“What is Bayhem?”
“It’s the use of movement, composition and fast editing to create a sense of epic scale,” says Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting. What is the appeal of studying such a critically reviled moviemaker as Michael Bay, and how should we finish one of Bay’s films feeling as if we have learned some valuable moviemaking lessons? Yes, Bay is an auteur with a consistent style that carries over from one film to the next, and yes, he should be considered one of today’s most important working directors. He is, after all, the fourth-highest grossing director of all time, and one must examine how he crafts action with aesthetic bombast and populist flair to understand how his techniques resonate with so many people.
In the video essay below, Zhou casts aside his own admitted personal bias to examine what works and what doesn’t in each of Bay’s films.
Considering Bay’s camera movements and methods of scaling and sizing of the elements within each frame, Zhou points to Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012) as an example of “Bayhem” gone wrong, arguing that the film displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what Bay puts into each shot. Indeed, Berg is a moviemaker of a different style than Bay and doesn’t exactly feel comfortable covering the same ground, which makes it fascinating to witness the failings of Battleship—a movie that made a far smaller impression than any film channeling “Bayhem” should have, pulling in just $65 million domestically on a $200 million budget. On the opposite side of the spectrum, when adjusted for inflation, Bay’s films have made an average of $243 million per film.
So, what is so enticing to the average viewer about a Michael Bay film? Quite literally, with Bay’s work, what we see is what we get, and his visual assault of sorts is a testament to audiences’ love of the surface-level sophistication of what we perceive on-screen. What moviemakers can take away from Bay’s canon is the realization that audiences think too much like Michael Bay, and that Michael Bay thinks too much like his audience.
Bay the moviemaker and we the audience both know what “good shots” look like, and are stimulated by them. Bay therefore knows what his base wants and provides their hyper-kinetic fix. However, there is only so much room for stimulus within a film before we reach oversaturation. Nonetheless, how Bay directs remains a reflection of how he watches—fixating on good shots and good edits and largely detached from narrative and emotional context. The result: Each scene in Bay’s films plays out as its own epic moment, but does not always function as a piece of a larger whole.
“Bayhem” is marked by a strive for visual dynamism regardless of whether or not change or progress is conveyed from shot to shot. Eschewing spatial and temporal breaks in a sequence that allow for moments of simplicity, each shot of “Bayhem” is pitched with the same cluster of activity. This “more is more” approach layers image on top of image, camera movement on top of camera movement, until every inch of every frame is stuffed full of content and motion.
When crafting action, moviemakers should work to coalesce such moments within a greater whole. As Zhou notes, Bay’s strong suit is to create a symphony of motion, which is often effective when the substance of a story is not left to speak for itself. Still, a symphony is a series of highs and lows, of ebbs and flows, of crescendos and diminuendos. Moviemakers who choose not to account for those shifts when composing shots run the risk of numbing their audiences’ senses.
Bay is a successful moviemaker—but only half so. His films’ viewers go for the intoxication of the experience he provides, but are left with a painful hangover, as from a sugary-sweet drink packed with as many shots of vodka as it can hold. Drinks like that are a hit at the bar, and that matters, but it’s also important to pay attention to how many people throw them up in the bathroom. Shoot for visual impact, but chase your shots with substance to not kill your film and its audience’s cinematic buzz. MM