Thirty Second Cinema. Part IV. Tony Scott: ‘Nothing on earth comes close’.

By Paul J Loosley

Of all of the 30” cinema directors in this series, Tony Scott was the only one I worked with in the late 1970s.  What a nice guy! His calm demeanour belied his furious film-making style, a film-craft the famous Russian director Eisenstein (he of Battleship Potemkin) called montage. What another turn-of-the-century Russian film-maker called ‘cine-eye’.

So, eyes peeled.

If we apply this apt observation to Tony’s use of montage in a 30 second TV advert, we might re-describe the effect as ‘rapid-eye’; editing of such speed that images are absorbed rather than seen. Using film to create raw emotion. Also, it’s a method of conveying as much information as can feasibly be taken in by the human eye in the shortest possible time.

Film theorists describe this idea of editing to compress time like this, “a portion of an event is left out so that it would take less time than it would in reality”, confirming the vital importance of shrinking time on-screen and encompassing brevity, which is the very essence of the 30” TVC.

In terms of actual pace and unoxygenated excitement Tony Scott’s Marlboro F1 racing commercials are deconstructed images of such rapid pace from beginning to end that both the visuals and the half minute pass in an instant, forming not a sequence but a cohesive whole.

In the Saab commercial shown here, Tony utilises a montage form of parallel narrative, a series of inserts, which scholars describe as a “violation of continuity” As a pilot approaches his jet fighter, opening hanger doors, entering his craft, setting controls and finally taking off.

These shots are intercut with a driver approaching a car, entering the vehicle, setting the controls, opening the garage doors and driving off. This cross-cut sequence builds suspense again as we have no idea as to the connection between the two concurrent actions.

In viewership terms it may be initially a simple analogous comparison between car and plane which would be rather disappointedly clichéd. But ultimately, they meet in the same space creating a surprising resolution – both car and plane are products of the same Swedish engineering manufacturer, Saab.  Scott’s ability to deliver this narrative purely with visuals and only the ironic final words, “Nothing on earth comes close” is a vivid demonstration of his art.

… The best example is the opening credit sequence…

Both of these montage variants, as often demanded by the commercial short form film, display a finely tuned ability to tell a story without exclamatory dialogue, translated with great acclaim in Scott’s second feature-length film and the highest grossing film of the year, Top Gun (1986), which frequently utilised Tony’s montage style.

The best example is the opening credit sequence. Very like the Saab film Scott builds a high degree of suspense beginning with cross-cutting the slow-motion manoeuvring of jet fighters on the deck of the aircraft carrier with the deck crew in preparation. The suspense breaks with a sudden return to the rapid-eye montage of explosive flaming take-offs and dramatic landings. In toto creating a cinematic frisson that Scott has developed into an almost instantly recognisable signature over his career; editing on whip pans, zooms, focus pulls and camera flashes, verifying that, as film scholars cite, “montage is an act (and not a look), an act of interpreting reality”.

… So, there you have it, it was Tony’s on-going mad montage 30” TVC style which he brought hurtling into Hollywood and cinematic fame….

So, there you have it, it was Tony’s on-going mad montage 30” TVC style which he brought hurtling into Hollywood and cinematic fame.  And as the years passed, he became madder and more frenetic: cutting on helicopter sweeps, camera speed changes and satellite image captures, reducing shot lengths to a matter of frames – fractions of a second. Ultimately as the leader of a British-style film invasion, Tony deeply influenced directors like Michael Bay, McQ, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray and others.

Sadly, Tony is no longer with us. But he leaves us with the transfer from his British 30” TVC to the creation of what is now the essence of the action/adventure movie.

An unforgettably ‘nice guy’s’ legacy.

Next week. Part V. Alan Parker: ‘Say hello to Ben’.

Paul J Loosley is an English person who has been in Asia 40 years, 12 as a creative director and 26 making TVCs. Recently awarded a Master’s Degree in Film at UCL. And still, for some strange reason, he can’t shut-up about advertising. Any feedback; mail (please keep it swift).

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