2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
The all-encompassing sequence shot
by Jorge Sanjinés, 1989
translated by Cecilia Cornejo and Dennis Hanlon
In the ongoing formal investigations we had to face in order to communicate effectively and coherently, the main concern, in terms of cinematic grammar, has been to determine the shooting and editing styles appropriate for our addressees’ ‘internal rhythms’ and unique cosmovision. [open endnotes in new window] We must keep in mind that these addressees are not Europeans, North Americans, or even residents of Buenos Aires, but rather the Andean masses, the millions of Aymara and Quechua peasants, the hundreds of thousands of laborers and workers who trace their origins to these cultures, as well as those Andean city-dwellers who, consciously or unconsciously, respond in a similar way to a cultural sensibility sustained by centuries of contact, exchange, and interpenetration with the potent cultures of the Andes. Because, curiously enough, a sophisticated Bolivian intellectual who prides himself on having mastered Proust’s oeuvre, composed rhymes in Greek like Franz Tamayo, or written only in French, almost always expresses, in his [sic] manners, attitudes, and ways of thinking, the accumulated sediment which centuries of Aymara and Quechua thought have left in his being, despite the racism, scorn, and even virulent hatred his class levels towards those oppressed masses, the direct heirs of the Andean tradition. And so, a doctor in La Paz or Cochabamba is different from an educated native of Santa Cruz, even though both are Bolivian.
The cruceño intellectual, a direct descendent of the Spanish colonizers, isolated by the green wall of the jungle and the imposing chain of the Andes, speaks and thinks in a different fashion; he constructs his universe differently, and his understanding of nature is propelled by the exuberance, by the heat and the torrential rains. The climate makes him a boisterous, gregarious, and cheerful parrandero. His childhood memories were never populated by the magic of the mountain winds, nor was he nourished by Aymara women who would speak to him in their native tongue, telling him tales of anchancho, the imp of the high pampas. His ears never heard the harsh and profound longing of the zampoñas, the pinkillos, the lament of the quenas, or the infinite silence of the pampas. That is why this cruceño, who is closer to Corumbá in Brazil than La Paz, Cuzco, or Quito, is culturally different. But no matter how Europeanized or Americanized a gentleman from the Peruvian highlands might appear from the outside, he will be much better able to understand a language designed within the communicative parameters of the Andean peoples, for the ‘infiltrations’, the rhythms, cadences, and style of the Andes reside deep in his psyche.
For all these reasons, when we speak of an addressee, we understand this to represent a greater spectrum of people than just the Aymara and Quechua peasants. It could be that some are more able than others to apprehend this language, but this seems relative to us.
From the break we proposed with the mechanics of our narrative starting with our experience with Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor, 1969)—a film whose language was based on elements learned from European-American cinema—beginning with El coraje del pueblo (The Courage of the People, 1971), we undertook a search for a structure that would contravene the tradition of the individual protagonist so present in fiction films in order to affirm the collective protagonist. But it was in the next film, El enemigo principal (The Principal Enemy, 1974), that narrative changes geared toward finding cultural and psychological coherence, along with effective communication, began to appear more clearly. With this film begins the use of the sequence shot as well as the practice of revealing the plot’s resolution in advance as a means of neutralizing suspense in order to create spaces of reflection, thus liberating the spectator from the traps common to all plots based on red herrings and deceit. Similar to the way that the individual protagonist creates powerful bonds of subjective identification with the spectator, suspense, as a narrative tool, manipulates the spectator’s attention, closing off spaces and times for reflection.
All incorporated elements sought consistency with the basic proposition of such works, which were proposed as spaces in which the masses can reflect upon themselves. At the same time, these films attempted to more closely approximate the Andean cultural structures, in which the collective predominates over the individual. Quechua storytelling itself is founded upon foreknowledge of the plot’s resolution and contents prior to the playing out of the narrative.
In El enemigo principal the sequence shot began to interpret the collective gaze while suggesting the spectator’s participation within the scene. Unfortunately, due to technical and often times material limitations—mainly the lack of film stock—it was not possible to realize the goals of the original project, which was to make the entire film in lengthy sequence shots. The same thing happened in the next film, ¡Fuera de aquí! (Get Out of Here!, 1977); we still had not yet reached a definitive understanding of what we were looking for in implementing the sequence shot. In ¡Fuera de aquí! we achieved three or four sequence shots that completely encompassed a whole sequence. In the rest of the film, however, as with El enemigo principal, it often happened that a single sequence was composed of several lengthy, hand-held shots whose internal logic failed to correspond with our aims, succeeding only at times in transmitting a collective point of view and offering a sense of participation. Mixing these lengthy takes with close-ups wrecked the style and diminished the effectiveness of our approach.
