The new Mad Max movie is a hell of a ride. It lives up to the hype. It’s really fun and has a great “out and back” structure. There’s lots to talk about, but I was most taken by the sheer amount of coverage in these chase scenes (i.e. the whole movie), and by how well organized it all is.
Similar to a post I made for The Yakuza, I want to look at the minutiae of the coverage in a scene. Actually, this is only a part of a scene because Mad Max is cut so quickly (nicely done by Margaret Sixel). The clip is 0:43. And there’s a whole lot that happens.
This is from the middle of the final leg of the film. George Miller gives us this wide-shot (he so often goes to overheads to pull away momentarily from the action; calm within the storm kind of thing. It’s different from the first shot below, which is on the ground and action packed. Those other moments are pretty, and time-stopping):
It’s establishing. Well, re-establishing, since we’ve already seen where some things are. The war rig with Max (Tom Hardy), Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and their companions is that lead vehicle. The bad guys – which I’m basically going to call everyone in opposition to them for the sake of this blog – are those vehicles behind them.
We get a cut to Max hanging onto the back of the track. From previous action and that wide, we can see that the cars behind the rig have shot chains into it. Actually, the screen direction has slightly changed. In the shot above, all cars move right to left. here, the rig moves left to right:
The change in screen direction isn’t confusing. We already associate Max with the rig and the chains as the connection between cars and rig. It’s frenetic if nothing else.
The camera pushes in-
-and then we a really slight, hidden cut (where the camera also pushes in quickly):
This is a funny cut. It’s on the same axis and the shot size doesn’t differ. In fact, from these still images these last four all look they could be the same shot, rather than 2 different shots. This cut basically breaks some edit “rules”: dramatically change your shot size or your angle when cutting within a scene. But it works anyway and goes to show that intense action can change the rules. Actually, if anything, it further emphasizes. It’s a little “punch in,” that makes time that much faster.
Max cuts the chain. It should snap back right to left, but instead we get a cut to inside of the trailing car. We might now know where we are at first-
-until the chain snaps back, hitting the driver:
Here we’re right on the 180 line, so screen direction is a moot point. It’s cause and effect editing.
The next cut is wider. No war rig in sight, so, from the establishing shot, we can assume that we’re now behind the rig. The camera pulls back in pretty grandiose fashion to show a crash and the immediate aftermath:
Miller has a lot of these shots: mediums or medium wides where the camera really rapidly pulls back. It’s not only frantically paced – like the whole film – but it’s also a kind of “look ma, no hands,” moment. Meaning: I’m not going to hide that aftermath in the cut. I’m going to just show it all.
A reaction shot to Max:
And then an overhead, where the stakes are raised. Some bad guys on awesome poles come tilting into frame. Again, Miller pulls away and/or the rig picks up speed, effectively widening the frame:
A different angle on those “pole vaulters”-
-and then to a MWS on Max as an explosion rocks behind him. He vaults forward, landing in a close-up:
Miller also really uses foreground and background effectively – as shown above. He hurtles things at the screen – in this case, Max. It’d make for a nice 3D experience, I imagine, except that this film might be too quickly cut for watchable 3D. It’s also a great example of how stressing the z-axis can make action seem even more action-packed than it really is.
In that same shot a new bad guy appears in the background and Max turns around-
The next cuts are quick, but because we’ve stuck on the above shot for long enough (“long” here is a few seconds, max) we know where we are and are entirely oriented. So when we go to the complementary low angle, and another low angle now from the side of the rig, we know exactly where we are:
Notice how, aside from that first shot in this sequence, everything either moves left to right, or straight on the axis. So overall, Miller and Sixel still follow basic rules of continuity. The same is true for those frames above. It’s another mini-180 line within the gigantic, and many 180 lines. This is the case for the entire film.
Now the camera is towards the front of the rig and looking to the back. See the last image above? Look at the woman’s head just at the bottom, frame right. That’s her in the image below, middle-frame. New guys come in to attack:
We get a shot to a woman aiming a gun. We might be confused who she’s aiming at except, a) we’re still moving basically on axis (actually, slight right to left, but close enough that it feels like it’s right on the line), b) I can see all of the other cars behind her so I’m oriented (look at the frame above and then the one below. See that giant black truck-think frame left of both? That’s a nice indicator), and c) the following shot will show cause and effect with proper screen direction and how the shot villain falls forward (read: the shot must have come from behind him):
If, by the way, Miller had wanted her to be in the front of the rig and shooting towards the back of it, the background of the shot would have to be different, her screen direction would have to be the opposite, and the villain would have to fall the other way.
