transitions: the space between

Something that is missing in movies over the past quarter century is attention to the scene transition. The cut between one scene and another bridges the narrative between the two conjoining chapters yet modern cinema seriously undervalues the importance of this process. Often times a second unit production crew will film some aerial shots of a car driving from A to B or the editor will use a lazy wipe to express a change of scene. This is simply not good enough. Not only does the correct use of contrast in editing make the change smoother and well paced but it echoes the change in tone and setting also. Fortunately there are several leaders in this field who have articulated the space between scenes better than anyone else. This being a positive blog the focus will be on the aspirational goals directors should have in this regard. The point is – don’t undervalue the transition.

Let’s begin with the most prolifically engaging user of scene transitions – Edgar Wright. The snappy montages between scenes have a visceral and sensory explicitness which show the steps between the scenes using close-ups and aspect shots. Take his second installment of the Cornetto Trilogy – Hot Fuzz. As Nicholas Angel moves from London to the small village town of Sanford quick cuts are used with a focus on aspect shots flipping between the high phone signal of the city to the lower signal of the more remote countryside, between evening and night, between the rural and urban taxi sign and between the tube and the country train as Angel makes his journey.  This helps to convey the exhaustion of the journey, the movement into unfamiliar territory and the notion that Nicholas is moving unaware into a unfamiliar setting veiled by his preconceptions. Moreover, Wright uses very quick cuts in sound editing to emphasise this as the rain on the taxi roof is repeated, the beeping on his phone is repeated as is the rush of the train in such a way as that we are quickly informed on what we can expect from this transition and be highlighted on the fish out of water vibe Wright is conveying.

Jump to later in the film Wright uses a similar technique to create a manic subjective feel. His hand opens a locker, flips over a page in his log, makes an entry in his log, opens the locker again, hangs his uniform coat. Beat for beat each snap shot has a quick piece of sound and a zoom to label each one as an action leading to the punchline in which Danny Butterman says ‘Dunno, pub?’ while spraying deodorant in a diagonal motion to demonstrate a quick cut between night and day that feels fresh and helps to reflect the contemplative face of Angel at the beginning of this cut as the monotonous regimented series of actions are relieved by the suggestion of going to the pub in a light comic relief that grabs his searching mind lightly and comically.

These kinds of cuts are fantastic because they help with the story and subversively have a narrative of their own. Wright diverges from this style in Scott Pilgrim in which he uses clever wipes to transition between scenes and time periods. the foreground is used to wipe like a comic book panel between these settings creatively so as to give the viewer an impression, whether it is Scott’s boredom or a fourth wall breaking ‘Get’s it’ wipes Wright deserves recognition. One transition stands out in particular for me is kicked off by Anna Kendrick looking across the split screen toward Scott as they talk on the phone indicating the transition of the movement. This is a nice set -up which lays the way for a realisation by Scott as well as a visual conclusion. The camera dollies to the right and uses the sofa as a wipe to the visual brrrrr of the school bell in the following scene so as to set up an expectation for the scene and to act as a metaphor for the realisation in Scott’s mind. The transition explains a motive. Furthermore Wright uses identical shot-reverse shots across several montages to mimic the neediness of  Scott’s girlfriend. Another technique is used in which a quick cut finishes the dialogue – as Scott explains he will see her at a place the camera quickly cuts to the name of the place to create a feeling of seamlessness and to underline the qualities of the place he is asking to meet her at. The list goes on – Wright never misses an opportunity for a carefully thought out scene transition.

James Cameron mastered his own subtle approach with the use of hooks in Titanic. He mirrors two similar things to bridge the scenes and sew together the most distant elements whether in terms of time or space. For example, in shot A Jack’s friend holds a fishbowl with a goldfish and asks ‘so you want to go to a real party?’ and then in shot B the camera draws back from a close up of another goldfish in a fishbowl to a party on deck with Rose dancing to lively Irish music. The transition appears as a flag planted in each scene as a warning which asks you to compare, observe and signal the two scenes so as that the viewer contrasts the film’s two protagonists and is stimulated into observing class and character differences. Cameron switches between the two periods in which the film is set using the helm of the ship as the camera pans toward and away from something towards the transition to and from the sunken and operational ship to mark the sinking of the ship as the pinnacle of the film’s major struggle. In doing so the viewer moves between an objective and subjective perspective as the class struggles and inequalities are pulled through. This transition vocalizes the irrelevance of the film’s key event and shifts the focus toward the film’s key theme – the ugliness and lure of how people act under extreme pressure. Cameron delivers a maxim reminiscent of Socrates in which he pontificates that it is essential to know oneself. The quick cuts between time and space set up contrasts in our mind so that we can have our expectations of humanity be undermined by the actions of those we trust in the films narrative arc. We see everybody’s untamed animalistic instinct as they scramble for life and the aspiration for something better in Jack and Rose’s relationship through the cleverly constructed scene cuts.

Kubrick focuses on a more metaphoric approach to his scene cuts and transitions in such a way that is more an isolated comment on the film’s core question than adding to already constructed narratives. In 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick created a classic transitional visual hook as the camera switches from a flying bone to a similarly shaped space station, bridging thousands of years from one to the next. This transition makes a statement on the aggressiveness of evolution while communicating how grounded by our instinctive old brain we remain. The central question which the film posits is whether man can expand his mind beyond the reaches of artificial intelligence and remain human. Kubrick breaks the 180 rule by starting with a sweeping shot centred on the bone to a floating ship to almost suggest in a jarring manner the pivotal nature of this scene. We link man’s first weapon to his most recent to underline the destructive nature of man as well as the beauty in the violent turmoil of discovery and the invasion of space.

