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Bad Editing: Style for the Sake of Style

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#1 of 33 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted April 11 2005 - 05:14 PM

I just finished watching Tony Scott's Man on Fire, and I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by all the jump cuts, blurred shots, black and white flash frames, takes of undercranked coverage -- many months back we had a discussion here about film directors, who we thought was the greatest director working today. This type of filmmaking is exactly the sort of empty pyrotechnics masquerading as substance that sets apart artists like Scorsese and Eastwood, Spielberg and Tarantino. Every cut and every take in their films have specific meaning and purpose. In movies like Man on Fire or Bad Boys II, these types of gimmicks feel soulless. A chimpanzee banging away on an Avid is no more likely to produce great art than a chimpanzee banging away on a type-writer. And yet the overall effect of this type of editing style feels exactly like that -- as if the chief cutting strategy was to turn the camera dailies over to a monkey jacked up on Jolt cola and a few 8-balls. This is editorial style for the sake of style, cuts existing to feign artistry. They say nothing about the characters. They say nothing about the story. All they do is jerk you out of the moment and constantly remind you you're watching a movie. You're trying to pay attention to the moment, the editor is saying "Look at me!" and laying in 2 frame flashbacks and black and white slow-mo footage ... for no narrative or thematic purpose. It reminds me of a time I was mixing a live band in a theater in LA for a benefit. The drummer was beating the living hell out of his drums, which was probably needed if he was playing in an open-air park, but not in a small indoor setting. You don't BEAT the drums, you PLAY the drums. That's the difference between an artist with talent and insight to his or her craft -- and a hack. Same thing with empty editorial gimmicks. You don't edit like crazy just because you can, you edit to tell a story, and to give the audience specific information at a specific time. You don't cut a movie, you edit a movie. I remember seeing Oliver Stone's JFK and being knocked-out by the editing. The gigantic difference between a film like JFK and some more recent films is that the editing in Stone's ground-breaking opus related volumes of key information while also expressing and supporting the key themes of the film (especially paranoia). We're very far away from JFK in some modern films, I even question Oliver Stone's editorial techniques of late, although he's such a mad poet, I always give him the benefit of the doubt. I trust his eccentricities of late mean something to *him*, even if they aren't always immediately clear to us. Films cut like Man on Fire are pale shadows of JFK or Nixon. They feel like a director trying to pretend that he or she is actually saying something. The only thing that movie is saying to me is "We went crazy with the Avid trying to pretend that this is an art film". There are many, many great directors with a strong sense of personal style expressed through their editorial choices, but what makes these people great is their fierce control and assurance over their frame. Every cut, every camera move has explicit and direct purpose. Compared to the lean efficiency and precision of an Eastwood film, or the whip-crack intelligence of a Scorsese film, movies that express style for the sake of style with no substance behind their editorial tricks feel exactly like what they are -- a lie.

#2 of 33 OFFLINE   Kyle_D


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Posted April 11 2005 - 05:56 PM

If the gimmicks in Man on Fire annoyed you that much, I'd recommend staying away from the trailer to Scott's upcoming Domino Posted Image Looks like it's going to be at least twice as over the top.

#3 of 33 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted April 11 2005 - 06:09 PM

It's not just Man on Fire -- empty blipvert editing has migrated from MTV and ad campaigns into the movies. When used for a story that has nothing to do with such erratic rhythms, this style is a shell without a tortoise.

#4 of 33 OFFLINE   Paul_Scott


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Posted April 11 2005 - 06:33 PM

i have to wonder how much of that style is an outgrowth of the way current (younger) generations are interfacing with media compared to how we 'oldsters' did. for instance, kids today are growing up in an environment where instant access to information is as natural as sunlight in summer. video games are ubiquitous and are predominently 'quick' reaction vehicles. people today exist in a media saturated/overloaded, jacked up world- just like the world i grew up in was a lot faster than for someone coming out of the 50s, etc. i'm not saying that the majority of hyper kinetic cutting is not the result of just hack copycatting- but there is a (growing?) segment of the audience that actually responds positively to this nano-second strobing of visual information- so much so that i have to question if its an outgrowth of something else...

