Friday, June 02, 2006

Stop With the Cutting!

When the John Ford/John Wayne collection comes out next week, one thing worth looking for is the rather large number of shots that feature two or more characters in the same frame for an extended period of time. John Ford wasn't known for using long takes; he didn't go out of his way to stage an entire scene in one shot the way Orson Welles or Vincente Minnelli did. But Ford came from a tradition of filmmaking that emphasized getting the right look for a shot -- in terms of composition and framing -- and that meant not breaking up a good shot with a lot of coverage and cross-cutting. He'll cut between characters if that's the only way we can see both of them clearly; but his default method is to position the actors in such a way that they can occupy the same shot together, without his having to cut away or even move the camera much.

This is very different from the way most movies have looked for the past twenty years or more; the default way of doing a scene now is to cut back and forth between characters, and putting them in the same shot together for any length of time is quite rare. Remember in Heat, where Michael Mann put Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in a much-hyped scene together, but didn't show them occupying the same frame for more than a few seconds. Ford would never have done it that way -- he didn't do it, say, with John Wayne and Henry Fonda in Fort Apache. He'd have found ways to have the characters talk to each other while they're in the shot together.

The advantages of this way of shooting are twofold. One, it means that each shot is sort of a work of art in itself; instead of just picking and choosing between different bits of footage and splicing them together -- in other words, leaving a lot of the director's job to the editor (and the person who supervises the editing, who is often not the director) -- the director puts a lot of effort into making each shot look as good as possible, because each individual shot carries more weight than in a modern, fast-cutting movie. And second, the more characters are shown together in the same shot, the more you can see the way they react to each other, and how they play off each other; and because they don't need to worry as much about matching everything with the coverage, they can afford to do spontaneous things -- like John Wayne teasing his son Patrick in a shot from The Searchers.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the insistance on cutting from one shot to another isn't a product of the current directors growing up watching too many Panavision/Cinemascope movies from the 1950s and 60s on TV. Once the widescreen format films created to combat the growing influence of television made it to the small screen, many scenes that were actually single-shots using the full width of the screen were re-edited into cuts back and forth from one character to another, because you couldn't see both characters on TV at the same time (get ahold of some of the Cinemascope TV prints of the mid-50s MGM cartoons for an example of the problem you have with widesceen films that are not either edited into cuts or at the very least panned and scanned -- some scenes either lose the action completely or have only the two characters' faces peeking out from either side of the TV screen, with not much of anything going on in the middle of the image).

Anonymous said...

Actually, Pacino and De Niro were never in the same frame in Heat even once in Heat, except when htey shake hands. That's why I felt ripped off. Plus Val Kilmer was in it way too much.

girish said...

Very interesting post.
Ford also liked to "cut in the camera" as a way of retaining maximum creative control. When time came for the film to be edited (as you pointed out, by editing supervisors and editors), there was only one way it could be put together.

Anonymous said...

Adding to girish's excellent post that Ford would have been wary not only of cutters and their supervisors but of the studio head -- it would be very hard for Darryl Zanuck, say, who was known for taking over the picture and cutting it to his satisfaction -- to fiddle with it. Although the style of Howard Hawks differs from Ford, he could also shoot his movie in such a way that very little could be altered afterward.

Jenny Lerew said...

GREAT post and observations.

I'd Tivoed "Drums Along the Mohawk" last week and was watching it last night(I've seen it numerous times, but not for a while); aside from the amusement I got from seeing Ford get as much Irish out of the Mohawk Valley settlers as humanly possible, I was continually stunned by his setups--the natural way the camera moves, the framing.

Ford gets talked bout rightfully as a master, genius, all the rest--all the time, but so often the focus is on the storytelling--that is, script and acting as controlled by the director. I mean, the point might be "Ford's POV" overall, in a general, emotional sense--technically, though, he just can't be touted TOO much for his genius understanding of the right setups, the right cuts--or NO cuts, as you point out. The cumulative effect is a wallop, even when the film isn't "The Searchers" but instead "Drums".
I personally REALLY miss longer takes.

Anonymous said...

If anyone buys or rents the DVD of Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane," they'll note that Steven Soderbergh, who produced, recut the picture and included his version on the DVD along with Kerrigan's. What would Ford have said?