Long Takes with No Cutting – Why Bother

Check out this Cinemetrics site, which has a database for Average Shot Lengths (ASLs). Here are the Die Hard films:

Film title: Date: ASL: MSL:
Die Hard 1988 4.8 3.3
Die Hard 2 1990 3.1 2.1
Die Hard: With a Vengeance 1995 1.8 1.7

No big surprise. Here’s a comprehensive chart of US feature films:

As film technology advanced, editing got quicker. But shot lengths during actual production didn’t seem to change much, especially while shooting fight sequences. Watching behind the scenes clips of action scenes, I’m surprised at the number of times they shoot an entire fight sequence from multiple angles, often upwards of 30 seconds in length, then cut it up into 1-2 second shots. Usually it’s shot just to cover everything. Dialog scenes are shot with more meticulous blocking and lighting, and each shot has its purpose. Close-ups are meant to be close-ups. But when it comes to fights, the cameraman won’t mix choreography with a close-up, but instead they’ll repeat choreography in a close-up. It’s like repeating dialog lines but muffling them because there wasn’t enough material to work with.

If the choreography isn’t important enough to tailor it for the close-up, then why do a close-up? It becomes filler, like background characters batting around, “I’m good, how are you? What is it you do? Oh that’s interesting” while more important things happen elsewhere. So the fight’s just a gag, an effect. The editor has to then look for the shot segments in fight scenes that “work”, and those last for 1-2 seconds. In dialog, since the production team has already given him ten takes that “work”, he can focus on finding the amazing ones and letting them play out.

Fights can be shot in any way, whether it’s using coverage or not, or a mix of the two, but if the shots aren’t specific to parts of the choreography then there will be a natural dip in the shot quality. Audiences won’t be able to put their fingers on it, but every time a cheap fight comes into their brains, they’ll switch from narrative mode into MTV mode, where they don’t process shots for their narrative value since no narrative value can be found. The moves turn into psychological effects meant to stimulate, like taking a caffeine pill over enjoying a good coffee. Shooting an action take with the intended angle gives it purpose, and people can read that, even if it’s 1 second long.

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