(click thumbnail)Harnessed Clydesdales
(click thumbnail)Horses Crossing Brooklyn Bridge
(click thumbnail)Clydesdales “Bow”Super Bowl XXXVI was a bittersweet broadcast this year, given the pallor of 9/11 looming over everything from the coin toss to the halftime ceremonies. Interest in the anticipated slew of Super Bowl ads, like its revenues for Fox, was diminished compared to past gridiron epics. But at least two of those high profile spots admirably communicated a sensitivity to that lingering tragedy by invoking the most powerful aspects of the aesthetics of editing.
With apologies to Britney, Cedric and those talking cows, to this editor’s eye the best Super Bowl commercials were the "Respect" ad (with the Clydesdale horses) sponsored by Anheuser-Busch and the spot called "AK-47" (asking "Where do terrorists get their money?"), commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
So let’s call upon the three premiere concepts in an editor’s toolkit, our Holy Trinity of context, contrast and rhythm, to analyze how the editing of these Super Bowl ads generated their sensory effect when they appeared during the Feb. 3 broadcast.
To make sure this doesn’t get too dry, let’s start by defining some terms that will be familiar, I’m sure, to longtime "Focus on Editing" readers. This column has always interpreted "editing" as the creative process of juxtaposing two disparate images to create a third, unique idea that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a phenomenon only relevant within the context of the whole production.
CONTEXT, CONTRAST AND RHYTHM
This can be expressed in the formula, B + C = A, where the contrast of the shots being banged together, "B" and "C," create the desired reaction, "A" in the audience’s mind. On a larger scale, this can also be seen as the context the audience brings to the experience ("B") being brought into contrast with the artificial reality the editor is trying to create ("C") to produce the viewer’s overall impression ("A"). The temporal element governing the pacing of this alchemy, of course, determines the rhythm.
A prime example of this came with 14:54 left in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI – right after the Patriot’s Terrance Shaw had broken up a midfield pass to the Rams’ Az-Azir Hakim. Anheuser-Busch’s 60-second "Respect" spot comprised 22 shots whose ultimate impact depended on an image that did not actually appear on the screen. Instead, those behind the spot’s editing counted on it being subliminally added by everyone affected by 9/11.
The ad’s first seven cuts contrasted wide shots of horses in a pastoral setting with close-ups of the majestic Clydesdales being harnessed to draw the familiar keg wagon down picturesque country roads. The sequence’s context played off our memories of the Currier & Ives-inspired celebrations Budweiser had previously wrapped around its beer during festive occasions. But the rhythm was different – a deliberately slow two count on each shot that seemed oddly pensive.
During the next six edits, the horses trotted down small-town roads and into a city. The solemn pacing was consistent (one … two-cut, one … two-cut), but once the horses crossed the Brooklyn Bridge the context was beginning to become clear.
Three shots then brought the team to a stop upon a snow-covered landscape before the urban skyline. A close-up of a large, gentle brown eye juxtaposed with a medium angle of the team standing with the Statue of Liberty behind them foretold the impending climax. Their legs bent in tight detail, their heads bowed slowly and in a wide panorama, we saw the whole team pay homage to the skyline – a skyline whose gaping void was filled in by every viewer who remembered where the World Trade Center once stood.
The magnificent editing of the piece had used the dirgelike rhythm of the shot, pacing to contrast within the audience’s mind the seen image of the horses with the unseen image of a national icon forever gone, all achieved in the context of an indelibly shared experience. Brilliant!
JUST SAY NO
Fast-forward to 6:03 remaining in the third quarter, with the Rams down 14-3. In the middle of a block of ads for videos and cars, a wobbly shot panned down from a winter tree to a white duplex silhouetted against a lonely sky. Cut to the grainy image of an international passport. Aha, we thought. We know this context. We recognize this shaky-cam technique. It’s gotta be something Gen-X. Nothing special.
Then a black intertitle card with white letters flashed on, saying "fake ID: $3,000" and we think, "Oh, sure, the context is probably satirizing one of those credit card ads contrasting monetary expenditures against emotional gain." But the next shot showing the moon peering through leafless branches cut to another intertitle emblazoned "safe house: $7,200" was then followed by a zoom in on a "House for Rent" sign. Hmm, this is something strange.
Only after the 30-second spot faded to black did viewers fully understand that they were watching a PSA funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. It was called "AK-47" and the editorial style it used to pound its message home was a montage of images worthy of Sergei Eisenstein decrying the financial underpinnings of international terrorism.
With accelerating speed we saw intertitles proclaiming "box cutters: $2," "explosives: $1,200" and "AK-47: $300" spliced between images of a man at a workbench putting together something electronic. His gritty fingers tested the toggle on a detonator and we saw some vague bundles stenciled "Demolition Block C-4."
The pace accelerated against a jumbled audio clatter of fragmented words, sound effects and phone beeps. Some shots were intentionally so blurry they were indecipherable. Others, only frames long, went by too quickly to fully register. But the feeling was tense. Very tense.
The producers and editors had accomplished the very essence of editing: the creation of "a unique idea that is greater than the sum of its parts." What at first seemed to be random snippets of imagery were really a carefully composed orchestration of shots pulling the viewer inexorably forward.
The intertitles flashed on the screen in a crescendo of hi-con text: "ski masks: $5," "wire transfers: $200," "gas: $22." By the time unidentified hands loaded weapons into open trunks and speeding cars careened through bleak tunnels lit by cold fluorescent light, the rhythm of the cutting had accelerated to a whirlwind.
The soundtrack slammed suddenly into silence. Intertitle: "Where do terrorists get their money?" A car pulled up to its destination. Intertitle: "If you buy drugs" (a trunk lid snapped open to reveal a cache of weapons), "some of it might come from you." Cut to end title, "theantidrug.com" and sponsoring credits.
It was unquestionably a tour de force of editing technique, contrasting words and images in the deceptive context with an in-your-face rhythm pretending to defy convention. Unlike the bucolic beauty of Anheuser-Busch’s paean to our lost innocence, the clarion challenge from "theantidrug.com" invoked a cacophony of editorial skill to alert us to future dangers.
At the end of the day, someone kicked a field goal and we all went home. But perhaps, just as with so many things in life, the real meaning of the experience was what happened between the lines.