Making the beauty shot beautiful

Super 8 movie posterJJ Abrams’s movie Super 8 is one of those that slipped through my viewing net when it was first released. This week I finally got round to watching it. I’m not here to review the film (other than to say I found a lot to like about it, not least the fabulous performances from the juvenile cast). Rather I want to comment on a trend I and others have noticed in recent years, namely the tendency of film-makers to cut fast and avoid lingering on anything resembling a beauty shot.

It’s a topic I’ve talked about here before. It’s apparent in the almost incoherent action sequences from the recent Bond film Quantum of Solace, and of course in the frantic overkill of Transformers. Oh, I know the argument: today’s generation has a different operating system to mine, one that’s hard-wired with a short attention span and an affinity for fast-moving computer games. But that’s not the issue for me. I like the big scenes to get my heart pumping as much as the next man, but I also like it when there’s occasionally time for me develop a genuine emotional connection with what I’m seeing on the screen.

What pleased me about Super 8 is that it bucked the current trend of hyperactivity. It’s not surprising, as the film is Abrams’s homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, and emulates everything about them from subject matter to lens flares. What I really enjoyed, however, was that Abrams wasn’t scared to hold shots a little longer than is the norm these days. And you know what? It got me engaged.

Like I said, I’m not the first to make this point. And I’m sure I won’t be the last. After watching Super 8, I nipped over to and found this excellent article on the visual effects used to create the movie’s epic train crash sequence. Lo and behold, there was a quote from VFX supervisor Dennis Muren echoing my thoughts precisely:

‘Some of [Spielberg’s] stuff I think … is not popular at the moment. Like holding on shots long enough to feel a reaction from them. Nowadays it’s plot-action-plot-action-plot-action in fast-paced sequences. In those days the shots lasted longer and you had more time to feel it.’

Time to feel it. That’s what I’m talking about. Light and sound move fast, but human beings don’t. According to German physiologist Hermann von Hemlholtz, the speed of human thought is ‘faster than a bird but slower than sound.’ More recent research suggests that the human brain is filled with artificial bottlenecks that actively slow down certain signals so that everything happens together, enabling us to actually think coherently. And, as we all know from experience, emotional responses, reliant as they are on all those glands opening and squirting chemicals through our systems, can work even more slowly still.

I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated even than that, but my point is that, compared to a modern digital projector, the human body is a clunky old thing. So here’s my plea to all you film-makers. Have the courage to take a little time now and then. Put a little beauty in that beauty shot. And hold it as long as you dare. Your audience will love you for it.

So what do you think? Am I a crusader for beauty or just stuck in the past? When you cast your vote below, you’ll see the results of this poll displayed.



3 thoughts on “Making the beauty shot beautiful

  1. Very interesting article. I haven’t seen Super 8 yet, but it’s in my growing list of DVDs i’ve bought but haven’t got round to watching. Interestingly, during my film studies course, i was taught that Spielberg cuts, on average , every 3 seconds. It’d be interesting to see whether there is any pattern in his shot length throughout the years.

    1. Thanks, Terry. Interesting to hear about the 3-second thing. I haven’t looked into any research on this, though I daresay it exists. I suspect also that the phenomenon isn’t just about individual shots. There’s a complex relationship between dwell time, composition, a shot’s position within a sequence and so on. I agree a comparison over time, not just of Spielberg’s work but of a general cross-section would be fascinating. Also comparing, say, Hollywood with Europe. Phew! Talk about a can of worms!

  2. There would definitely be plenty of mileage there should an academic/student/someone with a lot of time on their hands fancy looking into it. I’m almost tempted to look into it, but i haven’t anywhere near enough time!

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