Why Mad Max: Fury Road Is So Easy To Watch

Why Mad Max: Fury Road Is So Easy To Watch

Mad Max may seem like the action-movie outlier among this year's Academy Awards nominees, but it's more than deserving of earnest consideration. In particular, I hope Fury Road wins Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. For all the ridiculous action and stuntwork happening in a given five-minute stretch of the film, it's always exceptionally easy to tell what's going on. Why is Fury Road so easy to watch? The answer is more complicated than just, "it has a lot of amazing-looking actors doing cool shit," though that certainly doesn't hurt.

The film's unusual clarity is largely thanks to the meticulous, purposeful work of director George Miller, director of photography John Seale and film editor Margaret Sixel. Fury Road is one of the most carefully constructed, easy-to-watch action films I've ever seen.

If you're a fan of the movie, you've probably seen the above video essay by Vashi Nedomansky titled "Mad Max: Fury Road 'Center Framed'". (If you haven't, check it out. It's great.) In it, Nedomansky examines Miller's approach to shot composition, which relies on firmly, consistently centring each frame on whatever the audience is supposed to be watching.

In a cool recent episode of Tony Zhou's indispensable video essay series Every Frame a Painting, Zhou quotes director Alexander Mackendrick: "What a film director really directs is the audience's attention." With that in mind, an action filmmaker has a tougher task than most: He must direct the audience's attention through a mess of complicated, chaotic on-screen events.

That's what makes Fury Road such a feat of direction, and by extension cinematography and editing. This movie contains a crazy amount of visual information, and it's impressive how easy it still is to keep track what's happening.

Last weekend, I was on a long flight back to Portland from the Kotaku offices in New York. The woman in front of me was watching Fury Road, and I found myself watching along even though I'd already seen the film three times. I had no way to listen to her audio track, so I focused only on the images on her screen. I was amazed by how consistently every shot centres on something, and how easy it was to keep track of what was happening.

About a week ago, Nedomansky posted a new video in which he sped up Fury Road to 12x speed and placed it alongside action contemporaries The Borne Ultimatum, Domino, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Taken 3.

Even at such a high speed, I can still tell what's going on in most of Fury Road. Again, that's largely because every shot is composed so deliberately.

Nedomansky isn't playing fair, though: He's stacked the deck in his favour by picking comparison films from directors like Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass, who embrace the still-popular "shaky cam" style of action filmmaking. I'd actually like to see a similar comparison between Fury Road and other, more coherently directed films like Chad Stahelski's John Wick or any of Justin Lin's Fast and the Furious films. Both of those examples match Fury Road's clean shots and deliberate editing, even if they don't always match its ambition and artfulness.

The whole thing reminds me of a video essay series by Matthias Stork titled "Chaos Cinema", which dissects the shaky-cam approach of Scott, Greengrass, Bay and so on, and lays out some of Stork's problems with it:

In the years since I first saw that video, I've come to appreciate the quick-cut approach more than I used to. I may not care for shaky-cam action films, but I don't think that Greengrass and Bay are incompetent, or anything like that. They're going for something deliberate, it just happens to be something I don't care for or think works that well.

Back when I wrote about Edgar Wright's phenomenal Hot Fuzz, I called out one particularly funny visual gag that jams eight shots into about a second and a half of space:

Why Mad Max: Fury Road Is So Easy To Watch

Looking at that clip now, I'm struck by how it manages to remain coherent. Wright centres each shot and allows your eye process what it's seeing, despite the fact that he's cutting so fast that it takes a slow-mo gif to really make sense of it:

Why Mad Max: Fury Road Is So Easy To Watch

I'm fascinated by the tricks and techniques good action directors use to manage the audience's attention amid the chaos and excitement of the events on screen. This stuff obviously has application to video games or any other visual medium, but it's also plenty interesting on its own.

I loved Mad Max: Fury Road, and not just because it featured a dude with a fire-breathing electric guitar. It's one of the best action films I've ever seen, and the seeing is the important part: thanks to the filmmakers' considered, consistent approach to framing, I could make sense of every moment.


Comments

    the still-popular “shaky cam” style of action filmmaking

    Constantly used sure...

