The Bourne Intensity

Short, Sharp, Shots

Yesterday — a year after its release — I finally watched Jason Bourne (2016), the fifth and most-likely final instalment in the Bourne film series. This most recent segment of the Robert Ludlum-inspired action thriller didn’t receive rave reviews, but for the most part offered up standard Paul Greengrass fare. Short, sharp shocks. Intense, white-knuckled action set pieces. A furrow-browed Matt Damon trying to look inconspicuous as he carries a backpack around some exotic European location with a pretty young thing in tow and several assassins in pursuit.

But what’s always been interesting about these films is the shooting style. Long lenses that constantly search for the shot; A soft, shallow depth of field; Tight crops on intense onslaughts of action; Harried camera movement; and—most of all—really quick cuts. There’s also a lovely teal wash over everything in the color grade, and a subtle textural grain. Director Paul Greengrass is well known for this style of cinematography (or at least, his DOP—Barry Ackroyd of Hurt Locker and Captain Phillips—is). It’s panicked and intimate. You get the feeling you’re right there, amongst the action. It’s a journalistic, documentarian style of capture that makes it seem like a talented run-and-gun camera operator just happened to have a RED EPIC on his shoulder whilst lunching at a cafe in Beirut when an incendiary device is detonated. Greengrass has also defended this visual approach by arguing it reflects Bourne’s state of mind—frantic and heightened. Critics (and some fans) say it’s a way to hide badly choreographed fight scenes and ends up making many viewers sick. Not me. I’m a fan. I reckon the truth is that this is just what we expect as audience members now. We want to be entertained in every second. We demand high-octane visuals and a motherfreaking thrill-ride when we go to the cinema, especially when we see a Bourne film.

Intensified Continuity means more shots, more zoom, and more camera movement.

Film commentator David Bordwell analyses the shaky, shadowy shooting best in his article. He claims it’s not a new thing, and that handheld cameras have been ‘hunting for the shot’ ever since films of the 20’s. But it has definitely accelerated over the past decades. He sums it up as a thing he calls “Intensified Continuity”. First up, let’s define (as best as I can) continuity. Continuity is the basis of modern editing. It’s the idea that a sequence of connected shots can be cut together with the aim of building a narrative. This kinda sounds like a non-thing, right? What else would you hope to achieve in an edit? But this is in contrast with other techniques such as montage editing, where disparate topics are strung together, or real-time broadcasting, where everything plays out on screen in temporal sync with how it rolls out in real life. The aim with continuity editing is to insert a through line of narrative throughout your footage so it’s all connected in either time or space, and gives the illusion of a story. [NB: This is the author doing his best to understand and express this philosophy, don’t @ me].

However, intensified continuity knocks it up a notch. Average shot length is shortened (2-3 seconds). Camera focus is often intentionally out of whack. Focal lengths push up and in on actor’s faces, or tight on the glock in their hand as they’re pistol whipping an enemy. The overall effect—in this filmgoer’s opinion at least—is an enthralling image on the screen that works well to pour a little fuel on the pace of a story, especially when contrasted elsewhere with a period of relative calm.

There are many, many fans who claim to hate this kind of filming/editing approach. They call it queasycam. But Greengrass isn’t the man to be hated for this. The real enemy of this craft is those who actually do use shakycam or intensified continuity to cover up poor blocking or unconvincing fight scenes. While it may look like its effortless, well done examples of the approach require intense planning and multiple, carefully placed cameras for coverage. It can be taken too far, for sure.

But done right, the result is an adrenalised punch of entertainment to the face.

 

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