Introduction to editing – The sequence shot

Before we begin a journey in editland, let’s take some time to think about the need to cut and stitch shots together. Indeed, some scenes don’t have a use for cuts: sequence shots. A sequence shot is a scene or a sequence that is entirely made of one uninterrupted shot. Because no cuts are involved, sequence shots are close to the way we see our environment and put us in sync with the characters. Even dialogs can benefit from its unique pace, as we will see now.


Visiting the environment

In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), we follow Ellie as she rushes through a space research center after she heard a suspicious sound signal coming from Vega. In this sequence shot, we discover the character’s environment as she runs through the facility. In Goodfellas (M. Scorsese, 1990), the same camera move has been stretched to the limit in a sequence shot where Karen and Henry walk through a restaurant. In both cases, a number of obstacles (turns, stairs, doors) prevent the audience from seeing too much in advance as the camera moves forward. Frame composition keeps changing, new elements get revealed and, as a result, the shot brims with energy. Moreover, as no cuts disrupt the walkthrough, we have the feeling of being immersed in the characters’ environment, which is key to conveying that the set, the characters and eventually the story are real. Seeing is believing.

Sequence shots featuring pull back, lateral and spinning camera moves can provide comparable immersion in the characters’ environment. New perspectives don’t need to be concealed behind obstacles as they reveal themselves by entering the frame from screen borders. In Spartacus (S. Kubrick, 1960), Spartacus — a former gladiator who has raised an army of slaves against Rome — reviews his troops during training. A sequence shot is used to have the audience visiting the training camp, preceding the character as he rides through the set. Gravity (A. Cuarón, 2013) is a film mostly based on sequence shots, a radical immersive experience interrupted by as few cuts as possible. A freely moving and spinning camera reveals characters and their environment as needed to unroll the story, dialogs included. So in a nutshell, sequence shots of walkthroughs organically let the audience experience the story the way characters do.


Unconscious voyeurism

Obviously, most sequence shots exacerbate the fact that we see through the eyes of an invisible observer unashamedly watching characters right under their noses. Indeed, as long as they have some interesting action to look at, the audience will remain totally self-unconscious about their ‘voyeuristic tendencies’. It just feels natural to conspicuously spy on characters, as in this sequence shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981) introducing Marion as the winner of a drinking contest. In The War of the Worlds (S. Spielberg, 2005), a 2 min 30 sec sequence shot (only 48 seconds are presented here) pushes to the maximum the limits of unconscious voyeurism as the camera orbits inside and outside Ray’s (stolen) car. In both cases, the choice of a sequence shot tends to immerse the audience in the characters’ environment to make believe the action is real. No cuts are allowed to break the spell.


Dialog sequence shot

Sequence shots lend themselves very well to dead-end dialog scenes, when we know there is no way out for characters. In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), Brody and Hooper attempt to reason with Mayor Vaughn who refuses to close the beach in spite of a shark roaming around. The dialog is shot in one take. The camera laterally tracks the trio who keeps shifting positions, especially Brody and Hooper sometimes surrounding Vaughn and sometimes standing together. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), Birdy has an argument with Al’s father (Mr. Columbato) who unjustly sold the car they had bought and repaired. Again, the dialog is shot in one take. Columbato and Birdy keep moving, playing hide and seek, sometimes dwarfing and sometimes towering the other in perspective. Even the mirror on the wall has Birdy surrounding Columbato just like in the previous example. In both cases, the choice of a sequence shot adds weight to characters’ entrenched positions. By turning the scene into a ‘puppet show’, it insidiously develops a sense of fate, as though we knew that no important outcome will result from such kind of confrontations.

Sequence shots also give the audience a chance to chill out before and after hectic action scenes. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), Sallah makes his farewells to Jones and Marion after the longest and most stunning action scene of the film. The pace is kept slow so as to give some rest to the audience and wash out all the cuts from the previous scene. In Rumble Fish (F. F. Coppola, 1983), Rusty James — who has been injured in a street fight and is bleeding badly — is being evacuated by his brother and a friend when they cross Officer Patterson’s path. Even though the dialog does show confrontational characters, the slow pace of the scene contrasts with the frantic rhythm of the previous one — a wild fight — and the next one — characters frantically trying to heal Rusty’s wound.


Floating in weightlessness

As an extension, sequence shots can make the audience feel numb, as though they were floating in weightlessness, in order to let them feel the way a character feels. The Player (R. Altman, 1992) starts with a famous 8-minute sequence shot which sets the tone of the film, the story of a studio executive (Mill) somewhat indifferent to people around him, if not the entire world. The camera carelessly flies from doorways to windows to people milling about in the courtyard of a movie studio, introducing the main components and characters of the story (this is only an excerpt of the sequence shot). That uninterrupted aerial move makes us share Mill’s way of life. In The Year of Living Dangerously (P. Weir, 1982), Jill — an assistant to military attaché of British Embassy in Jakarta — realizes that she has fallen in love with an Australian correspondent the moment she has to leave Indonesia. The following sequence shot (in slow motion) brings out her feeling out of time and space. No cuts are allowed to trouble the feelings that we are made to share. Floating with the character makes us enter her mind and eventually care more about her.


What’s up?

Clearly, the key word to sequence shots is immersion. Because we don’t experience ‘cuts’ in real life, sequence shots make a scene look ‘real’, as though we were part of it. Dialog sequence shots are great when the audience need to chill out after and before hectic scenes. They can also bring out a sense of fate or weightlessness depending on the story. In next part, we will see how a shot can be made to look like a sequence shot only to intentionally let cuts break the rhythm.


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