Editing – From short to subliminal shot

What’s the difference [eat at Joe’s] between a very short shot and a subliminal shot? Answer: Not much. Sure… but let’s put it another way: Does shortening a shot to a single frame [eat at Joe’s] makes it subliminal? And what does [eat at Joe’s] subliminal mean anyway?


Subliminal, really?

The astute reader might have found a few subliminal messages scattered around the introduction above — everyone else is already under my control. Seriously, to make an image subliminal (i.e. invisible to the naked eye, only your subconscious can sense it), it should not exceed 1/80 second or so, which is far far less than the duration of a movie frame (1/24 s). What that means is that a 1-frame shot remains easily detectable by the audience unless they blink at that very moment. Hence, it’s not subliminal at all.

In the following excerpt from Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), Lola tries to think of someone who could help her, which has been edited as one ‘continuous’ shot and lots of 3-frame shots of her friends and relatives interleaved. Although the inserts are extremely short, they are clearly detectable — or else the effect would be purposeless.

Now those so-called subliminal shots do have a direct impact on the audience. Because they pop up without warning, they catch the audience off-guard, which is usually as pleasing an experience as receiving a jolt. Moreover, it takes a quarter of a second or so for the audience to realize they have seen something odd, and there is nothing they can’t do about it. It’s too late to close their eyes. Unexpected images have been stamped on their retina. Not a terribly fun experience either. So what is the point of using this technique?


Short vs subliminal

Whereas very short shots are commonly used as mere glimpses into the action, so-called subliminal shots look like flashes and are usually meant to shock the audience (e.g. flashes of memory, hallucinations). Compare the two following excerpts from Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970) and The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980) respectively. In the first case, the character is shown to see — almost sense — in a mirror what is happening behind his back in a very short (6-frame) shot before taking action. It’s short, but it’s part of the action; It’s not meant to be anything subliminal. In the second case, the character has a flash as he moves back from the door. The intent is totally different. The shot is unexpected, unrelated to the action — in the physical sense — and meant to shock the audience by catching them off-guard. Although it is much longer (16 frames) than the insert from the first example, it could be considered as subliminal.

Used that way, the term subliminal explains the intention of the shot better than just ‘short’. This is why I will reluctantly keep to the qualifier subliminal even though no such shots can exist in movies — as long as their frame rates remain low. It’s inaccurate, it’s inappropriate, but it’s a straightforward way to make a clear distinction between quick action shots and ‘flashes’.


Countdown to zero

Let’s see the effect of subliminal shots as the number of frames decreases. We will see what they are used for as we go. Note: Shocking contents have been blurred when necessary in a number of presented examples, so they all should be ‘safe’ to watch. But excessive blurring defeats the purpose of these very effects, as they are often used to shock the audience. Reaching balance is tricky.

In Silent Running (D. Trumbull, 1972), mild surgery subliminal shots (4~5 frames) have been inserted into the action to bring out the character’s fear of being operated on by surgeon robots — since they are out of synch with the action, those inserts can’t be seen as mere quick pace action shots. In Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), a series of 4-frame shots remind the character that he has left a bag full of money in the train. In both examples, note how repetition amplifies the effect of the inserts.

Let’s take it down a notch. In The Graduate (M. Nichols, 1967), several 3~4-frame subliminal images pop up as the character is struck by Mrs. Robinson’s nudity. In Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), a couple of 3-frame subliminal shots (and yet another 5-frame long insert) are used to make the audience fear the symbolic red door down the hall — actually a reminiscence of Crane’s childhood — in a nightmare sequence.

And down we go again. In Se7en (D. Fincher, 1995), a 2-frame subliminal shot is inserted as the character reminisces over his murdered wife. In The Exorcist (W. Friedkin, 1973), a couple of 1-frame subliminal shots of the (supposedly) devil’s face take the audience off-guard during the nightmare sequence. This insert is actually comprised of 2 black frames, 1 subliminal image, 1 white frame, 1 subliminal image (the same as before), and 2 black frames again, in order to better separate its content from the main shot and strike the audience harder.

In a nutshell, to make a subliminal shot effective:

  • Images have to be very crisp for the audience to grasp their content — which is why so many of the presented examples lose their emotional power once blurred.
  • Images must contrast with the shot they are inserted in (e.g. by using a totally different lighting, background color and composition).
  • Enclosing images between contrasting solid-colored frames (e.g. black frames) enhances their impact.
  • Repeating subliminal shots helps hammering home their content.


Similar effects

Strobe-lighted shots are quite similar to subliminal shots in series. For instance, look how a crazy dance from Flashdance (A. Lyne, 1983) can turn really scary under strobe lighting. It’s not only due to the character’s odd makeup and facial expressions. What probably makes us feel most uneasy is that all these 1-frame shots delimited by black frames prevent us from anticipating the character’s next move — which emphasizes the weirdness of her poses — just like subliminal images. It’s a creepy feeling to be unable to mentally ‘filter’ the action. Note: Strobe-lighting effects will be covered in depth in a future article.


What’s up?

As long as we can see it, there is no such thing as a subliminal image. But referring to these extremely short shots as subliminal helps differentiate them from quick-paced action shots. They might be used as flashes of memory, evocations or hallucinations, but more often than not, their goal is to catch the audience off-guard and strike them with unexpected content — which almost always comes as a shock.

In the next article, we will move on to another outstanding storytelling technique: jump cuts.


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