Magazine article Artforum International

People Are Talking More about Film Technique Than Ever Before

Magazine article Artforum International

People Are Talking More about Film Technique Than Ever Before

Article excerpt

PEOPLE ARE TALKING more about film technique than ever before. Producers hire directors who have established a distinctive look in a music video or an online clip. Critics of earlier decades scarcely mentioned camera work or cutting, but reviewers today happily point out Steadicam shots and choppy chase scenes. In website comment threads, audiences complain about shaky images and roaring surround sound. Have people become more sensitive to cinematic expression? Mostly not. They are responding to a cluster of in-your-face techniques, from handheld camera work to rapid-fire editing to blatant digital manipulation of the film frame.

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Some have argued that today's overbearing presentation is radically new. It's more accurate, I think, to see it as the most recent recasting of long-standing principles of "continuity" filmmaking--the guidelines for staging, shooting, and editing that have ruled mass-market filmmaking since the late 1910s. Classic technique has been amped up, designed for bigger impact. A conversation that a '30s director would have handled in a prolonged two-shot is now dissected into a quick string of "singles" showing each actor line by line, often in tight close-up. Moreover, the two-shot of the old days would have been static, but today's camera is likely to circle or home in on the players. And the traditional studio camera (weighing more than a hundred pounds and anchored to a lumbering metal dolly) has often been replaced by a handheld one. Overall, the filmed scene remains spatially and dramatically intelligible, but it has been served up to us in a more aggressive way, through a visual strategy I'm inclined to call intensified continuity.

What gave rise to this style? Was it timed to a wrinkle in the Zeitgeist--the triumph of MTV? Does it reflect the way our mouse-clicking through websites has given us ADD? No. The changes in the look and feel of movies have been in the works for decades, long before we succumbed to the Great Sensory Speedup purportedly caused by the Net and the surfeit of cable channels. If we want to identify causes, we must look instead to changes in filmmaking technology and display formats.

Handheld cameras go back very far; you can find handheld shots in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927). Lightweight cameras were occasionally used in late-'40s and early-'50s Hollywood features, but they proved more feasible in documentary cinema, which used the handheld camera to penetrate fast-changing situations. Soon fiction films like Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove, and A Hard Day's Night--all released in 1964--were striving for the same immediacy. Ever since, the handheld look has made several comebacks. It's still not a dominant style, but whenever a filmmaker wants to evoke TV reportage (The Hurt Locker [2008]) or amateurish veracity (Cloverfield [2008]), it's readily recruited.

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In quick cutting, silent cinema again led the way. A typical '20s film was likely to average five seconds per shot. With the coming of sound, the pace slowed, but since 1960 or so cutting rates have become faster and faster. Today, the average shot in a mainstream movie, in any genre, lasts three to five seconds. Why did the pace of cutting accelerate again? For one thing, it has become physically easier for editors to trim scenes to their bare minimum. …

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