Blocking, Orientation, and Editing in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and WATCHMEN

Technology has enabled several trends in this Golden Age of Television: more helicopter shots! (IE cheaper because drones), longer tracking shots! special effects and stunts once strictly seen in movies! etc. Different genres lean into certain trends harder than others. A big thing in action/adventure/superhero movies is to keep the camera in perpetual motion; establishing shots start on an item before moving up/down/into the room*, cameras circle mundane conversations in hopes of making them seem more dynamic. Network TV editing, meanwhile, often comes in quick, short cuts as well, to drive pacing and/or fit within a precise runtime.

Combine these things with the hard and fast pace of TV production, and more and more we see crossing the line and/or switching characters’ established sides of frame during scenes. While line jumps and juxtapositions can be a wonderful tool and have their reasons and place, it seems to happen more often because it’s easier to disregard the rule in the setup, and the prevalent belief the audience doesn’t care.

Maybe this will eventually be a cinematic language norm for the better. Maybe I’m Man Yelling At Cloud, with the cloud being evolutions in how we present stories on screen. But I hold even when the audience doesn’t care or catch it, it’s at best mistaken or rushed (at worst lazy or poor filmmaking) to create visual confusion without cause. Over time these techniques don’t only confuse the story being told, but weaken the overall impact of crossing/switching/juxtaposing techniques when they are used purposefully.

Let’s look at a few scenes from Crisis on Infinite Earths. To be clear, I’m not picking on the Arrowverse; not only are these shows telling and adapting complex stories [all entries have weaker and stronger seasons, including some excellent storytelling, action sequences, acting, examination of leadership and difficulties of parenthood, repudiation of white supremacy, etc], but its crossover events keep raising the bar for television spectacle. These instances may very well be a case of an intense production schedule crushing storytellers working on a massive story in a tight amount of time. But they’re a perfect example for three reasons:

1. they are clear parts of larger stories which they can be compared to/against

2. they have regularly disguised characters, whose costumes make it even more important to distinguish who is who

3. they exist at the centre of ‘constantly moving /cutting genres’ mentioned above, and thus are setting norms for this language right now.

 

“Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Three” – Batwoman v Supergirl

The scene establishes Batwoman Left, Supergirl right; this remains for several shot-reverse-shots as the two talk.

MCU on Supergirl in focus R with Batwoman foregrounded on L
Reverse shot
CU on Supergirl in focus R with Batwoman foregrounded on L
Reverse shot

So far, so standard. Then, as Batwoman issues a challenge, we cut down to their hands in CU:

with a rack focus to give the full effect of how On Edge they are

Standard filmmaking language tells the audience the hand on the left would be Batwomans . . . only it’s Supergirl L and Batwoman R, switched for no reason.

Yes, Batwoman’s in black and her hand is gloved, whereas Supergirl is in (dark) blue and her hand is bare. But in addition to the fact we haven’t seen their hands close here before (IE it’s not been clearly established what their hands look like and whose is whose) the fact they’re on opposite sides seems wildly unnecessary; why didn’t they simply set up this shot so Supergirl’s hand was foregrounded on the right side?

After focus holds just long enough for Batwoman to clench her fist, we jump to a wide shot:

Supergirl L / Batwoman R , same orientation as their hands. So the argument could be, if you have to switch / cross the line at some point, maybe the hand closeup is a place to do it . . . But a couple seconds later, the next shot throws us back into the Batwoman L / Supergirl R closeups.

Why do they switch sides for just those two shots in the middle? And even if you’re going to switch, why in this order, which is particularly jarring because the switch occurs on a cut from one MCU to another – IE similarly-framed shot to a similarly framed shot – which is more likely to lead to confusion. The more context we get, the quicker we acclimate. Seeing Supergirl and Batwoman full-length gives us more information to differentiate them (hair, colour on the costumes and capes, posture, where they are in the room, etc) than given in a quick glimpse of their hands. Why not use the full length ‘switch’ before cutting into their hands? It’s still not ideal to cut from hands to switching back to their faces on opposite sides, but it’d be better.

Was there something else cut from the scene which led to this somewhat awkward sequence? Did director David McWhirter need to cover something in the edit, maybe in the process losing shot(s) which better orientated us? All of course possible, but it seems TV directors – particularly in this genre – simply care less about these transitions, and more that things move and cut quickly.

“Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part One” – Supers

Here, Superman and Supergirl talk on the Balcony of Deep Thoughts.

