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Close Ups and The Big Picture — Jayne-Ann Tenggren
March 25, 2002 – An Eye for Detail
Star Wars movies work on two distinct scales. They are sprawling epics encompassing scattered worlds told on panoramic vistas, and they are also personal stories told in medium and close shots filled with layers of details. Helping balance the big picture and the close ups and keep the detail in check is Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Script Supervisor.
“My job is to look after the continuity of the movie in terms of the story and the action, and provide comprehensive notes for the editors so that they have a reference when they come to cut the picture,” she describes. Her work, too, is done in differing levels of scale, from the day-to-day little tasks to an overlapping larger whole.
During principal photography, Tenggren’s days began with briefings from Writer/Director George Lucas regarding what was on schedule for that day. “George doesn’t really work from a shot list,” says Tenggren. “He has a very clear picture in his mind of what he’s trying to achieve in each scene. He comes to it each day with an idea of what he’s trying to create, and then approaches the actors and communicates to them what it is he’s looking for.”
From then, the shots are rehearsed until everyone involved is clear on the shot’s intent and logistics. “The main purpose of a rehearsal is to decide on the blocking — who’s going to stand where, and at what point do they move from A to B during the scene — so that you can get an overall sense of the entire scene. You also get the emotion of a scene and what’s going to be happening in terms of pacing.”
For every decision made in the rehearsal, Tenggren is there, keeping notes. “In the process, I might be helping the actors with their lines, helping them match action, and providing camera information from the previous set up or any technical support that might be needed,” she describes.
Once a take is actually recorded, Tenggren carefully logs any pertinent information that may be required for subsequent takes and set ups. “What I’m watching for is consistency of performance and that we’re actually achieving what the director is looking for. In terms of matching action, if it didn’t happen, it’s my job to inform George, and he’ll decide what’s important to him. All those things, tonality, technique, and noticing things like focus and composition… you sort of keep a keen eye for everything.”
But aside from looking at the picture scene-to-scene, she also keeps an eye on the overall body of work. “If the director says we’re trying to do the main theme of this particular Episode as a love story, for example, then there may be a certain tonality that he wants for the entire film. In certain scenes, it may not be present. In others, it may, But it’s easy within specific scenes to lose a continuity of timing within the film, or to have too much of one tone. That’s something that in my job, I might call out. Also, At a particular junction, if we’re two-thirds of the way through the story, I might be asked to remember that we need to make sure that a certain point is clearly communicated.”
The sheer number of set-ups keeps Tenggren’s job a challenge and her notes extensive. George Lucas’ directorial style comes from his background in editing and documentary filmmaking, which results in a large number of set-ups that he pairs down in editorial. With each set-up, Tenggren’s eye for details is called upon.
“Asking what the average set-up on a film versus what an average set up on Star Wars is kind of an unequal, unfair question,” she says. “An average drama, before this sort of MTV-age, was around between 600 and 700 set-ups for a movie. On Day 59 of shooting Episode II, the main unit alone had done over 2000 set-ups. By the time Episode II is cut, there will be something like 2,200 cuts in the movie.”
Tenggren describes herself as knowing the Episode II script backwards and forward. She can identify scenes by their numbers from memory, and recall the various challenges for each one. She was also script supervisor for Episode I, and can readily list differences between both productions.
“There’s more dialogue in Episode II than there was in Episode I, and that’s because the relationships have been built and the story is expanding further and layering the foundation for the next Episode,” she reveals. “The fun part of this script, too, is that you’re getting to see how the characters are starting to develop, and why they think the way they think.”
From a purely technical standpoint, the differences in approach come from the lessons learned in Episode I. “Episode II has been much freer than in Episode I in terms of continuity, because now there’s the hindsight of just how much work is done in post, and what’s important and what isn’t. For example, we’re doing a scene and we’ve already shot the master where the geography of the blocking has been established, and then as we’re working on it, we discover that it grows and takes on a life of its own. Perhaps it would have been better to have an adjustment in the blocking where somebody is closer to another person, or farther away. The beauty of working with bluescreen is that all of that can be adjusted in post. You can actually take that master and slide the character to the place that you want them to be. When those changes are being made, I have to be aware of what they are.”
Tenggren’s memory records more than just the technical requirements of each set-up as she readily recalls her favorite or most challenging shooting days. “My most hilarious moments came about shooting actors who are hoping to jump on a blue blob and sort of bounce around and pretend that it’s some kind of animal,” she remembers. “They’re falling off and trying to keep their composure and stay in role. They’re just wonderful, and cope with it very, very well. They always got up and went for it again.”
The biggest challenges tend to come with scenes with multiple characters, since each one adds another level of blocking and detail that must be kept track of. “In the scene in Palpatine’s quarters when Amidala comes in, we had a scene with many, many characters and everybody was moving around. It was a lot of entrances and exits and some sliding in the blocking and just keeping everybody straight and who goes where among the background extras.”
Conversely, the larger the crowd gets, the easier continuity becomes, provided there’s a clear subject matter for the audience to focus on, as Tenggren can attest to when filming a foot-chase through the backstreets of Coruscant. “The extras essentially become a sort of mobilized mass in that type of environment. We want our audience’s focus to be on our two physical characters — the one who’s pursued and the one chasing. So, in terms of background, nobody’s going to be doing anything to really draw attention to themselves because that isn’t the purpose of the scene. They’re simply there to blend in and be an interesting environment, but not distract from the physical action. In that situation, continuity is very easy. The phrase on the set is, ‘if the audience watching the background, then we’re all in trouble.'”
Despite such careful attention to detail on the job, Tenggren doesn’t let it get in the way of her enjoying other films. “When I go and watch a movie, I don’t think about continuity at all,” she says. “The only thing I think about is the story, and how something is being told in a visual medium. Those are the things that completely captivate me.”