Few films in the history of cinema are as vivid, bold, and elegantly chaotic as George Miller’s modern action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. With its potent fusion of post-apocalyptic design and explosive automotive stunt-work, it’s the kind of film that makes the audience wonder, “How did they get away with that?”
Mad Max bucks the modern Hollywood trend of quick, disorienting edits that excite but confuse the audience. Even so, much of the critical discussion around the film has surrounded its experimental action-driven narrative, stylistic art direction, and hair-raising special effects—nearly 95% of which were made practically or in-camera. This impressive visual spectacle is easy to fall for, but it’s the masterful editing that transforms what could’ve been an anarchic mess into a pulse-pounding two hours at the cinema.
Fury Road is a brilliant example of how to cut for the action genre with lessons for both amateur and seasoned filmmakers. Even in its most complicated, kinetic scenes, the film takes its time to direct the viewer’s attention to the most important visual information. It’s an incredibly refreshing reminder in the age of shaky cams and close-ups that action can be as much of a tool for storytelling as dialogue.
With more than 480 hours of footage shot on location, the task of constructing a two-hour film must have been daunting enough for the post-production team. It’s a marvel that it was completed at all, but even more impressive that Fury Road has become so well regarded, so quickly. Editor Margaret Sixel—Miller’s wife and long-time collaborator—deftly implemented a number of tried-and-true editing techniques to achieve this result, placing her in the same category as legends like Thelma Schoonmaker and Walter Murch.
The most evident technique in her repertoire is called “Crosshair Framing,” which is equally enhanced by the storyboard artists and camera team. The idea is relatively simple: any action of consequence happens in the exact center of the frame. Despite the fact that there are more than 2,700 shots strung together over the course of just two hours, the eyes of the audience are drawn to the same spot every time. There’s no need to search the screen to make sense of the action, because it’s all there, easy to consume. By adhering to this visual construct, Sixel’s shots can come rolling in at lightning speed while remaining completely comprehensible. Even without extraneous exposition or dialogue, Fury Road’s story unfolds effortlessly.
Maintaining this narrative cohesion is essential, especially as hordes of weaponized cars and motorcycles descend upon Furiosa’s War Rig. Some of these sequences are so enormous in scale that they should overwhelm the senses—and they come close—but they never really do. “Crosshair Framing” assists in defining the time and place of these events, but it’s the editor’s grasp on the movement from shot to shot that creates the real tension and thrills.
The camera is always moving in Mad Max: Fury Road and even when it isn’t, there is character or environmental movement in the frame. Sixel often edits in such a way that many of her cuts feel like collisions or releases, a perfect match for a film that puts so much stock in the clash of engines and metal. Two shots often have distinctly opposite momentum, magnetically drawn together or hurled apart, and paired together with frames that act contrarily. This is a concept that is much easier to demonstrate visually.
In the sequence below, Furiosa rushes towards Max, tackling him into the dirt to protect the Wives. The first shot starts as a close-up of Max, but as he’s distracted, Furiosa careens towards him, running away from the camera. Quickly, it cuts to Max flying towards the audience, emphasizing the brutality of their battle as he lands on his back. This is both physically and visually a collision.
Still chained to Max, Nux wakes up and is dragged forward as a result of the tackle—towards the camera—and plummets flat into the dirt. This shot mirrors the previous shot almost perfectly, but ultimately leads to the opposite reaction: Furiosa straddles Max to keep him still and rises to grab his shotgun. This is a release—one character falling in the frame and the other climbing “out.”
Sixel repeats this pattern throughout the film, building upon the actual acceleration of the makeshift vehicles to establish a sense of true speed and danger. This collide and release technique also serves as a cinematic call-back to the vehicles that we see crash into each other, only to bounce apart into pieces, as well as to the plot itself: Furiosa and Max are chased away from the Citadel, but are forced to turn back around when they find that the “Green Place” doesn’t exist. It’s a subtle and effective metaphor, told entirely through visuals, that encapsulates the structure and themes of the entire film.
However, even the madness of Fury Road requires a few moments of quiet and contemplation. When the chase slows down, Sixel allows the camera to linger on the wide desert vistas, the cavernous interior of the War Rig, and especially on the striking eyes of the film’s characters. It’s a cliché to say that the “eyes are the window to the soul,” but when you have performers as stellar as Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, it’s completely true. Theron says more with a long glance to the horizon than most actors would with three pages of dialogue—and Sixel lets her. These longer, slower edits provide some much needed emotional breathing room and allow the audience to appreciate the beauty of the film’s design and cinematography. It’s a potent stillness that complements the frenetic pandemonium of other scenes.
This forward-pressing chaos is made all the more evident by Fury Road’s soundtrack, a blazing collection of ambient war chants and epic orchestrations from Junkie XL. Sixel’s last great trick is her sense of rhythm and pacing. Much of this film feels as though it’s inseparable from the music and sound effects that propel it like a jet engine. By choosing to cut to the beat of the drums or the staccato picking of the strings, the editor creates genuine verisimilitude. All of the working parts of the film seem to be in perfect sync, further immersing the audience in Max’s world of blood and fire. It’s rhythmic editing at its finest.
Ultimately, George Miller is the man receiving all of the credit for his mad post-apocalyptic vision. It’s doubtful that anyone else could have brought such a spectacle of stunt work to the screen, but much of that credit is owed to Margaret Sixel, the editor who spent years turning her husband’s dream into something palatable, entertaining, and deeply meaningful for audiences. Sixel’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterclass and any young filmmaker who adds just a few of her simple, but thoughtful, editing techniques to their cinematic tool-belt is bound to improve and thrive.
Cory Stine writes about film editing, cinema, and stock footage for VideoBlocks.
Images: Warner Bros.