The Power of Breaking a Habit (or: what we are used to see)

by Rüdiger Brandis

In the year 2008 I sat somewhere in a big screen cinema and watched the 007 movie “Quantum of Solace”. The pictures flashed so fast across the screen that I couldn’t really see what was going on. Who was chasing whom and where? At least, I thought this in the first ten minutes of the film. And I wasn’t the only one. Afterwards, I heard a lot of complains about the fast cuts in the movie. A few years later the same thing happened to me again: In 2010 I watched “Somewhere” in a small arthouse cinema. The first scene in the film is about two minutes long and consists of one single shot. You see a part of a small race circuit out in the desert. A black Ferrari drives on it and keeps on coming into the picture and disappearing out of it. I watched the movie several times and every time the same effect appeared in the audience. After a minute of watching, the people started to talk to their neighbours, wondering why nothing happened, or simply lost interest. Normally the average Friday-evening-moviegoer isn’t even aware of these specialties of editing, which I just described. So why did he notice it in these two cases? The answer is an easy one: Because it was very eye-catching. People noticed it, because it was something they hadn’t seen before, they didn’t know how to deal with it. This led to a discussion about the speed of movies: On the one hand that there should be longer shots so that the viewer has a chance to see the pictures; on the other hand we need a fast series of pictures so that we don’t get bored. Well, to attempt to find out if one side is right, we have to make clear what the object of these discussions really is.

I feel continuity

In 1925 the film “The Battleship Potemkin” was released. Its director, Sergei Eisenstein, used a new and for the art of filming revolutionary kind of montage in it. He arranged the pictures according to the movement and the meaning in them. A good example for this is one particular scene, in which the sailors of the battleship begin to fire their canons against the enemy soldiers. According to the firing Eisenstein shows a stone lion, which rises a little bit more with each shot. With these shots he tried to symbolize the beginning revolution. This movie was the birth of today’s common art of editing. The time of shots with the length of several minutes was over and it followed an expansion of the fast shots till today. So, if people talk about speed in movies, usually they mean the speed of the series of pictures, they talk about the montage, about the process of editing. This topic isn’t often the center of interest of the common moviegoer. Mostly people just talk about the narrative of a film. But the editing is one of the main parts, which creates the final expression of the film. It defines the length of pictures and arranges the music and the sound around them. If you watch a movie, most times you won’t really notice the different cuts in one scene. The montage of the pictures will guide you through the scene, as if you watched the events directly on set. This is called the continuity of a film and the editing creates this feeling of continuity. Of course filmmakers can play with the system and break through it on purpose. Then we notice that something is unusual, so the question of too fast or too slow speed in films is just a question of what we are used to seeing and what we are not. But before I track this question further, let us have a look at another phenomenon of filming, which is all too often ignored by the viewers: the category of space.

The illusion of 3D

I mentioned before that most of the moviegoer just talks about the narrative, the story and plot, of a film. But the pictures themselves are much more than just a series of plot relevant things. They are constructed little pieces of an image, which a film enables to look at piece by piece. And for the construction of an image nothing is more important than the category of space. But normally a film is a two dimensional medium, so it has to imitate a feeling of space. This effect of cinematic space is the result of the interaction of mise-en-scène (staging), the point of view of the camera and the editing:

The mise-en-scène includes the creation of the scene in relation to the camera, in other words the setting, the architecture, the scenery, the light, the items, the actors and the movement. This is everything you need to arrange a suitable scenery, before you begin to get something on camera. The point-of-view of the camera is important to decide what you want to have in the picture and from where you want to show it. Additionally you can work, as an example, with sharpness or blur, with the depth of sharpness or the color of the picture. But also the movement in the picture and of the camera is a sign of space, which creates the illusion of a three-dimensional space of action. Adding to what I already described about the editing, it creates a feeling of three-dimensionality through the series of shots with a different point-of-view. So all three categories are connected among themselves and create the illusion of a natural three-dimensional scene in this way.[1]

So what?

Exactly! What does all this have to do with our problem of the speed of shifting pictures in today’s films? This time the answer is short: simply everything. The speed of a film isn’t just a trend, it is a medium of expression. In “Quantum of Solace” the director maybe wanted to show the incredible speed and struggle of Bond in the long chase and in “Somewhere” the long shot (point-of-view as well as time) at the beginning was the first brilliant visualisation of its own title, which describes the feeling of being somewhere better than words could do. Nobody would have said something about the 007 movie, if the camera hadn’t been shaking all the time. Then everyone would have been able to see enough despite the fast shifting pictures. And if the first scene in “Somewhere” had consisted of more than just one long shot, then nobody would have wondered about it.

I admit that the general speed of pictures has increased a lot since the beginning of cinema. That might be connected to the fact that our life has become faster in general. Today we can travel from London to New York in only a few hours. Mobile-phones and the internet have simplified communication even furthermore. Everything rushes from one point to another, rarely stopping. But these things are just one little aspect among so many others, which are able to influence the visuals of a film. And in the end we won’t remember the films which showed us something we have seen often before. If we change the above described scenes into something more likely, then everyone would have said “Yeah I watched that Bond movie sometime” and not “Yeah I watched “Quantum of Solace”, and the cut was so fast I could hardly see what was going on.” We will remember the films, which did something new and unexpected. That doesn’t always have to be good, but maybe sometime someone else sees this and has a brilliant opinion of it.

So the answer to our opening question is: nobody is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong, just a general feeling of what is good taste and what isn’t. Maybe this feeling will shift towards faster editing methods further on or maybe it won’t. We can’t tell. So we just have to argue along and see what might come next.

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[1] Risholm, Ellen: Film, Raum, Figur. Raumpraktiken in F.W. Murnaus Film Nosferatu — Eine Symphonie des Grauens, in: Sigrid Lange (Ed.), Raumkonstruktionen in der Moderne, Bielefeld 2001.

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