If you haven’t kept up with the slew of summer movies, you may not understand why Mad Max: Fury Road stands out from any of the others. The return of a well loved franchise? Check. A new actor cast in a familiar role? Check. Plenty of explosive action? Check. On paper, it may not look like it stands out from the crowd, but I contend that the way this film delivers its action is going to be an important watershed moment for action films going forward. If other directors don’t take a cue from the masterful George Miller, it’s everyone’s loss.
In a sequel-driven business where there is pressure to start production on a new film as soon as positive box office reports start rolling in, George Miller had one rare luxury in putting together this latest Max film: time. While the director worked during the 2000’s on the two animated Happy Feet films, his idea for a fourth Mad Max was nearly bubbling over on the back burner. He started pre-production as far back as 1998, but when the September 11th attacks happened in 2001, the combination of a ballooning economy and restrictive travel conditions for the cast and crew to arrive in the Namibian desert caused a project on the verge of production to be shelved. This may have been a blessing in disguise. By the time production began in earnest, Miller had honed his idea of what each sequence would look like, due in no small part to his use of storyboarding, a technique he became familiar with in working with animators. As he stated in an interview with Collider’s Christina Radish:
So, I worked with five really good storyboard artists. We just sat in a big room and, instead of writing it down, we’d say, “Okay, this guy throws what we call a thunder stick at another car and there’s an explosion.” You can write that, but exactly where the thunder stick is, where the car is and what the explosion looks like, it’s very hard to get those dimensions, so we’d draw it. We ended up with about 3,500 panels. It almost becomes equivalent to the number of shots in the movie.
We can take two salient points from Miller’s words. First, this film is just as bombastic as Miller’s matter-of-fact recollection of the process makes it sound. Second, Miller is a fully realized filmmaker who realizes that to truly realize a vision isn’t simply to throw exhilarating set pieces onto the screen, but rather to control how the audience is going to see it, frame by frame.
We are now living in an age where filmmakers have more control than ever over the clarity of what they put on screen. What continues to baffle is that with the proliferation of largely 2D set pieces and even entire characters rendered with computers, the amount of scenes that devolve into blurry, indistinguishable nonsense comprise a good majority of popular action films. Theoretically, having so many elements existing as CG should give filmmakers an extensive amount of control to tweak scenes and make them more watchable after the fact. The catch, of course, is that with increased clarity comes increased scrutiny, making already unrealistic effects look downright cartoonish to the discerning eye. This lack of clarity is often compounded by tricks such as scenes overlayed with rain or shot at night where the audience is less likely to notice the imperfections of CG. Then there is the George Miller approach. In an interview with Hitfix, cinematographer John Seale details about Miller’s process:
[…]the thing is that if you go into statistics on the post in the movie, you’ll find that something like 50 or 60 percent of the film is not running at 24 frames a second, which is the traditional frame rate. It’ll be running below 24 frames because George, if he couldn’t understand what was happening in the shot, he slowed it down until you could, or he lengthened it two or three frames. Or if it was too well understood, he’d shorten it or he’d speed it up back towards 24. His manipulation of every shot in that movie is intense. It was a real eye-opener to me after 45 films in 40 years or something, that George has had this boldness to do what he researched in his mind and thought about and analyzed what an action film should be.
The last time a single film had such an impact may have been when The Matrix introduced “bullet time,” an ultra slow motion shot that allowed the camera to move freely around in a scene where the action moved at a glacial pace. This made for a very flashy visual effect that, while novel at first, became so hackneyed its overuse was soon lampooned. Miller’s process may at first sound simply like applying slow motion, but it is far more subtle, less gimmicky, and ultimately more effective. As with all of Miller’s flair for visual storytelling, his editing process is not so much about showing off the trick he has up his sleeve, but rather by proving that trick in enhancing the experience of the action.
One other element that makes Miller’s style of shooting action stand out is that he doesn’t shy away from dozens of cuts during a sequence. In an age where the visions of Cuarón and Iñárritu (via Lubezki) win praise for their long, unbroken shots that guide the audience through the single vision of the narrative, Miller makes the strong argument that there is little substitute for setting a frenetic pace that is constantly displaying different elements of the scene. According to an interview with Uproxx, Mad Max: Fury Road has over 2,700 cuts, which averages out to about 22.5 cuts per minute. Consider this scene where Max and Furiosa’s convoy is attacked by raiders on motorbikes. The camera doesn’t dwell on any one shot for more than a few seconds, but rather than being disorienting, it gives us a full scopes of the mechanics of the set piece. We see the hills perpendicular to the path that the riders are using as ramps. We see crew of the big rig warily regarding their assailants, readying their weapons. We see the plow come down and cover the flames in sand to put them out. There is never a moment of confusion about what is going on and to whom, but the film also doesn’t sacrifice its pace for gratuitous slow motion.
Lastly, it should be said that this film uses CG well, while still respecting the use of practical effects, and I can’t stress just how much this matters. As much as I champion the use of practical effects, computer generated imagery has become an indispensable tool for augmenting shots that would have either been impossible in the past, required hundreds more hours of physical labor, or would have looked, well, bad. It can also be used to tweak visual elements in post-production without having to reassemble and re-shoot a scene. When you hear the name Wes Anderson, you most likely think of production design that is so lovingly handcrafted and carefully curated that it’s hard to imagine how computers augment what we see on the screen. Now watch this special effects reel. There are no actors wearing motion-capture suits, but the way that CG is used to soften the hard edges on sets, add color treatments and visual elements, and composite multiple elements together into a scene is essential to delivering the final vision of The Grand Budapest Hotel. As you can see from these before and after images, there is a considerable amount of CG in Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite this, the core elements of the scene — the vehicles and their inhabitants — are portrayed in a convincing manner that never makes us feel like they are on a soundstage. Even some of the more outlandish elements, such as the warriors riding on tall poles mounted on their vehicles and clambering on top of moving vehicles were performed by a stunt crews. This contributes greatly to the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Of course we know that what we see during a movie is scripted, and that presumably no one was gravely injured, but seeing someone clinging to the side of a racing vehicle will almost always put an audience on the edge of their seat more than the jaws of a CG dinosaur. Sometimes less really is more, as adding too many unconvincing-looking elements to a scene, despite adding more to the movie visually, is enough to cause a disconnect between the audience and the momentum of the movie, not to mention their empathy for the characters.
Most films don’t have the development time of Mad Max: Fury Road. Most directors don’t have the attention to detail and sheer vision of George Miller. Looking forward to the next decade of action movies, I hope there are things that can be taken away from this film and integrated by other filmmakers. I also acknowledge that what happened this summer may have been all flash-in-the-pan brilliance and nothing will live to the mark it has set — only time will tell if Miller can live up to his own benchmark in the next Mad Max film, which has been green-lit due to the overwhelmingly positive response to Fury Road.
At the very least, Fury Road is proof that when a film promising bombastic action doesn’t land right, it’s not because we’ve become desensitized — there is still so much innovation that can be done, even in genre films that feel like throwbacks to a bygone era.
What did you think of Mad Max: Fury Road? Are there any action flicks that you have found particularly innovative? Make sure to let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to share with your friends if you enjoyed reading this article.