Nevertheless, these experiments did much to affirm our resolve to find a sequence shot in keeping with the ideological and cultural requirements. It became evident that the sequence shot—because of the ample spaces it offered, the near absence of abrupt close-ups, and the dominant presence of a group of performers who could follow and attend to the action—introduced yet another element, one which undeniably conferred the sequence shot with a democratic dimension, for here were non-professional actors who could choose whether or not to engage in ways that, although unscripted, were welcome.
Within this technical approach, the close-up ceased to take the leading role, and if we chose to use it at all, it responded to the collective actor’s decision to take a closer look at something. Thus the close-up lost its connotations of individualism and dominance. It was not imposed on the spectator but made its way to him out of its own volition or the demands of the internal dynamics of the scene.
We have indicated elsewhere our belief that form determines content, which could mean the same as McLuhan’s well-known dictum. It is clear that the close-up lends itself to an iconic reading of ideological and historical contents which correspond to western European culture, and that its hermeneutic contradicts the communal and collective conceptions found in other cultures. That being said, our goal is not to completely do away with this narrative resource, but rather to use it under different coordinates.
Consequently, in order to develop the theory of what we like to call the all-encompassing sequence shot, we must first make a brief historical summary of some narrative elements of cinema.
When cinema first reveals its expressive possibilities and manifests itself as a new art form, the close-up quickly comes to occupy the most prominent place in cinema’s expressive resources. Griffith in the U.S., Eisenstein, the Russian theorists, the German Expressionists, and all the other great classic European creators use this resource with great mastery, discovering and developing its remarkable possibilities. They use it with complete propriety and great talent, with total cultural and ideological coherence. These are men and creators who belong to a particular culture: the Hellenic Judeo-Christian western culture. They are descendents of Aristotle, Homer, and Esquilo; they were born into a world dominated by the idea of a God-man, and individualism has been instilled in them as life’s axis and aspiration. The development of private property has enshrined the rule of man over man, while the powerful ideas of personal accumulation and personal realization, detached from the collective fate, have come to be accepted and projected as inalienable rights. Therefore, in the art of western culture, the singular, the particular, the individual, acquire paramount importance, and their iconic expressions, maximum significance. The close-up takes on a leading role in cinema; it denotes a certain vision of life and way of understanding and constructing reality.
Of course, it would be fanatical and absurd to dismiss the close-up from cinematic narrative solely because it represents a particular cultural stance and contains a specific ideology. It is a completely valid resource when used to punctuate situations in cinematic narrative and it must be used when the narrative demands it. What is at stake, from our standpoint, is not using the close-up as the western cinema does, since, simply put, such usage lacks coherence with the cosmovision of our peoples, especially the great Andean majorities. The search for a shooting and editing style that expresses this cosmovision while remaining true to the ideological content of our cultures is the task we must engage in.
Obviously, the close-up will be used at similar times in various kinds of narratives. If we approach the face of the protagonist, it will be with a pan, a travelling shot, or a handheld camera following a subjective point of view, while an American screenwriter indicates a close-up by means of a direct cut in his script. Both approaches will convey a certain dramatic intensity at a certain moment, but what should interest us is not this similarity but rather their placement in the larger context of the narrative.
Likewise, the fragmentation of scenes into various shots, whether this be for purposes of description or dramatic interest, has its origin, in our view, in the European pictorial tradition. In classical, naturalist, figurative painting, the painter selects a graphic moment, a scene, a person, or a landscape, and then he composes a painting following certain guidelines and “golden” rules that situate and reveal the key points upon which human attention is unconsciously concentrated. Nevertheless, the great masters have broken these rules and produced marvelous works, but generally speaking, art schools teach these rules as the very basis of pictorial composition. In film schools these same rules are appealed to and painting is held up as an example. The cinema ended up orienting itself toward the most conventional of pictorial spaces, adopting the horizontal rectangle as its preferred format.
The tendency to splinter into various “paintings” or frames of careful composition obeys a well-developed grammar cinema began to use to narrate its stories; the fragmented shots that showed their subjects at various distances began to acquire names in a nomenclature that became universal—close-up, plan américain, long shot, etc. But it is interesting to note that such fragmentation also reflects a particular way of understanding reality that is consistent with an individualistic vision of society and life. This is a splintered society that seeks resolution through constant ruptures in human relations as well as in its own organic composition. By breaking up space, we render a social universe of remnants, of gaps, of psychological violence, a society of individual spaces, of demarcated territories, of places “owned”, a society of rankings, of social differences, of privileges—finally, of class. There is neither continuity nor harmony in western society.
