Average Shot Length E-mail
Written by Chalupa   
Friday, 31 August 2007 01:57


Average shot length (ASL) is a concept I learned from reading Roger Ebert's column "Ask the Movie Answer Man" in the Chicago Sun-Times.  He's had readers asking him various questions about it for years.  Generally, the trend in movies is for ASL to decrease as moviegoers' attention spans get shorter and shorter, thanks to video games, music videos, and the hectic pace of modern life.  MTV is frequently blamed for this phenomenon.  The theory goes that audiences --especially young people who are likely to buy movie tickets -- are so used to the quick cuts they see on MTV that they can't concentrate on longer shots.  Therefore, modern movies are more likely to cut from one thing to another more rapidly than movies of the past.  Figuring a movie's ASL is a way to put this theory into numbers.  If modern hit movies like The Incredibles or The Matrix have an ASL of only 2 or 3 seconds, it shows how movies in general have sped up over the years.  (A blockbuster from the 1940s or 1950s might have an ASL of 10 or 11 seconds.)
The Coen Brothers, however, are known as more "old school" filmmakers whose films have a classic feel and rely more on acting and writing than quick cutting and fast action sequences.  Some of their films, like Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There, are known for being relatively slow-paced, which might make them seem odd to modern audiences who are used to more hyperactive films like the recent hit The Bourne Ultimatum (whose ASL is 2 seconds).  I just wanted to see how The Big Lebowski stood up against other movies in terms of shot length.  What I found out was that the average shot in the movie is about 6.4 seconds long, which is somewhere in the middle -- neither particularly fast nor particularly slow.  (Pulp Fiction's ASL is 7 seconds.)  While preparing the ASL analysis, I realized that there are some sequences -- particularly the ransom drop, the marmot scene, and the final confrontation with the Nihilists -- which rely on fast cutting.  Those scenes bring down the ASL mathematically.  But that's appropriate: those are action scenes in which the film should naturally speed up.  On the other hand, I was amazed how many shots there were in the film which were incredibly long.  In the bowling alley, for instance, there are dialogue scenes between the Dude and Walter where the Coens go a looooooong time without cutting.  But, again, that's appropriate: time is slowing down in these scenes.  The Dude and Walter are "takin' 'er easy," and it's only natural that there should be less cutting.  I also noticed that in any scene involving the Stranger -- including the introduction -- the cutting slows way down.  I believe the single longest shot in the movie is the three shot of the Dude, Donny, and Walter at the bar about an hour into the movie,  (The scene where the Dude is worrying about his johnson being cut off.)  This is, of course, right before the Stranger shows up.  Notice how the character of the Stranger is introduced visually: instead of cutting to a shot of Sam Elliott walking up to the bar, the Coens instead push in towards the Dude -- without cutting -- and when they pull the camera back, the Stranger is sitting there like he's been there the whole time.  It gives an element of mystery to the Stranger by making it seem that he appears out of nowhere, sort of like a ghost.  His mystique would have been diminished, I think, had they handled it in a more conventional way, i.e. with cuts.  The very last shot of the movie is also a very long one and, again, involves the Dude and the Stranger.  It's one, long, unbroken take of the Dude and the Stranger's final meeting, and the shot is actually bookended by the lone bowler in the background rolling strikes.  He rolls a strike at the beginning of the shot and another one at the end.  It should be noted that long shots like these are complicated because if anything goes wrong technically or if any actor misses a cue or flubs a line, they have to start all over again.  During the "they're gonna kill that poor woman" scene, there's actually a really long, unbroken tracking shot which takes the Dude, Walter, and Donny through the bowling alley and out into the parking lot where they pause to see that the Dude's car has been stolen.  From what I've heard, shots like these that transition from indoors to outdoors are tricky to pull off, so the Coens must have felt strongly that this was the best way to handle the scene if they were willing to even attempt it.  I call this one shot in the movie their "Kubrick shot" because Stanley Kubrick liked long tracking shots of people walking through environments where the camera stays in front of the characters and moves with them as they walk.  (If you've seen A Clockwork Orange, think of Alex walking through the record store or the shot of the psychiatrist walking down the hospital corridor near the end of the film.)
Listen to me, I'm ramblin' again.
I'm sorry if this is more of an explanation than you wanted.  I get carried away sometimes.


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