Editing pattern – Let go, catch up

Letting characters move to the background doesn’t automatically mean that we are done with them. Let go, catch up is a classic editing pattern that lets us ‘catch up’ with characters after we have ‘let them go’ too far away. As you will see, this simple trick reactivates our interest in the action, but also makes us feel we are opening a new chapter without breaking continuity.


Catch up

The paradox of the let go, catch up pattern is that it temporarily lessens our interest in a subject, only to abruptly reactivate it in the next shot. There are two conditions for this to work: 1- The audience should feel they aren’t done with the action yet; 2- The pattern shouldn’t break apparent continuity.
The two following excerpts from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (G. Lucas, 2002) both show this editing pattern in action. In the first example, the vehicle carrying Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi — chasing a bounty hunter — is let to fly away from us. Then we abruptly catch up with the vehicle by cutting in on it. In the second example, a reverse shot of Obi-Wan is used instead of a cut-in. In both cases, the effect is the same: tension slightly drops as the characters move away only to suddenly rise as we catch up with them.


Let me see

This powerful editing pattern is probably best used when the audience gets just frustrated enough that they feel relieved when the catch-up shot shows up. They should want to catch-up with the characters. Moreover, the timing must be perfect for the effect to work. If the first shot is too long, the audience might lose interest in the subject for good and feel at odds with the catch-up shot — but this obviously depends on the pace of the scene.
For instance, in Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981), Max has been ambushed by ‘the Gyro Captain’ who wants him to deactivate the booby trap he has installed at the back of his car. As both men slowly walk away from us towards the car, we feel a growing need for a closer angle. We are relieved when a timely catch-up shot comes up just when Max ducks to defuse the bomb. Remember this excerpt from The Thing (J. Carpenter, 1982) we studied in Scaling down – Have subjects move to the background? Don’t we feel the need to know what the character has found in the snow? It’s too far away from us to see so it comes as a relief when we catch up with the character as he finds out what it is. In a way, good storytelling is frustration management.

Sometimes the action is visibly interesting, and sometimes it is expected to be but we don’t know for sure. So if we guess that a situation will be interesting and we effectively catch up with those characters moving away, we know we guessed right. In 8 Mile (C. Hanson, 2002), Jimmy’s place is revealed for the first time in the film as the character walks away from us towards a trailer home in the background (read more in Scaling down – Have subjects move to the background). The scene could stop here, but we suspect this place could tell us a great deal about the character’s life. We feel relieved when we catch up with him as he opens the door, because we now know something interesting is bound to happen. Note how music fading out accentuates the feeling that a new scene is about to begin in continuity. In The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986), when Jim Halsey takes troopers hostage and the car drives off, the scene could end here. But the situation is so tense that we hope to see how things are going to go right now, without breaking continuity. We feel relieved as we catch up with the characters inside the car as we instantly know a new scene is beginning, fulfilling our expectations.


A new deal

And that is what might be the most interesting effect of the let go, catch up editing pattern. We feel we are entering a new scene the moment we catch up with the characters. All this without breaking continuity! And it makes sense, as we know that letting characters fade away is a sign that we are about to close a chapter of the movie. As an example, in Babel (A. G. Iñárritu, 2006), a long road trip sequence ends with the car leaving the main road and driving off on a wide dirt road. Again, music fading out accentuates the feeling we have that the trip has come to an end simply by watching the car moving away from us. The time we catch up with the car, the ambiance has changed and we feel we are opening a new chapter even though the action is continuous. In Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981), the effect is pushed to its limits by adding a fade-out and fade-in between both shots, which emphasizes even more the fact that we are done with a part of the story and are entering a brand new one.


What’s up?

The let go, catch up editing pattern plays on the contrast between two conflicting feelings. In the one hand, we slightly loose interest in a subject fading away. In the other hand, we abruptly catch up with the subject without warning. This revives the interest we have in the action — particularly when we want to keep up with the characters. And very often, it also makes us feel we are done with a chapter and are about to open a new one, all this without apparently breaking continuity.


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