I did a slideshow of the whole sequence in order, (removing instances of quick back-and-forths between exact same shots):

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Look at the number of times we cut from same to same. The very first edit cuts from a medium shot of Supergirl R . . . to a medium shot of Superman R. If you crossfaded he’d be superimposed over her. The next edit keeps Supergirl L and Superman R, but the following goes back to the first shot, flipping sides again. As the sequence continues, there are a couple instances of this, as well as line crossing. Though you can’t see this in the slideshow, there is camera movement in Shot13-14 which reestablishes Supergirl on the Left . . . but in the final MCU she’s shown on the right, and then when it cuts to the wide behind them she’s on the left again, so you wonder why they bothered.

The camera and edit (under director Jesse Warn, who has directed many episodes of the Arrowverse) plays fast and loose WITH two Super-caped people. It’s true we don’t need to move our eyes, but this technique is best used when you’re doing something such as helping us follow action or showing us how characters who seem to be in different places are actually similar. Here, it’s actually confusing the issue / characters. Yes, their hair and faces are different, but particularly with the background fairly uniformly blue and out of focus, and the characters dressed in the same outfits, it takes more work to orient ourself / reestablish who is who on every cut, which distracts from the powerfully acted scene.

What about an emotional reason, something the scene is trying to convey with these cuts? Well, the scene is Kara helping Clark, they have experienced some similar things but in this scene are in different places emotionally. Putting them in the same place visually, especially when they are dressed similarly and against generically similar backgrounds, doesn’t help us, the story, or a deeper meaning.

“Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Three” – Flash and Friends

First, some bonus fun: the ‘Frost-to-Caitlin’ transition has happened a bit this season. Sometimes they accomplish this with special effects, most useful when one of Danielle Panabaker’s characters is only on-screen for a few seconds. If both characters are in the scene for a while, they usually go full makeup on both and accomplish the transition with a camera-tricky crossfade. Occasionally camera or character move so Caitlin disappears behind a pillar/person and Frost comes out the other side, or vice versa. Here, they accomplish the transition via suggestion, as Cisco walks by the camera from the left, then an edit and some directional flimflammery as we hear the “Frost transition’ sound effect, voila, pan up to see Caitlin. Though doing this constantly would feel a cheat, obviously for a crossover they have bigger setups to spend time and budget on, and this is cheaper, easier, and effective. Potentially the initial plan was to use Cisco’s crossing as a way to hide the transition, and running out of budget / time meant keep the blocking but start the camera at foot level rather than eye level, eliminating need for CGI. Regardless, it’s one of those things you’ve got to be able to accomplish efficiently – and have a backup plan for – if you’re going to direct a TV show in this space.

Now, to the related blocking / positioning stuff:

If you follow Barry’s eyes in the scene transition, Barry looks down to where the Flash crest will appear, and he goes from Camera R-facing-L to L-facing-R. It plays simple enough, but takes forethought and is a nice little moment.

Note the scene doesn’t particularly care where Caitlin and Cisco are, only that Barry/The Flash stays central and loosely facing Camera Right. Caitlin is established center-leftish, with Cisco dirty in frame Camera R. When we cut to Cisco solo, he’s all the way on the other side, far L, even though both shots show him similarly in a MCU. When the trio move in to hug, Caitlin jumps from the middle/leftish to far R as Cisco is L.

We know who everyone is and roughly where they are in relation to each other, it’s not a particularly confusing scene, but what it shows is the visual language isn’t particularly worried about the whole and how it cuts together, so long as individual shots work and we ‘get the gist.’

There’s actually quite an easy tweak to make the language clearer, and that’s to put Barry in the middle for all the shots. As in, when we see Caitlin, he’s on the Left edge of frame, and when we see Cisco, Barry’s on the Right. He’s in the middle of his own single show as well as all the trio shots, so it would work . . . but it’d mean Grant Gustin (or his standin) would have to be there, they might have to cheat the angles and eyelines, etc., so easier not to.

Which is the key to most of this, really. I would venture a guess some of this has to do with ease of setup; the camera itself can be pretty mobile now, but resetting lights and backgrounds takes a lot of time, which is at a premium on a 22-episode TV show and especially this crossover series.

How Watchmen Handles Similar Setups

There’s a longer, interesting analysis to be had about how these scenes can be visually muddled, but similar scenes in Watchmen aren’t. I’ll just touch on three examples roughly correlating to 1-3, above.

