Welcome to the third part of Frederick Tilby Jones’ fascinating examination of Action film editing. A new section will be published each week. Frederick can be found on Twitter.
‘The New Hollywood of the 1970s may just have “intensified” the conventions of continuity editing; but the Hollywood of today has exploded them.’
Whereas the last post demonstrated an increasing tendency towards rapid cutting, a partial abandonment of continuity conventions and a trend towards spectacle-orientated cinema, this chapter will examine two potential external sources that may have further contributed to the emergence of post-continuity style: the introduction of digital editing and the rise of the music video and commercial schooled director.
3.1 Close Analysis: Continuity and Post-Continuity Editing
‘Action sequences should stir, not just shake.’
Before launching an examination into Post-Continuity cinema, it seems only prudent to consider an example: to determine how the aesthetic can be defined. So, to begin, let us analyse two thirty-second samples taken from two action sequences, the first of which Mathias Storck describes in Chaos Cinema: Part 1 as “meticulously staged and photographed” (i.e. exemplar of continuity editing), and the second as “haphazard”, consisting of “vague and hyperactive visuals” (an example of chaos cinema).
The first sequence is from the final car chase of John Frankenheimer’s action-thriller Ronin (1998). CIA agents Sam (Robert DeNiro) and Vincent (Jean Reno) pursue IRA members Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), Deidre (Natasha McElhone) and Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) through the streets of Paris. The second sequence is taken from the opening chase from Quantum of Solace (2009). James Bond (Daniel Craig), driving his trademark Aston Martin, finds himself being chased by gun-totting terrorists in Alfa Romeos through the Italian mountains.
Analysing the sequences to a frame accurate level, one can derive the following information:
|Ronin||Quantum of Solace|
|Exact Length of sequence||31.32 seconds||30.08 seconds|
|Number of shots||21||46|
|Average shot length (ASL)||1.49 seconds||0.65 seconds|
|Number/percentage of close shots (CS) in sequence||6 close shots28.57% of sequence||33 close shots71.74% of sequence|
|Number/percentage of medium shots (MS) in sequence||9 medium shots42.86% of sequence||11 medium shots23.91% of sequence|
|Number/percentage of wide shots (WS) in sequence||6 wide shots28.57% of sequence||2 wide shots4.35% of sequence|
Despite both being approximately thirty seconds in length, the chase from Quantum of Solace has over twice as many cuts as its Ronin equivalent, yielding an average shot length of 0.65 seconds. To put this into perspective the average speed of a human blink is thought to be between 0.3 and 0.4 seconds (with a Japanese study of 2008 measured the mean of 11 healthy males to be 0.32 seconds) and, with some of the shots in Quantum lasting for only three frames or 0.12 seconds, the film displays visual information at a rate that can literally be missed “in the blink of an eye”.
Further disregard for visual continuity and the audience’s orientation within the scene can be demonstrated when examining the choice of shots used in Quantum of Solace, as well as the percentage of wide shots, medium shots and close shots.
In the Ronin sequence the range of shots is fairly balanced: 28.57% CSs, 42.86% MSs and 28.57% WSs. Furthermore, looking at the shot-by-shot analysis we see that the third shot of the chase is a high WS (Fig.7) providing coverage of the position of Sam and Vincent’s Peugeot in relation to Diedre, Seamus and Gregor’s BMW. This reasserts the geography already established before the sequence, allowing the audience to mentally locate the subsequent MSs and CSs. Moreover, a number of the MSs and CSs in Ronin are graphically matched to further guide the spectator. For example Shots 9 and 14 (Fig.8 and 9) show the same event; a car avoiding a postal van from roughly the same position (with shots both lasting 29 frames) allowing the audience to calculate the position of Sam’s Peugeot relative to Diedre’s BMW temporally, whilst Shots 18 and 21 (Fig.10 and 11) are both reverse tracking shots showing the BMW and Peugeot speeding along the same street.
However, despite ample crosscutting, there are no geographically matched shots in Quantum of Solace. The sequence begins with a series of CSs suggesting speed and aggression; a big close-up on Bond’s hand shifting down the gear stick, followed by a foot slamming on the accelerator, a wheel spinning rapidly, a birds-eye shot of the sleek Aston Martin bonnet (Fig. 12-15). Despite the audience having minimal preexisting knowledge of layout, it is only in Shot 6, an exterior MS, that we are offered a glimpse of geography as the Aston Martin weaves through traffic. Even then, we have to wait until Bond has been attacked before we are shown an establishing WS, affirming the position of the Alfa Romeos behind the Aston. Clearly visual continuity is being sacrificed for the effect created by extremely rapid cutting between CSs.
