Since the birth of cinema the average shot length (ASL) of films has been getting shorter and shorter, and when we talk about ASL (if you don’t know) we’re talking about how long a shot lasts before cutting. The lower the ASL, the more separate shots a film contains. To give you a practical example, Spun (Jonas Åkerlund, 2002) has an ASL of around 1.2, meaning that the average duration of a shot before cutting is a mere 1.2 seconds long, whereas Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) has an ASL of around 12.4.
As a general guideline, ASLs for all films were much longer in the past, and over the decades people like Barry Salt have done exceptional work tracking the changing form of cinema, and looking at how films feature more and more cuts, and shorter and shorter takes as the medium has developed.
Editing is something that we’ve become impatient for these days: we see the object, recognise its significance, and move on as quickly as possible. And this is something we’re taught to do: ‘keep it tight’, ‘cut, cut, cut’ and so on. But there’s an interesting conversation to be had about what happens when an audience is presented with a sustained frame, one that they are allowed to edit with their eyes by choosing where to look.
1. Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (The Lumiere Brothers, 1895)
Let’s begin at the beginning, the very beginning of cinema itself. All of the Lumiere films offer this experience in one way or another, but it’s pleasing to start here, and it’s a simple place to introduce the concept. The Lumiere Brothers’ first use of their camera was not part of a conversation about long takes and allowing the eyes to wander, they were simply trying out their new toy. Nevertheless, it’s fitting that this first foray into cinema consists of a shot with no lead characters, one that truly invites the eye to wander back and forth, and to pick out various members of the crowd.
Different viewers are going to be looking in different places. True, most people are going to notice the dog that enters the frame, but audiences aren’t compelled to. They are presented with a frame that they are allowed to explore for the duration. You can watch the film multiple times (and I’d recommend this) and each time find something new. This is the editing eye in action, much like a play, the lack of editing and the use of long shot means you choose where you’re going to look.
2. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
The concept of editing didn’t exist in the Lumieres’ day, but it’s in full force by the 1930s. Not only do we have editing, but we also have the grammar of filmmaking in place: long shot, wide, medium, close, etc. Filmmakers now have the tools to put things together in different ways to create different effects. When Tod Browning came to make this film he had an interesting dilemma: how to film the ‘freaks’?
The film walks a very thin line; on the one hand there is an undeniable sideshow sensationalist aspect to making a film about genuine circus freaks and inviting audiences to gawp, on the other, Browning deliberately places all of our sympathies with these figures, not against them. He does this principally by introducing the sensationalist element of the film (the eponymous ‘freaks’) in lyrical long shots, not exploiting his subjects, and giving the audience their own time (and distance) to explore the frame and to understand what they were looking at.
True, a cynic might add that this also allows audiences to see that there’s no trick photography and therefore underline the point that these really are ‘freaks’, but Browning’s affection for his subjects seems genuine. As the film progresses we move closer and closer, until close ups start to introduce individual characters among the menagerie, but the use of wide frames continues throughout. And we’re always encouraged to pick our way through the faces, rather than being told where to look.
3. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Freaks is a narrative film, whereas the Lumiere short is not. But Browning’s film features a large number of characters and the film itself has space to meander this way and that. What happens when we have one dominating central character? Someone whose influence bleeds into the lives of everyone else in the film? Surely we’re going to be keeping our eyes on the lead, no matter how wide the frame is? Well, maybe not.
There’s a key moment in Citizen Kane where we’re given the time, and a very specific sense of space, to edit a sequence with our eyes. Mr Thatcher has come to Mrs Kane’s Boarding House to have her sign a document which will place her son under the control of Thatcher and his bank. There are four characters in this scene: Mr Thatcher, Mrs Kane, Mr Kane, and a young Charles Foster Kane. Charles is only visible through a window: he’s outside, playing on a sledge, throwing snowballs, chanting ‘the union forever!’ Meanwhile, inside there’s a conversation taking place that will forever alter the future of Charles’ life, and he has no idea about it.
We’re given the opportunity to see both inside and outside here, we’re privy to Mrs Kane’s plan, and we’re also privy to Charles’ ignorance of what’s happening. What makes this moment particularly interesting is its use of the Z Axis, the distance from the lens to the farthest visible point of the horizon. Much talk is made of the X and Y Axes (up and down, left and right) when talking about composition, but there’s a real joy to playing with the Z Axis, and it’s these kind of compositional experiments (as well as many other aspects) that keep people talking about Citizen Kane after all these years.
4. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
Editing with your eyes isn’t the only element to a long take. Sometimes that camera is mobile, and moves in and out, showing us specifically what we should be looking at. There’s a moment that occurs late in Rope when Jimmy Stewart, by now extremely suspicious about both his hosts and the whereabouts of the missing guest at the dinner party, leaves and is given his hat by the housekeeper; only it’s not his hat, it’s the hat of the missing man. We know this because the camera dollies all the way in on the hat and shows us the initials on the label inside. It then pulls back and shows us Stewart’s face, anxiously piecing together the puzzle.
Moments like this do not give us the space to move around the frame quite so freely. Despite that, a large amount of Rope features shots with multiple characters in the frame, and does give the audience the space to look around, and do their own detective work: words are said, and there are multiple reactions to be observed, glances and responses that reveal guilt and intrigue in equal measure. Yes, Rope is an exercise in the use of the long take, but it also offers a great many opportunities for you to edit the film yourself by flitting from one face to another to carefully study what people are thinking.
5. Screen Tests (Andy Warhol, 1964-66)
There’s been a lot of work going on in eye tracking over the years, studying where audiences are looking when watching films and TV. The DIEM Project has produced a number of videos on this topic, and one thing is certain from all of the work they’ve done: we tend to look at faces. Not only that, we tend to look at the eyes. But these are studies from film and TV, where there is often some kind of story happening. We’re bound to look at the person talking, right? That’s where the crux of the narrative is in any given frame.
And even if we’re concentrating on the face of someone reacting rather than talking we’re still involved in that inquisitive narrative as we dig up clues as to what is going on inside a character’s head. Sure, perhaps that’s the reason, or perhaps it’s something to do with deep-seated scopophilia, put simply, the pleasure of watching people. No one really takes this as far as Andy Warhol, and his Screen Tests work so very well because there is no narrative at all.
Instead we’re invited to look at the face of another person for the duration of a reel of 16mm film (Around 00:04:30). While you’re highly likely to begin by looking into their eyes, you’re almost certainly going to start wandering. You’re in the dark, and safe to start exploring all of their face. Maybe you notice something like the length of their fingernails, or an object they’re holding or interacting with.
Maybe you wonder what is going on inside their heads: Many of these faces seem to go through extended moments of awkwardness under the unblinking eye of a fixed camera. These films come under repeated criticism for being ‘boring’, but they’re unabashed exercises in looking, they’re films about looking at people, and if you get on board with this concept they can be extremely rewarding.
6. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
So what happens when a narrative film is about looking? Although this film doesn’t have an exceptionally long ASL (it has a strongly documentary feel to its hand-held camera, direct address, and jagged edits) it does something extremely effective. Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch not only tells you the story of the Norwegian artist’s early life, it also makes you look at people in the way that Munch may have.
Frames are often extremely busy, or obfuscated, necessitating an enquiring eye that picks its way through all of the information presented to find the focus. As the film goes on these frames become simpler and simpler, but we’ve picked up an active way of watching the film. What happens as a result is that the audience starts noticing things that they otherwise might not notice: the light falling on Munch’s cheekbones, the curve of Mrs Heiberg’s neck, the smear of blood on Sophie’s mouth, the smoke rippling through the music halls. These elements are not essential to the narrative, but looking is an essential part of Munch’s life.
Edvard Munch is not so much a film that teaches you about what happened to the artist, as it is about how Munch may have observed life. It makes you look at people, and life, in a different way, and it does this by letting you choose where your eye should fall.
7. Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog, 1976)
When you make a film where you hypnotise the entire cast, you have to consider what kind of experience you want the audience to go through. Probably the most fitting idea is to create a similarly hypnotic state in your audience, and Herzog does this here by using very little camera movement or editing. The question is: how quickly can you become hypnotised by what you’re watching? Now the answer is going to vary for different people, and undoubtedly the languid pace of the film is not going to be to all tastes, but objectively the film’s hypnotic state starts almost immediately.
Landscapes are presented as mist shrouded wonders, animals and people move through the frames slowly, or not at all, and the entire thing plays out as an open invitation to exploring a frame. Although the bulk of the film is populated with monosyllabic characters, you’ll get everything you need about how the film is going to play out from the opening few shots: a man sits in a misty field filled with cows and stares at the landscape, then we stare at this landscape, watching the clouds pass over the mountains below like a stream.
You’re being asked to spend time on these shots, and to either carefully consider their significance, or to undergo an emotional response to what you’re seeing. And once in the rhythm the rest of the film has a lot to offer.