ASL

I know nothing about the technical side of film. On the (very) few occasions that I actually write about film I do so purely from the point of view of the consumer, what comes across to me. I can say nothing about filters used or angles chosen or whether that piece of music would have been better than this, because I don’t have the technical knowledge to analyse a film that way. So I was intrigued to come across something called ASL (average shot length) as a way of explaining the success of American cinema over European in the early days of the medium. [And yes, I am still reading Donald Sassoon's The Culture of the Europeans, why do you ask?]

Anyway, ASL is the length of the film in feet divided by the number of shots. Sassoon cites the film historian Barry Salt who ‘found no film in Europe with an ASL shorter than eleven before 1917, while he found no American films with an ASL longer than ten’.

In other words, American films won out because of editing. European films came across as ponderous, American films as tight and dramatic. (Okay, there are many other reasons why American films achieved dominance, ranging from the economics of distribution to the nature of the star system, but this is the one that caught my eye.)

I assume that there are still ways of measuring ASL even in our digital age, so I began to wonder if this distinction still holds. I know European films (and films from a lot of other origins outside the Hollywood machine) can seem slow; is this why? Is there a difference in the ASL between what we consider serious drama and popular drama? Does it affect the way we read film? I know, brought up in Britain, I have throughout my life been fed a fairly indiscriminate mix of American and British TV and film, but there are many American shows, ranging from ‘The A-Team’ in my youth to various episodes of ‘CSI’ that I have caught, that irritate me because of their restlessness, while I like the patience of many British shows. Can you imagine what an American TV company would have made of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, which needs to unravel at a very leisurely pace.

And does this mean that whenever I am watching a film from now on I’m going to be more concerned with how rapidly it cuts from one scene to the next rather than with what is actually going on?

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6 thoughts on “ASL

  1. A student who had taken a film course I taught ran up to me the next term and, half-jokingly and half-seriously, screamed, “You ruined movies for me! Now I can’t help looking at their details and techniques!” As with any art form, once you develop an awareness of aesthetics, or once you spend some time behind the curtain, it’s hard to remove that knowledge from your mind and return to naivety.

    Which is just preface to the following links. (Think of it as the famous red pill/blue pill speech…) Beware!

    ASL has been highly, some might say obsessively, analyzed by a certain group of film scholars. Here’s a good source of info, including a few databases with measurements: http://www.cinemetrics.lv/

    One of the scholars who has drawn some conclusions from all this is David Bordwell, as here (scroll down to “You’ve Got Cutting”): http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/05/27/intensified-continuity-revisited/

    And if you really want to get into the theory of it all, I’m a big fan of Steve Shaviro’s writings on post-continuity cinema, e.g. http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1034

    • This is a response to both of you!

      I’m really into ASL myself, and have done a fair amount of cinemetric analysis of films. But I also think that ASL can be overemphasized, or employed too generally. Cutting is only one part of a film, and cutting can be done in a lot of different ways.

      For instance, I have more than once observed that the ASL of Inception (3.1) is lower than that of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (3.4). But Transformers: RotF feels far more fragmented and rapidly cut than Inception does, for various reasons. For one thing, Michael Bay tends to cut more between disparate images than Christopher Nolan does. Nolan, by contrast, tends to cut back and forth between two established images (e.g., two actors talking with one another in shot-reverse-shot), which feels less disorienting. (Bay also moves the camera a lot more during and between shots than Nolan does.)

      Another problem is that ASL is very different than MSL, or Median Shot Length. For instance, consider this clip taken from Transformers: RotF. The opening shot is 30 seconds long, despite the film having an overall ASL of 3.4!

      So a lot of factors go into the film’s overall feel, and ASL is only one piece of the larger puzzle. But at the same time, one can’t really analyze the whole puzzle without looking at every individual piece, and how they are working in concert.