The statistics regarding shot weighting reflect this dense and disorientating style of editing. The Quantum sequence consists of 71.74% CSs, 23.91% MSs and 4.35% WSs. Considering that CSs are far less likely to illustrate spatial continuity than MSs or WSs, these statistics suggest an emphasis on shots that depict individual actions over those that establish the diegetic space. Alfred Hitchcock analyses the impact of cutting between CSs and avoiding WSs when discussing the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960):
‘If you stand in a field and you see a train going by half a mile away, you look at it and it speeds by. Now go within six feet of the train going by; think of the difference in effect… What you are doing is taking the audience right close up into the scene, and [this effect] gets the audience involved.’
However, despite being disorientating and dynamic, Hitchcock’s shower scene, unlike Quantum of Solace chase, is located within a small, previously established geographical space and does not sacrifice significant spatial orientation for its effect. Yet, as indicated by the pervasiveness of post-continuity style, Quantum’s demotion of diegetic context is far from a mistake. It is a deliberate choice, carefully constructed by director Mark Forster and editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson to create what Steven Shaviro describes a ‘moment-by-moment’ cinema: we the audience are supposed to take it as it comes.
3.2 The Digital Revolution
“Coincident with the adoption of digital technologies in Hollywood, a threshold has been passed…“
As Barry Salt notes, though ‘the decrease in ASLs over the last two decades’ has often been linked to ‘the introduction of [digital] non-linear editing systems […], directors and editors have been able to use very fast cutting long before they were invented’. However, Salt also accepts that ‘it is possible that the sudden large increase in the numbers of fast-cut films around 1995 was facilitated by the fairly general use of NLEs which began at that time’. Furthermore, theorist Michelle Pierson posits that ‘there is certainly a case for arguing that digital editing has… accelerated the breakdown of continuity editing in recent years: fragmenting Hollywood narratives into a series of ever more discrete visual images and shocks’.
Much of Pierson’s argument regarding the changing temporality of digital editing focuses on the ‘non-linear[ity]’ of such systems. She suggests that ‘the defining features of digital [non-linear ] systems do not lend themselves particularly well to the kind of linear sequential thought that editing for continuity demands’. Here Pierson demonstrates a common misunderstanding in regards to digital editing systems; though they work using a non-linear framework, their designation as NLE systems is to differentiate them from their predecessors; linear digital video systems. In fact, non-linearity is nothing new. As Murch notes ‘[c]omputerized digital editing and, strangely enough, good old fashioned Moviola editing with an assistant are both random-access, non-linear systems’. Crucially though, ‘The Avid is faster than the Moviola’. Digital editing has ‘automat[ed] many activities that were formerly accomplished mechanically (e.g. the threading, syncing, marking, cutting, splicing, trimming, and gluing of film)’. All these tasks are now achieved with the touch of a button or the click of a mouse and, consequentially, take much less time. As Pierson notes:
‘Freed from this kind of monitoring process, [editors] are also under much less pressure to conceptualise the film in its entirety every time a decision needs to be made. The ease with which decisions can be reversed makes anticipating the consequences of any one decision less important. And in an industry which places enormous pressure on editors to reduce the amount of time that a film spends in post-production, it is not hard to see why a system that renders decision-making less of an existential commitment might be attractive.’
There is a considerable amount of trial and error involved in effective editing and the increased cutting speed offered by digital systems allows more room to experiment and refine cuts. With the ability to quickly trim, push and pull footage around a cut-point, editors can “play” with the footage, honing pacing to extremes. We see this reflected in the language employed by film editors when describing their craft. Whereas editing was once talked about in methodical and precise terms, it has now transcended technicality; “A lot of it is going with your gut”, says Fred Raskin (co-editor of Fast and Furious (2009)), “going with what feels right”. Editing action sequences has now shifted from ‘guiding the spectator’s understanding of spatial relations’ to giving them “just enough” so as not to be completely lost. Talking about the Bourne films Steven Spielberg notes that “[q]uick-cutting [can be] very effective, but you sacrifice geography … Which is fine, because audiences get a huge adrenaline rush from a cut every second and a half on The Bourne Ultimatum, and there’s just enough geography for the audience never to be lost”(though this final assertion is debatable).
Therefore, although NLEs cannot be regarded as the sole cause of a displacement from the continuity system, its influence should not be dismissed. Digital editing may not be the perpetrator so to speak, but it has aided and abetted post-continuity style, giving filmmakers the tools to quickly manufacture action scenes of previously unseen intensity.
