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Classic Scene: Cloverfield

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Constructing the Statue of Liberty money shot of 2008's Cloverfield, director Matt Reeves bought a host of techniques and crafts into the fray, as Drew Turney discovers.

Watching for tracking shots is always fun, but they work best when you don't even realise they're there. Director Matt Reeves' Godzilla homage Cloverfield had a unique device that allowed him to include some impressive sequences – the story about a giant beast attacking New York was all done from the point of view of a camcorder user, Blair Witch Project-style.

And the scene of the Liberty head bouncing down the street that closed the much-downloaded teaser trailer (shot before the film was even properly underway) became the most iconic sequence in the movie.

The partygoers who've collected on the roof after the sudden blackout see the huge explosion on the horizon and bundle down the stairs to the street outside. As soon as they do the three-minute tracking shot starts, comprising filmmaking techniques from the manipulation of old fashioned sets and superimposed backdrops to CGI foregrounds.

It actually would have been nearly impossible to wrangle that many on-set effects and extras in a single take, and several cuts are hidden in moments where Hud (TJ Miller) – the guy ostensibly holding the camera – whips it back and forth and refocuses to follow the action.

From the moment the crowd bursts out of the stairwell, it's a Hollywood sound stage much later – the rooftop scene was filmed on location in New York months before.

Hud, hero Rob and their friends converge, panicked and scared, and an off-screen production runner yells 'roar' to signify the awful noise of the distant monster attacking that will be added in post. Everyone looks down the street in terror and the camera whips around to see a black speck flying towards them.

The huge steel head careens off a nearby building in a huge explosion and crashes to the street just metres away. Along with the New York cityscape at the end of the street, the approaching head, explosion and point of impact are all digital.

As Hud and his friends scatter out of its path, 'thumpers' send nearby parked cars bouncing into the air as the head passes and Hud turns to capture it as it slides to a stop. Sparks marking its passage are showered across the road and a purpose-rigged street lamp falls to explode across the road after the digitally added head clips it.

There's another cut as Hud pans in and the camera tries to focus on the metal face of Lady Liberty, gashes taken out of her skin from the attack. When it does we're looking at a real head model on the LA set as the extras crowd around, taking pictures and not quite believing what they're seeing.

There's another shocking roar off screen and everybody turns. After another cut in the fast pan we're watching the digital New York again, with a huge shape passing. The lights go out in a nearby skyscraper and it crumbles down in a cloud of dust and debris that billows up the street towards the camera, crowd and audience.

Everyone rushes into a nearby convenience store. The shelves and fittings shake from the cacophony outside, rigged with more thumpers on the set. When the dust cloud arrives, it's actually smoke and debris machines blowing clouds of 'dust', papers and rubbish past the storefront outside.

The windows of the store are rigged to explode inwards and the power goes out as the monster causes havoc in the city outside. When it seems the danger's passed for the moment, the group tentatively picks their way through the rubble in the store to see what's transpired outside.

Courtesy of another cut, the streetscape outside has now been dressed for the catastrophic fate that's befallen it, with crushed cars strewn here and there and dust covering everything. As Hud pans away to the end of the street the digital New York backdrop now reveals spot fires on buildings caused by the destruction.

Originally published in Auscam.

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