So there's this scene. It's in this movie called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a love scene. One love, we'll call him "Boy", plays guitar while getting his eyebrows plucked by his lover. They talk about whether or not true love exists. Hedwig, the plucker, says, "love creates something that wasn't there before." They listen to a woman in the apartment across the ally singing "I will always love you" by Whitney Houston. She is singing the song pretty well. Guitar playing lover finally hits the note he was trying for in the song he is singing. He stands and leads Hedwig through a room of clothes hanging to dry. They stop and start to kiss. This is the first time that they have kissed front to front. It's a big deal. The actual song by Whitney Houston is playing now, louder and louder. They get a little heated in their kissing. The boy reaches, for the first time in their 9 month relationship, down the front of Hedwig's skirt. He discovers that he has remained ignorant to the fact that this woman he has loved has ambiguous genitalia. "What's that?!" he says. "It's what I have to work with," she says. He says he has to go home. She calls him a sissy. "What are you afraid of?!" she says. Things get heated in a different way, with Hedwig yelling and throwing things. The boy leaves the trailer.
What is so great about this scene is the invisible editing that drives your emotions just the way the words and motions do. The guitar and plucking part is edited with reverse angle conversation/reaction shots. The shots are longer and further away to begin with - they are setting the scene with length, establishing it just like an establishing shot. When their conversation gets more intimate, the shots become closer and shorter. When Boy stands up and leads her through the clothing, the shots are quick and close like heart beats. They kiss - the shots intensify and the music intensifies and the audience intensifies. When Boy discovers the angry inch, everything pulls away. You know, kinda like when the record screeches and stops when someone says something awkward at a party. The shots pull out and last longer.
I love that.
It's a mini story arch within a larger story arch. Beginning middle and end set with not just words and actions but with the playing of our emotions with shot length and distance. So tricky those movie makers!
Someone told me once that he learned how to make movies by watching scenes over and over and reverse engineering them. It's one of the best exercises ever. Watching each clip and writing down whether its a medium, long or whatever shot and timing each shot's length. Make a graph and see if it makes a story-telling pattern. For example, long in the beginning, short and quick at the climax, and long and far at the end.