New cut, new bad guy. Where is he?
Oh, there he is. We’ve seen this shot before:
We’ve also seen this frame before, so Miller is getting some mileage out of camera positions:
Speaking of, though this scene is really rapidly cut, how often have we seen this shot already?
Why, I wonder, is the frame above so often used? It accomplishes so much. The cars are all behind the rig and in the background so we understand their proximity. There’s a platform on the top of the rig so the camera is primed to show some choreography. The high angle can account for both the cars on the ground, the people atop the rig, and the guys vaulting in from above.
A MS on Max puts us right into the action (similar to that one where he flies towards us):
Back to this low angle, which is helpful because it so clearly shows screen direction:
Another dramatic pull away gives us the front of the truck with Furiosa…
…and then the whole surrounding chaos. Beautiful frame below:
We’ve spent some time outside of the rig, so now we go inside. Miller and Sixel are really good at segmenting the action this way. Section inside, section outside (for example). It keeps us grounded and gives us mini-moments within the larger scene.
Here we get a low angle through the sun roof:
And then a cut closer to see our bomb dropper:
Insert shot of the bomb:
And then we go back out of the truck, to a really high angle, giving us a new view on things:
We stay with this guy in a few new angles:
Before gradually getting back to ground level as our pole vaulter comes back into the sun roof, this time to attack Furiosa:
These last few frames are great. Not only do we get a new perspective, which is awesome just to keep us engaged and aware of the total chaos, but it’s also a smart move to cut away from the interior of the truck right after the bomb. If we stick on the bomb it loses some of its weight. It either explodes right away or doesn’t. The parallel action (I assume it’s parallel and not continuous because that bomb takes awhile to do anything) ratchets up the suspense in a small form. Now our minds are performing a few tasks. Where’s Max? When will the bomb explode? Why are we suddenly following this pole vaulter and not our two main protagonists? Miller and Sixel are tracking the leads, but also giving us side characters who we momentarily follow – these side characters act as sidetrack, additional suspense, and, as in this example, displays of virtuosity that make Mad Max the pulsing movie it is.
Inside the cab and we get two different frames of a noose slipping around Furiosa’s neck:
Why two shots? Why not just one of them? After all, I get the same info in both shots. A noose, choking, being pulled up. The two shots keep the pacing of the scene alive and well (ASL – well, I could do the math, but I don’t feel like it – is probably half a second), and they also very quickly and subtly move from inside (first shot above) to outside (second shot above, which is actually shooting through glass). It’s more orientation. Now we’re inside, now we’re back outside, now we’re further outside:
That shot through the glass is kind of a buffer shot to bridge the interior and exterior.
Once back on top we get a shot reverse. Another mini 180 line. Bad guy looks screen left-
Good woman looks screen right:
The MWS stays on the 180 line as a new character interrupts:
She looks back-
-and we get her POV-
-a clarification of the action-
-and then her reaction:
That’s some classic film language. POV = shot of someone looking, shot of what they’re looking at, shot of their reaction. This is it: super fast, but right in line with what I expect from a point-of-view.
Back into the cab and looking to the passenger side, with Furiosa in the foreground:
That shot allows me to see her full action, which is continued here, in this high angle. She raises her weapon and fires up, right to left:
And this guy gets shot, flying backwards, up, right to left:
And that’s…a small part of the scene. It’s a ton of coverage. Lighting, stunts, and production design aside, there actually isn’t that much fanciness going on. At least not with the camera. Miller’s big shot – his trademark in this film – is the fast pullaway, which we see three times just in these 43 seconds. Otherwise, he keeps things fast but simple. Lots of new 180 lines, but lots of work done to establish them and to keep us oriented, whether through foreground and background, eyeline, screen direction, POV, and/or cause and effect.
I’d make a bet that if you watch the film again, most of the first half of it moves from right to left and then, on the return journey, most of it moves from left to right. What we’re seeing here is the second part of that pattern.
Miller does give us high and low angles pretty often, but that’s really not much for inflection. Rather it’s what the scene calls for – things on the ground and things in the air. So his is a filmmaking style perhaps less at the service of style and more of narrative than so with other action films. There’s not that much that’s superfluous here either. That’s not to say this isn’t stylish. It’s stylish as hell. But not really from a camera perspective.
Here’s the full clip, video style, if you want to see it. Feels much faster when you watch it this way, right?