Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dissecting a Sequence From "The Dark Knight"

A friend sent me a link to this video, which is great. In it, Jim Emerson, a film writer and critic, breaks down a sequence from "The Dark Knight" and explains why he finds it confusing. It's a great primer on screen direction and the 180 degree rule, and why those things are important.

In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

When the audience is confused and disoriented, they start to use their brains to try and decipher what's going on, rather than to engage with your movie and care about what's happening onscreen. In an action sequence it's particularly important to keep your audience absolutely clear about where all the characters, vehicles and landmarks are in relation to each other. Otherwise, there's no tension or drama.


Michael said...

Hi Mark. I greatly enjoy your blog. However, the sort of breakdown Emerson gets into here is sophistry, I think. The sequence he is referencing is propulsive and exciting. Clearly, based on the success of the film and the high esteem in which the vast majority of viewers hold it (two frequently exclusive things, cf. any Transfomers film!) the audience did not find it too confusing or bewildering. Neither, I imagine, did the fastidious Nolan or his editor Lee Smith. Speaking as an editor myself, I can tell you rules get broken all the time in editorial no matter how carefully a sequence was shot. That carefully staged action sequence that looked great on boards and was shot following every rule in the book will often bore you stiff once it's cut together!

I always find risible these dissections of scenes that "don't work" only when they're dissected or pored over multiple viewings. When you're editing a film you are never, ever, ever building a sequence wondering if it will hold up to the scrutiny of a hundred viewings. Quite the contrary -- your practice is to continually attempt to look at the film as if for the first and only time, every time you view it. Your JOB is to make that first viewing an experience that meets the director's vision of how he wishes to make an audience feel, not to worry about how it will measure up when the fanboys, film nerds and bloggers run it on Blu-ray 30 times.

What I do value are analyses like your own trenchant examination of the flying wing scene in Raiders. What is of much more use to me in a discussion of this scene from TDK is discussing why, despite breaking the rules as it does, was it so effective for just about everyone except Jim Emerson? I haven't read every single review of the film, but I am hard pressed to recall any complaint about this scene amidst the general chorus of critical hosannas which greeted it, or indeed amongst my own circle of cynical and hard-to-please filmmaker friends.

In any case, thanks as ever for your valuable insights (Mr. Emerson's less-valuable ones notwithstanding).

Michael said...

I'd like to add -- a great example of a film not making a good first impression (in the sense I referred to) in exactly the sense you cite (screen direction, geography, etc) is the truly awful pre-credit sequence in "Quantum of Solace." Two black sedans in a car chase against a largely featureless landscape does not make for a scene where one can easily follow the stakes. When I first saw it in the theater I was utterly baffled, and I am an ardent Bond fan. Sadly, it was not the only horrible staged, confusingly cut sequence in one of the worst Bonds of the series.

joscha said...

Hey Mark, thanks for the link. That is a real thorough analysis from this sequence. These days I often feel that too many action sequences rely on a frantic editing pace that is just confusing. I think it comes from the last two Bourne films, although I do believe that the popularity of this editing style comes from some misconception.

The films of Paul Greengrass feel very real, at times almost like a documentary. His fast pace of editing is combined with almost confused camera work, at times it is almost like the camera doesn’t know what just happened and tries to keep up. (Kirill shooting Bourne near the ending of Supremacy is a good example) my point is that the film might look confused but –at least to me- it is never confusing.

This confused style of filmmaking sits well within a film that looks and feels like a documentary. But when a film gets as big as the Dark Knight (and there are enough other exampes) it feels out of place. An important part what makes those Bourne films so cool it that they feel like independent Euro thrillers made with a modest budget. (something that is not at all the truth)

Rodney Baker said...

It sure would be nice to get a peak at the storyboards for that sequence... assuming there are any.

While exciting, the sequence just doesn't appear to have been planned very well.

Michael says: "When you're editing a film you are never, ever, ever building a sequence wondering if it will hold up to the scrutiny of a hundred viewings." This then is surely the greater error.

clarkkers said...

That's a pretty insightful video. I don't anything about film editing, but I did learn something. At first it seems like he was lampooning the film, but he makes some good points.

Julie said...

I watched the video and there were definitely points I agreed with, but others I was less sure about. In particular, is it sometimes more beneficial to use the comic-book editing over the 3D editing? What I mean is that you cross over the 180º line for the sake of continuing a motion like they did with Harvey Dent when the van got rammed. They have him on the wrong side, but it flows better with the motion than it would if they had him on the proper side?

Maybe it comes down to what works the best within a sequence. I can certainly see cases where editing for the screen might be more useful than editing for space and vice versa. It's a bit of a duality that you're editing shots that are three dimensional in terms of space, but you also have to consider what they're doing on a two dimensional surface. I'd love to hear your thought on this.

Pete Spence said...

Thanks for posting, I found that quite enlighting.

I remember feeling frustrated and confused in the cinema over what actually happened in that sequence. Its reassuring to see analysis that confirms that it has issues and I'm not just struggling to keep up with the eratic fast editing.

Back on the sofa rewatching the film on dvd my partner and me laughed about the reappearing cop cars. It makes the tunnel part of that sequence suprisingly unsatisfying and almost strung out to teduim.

