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:
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:
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.