The Graduate (Or how the length of a single shot can change an entire film)

Welcome to the Ynos Blog, where all things creative will be talked about. We hope you enjoy. Our first post is about the length of shots in movies, and how particularly long shots can change entire films.

One of the first things I was told when I started filming and editing was ‘don’t let a shot go on for more than five seconds’. That advice is obviously wrong, but there is an inkling of truth in it, and every filmmaker is taught a version of it. There are a few rules to adhere to when filming, and by adhere I mean ‘break them occasionally for bigger effect’, and this is one of them. Don’t let a shot go on for too long, because if you do you’ll lose the viewer’s attention. A shot is an unbroken clip from one camera angle, when the angle changes the shot ends. The fundamental idea is that changing the angle means that the brain wakes up and takes focus as what it is seeing has rapidly changed. There are obviously many more reasons for changing shots, to bring focus to a particular part of the scene, to change the shot in time to the music etc. etc., but the main reason for changing a shot quickly is not to lose the viewers’ attention.

Of course, as with most rules, this is effectively an arbitrary choice displayed as a rule that is taught to filmmakers early. I mean, you only have to look at the differences in average shot length between directors to see that everyone makes their own stylistic choice in how long they let shots go on for. Christopher Nolan’s average shot length (ASL) is 3.1 seconds while Woody Allen’s ASL is 17.5 seconds, and I’ve enjoyed both their work immensely. As a rule of thumb, shorter shots lead to punchier, more action filled movies, while longer shots lead to more tense, cerebral experiences, as the viewer is left to look at a shot longer and focus their attention on it.

I hate rules. I think putting too many rules on any art form can lead to stagnancy. Just looking at current Hollywood mainstream releases shows how teaching too many people the same methods and rules leads to everything eventually looking the same. I watched ‘Out of the Furnace’ last week with Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, and despite containing two of my favourite actors, I could not tell it apart from 90% of action thrillers released by Hollywood.

Fortunately, the side effect of putting so many rules on an art form is that when someone finally does break the rules in an interesting way (no ‘The Room’, I’m not looking at you), it really does stand out. With regards to shot length, this means there are some incredible long shots in cinematic memory that have indelibly etched themselves into film history. My personal favourite example of this (though there are dozens) is the final scene of ‘The Graduate’. Released in 1967, and starring Dustin Hoffman at his best, this film is already a great comedic drama, funny and heart wrenching in equal parts. It is a genuinely great romance film that I can watch time and time again. However, it is the final scene that remains in my mind whenever I think about how much a long shot can change the entire feeling of a film.

To put it in context, Dustin Hoffman is trying to prevent the wedding of the girl he loves and her family-approved husband. He breaks into the church, rescues her and they elope. They get on a bus, the passengers look at them with some confusion, he looks like a mess and she is in a wedding dress, and it cuts to them smiling and, ‘boom’, the credits roll after an average storyline of love and redemption with a happy ending.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahFARm2j38c&w=560&h=315]

Except it doesn’t. That final shot continues for an incredible 40 seconds. And we, the viewers, see their smiles fade as they realise the enormity of their decision, the rashness of their actions, and their lack of a plan for their future ahead. While this happens it goes from a deathly silence to playing ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel. It is only after this painful, awkward shot, with neither of the two main characters meeting each other’s eyes,  that the film finally ends. With 40 seconds to watch this shot, the viewer has enough time to take in every small detail, every single change in the characters’ expressions. With one single shot, the entire ending, and indeed the entire feel of the film, changes. It goes from happy to bittersweet in just one shot.

Breaking the generally accepted ‘rules’ of how long a shot should be is what has led to some of the greatest film moments in history, and displays how rules really are there to be broken, at least when done by people who know what they’re doing and when it also relates to filmmaking specifically and, you know,…not the law and stuff.

Have any favourite long shots you want to share? Put them in the comments below! (Except Russian Ark. That doesn’t count)

I wrote this while listening to: The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel

2 thoughts on “The Graduate (Or how the length of a single shot can change an entire film)

  1. The shot of al Pacino’s eyes at the end of godfather II as everyone he cared for he kills. The entire career of satyajit ray, Peter Greenaway. Nice post, it’s a great, heartbreaking shot, only rivalled by the end of jerry maguire that turns into from rom com into tragedy.

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