by: Theo Rasmussen
It’s films like The Bourne Supremacy that have changed film audience’s perception of cinema. With an average shot length of 2.4 seconds, films such as that one have led to a recent trend of faster cuts, particularly in today’s Hollywood cinema. This change has gained a lot of attention and arguably has built up some resentment, just as other developments have caused controversy in the past (sound, 3D, color). It is not uncommon to hear this new fast paced style receive the blame for a lack of quality in today’s films. It has even sparked the notion, that somehow this new rapid pace was necessary in order to match a supposed decrease in our collective attention spans. However, music videos on MTV originally popularized the trend of quick cutting back in the 80’s. Were our attention spans already weakened then, even without the handheld devices that supposedly ravage our brain today? Was the MTV generation just being catered to? Or was a new artistic style emerging and coming to fruition on account of the popularization of music videos?
The average shot duration has unarguably decreased drastically since the early days of film; but why has it done so, and what does that say about film? Instead of solely examining the result and restating that longer takes are less frequent, one should look at what the cause of this might be. The argument that somehow computers have decreased the attention span of all human beings is an argument I am not buying — our brain has not devolved in 10 years just because the internet is popular now. Moreover, I am not willing to believe that the change in audience has influenced Hollywood’s decision making. Since when has Hollywood catered to what the audience wants? They’ve always been satisfied simply telling the audience what it prefers, not the other way around. It does not matter if the audience prefers longer takes, or shorter ones. Hollywood is telling its audience that it likes what it sees – that it wants these shorter takes.
However, the driving force behind this trend is not just one factor but several. Editing film has become incredibly easy and fast compared to the days of physically cutting celluloid. The ease of editing, as well as the current low cost of editing has allowed the editor more artistic control. In older films shots were sometimes longer not by choice, but by ease and by necessity. Who is to say that if the pioneers of film were given modern filmmaking tools they wouldn’t make their cuts drastically shorter? Not to mention the ease of stitching together shots instead of filming a complex and often costly sequence. Furthermore this “cheat” can arguably compel the audience more than the “real” way of filming a sequence. A good example of this is modern fist fights in movies compared to older films. The time spent on choreography can be eliminated by the use of quick flash cuts. This sometimes even creates a feeling far more impacting then traditional cuts. For example, the fight that comes off the strongest in the film Ip Man, where the main character battles ten other martial artists, contains the greatest number of takes and the fastest cuts. This films excellent use of quick cutting puts the audience in the intense mindset of the main character and comes off as one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Even in older films this style is present. A great example being the film Master of The Flying Guillotine which boasts short quick cuts that emphasize the action and confusion of fighting.
Whether you prefer faster or slower cutting it all comes down to personal preference and artistic decisions by the director and the editor. As this method is still relatively new, it is apparent there are many directors and editors experimenting with styles that were not formerly possible or practical. This mantra of the quick cut should be accepted as legitimate and its effects should be understood to a greater extent before being bashed on account of not adhering to “the way it’s always been.” It should be seen as a movement in film historically and analyzed in terms of the advent of greater technology, not blamed for a lack of “filmic integrity.” I believe even faster paced films are what’s to come from Hollywood. This style will be brought to its limit before a more balanced view of editing will be brought back as a trend in cinema.