Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ted's Ideas On Editing Chase Scenes

On Wednesday I'm giving a lecture in one of my classes on editing chase scenes. I've given it a few times before, and it's usually a pretty big hit -- it seems to really help students get a handle on some basic editing concepts.

They may never edit a chase scene, but the bigger point is that they learn to develop a rational plan to make an otherwise complicated and confusing set of shots seem completely coherent, comprehensible, and clear.

We look at clips from about a dozen films, and illustrate the ideas below.


How do we know which character is which? Does one wear a white cowboy hat and the other a black one? Does one have a red car and the other blue? Is the pickup basketball game shirts versus skins?

If we see the leader pass the big red building, then ten seconds later the other, we know how far apart the characters are. Often, a camera will stay at a landmark position, and pan from one character to another.

If a car is chasing a moped, the car has a clear advantage. But when the moped goes into the subway and the car driver follows on foot, now the moped has the advantage.

Is a character gaining or falling behind? A shot where the camera is pulling away, or where the character is catching up to the camera may tell us. A shot with both characters in it might reveal the relative status as well.

We want to know what the character is thinking, feeling and doing -- so a cut to a shot through the windshield might reveal the character's expression. Or a cut to the foot on the brake might tell us what's happening. Or a closeup on the gear shift. Make careful note of where the character looks -- the next shot might be their "point of view."

A camera can be low in the front of a car, can look out the rear window, can sit in the passenger seat, can look down at the brake pedal -- and all of these shots are useful. It can run alongside the moped as it plunges down the stairs. It can turn to watch the car streak by. It can shake, float, or fly.

If a car goes from screen left to screen right, we expect it to keep doing that unless we some change -- a shot where it turns, or where we "move" into the car before coming back out. And we expect the car chasing to also maintain consistent screen direction -- unless we see a change happen.

If we cut from the big black car to the little red sports car -- should the sound change right on that cut? Or should it change in other ways? Do we want to hear the sound of the car coming toward us, then going away?

Even in a short chase, all go-go-go action wears thin. It's usually more exciting to have a lot of action, then a tiny pacing "deep breath" before the big finish.

That tank chasing the laser-guided skateboard just knocked over every fruit stand in aisle 19. Maybe we could cut back to see what happened, and the angry manager shaking her fist at us? Or maybe our wheel can't take much more and is starting to wobble -- maybe a closeup to reveal that?


J. Henry said...

What chase scenes do you show your class?

I would love a more in depth article on your thoughts here. Even if there is no right answer to any of the questions you provide, different decisions will have different impacts on the audience and any insight into that would be great.

I am particularly curious about your thoughts on sound edits and also on pacing.

Ted Fisher said...

I ended up showing:

a. the 1955 version of "The Fast and The Furious." It has many problems that connect to this list.

b. then I show two classic edits: Bullitt and The French Connection. We take both seriously, then followup: in Bullitt, there's a great goof where the chasing cars keep passing the same green volkswagen. And I show a version of the same French Connection chase but with the song "Black Magic Woman" overlaid. The story is that they cut the scene using that as scratch track -- and it turns out it matches very well if you put it back in.

c. We look at Gothika for it's use of audio and timing. It adopts the language we've seen in Bullitt and French Connection, but adds on seasoning -- manufactured scares and audio stings.

d. We look at Diva and the way it handles screen movement -- also how the advantage shifts back and forth and how landmarks are used.

e. We go harder edged, studying a scene from Ronin.

f. We then take a few scenes from the French version of Taxi -- noticing time compression, increased pace of cutting, etc.

g. We use the three running scenes in Run Lola Run -- emphasizing for the first one some of the strategies (jump cut compresson, eye trace, etc.) but especially noticing how repeat action is changed to avoid becoming boring and repetitious.

h. We then look at a couple of student films that apply these principles.

There are many other pieces one could use. One I screened this summer was the Steadicam chase scene from Point Break....

Ted Fisher said...

Also, on sound: one of the big challenges they notice is how to keep the sound "following" the view we are seeing but not break continuity or make the feel jumpy. That is, we are in the car, then cut to a shot outside of the car to see the hubcap fly off -- we can just cut to the second sound location but if we do that on every shot we lose sound continuity -- we stop feeling like we are in one place and time and more like we are jumping around. So usually there's an interesting blend -- more emphasis on one sound in this location, but a general continuation mixed in....

Pacing is only loosely addressed in this -- for example, in one scene of Taxi we stay rather slow until the cars and drivers get ready for a big jump when we shift to increasingly fast cuts. They are writing about pacing, so this is something they should notice -- but there are other clips that might be even better for demonstrating ideas on pace / rhythm / compression.