I was watching an episode of a multi–Emmy Award-winning TV series. There was this scene in the middle of the episode in which the mother character goes inside her 6-year-old son’s room to give him a piece of very important and emotional news. When you watch such a scene, you expect to feel some emotion as an audience. But in this case, when the scene was over, I felt nothing, no feeling whatsoever. I understood everything the characters said and what happened in the scene, but I did not feel any emotion.
This lack of feeling annoyed me so much that a few minutes later, I paused the film and started thinking about it. I went back to the scene and watched the whole thing one more time. The acting was excellent, the writing had all the emotional beats, and the cinematography and editing looked very clean and professional. So why did it not make me feel anything? I couldn’t let it go. As a filmmaker, I must understand why something is not working, even if it’s only for me.
I grabbed a pen and paper and put down a dot for each time a cut happened. When the scene was over, I counted the dots; Fifty-four cuts and seven camera setups for two minutes forty-two seconds scene — an average of one cut every three seconds for a scene between two characters in a room. I found out that whenever an emotional story beat was expressed before my brain could register the emotional impact that the actors were displaying on the screen, the filmmaker cut away without giving my brain enough time to sink in those emotions. So, although I got the scene’s story information to follow the plot, I was emotionally confused. I did not have enough time to create empathy for the characters.
Then I asked myself how much time is enough time for a shot? Of course, the filmmaker should find the answer to this question in the dark editing room in collaboration with her/his editor, but I believe a few things can be said on the subject.
So, what is the value of a moving image?
A scene consists of one or a series of shots. Whatever the characteristics of a scene are, each shot should contain one or a few of the scene’s qualities. Each scene can have up to three elements: Pushing the plot, character development, or adding to the film’s style. Each shot in the scene can convey any of these three qualities by giving the audience information. The amount of time each shot requires can be determined by what kind of information the shot contains. Is the shot shot-making a plot point or tries to add to the tone? If, for example, the shot only tries to convey “George entered the room,” we most likely would cut right after the shot demonstrated that information. If the shot just adds to the film’s tone, like a landscape shot, a shot of the clouds, or the neon sign of a supermarket, the overall tempo of the scene most likely deciding factor of the cut’s timing. The most significant kind of information that a shot can contain is emotions, primarily by shooting the actors and capturing their eyes. This kind of shot requires the most time. It takes time for the brain to process every information coming beforehand to comprehend that specific shot’s importance or to understand the moment deeply. This is the nature of emotions, even in real life.
The critical issue here is that the nature of the scene determines the tempo of a scene. If the scene placement is wrong, then the rhythm feels all over the place. And if the scene is cut with the wrong tempo, it would fail at what that scene sets to achieve. The scene can cut wrongly by giving the shots not enough time or giving the shots too much time.
One of the side effects of thinking about each shot’s value is to giving extra importance to the cut itself. This way, each cut becomes a statement. Cuts become an added value to the film’s vision and idea, not just a default feature of film-making. Cut can be a dagger right through the heart of the audience. And it should be. It is one of the tools that make a motion picture a cinematic experience. That’s why the lack of it can be an announcement of its own.
If a filmmaker detracts a motion picture from its core values, all we are left with is a plot. One can read a plot in a newspaper, or a tweet, or on the Wikipedia page. The creative choices the filmmakers make separate them from others. As much as many people like to highlight the importance of taste in filmmaking and art in general, it is essential to remember that taste may be the last and maybe the minor portion of a piece of art, especially if we try to talk about a work intelligently. A good filmmaker can shot a chair in an empty room and make something profoundly beautiful out of it.
Going back to the award-winner TV show that inspired this article, the same issue insisted throughout the episode. The action sequences were thrilling, and emotional scenes lacked any real heart. Although the show talked about a crucial and urgent social issue, I stopped watching the show altogether. I can read much more profound and better books on the subject which I did.
If a motion picture is not working on the cinematic values, it is only a lengthy Facebook post, just a costly one.