3.3 Music Television, Commercials, Michael Bay and Tony Scott
“Music video and advertising helped accustom directors, producers and audiences to processing visual information in ever faster, more compressed bursts.“
Another popular explanation for the emergence of this new hyperkinetic style is the influence of commercials and music television, with Geoff King stating that ‘rapid editing draws at least partially on styles associated with TV advertising and music video’. There is considerable justification for this idea. As Carol Vernallis notes in her essay “The Kindest Cut: Functions and Meanings of Music Video Editing”, ‘The continuity system forms the basis of film editing but is much less common in music video’. Instead, ‘[m]usic video’s disjunctive editing keeps us within the ever changing surface of the song’ and ‘though such edits may momentarily create a sense of disequilibrium, they force the viewer to focus on musical and visual cues, allowing him/her to regain a sense of orientation’. There is distinct parallel between these ‘musical and visual cues’ and Mathias Storck’s assertion that chaos cinema relies heavily on the soundtrack. Storck argues that although modern action sequences might not “offer concrete visual information… they insist that we hear what is happening onscreen”. Certainly in some post-continuity sequences the guidance offered by continuity editing has been replaced by increasingly precise sound design, with Storck asking us to ‘[c]onsider how relentless machine-gun fire, roaring engines and bursting metal dominate the opening of… Quantum of Solace. The scene’s dense sound effects track fills in the gaps left by its vague and hyperactive visuals’.
However, we should not consider the presence of music television and advertising style in contemporary action sequences as merely an external influence. Since the late seventies music videos and commercials have acted as an equivalent to film-school for many Hollywood directors, and it is no coincidence that those filmmakers most associated with post-continuity style have trodden this path. Michael Bay and Tony Scott were both acclaimed commercials directors when they first ventured into features. There is clear carry over; as a commercials director Bay is described as having a ‘highly energized visual technique’ and watching Tony Scott’s early work, such as the famous “Nothing On Earth Comes Close” television spot for Saab, we see elements of intensified continuity in his style.
Michael Bay describes his disregard for continuity as, for the most part, a result of his filmmaking technique and background. “I don’t get hung up on continuity too much”, Bay states, “I am a fast shooter so I shoot a lot of extra footage that allows me to work with it at the editing stage”. This fast-track style of shooting is typical of commercials, where time is at a premium. Reflecting on his commercials career, Bay recalls ‘lik[ing] the economy of the format, the immediacy you get with fast cutting. Each second is so precious, so you learn to convey an amazing amount of information in a short space of time’. Consequentially, Bay’s choices regarding editing are economical, both financially and temporally:
“When you get hung up on continuity, you can’t keep the pace and price down. Most people simply consume a movie and they are not even aware of these errors. You and I, we talk about it, we are aware of it […], but the general public [overlook] them most of the times because the intensity of the action on screen doesn’t allow them to keep track of all these details.”
However, for Tony Scott the breaking of continuity principles was more a question of artistry than of money. Scott, whose background was originally in fine art (art school being a rich source of talent for advertising) believed “filmmaking [to be] like painting… every stroke or every colour impacts another and you build film on the canvas and you get ideas from the last stroke”. As a consequence his films seem strangely hybrid: blockbusters containing art film elements. As David Bordwell writes ‘[f]rom Spy Game (2001) on, he […] stuck to the credo that too much is never enough. His technique [was] swaggering and undisciplined, mannered to the nth degree.’
Indeed, Scott’s later work is a paragon of an overt aesthetic. Loaded with bright colours and visual effects, we find films such as Man on Fire (2004), Domino and The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) moving beyond the stylistic traits associated with blockbuster cinema, merging into something more akin to Abstract Expressionism. As Larry Knapp observes in his article “Tony Scott and Domino– Say hello and goodbye to the post classical”, along with Scott’s “hyperclassical” mis-en-scène, the editing and sound design of his films became ‘more eclectic and less subservient to the rules of spatial and temporal continuity… resort[ing] to jump cuts and nondiegetic sound cues more for expressive and percussive effect than for narrative causality’.
For example, in Domino, Scott’s most avant-garde outing, this challenge to conventional film form is extremely apparent. Scott described the effect of Domino as “bounty hunting on speed” and this idea is best construed in the film’s climactic finale, a chaotic shootout in the Stratosphere Las Vegas. The scene is a blur of color, confusion, blood and bullets, rapidly cutting from shots overloaded with information, in forms that, through their high-contrast tones, are already differentiated from more standardized means of cinematic expression (Figs.16-18 show consecutive shots from the sequence). “What the fuck is going on in there(?)” an FBI agent asks in a cutaway to a circling helicopter; jokingly voicing what the audience are most probably feeling.
The visceral portrayal of action in Scott and Bay’s filmmaking; especially the car chases for which the latter is famed, brings to mind Lisa Purse’s reflection on ‘the need for speed’ in modern action sequences. In her book Contemporary Action Cinema, reiterating Geoff King’s impact aesthetic, Purse suggests the strategies used in modern action sequences: ‘vehicles and objects travelling outwards towards or past the camera, camera judders and whiplash pans mimicking the effects of contacts happening in the fictional world[,] work to locate the spectator notionally within the space of the three dimensional film world’. ‘When we watch an affecting action sequence’, she writes, ‘we are asked not to think of speed in an abstract way, but to experience it with the protagonists and for ourselves’. The next post will examine this aspect; the “post-continuity affect”, if you will.