“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” – Judd v Angela

Take the pilot scene where Judd and Angela talk in Judd’s office; yes, it’s the first time they’ve talked, and yes they are framed in similar sizes, and yes when we cut to Angela sometimes she’s in the middle, left, or right of screen.

But three crucial (and a few other minor) differences: 1. where the camera is / does it jump the line 2. that both characters are dressed and lit differently, so even if they are ‘superimposed’ they’d be immediately distinguishable 3. this isn’t a shot-reverse-shot setup, they are very deliberately, separately framed, with a desk between them and different backgrounds (not to mention we don’t have closeups and cut-ins of, say, a badge on one or the other and we’re supposed to distinguish who it’s on).

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“If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” – car chats

Compare the Balcony of Deep Thoughts conversation to the one of Laurie and Night in the car in Watchmen Ep 4. It does a similar switch, though with three consistent angles and a little more judiciousness with its cuts:

Screen Shot 2020-01-11 at 8.26.24 pmScreen Shot 2020-01-11 at 8.27.46 pmScreen Shot 2020-01-11 at 8.28.34 pmScreen Shot 2020-01-11 at 8.26.51 pm

Crossing / switching who is where in the frame does create some the same problems as noted in samples 1 and 2 above. Laurie and Night are dressed differently, and being seated in a car means the steering wheel / who is driving helps keep us established, so why do it? Well, to keep the long conversation visually varied while keeping the presence of Petey from the audience until late in the conversation when Laurie casually refers to him.

For me, the narrative trickery doesn’t quiiiiiite justify the prior cuts (it’s not as though Night doesn’t know Petey is there), but one can see why director Andrij Parekh does it.

“If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” – Night and Friends

Last, compare the Flash / Cisco / Frost conversation to the Laurie / Night / Lady Trieu vivarium chat.

Laurie is centred in all 3-shots, with Lady Trieu on Camera L  and Night on Camera R. When we see Trieu and Night in a shot without Laurie, Trieu is still Camera L and Night on the R, no matter which one the shot is focusing on. When we see Laurie and Night, Laurie is center or L and Night is framed to her R., etc etc. 

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The orientation and camera line stays until the characters move and reestablish themselves elsewhere in the room. Only two shots break out of this pattern; one which uses the group as background for a fourth character entering for a moment, and one high-angled overhead. This is particularly interesting because where we see the group as a whole from an angle which suggests being spied upon . . . which snaps into place once Lady Trieu points out the Veidt statue near the end of their chat.

Now, of course Watchmen is operating with fewer episodes, a longer schedule, and LOADS more money. (They also have some cuts I find baffling, as in the opening bar scene of Ep8 jumping around before it settles in for some spectacular conversing/shooting of the Jon / Angela meeting). But its handling of masked crusaders standing around is as much or more relevant because of this; while not every show can do its long tracking shots, funky inside-inanimate-objects shots, everything with Looking Glass’s mask, etc., we can learn a lot from how it handles more standard conversational setups; when it follows the rules, and when and why it breaks them. 

Stray Observations 

– *yes, this technique has been around for ages, and shows such as The X-Files took advantage of this stylisation to set themselves apart from other procedurals, but the sheer ubiquity you see now is enabled by technology + a push for the style to be more dynamic (or some would argue frenetic). 

– I don’t read enough comics or graphic novels to comment on reversal of characters from panel to panel or page to page, but I would say this: reading on the page and reading on a screen are very different. It’s true some language relates loosely from one medium to the next, IE Western reading and cinema both tend to treat movement L-R as going ‘forward’ or into the future and its opposite as going ‘backwards’ or reviewing or going into the past. But a page where one can go at one’s own pace, look back and forth without interrupting a flow, where dialogue and action lines are in the form of written word, where motion is suggested by lines and not dictated by actor/camera/editing, and where the reader can see multiple ‘frames’ and setups at once, doesn’t necessarily need to abide by same visual language, and can toy with different expressions and visual orientation without detracting from narrative clarity.

– Why is there a drumkit in the room where Batwoman and Supergirl face off? Because it’s shiny, the set dressers needed to fill a lot of space in a short amount of time, and it was handy.

– How great Night sipping coffee out of Judd’s owl mug!?

– Lots of actors can be good in subpar material, but has Regina King ever even chosen a bad project!?

Watchmen transitions remind me a lot of The Fall (though Watchmen surely uses more CGI to accomplish it). 

C’mon Mel, loosen up. If we can accept posters for such events are composited from various actors in front of green screens at different times, including what appears to be some  egregious manipulation of Supergirl’s head, can’t we accept a little handwaving editing?

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