    But I would argue never popular with the audience to be honest. It's the one constant complaint I hear from people on forums, in cinemas etc. "Shakey cam is shit, you can't see anything". It's used time and time again to hide bad choreography, bad film editing, bad cinematography etc. Shakey cam is just terrible.

      It's used time and time again to hide bad choreography, bad film editing, bad cinematography etc.

      So true... My pet hate is the 'accidental' dutch angle move, where instead of actually compositing a shot so that it makes sense, it's just "oops, the camera fell over a bit!"

      On topic, it's a damn shame Miller said he probably won't do any more Mad Max films. I was keen as mustard for a new trilogy.

        There'll be more! He was apparently misquoted: http://www.themarysue.com/george-miller-more-mad-max/

          Yep! He said he will do *at least* one more called "The Wasteland".

          There's a huge call for him, if he cannot do more, to hand the reigns over to Mel Gibson, who to be honest, I would be *delighted* to see take over the Mad Max series as director. The man is just amazing and learnt quite a bit from Miller during his time working with him. Films such as Apocalypto showcase similair shooting styles.

            Mel might be a nut in his personal life, but all I have heard is praise for Apocalypto. Worth watching?

        That is a goddamn pet hate and a half of mine, it's so amateur anyone who does it deserves to be thrown back to filmschool.

      What also grinds my gears about shaky cam is how it's often invoked to provide the impression that the audience is 'there' among the chaos with their darting eyes/wobbly hand-held camcorder but it's pointless: we're not there! We already know all the characters that are in this scene! Our viewpoint is non-diegetic and is there for the sole purpose of giving us a specific window into the scene that will present the story better than being there ever would.

      Last edited 28/01/16 2:08 pm

        Cinephiles (like me) deconstruct everything as we watch it. But for most, cinema is escapism. So lots of people do want to feel like they are in the moment.

        Last edited 28/01/16 7:26 pm

          True. But I think this is doable without making such an audience connection to the viewpoint, like words on the page, a movies camera is often invisible to the experience. In fact, I consider it remarkably easy to ignore the 4th wall; I hardly ever hear the casual movie-going audience complain about lacking cinematography (this shaky-cam debate excepted) as most won't notice it. Instead they criticize what is impossible to ignore: acting, plot, special effects...

          There's definitely a place for that 'in-body' experience of shaky-cam and there's some films that use it very well. However I just don't think audiences need it to feel like they're there, because in film - you're always there.

      I hate it usually, but I think the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan does shaky cam well, so I think it has a place. But agree; overused to band aid over something ugly.

        The Saving Private Ryan one is a bit different for me. It fits the situation, it's not overdone and it actually emphasises the whole panic of the situation. Compare that to something like Cloverfield, which just *abuses* the concept and yeah...

      One movie that did 'shaky cam' well. Chronicle.

    I was astounded watching the extras on the BD that the truck rolling and the monster truck jump and the polecats were all happening for reals.

    I assumed that the bulk of it was real, but the crazy stuff was CG, but way, way more than I could have imagined was actual full size vehicles, shot at speed. It is insane.

    I found the resident evil clip at 12x to be more easily watchable..

    In particular, I hope Fury Road wins Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.I'm torn between Mad Max and The Hateful Eight for cinematography, but I'm leaning towards the latter.

      That's a damn tough choice. The opening 4-5 minute shot for Hateful Eight was just jawdropping alone...

        Would you recommend it? How does it compare to Tarantino's previous work (of which I'm not overly fond)?

          Its more straightforward than his other works. Highly enjoyable. But it does have the standard tarantino issues i.e. reliant on extra long exposition (i love this, others dont) for example.

            Mmk. I enjoyed Jango a lot more than I expected, but just found inglorious basterds to be... well shit really.

      See... I'm torn between Fury Road and Revenant for best cinematography.

        I'd give it to Fury Road if only because Revenant felt like it was trying too hard to be art and never really took its hand of it, where Fury Road had a very specific objective - show you the important things.

          Don't get me wrong... I didn't like The Revenant.

          But there are some absolutely beautiful shots in that film... they absolutely carried the felling of the environment.
          Leo shouldn't get the Oscar for it though.

    I wanna give a shoutout to Kingsman: The Secret Service. You could clearly see every little thing that happened in the action scenes.

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