I wrote in part 1 about video editing—how Korean TV tends to use relatively lengthy scenes and shots. This is one reason K-dramas sometimes recall Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties. (K-dramas also resemble Asian movies, but non-Asians like me are usually struck first by the resemblance to old Hollywood flicks.)
But I felt like in part 1, I was guilty of a lot of generalizing. It’s easy to say “American stuff feels choppy.” But how do we quantify “choppiness”? That’s my goal here in part 2. I’ll also tell you how you can contribute to K-drama research and learn how to make your own K-drama by observing film and video editing.
There are fewer pictures than usual in this post, but keep reading and you’ll get to some videos further down, including a clip that features my favorite awkward K-drama silence of all time.
One way to measure “choppiness” is to use a watch to time scene lengths. A couple years ago, I timed the scenes in an episode of an American show with particularly jarring editing—Jane the Virgin. The American scenes averaged a bit less than a minute each. The longest scene was around 2 minutes.
I also timed the scenes in an episode of the K-drama I was watching at the time. (I’m afraid I can’t remember which one.) The average Korean scene length was over 2 minutes, with the longest scenes clocking in around 5 minutes.
The Korean show literally spent twice as much time on each scene.
This answered my question of why, despite liking the characters and plot of Jane the Virgin, I just couldn’t get into the show. (It’s even based on a telenovela, so I really wanted it to be good.) It takes time to feel emotions, and the American show rushed us away from the characters without time to empathize with them.
But surely, American shows aren’t all this extreme, are they? To generalize about all American shows, we’d need a ton of data, for a ton of shows.
Without a team of research assistants, I have to make an educated guess. I hypothesize that, on the whole, the structure of the American and Korean television industries encourages Americans to condense things and encourages Koreans to draw things out. If anyone disagrees with me, they can hire the research assistants. (Please!)
A second way to quantitatively measure an editor’s decisions is to do a shot-by-shot analysis. A shot-by-shot analysis is a typical college film studies assignment. It gives you a crash-course in film editing, camera placement, sound design, and everything else you need to know to make memorable film or video.
A shot-by-shot analysis goes even further than timing the scene lengths. It times the length of each shot. (If you have professional equipment, you can even drill down to the level of frames.) Then it analyzes each shot. Is the camera giving us a close-up or a wide shot? Does the camera move or hold still? What is the music and the sounds?
You’ll never wonder what “video editing” means again after you do one of these.
You might need to pop some aspirin, too. It takes hours to analyze a few minutes of footage. And because TV shows are constructed in a hurry on low budgets, it makes more sense to make this big effort for classic and award-winning movies, where the pay-off is big.
What kind of nut would bother doing a shot-by-shot analysis of a scene from a K-drama?
Of course, the answer is me. With so many people in the world consuming so much television these days, it’s important to know what they’re getting. And a little hard data can help.
If you want to make films of your own, or you want to understand editing deeply, I encourage you to do your own analysis of a movie or television scene that you love. Especially if you’re female, like many K-drama viewers. We need more women making movies and shows. And share your results and ideas with me, please! I love to look at things on a really detailed level.
But non-obsessed people can enjoy the fruits of my labor here below.
I picked the “head-banging” scene from Secret (2013), partly because I found a version I could easily share with you. (Alas, I have no fancy software for making video essays.)
Also, I picked this scene because Secret director Lee Eung-Bok went on to make the gigantic hits Descendants of the Sun and Goblin.
Lee Eung-Bok doesn’t have an unmistakably visual style, like some directors. (For example, An Pan-Seok of Secret Love Affair and Heard it Through the Grapevine.) But Lee Eung-Bok is very skilled at making K-dramas that achieve the central goal of K-dramas: connection with the audience. His work is visually slick, beautiful to look at. But everything he puts on the screen is in service to the emotional narrative.
