Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Nick R

In the Cut - Jim Emerson analyses movie action scenes

Recommended Posts

I linked to the first of these in both the Dark Knight and OT Random Videos threads, but I think they're interesting enough to deserve a thread of their own.

Film critic Jim Emerson has been making videos giving shot-by-shot dissections of three movie action scenes.

The first one is the chase sequence from The Dark Knight, a film of which he was not a fan. He does a great job of explaining exactly why it was so incoherent, pointing out the numerous continuity errors in the positions of the vehicles, and explaining the different conventions about editing and visual grammar that are broken with nearly every cut.

Personally, I didn't find crossing the 180° line and being unsure of Harvey Dent's orientation inside the van anywhere near as disorientating as never being sure of the vehicles' relative positions, but editing details like those are still fascinating to hear about.

The second one analyses a chase sequence from last year's movie Salt. Not a movie I had much interest in watching either when it came out or since, but I really enjoyed his analysis of how much information is in each frame to help orient us (the darkened car window glass visible in the corner) or give us clues about what's coming up (the lorry approaching alongside) or just as details (the two Washington landmarks both being visible in the background at one point).

http://vimeo.com/29023094

Some really good comments in that discussion thread:

First off, I have not seen “Salt”, so what I have to say will be more reliant on technique than the content/context in which this scene takes place. I watched the scene and then the analysis. To be honest, I was underwhelmed by the filmmaking. First off, how she spots the truck feels more like an element that comes out of nowhere than, say, the truck that rams the armored car in “Dark Knight”.

From that point on, the conception and editing of the sequence seems to exhibit a bigger and largely ignored problem of filmmaking today, which is cutting with a micro mindset, as opposed to macro mindset. The jumps themselves are decently executed, but how they connect to one another, as well as the car that Schreiber/Ejiofor are in seems to pop up in different places on this freeway, whose loops and turns are never laid out clearly enough to generate the proper suspense in the sequence. That may be why it feels lackadaisical and the jumps themselves seem lacking in purpose. It’s appropriate that you refer to these moments as gags because they don’t seem to be cut or shot to serve a dramatic purpose. That may explain why several have already noted that while the film may follow rules of clean action filmmaking, but the “who gives a shit?” seems to be getting in their way of their appreciation. Workmanlike, but uninspired. It also doesn’t help that good actors like Schreiber and Ejiofor seem to barely contain their disinterest and Jolie doesn’t express emotions on film that ever resemble a human being. Sort of beside the point, but not really, as the editor is instrumental in shaping the performances, something else not brought up in these discussions about the editing process.

The funny thing is that, at least, with “The Dark Knight” scene, there seemed to be a purpose despite the iffy filmmaking, especially in the second half of the scene which you didn’t cover, where there is only three vehicles left, which is about enough for Nolan to finally keep track of them more clearly. But, from what I saw, in this scene, was lacking direction. The suspense is whether the Schreiber/Ejiofor car can reach Jolie, yet the scene is staged and cut without purpose. When Ejiofor points to Jolie, the first question on my mind was how the hell did they wind up in almost the same place at the same time? Or perhaps, why wasn’t the scene staged and cut in a way that connects Schreiber/Ejiofor with Jolie beyond their random driving fast shots (Why are they going in the direction they’re going?) and her jumping? That, perhaps, would have actually made this scene dramatically compelling as a standalone scene.

Take this scene from “The Fugitive”, which has a similar premise, man chasing innocent person accused of crime (it should link to the start time and lasts about 4 minutes):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9gCq04OBFc&t=4m17s

See how better and more dramatically it is staged. Why? Every shot and cut connects Ford to Jones and vice versa even when the scene starts with each of them by themselves and then moves their chase into areas with more people. That scene never loses focus like the one in “Salt” where each side (Schreiber/Ejiofor & Jolie) seem to be in their own space until, Voila!, they wind up in the same space. A problem I have with many action scenes in that it seems to be a functioning set piece that serves as a beat, but no sense of suspense or urgency. If the dramatic purpose of the scene is these two chasing Salt and she tries to evade them by jumping trucks, then just cutting back and forth between her stunts and shots of them driving fast (those low angle shaky-cam shots of their car are sort sub-Nolan) really just didn’t cut it for me. Perhaps, I wished the scene served the drama rather than the gags in its shot selections and editing.

