COVID SHOTS: No Sudden Move
Identifying COVID’s Fingerprints on the Pandemic Production “No Sudden Move”
COVID-19 has left its fingerprints on cinema. From box-office numbers to release schedules, this pandemic affected Hollywood. Most of those impacts are behind the scenes. Steven Soderbergh filmed “No Sudden Move” during the pandemic. Let’s look at how COVID-19 left its mark on the movie.
“No Sudden Move” stars Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Keiran Culkin, and Brendan Fraser – and one of the final performances of the late Ray Liotta – in a noir heist film about the invention of the catalytic converter. It was shot on location in Detroit in the autumn of 2020 and released directly to HBOMax in the summer of 2021.
While “No Sudden Move” involved all manner of COVID-19 safety procedures and precaution during production – and was delayed due to the pandemic – what we want to focus on are the residual effects of the coronavirus that we can see when we watch the movie.
Unlike our Through the COVID Lens articles – which focus on how non-pandemic productions would change due to COVID-19 safety – this new series focuses on the ways a trained eye can identify films shot during this (still on-going) pandemic. Welcome to the first installment of COVID Shots.
When it comes to “No Sudden Move,” we want to highlight four ways that COVID-19 lefts its mark.
- Small scenes (in large rooms)
- Creative lensing
This article is designed to illustrate how COVID-19 affected the choices the creative team made during the making of “No Sudden Move.” Let’s begin by looking at the blocking.
Take one look at nearly any frame in “No Sudden Move” and you’ll notice the significant distance between actors in a scene. This is paired with the lensing, staging, and shots – which we will get into in just a moment – to dramatically increase safety.
Soderbergh and company staged this film in such a way that nearly every scene showcases safe distances between the actors. The real key to this strategy, however, is that this blocking also serves the story.
In the still above, Del Toro, Cheadle, and Culkin play three criminals who don’t trust each other. Their spacing illustrates a sense of mistrust between them while also increasing pandemic safety on set.
The story adds an additional layer of safety by focusing on small scenes.
Small Scenes (In Large Rooms)
The very nature of a heist film requires secrecy. Film Noir focuses on isolation and remove. “No Sudden Move” is both a heist film and a noir. The story itself increases safety by allowing the actors to meet in small groups, hidden from the public.
Most of the scenes in “No Sudden Move” take place between 5 or fewer actors with the vast majority being 2 to 3 people. This allows production to focus on safety by keeping the number of required people on set to a minimum.
While we can credit the script for baking in some of the safety measures, we must also credit Soderbergh and company for the locations they chose.
The locations in “No Sudden Move” are often far larger than they need to be. Offices are palatial, homes are stately, cars are enormous. These elements allow the production to have the in-scene distancing we have already highlighted. But the creative team doesn’t stop there.
“No Sudden Move” also involves loads of precautions that increase air flow. Not only are a significant number of scenes set outdoors, but the ones inside involve open windows and open doors. In fact, during a tense moment in the kitchen the door to the outside stays open the entire time.
To capture the action when there is so much distance between the actors and the locations are so large, Soderbergh needed to use special lenses.
Soderbergh is known for experimenting on nearly every movie he makes. In “No Sudden Move,” he used old Kowa Prominar anamorphic lenses on a modern Red Raw camera. His goal was to achieve some of the imperfections from movies made during the story’s time period.
His lens selections, however, also increase pandemic production safety. If you examine the film from a lensing perspective, you’ll notice that Soderbergh uses massively wide-angle lenses in the spaced-out scenes and long lenses in his one-shots.
The long lenses increase the distance between camera crew and actors while the wide lenses in large spaces not only increase crew-actor distance but also actor-actor distances. These are two choices that, to us, demonstrate a cinematographer (Soderbergh as well under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) who both understands lensing and takes COVID-19 seriously.
This concern for safety is evident in the types of shots Soderbergh chose, too.
Del Toro’s character likes to sit in the back seat of a car. Even when the passenger seat is available. This character quirk isolates him from the front-seat characters, increases distance, and allows ample room for crew. “No Sudden Move” is filled with elements just like this one.
Here all the above attributes come together into a true showcase for pandemic safety. The blocking, the story, the scenes, and the lensing combine to maximize COVID-19 security by isolating the characters at nearly every turn.
“No Sudden Move” is a twist-filled story with double crosses, sudden deaths, and a plot that seemingly won’t stop unfolding. But at its core, it is about power and trust. These twin themes push the characters into situations that isolate them from the rest of the cast.
Soderbergh then leans into that isolation by shooting loads of singles and keeping the camera at a remove from the actors, thereby increasing the sense of isolation.
Every filmmaking era has its own style and look. From studio system Hollywood to ‘70s cinema, from the 90’s independent boom to the comic book craze, each era is distinct from the others. This is true for COVID-19, too.
The pandemic has ushered in a new era of Hollywood filmmaking. One whose style and look are just as distinct as any other era. How long this era will last is unclear, but its calling-cards are everywhere if you know where to look.
Soderbergh made the 2011 film “Contagion” in close cooperation with the CDC. When it came time for him to make a movie during a pandemic – instead of about a pandemic – Soderbergh made a point to work with the same CDC professionals that helped him a decade ago.
With this added CDC assistance, “No Sudden Move” is likely one of the safest movies anyone has made during this pandemic so far. And that safety is visible in practically every frame.
By incorporating social distancing into his blocking, focusing on small scenes in large spaces, lensing creatively, and highlighting character isolation, Soderbergh made a movie that epitomizes the aesthetics of this new pandemic era of filmmaking.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.