The film that set the bar higher for both science-fiction and action on the eve of the second millennium. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers and changed the landscape of special effects. Often imitated, never equaled. Buckle up, Dorothy.
The landscape of films started a transition in the 90s, after the advent of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI for short) brought up by James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park only 2 years later. I mean, they were certainly bigger than we’d ever seen before (1996 Independence Day) above the surface. Another transition was beginning to make its way under the surface: Avid and the non-linear editing software package.
For decades, films were edited mechanically. The production crew shot scenes onto celluloid films which were developed in a film lab then transferred to a working print. That working print went to the editor who started literally cutting the film in pieces and rearranging it to tell the story. Non-linear editing (NLE) took that process to the computer. The celluloid film was scanned rather than transferred, and the editor could virtually cut the film in pieces. It was faster, easier, and far more convenient.
With Great Power… comes Higher Cuts per Minutes
Think about it: when the director came into the editing room with an idea, he had time to go make himself a cup of coffee while the editor was literally going to a bunch of cans looking for the right piece of film, cut it, grab adhesive and stick it into the film. And if the director didn’t like that idea, it long almost as long to undo everything. Now, with a NLE, the editor can duplicate that sequence in no time, make the edit the director want to see, then go back and forth between the current sequence and the previous one. That idea alone of seeing immediate results changed everything.
For better or worse. Edits now tend to be faster. Our eye can see and analyze a shot that lasts less than a second. And quickly but surely, action sequences became a bunch of quick shots put together to create rhythm. This is what I call a Higher Cuts per Minute rate, or HCM for short. Grab an action film from the 2000s (I suggest the opening scene of Quantum of Solace as a good example) and another highway chase sequence (there’s a great one in The French Connection) and compare the two solely based on the editing. I bet the action sequence from The French Connection will seem far more intelligible than the one from Quantum of Solace. And the Wachowskis understood that perfectly: just watch The Matrix Reloaded.
Choreographing action like the Wachowskis
Coming with references deeply rooted in the Japanese cyberpunk (Akira, Ghost in the Shell), the Wachowskis brought the single most important ingredient to Hollywood action blockbuster straight up from hong kongese films: choreographed action. The actors learned Jujutsu and were performing their own fighting scenes on set. Exit the need for stunt doubles that we’ll need to make sure to hide their face in the editing room. That meant more flexibility in the editing later on.
Add a neatly designed shot that circles around, and you got yourself a bullet-time sequence.
But that’s not it! The Wachowskis also brought their singular taste for composition, shot design, and timing. Action in The Matrix and its sequels is never shot handheld but rather locked on a tripod. The directors also like to frame their shot as wide as possible so the audience can grasp all the action playing on screen, rather than excerpts of it. Some of the shots are especially designed for slow-motion: emphasis on the what’s going on on-screen rather than rhythm of the action.
Rhythm is not fast cutting
Do you find The Matrix boring? Or slow-paced? I sure don’t. That’s because the Wachowskis understand perfectly what rhythm is. That is: you can’t make a shot of a man sitting on a chair dynamic, even if you’re cutting 5 or 6 shots of that man doing nothing together in a 10 seconds sequence. If that man is running, however, that’s more dynamic. Even if you’re showing him running in slow motion. Now add a neatly designed shot that circles around him, and you got yourself a bullet-time sequence.
What I mean by that is that when you look closely at how action sequences in The Matrix and its sequels were put together, it’s nothing more really than matching cuts all the way through. The Wachowskis love wide angles with lateral dollies because it feels like a video game. And with carefully choreographed fights, they can easily match cut the fight between a few angles, plus the obligatory pick up of the hand grabbing the gun off the ground. The rhythm is in the shot. It’s intelligible and gives us just the right amount of slow-motion shots during the fight to appreciate the beauty of it. I guess I shall conclude by this: rather than looking at The Matrix for reference, look at the works the Wachowskis used as a reference when making The Matrix.