Repetition – Two-way, multiple and chain reactions

Unquestionably, reaction shots are great storytelling assets, but as we will see in this article, repetition can really take them to new heights. In fact, techniques such as two-way, multiple and chain reactions are so important that entire scenes can be built upon them as we will see in this article.


Two-way reaction

A reaction shot is meant to show how a character reacts to a given event (e.g. another character’s action). But how about a two-way reaction, in which characters react to each other’s reaction — or lack of reaction? In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), as Ellie silently reacts to Palmer’s speech, her reaction triggers Palmer’s own reaction to which she reacts even more, which promptly restores the intimacy of their past relationship. This silent ‘ping pong’ game is pushed to the limit in the following excerpt from Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), for a two-way reaction that only repetition can offer.


Multiple reaction

Two-way reactions are not the only way to give weight to a situation. Let’s now consider the following pattern: One event triggering multiple one-way reactions. For instance, repeatedly exposing a character to similar events emphasizes his reaction, as in The Terminator (J. Cameron, 1984), when the Terminator has difficulty locating Sarah and Kyle in a factory due to the surrounding noise. The same cause triggers three times the same reaction. This multiple reaction could be split between multiple characters, as in Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006), when one character (i.e. the Canadian Colonel) first triggers Käutner’s reaction, then turns to Muntze to trigger another reaction. The same cause successively triggers two distinct reactions by repeating twice the same pattern (i.e. causal shotreaction shot). In both examples, repetition gives weight to the situation.

This principle is so powerful that the following scene from Scarface (B. De Palma, 1983) has been entirely based on it. Again, one cause, multiple reactions.


Chain reaction

The blue-ribbon technique in the field might well be the chain reaction pattern. Instead of repeatedly alternating between the ’cause’ and the ‘effect’, the chain reaction pattern shows the ’cause’ only once (if at all), then lets multiple reactions flood. Here is a telling example of this technique from Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982). The following scene from Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1993) is entirely based on that pattern, which is used twice in a row. Each time, a shot of the surrounding area (the ’cause’) triggers a different chain reaction.

To drive the point home, here is another stunning example from A History of Violence (D. Cronenberg, 2005). The following scene is based on three consecutive chain reactions becoming narrower and narrower as the action develops — to the point of finally becoming a two-way reaction pattern.

The chain reaction pattern can take a variety of forms. In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), Gandhi’s disbelief triggers a chain reaction but instead of being displayed as separate reaction shots, the camera pans over the characters in one go. In the following excerpt from Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), where a bunch of soldiers react to the death of two brothers in arms, both static and pan shots are edited together for a comprehensive compendium of the chain reaction pattern.

Last but not least, the chain reaction pattern is not limited to displaying series of portraits all more or less similar in scale. Editing a mix of individual portraits and global reaction shots pushes the audience around by constantly changing their emotional distance to characters, as in Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003), where this technique amplifies the stir caused by British Prime Minister’s new-found stance against the President of the USA. As usual, which approach to use depends upon the context and the desired effect.


Montage effects

Editing reaction shots in series can lead to staggering effects, so much so that they can be very difficult to use out of their original context. For example, Col. Mortimer’s reaction to a ‘wanted’ poster in For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965) has been edited as an utterly-stylized multiple reaction pattern that one might find hard to reuse in a different context. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (S. Spielberg, 1982), Elliott’s multiple reaction to E.T.’s appearance has even been edited as a chain reaction of the same character, for an outstanding — but very specific — effect. In a nutshell, the editing possibilities are endless.


What’s up?

Repetition can have a tremendous effect on your reaction shots, if you know how to go about it. Two-way and multiple reaction patterns can put so much weight on a situation that entire scenes can be built upon them. The chain reaction pattern has such variety of forms that it has become a fundamental editing technique in movie storytelling.

In next article, we will see how repetition can radically affect our perception of time.


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