Hope you had a great 4th of July! I’m excited to introduce today’s guest-blogger: Thomas Kaufman, an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin’s Press Competition for Best First Novel. It’s a fantastic mystery featuring one of the funniest sleuths I’ve ever read. I stayed up late to find out whodunnit and laughed out loud throughout. Tom’s second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this week. I can’t wait to read it! Tom’s blog tour continues this week at International Thriller Writers, Murderati, and Gelati’s Scoop. Meanwhile, enjoy his guest blog here with us! — Allison
I work in the film business, have done for longer than I might care to admit. And when I’m filming something, an event, there are many ways to depict it. For example, a guy falling down the stairs. One way to film him would be to place the camera at the bottom, and in one take (that is, without cutting the camera and editing in another shot) we see Joe fall down the stairs. This kind of shooting is called a continuous take – the space and timing of the event are in tact.
Another way would be to shoot more than one angle, so we see Joe falling from the bottom, cut to an overhead shot as he passes through frame, then a close shot of his face in agony as it rushes past, then his body hitting the floor at the bottom. This kind of shooting is often called montage.
Given this second technique, you could even create what we call a motion continuum — you could actually edit a sequence of shots that would be much longer than the event itself. Say it takes five seconds to fall down this particular flight of stairs. I could shoot and edit a sequence that would take two minutes, or three minutes, or fifteen minutes. I could stretch out the event as long as I wanted. True, it would get boring pretty quickly. The point is, a filmmaker can stretch out an event, or let it stay whole, in real time.
You can also fragment an event, make it shorter than it is. Say, Joe (this is before he had that nasty accident on the stairs) is getting into his car and driving away. He’s chasing someone, so he has to move fast.
So he runs to his car, opens the door gets in, closes the door, puts the key in the ignition, turns the key…are we having fun yet? Hey, it ‘s a chase scene, okay? Not a driver’s ed film. So the director would fragment the action, using jump cuts.
As the name implies, a jump cut takes just a section of one action, then cuts further down the time line. You don’t see every blessed second of what’s going on because you don’t need to. So after Joe flings open the car door, we cut to the key turning, then a low angle shot of Joe’s car speeding away. 1-2-3, and it’s chase time, baby.
Now, let’s talk about violence on the screen. Let’s take an event, say, someone getting riddled with bullets. How would we show something like that?
In the 1960’s, Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde. I hope I’m not ruining your day when I tell you they don’t get away clean. In fact, Clyde gets shot multiple times in slow motion. An event that would’ve taken a two seconds gets prolonged to about thirty, though the use of exploding squibs and slow motion.
The use of slow motion in violence may give it the quality of dance, as the actor’s body shudders and flails as the squibs get fired. John Woo, who directed many action films in Honk Kong before coming to America to direct FACE OFF and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE likes to intercut slow-motion with regular speeds when filming a shoot-em-up, as you can see in this clip from HARD BOILED:
This five minute clip (no, you don’t have to watch all of it) gives you the idea. Lots of bullets flying, lots of squibs exploding, lots of slow motion, lots of action. But what’s the result? Do we know any of the people involved?
A writing teacher of mine once told me, if you’re going to kill somebody, first you have to go to the trouble of bringing them to life.
Now, a second clip, from Howard Hawk’s adaption of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In this clip, private eye Phillip Marlowe has it out with racketeer Eddie Mars, whom the audience has seen before:
Since the audience has gotten to know Mars, and that Mars is one of the antagonists, gives this scene major impact.
Could these two clips be more different? Woo is constantly cutting, but Hawks frames his shots in an almost documentary way, and lets shots run for relatively long durations, then accelerates towards the end. And the thing about the Hawks clip? The violence is sudden, it happens quickly. And it is that very suddenness that makes violence so terrifying, because there is no way to prepare yourself for it – by the time you know what’s happened, it’s finished.
There you have it –two directors with different visions and temperaments. So let me ask you – which scene affects you more?