The Shining is a fantastic example of the jumpcut. As the scene transitions from Jack lying defeated in the hotel’s maze to his head frozen with an obscene expression we come to realise that we have been imprisoned in his compulsive and violent search for approval within himself. Kubrick makes a final statement in this nauseating expression, driven to madness by his own self deprecation Jack is determined in death even after his death. The intentional lack of windows removes the viewers access to the outside world and the passing of time in such a way as that this last transition is able to delineate the turmoil. We come to the edge of his descent in shot A and then in shot B we are left with the aftertaste by the surprisingly off pacing and vivid contrast.

Director’s such as Ridley Scott recognise the additional benefit of a creative cut when marking the transition between the imagined and subjective from the real and from the external to the internal perhaps demonstrated never better than Gladiator. Throughout the film the use of colour feels natural and time dependent as the greys and blues of twilight battle move to the ashes and oranges of Rome however Scott diverges from this approach to differentiate between the real and imagined. As Maximus loses consciousness over blood loss in the arena we see the camera focus in on his bloodied hand as it reaches seemingly nowhere. This limp hand opens the imaginary door to his home village which is coloured in extreme desaturation. The effect of this is to emphasise his deteriorating consciousness, to mark the boundary between the real and imagined as well as to surprise the viewer from the previously more grounded cinematographic and editing approach.  The breaking of this rule as well as the 180 flip creates a longing sense of distance and sorrow. The contrast in colour between his door and the handle, his foreground and the imagined foreground as well as the mismatch between his limp hand and the door opening in front of him internalises this pivotal moment.

Lesser known director Jay Rosch built the foundation for the comedy cuts scene in Team America, Anchorman and Spy as a form of visual comedy in his film Austin Powers. He alternates between different countries and places as one person asks another about the giant phallic image in the sky using a series of breaks between the cuts just before they use the expletive to the start of another piece of dialogue centred around the phallic theme in such a way as that it is instantly hilarious. Rosch adopts a series of shots looking down or moving toward the subject to create a fluidity to the joke that keeps the pace and maintains a freshness. The contrast between the different contexts is reflected by the photography and cuts in such a way that changes the joke to a more quippy naked gun vibe. This approach levels the expectation in each new cut to give the joke an auditory, visual and dialogue based acrobatic nature.

If we recognise the trend of great directors we might come to the conclusion that a great transition is a component in a great director. Similarly, in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan we see a visionary director in the comfort of his own field. During the first scene a veteran visits the grave of a fallen comrade from the Omaha beach landings invasion of France. As the camera focuses on the man’s strained expression we hear the rushing of water over sand as the scene is set for the landing itself. Utilising sound before queuing visuals indicates the sensory memory of this sound and prioritisation of memories as they float to the forefront of his consciousness. This also plants a lie to be later subverted over the course of the film as to the man’s identity. On reflection it is the old man’s guilt that the transition is focusing in on. As he imagines the struggles of those that came to save him he recalls this chronologically starting with the journey to the silent beach all but for the sound of the coursing sea.

Spielberg build’s on this image of scene transition proficiency in Tin-Tin. This film, in it’s essence, is about the multi-continent adventure of a young detective, his dog and sea-captain sidekick. Spielberg tries to capture every aspect of an adventure, from the cross-city conflict in Bagghar Morocco swooping between buildings and towers, to the swooping yellow plane threading it’s way through the eye of a thunderstorm Tin-Tin breathes life into the adventurous exploratory adventure with a fantastic balance of suspense and high stakes action pieces in such a way that the changes in scene must match the tempo. There are three examples of this. Firstly, when Captain Haddock is rowing the boat through the South China Sea the camera pans out to reveal his rowing in a puddle which is stepped on promptly by a Thompson twin in such a way which is aesthetically pleasing and that reflects the scale of their isolation. The transition of the scene is intensely engaging and links together the Thompson sub-plot cleverly. The distance felt by the viewer and the explicitness of the spectatorship as a viewer helps to reflect the magnificence of the surroundings. Secondly, when Haddock and Tin-Tin shake hands in a haystack the camera closes in on their adjoining hands to reflect the similarity of the hill in the following scene which they travel across in the following scene. The order of this scene is essential in engaging the viewer. First the camel-riding pair appear on Tin-Tin’s hand and then slowly their hands dissolve to the muddy mountain on which they ride. In and of itself this is a fascinating minimalist approach to the transition which celebrates our search in nature to find common points of reference as well as to signify the commitment top the bond and promise of that same handshake. This is intelligent and helpful. The final transition focuses on the cross-stitching of a jumper to transition to the undulations of the plants in a field. Therefore the organic roughness of the jumper reflects both Haddock’s character which is embellished upon by this transition’s visual theme.

My final example of proficient transition editing comes in the form of David Fincher’s matching J-cut in Fight Club. As our depressed protagonist has another workload dropped on his desk the papers fall out of shot and make a surprising splash noise to introduce us to the later scene in which Tyler is taking a bath. As we watch the protagonist’s cowardly servility be hacked away throughout this film several cuts such as these undercut the tone to this end. The splash noise emphasises how immaterial work has become to our protagonist and subtly hints  to Tyler’s part in this through the noises origin. This is emphasised by the protagonist claiming he would fight his boss or coworker if he could fight anyone. The feeling we get is one of apathy while at the same time deep anger. Time is cut out between these two happenings in a surprising manner that reveals the depth of this indifferent rebelliousness.

Overall, it is essential that directors identify what is the warranted approach at several junctions between scenes in a way that is creative and functional. The wipes and simple cuts from times past are outdated and plain laziness. So next time you watch a film ask yourself if you felt anything in that transition, if it helped you understand or whether the bridge has been left unbuilt –  I’m looking at you Fast and Furious.



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