As you might recall, I found Salt absurd and underwhelming, and I think those two go together. Part of the problem is what Craig describes below: the personality-free craftsmanship. Another part is summed up nicely by Drugpunk: “my girlfriend didn’t like the script so she didn’t pay attention to the action scenes because she didn’t see the point.” That’s close to how I felt. Salt, to me, is an endless parade of scenes that through the rapid cutting (not as rapid as TDK, but not far off) and an energetic score make me feel like I should be excited by the action ... and yet there’s so little personality in the action, so little investment in the drama, that I felt nothing at all. The scene from Salt that you’ve analyzed actually works better outside the film itself, because we haven’t had to snicker at the sight of Salt running with her arms pumping above her head in an effort to look fast (it doesn’t work) or dealt with any of the film’s other absurdities.

As for the specific analysis: First let me make the general statement that I think you’re giving the benefit of the doubt to Salt in places where you weren’t as generous to TDK. We can agree that the van-into-the-water shot in TDK is a pure failure and that the window-in-the-foreground shot in Salt is inspired, but both films have not-quite-right POV shots that accomplish the same thing, and both films have shots that aren’t exactly justified (Salt seeing the semi, the van disappearing in the shot of the Batmobile’s leap in TDK), and yet with Salt you seem to think it’s no big deal, and with TDK it’s an instrument of confusion. I don’t mean to imply that you’re being disingenuous. Rather, I mean to point out that when one breaks down both films, we find that Salt has some of the same elements that bother you in TDK, which just goes to show that whether a scene is chaotic or not doesn’t always come down to what the film actually shows us, what’s in the frame and what’s out. You say a few times of Salt that we “see” it happen, so it works. But when I watch TDK, I “see” the semi make a right turn through the van and into the next lane of traffic, while you see the semi take some magic-bullet trajectory that I admit I still don’t understand. In both cases, I don’t really “see” the full right turn in TDK any more or less than you really “see” how Salt spots the oncoming semi. So, again, maybe what these analyses show us is how much our comprehension of action isn’t so much tied to technique but audience POV: what are we looking for. Steven Santos, for example, is looking to figure out how all these characters keep coming together, while you’re focused on Salt. Neither viewpoint is “wrong,” but whether the filmmaker succeeds or fails depends on a mutual understanding about what the filmmaker is or should be trying to do, and that’s rare.

Another point: To me, the clarity of the scene in which all the agents converge on Salt at the overpass is precisely the problem with the scene itself and the film as a whole. Even at that point we’ve seen enough to realize that Salt is a Jason Bourne-esque super agent. So it’s dramatically stupid that after scrambling for her life she would then wait patiently behind a car, totally exposed, and give time for numerous characters to (1) close in on her, (2) surround her and (3) comfortably aim their weapons at her. Furthermore, it’s even more absurd that from that position Salt could take at least three steps back (the editing makes it look like one, a cheat) and roll over the edge of the overpass while only ONE person gets off a shot. See, here the clarity of the established spatial relationships hurts the film. The scenario that’s set up (count ‘em, at least six guns on Salt, all at close range) is totally ignored in the subsequent action shot. Chaos would have helped this scene, giving us some way of convincing ourselves that Salt’s escape (with only ONE shot being fired) somehow makes sense. Instead, the threat of six guns on Salt disappears like the cop car in TDK—only this time, the thing that disappears is, in theory, the focus of the scene.

