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What’s more important in a film: story or spectacle? It’s a debate as old as the medium itself. Can a film dazzle, yet still emotionally and intellectually engage with the audience? And what role does cutting play in this process? Welcome back to our 4-part series, ‘What Drives the Cut?’.
Cutting and Causality
In this post, we’re going to explore the difference between cutting for story and cutting for spectacle by looking at the way two scenes with similar content have been edited quite differently. Our subject matter of choice? A car chase. This might seem counter-intuitive, but action is actually a fantastic genre for studying the art of editing and storytelling.
Action is about causality. Events that are linked together. Cause and effect, this happened, therefore that happened. Good action follows this pattern. For example, In the opening scene of the 1995 film Goldeneye, Bond activates the conveyor, allowing him to escape. He shoots out the barrels, which rains down on the bad guys. The conveyor then takes him to the runway, where bond now decides to hijack a plane.
Case Study: 2 Fast 2 Furious
Our first scene is the penultimate car chase from 2 Fast 2 Furious. In order to pull off a heist, Brian and Roman (the good guys) are being forced to team up with Enrique and Roberto (the bad guy’s henchman). Superfluous ‘bro’ dialogue is exchanged to begin the scene. Although the setup is short, the story stagnates a bit because events aren’t linked in a meaningful manner. And then there’s staring – lots of it. They move on to the pickup and then do some more staring. Eventually the chase begins.
Cuts are frequent and fast. The perspective moves rapidly between different cars, different drivers and is even interspersed with aerial shots. The cuts in this scene do not progress the story, which can be described as cars driving fast in a straight line. Many shots repeat information that the audience has already seen. At best, the cuts add kinetic energy and tension to the chase. At worst, they become monotonous and boring. The scene is a bit too light on story and a bit too heavy on spectacle.
In fact, leave the room, grab yourself a snack and come back a full minute or two later and you probably won’t have missed a thing. Brian and Roman compete for the lead and throw their cars around corners without any apparent reason. We’ll revisit this later in our final analysis. But right now, it’s time for the second movie, Jack Reacher.
Case Study: Jack Reacher
The car chase we’re looking at falls at a similar point in this movie, at the end of the second act. But it’s edited very differently. First, the build up. To his surprise, Jack returns to his motel to find that he’s been framed for the murder of a young girl. He prematurely stops his car and stares off camera encouraging the audience to ask what IS he looking at? The subsequent shots provide the answer in the form of his POV. A closeup confirms his suspicion. How will Jack respond? His mind begins to work.
A new character enters the scene, Detective Emerson, who suspects Jack to be the murderer. They lock gazes, leaving the audience to wonder what they’ll do. Subtle head movements hint at their decisions. A clenched fist signals anger, a hand on the gear stick indicates flight.
The scene has perfectly set up the ensuing car chase and established the main characters motives and emotions. The chase begins. Cuts are infrequent and usually in response to action within the scene, such as the turn of a corner, the approach of police cars, and the approach of the bridge.
When Jack rams the bad guys, we’re rewarded with a view of how they react. The chase progresses over bridges, through tunnels, and into back streets. Look away for a moment, and you’ll lose track of the plot. Every shot has a specific purpose. As a result, each cut commands the audience’s attention.
Finally, Jack realizes he’s fighting a losing battle. He pulls into crowded street. We see Jack’s POV, and then a close up indicates he is thinking. The audience wonders, what has he got planned? Each successive shot drip feeds the audience vital information – a bus, a crowd, and the pursuing helicopter. Unanswered questions compel the audience to continue watching. What does this all mean? How will Jack escape? The scene concludes delivering a satisfying payoff.
So, what have we learned? Let’s look at the edits.
2 Fast 2 Furious relies on fast and furious cutting. Individual shots tend to lack meaning and instead the film relies on an abundance of edits to generate tension and maintain energy. Because everything stands out, nothing stands out. It’s spectacular, but lacks any deeper meaning than simply looking cool. As a result, the cut’s power is greatly diminished and the viewer’s eyes glaze over a bit. The viewer wants to know if they get away, but there’s no particular meaning to the events in between.
Now, something important to remember – spectacle is all about exhilaration. It’s visually striking, and enjoyable to watch. It gets the heart pumping. Story on the other hand, engages the viewer on a deeper level. It gets their mind thinking.
Does 2 Fast 2 Furious get your mind thinking? Or does it get your heart pumping? We’d say the latter. If story is flavor, then sugar is spectacle. Most people love sweet food, but a dish without flavor is just sickly. Sugar is best when it’s used to enhance a dish that is already flavorful.
A good edit needs ingredients like story, logic or intrigue. Once it’s got those ingredients, then you can sweeten it with spectacle. When you balance sweetness with flavor, then you’ve really got something special.
You could say that 2 Fast 2 Furious’ editing is too sugary. We’re not trying to be down on the Fast and Furious franchise – they are entertaining to watch and incredibly popular, but the cut is not being used to its full potential.
Jack Reacher on the other hand, is sweet but also very flavorful. The editing is razor sharp, and carefully and deliberately reveals information in a manner that encourages the audience to ask questions, building anticipation for shots to come. This is particularly evident during the opening build up.
Each shot serves a distinct purpose giving clarity to the action, and the connection that each cut makes, burns memorable moments into the minds of the audience. The scene is just as tense and exhilarating to watch, and while it does use rapid cutting in places to heighten that tension, it’s able to achieve more with less because story is considered with every single edit.
So, how can you make each cut matter? That’s going to be the focus of part 4 in this series, where we’ll look how the editor can use cuts to pose questions and provide answers, compelling the viewer to keep watching.
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