In Filmmaking, Less is More

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally posted March 26, 2010. In honor of “Star Wars Day” and “May the 4th Be with You” I am updating and re-publishing it. Enjoy.

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Any self-respecting Star Wars fanboy will tell you that bar none, the best film out of the 6-film saga is hands down “Empire Strikes Back.” A few days ago I was watching it again on DVD. Unfortunately, the only DVDs of the saga they sell are the “new and approved” digitally remastered and re-edited new edition versions. You know, where they went back and updated all the special effects and added some new scenes, many of which do absolutely nothing for the story. In fact, I would argue that these new edition versions of Star Wars: Episodes IV, V, and VI are less interesting than the original. Case in point: Empire.

The Failure at the Cave

No, I’m not talking about Luke’s failure at the tree cave that is strong with the dark side of the force. I’m talking about Lucas Film’s failure at the ice cave near the beginning of the movie in this new edition.  It’s the scene in the first act where Luke is trapped in the ice cave by that Yeti-like monster known as a Wampa.

In the original version, we see Luke hanging upside, his feet encased in ice. In the distance we hear the sounds of the Wampa. Its menacing growl is terrifying. Luke awakens and sees his light saber just inches from his reach. He desperately tries to reach it but to no avail. The horrific howling seems to be getting closer. Luke rests. Concentrates. The monster’s growls are getting closer. He could pounce at any moment. But Luke stays calm! HOW CAN HE STAY CALM WHEN THE MONSTER COULD JUMP OUT ANY SECOND! Using for the force, Luke commands the light saber to spring to his hands. He activates the weapon and frees himself just as the Wampa is about to pounce. For a split second we see the gruesome face of the monster. It all goes by so fast. You barely get to see him. Acting quickly, Luke strikes and the next shot is the monster’s arm falling in slow motion to the ground. In the next scene we see Luke outside the cave, running for his life.

This original scene was awesome. We are THERE WITH LUKE in that cave. We have no idea how far the monster is or when he’ll be on top of Luke. As an audience member, we can experience the fear and trepidation as if we are there ourselves. And we never fully see the monster. Our imagination fills in many of the blanks.

Here’s that scene:

Now let’s see that scene played out in the new edition…

Again we’re there with Luke in the cave, blah, blah, blah. But this time, when we hear the monster, they cut to a scene of him sitting in the next room chomping on his latest kill, most likely Luke’s Tauntaun I guess. Nothing is left to the imagination what the monster does or looks like. And all the tension from not seeing him is totally gone. We know exactly where he is and what he’s doing. We then cut back to Luke using the force, yada, yada, cut back to old abominable looking up, curious, as if to say “Hmmm, I think my victim is trying to get away. I better go see what’s going on. Humm-dee-dum-dee-dum.” Cut to Luke freeing himself (we even see a perspective shot of the monster towards Luke, letting us know exactly how far away he is as Luke cuts himself free). The monster attacks, Luke strikes, the hand falls in slow mo, then we see the monster with his entire arm severed and screaming in pain.

Here’s the remastered version:

Sorry, but this new edition scene pales in comparison to the original. And there are a few other added shots and scenes in the film that do nothing but show how cool the new special effects are.

Hitchcock Was Right

The reason why Alfred Hitchcock was the master at suspense was because he realized what all the best filmmakers through time realized: that more often than not, showing the audience LESS is more powerful and compelling than showing them MORE.  Hitchcock, Polanski, Kurasawa, and even contemporary auteurs like Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, all utilize what you see and what you CAN’T see in order to emphasize their stories.

Film already has an amazing way of transporting you to a different world. It’s all the more impactful when you can actually draw the audience in and have them viscerally experience what the characters on screen experience. The original ice cave scene in Empire does that. This “new and improved” version takes away from that experience, IMHO.

So, my encouragement to all you aspiring (and pro) filmmakers out there: don’t feel like you have to show us everything in your films. Know when it makes sense to show us more, but be open and prepared to show us less.

Visual effects master, director, and filmmaker Stu Maschwitz makes a great point about this on an episode of MacVideo wherein he gives his take on why 24p is such a big deal. Click the image below to see it.

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7 thoughts on “In Filmmaking, Less is More

  1. Ron, you are 100% right. EMPIRE was the best for so many reasons and the ORIGINAL 1980 version is the testament to that. Now, with that said, do you think there is something else we as photographers can do in our respective fields to add value to our products?BTW, you can get the original 1980 version on DVD. If you look online it was sold in 2006 combined with the new special edition version. But I always seem to go back to the original!Thanks again amigo!

  2. Thaks for the Kudos. And for the DVD tip. I'm sure if I looked hard enoughon eBay I could probably find one. Anyway, with respect to your question, asit relates to “less being more,” I think photographers who simplify thingsadd and create value. Instead of offering 6 wedding packages, offerthree…or one! Use Kiss Wedding Books for albums. Shoot on white seamlessas opposed to cheesy backdrops. These are all just my humble opinions.

  3. Did you also notice the added shots at the end of the movie? They added scenes of Vader taking an Imperial shuttle to his Star Destroyer. For what reason?!! Just so they can show a ship that originally only appeared in Return of the Jedi? These were deleted shots of him landing on THE DEATH STAR!!! Uh… like we wouldn't notice. It totally messes up the editing, pace, and music score in those final moments. Aargh! Don't get me started.This is one of many reasons my son will watch what I fell in love with. The original, untouched versions of Episodes 4-6.Thanks Ron for this post.- Loyd “Red 5”

  4. Ah Loyd. I was so hoping you'd chime in on this one. I totally thought thesame thing when I saw that scene. Cutting back and forth from the Falcongetting away to Darth's shuttle flying to and landing on the star destroyer.It was like they were either trying to show a cameo of the Emperial shuttlewhich we first saw in the original ROTJ, and/or they were trying to explainand show how Darth got to the star destroyer so quickly after his duel withLuke. And you're right, it totally detracts from the pacing. (Feel free to”get started” Loyd. :)If they wanted to explain something: why was the Millennium Falcon still inBespin's atmosphere after Lando freed Leia and the gang and they finallyescaped. When Luke telepathically calls out to her, they're just flying theclouds…straight, not up. Where were they going? To the beach?

  5. Of course, the same argument has been made for why Jaws works so well — we don’t really see the shark until late in the movie. It wasn’t intentional of course (since they couldn’t get the mechanical shark to work), but ultimately made the movie a lot stronger.

    Great interview with Stu — best case yet I’ve heard for 24p.

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