Can we follow what’s happening in Salt? Yes. Can we explain the movements of the pieces? Yes. But the direction in which the van hits the water in TDK is, dramatically speaking, inconsequential (even while I agree it’s sloppy filmmaking): we might be confused, and confusion can take one out of the action (which isn’t good), but we should still understand the crux of what’s going on: a chase in confined space that can only travel one direction (even if a stray shot or two implies otherwise). In Salt, the entire drama is built around the idea that the people chasing Salt are willing to shoot her and that Salt must do whatever it takes to avoid that. So, dramatically speaking, that Salt allows herself to be surrounded and that those in pursuit don’t fire are both huge problems that fundamentally betray what the scene is supposed to be about. And that’s precisely what makes the ensuing action atop the semis feel like stunts, gags.

The next film due to be given this analysis is somewhat older - Don Siegel's The Lineup, from 1958.

  • Upvote 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Watched The Dark Knight piece earlier and found it thoroughly interesting.

I have to say though that I didn't find the scene as disorientating as the guy making this video did. However I felt it lacked energy and pace, in fact I felt that about the roof top chase in Batman Begins too and about the action set pieces in Inception. I do enjoy Nolan's films but mostly from the way he tells the story (and usually the story itself) and the depth thats added, particularly in the case of the Batman movies which prior to his involvement were really rather light and lacking in anything regarding a story or character development, I just struggle with his action scenes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yeah, there's a weird scene in Inception where a bunch of snowmobiles drive around completely at random for a minute or so while exciting music plays in the background, and occasionally people blow up and go flying for no apparent reason :lol:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not sure which is worse in that Dark Knight sequence, the abuse of PoV shots or the evident laziness of not using CG vehicles and compositing to do away with galling continuity errors. That said, I don't believe there's anything fundamentally wrong with it as it stands, and Emerson's analysis of the shots of the van interior strike me as misguided (surely the entire point of those cutaways is to show that Harvey Dent is completely at the mercy of the outside forces battling for his life? Him being in a space bereft of signifiers makes that reading quite compelling).

Talk of the 180° rule has reminded me that I drafted a critique of an iffy section of Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey (episode one, from 44 minutes in), where he makes a pig's ear of an action sequence from a silent called The Squaw Man. What follows was originally only a part of a much broader post on the series, but I've cut it down for the sake of pertinence:

I really enjoyed this, but one slight criticism was that it felt like they were forcing in some huge films just to keep our interest. Like using Star Wars as an example of a good conversation sequence. It was kind of like they were saying 'we're kind of aware that you might be getting bored looking at these crusty old black and white films, so here's the French Connection!".

It's entirely possible that The French Connection and The Empire Strikes Back were included so as to placate the audience, but I believe the excerpt from the latter was quite justified on the basis of demonstrating the prevalence and persistence of the 180°/shot, reverse shot rule. The Squaw Man might be dismissed as a frowsy artefact, but juxtaposing it with Empire - a film that nearly every viewer will have seen, and that almost as many will consider an archetype of the contemporary Hollywood style - serves to hammer the point home, namely that techniques developed and/or popularised during the middle of the silent era are now fundamental to the way we make sense of popular cinema today.

Where I believe Cousins errs in his overview of the 180° rule is in labelling the second Squaw Man sequence - the one featuring the clifftop fall - as mistaken because it does not maintain a uniform scheme of blocking for figures and scenery. As is, the sequence does not test the comprehension of the audience (assuming, of course, that DeMille1 and his editor, Mamie Wagner, intended to avoid confusion); the flipped version Cousins presents is no more spatially clear because the viewer is intelligent enough to glean from the context that the only possible thing that might be hurtling down is the man last seen holding the fraying rope - furthermore, disruptions to visual continuity under such circumstances are readily accepted by the mind, glossed over even, because volatile situations on screen pump the adrenaline and prompt the mind to increase its speed of assignation and recognition, tearing it away from assumptions of cinematic observation without leaving it floundering.2 & 3 That volatility segues into my next point for the defence, which is that of dynamism: in Cousins' version, the scene retains every nuance of the original's rhythm, save the slightly disorientating change when the focal point of brightness moves from the left (in the shot of the man holding on for dear life) to the right of the frame (in the shot showing him hitting the scree), which might thereby instil in the viewer, through the sudden change of compositional balance, a sense of alarm analogous to that of the helpless fellow on screen. Any such effect may be terribly subtle (if not wholly undermined by the sharpening of the viewer's reflexes I outlined earlier), but it does nonetheless further viewer identification.

