Repetition – Repetitive actions

Repetitive actions are very conducive to comparing progressions and hammering home all sorts of messages. Besides, very short, non-repetitive actions can be made repetitive without the audience noticing, to make them more stunning. Be prepared for some explosive action!


Forcing repetition to emphasize short actions

Before we go into genuine repetitive actions, let me dwell for a moment on the rule we came across in time dilation: When the action is not repetitive, it can however be edited in a repetitive manner to increase tension — which is especially true for very short actions involving only one subject. For instance, repetition ties in perfectly with the nested cut-out editing pattern (aka inverse Russian doll effect). In Rambo: First Blood Part II (G. Cosmatos, 1985), repetition and nested cut-outs are combined to emphasize the size of an explosion by repeatedly scaling it down as it grows. The slight time dilation due to partially repeating the same action in multiple shots gives it more emphasis, like an echo.

Pulling back the camera along the viewing axis is fine, but it makes the audience feel they are recoiling, which is not always what you want. To emphasize a short action in a series of shots without following a too predictable linear motion, the shot scales should be edited in a different order, usually starting far away from the subject, then very close, and finally in-between, while slightly changing the viewing axis to make it look more ‘random’ (i.e. to push the audience around). Both following excerpts from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) resort to this technique, making for a more chaotic experience. Note: The second excerpt takes us for a longer ride, eventually coming back to the original angle.

Although these patterns are probably the most common methods for emphasizing short actions in movies, alternatives do exist. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), repetition and nested cut-ins are combined to emphasize the character’s reaction by repeatedly scaling his face up as he screams. Note: A drawing has been substituted to the most violent shot. In Trainspotting (D. Boyle, 1996), the action is emphasized by repeatedly alternating between a truck-out two-shot and two opposite one-shots. Needless to say, those approaches won’t be a fit for all styles of storytelling.

So much for making actions repetitive. Let’s see what genuine repetitive actions have in store.


Repeating to compare

When several characters are involved in the same kind of activities, jumping from one to the other makes it easy to compare their relative state of mind. For instance, in Fast and Furious (R. Cohen, 2001), successively displaying four drivers simultaneously gearing up just before the race begins is a great way to show how determined they all are, by way of comparison.

When two characters — or groups of characters — are competing with or against each other, going back and forth from one to the other is a sure way to build tension by letting the audience compare their relative progression. See this technique in action with the two following scenes from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) and The Lost World – Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1997).

Repeating to compare doesn’t always mean cutting from one subject to another. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), the sequence shot where Pyle fails at climbing over a training ladder wouldn’t be so striking emotionally without the endless flow of trainees passing him and holding him up to ridicule by contrast. In this case, cutting up the shot into slices would simply ruin the effect.


Repeating to hammer home

By definition, repeating is pounding. The more you repeat an action, the more striking the message. The following montage sequence from the TV series episode The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Avaricious Actuary (I. J. Moore, 1968) makes it clear that the character is failing at finding a specific ticket by repeatedly displaying his unsuccessful attempts. In 127 Hours (D. Boyle, 2010), shot repetition brings out the character’s repeated attempts to lasso a boulder.

Just as in real life, repetition goes a long way towards reinforcing relationships. Any kinds of relationships. We saw some time ago how a cut on the look could be emphasized by having characters to do a double take as they watched a subject, in No Country for Old Men (J. & E. Coen, 2007) and The Departed (M. Scorsese, 2006). Repeating a cut on the look reinforces the relationship between the character and the looked-at subject, which stresses out the importance of the situation.

Cause-and-effect relationships are natural candidates for this sort of reinforcement — and it can be more complex than just alternating two shots. In Underworld (L. Wiseman, 2003), the superiority of Selene over her assailants is hammered home by repeatedly displaying the exact same pattern made of three shots. In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), the pattern becomes more complicated by introducing a third party. The number of repeated shots gradually changes and narrows down to only three shots, just like the previous example: One shot for the ’cause’, two shots for the ‘effect’.


What’s up?

The repetitive nature of certain actions makes them a weapon of choice when it comes to reinforcing and hammering home the importance of what characters are doing. Repetitive actions are also naturally conducive to comparing characters’ attitudes and progressions. And when a non-repetitive action is too short to strike the audience, use editing patterns to let them thrive.

Keeping the best for last, our tour on repetition in movies will finish on a high note with the repetition of sound. See you there!


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