Individualism as an attitude, a life philosophy, and as a social practice, demands that society’s expressive components be sealed off from one another—each individual in his little box, every person in “her” own world, every ego in its proper cell. The “I” of the close-up reigns onscreen; the language of mutilation gained great force through it, and so it was accepted and preserved as natural. It was and is consistent with the cosmovision of a society that has perturbed and denatured the integrity of relationships among people and that has desecrated the relationship between humans and nature, destroying the continuity and complementarity vital to both.
For all these reasons, in order to narrate the lives and struggles of the Andean people, especially groups like the Aymara, who make up a huge percentage of the Bolivian population (circa 40%), it is most appropriate to use a cinematic language of greater scenic continuity, one less fragmented that allows a feel for the same collective integrity they have created and developed as a way of resolving their internal relations and their relations with nature, of which they believe themselves to be part, not owners.
In our previous attempts we started from the basic idea of transmitting the impression of the spectator’s participation in the interior of the scene. The camera moved interpreting the spectator’s point of view, choosing moments and framings according to the logical and natural interest the dramatic action sparked. Medium shots and plans américain dominated the sequences, always respecting the spaces these shots afforded for spontaneous interventions; however, oftentimes these spaces were restricted because of the need for rhythm in editing. Camera movements did not have a foreseen ending because the individual or collective performance was largely left open to improvisation, or, starting from central ideas, could develop without limit until the roll of negative ran out—thus it was generally left to the editor, rather than the screenwriter or director, to determine when the shot should end.
This technique entailed severe narrative risks, as it made the context too susceptible to unforeseen circumstances that could disturb the film’s flow or rhythm. Likewise, in the absence of limits placed on the camera movement beforehand, the final composition was left to chance and usually could not be retained in editing. The shot’s initial composition could be foreseen, but not the final.
Another limitation presented itself when, as a scene developed, after holding the camera in a proper framing, it had to be suddenly displaced without motivation in order to get a tighter shot or reframe something, thus revealing the presence of the camera to the spectator. This violated the principle of participation, which depends upon achieving nearly imperceptible movements that interpret the spectator’s desire to move within the interior of the frame.
The advantage of this technique undoubtedly resided in the liberty of movement, creativity, and improvisation it afforded non-professional actors, generally chosen from amongst people who had lived the experiences being recreated or were familiar with them. Nevertheless, we realized that, by pre-recording on video before the shoot, it was possible to capture spontaneous performances, then order and coordinate them, extracting the essential parts. These could then be re-elaborated in an all-encompassing sequence shot with all the precision the moment of filming on negative stock requires.
All the difficulties and virtues our previous experiences shooting long takes revealed to us helped us to elaborate a different technique until we achieved, after numerous attempts, a narrative mechanic of the sequence shot attuned to the requirements already set forth: the all-encompassing sequence shot.
The all-encompassing sequence shot
In Andean culture, the predominance of the interest of the group, the collectivist tradition, practices of solidarity, and the vision of collectivity, integration, and participation, all comprise, in both their ideological significance and their daily practice, a unique way of facing reality, of resolving problems of life, society and even of one’s individuality, which, though subordinated to the interests of the collective, is equally existent and active.
Collective execution is a trait of Andean music. A Kantu, an impressive composition for wind and percussion instruments, cannot be played as a solo. Each musician plays his or her zampoña, extracting a part of each note, which the others go on to complete in these pieces of extraordinary solemnity. Here the mechanical structure of the execution obeys a group conception, a collective practice, an ideology that privileges communal interests.
To propose a narrative technique appropriate to the Andean cosmovision appeared to us of fundamental importance. To narrate that world cinematographically from within, creating Andean culture with cinema, extending the creative act by integrating the cinematic medium with the internal rhythms of our cultural majority in order to cease exercising a point of view that is distant, external, intrusive, and domineering.
Little by little it became clear to us that the camera had to move uninterruptedly, motivated by the scene’s internal dynamic. Only in this way could it achieve imperceptibility and spatial integration. By refraining from fragmenting the sequence into various shots, a new order could be transmitted, one appropriate for peoples who conceive of everything as extensions of themselves. The rhythm would be established internally by the movements of figures and things which, in turn, would dictate the movements of the camera: the tracking shots, the close-ups, and the wider shots that would include the whole group.
In order to execute shots without a cut lasting practically the entire time of a sequence, it became necessary to destroy established schemas. A camera operator who began moving on a dolly might have to move, imperceptibly, to the seat of a crane in order to raise himself to a height coinciding with that of an actor whom he or she would then immediately follow, camera in hand, to an encounter between this actor and others. Meanwhile, the dolly would be brought to this place, and the camera operator would use it to follow the characters as they speak for a long stretch. Finally, the camera would come to rest in a long close-up, aided by a portable stand that a camera assistant has carefully placed beneath the camera to lend it more stability. The entire shot could last for five or nine minutes, losing none of its intensity or interest.
