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Cutting for Clarity

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If you’ve been following the production and early marketing campaign for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then you may have noticed how Steven Spielberg has been discussing the film’s visual style in relation to the other Indiana Jones films and, more curiously, to contemporary action films. It seems that last summer’s intense discussion of The Bourne Ultimatum‘s hyper-kinetic editing by bloggers and scholars such as David Bordwell and Stephen Rowley did not go unnoticed by the bearded-one. In the February issue of Vanity Fair, which featured an Annie Leibovitz photo-spread of all the major characters in the new film, Spielberg comments on his own editing style:

I go for geography. I want the audience to know not only which side the good guys on and the bad guys on, but which side of the screen they’re in, and I want the audience to be able to edit as quickly as they want in a shot that I am loath to cut away from. And that’s been my style with all four of these Indiana Jones pictures. Quick-cutting is very effective in some movies, like the Bourne pictures, but you sacrifice geography when you go for quick-cutting. Which is fine, because audiences get a huge adrenaline rush from a cut every second and a half on The Bourne Ultimatum, and there’s just enough geography for the audience never to be lost, especially in the last Bourne film, which I thought was the best of the three. But, by the same token, Indy is a little more old-fashioned than the modern-day action adventure.

Spielberg’s technical skill as a director has always been closely linked to the tenets of classical Hollywood style. His adherence to eye-line matches, graphic matches, and the 180 degree line – where the camera obeys an axis of action over an entire sequence – might not sound so revolutionary, but it is has been one of the keys to his success as an innovative storyteller. In this sense, Spielberg subordinates style for story clarity. Though he is not one to shy away from breathtaking shots and jaw-dropping visual effects, this “stylish style” (to use David Bordwell’s phrase) is presented in an open and transparent manner. In other words, it’s all there on the screen to be appreciated.

In the above quotation, Spielberg is discussing two elements of visual style. His preference for clearly defined spatial geography is not unlike many other contemporary filmmakers, who build scenes out of stable blocks of shots: master (establishing shot), medium, and close up. You establish the space with a wide or long shot, then move in for greater details and drama once direction and “geography” has been defined. David Fincher comes to mind, so does Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and Michael Mann. However, more and more films – including the Bourne series – sacrifice visual clarity for kinetic rhythm and movement.

Spielberg suggests that this sacrifice is not entirely necessary, since speed can be conjured through other means, namely story:

Part of the speed is the story. If you build a fast engine, you don’t need fast cutting, because the story’s being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that’s written in the express lane, and if it’s not, there’s nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, for personal conflict, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk.

This constitutes the second element of visual style under discussion. The speed at which Spielberg cuts appears to be on the slower side compared to other directors in the industry. The fact that he needs to outline his preference for editing precision and concision comes off like a defense against the industry “norm.” While I have not completed an average shot length study of Spielberg’s work, it is clear that other filmmakers are indeed cutting faster. Yet it remains to be seen if faster cutting has resulted in more stylistically innovative, comprehensible, or successful films. Compare, for example, the action scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II. While Nolan stresses the congruity and geographical integrity between shots, Bay abandons this compositional value for the rapid-fire “feel” of an entire sequence.

With respect to Spielberg’s own editing style, I would hardly call it conservative. He may be more methodical and deliberate than Martin Scorsese but it depends on the genre in which each director is working. The flamboyant Scorsese (The Departed) is faster to the draw than the serious Spielberg (Amistad). Even in an adventure film like Jurassic Park entire sequences play out with very traditional setups. The introduction of the T-Rex is first revealed offscreen on the sound track, then visually by the cup of rippling water. The first time we actually see the angry predator, it’s a wide shot – much like the introduction to the Brachiasaur earlier in the film. As the T-Rex sequence continues, Spielberg has established the space of the scene using eye-line matches and other directional strategies to orient the audience. In many ways, this enhances the suspense of the scene because we’re fully aware of the proximity of the T-Rex to the other characters.

