I dislike fast cutting in movies and TV, especially when it serves no purpose. It’s a way of catering to audiences’ short attention spans. There is nothing new about this concept. One medium where this is often on display is music videos. So when I saw Kanye West’s video for Flashing Lights, I was blown away, because in this 3 minute video, I count only 3 shots. Wow. An incredibly talented director had made this video. It was someone with an amazing sense of framing the action. There was a brilliant coordination between the actors and the camera. And though we linger on the same few shots over the course of three minutes, it never seems long. There is always something new happening, something bringing more tension to the screen. The violence at the end is disturbing, for sure, and it really made me wonder how they achieved it so realistically. Check out this video on you tube. I was so happy to see someone reverse the trend of fast cutting. It took a world class director to bring great filmmaking back to music videos. Curious to know more, I went on google and found out who indeed directed this video. It was none other than Spike Jonze.
Here are a few thoughts for after you watch the video.
Shot 1 (0-1:13): Just before dusk, a new Ford Mustang grinds to a halt on a deserted dusty road with a mountain in the background. Its brakelights flash red. A young woman steps out of the car, wearing a fur coat and heels. She walks toward the camera. When she gets up to just a few feet away, the camera tracks back (steadicam). She removes her fur and throws it on the ground along with her skirt and her wrist watch, then squirts lighter fluid on the pile, sparks up a zippo, and walks away, tossing the zippo over her shoulder onto all the stuff.
Shot 2 (1:13-1:25): The clever thing about this reverse shot is that we pass from dusk to night. The sky of pale blue with hints of orange becomes black right on this cut. The change in light is masked by a couple of things. Firstly, we are focused on the stuff burning on the ground. Also, there are two things moving on the cut: the woman walking, and the zippo. In the previous shot, the zippo lands on the ground, in this shot, the blaze has already spread. And then a visual surprise, we see waves and ocean behind. So here, we learn that we are on a beach. The camera again tracks back as she moves forward (steadicam).
Shot 3 (1:25-2:40): This shot starts larger as she walks in profile toward the car. The camera follows her as she opens the trunk. Another big surprise: the artist Kanye West is tied up in the there. The camera then moves back as she removes a shovel from the trunk and plunges it violently into him six times (steadicam).
How they did it
This is an incredibly violent video, much more than when you see people getting shot and you can feel how fake it is, with squibs going off and whatever. The stabbing scene in the end is very disturbing. When I thought about how they achieved it, my best guess is this: when the car arrives in shot 1, it is a real operational Mustang that pulls up. But when we get to shot 3, what we see is a dummy car. Its exterior looks real, has operational head and tail lights. But the inside is hollowed out. So just at the moment in the camera move when Kanye West is no longer onscreen, he has time (very little time, it happens so fast!) to roll back before she starts pummeling the empty trunk. I think they did a great job.