye movement or head turns to initiate a cut to the character who is being looked at. (Shot 44, below; Shiv glances to Roman, narrows her eyes, then we cut to him.) Attempting to keep this flow with this many cameras can be a nightmare for editors, as changing one cut late in the edit is like knocking over a random domino in a line you spent three days constructing.

Just to up the degree of difficulty they throw in some rack focuses (:06 and :09 below).

My favourite cut may be shot 29 to shot 30 repositions Shiv from far right to left, demonstrating her considering Caroline’s offer while trying to play both sides:

 

The key to breaking the rules is knowing them, and clearly Succession‘s directors know the rules. “Return” breaks them far more egregiously and over a longer time. But it’s the more egregious breaking I love more. Not only because it makes it clear it’s intentional (“Sad Sack Wasp Trap”‘s scene could have been a simple mistake lucked into, while “Return”‘s had to be painstakingly plotted) but because it feels better.

That’s a lot of me, my gut, and my aesthetic preferences. I can attempt quantification, of course: “Return” works better because we have the central dinner table to ‘ground’ us, while there is no similar feature in Kendall’s office; for the most part in “Return” the participants are seated and framed at about eye level, whereas Logan and Kendall are moving and the shots from similar positions constantly change heights as well as angles and sizes; “Return” is more conscientious about when it keeps characters on the same side of the frame for each camera, but then again they’re seated so it’s easier; etc etc.

But in the end, sometimes directing is more about gut feeling than rules and technique.

Stray Observations

– I’d be remiss not to note this has the freedom to work because the actors are firing on all cylinders: from Strong’s and Snook’s body language to Walter’s clipped calculating cadence to Culkin’s playing Roman as bad at lying to his mother.

– It doesn’t hurt that “Return”‘s dinner scene also eschews the in-my-opinion-wildly-overused Succession favourite of using punch-ins to accentuate when a character says or realises something devious or important.

– In regards to the punch-ins particularly and the shooting overall, the 1ACs are phenomenal at their jobs; just see the moment in “Tern Haven” where you see chef Rosa’s withering look right as the focus pulls to her from her overbearing employer, and realise they planned it thoroughly.

 

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