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Saturday, 5 February 2011

"Ice creams, ice creams!"

The Hollywood classical narrative structure relies on continuity editing to create a seamless and believable world within a film. It tells the audience where things are (spatial relations) and how shots relate to each other time-wise (temporal relations). For example, generally when we see a hard cut between shots we understand that the action happens back to back, but if we see a slow 'dip to black' that tells us that some time has passed (traditionally symbolising a night has gone by I guess, hence the black?).
This week we shot and edited the preliminary filming exercise, which incorporated the godfather of all continuity edits – shot/reverse shot. The basic idea is to shoot one character left of frame, looking right and another right of frame, looking left. Then, when these are edited together the audience assumes that the characters are facing each other (in the same location) and therefore having a conversation.

This may sound pretty obvious, but imagine how different the film would look if one of the shots were flopped, like the second shot below (reversed around a vertical axis, so that it looks like a mirror image). 

If these shots were cut together now, the characters would look like they were in unrelated locations, talking to themselves or to other, unseen characters. By the way, these stills are taken from Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man (1949), one of the greatest mystery thrillers ever made.

Here's the short sequence I grabbed the stills from [If you want to take a screen grab from a youtube video or webpage, hit command-shift-4 if you're on a mac, or the button that says "print screen" if you're using a pc]. Notice how the juxtaposition of these two shots, and a long shot of a woman, looking down from a window, map out the location perfectly. You never see any of the characters together in any of these shots, but still have a complete understanding of where each character is in relation to the others. There is a beautiful edit, when the lady turns on a light and it slants down to illuminate Harry's face. Harry gives a little glance up, (which helps to make sure the audience is aware of their relative positions) and then looks back, to where his old friend Holly is, standing across the road, staring back at a man he believed was dead.

As for the close up shot of Harry when the light is switched off, well what can I say, it is breathtaking. By creating this change in diegetic lighting, the director not only makes the mysterious Harry vanish into the night, but he also makes the world of the film very concrete and believable, due to the realistic, physical property of the lighting effect.

The Third Man is one of my favourite films of all time and it also features the greatest soundtrack ever written (composed and performed by Anton Karas), though it was only rated 26th by a panel of so-called experts in The Guardian.

Once heard never forgotten. Even if you do manage to forget, you'll get a reminder, next time a Mr Whippy van heads in your direction...

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