Cousins' reversed version also reduces what the camera is capable of articulating. In both versions, the dangling man faces the cliff as he holds on to the rope; so, too, does his body when it comes to rest. In Cousins' version, man and camera each maintain a single orientation; in the original, however, there is a divergence between the two, with the camera circling around an inert subject. Through this change in the spatial relationship between subject and narrator, it is indicated that a fundamental shift in the condition of the man has occurred: he has died,4 and the camera has crossed a 180° frontier to report on what has passed. One metaphysical irony of this very short sequence is that it is only through an agent of existence (i.e. the camera-narrator), by way of the changes it effects to continue and fashion a story, that death and the violence that precipitated it can be apprehended. Another is that it is within death that a continuity with life is reestablished as the corpse returns to its living forebear's attitude and situation (facing towards the cliff; returning to the left of the frame after the previous shot had the man travelling across the right),5 while the camera-narrator has - by means of violent cuts and 'leaping' from point to point - fragmented that same subject and torn it from its normal situation. In a sense, the camera has become an extension of the physical forces which have befallen its subject, and complicit in its demise. These readings and intuitions are precluded in Cousins' altered version by its holding of man and camera in lockstep.

I could go on detailing how Cousins' version of this very short sequence erases subtleties of découpage, but I think I've made my point, and it is one that I believe is symptomatic of the series thus far: Cousins talks a good talk about gradations and intricacies, espouses a broad-mindedness about the medium, claims he'll do away with longstanding critical prejudices and asserts that the sole theme of his history is innovation, but then proceeds to make indefensible generalisations; erect false dichotomies; solipsistically ignore films which don't support his argument; launch into admonitions that only illuminate his pettiness; divorce works from their artistic and historical context; and muddle his chronology with the result that certain films and filmmakers are made to appear far more radical and without precedent than they actually were.

  • Upvote 4
  • Downvote 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hang on, the 180 Degree thing is not a rule. It's a guideline at best. Hell, if he's going to have a go at Dark Knight for breaking it, might as well go the whole hog and lambast John Ford and Stagecoach for breaking it too.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hang on, the 180 Degree thing is not a rule. It's a guideline at best. Hell, if he's going to have a go at Dark Knight for breaking it, might as well go the whole hog and lambast John Ford and Stagecoach for breaking it too.

Indeed. A line cross is something that an audience can read perfectly well, and it's a general rule that doesn't need to be followed. Often, adhearing to it *can* make a scene flow better, but generally you can get away with ignoring it, especially as a lot of the time rigidly adhearing to is creatively stifling. It's important to be aware of it, especially for dialogue scenes, but it's not a hard and fast film-making law.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In regards to Harvey Dent being in the back of the van and their being no real method for the viewer to understand the positioning of the shots. It shows him getting into the van and sitting on the passenger side, all shots of him from then show him with a grill on his right (the viewers left) which suggests he's still on that same side of the van. Theres a fair bit wrong with that scene (the van going off the wrong side into the water being the worst example, plus the aforementioned lack of pace and emergency that adds to the adrenaline rush an action scene is supposed to give the view) but the camera work in the back of the van isn't one of them.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I still don't get his critisism of the van going into the water. Make perfect sense to me. The van is going right to left but gets hit by a much bigger van going left to right which pushes it into the water left to right.

Anyway that chaos cinema piece was quite interesting and in many cases very true. Part of the reason for chaos cinema is editing technology. Until quite recently films were shot and edited on film. Therefore every cut had to be literally cut and glued together. A very time consuming task. This is the main reason why old films don't cut very much. I bet if you gave many old film makers an Avid they'd cut a lot more than they did. Films used to be planned meticulously before anything was shot. Many films still are. Technology has now let film makers shoot films differently. Paul Greengrass is a good example. He sets the scene up and has a few cameras rolling trying to capture what's happeneing and lets the actors go for it then pieces it together afterwards. This does give a great sense of energy to his films. He's made it work really well. In the hands of others it can be just confusing.

