- Hurray for grammar!
Frédéric Mermoud quite rightly compares cinematic filmmaking to a language or a melody. Just as words form sentences, paragraphs, chapters and ultimately a book, shots, which are comparable to words, form scenes, sequences and ultimately a film. The specific way that they are organised through editing creates the story, much like a melody depends on the sequence and length of the notes of which it is composed.
Like all types of language, the language of filmmaking is based on grammar which filmmakers began to formulate as soon as cinema was invented and it has been constantly evolving ever since. In fact, filmmakers never adopt a random approach to filming. They plan the story from the very beginning by creating a structure for it and imagining how they will stage it. They therefore carry out important preparatory work before actually shooting the film, which generally includes writing the script and drawing up a breakdown of sequences, scenes and shots using a storyboard. This is demonstrated in the following clip from "Lost in La Mancha" (UK, 2002) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, a documentary about the preparation and shooting of a film that filmmaker Terry Gilliam has never managed to finish.
Having a sound understanding of cinematic grammar is a helpful tool for decoding films, but often the story being told is so captivating that the way it has been constructed is not something that the audience would ever think about. Some elements of this grammar seem even invisible or at least almost invisible. This is the case with cinematic match cuts, which only a trained eye could spot. As the name suggests, match cuts are used to connect shots in order to ensure that the story seems credible and has continuity.
The following clip from "Little Fugitive" (USA, 1953) by Morris Engel and Ray Ashley contains numerous elements of cinematic grammar, which bring the film to life and ensure that it tells a story: the position of the camera, the framing which defines the boundaries of the image, the size of the shots, the editing and, of course, the eyeline matches, as there are several of them. One of them provides us with the essential information we need to understand the scene and the young hero's feeling of disappointment.
The director must have chosen to film this scene at child height in order to recreate the character's vision of his surroundings as much as possible. Showing us the child throwing the balls at a stack of bottles and then linking that shot to a shot of the pyramid of bottles still intact creates an eyeline match which makes us understand that the little boy missed. Without the second image, the audience would have no way of knowing what happened or of understanding why the boy looks so disappointed.
- The incredible K effect
In the first scene of "What the Eye Doesn't See", the short cinema lesson by Frédéric Mermoud dedicated to eyeline matching, the character Alice very clearly describes the function of eyeline matching: it is only when the audience discovers what she is seeing (sweets, a dead pigeon and a handsome boy, in that order) that they can understand what she is feeling.
In fact, this scene makes good use of the infamous "K effect" or "Kuleshov effect", an editing effect which was tested on the public by the Soviet theorist and director Lev Kuleshov at the very beginning of the 1920s. It is a very simple experiment which involves analysing how the facial expressions of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine seem to change as a result of what he seems to be looking at. Let's try it out…
Legend has it that, simply by seeing the bowl of soup, the little girl in a coffin and the young woman lying on a divan, the audience praised the acting talent of Mosjoukine and that they intuitively interpreted his expressions as those of hunger, grief and desire, respectively.
The Kuleshov effect demonstrates two important facts. Firstly, it is not the shots themselves that create their own meaning, but the way they are associated with each other through editing. Secondly, editing has a huge influence on the actor's acting. In fact, the actor who appears in The Kuleshov Effect is impassive and is not acting at all. It is simply the association of his face with different images that makes us feel like he changes his emotions.
Eyeline matching therefore has a fundamental influence on the work of an actor, who, theoretically, would no longer have to express emotions as creating an association between their face and the image of a bowl of soup would be sufficient for expressing their hunger.
- A vector for emotions and narrative
Eyeline matching can not only create tension, such as desire or suspense, but also provide crucial information designed to ensure that the narrative to be played out before our very eyes moves forward. Alfred Hitchcock made full use of these functions in his masterpiece "Rear Window" (USA, 1954), which tells the story of a man who, confined to a wheelchair with his leg in plaster, spends his days watching his neighbours from his window. What do the shot changes in the following clip tell us?
Switching between the shots of the actor and what he is seeing helps us to understand his sense of amusement, curiosity and surprise. These eyeline matches are therefore essential in clarifying his reactions. They also play a symbolic role by making us complicit in the voyeurism, in particular when the character picks up a telephoto lens to observe his neighbours more closely.
The camera no longer simply shows us what the character is seeing but literally merges with his view. As a consequence, this is no longer an eyeline match, but a point-of-view shot. This type of shot is used with a great deal of finesse and humour in "The Graduate" (USA, 1967) directed by Mike Nichols, which tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, a young man who has recently graduated from college.
By reducing Benjamin's point of view to what he can see through his diving mask, the camera heightens the sense of loneliness of this young man who feels at odds with the world of his parents and the future that they have planned for him.
- Other types of match cuts
Whilst eyeline matches are deeply linked to characters' feelings, there are other types of match cuts which allow filmmakers to connect shots in order to ensure that the story flows and feels natural, sometimes to such an extent that the audience forget that they are watching a film. The primary objective of these match cuts is to make the space in which the fictional story takes place seem plausible and coherent, an imaginary space which rarely corresponds to that of the film set…
This clip from the silent film "Faces of Children" (France, 1923) directed by Jacques Feyder demonstrates that match cuts were used very early on in the history of cinema. On account of the match cut in the clip, the audience connects the inside of the house which was filmed in a studio in Paris with the outside of the house which was filmed a long way away, in Val d'Anniviers, Switzerland.
