Walter Murch and Staying the Fuck Out of the Wides
A recent viewing of The Assassination of Chicago’s Mayor elicited the suggestion our wide shots were doing our film a disservice. Using wide shots in the middle of a scene is risky business. Walter Murch explains it better than I can:
“What we (the audience) do seem to have difficulty accepting are the kind of displacements that are neither subtle nor total: Cutting from a full-figure master shot, for instance, to a slightly tighter shot that frames the actors from the ankles up.”
Here are 4 stills, in order, from The Assassination of Chicago’s Mayor where I intentionally violate this:
Murch draws the analogy to a beehive. A beehive can be moved 2 inches or 2 miles every night and the bees have no problem. The problem is when the hive is moved 2 yards. It isn’t enough to compel the bees to reestablish their space, so they hover disastrously, lost, just yards away from where they were.
In terms of the edit, audiences can accept a major jump in time and place just as naturally as they accept a minor jump between close ups. The trouble comes when the framing is dramatically different between two shots but the scene progresses only marginally. It is jarring.
I intentionally dropped the audience in the film with as little information as possible. The time and place are irrelevant because the theme of the film - who determines what is sane and what is just - are issues that we face today. There are no traditional establishing shots early on.
I shot wide shots to use later in the film. I wanted to invert the common technique of starting wide, establishing the scene, and then moving into the intimate details. Our main character, Prendergast, does not understand the “insane” rules of the world in which he lives. We go wide when we understand that the point of conflict cannot be resolved because the sane and the insane both have the same solution to the same problem: taking another human being’s life. On one side it’s called murder. On the other it’s called justice. That is the world. That is our world.
Artists break rules. We have to. Otherwise the work will feel safe. The success is determined by how it works against the audience’s expectations to inform them of something new, to expand their world and make their investment in your film worthwhile. Thus far, my decision a few months ago is not panning out as I had planned - but there is still time. Back to the edit!
I’d like to thank Josh Staman for his feedback. His musings on filmmaking can be found on Twitter @jstaman.