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Masterclass: How Darren Aronofsky Would Shoot Pi Today

Masterclass: How Darren Aronofsky Would Shoot Pi Today 

This is the second true masterclass from Darren Aronofsky, and once again, the American filmmaker proves generous in sharing his knowledge but also in adapting the content he shared to the crowd attending the event.

While his talk at the New Museum was directed toward an older-ish crowd with a general interest in filmmaking, and a wider interest in storytelling, the crowd at the Odessa International Film Festival was composed of young filmmakers eager to find out how Aronofsky worked and works.

Aronofsky teaches at NYU and it shows. The masterclass is amazing and I encourage you to watch it from beginning to end, as usual. For this article, I’ve decided to focus on the making of Pi. The filmmaker shares how he used budget restriction, built a visual grammar for the film, and how he would do it today.

SHOOTING PI TODAY 

BUDGET RESTRICTION vs. FILM GRAMMAR 

I think that every movie that is well made has a film grammar. You need to figure out a language that tells the story the best possible way. But you’re also restricted by budget.

So, for instance, if you’re making your film with your iPhone, you have to think about how you’re going to use that tool,  because it’s a very special type of tool. On all those films, there’s always budget limitation. So you don’t get to have all your lenses…

On Pi we didn’t have all the lenses and the right equipment, and then on something like Noah, where it’s a much bigger budget, you can’t afford to have certain cranes on set and all these crazy different types of toys you get to play with when you make the big movies. So you have to try to figure out all these different tools you have and how you can create a language that’s best for the movie.

FINDING THE FILM GRAMMAR FOR Pi 

Pi is a good example. We had very limited resources, so I started off with knowing I had one friend who was not really an actor, he was an actor in college, but I thought he was an interesting looking guy, and I thought “Ok, I trust this guy, and I know he is going to be here every day. So I’m going to figure out a movie where he’s the main character because I know I can count on him.”

And then as I started to develop it, I realised that “You know what, it would be really interesting to try to tell a story purely from his point of view.” Meaning that if he was not in the scene, we could not show that scene. So for instance, I was not interested in cutting to the bad guys plotting to take over the world, I just wanted to see how that impacted him.

So that influenced the way we wrote the script. But it also influenced the way we shot it, because I wanted to really push the audience into his mind as much as possible. So we started to come up with a language of subjective filmmaking where when he was having headaches and he would freak out we would used these different cameras I talked about, the heat camera and the vibration camera, to give a sense to the audience what it felt like to feel that type of pain. 

USING THE FILM GRAMMAR TO DECIDE HOW TO SHOOT 

But for instance we would also do, if we were shooting a friend and me here, in most TV or most movies, there would be one camera filming both of us, like a 2 shots, and then there would be a single shot of him, and then there would be a single shot of me, and that’s basic coverage, which is very important to do because if you have those three shots, if he starts being very bad, which can happen, you can cut away to me, and if I start being bad, you can back to him, and if you want to show people where we are, you can cut back to there, and that’s how you put a scene together, very basic filmmaking. The other two shots I could possibly do if I had a little more time is I could shoot over my shoulder, so it’s more of kind of my view, or I could shoot over his shoulder. So those are kind of the five basic shots. Wide shot, two close-ups, and two over the shoulders.

With Pi we decided, “Ok, since it’s Max’s story, we are only going to shoot over his shoulder, because we are telling the story from his pov. So, if we’re over his shoulder, then we are seeing the world from his point of view. And then when we shoot who he’s talking to, we want to make it feel almost like a pov. So we moved camera more over, so if they look right into the lens, it’s almost comedic, and you use that for comedy effects because they’re looking right at the audience, but we would make the person almost look just into the lens, but just off. And then when we shot Max for the opposite of that, we would move the camera really into a profile or a 3/4, so you’re looking at Max, and he’s more like an object, while that person is more of the subject to him. And that became our language for the movie, and we just used it for the entire film.

And that came out because we were restricted for budget, but also because we decided with that restricted budget to create a story that would help bring the audience into this character’s head, to experience the world from his head.

I love the fact that Aronofsky takes time to cover the basics, explain his thought process on an almost 20 years old movie (a still-relevant thought process!) and, when possible, transpose what that would mean within today’s filmmaking possibilities.

Watch the full masterclass below: