Next to making Nathan Lane look like Barbara Bush’s twin, the most amazing element of The Birdcage is the jaw-dropping 120-second opening shot, which takes a cliché (the helicopter-borne camera winging across the water toward land — Birdcage director Mike Nichols also used it for the opening of 1988’s Working Girl) and turns it inside out.
<p. Not only does the camera reach shore — it steps onto dry land, cruises past the crowd outside the Birdcage drag club, through the door, into the club, and behind the curtains to backstage, where we finally get the first cut.
It looks like one continuous SteadiCam shot. But looks are deceiving, admits Birdcage cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who confides, ”It’s really three shots”:
1. A helicopter shot that began over the ocean and ended at the street outside the club in Miami’s South Beach section: ”We shot it at dusk to get some of the detail,” Lubezki says. ”I lit two blocks of South Beach.”
2. A SteadiCam shot, two weeks later, that began on a crane. The cameraman was lowered to ground level; then he walked across the street and into the club’s front door.
3. Another SteadiCam shot, two months earlier on a studio soundstage, that began just outside the club exterior, then went into the club for the shot’s conclusion.
”The guys at Illusion Arts blended them with a combination of effects,” Lubezki reveals. ”Morphing, dissolves, matting. It was really difficult to match the speed of the helicopter and the crane, but they did it.”
What’s so special about those ocean-to-land opening shots, popularized by Miami Vice and seen in a handful of films virtually every year since (including Martin Lawrence’s imminent Thin Line Between Love and Hate)? Is there some secret cinematic symbolism at play?
”Not really,” Lubezki says, sounding mystified. ”You can find special meaning in them if you want to, I guess.”