April 11, 2014

How to Edit Like Kurosawa: An Analysis of the Final Battle in 'Seven Samurai'

It has been said many, many times: Akira Kurosawa is a master filmmaker -- perhaps the master. However, what skill did the Master master? The general consensus leans toward Kurosawa's incredible ability to tell stories through editing, the techniques of which are analyzed in this video by Phil Baumhardt. Here's how Kurosawa approached cutting the final battle scene in Seven Samuraias well as the motivations behind his approach:

When taking a critical look at editing it's important to understand how editing is used to tell stories. Every cut made serves a purpose -- nothing is arbitrary. In the case of this battle scene, as is the case with the majority of action sequences, cutting for continuity is incredibly important to help the audience make sense of the story space. (One of the worst things you could do as an editor, especially an editor of an action sequence, is to cut great footage together in a way that is confusing to the audience.) Kurosawa makes cutting for continuity easier by filming the scene with multiple cameras.

Quick editing is another technique that Kurosawa uses to keep the aesthetic energy up in the sequence. However, he also uses sustained wide shots to ease the tension. In the end, Kurosawa crafts an incredibly subtle, nuanced scene that ebbs and flows to match the emotional energy of the characters, as well as the overall storyline.

If you're a student of film, chances are you've seen, or even made, many videos similar to Baumhardt's -- especially if you went to film school. As the scene plays out, notes are written that specify Kurosawa's chosen techniques and how they communicate the tone, mood, and plot.

Though this analysis is informative, giving great insight into the editing of the scene, it is by no means complete (it wasn't intended to be). So, if you want to do your own study of the scene to gain a greater understanding of Kurosawa's editing techniques, create a detailed shot list.

List every shot in the sequence, the length of each shot, the kind of shot it is (long shot,medium shot, close up, and everything in between), and what each shot does to communicate and add to the storyline. And if you really want to go above and beyond, storyboard the whole thing. Storyboarding a sequence has a way of helping you internalize each decision made. I did several shot lists as term papers while in school, breaking down some of history's greatest films, and it was absolutely the most helpful exercise I ever did to understand the motivations behind editing (aside from actually editing, of course).

What sequences do you think demonstrate Kurosawa-level editing? What helpful exercises do you suggest trying out for those wanting to understand editing (other than editing)?

Your Comment

14 Comments

Thumbs up for this article!
Just remember that available technology for editing was something like that:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moviola
i.e. Kurosawa was a true Master from every perspective!
-Still impossible to believe how they did it!
I wish you upload more article like that! Enough with this NAB 2014 madness would you think! :-)

April 12, 2014 at 6:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Nikos Mamalos

Great post Nikos, I agree 100%. I wish young filmmakers would focus their attention on these types of issues instead of "new cameras that are so cheap". It's very often the case we get to work with young directors who are unable to tell on what side of the axes they want the camera to be set for a particular shot, so they resort to "multicamera" shooting and lots of handheld (so they don't need to make hard decisions that involve film grammar). This is because they lack these type of exercises as described in this article. The result, is that we get young directors talking for hours about the BMCC, the advantages of DSLR filmmaking, etc, etc, but when the time to set up the shot comes, they pee in their pants. I think this is the consequence of so much false marketing and the millions of dollars new film equipment companies spend in promoting their products, which in turn, make blogs and other publications to focus on equipment instead of film making. And just to finish: 99% of the "new cameras that are so cheap" are rubbish. Good film equipment is expensive, and there is no way around that. And if you don't believe me, here's a fact: of all the big box office successes of the last 5 years, 90% were films with a budget above U$40 million. So much for the democratization of film making...

April 12, 2014 at 11:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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bestfrontman

Only 90%? I would have guessed more.
I agree with your underlying point re camera marketing skewing a lot of 'film' blogs, but you trying to telling me Fincher and Greengrass (who are my age) don't know how to set up a shot because they shoot multicam or handheld almost exclusively? :-)
And I worked on a couple of films with 'first-time' directors who are now major film and TV helmers (one is now on GOT, the other owns a Gulfstream jet thanks to his films). They were absolutely terrified too. Indecisive, doubting themselves. That's not a post-DSLR video phenomenon.
Its because editing has become so flexible that final decisions about scene pacing and framing can be refined later in the process. I think back to my Steinbeck days and shudder.
Finally, re the democratization of film - your point is true re studio released dramas: it is absolutely not true for docos, indie features, corporates, commercials and music video. And you could maybe include sports TV in there too. The amount of work/output has increased exponentially in all those areas since 2007 and the launch of the RED ONE.
Some of it is even very good: check out NARCO CULTURA on Netflix shot on a 5D3. Blew me away for its look as much as its content. Its a film that probably couldn't have been made on a bigger camera. Uses tilt-shift lenses in a unique way too. First-time director.
NFS covers a lot of non-tech, but honestly, how many 'here's how to set up a book light' tutorials do you need? There's OCEANS of material in the archive here.

