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Learning From the Masters: “Raging Bull”

Last week, Cinematographer Tom Krymkowski hosted the first in a monthly series of screenings called The Craft of Cinematography. Tom’s goal is to start a creative conversation among local film makers about the craft of visual story telling, the emphasis being on “story”. The inaugural event was a screening of the documentary Visions of Light. The screening and discussion was huge help to me and yet another example of the benefits of participating in your creative community.

One of the films referenced in the documentary was Raging Bull, and it’s use of dynamic frame rate in the fight sequences. I was surprised and humbled that I hadn’t cognitively noticed the way the fight scenes shift from slow motion to natural speed without cuts. It seemed so natural to the story I just didn’t think about it until it was called directly to my attention. Now that I’m aware of it I can see how brilliantly it serves as a device to heighten the suspense of an action scene. Scorsese’s scene build to a point of maximum intensity, careful not to cross a threshold beyond which any increase in tempo, sound or violence will simply desensitize the audience. The only way the scene can be brought to a crescendo is to is to pull back and give the audience a chance catch a short breath, only long enough to see impending danger and brace for the coming impact. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I think this is a point lost on most modern action films today.

This scene is an amazing work of collaboration between The Director Martin Scorsese, Cinematographer Michael Chapman, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Sound Mixer Michael Evje. All the major elements of the film are working completely in concert with one another to create perfectly crafted scene. The scene is an example of the type of work great film makers can produce. Ironically, this scene is famous for being brutally violent, but it’s a startling work of maturity, restraint and discipline.

The use of dynamic frame rate, sound intensity and editing tempo follows a pattern I’ve noticed in other action sequences, most notably in my analysis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Director Ang Lee builds the fight intensity to a physical peak, only to pause momentarily to rebuild dramatic tension. I’d very much like to use the same dynamic in both the race and chase scenes in “The Girl With No Name”.