      A similar issue holds in fiction. We might make some broad generalizations about short sentences vs. long sentences. But of course there are also different ways of writing and using short sentences. There’s a large difference, for instance, between the following two paragraphs, despite them having the same “Average Sentence Length” (3.4 words):

      He woke up. He got up. He opened his eyes. He brushed his teeth. He washed up. He got dressed. He ate breakfast. He went out. He caught the bus. He went to work

      .

      Providers squelch concertgoers. Whose vistas wail kindly? The embryonal pony galloped. Isabella bided her time. Dabblers outclass conventionalism. Inoperative dowellers swab. Rebukes like cutlasses. Exclusives convened, overstepping boundaries. Trumpeters incurred payloads. This foci typifies pepsis.

      Meanwhile, the following paragraph also has the same Average Sentence Length:

      I loved too much; tis true. I loved rashly. Easily. Foolheartedly. Desperately. And yet I also loved passionately. Deeply. Entirely. Unambiguously. And I suffered… But given those chances again, my answer? The same. Love!

      Returning to film, here’s a clip from a movie with an extremely high ASL (~170). And yet Red Psalm feels extremely dynamic, and not slow at all, because Jancsó keeps constantly changing the composition, moving the camera in a series of fluid tracking shots that weave in and out of an elaborate mise en scène.

      Meanwhile, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (which I just watched again Tuesday night—finally got to see it projected!) feels much slower, despite having an ASL of somewhere between 40 and 70. (The database is inconclusive, but the point is that the ASL is much lower than in Red Psalm.) And Tarkovsky even moves the camera a lot, and changes his compositions a lot—his shots are rarely static—but he does so far less dynamically than Jancsó does.

      … I’m very happy to talk more about any and all of this. Form is what I do!

  2. Thanks to both. I really have far too many other things on my plate at the moment to want to get into anything technical about watching film (though as Matt says, I’ll probably start noticing these things even if I don’t want to).

    What I do find interesting, though, is the difference between a European and an American aesthetic that is implied by this. I suspect that the UK sits somewhere in between, not fully going for the remorseless bam-bam-bam of Hollywood (when British films try to do that, they often seem to end up looking ridiculous), but at the same time not going for the languid long takes either. I’m usually very resistant to nationalist notions of culture, but there does seem to be some difference here.

    At the same time, I get a sense that a lot of first films or experimental films tend to use long shots. I remember years ago watching things like Bronco Bullfrog and constantly wishing they would move the camera or switch the scene just a little bit more quickly. So perhaps its not so much a cultural difference as a matter of comfort with the language of film, a matter of how far the maker feels able to trust the audience.

    • Historically, there are a great many differences between US and European cinema (even while there are also a lot of similarities). And ASL is part of that difference, yes. But I think it would be wrong to lean too heavily on just that single factor as an explanation. Because the difference in ASL is often not that large, honestly, and as I wrote above, many other factors contribute to how fast or slow a film feels (such as the composition of each shot, as well as what kinds of images the film is cutting between).

      For instance, here’s another chief difference between US and European cinema: in European art cinema, exposition tends to be withheld. I just rewatched Nostalghia, and that’s very much the case there. Tarkovsky doesn’t tell us right away why Gorchakov is in Italy, why he’s with Eugenia, what their relationship is—he doesn’t even tell us what their names are! And when he does reveal these things, he does so in a very casual, almost elliptical manner.

      By way of contrast, Hollywood movies usually spend the first reel establishing exactly who everyone is, what their motivations are, and where the entire film is going to go. Compare the first ten minutes of Nostalghia with, say, the first ten minutes of Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005), which I just heard a (British) film critic refer to as “a.master class in screen writing” (precisely because it so rapidly and yet clearly introduces so many characters and their relationships and their goals).

      Anyway, again, all of this is to say that while ASL is definitely important, it’s only one component among many, and I think it’s wrong to overemphasize it. It isn’t some magic concept that explains why some films are different than others, though it does contribute to cinema’s infinitely wide aesthetic.

      For more on the differences between Hollywood cinema and other cinemas, I highly recommend the writings of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson—their blog is a great starting place! Also, I know a great essay on the maker/viewer relationship in experimental cinema, and can send that to you in a bit.

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