April 12, 2014 at 12:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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marklondon

Democratized ain't even a word. Not only there are cheap - by the old standards - high quality cameras, there are cheap - by the same old standards - editing and coloring suits, lights, computers, media and all the other useful accessories.
.
Speaking of lights, I was browsing through eBay this morning and found that the LED prices fell drastically over the last month. From a few pitches, I gather that the new more powerful products finally came onto the scene - remote phosphor, perhaps, finally hit China and India? - and some of the 500 light panels are selling for as little as $150 in a package (i.e., three for $450). The best deal, I thought, was from Apurture who had four 500 light panels for around $550. One open-face light was like 15,000 Lumen (claimed). And this at the time when some cameras (A7s) can shoot off a single candle.

April 12, 2014 at 12:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

I do not think there is a real argument here. I think most (if not all) of us agree in the fundamentals. I am a fan of the the NFS articles both technical and artistic. Being truly artistically creative is often more difficult than being tech maniac. I will speak thought for myself and say that people young in the area of filmaking often make the mistake and approach the whole thing from the technical side and on the way to achieve "filmic look etc" put so much effort to it only to the expense of the true essence of cinema, which is really artfully convey a story (not speaking for the script) . This mistake can often be made if one is trying to be one mans band. Director, DP, cameraman, editor. Yes this can work too it helps thought if you are a genius (and God, ie being in several places at once!).
Secondly ,filmaking is expensive, if not in gear it is certainly expensive in man power. To my personal experience the equation is like that: A given production requires either 10 people working full time for a month or 1 person working for 10 at least months... in the former case you complete the film and get to keep your metal health, In the latter you may loose it before the film is completed. Sorry for the long comment punctuation is not my thing!

April 12, 2014 at 1:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Nikos Mamalos

It is a good article, but Kurosawa was telling the story he wanted to tell from his own vision, so I think it is a question of context too. Reverse engineering the shots may not necessarily suit the story in your own head, so I think the lesson is to visualise a segment of story first, then shoot it.

April 12, 2014 at 12:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Saied

If you're talking about the shot list exercise, it's intended to be tool to study other films, not one to make your own. It's essentially the same exercise as creating a beat sheet to study the story structure of a film. I may be misunderstanding your comment though...

April 12, 2014 at 6:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Got it, was me that misunderstood, thanks.

April 12, 2014 at 6:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Saied

From wikipedia, it stuck with me:

Hiroshi Nezu, a longtime production supervisor on [Kurosawa's] films, said, "Among ourselves, we think that he is Toho's best director, that he is Japan's best scenarist, and that he is the best editor in the world."

Editing is a funny thing, it absolutely relies on every other component of the filmmaking, and yet it is in a sense the real making of the movie. I think familiarising yourself with editing is both the fastest and deepest way to understand how to make a movie (if only because that's where you have to face all the myriad fuck-ups that were made while writing and shooting).

April 12, 2014 at 12:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Einar

In my humble opinion Seven Samurai is the greatest film ever made, so obviously I think this a great article. To answer the question regarding other film makers who demonstarte Kurosawa like editing - The slow motion staircase shootout in De Palma's The Untouchables springs instantly to mind. Okay, I know it's based on Battleship Potemkin, but considering it was conceived, choreographed and shot that way ON THE DAY (the original written scene was much different) that it's as pulse pounding and coherent as it is is an incredible achievement I think.

April 15, 2014 at 4:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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kev

It really is sad that for a lot of people Kurosawa is some 'dry old standard' to be kept on the shelves next to a copy of Moby Dick and War and Peace.
I've just recently re-discovered the post war Kurosawa. When he was cutting his teeth on noir films.
It is really eye opening to see his early more experimental and sometimes brazenly political work.
Even when he was flailing away at the storytelling aspect, it was a very interesting kind of flailing.
Unlike a lot of other directors, he go better with time. His first dozen movies were good, then he just ascended into legend status with his next dozen films. And even his last handful of movies were as valid groundbreaking as the middle period ones. They simply didn't blow your mind quite as thoroughly.

April 15, 2014 at 2:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Russ D

For some reason this video has the jitters. Or is it just me?

April 15, 2014 at 6:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stu Kawowski

SEVEN SAMURAI i have seen so many times it is a evermade film if it is color it will be mind blowing

April 16, 2014 at 9:28AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Do you really want to know how Kurosawa San edited? read his book "Something like an autobiography"

July 28, 2014 at 9:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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David