In an article published in the New York Times on May 4th, Spielberg again discusses his editorial strategies for the new Indiana Jones movie. This time, he is more explicit with his intentions:

In fact, Mr. Spielberg said, he tries to cut as little as possible in these movies action sequences, because every time the camera changes dynamic angles, you feel there’s something wrong, that there’s some cheating going on. So his goal is to do the shots the way Chaplin or Keaton would, everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut.”

By citing the visual styles of Chaplin and Keaton Spielberg reinforces his preference for stylistic transparency. Although Charles Chaplin used far more close ups than Keaton, both silent comedians earned their keep by convincing audiences that their stunt work was the real deal, not the result of a camera trick or a stunt man. In Modern Times, Chaplin (who is blindfolded) rollerskates dangerously close to the edge of a second or third floor department store balcony. In Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College, Buster Keaton narrowly avoids being crushed by a falling housefront. Each of these iconic moments are captured in a single take and in long shot to “sell” the danger and “realism” of the stunts.

Spielberg continues:

The idea is, there’s no illusion; what you see is what you get. My movies have never been frenetically cut, the way a lot of action is done today. That’s not a put-down; some of that quick cutting, like in The Bourne Ultimatum is fantastic, just takes my breath away. But to get the comedy I want in the Indy films, you have to be old-fashioned. I’ve studied a lot of the old movies that made me laugh, and you’e got to stage things in full shots and let the audience be the editor. It’s like every shot is a circus act.

Stressing the need for long shots and deliberate pacing for effective comic gags, Spielberg underestimates the innovative spirit of his own visual style in dramatic situations. His preference his “in-shot editing” is clearly evident in Munich. In one scene, Avner (Eric Bana) and his partners discuss the logistics of their next target assassination while inside a small car. Spielberg’s camera slowly pans from the hotel (site of the assassination) to the car’s side-view mirror, in which Steve (Daniel Craig) is reflected. As he speaks, the camera continues to move laterally towards the car’s rear-view mirror. Hans (Hanns Zischler) comes into view as he finishes Steve’s sentence about who they may be up against. The camera continues to focus on the rear-view mirror as Avner comes into view and says, “It’s definitely him.” A fourth visual plane is established when Hans holds up a photograph that blocks the rear-view mirror, which still remains the camera’s central focal point. The black-and-white image is of the man they are to kill, Al-Chir. As Hans describes the potential obstacles to the hit, the camera swings around to reveal Avner seated in the backseat, taking the photograph from Hans.


The shot presents four planes of action that reveal key story information without a single cut. Instead, the camera moves around the confines of the car, using the various mirrors to reflect each of the characters who do not sit facing one another. The constricted space of the car does not limit Spielberg’s camera from capturing the visual details of the hotel (site of assassination), the worry on the group’s faces, and the assassination target. This type of shot is repeated in Munich as characters and objects are reflected in windows and mirrors to avoid superfluous cutting. While the story may provide the momentum, certainly we cannot dismiss the movement of Spielberg’s camera as contributing to this sensation of speed.

In the Vanity Fair and New York Times interviews, Spielberg admits that his visual style has grown and matured since the last Indiana Jones adventure in 1989. For the newest installment, he and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski re-watched the trilogy to get his “Indy legs back.” In Kaminski’s case, he was asked to approximate the look of another lenser, Douglas Slocombe, who shot all three Indy films and recently passed away. Spielberg recounts:

I still wanted the film to have a lighting style not dissimilar to the work Doug Slocombe had achieved, which meant that both Janusz and I had to swallow our pride. Janusz had to approximate another cinematographer’s look, and I had to approximate this younger director’s look that I thought I had moved away from after almost two decades.

This is an intriguing admission, since it points to Spielberg’s desire to return to a style of filmmaking that he no longer practices. Perhaps Spielberg and George Lucas feel that it is necessary to emphasize the timelessness of Indiana Jones by sticking to a very time-specific style. For many fans, it wouldn’t be an Indiana Jones film without the signature iconography of the series, which includes Indy’s hat and leather jacket, the ubiquitous map line, and the many creepy crawlies that Indy must swat, crush, and flick. Of course, this iconography also includes the characteristic action set-pieces, hair-raising stunts (sans CGI), and buoyant John Williams score.

