Breaking down the shots list should be the filmmaker’s moment, where her/his vision is distributed over shots to create a cohesive story. In the last few years though, filmmaking has become an exercise in camera movements, CGI, unnecessary cuts to create the illusion of action, or lack of decision.
We’re back to a wallpaper filmmaking style that makes it hard to perceive neither the personality nor the intention of the filmmaker. By the way this filmmaking style has a name: Dumptruck Directing
Video essayist Tony Zhou has been consistently mentioning this through his past work, from the decline of comedy and action films to the absence of movements within a frame, which was a sort of prequel to today’s video.
Looking back at Zhou’s work, a large part of his videos are dedicated to showing the work of directors that use the frame as a space that is alive.
His latest video takes a closer look at ensemble staging, one of the hardest exercise in filmmaking because it takes a lot of thinking from the filmmaker, a lot of prepping and staging (budget!!! time!!!) on set, and finally a lot of guts. One thing goes wrong: you got to do it again.
Zhou uses Bong Joon-Ho Memories of Murder to deconstruct how a filmmaker can direct the audience’s attention, create emphasis within a frame, and add layers to the story without using a cut.
Here are the points he make, but it goes without saying that you should watch the full video below.
How to Create Narrative Emphasis Without Using a Cut
- Use audio: our attention naturally goes to whomever is speaking or is spoken to.
- Use lighting: emphasize who matters the most by putting her/him closer to the light source
- Use the lens: ditto
- Use movement: again, Zhou made a whole video about the 5 types of movements Kurosawa used to capture the audience’s attention within a “crowded” frame. Kurosawa being one of the masters at ensemble staging. You can pick his brain in this amazing masterclass.
- Use the center of the frame: I would actually tweak this one and say use the frame’s layers. Whether in 2D or 3D. The essay about Cuaron’s use of background in Children of Men, and Nicolas Winding Refn use of the Quadrant System provide additional examples of how the frame can layers of information.
- Use the actors’ body position to the lens: I love this one and it’s probably one of the most challenging and exciting one for both actors and filmmakers. Playing with how an actor will position his body toward the camera will send a subtle signal to the audience as to whether they should pay attention to him or not. It requires nailing placement, timing, pace, but isn’t it what filmmaking is about…
- Use subtle camera movements: last but not least, camera movements will help cut without cutting. Seems obvious but again, it asks a much higher level of synergy between all departments, from the DOP to the actors, than simply filming one actor delivering his lines, and cutting to the next one.
The great benefit of ensemble staging is that it puts the characters within a world and gives a vision of the said world that is very similar to the one we live in.
We see the world through wide shots, with elements in the corners, background and foreground we decide to assimilate or ignore to edit our own story.
Cinema provides the ability to narrow the shots and influence the visual and auditive inputs to tell a subjective story, but Zhou’s video reminds us that there are many ways this can be done without using a cut.
If you enjoy this topic and would like to dive in a bit more, I’d also recommend you to read David Bordwell’s article on the same topic: Modest Virtuosity: a plea to filmmakers old and young.