Another good example is the sequence in Indiana Jones where he's on the front of the truck then slides down under it. The way Spielberg has shot it you know completely what is going on and he builds up a feeling of tension in the viewer as you try to work out along with Indy how the hell he's going to get out of the situation. Now imagine that scene shot by Michael Bay. He would have made it adrenaline fueled and disoriantating. Your emotion wouldn't have been tension but it would all be happening at such a frentic pace you would still find it exhilarating even if you didn't completely get what was going on.

Sadly it seems chaos is what people want to see at the cinema. Salt is a good example of this. Carefully constructed set pieces and real stunts and it bombs at the box office. Transformers however is incomrehensible stuff exploding all over place and everyone goes to see it. I know Salt didn't just bomb because of the action but Transformers pretty much only did well because of the action. Seems to be what people want to see. Big shame if you ask me

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Im finding the dissection of the Dark Knight chase scene to be a little flawed. The narrators opening issue with the positioning of Harvey Dent & the Police Officer in the Police Van did not throw me off to their placement in the back. The camera was facing Harvey as he got in and the continuity of the Police Officer was correct. I was not confused at the time and Im not confused now the narrator is deconstructing it.

The this little bit as he so ably describes, was a great cut away to the 18 wheeler about to show up and the introduction of The Joker. Both the vehicle, driver and Joker are introduced in a darkly comic way and set that up beautifully. The next time you see them is crashing into the side of the van, unexpected just like the first shot. It interrupted the ominous scene of the convoy approaching the city perfectly and then got right back on with it.

Now, the shot that I agree with is the SWAT Vehicle being hit into the Chicago River. Although I agree with him completely, everyone should watch the making of The Dark Knight on the Blu Ray. When they show the shot being filmed, I noticed that the entire scene was filmed mirrored. Although its been some time since I watched it, I believe that they reversed the shot once they filmed it, possibly for continuity reasons. I noticed this at the time but its only watching this I realised that there may have been a technical reason why they choose to do this.

A lot of what he is bringing up is explaining the reasons why this shot is not perfect or correct. All of which are either correct or just nit picking about plausibility or continuity. For example, he moans about the shot where The Joker hears the afterburner of the Tumbler, the SWAT man swerves out the way and hits the perusing Dump Truck.

Why does the Camera move upwards and out the way? Answer, the camera was in the way of the car and moved up to avoid getting hit. Hes saying its a POV shot and should remain in the perspective of the driver. I found it to be a shot of the Tumbler approaching the convoy.

Why does the SWAT car move just in time? Answer, Gordon is driving and presumably knows the plan of attack and what The Batman is going to do. A leap of faith? Possibly, but I understood it when I watched it and never once questioned the action.

In the end, you can interpret the action how you want and his points stand as he found it to be inconsistent with his way of how a scene plays out. I found it to be one of the best car chases in film history, with the Helicopter crash to be the only flaw. And even then, you can see where they replaced the CGI model and used a real chassis of a helicopter!

Good analysis, but I found it to pick holes with scenes or styles when I found them to be pretty much perfect.

  • Upvote 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree that the editing of the film can be confusing at times and I know it might sound like a bit of a cop-out, but was it not Nolan's intention to have the audience on the back foot, struggling to keep up with events in the same way Batman is struggling to keep up with the Joker? Maybe I'm wrong but I just can't imagine Nolan of all people failing to have such a basic grasp of film language. I felt utterly exhausted at the end of Dark Knight, which I'm sure was the film's intention. Disorientation isn't always bad, especially when used by a director like Nolan, who has been playing with his audience since Memento.

Loving the discussion in this thread btw, and those Chaos vids are great. As mentioned the kinetic frantic style of film making is mostly terrible in terrible directors hands, but can be really effective when used by a good one.....I guess like any technique really.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue. Use of this website is subject to our Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and Guidelines.