It would appear that Spielberg and company are aiming to recreate a stylistic moment that has, by all accounts, influenced a generation of filmmakers to “out do” the Spielberg/Lucas one-two punch of action/adventure filmmaking style. Indiana Jones gave way to John McClane (Die Hard), the Terminator, and Jason Bourne. Computer generated effects have become more prolific, yet arguably present filmmakers with fewer options. Cutting rates have increased and action scenes are noticeably more frantic and fragmented.

However, I am wondering if Spielberg is perhaps too aware of this recent stylistic trend. With Raiders of the Lost Ark and its two sequels, cutting speed and visual flair seemed to grow organically from the films, which is why they defined a new approach to an old genre. In the early 1980s, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear critics bemoan Spielberg for hyperactive and disjointed action scenes. Now, those same critics long for the intelligible and witty textures of the Indy series compared to the numbing banality of M. Night Shyamalan and a slew of unremarkable superhero pictures.

Obviously, I have yet to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I cannot comment on the film’s stylistic approach. Since Spielberg has been so outspoken on the visual style of the series compared to more contemporary editing/compositional approaches, I am curious to see if he is too self-conscious, too constrained, too judgmental of his own instincts. Because – as we know – when Spielberg’s instincts are sharp, we are in for a wonderful time at the movies.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. I remember Spielberg was saying similar stuff when War of the Worlds was coming out…how he preferred the extended effects shots to suspend the audience’s disbelief.

    I’m surprised you complimented Batman Begins for its lack of rapid editing…rapid editing was one of my major complaints regarding the film. The fight scenes literally consist of one shot per punch.

    You’ll be proud – I started watching Lost this week.

    May 6, 2008
  2. Benjamin Wright #

    I hope you’ve started watching Lost from the beginning! Otherwise, I’m not sure it’s gonna make any sense. Watching the series on DVD is the most rewarding, since it can unfold at a breakneck speed (without commercials and summer/strike hiatuses).

    I stand by Nolan’s approach in Batman Begins, since he does a fair job of establishing the “spatial geography” of many scenes. I will say, however, that Nolan is not immune to the modern shooting style: tight framing and rapid cutting.

    Re-watching the Indiana Jones trilogy recently I was struck by how many shots required multiple rack focuses, something that you don’t see anymore.

    I wrote this post before seeing Iron Man, which only reinforces my point. The amount of tight close-ups on the body armor did one thing successfully: hide the seams between the CGI armor and Stan Winston’s practical suit.

    May 6, 2008
  3. Thanks for the plug for my writing on Spielberg’s editing: I assume you’re referring to this post: http://tinyurl.com/6o6xzz, but there’s also this one from a few years ago, back when Indy 4 was still a glimmer in Spielberg’s eye: http://tinyurl.com/6l6hrr.

    I am going from memory here, but my recollection was that Batman Begins was fairly “classically” shot for most of its exposition but dissolved into incoherency in its action scenes, which I thought were very shakily shot and badly done.

    I also wonder if it was fair even in the 80s to accuse Spielberg of hyperkinetic cutting (though I don’t doubt sloppy critics have sometimes done so). Except for a few sequences (the minecar sequence in Temple of Doom comes to mind) I don’t think Spielberg has ever cut particularly quickly. Spielberg has gradually “sped up,” as Hollywood has, but my impression (again, a hunch unsupported by extensive shot counting) is that Spielberg has always cut a bit slower than his contemporaries at any given time. If you go right back to Jaws you’ll find he’d let whole scenes play out in only one or two shots.