#5 of 33 OFFLINE   Steve Felix

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Posted April 11 2005 - 06:35 PM

Coming into this thread I was afraid it was going to be another Bourne Supremacy slam. I agree about Man on Fire, but that Domino trailer is so crazy I actually like it.Posted Image

It's okay when movies go all the way with the concept and become somewhat abstract. Man on Fire is basically shot like a normal movie, though, and then roughed up in post, so it feels superficial (because it is). The technique obscures themes rather than adding to them as it would in a film that is jumpy to the core.
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#6 of 33 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted April 11 2005 - 06:51 PM

people today exist in a media saturated/overloaded, jacked up world- just like the world i grew up in was a lot faster than for someone coming out of the 50s, etc. Sure, and in films like 21 Grams, Amorres Perros, Eternal Sunshine, hell -- even choice moments of The Butterfly Effect -- the techniques are warranted given the subject matter and general expression, and they fit hand-in-glove. Using that style for Man on Fire was a mistake, because it has nothing to do with that story, and all it does is distract and obfuscate.

#7 of 33 OFFLINE   Paul_Scott


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Posted April 11 2005 - 06:58 PM

i was going to mention it but thought the better of it. on paper i could appreciate it- even applaud it("its to put you into the chaos of the moment, etc, etc) but in practice i found it very oft putting- very much contrary to what it was supposed to do- i became more of a passive observer in those moments, than i did when the camera work and editing was unobtrusive. a few days later i was watching The Set-Up and listening to the commentary and they address just this issue in the opening

#8 of 33 OFFLINE   Chris Woodard

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Posted April 11 2005 - 09:58 PM


#9 of 33 OFFLINE   Chuck Mayer

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Posted April 12 2005 - 12:37 AM

The editing in Man on Fire worked for me. The film probably would have worked for me with a more traditional editing job, but it didn't take away from the film either. I'm no fan of quick cuts and "MTV" style editing, but in the hands of a skilled director, it can be effective. There isn't a "RIGHT" way to edit. I certainly understand that many folks had a beef with Man on Fire's editing and directorial flourishes. I did not. They felt right in tune with the themes and emotional landscape of the film. That said, I also consider Man on Fire one of the best films I saw last year. Take care, Chuck
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#10 of 33 OFFLINE   JamieD


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Posted April 12 2005 - 12:51 AM

Grumpy old man. Lovely editorial there. Perhaps Andy Rooney could use some submissions. In case you can't guess, I completely disagree. Oh well.
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#11 of 33 OFFLINE   Andy Sheets

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Posted April 12 2005 - 01:13 AM

Annoyed? Hell, I know someone who's mildly epileptic and she got a stabbing headache every time the film freaked out. We still thought it was a well-played movie in many other respects but it was a definitely a pain in the ass to watch.

#12 of 33 OFFLINE   David Rogers

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Posted April 12 2005 - 03:02 AM

I would disagree very strongly with the complaint against Bad Boys II. Bay is the whipping boy for folks who hate newer styles of editing that don't focus on ten and twenty second shots, but Bay is also a visual master at telling a story very stylishly. This post has nothing to do with the content of Bay's films (which range from exciting and fun to vapid and uninspired), but only with his style of filmmaking. Quick cuts can be very distracting ... WHEN they are what is being used to *create* the action. What do I mean when I talk about "creating action via quick cuts?" Simple. Properly done stunts and chorography should, whenever safe for the performer(s), actually show the stunt or chorography as it occurs. This means the action was actually done and filmed. This means the action was NOT created during the editing process by showing one cut of an actor pulling his leg back for a kick, another cut showing some sort of kick, then another cut showing the target 'reacting' to the kick, and then another cut showing the actor recovering heroicly from the kick. Some bad and recent examples of using cuts to create the action would include Bulletproof Monk and The Rundown, but they're far from the only offenders. The problem I think most people have with quick-cut is that a lot of copycat directors do it SOOOOOOO poorly. When done well, quick-cut is a great technique that can add energy and emphasis to a film sequence, keeps’ the audience’s attention focused in clever ways amid a large expansive scene, and makes a movie better. Like any technique, there's a time and a place to use it, and also a way to go about it. Should a wedding scene have quick-cuts; hell no. What about a court room drama, probably not. But what about a car chase ... maybe. What about during a fight, or a war front battle? Again, maybe. But like anything else, it comes down to how you use it. If you use digital bluescreen technology like Lucas does in Star Wars, yes, it makes it look like a stupid technique that's ruining film. If, however, you're Kerry Collins (Sky Captain) or Robert Rodriquez (Sin City), using extensive bluescreens makes you look like a genius! Nothing's wrong with railing about quick-cuts, or about railing against the use in unsuitable places (really, other than action / effects flicks, not sure quick-cut is all that well placed), but I think the expression goes "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." Or, if you will, "one man's 'oh no' is another's 'oh yeah!'"

