Creating order out of the chaos of Mad Max: Fury Road

An informative piece by Vashi Nedomansky on the craft that went into giving the audience a clear spatial orientation of what was happening where amidst the furious action sequences in Mad Max: Fury Road.

One of the many reasons MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is so successful as an action film is the editing style. By using “Eye Trace” and “Crosshair Framing” techniques during the shooting, the editor could keep the important visual information vital in one spot…the Center of the Frame. Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn’t need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look. It’s like watching an old hand-drawn flip book whiz by. The focus is always in the same spot!
This was an edict passed down directly from director George Miller. Over the walkie talkies during every scene he could heard saying “Put the cross hairs on her nose! Put the cross hairs on the gun!” This was to protect the footage for editorial and to ensure that the entire high speed film would be easily digestible with both eyes and brain. Every new shot that slammed onto the screen must occupy the same space as the previous shot. This is by no means a new technique, but by shooting the entire film in this way, Margaret Sixel could amplify and accelerate scenes, cut as fast as possible with the confident knowledge that the visual information would be understood.

Great video: succinct, clear.

It's an under-appreciated skill, giving the audience a clear sense of arrangement amidst chaotic action, especially when so many directors just resort to lazy chaos cinema action filmmaking technique. Most filmgoers probably didn't even notice the center framing during Mad Max, but they likely felt the spatial coherence in a visceral sense.

Most photographers have probably heard of the rule of thirds, but here is one time it made sense to go away from it. Knowing when to break rules is one sign of mastery.

This is also telling:

As they prepared to shoot the film, George Miller had no script. He did have over 3500 storyboards created by Mark Sexton. The Studio of course asked for a script and George said there wasn’t one. He offered the 3500 storyboards as it had taken him more than 10 years to get the story mapped out with this precision. The Studio said they NEED a script. George apparently had one cranked out but said it was “not good”. It didn’t have to be. He already knew how the whole film would look and feel. Visually center framed and barreling right at the audience.

I've heard a few people say they found the movie underwhelming after all the hype. I suspect many of them found the story too lean, but that's not so surprising for a post-apocalyptic allegory, and even less surprising given that Miller was working not off a script but storyboards.

I enjoyed the muscular simplicity of it all. A Google Maps route of the movie would show Imperator Furiosa driving straight out and then making a sharp left turn, and then driving back on the same route.

When Max tells Furiosa that “out there is nothing but salt,” he's speaking literally, but he's also saying that humanity's best chance for survival is with everyone working together, and perhaps only with women at the helm. That survival is also meant literally since a group of women living together wouldn't be able to procreate and continue the human race (Nux was along for the ride, I suppose, but he seemed sick and approaching death even as the movie began).

Filmmaking craft is often under-appreciated in action movies, so here's a toast to Miller, Searle, Sixel, and the whole crew. 

Tony Zhou AMA

Just a brilliant AMA with Tony Zhou, famous for his Every Frame a Painting video essay series.

Hi Tony,

I'm trying to understand better the differences that editing makes in film versus the actual directing. 

Could you give any specific examples of films/scenes that you thought were bad, but COULD have been good with better editing? And explain what you'd do differently?


[–]tonyszhou[S] 74 points 20 days ago 

Sam O'Steen once said that the only movies that were "saved" in the editing suite were also ruined there in the first place. I kinda agree with that.

There are some crazy shoulda-been-masterpieces like The Lady from Shanghai where you can see the moment some studio boss said "This movie's too weird. Cut that out!" In these movies, those lost scenes are like phantom limbs. You intrinsically feel something should be there, but they aren't.

As for bad, my big famous example would be the second-to-last scene from Psycho, where the psychiatrist explains everything. It's a product of its time, and it requires a character to tell the audience what's going on. There's a similar moment in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island where one character whips out a chalkboard to explain the movie to somebody else. On the one hand, I get why that scene's there. On the other hand, I'm curious as to what the movie would be like if you removed that scene.

When asked how he comes up with the ideas for his video essays, Zhou writes:

As for how to notice this stuff I totally recommend (in rough order):

1) Take a class on script analysis. Learn how a director breaks down a script. Then get your hands on a movie script, pick a scene, guess how the director would shoot it, then watch the actual way he/she shot it.

2) Bring a film into Final Cut or Premiere or Avid, and just watch it backwards and forwards, muted and unmuted, B&W, color. Watch for camera placement, movement, everything. After you do this for a while, you won't need to bring the movie into Premiere, you can just do it on the fly.

3) If you've seen the film before, watch it with an audience and kinda watch them. Their "on-the-fly" reaction to the film will teach you more than many critics. When do they lean in? When do they cross their arms? When do they laugh? Is it at the same place you laughed?

My first editing instructor told me to watch things played in reverse as well. Removing the distraction of following a linear plot can bring formal elements to the foreground.

Such a fantastic AMA...just one more:

I think this is a huge problem in filmmaking today too: the myth of the perfect first feature.

I am going to (at some point) make a video essay called "Everybody Used to Suck" comprised entirely of footage from everyone's earliest directorial work.

Scorsese's first feature was actually called Bring On the Dancing Girls and it bombed so bad at NYFF that he didn't do anything for a few years, before repurposing it into Who's That Knocking. Tarantino never finished his first feature, My Best Friend's Birthday. Kubrick hated Fear and Desire so much he destroyed every copy. The list goes on and on, but the myth of the "first feature" is exactly that: a myth. Everybody used to suck, it's just that everybody also hides their earliest work from the public.

If you've never watched one of Zhou's video essays, you can start with any of them, but I suggest his latest on Jackie Chan and the art of action comedy. Chan is so underrated in so many ways, and Zhou takes a highlighter to each of them.

Mark Woollen

I had never heard of Mark Woollen until I read this profile, but then I realized I knew him from his work, which I love. Among the movie trailers he has cut:

A much longer list of movies whose trailers are covered with his fingerprints reveals a guy with particular taste. In what is usually a vulgar craft, Woollen is an artist. He has a trademark style: no voiceovers, an occasional expository text card (perhaps his one concession to the advertising imperative), heavy reliance on a musical track to carry the emotional through line. Watching his work, it's clear he understands that it's not just about conveying the outline of the plot but the mood of the thing.

Like Woollen’s most impressive trailers, Birdman hinges on music. Early on, editors tried scoring the trailers to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and “Heroes.” Both felt overfamiliar. Iñárittu suggested Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” but Woollen had the same reservations. Then someone in the office found a live version Cee Lo had recorded for British TV, singing to a drum machine. It synced beautifully with the shorter “teaser.” Still, the video “wasn’t feeling special enough,” Woollen recalls. Then he remembered a long shot, 32 seconds of Keaton stalking down a hallway. It could be the perfect introduction to a movie that feels like one continuous shot. An editor ran it for only five seconds, but “I said, ‘Let’s just put the whole thing in.’ And it clicked — the feeling we’d been looking for.”

Birdman and Gone Girl are about as commercial as Woollen gets. Summer blockbusters are neither his interest nor his strong suit. Woollen helps sell what 12 Years a Slave producer Dede Gardner calls films without an “obvious headline,” crossovers with the potential to expand the mainstream. “For movies that are elliptical or episodic, you need someone who really understands tone and mood, because the story isn’t going to help you sell tickets. Mark makes something that is not commercial seem absolutely watchable.”