Introduction to editing – Interrupting a shot
They have the look and feel of sequence shots, but are only parts of cut scenes. Whereas sequence shots can slow down or speed up the pace between scenes, sequence-shot-like shots can slow down or speed up the pace within a scene, which is frequently used to emphasize an upcoming series of cuts.
Deceleration vs acceleration
Long, slow, uninterrupted camera moves can be used to slow down the pace of a scene. In La Femme Nikita (L. Besson, 1990), the camera slowly trucks in on Nikita’s face as she receives a supposedly lethal injection. Aside from focusing on the character’s agony, this sequence-shot-like camera move slows pace down to a standstill after a series of cuts. Surprisingly, the exact same camera move can be used to gradually speed up the pace of a scene, as in Twilight Zone: The Movie (J. Landis & S. Spielberg & J. Dante & G. Miller, 1983), when the camera slowly trucks in on John Valentine — a stressed-out airline passenger who is convinced that a hideous creature is tearing apart a wing of the plane. Instead of cooling down the rhythm of the scene, the tension provided by the slowness of the shot accelerates it until the creature shows up at the window and Valentine runs amok in a series of short cuts. Note: The last frames of the shot were too scary to be presented here, I’m sorry I had to trim them out as well as the following quick-paced shots (see my KCS rule). But this shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing the growing feeling of emergency conveyed by the shot. In a nutshell, a long, slow, sequence-shot-like camera move can be used to slow down the pace of a cut scene, as well as prepare the audience for an upcoming hectic one.
Walkthrough to cut scene
Ending a long sequence-shot-like shot with a series of cuts doesn’t mean that the pace gets automatically sped up. Lets review both cases with walkthrough shots.
Slow walkthrough to speedy cut scene – At the beginning of Alien (R. Scott, 1979), two consecutive pulling back shots let the audience visit an apparently lifeless spaceship. The second shot suddenly ends with quick cuts showing the moment an on-board computer gets automatically started for some unknown reason. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (R. Zemeckis, 1988), private eye Eddie Valiant remembers the time he and his late brother were working together, and falls asleep as the camera takes us on a stroll around his desk filled with souvenirs. The shot ends the next morning when Lieutenant Santino wakes him up in a jolt. In both cases, the slowness of the sequence-shot-like walkthrough contrasts with the sudden wave of shots that follows, startling the audience. Now lets review the opposite situation.
Speedy walkthrough to slow cut scene – In The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), Danny — who is enjoying a tour of the empty Overlook hotel — feels compelled to stop by mysterious room 237. In Robocop (P. Verhoeven, 1987), a couple of walkthrough shots show Murphy — a police officer who has been transferred to a precinct in Detroit — discovering his new work environment. In both cases, a hectic walkthrough ends with a series of cuts which actually slow pace down. In spite of a common structure, the effect is completely different from what we saw above. But what both approaches share is this: sequence-shot-like shots bring out a sense of freedom, of roundness, or legato, whereas cut scenes appear sharp, straight edged, or staccato (which doesn’t mean they are quicker). Because they contrast so much in ‘sharpness’, they emphasize each other.
Emphasizing the following cuts
There’s always a reason for emphasizing cuts with a prior sequence-shot-like shot. Let’s have a deeper look with walkthroughs and dialogs.
Walkthroughs – In Basic Instinct (P. Verhoeven, 1992), Curran is furious that Tramell — a suspect — knows things about him that only the psychiatrist Garner ought to know. He barges in her office and asks for explanations. The purpose of the walkthrough is to emphasize the following shot where Curran violently confronts Garner. Translated into sounds, this would be like the shrilling sound of a bomb falling down before it blows up, or the sound of a whip unrolling before it cracks. In Godzilla (R. Emmerich, 1998), Colonel Hicks leads Nick — a scientist — to his next sample. Here again, a long sequence-shot-like walkthrough ends with a series of cuts showing characters reacting to each other. Those cuts are emphasized by the continuity of the walkthrough they break, this time making for a comic effect. This is where we feel the most the impact of cuts, by contrast with long, uninterrupted shots.
Dialogs – In Rambo: First Blood Part II (G. Cosmatos, 1985), Colonel Trautman confronts Marshal Murdock about Rambo’s mission. The dialog starts like a sequence-shot until Murdock angrily reacts to Trautman’s allegations in his own shot. Here again, because it breaks the continuity of a sequence-shot-like shot, the cut gets emphasized, giving Murdock a real chance to account for his attitude. In Cast Away (R. Zemeckis, 2000), Kelly shows Chuck that, although he was reported to be dead, she has kept his car while he was cast away. The dialog starts like a sequence-shot (only the last part of the shot is presented here) until the characters kiss goodbye and Chuck drives off. Breaking the continuity of a sequence-shot-like shot with cuts emphasizes the tragic conclusion to the scene. Here again, the roundness of a slow, uninterrupted shot contrasts with the abrupt ‘sharpness’ of the closing cuts.
We have never been closer to editing. Now that we have figured out how sequence shots contrast in ‘sharpness’ with cut scenes, and how they can be efficiently used to emphasize each other, we have a taste of what cuts can bring to storytelling. In next part, we will dive into editing for all it’s worth.
- Introduction to editing – The sequence shot
- Introduction to editing – Alternating POVs
- Introduction to editing – Reconsidering time
- Editing – The 30-degree rule