My favorite Lee Eung-Bok drama is Secret, because despite its many flaws, it’s a compelling Gothic character study. This scene is one of the weirdest in this weird series about disturbed people falling in love for all the wrong reasons. It’s a good example of how to turn “two people in a room talking” into gripping stuff. (I’ve written about this scene specifically in an essay with spoilers. But the rest of today’s essay doesn’t really have any spoilers.)
First, here’s part one of the scene. Warning: intense melodrama ahead.
Here’s what this looks like as a shot-by-shot break-down:
Try watching the scene once, then reading the shot-by-shot, then watching a second time. Do you notice new things about the scene after thinking about it as a series of individual shots?
Here are some things I notice:
- There are a lot of close-up shots of faces, followed by reaction shots. These are among the most standard building blocks of film and video editing.
- Another typical editing thing: The scene starts with longer shots, like a 29-second shot of Min-Hyuk looking for Yoo-Jung in the deserted bakery. As the tension in the scene increases, the shots get shorter and shorter. This contrast between the 2-second close-ups and the 29-second shot is actually an editing technique to help create tension for the viewer.
- The blocking (the physical movements of characters) is dynamic, even though this is a story about invisible things, emotions. Yoo-Jung’s self-injury shows her self-destructiveness. Min-Hyuk’s movements grow more cautious as he trespasses deeper into the bakery. Their physical struggle echoes Min-Hyuk’s creepy mix of caring and controlling behavior.
- This first half of the scene ends abruptly, at maximum tension. We cut away to another scene, which shows how the other characters are also upset by recent events. Cutting away in the middle of the scene serves many purposes. It means that when we rejoin this scene just over a minute from now, we can imagine that, in fictional time, 15 or 20 minutes have passed. It also reminds us of a central theme of the show, which is how Yoo-Jung’s act of self-sacrifice has damaged many lives. By cross-cutting between the two central couples, the director magnifies the emotional punch of their individual stories.
- There’s a ton of pop music. Too much for my taste, but it’s typical of the K-drama aesthetic. The music follows the action. For instance, the song suddenly becomes contemplative when Min-Hyuk decides to venture upstairs.
- The simple set design and the harsh blue light in the background amplify the melancholy.
- The occasional close-ups of Min-Hyuk’s hands. Each time we see his hands, it’s a reminder that he wants to control every aspect of this woman’s life. He literally tried to strangle her with those hands in the second episode. But it’s also intimate, the way he cradles her head. In short: it’s creepy to the max, like so many things about this relationship.
This scene cuts off abruptly and we go to the other plot-line for a tense, tearful minute-and-a-half. When the encounter between the other characters reaches its maximum level of tension, we cut back to the second half of the Min-Hyuk/Yoo-Jung scene.
(Note: I recorded this without subtitles because I want to see what’s happening with the camera and the actors. But I translate the dialogue in the analysis below.)
A Note on Dialogue: I did this translation myself, because I’m not satisfied with any of the subtitles that are out there for this scene. None of them capture the full weight of the Korean dialogue. But what I discovered is that the meaning of the lines is so compressed that it’s impossible to do a translation that doesn’t sound stilted. In Korean, the lines don’t sound so weird, but English syntax is just too different. Luckily, Min-Hyuk’s finally comment is striking in any language. The only thing keeping him alive has been his hatred for Yoo-Jung, and now he’s suggesting that she hang on by hating him in turn. Crazy stuff, Min-Hyuk. If Ji Sung wasn’t playing you, I swear….
Oops! Not sure what happened to shot 33. It’s a 2-second close-up reaction shot of Joo-Yung.
The second half of the scene lasts 3 minutes 20 seconds. By itself, that would be a long scene on many American television shows. And a lot of this lengthy scene consists of two people sitting in silence together. How does the director make this interesting?
First, the scene starts at a moment of high tension. The shots are short, to amp up the tension. The shots grow longer and longer as we move towards the weird resolution.
Also, note the long silences here. I’m a particular fan of the dead silence in which Min-Hyuk stands up, moves to leave the room, pauses, then returns. After all that pop music, this is a potent, meaningful silence. The silence is so deep that it makes me think I accidentally pressed the mute button. The silence and the simple action—standing up, returning—conveys deep uncertainty and emotional pain.
