Thursday, October 1, 2009

Filmmaking Theory - On Over-Hyped Editing & Camerawork

I feel a music video-type style has taken over too many contemporary action films. And it doesn't accentuate the drama. It distracts from it.

Music videos have their place. But they're trying to do something different. In videos one looks to create strong, cool visuals to accentuate the music. Not so much the drama.

I'm all for fast cutting and a moving camera - when it's well designed and works as an integral part of the storytelling.
I'm a big admirer of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. They were the pioneers, they really developed the craft of filmmaking. They made brilliant use of the new language of film, particularly in their strikingly innovative editing.

Alfred Hitchcock had a real gift for psychologically-based editing - his cutting really emphasizes what the characters are thinking and feeling as they assess and deal with the heightened situation they're in.

Sam Peckinpah was trailblazing with his never-seen-before fast-cut action sequences - The Wild Bunch was extraordinary in its time.

George Miller is one of the best - he demonstrated some of the most spot-on excellent car-chase camerawork and editing we've ever seen in Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

There are others - John Frankenheimer has done brilliant work - William Friedkin with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Stanley Kubrick had some very effective editing in the first act of A Clockwork Orange. George A. Romero with Dawn of the Dead.

Martin Scorsese delivered with the boxing sequences in Raging Bull. James Cameron with the chases in Terminator 2.

Michael Mann scored with the intense, dramatic bank-robbery shoot-out in Heat. The Hughes Brothers with the armored-car heist in Dead Presidents. The Wachowskis with the street and freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded.

John Woo has lots of fast cuts - he comes in for close-ups on bits of action and has numerous angles on his elaborate staging. But it's all clearly thought out beforehand in his signature style -- as with all the above, he makes sure the audience knows what's happening and where.

More than a decade ago when I asked Frankenheimer about his editing technique, he was quick to say it was very important not to confuse the audience -- now confusing the audience is fine as long as they get the impression that something awesome and impactful just happened - never mind they couldn't quite make it out.

In some films we get a bunch of cluttered close-ups on a fight sequence, then quick unconnected flashes of cars speeding by in chase scenes...

I defy you to tell me what exactly happened in some of these movies - how did he hit that guy? What move was that? Where did that car come from? How did it end up over there?
The audience gets fragments of a fight or chase, but they couldn't tell you in any detail what supposedly happened.

And what's with this over-use of herky-jerky handheld camerawork? Now certain action films go distractingly wobbly even on basic dialogue scenes - they're jiggling the camera around on two people talking over a restaurant table. Trying to make it look like an energetic documentary.

Friedkin was among the first to use "realistic" documentary-like camerawork in action sequences - check out The French Connection - but it wasn't overdone - it didn't call attention to itself.

What makes this especially frustrating is if these scenes were being shot by an actual documentary cameraman, he'd be holding the camera a hell of a lot steadier than some of these people of today who are deliberately wobbling the lens around in an exaggerated manner - to make it look more realistic? In a restaurant dialogue scene?

This music video-like style is becoming trendy and cool to some people, while the rest of us just put up with it.

There is a backlash developing, however - I've noticed a number of forums and bulletin boards on the IMDb and elsewhere where people were enthusiastic about a film - but then the herky-jerky lens work spoiled it for them.

Again, I'm all for a handheld camera in the right circumstance.
In fact - for those of you who may be interested - every shot in my suspense-horror short GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA is handheld.
But I'll bet you don't pick up on that as you watch it.

I also had numerous fast cuts - many less than a third of a second -
The 2nd baseball-bat hit is in a five-frame shot - one sixth of a second.
There are 525 cuts in just under 12 and a half minutes.
I did this because it worked best for the film. It accentuates the drama.
It's not meant to be noticed.

I know -- now I'm drawing attention to it. Whaddya gonna do?

It's still possible today to have fast cuts and be coherent and dramatic - to build suspense and intensity -
But it has to be properly motivated, well designed and psychologically based.

The style should pull the audience into the film - put them vicariously in the characters' shoes. Not distract them from the experience they want to have.

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