On Wednesday I'm giving a lecture in one of my classes on editing chase scenes. I've given it a few times before, and it's usually a pretty big hit -- it seems to really help students get a handle on some basic editing concepts.
They may never edit a chase scene, but the bigger point is that they learn to develop a rational plan to make an otherwise complicated and confusing set of shots seem completely coherent, comprehensible, and clear.
We look at clips from about a dozen films, and illustrate the ideas below.
BIG IDEAS OF CHASE EDITING -- AND HOW THEY APPLY TO ALL EDITING
How do we know which character is which? Does one wear a white cowboy hat and the other a black one? Does one have a red car and the other blue? Is the pickup basketball game shirts versus skins?
If we see the leader pass the big red building, then ten seconds later the other, we know how far apart the characters are. Often, a camera will stay at a landmark position, and pan from one character to another.
If a car is chasing a moped, the car has a clear advantage. But when the moped goes into the subway and the car driver follows on foot, now the moped has the advantage.
4. STATUS AND STRENGTH
Is a character gaining or falling behind? A shot where the camera is pulling away, or where the character is catching up to the camera may tell us. A shot with both characters in it might reveal the relative status as well.
5. EMOTIONAL STATE AND ATTENTION
We want to know what the character is thinking, feeling and doing -- so a cut to a shot through the windshield might reveal the character's expression. Or a cut to the foot on the brake might tell us what's happening. Or a closeup on the gear shift. Make careful note of where the character looks -- the next shot might be their "point of view."
6. CAMERA POSITION
A camera can be low in the front of a car, can look out the rear window, can sit in the passenger seat, can look down at the brake pedal -- and all of these shots are useful. It can run alongside the moped as it plunges down the stairs. It can turn to watch the car streak by. It can shake, float, or fly.
7. SCREEN DIRECTION
If a car goes from screen left to screen right, we expect it to keep doing that unless we some change -- a shot where it turns, or where we "move" into the car before coming back out. And we expect the car chasing to also maintain consistent screen direction -- unless we see a change happen.
If we cut from the big black car to the little red sports car -- should the sound change right on that cut? Or should it change in other ways? Do we want to hear the sound of the car coming toward us, then going away?
9. TAKE A PACING BREATHER
Even in a short chase, all go-go-go action wears thin. It's usually more exciting to have a lot of action, then a tiny pacing "deep breath" before the big finish.
10. CUT TO THE CONSEQUENCES
That tank chasing the laser-guided skateboard just knocked over every fruit stand in aisle 19. Maybe we could cut back to see what happened, and the angry manager shaking her fist at us? Or maybe our wheel can't take much more and is starting to wobble -- maybe a closeup to reveal that?