Whiplash and the Power to Suffocate an Audience
How filmmakers use deliberate editing and frantic camera movements to create overwhelming tension
Damian Chazelle’s 2014 film, “Whiplash”, is a beautifully crafted masterpiece that tells the story of a battle between two obsessive characters devoted to their craft of jazz music. On one side we have our protagonist, Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman. An ambitious and arrogant first-year jazz drummer at a prestigious school that wants to become a legend. In the other corner, we have J.K. Simmons’s Terrence Fletcher, the egomaniacal and imposing conductor of the school band who often pushes his students to their breaking point. The creators of “Whiplash” used a variety of techniques to display the toxic dynamic between the two characters, but the primary focus of this analysis is to observe Chazelle’s brilliant use of cinematic editing and camera movement to subconsciously tell the story.
Cut On Tempo
In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Nieman is unable to play at the correct tempo during a band recitation. One of the reasons this scene is so powerful is that makes us feel Nieman’s pain with the use of quick cuts and close up shots. When Andrew is unable to play his music properly, Fletcher suddenly throws a chair at Andrew and the camera shakes as if we were hit by the chair.
The scene then shifts into a series of quick cuts of dialogue and close up shots of Fletcher getting right in Andrew’s face. The angry teacher slaps him in the face every time he makes a mistake in counting too fast, and the editing here is incredible because with every slap, the frame switches to the other characters’ eye line keeping the dialogue flowing. We see every emotion in Andrew’s sunken face while quickly getting scene cuts to Fletcher’s hostile expressions. The intensity builds up during this scene as Fletcher gets more and more personal with his attacks on Andrew, and this series of quick cuts make the audience feel almost as overwhelmed as our main character. During this entire sequence, the camera seems to be deliberately moving in reaction to the dominating and frightening Fletcher, instead of the character moving with the camera.
Awkward In Small Spaces
Throughout “Whiplash”, Damian Chazelle creates very intimate scenes by constricting the characters to very small spaces on the screen. The camera work in such scenes makes us feel the awkwardness and tension felt by the characters in the shots and helps push the story forward. For example, in one scene Andrew asks a girl — Nicole (Melissa Benoist)— out on a date. This scene is set in a movie theater and while there is a large gap between the two characters on screen, they seem uncomfortable and constricted. This scene is incredibly awkward, as the film doesn’t cut at all during the conversation (which is full of long and nervous pauses) and our eyes can jump from character to character as they speak and embrace. Our eyes never get tired but we as an audience can sense the uncertainty unfolding in real-time.
This awkwardness and tension show up again when Andrew and Nicole finally go on their date. At first, everything seems to be going well and the two characters seem to be having a nice time. The comfort and intimate relationship are shown using medium close-up shots of Andrew and Nicole enjoying each other’s company. When Andrew discovers that Nicole is not as ambitious as he is, the film suddenly cuts to a wide shot similar to the movie theater scene where we are shown the physical distance between the two characters. This is separation is used to inform the audience that the two characters are philosophically different much sooner than we discover this fact in the plot of the movie.
Cutting To Chaos
One of the most obvious things you will notice about “Whiplash” is the pacing of shots and frequency of cuts. The flow of the film is constantly shifting from a tense dialogue that seemingly lasts an eternity to quick cuts of Andrew playing the drums. These shots of Andrew — seemingly isolated from the rest of the band — are some of the best, and nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible final scene of the film. The camera work is frantic during Andrew’s magnum opus when he finally takes control of the drum set and proves to Fletcher that he is indeed a good musician. Almost in reaction to the music being played, the camera moves faster and faster to different places whenever the music intensifies.
Just like the music being played, the scene is constantly on the move, darting everywhere you hear a sound and even going to places you might not expect. With every beat of an instrument in the band, the camera swoops around to a close up of each member playing their respective instrument: a saxophone, a piano, a bass, and so on. Chazelle uses quick cuts to help the audience actually feel the music being played and not just hear it. The editing is quick, deliberate, and shows us exactly how chaotic and beautiful a musical composition can be.
For Andrew’s drum solo the camera pulls to the back of the concert hall, then immediately cuts into Andrew’s face through a window between two cymbals. This shot takes us from a concert hall full of people to a room just two within a split second. It’s just Andrew and Fletcher on stage as one. There are quick cuts and close up shots showing Andrew’s sweaty face, then the sticks hitting the drums, then moving on to cymbal covered in blood all working to complement the intensity and rhythm of the music. When we see the slow-motion vibrations moving through the cymbals juxtaposed with the intense satisfaction on Fletcher’s face, we feel the literal blood, sweat, and tears that went into the beautiful music we hear.