This post was written by Philip Allcott.

And those directors are J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. But is it just big ideas and massive set-pieces that landed them their places in Hollywood royalty? Or is there a deeper connection between the two in how they film their movies that makes them inherently more exciting?

I recently produced a video essay that opens up the hood on the similarities of the cinematography between the two directors. And is there more than just a love for lens flares and anamorphic lenses that the directors have in common?

Yes. I find that there’s a certain kind of high-energy shot that they both employ, which I simply refer to as a "multi-beat shot." It’s tough to nail down an exact definition, but generally, it is a shot that moves between multiple compositions in somewhat quick succession. There’s no specific formula for how those multiple compositions are achieved, but in most of the examples, they are generated by a mix of camera movement, blocking, and focus pulling.

That may sound confusing, but you definitely know it when you see it. And the video essay is full of examples from both directors.

To demonstrate how much decision-making goes into these seemingly obvious shots, I compare a similar sequence from Stars Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) to Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Both scenes involve the heroes running to the laser turrets and cockpit of the Millennium Falcon to fight off incoming TIE fighters. However, the way J.J. Abrams shoots his scene is completely different from the way George Lucas filmed his back in 1977.

Abrams does it all in one shot, with a mix of dolly moves, camera pans, a jib down, and racking focus. It’s an eight-second shot with a lot packed into it. On the other hand, Lucas has more static frames of all the characters running to their places, and then relies on fast cuts between the shots to give the scene its energy. It’s a fantastic comparison point to see how two directors tackled similar situations, and the way those choices affect how a scene feels.

The_force_awakens_0'The Force Awakens'Credit: Lucasfilm

Now, before you go make your next video purely with multi-beat shots, I also hit on a couple of practical reasons why these shots may not be right for every scene.

  • They’re technically difficult, and may require a lot of setup and practice.
  • They limit options in the edit room if you don’t shoot coverage.

Abrams and Spielberg are obviously working with some of the best camera crews in Hollywood today, so their teams are prepared for the technical challenges that come with the setup and execution of these shots. The most beautiful camera moves can be undone if you don’t nail your focus, or the timing is never just right.

So if you only have 20 minutes to get five shots, and it takes 10 minutes to lay dolly track, you may find yourself choosing the same strategy as Lucas. However, as gimbal technology and camera autofocus improves, it’s totally possible for a one-person crew to still pull off a flashy multi-beat shot that Spielberg would be proud of.

Second, multi-beat shots leave less room in the edit room for changes. Going back to the Star Wars comparison—if Abrams had felt like his shot of Rey and Finn running into the Falcon was not fast enough and slowed down the action, his options would have been very limited. He could have trimmed off some frames at the beginning or end of the shot, but the rest of the action is baked in and can’t be tweaked too much. On the other hand, Lucas had seven different shots he could trim if he felt like the scene was starting to drag.

Sometimes you have to make a practical decision about what is going to work best in the final edit, even if that means giving up on a snazzy camera move.

Star_trek'Star Trek'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Should these reasons dissuade you from using multi-beat shots in your own projects? Certainly not! With the right planning and a little practice, any budget filmmaker can pull them off. But knowing the pros and cons of the shot beforehand can help you decide when the time is right to use one in your own video.

I close the essay by making the point that multi-beat shots are not inherently better than any other shot, and work best when contrasted with a mix of both shorter and longer shots around them.

Just as a successful painter wants as large of a color palette to work with as possible, a successful director should also have as many options at their disposal while on set. So next time you get behind the camera, maybe take a second and see if you can work in a multi-beat shot. You may not be filming a prehistoric dinosaur or an intergalactic war, but it’s still a great technique to add energy to the cinematography of any project.

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