The scene relies on the standard close-ups and reaction shots. But no one talks during the reaction shots. The reaction shots take place in pauses.
As a result, the camera always shows the speaker while they are talking. For as long as they are talking. No interruptions.
By lingering on the characters’ faces when they speak, we get to experience a feeling of intimacy with them. We also get to see the character’s reactions in silence. Sometimes the most powerful image is one person listening to another, especially in a story about enemies becoming lovers.
The last thing that strikes me about this scene is the 14-second close-up near the end. Min-Hyuk has finished talking and we’ve seen Yoo-Jung’s reaction shot. Many television directors would end the scene right there. But the scene continues for another 30 seconds. 30 seconds!
Min-Hyuk’s silent 14-second close-up provides time to think about this character, and possibly feel some sympathy. Min-Hyuk has allowed his life to be consumed by hatred. He has done cruel things to the heroine for his own amusement. But when I ask myself why I find him compelling anyway, it comes down to things like that 14-second close-up.
A few emotions cross his face. He seems like he’s about to speak, hesitates, thinks. What is he thinking? Is he wondering why he feels sympathy for the woman he destroyed? Is he realizing she’s the only other person in the world who understands why he can’t move on from his lover’s death? The pause here gives us time to wonder. And because he doesn’t speak, the scene feels deliciously unresolved. We’re still waiting for his next sentence as he crosses the frame to leave the room.
Now for the numbers:
- Scene length: 5 minutes and 22 seconds (First segment is 2:20, second segment is 3:02)
- Number of shots: 62
- Average shot length: 5.2 seconds
- Shortest shot: 2 seconds
- Longest shots: 26, 20 and 14 seconds
For comparison, here are the numbers I got when I looked at an emotionally significant scene in an American show. It’s a scene from the first episode of 2016’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the heroine tells her fiancé that she just saw her sister killed in front of her.
I wanted to like this show, but I felt repelled by the first episode. Wondering if the editing had anything to do with it, I ran the numbers.
- Scene length: 57 seconds (Not much time to process a sister’s death! Plus have an argument with your boyfriend and decide whether to defy the secret police. That’s a lot packed into less than one minute.)
- Number of shots: 18
- Average duration of shots: 3.2 seconds
- Shortest shot: 2 seconds
- Longest shot: 7 seconds
The lengths of scenes and shots isn’t everything. Perhaps The Man in the High Castle wouldn’t have held my interest even with longer shots. But with it’s interesting premise, I wanted to like it. Unfortunately, I had a distinct feeling of being rushed through the first episode. The whole thing felt like a quick advertisement for a show, not a show itself.
Interestingly, The Man in the High Castle comes from Amazon Prime’s in-house production company, so the directors aren’t constrained by normal television broadcasting schedules. They can make episodes as long as they want, with no commercial interruption—somewhat like K-drama directors. But despite this latitude, the director chose to rush things along, perhaps so that the first episode could cover a lot of ground and get viewers to the first plot twist. A K-drama would probably have saved that twist for the end of episode two, to spend more time on the sister, the sister’s death, and the heroine’s emotions.
K-dramas started out with slow pacing simply because broadcast schedules gave them a lot of air time to fill (on a very rushed production schedule). And K-dramas’ long run-times often lead to unfortunate spin-cycle plots and repetitive flash-backs. But the best K-drama directors have turned this length into an asset, with deliberate, emotionally satisfying pacing that is closer to a European art film than an American prime-time show. (Even as many other aspects of K-dramas don’t resemble an art film at all!)
As American shows move faster and faster, one of the things that keeps me coming back to K-dramas is simply the slowness. Lengthy close-ups. Thoughtful dialogue. And occasionally, a good long silence. ♥
What shows are drawing you in right now? Are they “fast” or “slow”? What are some American shows with lengthy scenes? Or Korean shows with short scenes?