    I should add that all stylistic approaches can be done well or badly. As stated in my post, I love the clarity of Spielberg’s style, but I think Greengrass’ Bourne films really showed the handheld / shaky / close / quick approach done quite artfully. It’s still no really my cup of tea, but I think they were more intelligently mounted than, say, a Michael Bay film. Perhaps one saving grace is that Greengrass will pull the camera back for key moments, like cars spinning around in the tunnel car chase in Bourne Supremacy, or that amazing shot following Bourne through a window in Ultimatum. Those shots are still fleeting, but they stand out from what’s around them and provide a little variation and emphasis.

    A lot of this can be traced back to Peter Hunt’s amazing work (first as editor and then director) on the 60s Bond films. Have a look at the bobsled sequence in On Her Majesties’ Secret Service to see the origins of the Bourne style.

    May 10, 2008
  4. sarcastig #

    Very nice post. I’m actually hoping the new Indiana Jones will be kind of “old-fashioned”, not because I don’t like fast cutting when it’s done well (and as Spielberg points out, The Bourne Ultimatum is the prime example), but because they always were old-fashioned. I recently watched a slew of movies from the 80′s, and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark afterwards I was surprised by how it’s old-fashionedness actually makes it LESS dated than the others. There’s no synthesizer music in Raiders, no trendy stars that became a cliché later, no hairstyles we’d now scoff at… because it was a throwback all along, it’s timeless, and it’s encouraging that Spielberg doesn’t seem tempted by all the new trends.

    Incidentally, the sequence you analyze in Munich is a stand-out, absolutely, but the trick of showing things indirectly, through mirrors for example, is one of the things for which Spielberg sometimes chooses style over logic. Case in point? The shot in War of the Worlds of a camera recording the aliens coming out and walking around. A camera, working despite the fact that everything that uses electronics (even cars!) was just disabled.

    May 15, 2008
  5. qb #

    Do you have a rss feed? I don’t see it on the page. Excellent post, thanks.

    May 19, 2008
  6. Benjamin Wright #

    Thanks very much for the excellent feedback, comments, and observations. I completely agree that the fast-and-tight style has its place — and the Bourne series represents some very fine examples of it. I certainly did not intend my post to be an attack on this type of style. And I also agree that sometimes Spielberg chooses style over narrative logic. He’s not alone, either.

    I’m inclined to agree with the connections between the styles of Bond and Indiana Jones; however I always found the Bond action set pieces (of any era) to be overly stiff. The choreography seems to interrupt the speed and energy of the action, resulting in sometimes clumsy transitions. It can also lead to overly polished staging: see Martin Campbell’s films for an example of this.

    May 21, 2008
  7. With regards to Bond – I agree entirely about the overwhelming majority of the post-70s films, where I agree the set-pieces are very stiff. And of the 60s films, the very boring Thunderball and You Only Live Twice I think show some of what you talk about (if I understand you correctly). The scenes I’m thinking of that I think are very well done, and greatly influence Bourne, are scenes such as the Bond / Red Grant fight in From Russia With Love, or the aforementioned bobsled chase.

    May 24, 2008
  8. christopher #

    An alternative opinion for balance:

    Personally I have always found an appreciation for the slow pacing and artful compositions of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and Spielberg’s work, though impressive to me as a child, seems far less tempered and sophisticated through adult eyes the above mentioned directors. I have found enjoyment in some of M. Night Shyamalan’s films (“Unbreakable” and “Signs”), despite finding his style painfully derivative, largely because he deliberately takes time with the camera to tell his story. This unfortunately seems to be a dying art and, as someone who appreciates atmosphere in film, I find the rise in kinetic editing of concern. I enjoyed “Batman Begins” but I found its rhythm emotionally unpleasant. The effect that Spielberg notes as exciting in the passages above, however creative and technically impressive, merely seems assaulting and ugly to me. And I cannot help but wonder at the psychological effects rapid editing may have on children (regardless of how often they are exposed to alternate realities their own minds are still developing a sense of reality and as such are extremely malleable). I do not intend to be hostile but, as an aspiring filmmaker, I just wanted to chime in for what it is worth.

    August 5, 2008

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