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#13 of 33 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted April 12 2005 - 03:50 AM

But I do think this hyper-editing does have it's place... given the right, I don't know... attitude. You edit to tell a story, and to give an audience specific information at a specific time. Oliver Stone calls his style "vertical editing" as opposed to linear editing, because he's expanding a moment in time. There's nothing wrong with that style, unless that style has nothing to do with the subject matter. It works for JFK and Nixon, I don't think it would work for The Sound of Music or The Remains of the Day. Smash-cuts work great in a film like Eternal Sunshine, so well, in fact, one feels like the movie couldn't have been told any other way. The editing style feels imposed on Man on Fire, it is not organic to the material, and that's the crux of the issue. It's style for its own sake and the audience has to fight the editing to watch the movie. Instead of being used as a narrative tool or to give us information, the editing style interferes with the narrative, and gives us information we already have.

#14 of 33 OFFLINE   Quentin



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Posted April 12 2005 - 04:36 AM

Correct. The main question at hand is, is the style/editing in service to the story? If it isn't, it is excessive. If it is, then I don't care how many boundaries it is breaking (JFK) because it makes the story and film better. I love 'Man on Fire'. Ranked it top 10 and have watched it several times. However, it is definitely NOT because of the editing/style so much as despite it. I do think SOME of it works during the 'path of revenge' part of the film - using the tweaked sub-titles and other stylistic tools adds to the tension/energy of that section. But, Scott definitely went too far. We'll see how 'Domino' looks... Watch 'Adaptation' and enjoy how Spike changes technique 2/3 of the way in, when Donald starts re-writing the film. I actually think he could have gone even bigger - I once suggested Michael Bay should have directed the last third of the film. But, the two styles are in service to the tone and theme and STORY.

#15 of 33 OFFLINE   Haggai



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Posted April 12 2005 - 06:08 AM

What exactly do you mean by "smash-cut"? I haven't heard that term before. You could just give an example or two from Eternal Sunshine, which I also know and love (as per my current sig).

#16 of 33 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted April 12 2005 - 06:20 AM

Smash-cut...a jarring and sudden edit or group of edits that hit you unexpectedly and with force. Phrase derived from the "smash-mouth" style of play in American football.

#17 of 33 OFFLINE   Haggai



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Posted April 12 2005 - 06:22 AM

OK, I see what you mean. Plenty of that in Eternal Sunshine.

#18 of 33 OFFLINE   Rob Pritchard

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Posted April 12 2005 - 08:04 AM

Yes, I'd agree with Ernest. What he says applies to an awful lot of movies I've had to endure over the last decade. I haven't yet seen Man on Fire but I had a similar reaction watching The Mothman Prophecies, a movie so incoherent I don't even want to think about the two hours I wasted watching it. Part of my reaction, I'm sure, is to do with age. I'm 42 and I'm sure I'd have had a much easier time with this stuff if I was a cinematically illiterate 17 year old. At least then I could have wallowed in my ignorance, happy at the pretty pictures, the flashy editing and blissfully untroubled by the lack of story, theme and character. However, given that I'm no longer 17 I find that movies like Armageddon or Van Helsing actually make me want to give the director a good kicking. To coin a line much used by action heroes, 'I'm too old for this shit!' At any rate it's interesting how refreshing it feels catching a movie by a director like Eastwood or Tarantino. With those guys you know you're not going to be pulled out of the movie by stupid editing tricks or pointlessly flashy camerawork. But most of all you know you've got a director who will put his talent towards telling the story. An obvious problem with the likes of Tony Scott and others is that their grab bag of editing tricks amounts to practically a substitute for the story. Btw, I know it's not a popular choice amongst some but I'd place George Lucas alongside QT, Clint and the others. He may not have much of an ear for dialogue but I think he's a criminally underrated director/editor.

#19 of 33 OFFLINE   andrew markworthy

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Posted April 12 2005 - 08:27 AM

I'm confused - are we complaining about hyper-fast cuts for a relatively brief part of a movie done for a specific effect, or the generally shorter intervals between cuts typical of directors weaned on adverts and pop videos? I don't have too much problem with the former, but the latter drives me up the wall. People with attention deficit disorder need treatment, not films cut to a pace that will keep them concentrating in a movie theater whilst anyone with an IQ higher than a pot plant is being given a headache from the constant jump cuts with absolutely no bearing to the pacing of the action. Can you imagine the opening of The Godfather or the well scene in Laurence of Arabia given the current rapid editing treatment? By the time the Don had begun to give his reply or Omar Sharif had arrived at the well, we'd have had a hundred different cuts and probably a techno soundtrack inserted in case some poor darling didn't find the visuals enticing enough.

#20 of 33 OFFLINE   Ryan L. Bisasky

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Posted April 12 2005 - 08:31 AM

I also hate when critics take some crap mtv style action movie with alot of blood and gore, and then portray it as "Tarantinoesqe"
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