It's to the Dark Knight's credit that the rest of the films strong elements overshadow this less coherent action.

mark kennedy said...

Michael - Personally, I believe that one of the keys to a good action sequence is to orient the audience as to the geography, so that when a gun is being fired we know exactly who he is directing the bullets toward, or when a character is looking over his shoulder, we know who he is looking towards, etc. There can be no tension (in my mind) when the audience doesn't know who is in jeopardy.
Also, in my experience, I would say that this is even more important in animation than it is in live-action, because when we watch real actors in real environments we know it's real and we orient animation, the backgrounds and environments are all fake and it quickly gets disorienting and confusing.

I like "The Dark Knight" as a film and when I saw it, this sequence didn't stick out as sloppy to me. But I think this analysis is pretty apt and that the sequence could be more disciplined. And because I believe people should know the rules before they try to break them, this is a good video for people who are new to (or unfamiliar with) cutting and screen direction.

I agree with you that sometimes the most well-plotted sequence with great screen direction can be dull. There are several great sequences in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that I would recommend to anyone, because the screen direction and screen space are consistent for the most part, and when it's not consistent, there's a good reason and it's cheated the right way.

Thanks for writing and adding to the discussion...I get your point and it's a good one. I don't even remember the scene form "Quantum" you are talking about but that whole film seemed like a mess, if I remember.

joscha - I agree with you about frantic cuts being a substitute for well plotted action. I'm not actually a big fan of the rapid cutting of the second and third Bourne films, although I liked the first quite a bit.

Rodney - you know, it's we edit together sequences in animation, we end up watching them hundreds of time, of course. I think most live action editors and directors do too. I think Michael makes a good point that a sequence needs to serve the larger film and not every sequence needs to be a course on perfect editing, but I thought this one was particularly sloppy in it's editing. Thanks for the comment!

clarkkers - glad you enjoyed the post1

Julie - there are some great sequences from films that do a great job of being consistent with their screen direction for the most part, and that change the screen direction when they need to to get a certain shot or story point across. The truck chase in "Raiders" is the best example I can think of, off the top of my head...I don't believe in being a slave to perfect screen direction, I believe in sticking to it as much as you can but being free to shift it when it makes for a better movie.

Pete - that's how I feel too: I liked the film overall and I'm surprised that the film actually contains these kind of choices. Like Jim says on the video, I don't get too bothered by continuity errors (like disappearing cop cars) but it still shows a sign of sloppiness and poor planning. But that stuff happens. Frankly, I'm more bothered by choices like all the closeups that happen where you don't have a wider shot first to give context you and orient you as to what is happening to whom.

She-Thing said...

Hi Mark.

thank you so much for sharing this. This, makes me me much more conscious on how to storytell geographics. I need this for everything I want to draw. Thank you.
The one of the Raider's Ark is also great analysis and I would like to know more. I've been always saying to people, that Spielberg is not THAT amazing because he's constantly using cliché pieces to tell you a story. I have no problem with that, but I want to know WHY everybody says he's a good director. Loads of people use clichés. But they can make a movie come out right. In the Incredibles, or even better, th Iron Giant is based on specific moments in time and moves itself in parody like, even if they're no intentional jokes, like The Simpsons do with "Dr. Zaius" with planet of the Apes, or the surf music used to parody Batman the 60's series. They are quiet documentations but hommage/paroy at the same time. Even so, even if they are cliches, there is some heart in the right moment, in the right scene. i feel that in the "sohisticated" world (ha, I don't like much that word, but anyway) he is just in the first step. He has this need to scream or cry his emotions in a superficial way.
Everyone has a sepcific way to say something. But why, Spielberg who everybody seem to admire, is such a unique person?
Everybody says he's fantastic, I say he's quite superficial to express or to tell something even if he uses such and such technique.

i'd highly appreciate any feedback, because, after all I'm in my 20's, it doesn't mean I know EVERYTHING already. Besos and thank you for reading.

InuXela said...

Hello! Thank you very much for posting this (sorry for my english).
Maybe a silly question, but can it be possible that the director have tried to use these rule-breaking shots to provide connection between an audience and those charachters, who's being confused by susprise attack, who is not certain yet about what's happening and how will it all end?
Wouldn't it be that the whole scene will look like more "pro-jocker" predator-pray chase if the shots were made in consistent way?

Adam Temple said...

While Emerson points out some swell points of interest for anyone of the craft, I also feel as though he's slapping it with his experience and not reading it as Michael would suggest. Watching this stuff for the first time in a long time, I am still just fine with the majority of these cuts, and actually applaud some of the devices Emerson completely disregards. I can't claim to a lot of experience in this stuff, but I find myself dissagreeing with Emerson dramatically aswell. He seems not to get what Nolan is going for a lot of the time, which may also be Nolan's fault, yes, but if I can see it, and I'm not justifying work I know intimately, then why can't he? Always interesting to hear it broken down though :) Thanks for posting!

Holijay said...

Interesting. I suppose he makes some good points but somehow my fairly young eyes are accustom to the chaos.

I am interested in what he would say about tintin, a movie that lacks many cuts and feels extremely lifeless and boring because of it.