This technique led us to another: the editing could be done beforehand in the shooting script and during the shooting itself. Since the sequence shot did not allow for internal cuts and its beginning and ending were perfectly delimited, all the camera movements, movements of the actors, mise-en-scene, and framings had to be accomplished very precisely. Therefore, once determined, then filmed and approved subsequent to review on a video monitor attached to the camera, the editing was also approved. The editing of a film would then be reduced to joining together 80 to 100 sequences—and the film would be completely edited!
Within a single sequence the scenario could be changed, but in order for the newly introduced theme to maintain its integrity, it would have to be brought to resolution without a cut.
It is clear that a good script will include instructions for editing the film: it is even possible to calculate with great precision the duration of each shot, indicating exactly how and where they should begin and end. But filmmakers know from experience that it is generally at the editing table that the final rhythm of a sequence is composed, shortening some shots, juxtaposing others, eliminating some, etc. During the editing process, many a film has been salvaged or sunk. The ability of the editor counts for much. With the wrapping of shooting, the film enters a new process. And the script, which oftentimes was modified and improved during shooting, will become a mere organizing tool during editing. The editor will consult the actual image achieved and, of course, the original idea for this image will, in comparison, hold much less weight. For it is the filmed image that imposes its resilience, its own magic—or, conversely, offers its own poverty or mediocrity.
In the Andean Sequence Shot, the process of creating the internal rhythm of the sequence—intuiting when the actors should move or the camera angles be changed in order to create spatial relations, creating a certain atmosphere, or controlling the internal dramatics of a scene—all this must be done in the planning and shooting stages, because its start is a voyage of no return. Once begun, the shot cannot be fractured or fragmented, and it will not be cut until it arrives at its conclusion. This process exercises a profound demand for concentration upon the filmmaker, an enormous effort obliging him or her to mentally visualize the entire sequence. The filmmaker will have to be able to write, imagine, and see in the “moviola” of his or her mind an all-encompassing sequence shot in order to be able to correctly conduct during the shoot the mise-en-scene, editing, and the composition of the spaces and sounds, all of which establish the visual dialectic of the scene. This particular process of planning a sequence shot must be aligned with the general consciousness of the film, its rhythm and overall continuity, so that the timing of each shot has the proper value of tension, growth, or neutrality in relation to the entire film. The filmmaker has to be able to feel, intuit, and know that, for example, shot #41 is in rhythm with those that precede and succeed it. He or she must be able to visualize the whole film before making it, visualize it in detail.
Naturally such a proposition presents extremely grave problems in terms of the camera, lighting, movement of actors, sound, and acting.
It is necessary to rehearse each shot to perfection. The camera operator needs to know exactly where and how to move; he or she must be familiar with the movements of the actors and have memorized their lines as cues, attending with precision to their often abrupt turns and shifts. He or she must do this with such control that no hesitations, slips, or tremors are revealed. The director of photography must place the lights and screens with the camera movements in mind. The direct sound recorder often has the greatest challenge in capturing the voices of the actors as they cross great distances, make 180 degree turns, etc. Lastly, the actors need to learn long speeches by heart, knowing exactly how and when to move during them. One mistake in the final three seconds of a six-minute shot will require the crew to start all over from the beginning.
Another characteristic born of this narrative method is the camera’s ability to adopt multiple points of view within a sequence: for example, it might begin with the point of view of a character who remembers something and then change into an instrument for describing that memory. The same shot could adopt a point of view outside both the character’s subjective point of view and the reconstructed memory in order to depict the collective vision of other characters who may have come into the frame, contravening the individual viewpoint, eliminating every last trace of those memories, or incorporating itself into that memory in a way that violates space and time.
While this approach involves risks and no small challenges, we propose it as a narrative option that emerges as an expressive need of a certain cosmovision. Hopefully it has a broader spectrum of uses or will allow the formulation of other narrative concerns. Such is the theory, and we suspect that practice will afford confirmations and negations useful to its further elaboration. That praxis will be called La nación clandestina (The Hidden Nation), currently in production.
2. A Bolivian poet, essayist, and politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
3. A parrandero is something like a man about town.
4. The zampoña is an Andean wind instrument like the panpipe; the pinkillo and quena are Andean flutes.
5. Technically, in a sequence shot, an entire scene is contained in a single, uinterrupted shot. The term is commonly used to refer to shots that last an unusually long time, as it is at times in this essay.
6. A reference to Marshall McLuhan’s saying, “The medium is the message.”
7. In a plan américain, sometimes referred to as a medium long shot, a human figure framed from just below the knees to the top of the head fills most of the screen. It is in between the long shot, in which human figures appear in their entirety, and the medium shot, which frames the human figure from the waist up. The plan américain is often used to show groups of people.
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