When we talk to someone, we generally face them. In order to reproduce this face-to-face set-up on screen, filmmakers use the "shot reverse shot" technique.
The shot shows what the camera is "seeing", i.e. the space being filmed. The opposite shot is called the "reverse shot": in other words, when filmmakers shoot dialogue scenes in shot-reverse shot, they start by filming one character talking before then showing the character with whom they're talking in a reverse shot.
To ensure that a shot-reverse shot dialogue is credible, they have to make the audience believe that the characters are looking at each other by respecting the well-known 180-degree rule. To do that, they simply have to trace an imaginary straight line perpendicular to the camera, which links the two characters who are talking. To film the shot, the camera is placed on one side of this imaginary line. To film the reverse shot, the camera must stay on the same side of this line. Otherwise, the audience will not get the impression that the characters are looking at each other.
This fundamental rule applies to almost all dialogue scenes, as illustrated in this clip from "The Wizard of Oz" (USA, 1939) directed by Victor Fleming.
In this clip, we can clearly see that the camera always stays on the same side of the imaginary line although it alternates between the witch, who is on the right, and Dorothy's group, which is on the left. The shot reverse shot has therefore been executed correctly.
In this extract from "Take Shelter" (USA, 2011) by Jeff Nichols, a disturbing event takes place. The tension is notably generated through the director's use of the match cut on the axis.
At the beginning, the characters are filmed face-on, in a semi-close-up. Owing to an eyeline match on a flock of birds, the camera suddenly moves behind the characters, whilst remaining on the axis of the road. From then on, the entire scene is filmed on that same axis, as if the camera glides along it, which enables the camera to get up close and move further away, moving on both sides of the characters. The match cut on the axis therefore generates a succession of more or less semi-close-up shots, which creates the ideal shock effect to accentuate the father's bewildered look.
The match cut in movement or displacement match cut encourages the audience to believe that a movement continues from one shot to another, as in the following scene from "The Night Is Young" (France, 1986) by Leos Carax.
The man starts by exiting the frame to the left. In the following shot, he enters from the right. This is a displacement match cut, which conveys the sense of a coherent space. The character then starts to run. To begin with, the running is filmed in a long take by means of a tracking shot and is then cut into several more or less semi-close-up shots which frame different parts of the actor's body. It is thanks to the match cut in movement that links the different shots together that the audience gets the impression that this high-intensity running is continuous. In reality, the scene was shot in several takes in order to achieve this result whereby the editing was crucial.
26 years later, the director Noah Baumbach mischievously paid homage to that now cult scene in his film "Frances Ha" (USA, 2012), but by taking certain liberties. What are they?
First of all, the director films the protagonist's run in the opposite direction. Then, instead of showing the running as a continuous action by using movement match cuts, he opted for jump cuts, an editing effect which involves deleting several seconds from a scene in order to create the impression of jumping between two shots.
A veritable transgression from classic editing rules, a jump cut can be considered as an intentional false match cut, an effect which the French director Louis Malle made his speciality. Concentrating on match cuts, what could be said about this scene from "Zazie dans le métro" (France, 1960)?
From the audience's perspective, Zazie is suddenly sitting to the right of her uncle although she is supposed to be sitting to the left, the food that they eat suddenly disappears from their plates, and the little girl vanishes from the screen as if by magic. Louis Malle intentionally ratcheted up the false match cuts, axis jumps, time ellipses and jump cuts to give his film an absurd and comic dimension.
- Errors in filmmaking
Whilst Louis Malle's false match cuts are intentional, there are, however, "real" false match cuts, which were not done on purpose and which constitute real "errors in filmmaking". All films have at least one or more. This type of lack of attention to detail is easy to explain! As the scenes of the same film are often shot in the wrong order and sometimes with intervals of several weeks in between, the continuity supervisor is responsible for meticulously noting down all the details of a shot (accessories, costumes, lighting, the actors' positions, etc.) in order to ensure continuity of shots between takes.
If a film contains an unintentional false match cut, it is probably the case that the continuity supervisor missed a detail, as in this scene from "Pretty Woman" (USA, 1990) directed by Garry Marshall, which contains a funny transformation.
Filmed in shot reverse shot, the characters played by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are getting to know each other over breakfast when, suddenly, the actress's croissant transforms into a pancake!
Did you say false match cut? Well, here's another for you to enjoy, from the film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (USA, 2003) directed by Gore Verbinski.
It's not easy to spot this false match cut. The pirate Jack Sparrow steps off the ship raising his right foot… Nothing out of the ordinary so far but, in the following shot, completely illogically, it's his left foot that he places down on the pontoon! Generally, this type of filming error is picked up at the editing stage when it is too late to reshoot the scene.
- About Frédéric Mermoud
Born in 1969 in Sion, Switzerland, the director Frédéric Mermoud started out directing several short films, the majority of which won awards. In 2009, he shot his first feature-length film, "Accomplices", a police film in which two detectives attempt to solve the murder of a teenager. "Moka" (2016), his second feature-length film, is also a crime thriller. It tells the story of a mother who pursues a couple whom she suspects of killing her son in a hit-and-run accident.
Frédéric Mermoud also directed the second seasons of the series "The Returned" and "Spiral" for the television channel Canal+.
With such a wealth of experience, this filmmaker who adores genre films and playing with cinematic grammar no longer makes too many false match cuts!